In the non-anthroposophical world the Gospel of St. Mark is usually accorded relatively little attention. It is of course widely recognized as the earliest of the canonical Gospels, as it is also the shortest. Its historical importance is therefore not denied, especially as the source of much that is included in the more widely read Gospel of Matthew, the longest of the four. But its distinctive features are nowhere given as much importance as by Rudolf Steiner, who indeed devoted many lectures to various aspects of it (Background to the Gospel of St. Mark) before he embarked on the remarkable ten lectures given in Basel in September 1912 now being published in a third English edition. In the last of these lectures he tells us that he had now brought to a completion the program he had set himself many years earlier when he began his work on the Gospels with his many lectures in different cities on the ever popular Gospel of St. John. And this cycle was indeed to be the last he was to give on any of the four Gospels, the so-called Fifth Gospel of 1913 being of an entirely different nature.
From one point of view the Mark Gospel may be thought of as the most deeply esoteric of all, concerned as it was so exclusively with the cosmic Christ, Christ as a spiritual being who manifested Himself on earth through the body of Jesus of Nazareth, whereas John in his Gospel spoke of Him as the Divine Logos, the second person of the Trinity, a concept that presumably lay beyond the possibilities open to Mark through his particular initiation. Again in the last lecture of this cycle Steiner tells us how it happened that Mark came to perceive the Christ in His cosmic aspect. Mark, he tells us, was a pupil of Peter, who had come to his own understanding of the Christ through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit at the first Whitsuntide, which enabled him to perceive in clairvoyance the entire Mystery of Golgotha — although after his denial of Christ he had not been able to participate at all in the external events. Peter was able to awaken subsequently the same knowledge, the same memory, as Steiner calls it, of what he had not experienced, in his personal pupils, among whom was Mark. Mark then made his way to Alexandria in Egypt, where he was able to find “the outer environment that enabled him to give his Gospel the particular coloring it needed.” In Alexandria he could absorb all that was to be found in the pagan gnosis, and he deeply experienced in his soul the corruption into which the world had fallen — exemplified, most particularly, in Egypt. It was this experience that led him to perceive so clearly the significance of the appearance of Christ Jesus on earth.
Almost nothing of the depths of the Mark Gospel can be grasped through an ordinary superficial reading of it, nor have biblical commentators, using their traditional methods within their traditional framework, been able to throw much light on it. For this Gospel, above all, someone like Rudolf Steiner was needed. Time and again Steiner draws attention to the wonderfully artistic composition of the Gospel, possible only to a Lion initiate like St. Mark. Especially in the last chapters of the Gospel, particularly the short twenty-verse conclusion in the final chapter that covers the whole period following the resurrection, every word counts, and nothing is left unsaid that from Mark's point of view was needed. Yet the usual view is that Mark was simply anxious to finish his book as expeditiously as possible since in describing the resurrection he had come to the end of what he wished to say. Fortunately, Steiner goes over the last chapter in great detail, and shows also how in the two previous chapters all manner of secrets were being revealed about Christ Himself and the future of mankind once the Christ Impulse had entered the world evolution. If we follow closely what Rudolf Steiner was trying to show to us, how to read this Gospel, it is impossible not to feel how each word, each episode, is carefully chosen by the evangelist to bring out the cosmic greatness of Christ, and at the same time the unspeakable suffering and loneliness of Him whom he calls the Son of Man, who is here, as nowhere else in Steiner's lectures, distinguished so clearly from the cosmic Christ-Being who dwelt for three years within the three sheaths of Jesus of Nazareth. It is only in the Mark Gospel that we are told of "the young man who fled away naked." This is the youthful Christ Impulse which thereafter reappears only once, in the form of the young man seen by Mary Magdalene and the other women at the sepulcher on Easter morning.
It goes without saying that no biblical commentator has ever been able to make sense of this "young man," who has even sometimes been identified by them as the writer of the Gospel himself. From what Steiner says it would seem that, of the four evangelists, only Mark perceived this being clairvoyantly and understood its significance, as it was Mark also who grasped the full poignancy of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane when the disciples who had vowed to experience the Mystery of Golgotha with their Master could not remain awake, leaving Christ Jesus to undergo it alone. Immediately afterward in the Mark Gospel comes the betrayal and the flight of the disciples, following which the “young man,” the Christ Impulse, also abandons Jesus of Nazareth, who as His last words from the Cross, as recorded by Mark and Matthew, was to utter the cry “My God, my God why has thou forsaken me?,” words whose true meaning is here revealed in all its depth by Steiner. The cosmic Christ “hovered” over Jesus at the Crucifixion and surely experienced it, even though it was Jesus, the Son of Man, the highest ideal of man, as Steiner calls Him here, whom men should have revered as their highest ideal instead of spitting on Him and reviling Him, who was nailed to the Cross and died on it. Thus the divine being, the Christ, who could not as a divine being of His exalted rank actually die, could nevertheless experience death through the link He had forged with the three sheaths of Jesus during the three years since the Baptism, when He had lived in them as their “I.”
This at least is the picture Steiner presents in this wonderful cycle, and not the least of the tasks he left to us is how we can reconcile what he said elsewhere about the necessity from a cosmic point of view for an immortal god to experience death as a man, with the very clear picture he presents here, a picture which, as he said, completed what he had undertaken to do when he first started to lecture on the Gospels. And we can never be sufficiently grateful for the fact that he was able to give this cycle before the disorders in the spiritual world that accompanied the first World War prevented him, as he was to reveal later, from ever giving any more cycles devoted entirely to one or the other of the Gospels.
Stewart C. Easton