For all posts in this series: Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity
|It has been more than a year since I wrote the previous installment in this series. I have some excuses: new location, new job, and separation from well-stocked libraries. And also, I must admit, something unexpected happened during the break: I started losing interest in the early history of Christianity. So I have decided I had better try to bring this series to a close before I’m tempted to put it off altogether.
I have devoted most of the series to the Pauline letters. By now readers understand my general approach to those. I am still inclined to think that approach is correct, but I can’t say I am really comfortable with some of the particulars. Perhaps I will revisit the letters at some point. For now I want to skip ahead to the part of my theory that addresses Mark’s gospel. For me the biggest question is: where did the public ministry of the Markan Jesus come from? Paul, I have proposed, drew his beliefs about Jesus primarily from some version of the Ascension of Isaiah (see parts 7, 8 and 9). But in both extant versions of that work, and in the speculative alternative I offered, there is either no public ministry for Jesus at all or only one that is described by a single sentence. So it would seem that it was the author of Mark who first composed a public ministry for Jesus. Why did he put it together the way he did?.
Even though what follows is admittedly speculative, to my mind it seems the most likely scenario. In brief, I think the author of Mark was a Pauline Christian and his gospel was an allegory that presented Jesus as the forerunner of Paul.
The idea that Mark is an allegory about Paul is not new. Gustav Volkmar first argued the case for this in 1857 (Die Religion Jesu) and again in 1870 (Die Evangelien, Oder Marcus und die Synopsis der kanonischen und ausserkanonischen Evangelien nach dem ältesten Text mit historisch-exegetischem Commentar). He was soon followed by others. Carl Holsten, for instance, and Moritiz Herman Schulze “approached the issue from different angles but agreed with Volkmar on the idea that the second Gospel is an apology for Paul by transferring Pauline theology ‘back’ into the sayings and doings of Jesus.” (Heike Omerzu, “Paul and Mark — Mark and Paul,” in Mark and Paul: Comparative Essays Part II — For and Against Pauline Influence on Mark, edited by Becker, Engberg-Pedersen, and Mueller, p. 52).
Volkmar’s thesis ultimately “drove a wedge into German biblical scholarship; Adolf Jülicher (1857-1938) and William Wrede (1859-1906) both appreciated Volkmar’s work, Albert Schweizer (1875-1965) and his student Martin Werner (1887-1964) did not” (Anne Vig Skoven, “Mark as Allegorical Rewriting of Paul: Gustav’s Volkmar’s Understanding of the Gospel of Mark,” p. 14, from the same collection of essays referenced above). In 1923 Werner felt the need to write a book entirely devoted to refuting Volkmar’s views regarding Mark. He argued that Volkmar was guilty of allegoresis and that his work lent support to those who denied the historical existence of Jesus (although Volkmar himself never explicitly went that far).
In the preface to his book, Werner explains his worries about the consequences of Volkmar’s line of thought. Werner perceived Volkmar’s work to be in line with other recently published books which treated Jesus as a purely mythical figure. (Anne Vig Skoven, “Mark as Allegorical Rewriting of Paul: Gustav’s Volkmar’s Understanding of the Gospel of Mark,” p. 25)
Interest in Volkmar’s thesis did subsequently subside, although that may well have been due more to the advent of form criticism than to Werner’s rebuttal:
It has been suggested that Werner’s monograph put an end to the idea of Paulinism in Mark. I would argue that it was not so much Werner’s refutation itself as the rise of form criticism that sidetracked the line of inquiry that Volkmar had initiated. As we know, form criticism concentrated on the individual pericopes and traced their history backwards in search for their Sitz-im-Leben, but it took no interest in the gospels as complete works. It is quite telling that the interest in the relationship between Paul and Mark surfaces again with redaction criticism. Anglo-American scholars inclined toward literary readings like Joel Marcus and William Telford have long advocated for ideas that resemble Volkmar’s readings. (Anne Vig Skoven, “Mark as Allegorical Rewriting of Paul: Gustav’s Volkmar’s Understanding of the Gospel of Mark,” p.26)
I have not read the books by Volkmar, Holsten and Schulze. My knowledge of German is so rudimentary that it would take me quite a while to work my way through those volumes. Maybe once I retire. But I have read an excellent book published in 2012 in English that reaches conclusions similar to theirs. Tom Dykstra, in his Mark, Canonizer of Paul, convincingly presents “the evidence for a literary relationship between Mark and Paul’s letters” (p. 27). He examines this relationship in a number of themes shared by Mark and Paul, especially their defense of the Gentile mission, their emphasis on a crucified Christ, and their discrediting of Jesus’ disciples and family. He argues too that there are allusions to Paul in the main parables and ending of Mark, as well as appropriations of Paul’s language and examples throughout that gospel. Dykstra concludes that Mark has in effect modeled his Jesus after Paul:
Mark deliberately created a literary Jesus whose words and actions parallel the words and actions of Paul. Mark’s Jesus defends the Gentile mission before the fact, in the face of opposition from his disciples, just as Paul defended his Gentile mission in the face of opposition from the ‘pillars,’ some of whom were reputed to have been among those disciples. To make this connection Mark portrayed Jesus leading reluctant disciples to Galilee, visiting other Gentile lands, interacting positively with individual Gentiles, performing miracles of feeding for mixed Jewish-Gentile crowds, insisting that recalcitrant disciples stop preventing children from reaching him, narrating parables, and so forth. (pp. 149-150)
I cannot here do justice to all the parallels Dyskstra uncovers between Mark and Paul. I urge those interested to read his book. I find myself in agreement with much of his analysis. Like him, I think Mark’s portrayal of Jesus was fashioned to provide a divine advance validation for Paul and his teaching. As I see it, however, the Jesus episodes were intended to function more like prefigurations or foreshadowings of Paul. Some of them were intended to be within the reach of any Christian. Others were meant to be fully understood only by members of the Markan community. As an example of the first type I offer Jesus’ eating with Jewish sinners (Mk. 2:16). It likely served to prefigure/foreshadow Paul’s extension of this conduct to meals with Gentile sinners (Gal. 2:12 & 15). Similarly for Jesus’ breaking of Sabbath regulations (Mk. 2:24) and Paul’s extension of this to disregard for observance of all Jewish holy days (Gal. 4:10-11) Likewise for Jesus’ dismissal of defilement by foods (Mk. 7:15) and Paul’s lack of any fundamental problem with eating even meat that had been offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:1-7). But, as we will see, there are many other episodes that seem to be deliberately shrouded in secrecy.
Now in all these cases Paul never tries to justify his conduct by appealing to similar precedents set by Jesus. With Dykstra, I think the reason is because there were no precedents. As I see it, the author of Mark sought to remedy this situation by creating Jesus episodes that foreshadow, prefigure and thereby validate what Paul did and taught. This could also explain a puzzling feature of Mark: “the way it consists of a number of unrelated paragraphs set down one after another with very little organic connexion, almost like a series of snapshots placed side by side in a photograph album” (The Gospel of Saint Mark, by D.E. Nineham, p. 27). To account for this most scholars, including Nineham himself, have recourse to a tradition hypothesis. Mark, they surmise, was probably working with collections of traditional material about Jesus that consisted of essentially independent stories. But it seems to me that the disconnected character of Mark would be explained equally well by Volkmar’s allegorical hypothesis. In this scenario Mark’s primary focus was on Paul, not Jesus, so he had no interest in providing a connected and developed portrayal of Jesus. His focus was on constructing Jesus episodes whose value lay in the various ways they pointed to Paul. (For a good discussion about the problems with the oral tradition theory, see chapter 3 of Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul).
And taking the Markan Jesus as a prefiguration of Paul could explain why Mark was written in a Scriptural style and, like Scripture, with an authoritative voice yet without identifying its author. Scriptural texts were acknowledged by believers to be prophetic. They pointed to things beyond what their immediate context indicated. Thus they had more than one level of meaning. This is why they could be mined so easily for allegorical arguments. One sees this, for example, in Galatians where Paul builds an allegorical argument on a passage from Genesis (16:1-16 and 17:15-22). First he says that the two women in the story, one a slave, one free, are two covenants: “Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants” (Gal. 4:24). He then extends this further so that the women are also two Jerusalems: The slave woman “corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children,” while the free woman “corresponds to the Jerusalem above” (Gal. 4:25-25). The whole three-level interpretation is held together very flimsily, resting just on “slavery and freedom” as the common elements. And yet, because those elements are taken from Scripture, Paul could feel satisfied that he had made a case his flock would take seriously.
So I would suggest that one reason Mark infused his gospel with Scriptural flavor was because he wanted his readers to use it in Scriptural fashion as a text that has more than one level of meaning. Certainly he wants them to interpret Jesus’ parables that way. He explains the parable of the sower as an allegory: the seed is the word, the bird is Satan, the rocks are troubles or persecutions, the thorns are desires. And then he holds that parable up as some kind of key to understanding the rest of his parables: “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” (Mk. 4:13) And Mark says that Jesus taught in parables regularly (Mk. 4:34) and did so deliberately in order to hide his meaning from outsiders (Mk. 4:11-12).
But it is not just Jesus’ parables that should be approached like Scripture. Mark presents Jesus’ actions too as possessing a deeper level of meaning. We see this clearly, for instance, in regard to the two multiplication-of-food episodes.
We must begin our examination by noting that there are strong indications that the feeding accounts are very important events for Mark. For one thing, in the next episode (6:45-52) the disciples are said to have failed to perceive something crucial in the feeding of the five thousand, and for this reason they react wrongly during the sea miracle (cf. Matt. 14:22-33). Even more emphatically, 8:14-21, with all its mystery, at least indicates that both feedings disclose something terribly important, for the disciples are sternly rebuked when they fail to understand what it is. Further, even the very fact that Mark has two feeding accounts is evidence that he considered the accounts are intended to convey more than the simple point that Jesus could perform such a miracle; one feeding account would have been adequate to make that point. (Larry W. Hurtado, New International Biblical Commentary — Mark, p. 99)
Thus, not only what Jesus says is allegorical. What he does is allegorical too. (I’m using “allegory” here in the sense of a story that deliberately aims to convey more than one level of meaning). So one cannot help but wonder: Is the whole of Mark allegorical? As Dykstra says:
would an author who in some places chooses to write allegory rather than ‘history’ necessarily feel bound to strive for ‘historical accuracy’ everywhere else? In other words, if Mark consciously wrote allegorical text anywhere, why should we assume he would not do it everywhere? (Mark, Canonizer of Paul, p. 231).
That is certainly worth considering. Mark may be allegory throughout.
- If Mark makes Jesus an itinerant preacher, it may be because Paul was.
- If he gives Jesus a troubled relationship with the Twelve, it may be because Paul didn’t get along with them.
- If he has Jesus rebuke Peter, it may be because Paul did.
- If he has Jesus pray three times for a cup to pass, it may be because Paul prayed three times to be freed from his thorn in the flesh.
- If he makes Jesus go up to Jerusalem and cause a ruckus in the Temple, it may be because Paul did that.
- If he puts Jesus on trial before Jewish and Roman authorities it may be because Paul underwent that.
- If at the end he tells us Jesus went to a hill called ‘place of the skull’ (Mk. 15:22), it may be because Paul ultimately went to the Roman hill called Capitoline (from the Latin word for ‘head.’)
In my opinion, even the apparent holes in this scenario can be plausibly filled once we view Mark as a Pauline allegory. By “holes” I mean important Pauline items that seem to be missing from Mark. For instance, where is Paul’s fight against a circumcision requirement for Gentiles? That was the main reason he wrote Galatians. I would expect that to turn up in any allegory about Paul.
But is it really missing? If Mark is a Pauline allegory its fifth chapter contains a good candidate for the circumcision controversy: the paired healings of the woman who had bled for twelve years and of the dying twelve year old daughter of a leader of a synagogue (Mk. 5:21-42). By means of Mark’s sandwiching technique and the several parallels he establishes between the two healings Mark shows that he wants them understood as a composite. Touching is an element in both: The synagogue leader asks Jesus to lay his hands on the dying girl (5:23), and Jesus does grasp the child’s hands (5:41); in the case of the bleeding woman, her touching of Jesus’ clothes is referred to four times (verses 27, 28, 30 and 31). And both “daughters” (5:23 and 34) are “saved” (5:23 and 34) by faith (5:34 and 36). In regard to their common number twelve, Mary Ann Tolbert says “it is very tempting to note that the only use of twelve prior to their appearance” (in these healings) “is related to the disciples, the Twelve” (Sowing the Gospel, p. 168, n. 58).
Now it strikes me that this Markan episode easily lends itself to the kind of allegorical interpretation Paul gave to the slave and free women in Galatians. Something along the lines of: “Now this is an allegory. The dying daughter of the leader of a synagogue corresponds to the Twelves’ mission to the Jews. That mission died or nearly died (after 70 CE?). The woman who had bled for twelve years corresponds to the Gentile mission. She is portrayed as bleeding because the Twelve were insisting that Gentile converts be circumcised. Jesus’ action in saving the bleeding woman by faith prefigures Paul’s preaching of salvation by faith and his refusal to allow his Gentile converts to be circumcised. And Jesus’ raising back to life of the daughter of the synagogue leader prefigures Paul’s ultimate saving of the mission to the Jews.”
One could perhaps attach allegorical significance to other details in the story. For example, the woman “spent all she had, yet was no better, but had become worse” (Mk. 5:26). Was the “spending” a reference to Gentile collections for the Jerusalem church. I don’t know. But I think Richard Carrier is right when he says that “The integration of these tales obviously had some symbolic importance to Mark, even if we cannot discern it now” (On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 411). In light of the other Pauline parallels in Mark, I suggest that the symbolic importance was most likely related to Paul.
Some other holes will be looked into shortly. But first I want to go back to the parable that Mark presents as the key to the others: the parable of the sower. As already noted Mark treats it as an allegory. In his explanation, however, there is an interesting omission. He identifies all the major items in the allegory except one. He never tells us who the sower is. Some think this was not an oversight. Joel Marcus, for instance, suggests that the puzzling omission “is probably an intentional ‘gap’ in the narrative—a point that has been left obscure to engage the reader’s attention and thought and to point to the central concern of the parable” (p. 311) He proposes that on one level the sower is God, on another he is Jesus, and on a third level he represents the preachers of the Markan community.
I too see more than one level of meaning for Mark’s sower, but I would argue that the main mystery man is Paul. There appear to be hints pointing to him in the parable and in the material that follows it. First, there is the content of the parable. As Dykstra observes:
Considering that Paul used seeds and sowing and plant growth as his central metaphor for spiritual progress, it can hardly be a coincidence that a text written many years later to support Paul’s Gentile mission and apostolic authority would adopt the same metaphor for its central parable. The direction of the borrowing from Paul to Mark rather than from Jesus to Paul to Mark is suggested by the fact that Paul never once attributes his seed and sowing metaphor to Jesus. (Mark, Canonizer of Paul, pp. 127-8)
And then there is the purpose that Jesus assigns to his parables. They are meant to hide his meaning: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (Mk. 4:11-12) Now many scholars believe, based on 2 Cor. 4:3, that Paul’s Corinthian opponents accused him of preaching a “veiled” gospel.
But if I am correct that Paul was Simon of Samaria there is much more going on in the Sower parable. (This idea, I want to be clear, is my own tangent. Dykstra does not argue that Mark is Simonian. His argument is that Mark is Pauline. It is I who suspect that Simon and Paul were the same person. See the first post in this series.) Now in Hippolytus’ account of Simon’s Great Declaration we see that Simon engaged in allegorical interpretation of Scripture and that growth metaphors together with a concealment/manifestation motif were prominent features in his system. Moreover, his teaching parallels the Markan seed parables in a number of other ways.
- First, soil has a significant role to play in the Sower parable. In fact, some scholars have suggested that it would be better characterized as the Parable of the Soils. Correspondingly, in Simon’s Great Declaration “God fashioned man by taking soil from the earth. And he made him not single, but double, according to image and likeness. And the image is the spirit…” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies [hereafter abbreviated to RAH], 6.14).
- Next, in the Sower parable it is the meeting of good soil and seed that initiates growth. The seed, we are told, is code for the “word” (logos; Mk. 4:14)). Likewise, in the Great Declaration man’s potentiality must “meet with befitting utterance (logos) and instruction” in order for it to produce “not husks and stocks, but perfect fruit, perfected in its imaging.” (RAH, 6.16).
And in the Sower parable the increase that occurs in the good soil is prodigious: “thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” (Mk. 4:8). In the Great Declaration the outcome is even more spectacular: “that which is stored in them” (man and woman) “in potentiality, having obtained a fitting utterance (logos) and an appointed place in which the utterance may be developed, starting as it were from the smallest spark, will increase to all perfection and expand, and be an infinite power… ” (RAH, 6.17). Notice the contrast, as in the parable, between the small beginning and the incredible result. The same contrast shows up a second time in this form: “But if its imaging should be perfected and it should be generated from an indivisible point” (atomus)… the small shall become great. And this great shall continue for the boundless and changeless eternity, in as much as it is no longer in the process of becoming” (RAH, 14). [Recall, as I mentioned in the first post of this series, that the word for indivisible point —atomus—is the same word that is used at 20.7.2 in some manuscripts of Josephus’ Antiquities for a certain magician who is named Simon in other manuscripts.]
- The Sower parable’s contrasting of small and great is elaborated in one of the two other parables that accompanies it: the parable of the mustard seed. There it is said that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds yet becomes the greatest of shrubs, “putting out such large branches that the birds of the air can build nests in its shade” (Mk. 4:32). Many Markan commentators think the language here is deliberately echoing what the book of Daniel says about Nebuchadnezzar’s tree (e.g., the commentaries on Mark by Morna Hooker, p. 136; C. Clifton Black p. 128, Joel Marcus p. 324, Eduard Schweizer p. 105). Now that tree turns up in Simon’s Great Declaration too. There God is “as it were a great Tree, like that seen by Nebuchadnezzar in vision, from which all flesh is nourished” (RAH, 6.9). And Simon, appealing to a verse from Isaiah, presents man as some kind of extension of that tree: “And if a man of Judah is a well-beloved shoot” (Is. 5:7), “it is shown, he says, that a tree is nothing but a man” (RAH, 6.10).
So I suspect that Mark has deliberately given Jesus a hidden doctrine that points to Simon/Paul’s. In regard to the Sower parable Samuel Sandmel once wrote that “The Gospel would have us suppose that there was more in the parable than meets the eye. Unhappily, there is not.” (The Genius of Paul, p. 214) I myself am not so sure.
[Let me add here that the Simonian viewing of men as trees may be pertinent for correctly understanding some other enigmatic Markan passages. For example, Mk. 8:22-26 relates an episode that many commentators think is either a recapitulation of the first section of Mark’s gospel or the beginning of a second major section. It is Jesus’ first healing of a blind man and, as such, it seems to hearken back to the blindness Jesus first spoke about in connection with the growth parables. Now I would suggest that, as with the parables, there appear to be two levels of vision involved in the healing. When the man first recovers his sight he sees “men—they look like trees, walking” (Mk. 8:24). Translators regularly translate the first recovery with the words “looking up” because they consider the healing to have only been partial. But the Greek word in question is the same one that in Mark 10:51 clearly means recovery of sight. So it would seem that the sense is not that Jesus struggled and needed two tries to completely heal the man. Instead, from a Simonian perspective, the healing was deliberately twofold in order to illustrate the two levels of vision: one that is ordinary and shared even by those on the outside; and another that penetrates deeper and sees that “men are like trees walking”.
Another example: In chapter 11 of Mark’s gospel Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and on its outskirts curses a fig tree. From the Simonian perspective of “men are like trees” the fig tree could function as a foreshadowing/prefiguration of the man whom Paul cursed in Jerusalem: the high priest Ananias (Acts 23:3-5). In both cases the curses were related to temple incidents. In Mark, the fig tree curse sandwiches Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple.” As part of that cleansing Jesus quotes Scripture to the effect that the temple should be “a house of prayer for all the nations” (= Gentiles). In Acts, Paul presence in the temple provokes a riot. One of the accusations made against him is that he defiled the temple by bringing a Gentile into it. And according to Acts it was the cursed high priest Ananias who took a lead role in pursuing Paul for that defilement (Acts 24:1).
I realize, of course, that Acts is not reliable history. That doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that its author wasn’t working with facts about Paul. At those points where the Paul of the Pauline letters can actually be compared with Acts’ portrayal of him, the latter often twists the information of the former in order to make the Apostle unswervingly Torah-observant. One would assume that, if its author had access to any facts about Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem, he likely continued on in the same vein, twisting the facts where possible in lieu of complete fabrication. If so, it may be that Paul did in fact bring a Gentile into the temple and did curse the high priest. The sanitization would come in where Acts says (1) that some people mistakenly thought that Paul had brought a Gentile into the temple (Acts 21:29); and (2) Paul was not aware that the man he cursed was the high priest, and would not have done it had he known who the man was (Acts 23:5).]
So who is the Sower?
One other feature of Mark’s allegorical seed teaching should be noticed. For some reason Mark wants his readers to focus on the word “hear”. Within the space of thirty-four verses he uses some form of that word thirteen times. He opens with “Hear! See!”, twice trumpets the proverbial saying “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear!” (4:9; 4:23), continues on with “See what you hear!” (4:24), and finishes with yet again another reference to hearing: “And with many such parables he used to speak the word to them, as they were able to hear” (4:33). Mark seems to be prodding us to notice something beyond what his words convey. But what? The most common suggestion is that the opening “Hear!”:
echoes the opening word of Deut. 6.4, known as the Shema, which was recited daily by the pious Jew as a reminder of the core of his faith. The word is derived from a Hebrew verb which means not only ‘to listen’ and ‘to hear’ (v.9), but also ‘to obey’, and thus implies an active response to what is heard. (Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, p. 122)
But if that is the connection that Mark is making, it seems odd that that the very Jewish Matthew apparently missed it. He omits the “Hear!”, and so does Luke. Both also drop the “See what you hear!” verse.
If Mark is a Simonian riddle, however, a different solution becomes available. The expression “those who have ears to hear” is present in Simon’s Great Declaration (RAH, 6.16). And Simon’s name is derived from the same word as the Shema, and thus means both ‘hear’ and ‘obey’. Moreover, the meaning of Simon’s name was apparently something that Simonians called attention to:
They (Simonians) said that he was called Simon, that is to say, the obedient, because he obeyed the Father when he sent him for our salvation. (Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, vol. 2, col. 1057, my translation)
I am wondering, then, whether Mark’s obsessive repetition of the word ‘hear’ is his clue to the riddle of the sower’s identity. It would be one of those clues that is hidden in plain sight: “Hear! See!” “See what you hear!”
[Is the “straightway” that Mark uses forty-one times some kind of similar hint? In Acts a converted and blinded Paul has a vision on Straight street in Damascus (Acts 9:11) and then, for the first two times in Acts, the word “straightway” is used: the scales fall “straightway” from Paul’s eyes (Acts 9:18) and he “straightway” preaches Christ in the synagogues (Acts 9:20)]
In any case, identity continues to be an issue in the miracle that follows the seed allegories: the stilling of the storm. Mark situates it as occurring later on the same day as the teaching session and makes it provoke the question, “Who is this?” (Mk. 4:41) In the brief episode the emphasis shifts to ‘greatness.’ First, the storm is “great” (4:37); then the stillness is “great” (4:39), and then the fear is “great” (4:41). Joel Marcus observes that “The repetition of megas implies that the disciples are threatened by a devastating superhuman power, but that a greater power than it comes upon the scene in the person of Jesus, who conquers it and inspires overwhelming awe” (Mark 1 — 8, p. 336). If so, one fitting answer to the question “Who is this?” would be: “Somebody great” (Acts 8:9). Or: “the power of God that is called great” (Acts 8:10; Great Declaration, RAH 6.18). “For even the wind and the sea obey him” (Mk. 4:41).
I will go before you
Viewing Mark as a Simonian allegory changes our perspective on a number of other passages. For instance, in Mark 14:28 Jesus says “After I am raised, I will go before you into Galilee.” And in 15:7 the women at the empty tomb are told to “go and say to his disciples—and Peter!—’He is going before you into Galilee; you will see him there, just as he told you.” It is a prophecy that remains unfulfilled in Mark’s story. But a Simonian could see this as pointing to Simon. He claimed to be the Son who suffered in Judaea. And Peter, according to some accounts, pursued Simon all the way to Rome. It was in Galilee of the Gentiles that Mark situated the beginning of his narrative; the return to Galilee could signal that the prefiguration stage had ended and the fulfillment part of the cycle was about to begin. If Mark professes to only give us “the beginning of the gospel” (Mk. 1:1) and seems to underline that by his frequent use of the “began + infinitive” construction throughout his work, it may be because his Jesus was intended to function as the forerunner of Simon.
Bringing Simon Megas into the Markan picture also provides a solution to one problem with Volkmar’s thesis: the relative absence of the Spirit in Mark. Étienne Trocmé, in his The Formation of the Gospel According to Mark, notes that:
The idea of a gift of the Holy Spirit to men is only to be found in embryo in Mark. This is indeed one of the strongest reasons for denying that any influence was exercised by Paul on the author of this Gospel. (p. 188)
To this objection I would first respond that in Mark even the Pauline themes that are more developed are still not full-blown. To validate Paul’s ministry it is enough that they be there at least in embryo. But secondly, if Paul and Simon Megas were the same person, the Holy Spirit may be present in Mark more than meets the eye. For according to Simon, it was not the Son in his manifestation as Jesus who promised a sending of the Holy Spirit. It was the Son in Simon who released the Spirit. In the Simonian scenario the Spirit had been held captive for some time by the very angels she had generated. They had locked her into successive bodies, the most famous of which was Helen of Troy’s. At times the confining bodies were even those of animals. And when Simon finally came to rescue her she was being held as a prostitute in a brothel in Tyre. If Mark is a Simonian allegory we should expect prefigurations of this Spirit scenario in it.
As luck would have it, Tyre does turn up once in Mark (at 7:24-30). Jesus leaves Galilee and goes off alone to Tyre where he enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know it. But a certain woman approaches him and asks him to free her daughter from a demon possessing the girl. Mark makes a point of telling us that the woman is “Hellene.” Jesus first refuses the request, saying that it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. But then he relents and drives the demon out.
The number of points of contact (i.e., Tyre, Hellene, demon, house, animals) leads me to think that this episode could function as an allegorical prefiguration for Simon’s release of the prostitute Helen. There are many Christian allegories that have been built on far less. (Note too that Matthew’s version of the episode has Jesus say: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” According to Hippolytus, Simon “said that the latter (Helen) was the lost sheep… After he had purchased her freedom, he took her about with him, pretending that she was the lost sheep…” – RAH 6.19)
Another episode that catches my eye is the one in which a woman anoints Jesus’ head (Mk. 14:3-9). The mystery here has always been: Why doesn’t Mark tell her name or, if he didn’t know it, at least provide her with one. There are plenty of names in his gospel, some of which scholars suspect are symbolic. Yet here he makes Jesus effusive in his praise of the woman’s deed but keeps her nameless. Oversight or deliberate riddle?
Jesus describes the woman’s deed as “a beautiful work” (kalon ergon). Then he says something that “reads very oddly in Greek, meaning literally ‘what she had she has done'” (Hooker, p. 330). Since what she did was a beautiful work, I am wondering if what she had was beauty. If so, we may have here another prefiguration of Helen whose beauty was legendary. According to Hippolytus, Simon touted Helen’s beauty as “unsurpassable” and said that it threw the powers of the world into such confusion “that there arose faction and war among those nations to whom she was manifested” (19). In the anointing incident the woman’s beautiful deed likewise causes dissension among onlookers. Jesus steps in and suppresses it, saying that what she has done will be remembered wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world. Could her beautiful anointing of Jesus foreshadow an anointing of Simon by the beautiful Helen, the Holy Spirit?
And I am curious too about the female helpers who—we find out only at the end of Mark—had been accompanying Jesus all along. They can easily be made to correspond to features and titles held by Helen.
- One of Helen’s titles was Wisdom and Simonians sometimes called her Athena after the goddess of Wisdom. Salome is the female form of the name Solomon who was legendary among the Jews for his wisdom.
- Another of Helen’s titles was “Mother of All.” To this might correspond the Mary who is described by Mark as being the mother of James the small and Joses. Joses/Joseph is thought to mean ‘exalted’ so this woman in effect was the mother of small and great. A Scriptural way of saying “all” is by saying “small and great” (see, for example, 1 Sam. 5: 9; Psalm 115:13; Rev. 11:18; 20:12).
- And last there is the Mary referred to as the Magdalene. This word is derived from the word for ‘tower’. Now Simon, according to Epiphanius, claimed that “Homer was compelled to portray her (Helen) as standing on a tower” (Against Heresies, 2,3). In Mark, Mary the tower woman is portrayed as looking on from a distance (Mk. 15:40).
So, again, if Mark is a Simonian allegory, it seems to me that these three women could function as allegorical prefigurations of Helen. Helen could rightfully be represented by “many” women (Mk. 15:41), for in her long history she had transmigrated “from female bodies into different bodies, both of the human kingdom, and of beasts and other things” (Epiphanius, Against Heresies, 2,2).
The Multiplications of Food
As is the case with a number of episodes in Mark, the mysterious multiplications of loaves and fish are presented as possessing some deeper significance but no one is really sure what that significance is. Is the intended symbolism Eucharistic? But fish is not distributed at the Eucharist. And where is the eucharistic cup? Is the scene meant to represent God’s provision of manna for Israel in the desert? But God made that food from scratch; here Jesus needs to first scrape together some bread and fish to work with. But didn’t the prophet Elisha once do something similar? Yes, but aren’t two feeding stories a bit much if all Mark wants to convey is that Jesus is like Elisha? Perhaps the feedings are supposed to bring to mind an eschatological messianic banquet? The fare seems too meager for that. And there’s nothing to drink and nowhere to sit but on the ground. Not much of a party. The people don’t whoop it up a bit. In fact, there is not even any of the astonishment that usually accompanies Jesus’ miracles.
Many scholars think too that the specific numbers in the stories mattered to Mark: five loaves, five thousand people, twelve baskets of fragments at the first feeding; then seven loaves, four thousand people, seven baskets of fragments at the second. Don’t forget it, for Jesus knows the numbers and reels them off impatiently (Mk. 8:19-20) when his disciples still think the feedings are just about bread. “Jesus appears frustrated. So do his disciples. So, too, may be Mark’s readers” (C. Clifton Black, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries — Mark, p. 187 I
Since there is so much uncertainty about the meaning of the feeding episodes I don’t feel bad offering my own speculative solution. I am thinking that, if Mark is a Pauline/Simonian allegory, the broken bread and fish could represent Simon/Paul’s writings. They would be his teaching in a tangible form, a form that would multiply the material taught, could be copied and shared, and could be gathered up and carried to distant places. In a sense teachers “break up” their material in order to make it easier for their pupils to understand, but their explanations add to the bulk. And in a sense teaching is food for mind and soul (1 Cor. 3:1-2). Since the feeding episodes take place in the context of teaching (“… and he began to teach them many things” – Mk. 6:34), the distributed food could represent the extension of teaching in a written form.
And the feedings as described make a good analogy for writings in another way. Jesus starts the feedings off with a blessing or thanksgiving (Mk. 6:41; 8:6), uses assistants (Mk. 6:41; 8:6), and at the end dismisses his guests (Mk. 6:45; 8:9). In Paul’s letters he usually starts out with a blessing or thanksgiving, uses assistants, and ends with farewells. Even in writings that were not letters, ancient authors often began by invoking or thanking a Muse, used assistants, and ended with a word of farewell to their readers.
In my proposed scenario the material that is taught (the unbroken bread and fish) would be Sacred Scripture. Perhaps the five loaves represent the five books of the Torah, while the two fish represents the other two categories of OT writings: the Prophets and Wisdom books. Or it may be that the loaves represent the Jewish Scripture and the fish the pagan poets. Hippolytus accuses Simon of mangling both: “So then Simon by such inventions got what interpretation he pleased, not only out of the writings of Moses, but also out of those of the (pagan) poets, by falsifying them” (RAH, 6.19).
The first feeding in particular seems well-suited to represent Paul’s letters to his churches. The people are arranged in groups of fifties and hundreds, numbers that could reasonably reflect the typical sizes of Paul’s churches at about the time Mark was written (the last third of the first century CE). And the word used for the “groups” in Mk. 6:40 is literally “garden plots”, again fitting since in 1 Corinthians Paul views the Corinthian church as a plant: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). The audience is described as consisting of people who lived in distant “cities” (Mk. 4:33) and who were “like sheep without a shepherd”, circumstances that would fit the many occasions that Paul was on the road and separated from his flock. And since Paul’s letters combine the features of letters and epistles, they can fittingly be regarded as spiritual Christian food: “Paul clearly wrote out of a sense of his own apostolic authority. Paul did not see himself expressing merely personal opinions and preferences, but as articulating the normative meaning of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.” (Leander E. Keck, Paul and His Letters, p. 21)
Now, if the first feeding does prefigure Paul’s letters the twelve baskets of fragments would likely refer to some twelve-fold collection of letters. That wouldn’t necessarily mean that Paul wrote only twelve letters to his churches. Some of his known letters are recognizably compilations of fragments from several letters. And he makes reference to letters that have apparently not survived. In the second feeding the audience is smaller (4000) and there is no mention of arrangement by garden plots. Perhaps this points to other writings by Simon/Paul that were addressed to a different audience. There is the Great Declaration, of course, only fragments of which survive. But Simon may have authored other works, for Jerome, in his Commentary on Matthew, makes a passing reference to Simon’s “volumes.” There was also a Simonian gospel with the title The Four Quarters of the World but its contents are unknown and likewise whether it was written by Simon or just by his followers.
Payments to Caesar
Another Markan episode I would like to comment on is situated by Mark as part of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. Jesus justifies the paying of taxes to Caesar on the grounds that Caesar’s image was on the coinage in use: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mk. 12:17). From the perspective of my scenario for Mark, I am wondering if this response was intended to provide advance justification for a Pauline payment to Caesar, a payment made to insure that Paul would survive if things went wrong during his last visit to Jerusalem. Here’s what I mean.
According to Acts of the Apostles, when Paul was taken into Roman custody in Jerusalem he avoided a flogging by informing his captors of his Roman citizenship. The episode includes this exchange between Paul and the commander Claudius Lysias:
The commander said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes,” he answered. The commandant replied, “I acquired this citizenship for a large sum of money.” Paul said, “But it was mine by birth.” (Acts 22:27-28)
First off, it seems a little strange that out of the blue the Roman commander here shares some of his personal history with Paul. But there are more reasons to be suspicious. Not only does Paul never mention his Roman citizenship in his letters, he says something that seems to cast doubt on it: three times he was “beaten with rods” (2 Cor. 11:25). Moreover, as the report of the Acts Seminar notes:
Roman citizenship was based on wealth and status, of a level that is highly improbable for Paul, even the Paul of Acts, who is pictured as a craftsman (Acts and Christian Beginnings — The Acts Seminar Report, p. 276).
There may, however, be a way to plausibly sort this out without accusing Acts of total fabrication. It may again be a case that the author of Acts has just twisted the facts. Hyam Maccoby, in his The Mythmaker — Paul and the Invention of Christianity, proposed that Paul may have obtained his citizenship right before going up to Jerusalem (pp. 159-164). For some time Paul had been collecting money in his churches to bring to the church in Jerusalem. Paul knew he was going into a hornet’s nest, and Maccoby thinks it would have been natural for him to use some of that money to purchase Roman citizenship. That way Paul could call upon Roman help if the hornets attempted to sting. Such a use of money could be easily justified on the grounds that Paul’s protection from his enemies in Jerusalem was vital to the survival of his churches.
Maccoby thinks Paul had already made arrangements to inform the Romans of his citizenship sometime before he was attacked, for Acts portrays the Romans as acting very quickly to extricate Paul from his attackers. “Otherwise,” says Maccoby, the Roman commander “probably would not have intervened at all, since the Romans were not so conscientious in their duties as police as to be much concerned whether some Jew was killed or beaten in a religious squabble.” (p. 160). Note too that Acts has the commander say that he intervened because he learned that a Roman citizen was involved:
This man, seized by the Jews and on the verge of being murdered by them, I rescued by intervening with my troops, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. (Acts 23:27)
So Maccoby is not much impressed with the conversation related in Acts 22:27-28:
This whole conversation is spurious, as argued before, since Paul had really been known to be a Roman citizen before he was rescued by the Roman commandant, and otherwise would not have been rescued at all. So what is the purpose of the insertion of this conversation? It is as if the author of Acts is going out of his way to tell us that Paul did not purchase his Roman citizenship, a possibility which might not otherwise have occurred to us. There is an element of ‘protesting too much’ in this fictional insertion. It should be remembered that this alleged assertion of Paul’s, ‘But it was mine by birth,’ is the only evidence in existence that Paul was born a Roman citizen, which is prima facie unlikely. (p. 163)
If Maccoby’s proposal is correct, it would also explain Acts’ downplaying of the collection. The only mention of it is at Acts 24:17 where Paul in Caesarea says to Felix: “After many years I came to bring alms for my nation and offerings” (Acts 24:17). If part of the collection had been used to buy an expensive citizenship there may not have been much left over for alms. From the perspective of my own scenario, the meagerness of the offering may have been allegorically foreshadowed by the meager offering of the poor widow in Mk. 12:41-44. Her small offering to the temple treasury would be the Gentile mission’s offering to the Jerusalem church, an offering presented as being small in comparison with that of the wealthy but larger than theirs when considered in relation to what the givers possessed.
From Proto-Mark to Canonical Mark
In this post I have been referring to the gospel of Mark as if it was originally a Simonian/Pauline allegory that featured Jesus as the forerunner for Simon/Paul. I need to now clarify. I think, more precisely, it was a Proto-Mark that was that allegory, and the Markan gospel that is in our New Testaments — canonical Mark — was the first reworking of it. The Jesus in canonical Mark is no longer a forerunner. He himself is given one, John the Baptist, and the image of Jesus has been reshaped into a John the Baptist redivivus. In my next post I will discuss that reshaping.
(Some of the formatting in the above post is my own — Neil)