The evidence that Mark is the oldest of the canonical gospels was not examined systematically until the 1830s, but the argument has by now gained general acceptance among non-fundamentalist scholars, and I have endorsed the principle of Markan priority here and here .
There is a tradition that believers at Rome rejoiced to have Mark’s account – they were, after all, over 30 years removed from the living ministry of Jesus and had only recently been deprived of the presence of Peter and Paul (if we accept the view which places Mark late 60s AD, probably after the death of Peter).
However, as I suggested in an earlier post, the date of Mark’s ‘publication’ (i.e. the day a first copy was sent to Ephesus or Jerusalem) might be called one of those “good news / bad news” days for God and the church. Think of it – this abbreviated record, suddenly authoritative at Rome, is dumped into the laps of other tradition-communities by a writer who has failed to consult with them about their own traditions before going public with an epoch-making narrative about an epoch-making career. In these apostolic communities I think Mark must have had the effect of a literary ‘bombshell’.
[Note: the next two paragraphs are a revision of the original, re-written Nov 23, 2011]
The canonical status of Matthew, Luke, and John is equal to that of Mark, and this only affirms a basic condition of all testimony – that somebody must go first, and that it would be absurd to argue from the literary priority of testimony to its primacy over later testimony with regard to fact. We should not be surprised if a large amount of narrative and logia was still ‘out there’ when Mark ‘hit the streets’ – and I think we can trust that most of it is represented by what we find in the three later-appearing gospels.
So Mark’s priority in time gives it no a priori privilege over the theological or christological content of the three later-appearing Gospels. We might even question the motive and good faith of anyone who would attempt to finesse the literary priority of Mark’s threadbare account into an implied authority for a ‘minimalist’ interpretation of Jesus based on Mark alone (or on Mark and an imagined ‘Q’ document). I would certainly question the motive and good faith of a non-christian writer like Adam Gopnik for example, who has indulged his sophisticated New Yorker editors and readers with a very uneven and gently mocking article, What did Jesus do? (May 24, 2010), based very strictly on Mark alone.
For better or for worse (and I touched on some of Mark’s ‘positives’ in an earlier post), we should view Mark’s narrative premiere as a kind of material antithesis of the Incarnation, an epochal event which sets in motion an inevitable dialectical process by which three additional compilations of equal authority appear within about 35 years.