Mark, The Embarrassing Gospel

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by Neil Godfrey

The criterion of embarrassment is a “rule” commonly appealed to by scholars to argue that certain events must be historical because they were so well-known and undeniable that, although gospel authors were clearly embarrassed by them, they nevertheless could not avoid addressing them. One example is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Why would gospel authors say that Jesus was baptized by his inferior unless it really happened? Surely it was not in the interests of presenting Jesus as the superior to John the Baptist to publicize such an event. The only explanation could be that the event was so well known that the authors had no choice but to report it and put the best spin on it that they could muster.

(This reasoning sounds so “self-evident” that it deserves to be kept in mind when reading the scholarly explanations for why Paul does NOT mention so much about Jesus for the reason that it was “so well known that there was no need to address it” — even if to do so would (a) support his position, or (b) require spin to get around how Jesus embarrassed Paul’s position.)

But there is a problem. One of those canonical gospels demonstrates not a single ounce or gram of embarrassment over Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist, nor any of the other episodes to which spin has to be plied by the other gospels to get around various “embarrassing but unavoidable historical facts.” The Gospel of Mark simply waltzes in and unashamedly offers us a point by point account of how John the Baptist baptized Jesus (his superior)!

Could it be that three of the canonical gospels (Matthew, John and Luke) were not so much embarrassed by “historical facts” as they were by their predecessor, the Gospel of Mark?

Should the criterion of embarrassment point not to the historicity of the events themselves, but to offence at the “unorthodox” theology implicit in the original canonical gospel?

The Gospel of Mark shows no signs of embarrassment at all over the baptism of Jesus. Nor does it appear to have any trouble in suggesting Jesus could lose his temper. It even tells a story of Jesus needing two attempts to completely heal a blind man. But Mark’s account of the trial of Jesus before Pilate is most puzzling when compared against standard scholarly explanations for how the other gospel authors treated this event.

Baptism narratives compared

Matthew: When Jesus comes to be baptized John tries to stop him, objecting that he, John, ought to be the one baptized by Jesus. Jesus does not dispute this but tells John to baptize him anyway, “to fulfil all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:1-17)

Luke: John’s baptizing scene does not include Jesus at all. It concludes with Herod casting John into prison. Luke continues, with a subtly implied flashback, to tell the reader that when everyone had been baptized (presumably by John), “it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized . . .” So Jesus baptism is not even mentioned till after John is removed from the scene, and the baptism is narrated in the passive voice to remove any overt reminder that it must have been John himself who performed the baptism. (Luke 3:1-22)

John: John the Baptist does not baptize Jesus at all, but merely declares Jesus to the crowd as the one who has come to take away the sin of the world. Later when others complained to John that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing more people than John, Jesus is identified as the one who had been “with John” earlier, and not as one who had been baptized by him. (John 1:19-28; 3:23-36)

Compare the open candour of Mark: “It came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” (Mark 1:8)

Given the most commonly accepted view that Mark was the first gospel, the textual evidence strongly suggests that Matthew, Luke and John were embarrassed by the story as told by Mark.

To go beyond this and postulate a historical baptism of Jesus by John is to raise the additional question as to why Mark was not the least embarrassed by that event while the others were. The most economical view of the evidence is that the later authors were embarrassed by Mark’s narrative.

Pilate narratives compared

Matthew: Pilate was troubled by the pressure he was under to crucify Jesus. Right at the dramatic moment of Pilate sitting on his judgment seat he received a message from his wife warning him of a dream she had had testifying of Jesus’ innocence. Then when the crowd called of the death of Jesus Pilate “saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising”. Matthew portrays Pilate as one overwhelmed by the threat of an imminent riot if he did not quickly give in to unjust demand of the crowd to crucify Jesus. He “saw that he could not prevail at all” against the threat of an out of control mob. He washed his hands to declare his innocence and the crowd concurred: “Let his blood be on us and our children.” It was the Jews’ fault. The gospel is said to be politically shrewd enough to excuse the Roman governor.

Luke: Three times Pilate declares that he believes Jesus to be innocent (Luke 23:4, 14, 22). Luke expressly tells readers that Pilate “wanted” to release Jesus (23:20). But against Pilate’s best intentions and will the wild mob “prevailed”. The leaders of the Jews were “more fierce” (23:5), the mob was extremely quick to demand the crucifixion of Jesus (23:18), and “insistent”, “demanding with loud voices” (23:23) — the picture is of a well-intentioned Roman governor facing insurrection by the unruly Jews. What Roman audience fault such a picture after the Jewish rebellion of 66-73 ce? Roman jurisprudence found no fault with the unjustly crucified Jesus. Luke also maintains a level of political correctness in its portrayal of Roman rule.

John: John also explicitly says Pilate found no fault in Jesus (John 19:4), and was even personally fearful that Jesus was not only innocent but could be condemned though being “more than a mere man” (19:8). Before hearing that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God Pilate had introduced him to the mob as “the man” (19:5). After learning of this claim he declared him unequivocally to be the “King of the Jews”, thus repudiating their claim to be friends of Caesar (19:12, 14-22). The whole dialogue between Pilate and Jesus takes on a metaphysical air, however, which is in keeping with the character of the rest of the gospel. It is clear that the reader is meant to understand that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and Pilate is used by the narrator to advance this interpretation. (18:36-38). A Roman governor is depicted as something of a wise and insightful philosopher!

Compare Mark’s Pilate: When the crowd demanded Pilate crucify Jesus Pilate asked them, “Why? What evil has he done?” (Mark 15:14) The crowd responds with even stronger calls for the crucifixion. “So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd . . . delivered Jesus . . to be crucified.” (15:15)

In Mark a mob demands a lynching and the Roman governor, after learning that the crowd has no criminal charge to lay against Jesus, “wants to gratify” that mob! One is reminded of Caesars placating Roman mobs with bread and circuses.

Roman rule is as much in an out of control tail-spin in Mark as is the Jewish leadership.

The more we can bring ourselves to read Mark in its own right, away from the shadows of its successors, the more interesting becomes the story of earliest Christianity.

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Neil Godfrey

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