Gospel of Mark’s Use of Literary Tropes and Myths to Create Tales of Jesus
Continuing my series of posts on ‘Is This Not the Carpenter? The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus I look here at Thomas L. Thompson‘s chapter ten, ” “Psalm 72 and Mark 1:12-13: Mythic Evocation in Narratives of the Good King”.
Thompson (TLT) is asking readers to become more savvy to the literary tropes of the ancient world and to understand the biblical literature, including the Gospel narratives of Jesus, within these literary conventions. One might compare the way the unflattering realities of America’s Wild West have been romanticized through the literary visions of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. The white knight, or cowboy in the white hat, is a literary construct that exists as a tool that authors apply either to characters entirely of their own imagination or to historical persons which they recreate as myths.
The point is that once we recognize these literary tools for what they are, we will not read the ancient literature — gospels included — naively. We will learn to recognize the cultural myths or ideologies underlying the words we are reading.
TLT’s discussions on the way biblical and other ancient authors used these sorts of literary artifices are not the easiest of reads for the uninitiated. Though I have read his works on ancient literature for some years now I still find myself having to re-read his paragraphs in arduous efforts to grasp the structure of his arguments. (Does there come a point where some scholars attain such a high reputation – no doubt well earned – that there is no-one to monitor and advise on the editing of their work? Another I have similar stylistic difficulties with is Karl Kerenyi.) I will attempt here to cut to what I understand is his core point in relation to Mark’s scene of Jesus in the wilderness.
If we take the stories of Job, Abraham, Esau, David and Solomon to be mythical, then we can see that the same “building blocks” used to create those allegorical or mythical tales were used to create the story of Jesus in the Gospels. That’s quite a bird’s eye generalization, but Thompson is saying that much ancient biography in the narratives of the Near Eastern and Mediterranean worlds does indeed serve an allegorical function.
TLT rightly implies that these literary tropes themselves ought not to be interpreted literally, even when they are applied to historical persons. One of the examples he has used in other works (The Bible As History/Our Mythic Past; The Messiah Myth) — but not here in this chapter — is the Syrian inscription of Idrimi. Earlier scholars took this as a genuine biographical account of a king but subsequent analysis (particularly literary analysis) has demonstrated it is a cluster of fictional tropes.
Biblical historians have too often embarrassed themselves by seizing upon any source that “sounds like history” to rationalize the past, and when the Idrimi statue and inscription [PDF] was discovered Albright declared it to be of “revolutionary” importance for historians in their recreation of fifteenth century Syria. It reads like a genuine biography of a famous king so that has been good enough for “lazy historians” (Liverani).
Conveniently for this post, however, the details of the literary analysis exposing it as a fiction can be found online in Tremper Longman’s Fictional Akkadian Autobiography. Its fictional details are familiar to anyone who knows the Bible’s narratives:
- the younger son is destined, in preference to his older brothers, to be the rightful heir
- his life phases are marked by figurative spans, seven years, thirty years
- he flees from injustice to live in the wilderness/exile
- where he is recognized as the legitimate ruler and leads a band of outcasts
- he follows the direction of the gods in choosing his moment of return
- at his return he restores the rightful rule and the proper forms of worship of the correct gods
- he restores peace and prosperity to his subjects
It is quite likely that the Idrimi statue and his fictional story was commissioned to honour the (mythical) ancestor of a much later king.
If biblical scholars could only learn to study the literary nature of the Gospels they would begin to realize they have made the same gaffes as Albright did in relation to the Idrimi statue as a source for historical reconstruction of ancient Syrian politics.
TLT begins chapter ten of ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ with a discussion of just one small cluster of building blocks in the narrative of Jesus from the earliest of our gospels:
And immediately the spirit driveth [Jesus] into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.
Summary of an Untold Story
TLT reminds readers that this all-too-brief narrative of Mark 1:12-13 really is too short to be a proper narrative in its own right. It serves to alert the reader to some other narrative more fully known but that is not being told here. (My own comparison would be to those enigmatic passages in Genesis such as the one that speaks of “sons of god” mating with “daughters of men” to produce giants on the earth.)
However incomplete Mark 1:12-13 is as a narrative in its own right, it still contains “four clearly presented and distinct thematic elements of a plot-line”:
- the spirit who drives Jesus into the desert;
- the forty days he is tempted by Satan;
- he lived with the wild animals
- and angels cared for him.(p. 186, my formatting)
The Gospel of Mark’s sparse sequence of images that bear no obvious relationship to the rest of the gospel narrative contrasts strikingly with the comparable scenes in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In those later gospels the point of the story is clear: each author spells out the temptation scene with Jesus being challenged three-fold to prove his allegiance to God. But in the Gospel of Mark there is no such point to the story. It is this sparseness of Mark’s narrative in contrast to those accounts found in Matthew and Luke that prompts TLT
to look more closely at the interactive symbol-system which can be identified with these elements in the hope of evoking something of the relevant meaning of what are obviously significant elements introducing Mark’s Jesus. (p. 186. In simpler words, to understand the symbolic meaning of this scenario and why the author wrote it in the first place.)
TLT itemizes several of these “significant elements introducing Mark’s Jesus”: Mark’s scene is certainly an echo of the Elijah narrative of 1 Kings 19:7-8 where angels similarly cared for Elijah in the wilderness:
And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.
This allusion is well enough recognized. A central theme of the Old Testament’s Elijah-Elisha narrative is “life’s victory over death” and this is “reiterated throughout the miracle stories of [Mark’s] gospel.” (Some of those miracle stories are clearly based on the miracles performed by Elijah and Elisha, too.)
We can go further, and notice with TLT that the scene of Jesus in the wilderness is tied to the opening lines of the gospel that declare Isaiah’s prophecy of the good news of the coming Kingdom of God being declared from the wilderness:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight . . .
We note, also, that the author of the Gospel of Mark evokes the theme of the inauguration of the divine kingdom by assigning John the Baptist to the role of the converting angel of Malachi (i.e. Elijah) who brings reconciliation to Israel so they can avoid the judgmental terror of Yahweh. In the wilderness Jesus evidently qualifies to replace John and to continue his mission of preaching the kingdom and repentance after John is imprisoned.
TLT at various points in his essay points to other disparate themes, too, and no doubt many who have read the gospels are well aware of them:
- Jesus being “driven” by the spirit into the wilderness brings to mind verses from the book of Judges that “drive” Samson to perform his remarkable feats, and that TLT says are “well recognized in motifs implied in Pss. 3:10; 6:34 and 18:2, 21” (sic — half these verses do not exist and the relevance of at least one of the others is difficult to discern. Where was the proof-reader?)
- The forty days Jesus lives in the wilderness reminds us of the testing of Israel for forty years in the wilderness; Israel’s generation of testing failed while Jesus succeeded.
- We are also reminded of Moses spending forty days with God on Mount Sinai.
But these associations still leave the passage in Mark without any meaningful place within the Gospel. They are interesting reminders of Old Testament details, and Jesus is exalted by being compared with them, but what is the significance or meaning of these “significant elements” within entire episode itself for the gospel’s narrative as a whole?
TLT notes that all he has done so far is to explain the relevance of Jesus being driven by the spirit and, like Elijah, being cared for by angels. We still have to explain:
- why it was the wilderness that Jesus was driven into
- why he was there forty days
- why and in what way Jesus was tested by Satan
- what was the role of the wild animals
- and why did Jesus need the care of the angels in the desert.
What is the meaning of the four-fold cluster of elements — being driven into the desert, being tested by Satan, being with the wild animals and being cared for by angels — for the larger gospel narrative? How does this scenario advance the plot?
What is the “untold story” evoked by this summary cluster?
Two Biographical Tropes
There are two central ancient Near Eastern tropes, related to the development of biographical portraits of royal savior figures, which I believe are identifiable in the introductory narrative of Mk 1:1-13 and which, in their reiteration through biblical literature, appear in ways that evoke an implicit mythic narrative. (p. 192)
The first trope is implied in the opening words of Mark’s Gospel.
Royal saviour figures typically are announced as “good news” who come to reverse fortunes. The opening line of the Gospel of Mark declares Jesus to be the saviour promised in Isaiah to prepare the way of Yahweh in the desert (Isaiah 40:3). He is thereby identified as the promised messenger of Exodus (Exodus 23:20-33; cf. Malachi 3:1); and as the one sent to lead Israel in its eschatological war against the nations (Exodus 23:20-24; cf. Psalm 2).
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Even as it is written in Isaiah the prophet, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, Who shall prepare thy way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight . . .
(TLT also states that Mark introduces Jesus as both saviour and Son of God. I wish TLT consulted with New Testament scholars and students who could have told him that “the Son of God” is not original to this Gospel but is a later insertion. Such oversights will surely be pounced upon by NT critics.)
This opening sentence is but one more instance of such proclamations — TLT points out that Mark introduces Jesus as the Christ and Son of God — that are found in a ubiquitous literature dating back at least to New Kingdom Egypt. The good news is that the new king has come to reverse fortunes. This is not stated explicitly in Mark but it is the theme of the ensuing miracles and messages of Jesus.
The following table presents elements of this trope from both biblical and Egyptian literature, including the importance of the bestowal of the spirit in the related biblical works. The Gospel of Mark is re-using this very ancient inaugural proclamation of the kingdom to illustrate Isaiah’s announcement of the dawning of Zion’s utopian new world:
|Isaiah 6:1-7||Isaiah 61:1-6|
|In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.2 Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.3 And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.4 And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.5 Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.6 Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:7 And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.||The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;3 To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.4 And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations, and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations.5 And strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.6 But ye shall be named the Priests of the Lord: men shall call you the Ministers of our God: ye shall eat the riches of the Gentiles, and in their glory shall ye boast yourselves.|
This trope is not uniquely biblical. It dates at least to New Kingdom Egypt’s inaugural songs of the pharaohs Merneptah and Ramses IV (pp. 326-327, The Messiah Myth):
|Joy at the Accession of Merneptah||Joy at the Accession of Ramses IV|
The second literary trope relates directly to Mark’s scene of Jesus in the wilderness.
“Good kings” are typically introduced with opening scenes of past suffering. The people of the kingdom themselves have suffered terribly, and/or the future king has suffered a personal injustice and been forced to endure suffering through which he must prove himself worthy of being raised to power. The timing of this rescue is in the hands of the gods.
This theme of ‘past suffering’ typically opens when the future king was a young man. His life is threatened and he is forced to flee or is driven into the desert, where he lives with the wild animals in exile for a determined period of time where he is tested: most typically in a duel between the heroic future king and a giant or great warrior, representing evil. It closes, most frequently, with signs of divine protection and care for the chosen saviour, who is then called from the wilderness to enter his kingdom and inaugurate his reign, bringing a reversal of fortune to his people. . . .
As plot elements of story . . . this tale-type is ubiquitous, expressed both by a testing of the future king in the desert and a duel with a hero or giant.
The tale type goes at least as far back as the Egyptian story of Sinuhe in the Middle Bronze Age and the segmented tales of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s meeting with Humbaba.
In biblical tradition, it is most clearly and fully developed in the stories of David, involving both his duel with Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 and his exile and flight into the desert in 1 Samuel 20-27. . . .
This literary narrative about David’s flight into the desert and his duel with the evil giant, Goliath, which also includes the well-known fairy-tale pattern of David’s three-fold trial to win a princess for his bride, directly reflects the theme from ancient Near East royal ideology of the divinely chosen king, known from royal biographies. (pp. 194-195, my formatting and emphasis)
TLT footnotes references to several of these royal tales known from Syria and Mesopotamia, including the Idrimi biography I addressed at the beginning of this post. He then discusses in some depth Job 29 and Psalm 72 as further illustrations of the use of these tropes in the biblical literature.
So much is packed into this chapter, much more than I can address in any detail in this post.