Some of you saw and heard Bert Marshall present "The Gospel of Mark" Friday night. Its pretty incredible to have someone present the gospel to you as a full-length story, with all the dramatic rising and falling of events - and all out of memory and with power. It's an amazing accomplishment - just the memory of it all - and then to see and hear it given with such artistry and feeling.. I'm glad we got to behold it and hear it in all its power and wonder. It was a remarkable experience - and I know for me, it will be unforgettable."

-Rev. Homer Hecht, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, in Liberty KY

Rev. Bert Marshall

Rev. Bert Marshall is a native of Weeping Water, Nebraska, located between Omaha and Lincoln at the western edge of the dry-land corn belt, just south of the Platte River. He has played professionally in a regionally-popular rock ‘n roll band based in Lincoln, NE. The band opened for groups such as The Who, Herman’s Hermits, The Grassroots, and the Detroit Wheels (without Mitch Ryder). In 1997 he and his band-mates (known as The Chancellors) were inducted into the Nebraska Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, at which time they played a reunion gig at a sold-out rock ‘n roll club outside of Lincoln. Rev. Marshall also spent ten years driving tractor-trailers for a New England health food distributor. Prior to that he apprenticed on a couple of Vermont dairy farms, co-managed with his wife a small farm and country inn in northern Vermont, and worked with troubled teenagers from New York City at a residential setting in Pleasantville, NY. The latter work was his alternative service as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and was the reason for his move East from Nebraska.

He is a graduate of Yale University Divinity School, where upon graduation he was awarded the top prizes in “religion and the arts” and in “the public recitation of scripture”. Among his more important and highly-favored studies were two years of Biblical Hebrew and courses in the art of storytelling, narrative preaching, and the performance of Biblical texts. The musical setting for the Syro-Phoenician Woman story in the Gospel of Mark was conceived and written while he was a student at the Divinity School. A life-long singer/songwriter, he still writes songs and creates music for worship and other venues. He committed the Gospel of Mark to memory while on a three-month sabbatical in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2003. He and his wife of 40 years raised two children who are now young adults.

The Book Of Mark: A Mysterious Gospel

No one knows the original form of Mark’s Gospel. No one knows how it began or ended. No one knows how it was transmitted from place to place. No one knows if it was created as a written narrative or as oral proclamation. No one knows why it was created, or where or precisely when or to whom it was addressed – and its creator remains utterly unknown to us, even in the unlikely event that his name was Mark. Most scholars believe (and I agree) that this gospel was the earliest of the New Testament gospels to appear.

We know the Gospel of Mark as a written narrative. It was not passed down to us through oral tradition. In order to learn to speak it from memory, I had to memorize it from a written text. In classical oral tradition, the storytellers are illiterate and they learn the stories – many of them extremely long – by listening to other storytellers. The stories are never repeated verbatim, but are always tuned to the moment, to that day’s particular performance. Identical repeat performances are unheard of; so are fixed written texts. For the great bards of oral cultures, writing kills the word. The word lives only in the space between the storyteller’s performance and the audience’s hearing. It exists only there. When the story is over, it ceases to exist until the next time it is told aloud. No chapter and verse numbers, no subtitles, no footnotes, nothing to consult later – only the sound and sight of the living word, a live experience in a living community. For these reasons alone, it is highly recommended that you not follow along in your Bible during the storytelling.

Truth is, Mark’s Gospel bears only some of the classic characteristics of oral tradition, but what’s there is compelling. Mark begins at a somewhat arbitrary point in Jesus’ life and tells only the final year of his life. He strings episodes together in the manner of oral storytelling (that is, in no particular order, in the sense that a lot of the episodes could be presented in a different order without effecting the story). The style of many of the episodes is such that they could be considerably enhanced by an exceptional storyteller with a large repertoire. Mark’s koine [common] Greek probably fits well with the idea of oral presentation for the common folk of the early Church. Mark’s oral qualities have even been likened to certain aspects of the Homeric epics, which are now widely believed to have their origins in the oral traditions of ancient Greece. It has been suggested that our version of Mark’s Gospel is simply one particular oral presentation that happened to be written down; all the others, told in countless and varied gatherings of the early church, are forever lost to us. Each one would have been unlike any other; each one would have borne the storyteller’s unique style and voice. And each one would have been, unmistakably, The Gospel of Mark on that particular day, for that particular performance.

The circumstances of the Gospel of Mark’s origins – written or oral – are still debated, and there are persuasive arguments for each position. It is fairly certain, however, that the gospel would have been presented orally in the early centuries of the church. Whether it was read from a text or performed orally from memory we’ll probably never know. We do know, however, that most ordinary Christians in the first few centuries after Jesus’ time were either illiterate or had very limited access to books. The early Christians did not have personal libraries in their homes, equipped with the latest study bibles for reference. The gospel – the good news of Jesus Messiah – was the whole story. And it was told aloud in the early Christian communities. The Word was animated. It had sound and presence. The church gathered around that Word, and the gathering was sacred, and the Word was power and life. May it be so to you as well.