Gospel of Mark — modern meets gnostic interpretation?

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Mark is a parable or largely allegorical according to scholars such as Kelber, Tolbert, Weeden, and others Thus Galilee and Jerusalem have theological meanings, the former representing the Kingdom of God and the latter, opposition to that kingdom. The twelve disciples led by Peter are the seed found in rocky soil that sprouts quickly with promise but just as quickly whithers into failure. And so forth.

Such modern interpretations of Mark sit in remarkably close conjunction with the (second century) Valentinian allegorical interpretations of Paul’s letters as explained by Elaine Pagels in her The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. And is it significant that the Gospel of Mark is sometimes argued to be embedded in Pauline theology?

The obvious objection to this thought is of course that it is generally accepted that the Gospel of Mark is first century document, commonly dated 70-80 ce, while the gnostics such as the Valentinians are dated from the second century. My defence for nevertheless playing with the idea that there is something apparently “gnostic” about the Gospel of Mark is that the common dating of Mark’s is debatable, that I have referred elsewhere to arguments that would date Mark to the second century, and that that possible allegorical meanings of Mark need not represent the fully blossoming Valentinian or other gnostic systems addressed by Irenaeus and others much later.

Some basic gnostic beliefs

First, a bit of background to make sense of the discussion. The gnostics beliefs being addressed below held that:

  • the god of this world, the one who created this world, including humanity, and who was worshiped by the Jews as their lawgiver and ruler, was an inferior god to an otherwise unknown supreme Father God of All. The inferior god is referred to as the demiurge. It was the supreme god, otherwise hidden from the world, who sent Jesus to reveal him, the loving Father, to the world.
  • humanity is divided into three spiritual types. The hylics are the wicked and unregenerate destined for destruction. The psychics are most people, carnal but with some capacity for understanding. Many of them know only the Demiurge and worship him as the supreme God, seeking salvation by the works of the law. They also treat the gospel story of Jesus literally failing to understand its deeper spiritual meaning. The pneumatics are the elect, the few, who are spiritually mature who have been saved by grace, and who understand the hidden spiritual (allegorical) meaning in the sacred scriptures.

Pagels shows that according to gnostic or Valentinian exegesis of Paul, gentiles represent the pneumatic or spiritually mature Christians while Jews represent the psychics. The psychics are called to salvation but only the pneumatics are the elect who achieve it. The pneumatics are saved by grace through faith, the psychics require works for salvation. The pneumatics have spiritual (allegorical) understanding while the psychics read the word literally. If modern exegesis can read Mark as imputing Galilee represents the Kingdom of God then is there a link with gnostic allegorical meanings?

I have cited the gnostic passages underlying this discussion at the end.

Galilee of the Gentiles

Why should Galilee be chosen to represent the kingdom of God in Mark? Did Mark take the idea from Isaiah 9.1-2?

By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . .

Matthew certainly did:

Now when Jesus . . . departed to Galilee . . . he came and dwelt . . . by the sea . . . that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The land of . . . Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sat in darkness saw a great light (Matt.4.12-16)

We know Mark more often than not chooses not to make his Old Testament allusions explicit. For example, of Mark’s numerous OT allusions in the crucifixion scene — the offering of the sour wine, the dividing of his garments and casting lots, the darkness at noon, the mocking, the cry on the cross — only once (when he was ‘numbered with the transgressors’) does he confess one of them came from “the Scriptures” (15.28). Matthew is keener to make sure his audience does not miss the OT references.

Galilee was known as Galilee of the Gentiles to Matthew and almost certainly to Mark. This is more than likely why Matthew chose to keep Mark’s sequence of events here:

Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the kingdom of God . . . and as he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea . . . Then Jesus said to them, Come after me . . . (Mark 1:14-17)

Matthew retains and makes explicit Isaiah’s association of Galilee of the Gentiles to the sea beyond Jordan. This is where the first disciples were called, the first to see the light were in Galilee by the sea, first narrated in Mark.


Pagels shows that gnostic, or specifically Valentinian, exegesis of Paul understood his discussion of Jews and Gentiles symbolically. True Jews, Paul said, are those who are Jews “inwardly” (or Jews in a hidden or secret way) — Rom.2.28-29:

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly . . . but he is a Jew who is one inwardly . . . in the Spirit . . .

‘But because their affinity with the Father is hidden, a secret from those who are “Jews outwardly” (the psychics) and from the demiurgic god (“the god of the Jews,” Rom.3.29), Paul more often calls the elect in his parable the “uncircumcised,” the “Gentiles,” or “the Greeks.”‘ (Pagels, p.7)

Perhaps it is mere coincidence that this gnostic allegorical interpretation of “Gentiles” sits so neatly beside some modern understandings of the Gospel of Mark.


Pagels also shows that a gnostic view of Jerusalem was that this city represented the psychic region — ‘where the psychic “Jews” worship the “god of the Jews.”‘ (Pagels, pp.103, 110)

Heracleon: Fragments from a commentary on the gospel of John (preserved by Origen)

The ascent to Jerusalem signifies the ascent of the Lord from material realm things to the animate (psychic) place, which is an image of Jerusalem. (Fragment 13, on John 2:13-16)

. . . But Jerusalem represents the creation or the Creator whom the Jews worship. . . (Fragment 20, on John 4:21)

The Jerusalem apostles, especially Peter

Pagels notes that Peter is portrayed as the apostle to the psychic, or ignorant or imperfect, Jews. Peter has been sent by the demiurge, the god of the Jews, to preach the kerygmatic message of Jesus. Paul is the apostle to the spiritual, the pneumatic, “gentiles”.

Irenaeus in Against Heresies 3.12.6-7 complains that the gnostics considered Peter and the Twelve apostles were imperfect with their understanding darkened by a literal interpretation of the gospels.

New view of the end of Mark?

Compare the Gospel of Mark’s attack on the apostles, on Peter in particular. The gospel ends with none of them even hearing the message of the women, which was that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee. Galilee was the place of the gentiles, where the spiritual kingdom of God could be found. Peter never got there. He left Galilee to go to Jerusalem and knew nothing of the message of the young man in the tomb.

Son of David?

The gnostics interpreted David as a type of the Demiurge. So when they read in Romans 1.3 that Jesus was born the son of David according to the flesh they explained this as Jesus being born in the flesh like the rest of humanity, as the son of the Demiurge. David, like Moses, was a type or figure of the Demiurge in gnostic allegory. The Demiurge is likened to a king or petty king by the gnostics, and David was a king.

They may well have argued that Paul elsewhere declared his complete lack of interest in Jesus as a flesh and blood person, and that this was further support for reading Romans 1.3 allegorically.

So when blind Bartimaeus addresses Jesus as the Son of David (Mark 10.47), yet Jesus himself later clarifies that he is not the Son of David (Mark 12:35-37), does some of the ambiguity or confusion arise over the a double-meaning for David? Does the author see Jesus as a son of David “according to the flesh”, that is, born of the flesh and blood that was the creation of the Demiurge, yet spiritually he has nothing to do with this David? Bartimaeus was, after all, blind at the time he called Jesus the Son of David. He threw away his cloak (symbolic of his old nature?) before being cured of his blindness. Subsequently Jesus explained that the Messiah could not be the Son of David.

The Gnostic passages for David representing the Demiurge

‘The name “Moses”, like other names of OT figures, is understood to refer allegorically to the demiurge. The different personal names designate different aspects of his activity. So, when the demiurge appears as ruler (as in 1.3) he is represented as David; when, as in 4.1, he appears as “forefather” of mankind “according to the flesh”, he is represented as Abraham; when (according to Heracleon’s exegesis of Rm. 13.1f., for example) he appears as “lawgiver”, he is represented as Moses.’

From p.244 of “The Valentinian Claim to Esoteric Exegesis of Romans as Basis for Anthropological Theory” Elaine Pagels, Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Dec., 1972), pp. 241-258.

‘Comm. Jo. 20.38 for Moses as the demiurge; 3.10, “Jacob as the demiurge; 13.60, “Abraham” as the demiurge’ (– reference to Origen’s Commentaries on John, p.244, Pagels.)

Hippolytus: Refutation of All Heresies, 6.XXIX

This (Demiurge), according to them, is Abraham, and these (souls) the children of Abraham. From the material and divilish essence the Demiurge fashioned bodies for the souls.

Theodotus: Extracts (Excerpta ex Theodoto, from Stromata, Clement of Alexandria) 62.1

Now the psychic Christ sits on the right hand of the Creator, as David says, ” Sit thou on my right hand ” and so on.

Heracleon: Fragments from a commentary on the gospel of John (preserved by Origen)

The official was the Craftsman [the Demiurge], for he himself ruled like a king over those under him. Because his domain is small and transitory, he was called an “official,” like a petty princeling who is set over a small kingdom by the universal king. (Fragment 40, on John 4:46-53)

Elaine Pagels writes in The Gnostic Paul of the gnostic view of Romans 1.3, p.14:

The initiated reader learns from secret tradition that here again Paul is speaking symbolically. “David” signifies the demiurge himself – an appropriate metaphor, first, in that he dominates his creatures like any petty king; and second, in that, as demiurge, he has formed and “fathered” mankind “according to the flesh.”

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Gospel of Mark — modern meets gnostic interpretation?”

  1. Excellent post, Neil! I really think you are on to something here! Here’s a few thoughts:

    Jesus’ curing of blind Bartimaeus (i.e. son of Timaeus) suggests a strong connection with the Demiurge viz. Plato’s Timaues, the dialogue in which the Platonic Demiurge is featured. Jesus’ treatment of Bartimaeus kingly entry into Jerusalem suggests that he accepted the title “son of David” at that point, though (as noted above) Jesus seems to reject the notion that the Christ was David’s son a little later (Mk 12:35-37). However, Jesus’ last words on the cross are David’s words from Psalms 22:1, so it’s not clear that he did indeed abandon the notion that he was the son of David after all (even though he seems to realize at 12:35-37 that he probably should.) In any case, the Timaeus reference at this spot provides further support for a gnostic (or proto-gnostic) exegesis of Mark that connects David, the Demiurge, and the Psychic realm.

    By the way, earlier in the text (Mk 2:25) Jesus refers to the story of David and his men eating the bread in the temple in order to justify his disciples plucking heads of grain on the sabbath. Jesus not only gets the details wrong about who the high priest really was at that time (it was Ahimelech, not Abiathar), he fails to recognize that David’s actions ended up getting Ahimelech (the priest he fails to remember) and 84 other priests killed shortly thereafter, due to the presence of one of David’s enemies at the temple. Similarly, Jesus’ actions in Mark lead to the Pharisees conspire with the Herodians to destroy Jesus.

    So Jesus does appear to have a problem with the son of David title in Mark, a title that the author connects to the Demiurge by referencing the Timaeus in the context of Jesus’ reacting favorably to being called the son of David.

    Although most readers’ preconceived notions don’t permit them to see it, Jesus, in Mark, is actually a flawed hero. He has a hot temper, little patience with anyone (he sighs an awful lot and calls his top disciple “Satan”), and appears to have misunderstood his own prophecies. He tragically failed to accomplish his goals in Jerusalem, with Peter presumably never received the message to return to Galilee due to the fear of the women. Plus he died believing that he had been foresaken by God. Jesus’ relationship to David and the title “son of David” is central to seeing and understanding his tragic shortcomings in Mark.

    Mark was probably a proto-gnostic Hellenistic Christian who put forth a clever covert critique of the suffering and dying Jesus Christ of orthodox (Pauline) theology. I suspect that the author was probably associated with one of the communities that used the gospel of Thomas–Stephen Davies has argued that Mark uses (and modifies) passages from Thomas, including Peter’s confession.

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