A student I’ve been ministering to for the last few years has recently (finally-as it feels) taken an interest in Jesus. One night about a month ago he was full of questions about the Bible, so I gave him one and told him to start reading in Mark. I was relaying this to a few colleagues of mine a little later. Everyone I told this to was surprised that I advised this student to start in Mark instead of John. This raises the interesting question about where should someone dipping their toes into the vast ocean of the Bible begin! What follows is my rationale for why I have my students start in Mark as opposed to the other three Gospels. I should state that I don’t hold to this dogmatically and a lot depends on the individual student’s personality, history, and familiarity with Jesus and Scripture, but usually, I prefer to start with Mark.
- Mark is short.
Being short presents several advantages. First, one doesn’t need to focus their attention as long thereby increasing the likelihood that they will actually do it! Second, Mark is complete while still being short. It isn’t the result of some editorial abridgment subject to the interpretation and values of a third party. It is the very inspired written Gospel, and it happens to be short.
2. Mark is big (picture).
Mark seems very focused on communicating just what we need to know to know the “good news of Jesus.” He doesn’t get bogged down in the details and minutia in the same way the other Gospel writers do. He’s to the point and wants us to understand that Jesus is at one and the same time the Son of God and the Servant who must Suffer. He’s unconcerned about the complex ways Jesus fulfills Old Testament types, his “origin story,” and specific sayings/teachings of Jesus. As such, the reader is aided in keeping her focus on who Jesus is and what he has done over what he said and taught.
3. Mark is brutally honest.
One of the popular narratives amongst skeptical students I work with is that Christianity rose to power through coercion and manipulation. Mark effectively combats this by portraying the earliest followers, the disciples, as fearful and confused idiots. No matter how you slice it, that isn’t a picture the power-hungry among us are eager to paint of their own lives. When reading Mark, I’m compelled to be a Christain by Jesus, not by the guy he calls “Satan” who supposedly became the first Pope.
4. Matthew is too Jewish.
It is hard enough to read literature that is pushing 2000 years old let alone literature that revels in the fact that it arises in a particular context and culture dating back much further still! Matthew is intent on connecting who Jesus is and what he did/taught with the grand narrative of the Hebrew people. Matthew assumes familiarity with that other narrative that is largely absent from most outside of Judeo-Christian circles anymore.
5. Luke is too long and detailed.
Luke is about the opposite of Mark. He writes the longest of the four Gospels with various details demonstrating what he tells Theophilus at the beginning of his Gospel, namely, that he researched the stories they’d heard very thoroughly and presents his own version of events based on said research. It’s a fascinating book, but not so much for the uninitiated. For them, it can be easy to miss the strategy for the tactics, to deploy a chess metaphor. Also, as I mentioned above, the longer the book the less likely someone unaccustomed to reading ancient literature for personal enrichment is to complete the task. According to Crossway publishers, it would take the average reader about an hour longer to read Luke than Mark. Moreover Luke is 73% longer in reading time than Mark. That’s awfully close to double the amount of time required.
6. John is too different.
John is a fascinating book and the clear favorite for most people to start in. If Mark wasn’t in my canon, I would probably begin here as well. John’s unique strengths are also his weaknesses. He presents a very theological picture of Jesus based on personal experience and years of reflection on that experience. Therefore his Gospel reads like a carefully crafted persuasive editorial rather than a simple reporting of the facts of Jesus. As it is very unique, and not one of the Synoptic Gospels, John’s portrayal is not corroborated by other Gospel accounts and requires just an ounce more faith to accept, faith that is already largely lacking in these particular readers.
What do you think? I’m curious what your rationale would be to start elsewhere? What are the distinct advantages to starting in, say, Luke, etc.?