2006-12-11

Gospel of Mark and Gnostic Gospels compared. 1

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by Neil Godfrey

As I continue to read Majella Franzmann’s Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings it is interesting to reflect how the distinctive themes of the gnostic texts overlap with themes of the strongest interest among scholars of the Gospel of Mark.

Markan scholarship is signposted by such studies as Wrede’s The Messianic Secret and Weeden’s Mark: Traditions in Conflict, as well as discussions around the gospel’s apparent adoptionist Christology. Wrede’s work attempts to explain why Jesus’ spiritual identity was to be kept secret and Weeden’s book looks at an explanation for the disciples being incapable of understanding their teacher. Kelber’s The Oral and the Written Gospel also argues that the whole of Mark was written as a grand parable.

These studies unexpectedly continue to echo in my head as I read Franzmann’s study. So the Jesus of among authors of the Nag Hammadi texts was:

  1. essentially a being whose true identity was not meant to be recognized when he appeared on earth;
  2. essentially a being who was meant to be incomprehensible;
  3. who gave secret teachings to his disciples;
  4. in a dramatic moment of illumination one disciple alone (whether Thomas, James, Mary Magdalene, Judas, Peter, Paul) does “see” him for who he is — although in the Gospel of Mark Peter’s “insight” proves to be a false one and it is the reader — “let the reader understand” — who is the real recipient of the divine revelation;
  5. essentially a being who originated in heaven whether he also had real human parents (both father and mother) or not (in some texts he did in others he didn’t);
  6. essentially a being whose appearance on earth was marked by events that were forordained or patterned in heaven;
  7. Blindness and nakedness are symbolic of inability to comprehend the spiritual and sinfulness.

I look forward to continuing this book and then the opportunity to write up more comprehensive notes, perhaps a grid, highlighting the prominent features of this “other Jesus”. I do not mean to imply that the author of Mark’s gospel borrowed or adapted his ideas from the gnostics responsible for these texts. No doubt orthodoxy and the simple fact that the originals of the Nag Hammadi texts are dated no earlier than the mid second century would make this impossible. But then I have yet to see any external evidence for the appearance of our canonical gospels that establishes a date much earlier. Ditto for the Pauline canon. And in that Pauline canon we read that that author was at odds with Christianities extolling “other Jesus’s” and “other gospels”. But these are just first-thoughts off the top of my head as I read through Franzmann. No doubt I will have time to reflect more deeply on all the evidence over the coming weeks. But I do find interesting the fact that the author of Mark’s gospel would not appear to be unaware of the sorts of concepts we also find among the Nag Hammadi texts. Or did those gnostic authors really allegorize Mark and a “historical” person with such unprecedented verve?

Neil


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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Gospel of Mark and Gnostic Gospels compared. 1”

  1. Excellent post, Neil! I think you are really on to something with your analysis of Mark. The theme of an intense experience of divine light (as in Jesus’ transfiguration) is also consistent with Gnostic themes and Hellenistic Platonic Mysticism. A huge exegetical question for Mark is whether not Jesus’ claim that “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1) refers to the transfiguration (which occurs in the following passage) or to the apocolyptic scenario Jesus outlines in Mark 13. Given what unfolded historically, only the former reading could possibly be historically true, a point that I’m fond of raising with Christians from time to time…

    1. Thanks, Todd. There is another possibility, I think, for the meaning of the apocalyptic scenario of Mark 13. I wrote the following in another discussion group (perhaps sounding more dogmatic than I ought):

      The same images were used of the destruction of Babylon and other powers in Isaiah and we know they were metaphors for earthly armies overthrowing kingdoms; God came down on his throne in rumbling clouds in the days of David yet we know this is metaphorical language. We err when we interpret the same language attributed to the prophecies of Jesus as having a literal meaning.

      Mark 13 hints at some sort of fulfillment in the Passion narrative that follows: stay awake, watch, themes and others. Does Mark mean to suggest to readers in the know that the conquering kingdom really arrived at the cross? Or in 70?

      1. Neil, here’s how I understand the hints at the passion narrative in Mark 13 (as well as the remaining material):

        Firstly, its worth noting that Jesus doesn’t merely deliver this famous apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13, but rather it comes in the context of answering a question posed to him by four of his disciples (13:3-4) about a comment Jesus had made earlier in the day (13:2) about how the temple would someday be brought down. Furthermore, the comment in question came in response to one of the disciples having expressed to Jesus amazement at the size of the buildings (13:1). So it is not as if Jesus is portrayed as having gone out of his way to deliver this famous discourse to some members of his inner circle; rather, it comes up in the context of an exchange between a “teacher” (as he is called by the unnamed disciple who starts this mess at 13:1), a student (probably Andrew) who is portrayed as overly impressed physical buildings, and (along with three other students) interprets Jesus’ answer as an imminent prophecy.

        As for Jesus’ answer, there are several different ways one might reasonably go with it. However, the most promising line of exegesis, on my view, is based on Jesus’ desire to prepare these four disciples for the passion in the context of his secret mission, which seems to have involved the passion. Jesus indicates that the “master of the house” might come at four specific times (evening, midnight, cockcrow, morning), all of which are times that are specifically mentioned in the passion narrative. It seems pretty clear to me that Jesus (in Mark) had some sort of prophetic vision that persuaded him to go to Jerusalem and stir things up in such a way that he would be arrested and charged with causing an insurrection. At the same time, Jesus also provides two compelling indications that he was hoping that God would intervene on his behalf at some point before he died on the cross–his prayer at Gesthsemane, and his last words on the cross. In light of these details, it would make sense for him to encourage his disciples to stay awake and focus on these particular time intervals, all of which are explicitly mentioned in the passion narrative.

        There is another intriguing possiblity based on an allegorical interpretation of “stones” and “buildings” as well, although at this point in the text I’m not sure if Jesus is speaking allegorically to his disciples (although the author likely is to his astute readers). More on that angle some other time..

        ~Todd

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