Here’s a simple question: If you had to choose between the current three-hour block with LDS Sunday School smack in the middle or a proposed two-hour block with no Sunday School (just kill the whole program), which would you choose? [Not being an HTML quizmeister myself, you’ll have to vote in the comments.] If this were somehow put to the entire active LDS population as a referendum, how would the voting go? I’m guessing 75% would vote for the two-hour block. Now I have heard a lot of chatter on social media about the two-hour block lately, rumors that this is part of the “big changes” that might or might not be coming down at the next General Conference. Since the two-hour block rumor has been around for twenty years, I’m not really getting my hopes up. On the other hand, if you are tired of fasting for world peace or a Firefly reboot, consider putting the two-hour block at the top of your prayer and fasting wish list this month. Stranger things have happened. At this point, I consider LDS Sunday School a lost cause and would not shed a tear if it just went away.

Being realistic, however, I doubt the change will come. I can’t envision LDS leaders actually thinking only two hours of church on Sunday would somehow be better for the Church or the membership than three hours of church. They are unlikely to dispense with the convenient forum that Sunday School gives for issuing constant reminders that God speaks through the mouths of LDS leaders, that leaders don’t make mistakes, that if they do you should follow their counsel anyway, and hey do your home teaching ministering once a month and keep those checks coming. So rather than do more posts complaining about it (it won’t go away) or griping about the manuals (which won’t change much), I’m planning on a series of content posts on the New Testament (next year’s course of study, just 3.5 months away), starting with Mark. Mark was the first of the gospels to be written. Mark is always a good place to start.

About Mark

None of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the acts and words of Jesus. His disciples were all illiterate Aramaic-speaking Jews from Galilee or Judea, whereas those who wrote the gospels were literate, were fluent in Greek, and were writing 35 years or more after the death of Jesus. They relied on oral tradition which circulated in early Christian communities. For Greek speakers, these early communities were small gatherings of believers in house churches scattered around the Roman Empire. As I discussed last week, this orally circulating tradition in the form of stories about Jesus was subject to all the weaknesses of human memory and person-to-person transmission of such stories. Note that this model of the early Church is not some fanciful construct of skeptical scholars — it is laid out right in the first chapter of Luke:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1-4, NRSV)

What happened in the 35 years between the events depicted in Mark and the writing of the book itself? The Christian message spread to Greek speaking Jews, then to Greek-speaking communities in the Empire outside of Judea, eventually including non-Jewish Greek speakers. This is a really big deal: the early Christian message hopped languages from Aramaic to Greek. The Jewish religious vocabulary that early Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christian inherited from Judaism had to be translated into Greek and, as always happens, was modified in the process. Greek terms like logos and pistis and ekklesia had prior history and usage in Greek that influenced how Christian texts in Greek were read and understood.

In this 35-year gap we also have the letters of Paul as recorded in the New Testament and the collection of Q material that was taken up in Matthew and Luke but not Mark. So the Q source or sources sort of paralleled but was independent of Mark in terms of timing. Q was then selectively incorporated, with some editing, into Matthew and Luke. So was Mark, which was selectively, with editing, taken up into Matthew and Luke. The difference is that Q as a text or collection of texts disappeared, whereas Mark still exists as an independent text. Any modern account of the Q material, such as Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (Harper Collins, 1993), is a reconstruction based on material common to both Matthew and Luke.

What’s most surprising about Paul’s letters is how little they recount about Jesus. He was doing his missionary work and letter writing at the same time that the stories about Jesus that came to be written in Q and Mark were circulating in the early Christian communities. Here is what Bart Ehrman in Jesus Before the Gospels (see last week’s post) says about this:

[O]ne of the most striking features of Paul’s surviving letters is just how little he actually tells us about Jesus’s life prior to his death. There are thirteen letters in the New Testament that claim to be written by Paul. … Suppose you were to mine these letters — take all thirteen of them — for the information they provide about the things Jesus said, did, and experienced between the time he was born and the time he died. How many stories of Jesus would you discover?

Ehrman says the collected information would fit on a 3×5 card. Jesus was: born of a woman, born as a Jew, descended from King David, had brothers, had twelve disciples, preached among the Jews, had a last meal with his disciples the night before he was apprehended, appeared before Pilate, and was crucified. Paul knows two things Jesus said at the last supper (see 1 Cor. 11:23-25) and two other teachings of Jesus (Christians shouldn’t get divorced, 1 Cor. 7:10, and they should pay their preachers, 1 Cor. 9:14). That’s about it.

It’s a bit puzzling that the two biggest stories in early Christianity in the 50s and 60s, the activity and writing of Paul, on the one hand, and the many stories about Jesus that were being told, retold, and passed from community to community and that later came to be written down in Q and Mark, on the other, didn’t have much influence on each other. It’s also worth considering that Mormon teaching relies a great deal on stories pulled from the gospels but doesn’t have anywhere near the same degree of interest in the writings and teachings of Paul. Most people prefer stories over detailed doctrinal discussions, it seems. Maybe Paul should have told more stories in his letters.