An overlooked source for Mark’s gospel?

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by Neil Godfrey

I don’t recall hearing many references to the works of Philo as a source for the Gospel of Mark. Maybe there are good reasons for this that I have yet to learn.

Philo was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early part of the first century. He would have been in his late 40’s when Jesus was supposedly 30 years old.

Last month I posted what looks to me like an instance where the author of the Gospel of Mark drew on a particular image and thought that we also find in Philo. Who said this? was about a parable or riddle of Jesus in Mark:

Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean. (Mark 7:15)

In that post — and it was further elaborated with contributions from others in the comments, if I recall — I noted the same idea expressed as its converse in similar imagery:

as Plato says, mortal things find their entrance, and immortal things their exit. For into the mouth do enter meat and drink, perishable food of a perishable body; but from out of it proceed words — the immortal laws of an immortal soul, by means of which a rational life is regulated. (Philo, On the Creation, 119)

There is another saying of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark that also comes to mind when reading the same work of Philo, On the Creation (or Opus Mundi).

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27)

The Jesus Seminar voted that this is something very like what Jesus probably said. Maurice Casey (Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel) discussed it at length to argue that “the cultural context” should inform readers that Jesus implied that his use of “man” or “mankind” here was nonetheless applicable to Jews only. He quotes the 1947 CNT (presumably the Commentaire du Nouveau Testament?) to confirm that Jesus would not have meant to include non-Jews in this sabbath saying:

As a matter of historical fact the Sabbath was not made for man in general. At the time when the saying was uttered the sabbath was a distinctive peculiarity of the Jews: and our evidence goes to show that they regarded it as such and resented any non-Jewish observance of it. (T. W. Manson, `Mark II. 27f’, CNT 11, 1947, 138-46, at 145, followed by Beare, `Sabbath’, 132.)

He also cites the Mekhilta Shabbath I, Exod. 31:12-17:

R. Simeon ben Menasya says: Look! It says, `And you shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy to you’ (Exod. 31.14). The sabbath is delivered to you and you are not delivered to the sabbath.

That last sentence is famous for its similarity to the passage in the Gospel of Mark.

Some scholars (e.g. Casey, Crossley and no doubt others) use this late rabbinic passage as part of their efforts to set the scene for Jesus’ day. But this does not work. The Jewish Encyclopedia says R. Simeon ben Menasya was a contemporary of R. Judah ha-Nasi I, and Wikipedia informs me that he lived and died around the late second century or early third century — assuming that this Wikipedia article is about the same rabbi. So the Mekhilta does not appear to trace the saying any earlier than a rabbi who lived in the late second or early third century. To use this passage to help reconstruct the ideas floating around in the time of Jesus is a bit like taking a text from a Chinese author in today’s Singapore and attempting to use it to reconstruct a thought extant in imperial Shanghai in 1800. It may be an accurate match, but we can’t bet on it without additional evidence. It is just as likely that the late rabbinic saying found its way into Jewish thought via Christian contacts.

But Philo wrote something in the first half of the first century, in Egypt, that also suggests the same idea Mark’s gospel attributes to Jesus:

XXX. (89) But after the whole world had been completed according to the perfect nature of the number six, the Father hallowed the day following, the seventh, praising it, and calling it holy. For that day is the festival, not of one city or one country, but of all the earth; a day which alone it is right to call the day of festival for all people, and the birthday of the world. (On the Creation)

Now that to me is clear evidence that the 1947 CNT article quoted above is not the whole story when it says there is clear evidence “that they (the Jews) . . .  resented any non-Jewish observance of it (the sabbath).” Philo here could hardly have resented it if gentiles celebrated the sabbath day. He suggests here that he would find gentile observance extremely praiseworthy.

And here we have a Jewish intellectual writing that the sabbath is a day that is given to all mankind. So one must ask how original is the verse in Mark?

But how likely is it that the author of Mark might have known Philo’s writings?

If we knew who wrote the gospel we could answer that without much difficulty.

Irenaeus associates the Gospel of Mark with the gnostic teacher Basilides — who happened to live in the same Alexandria as Philo a generation or two earlier. Clement of Alexandria wrote that Basilides was a disciple of Glaucias, “the interpreter of Peter”, and that he wrote a gospel himself. It’s a long shot, but one is reminded of other early “traditions” that Mark was composed from the memories of Peter. All of this is speculative, and there are other speculations from equally thin slivers of evidence that Mark was composed in Rome. There are reasons also to locate its author in Syria.

In the meantime, I think we now have two passages — closely positioned — in one work of Philo’s, On the Creation, that strike me as having resonance in the Gospel of Mark.

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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “An overlooked source for Mark’s gospel?”

      1. Good point. I need to be more careful in how I express what’s on my mind. I sometimes tend to think all sorts of things for ages from every which angle and then post the conclusion up in too few rushed lines.

        You are right. I similar “ideology” is no evidence for borrowing or influence. Several academics have published various criteria by which one might assess probabilities of borrowing/influence (either direct or indirect) and should specify these in posts like this. I will consider re-doing this post.

  1. http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book36.html

    Philo “Flaccus” 6.36

    “VI. (36) There was a certain madman named Carabbas, afflicted not with a wild, savage, and dangerous madness (for that comes on in fits without being expected either by the patient or by bystanders), but with an intermittent and more gentle kind; this man spent all this days and nights naked in the roads, minding neither cold nor heat, the sport of idle children and wanton youths; (37) and they, driving the poor wretch as far as the public gymnasium, and setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak and instead of a sceptre they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him; (38) and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the bodyguards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state. (39) Then from the multitude of those who were standing around there arose a wonderful shout of men calling out Maris; and this is the name by which it is said that they call the kings among the Syrians; for they knew that Agrippa was by birth a Syrian, and also that he was possessed of a great district of Syria of which he was the sovereign; (40) …..”

  2. I found to be interesting “Philo’s Treatment of the Number Seven in On Creation by Robert Kraft.

    Philo, of course, exhibited strong Hellenistic influence.

    From the above-mentioned article, relating to the two quotes from Philo’s On Creation that you provide, Neil:

    (4) Op 119 [=KS 65]: Explicit and rather incidental reference to Plato saying that through the mouth mortal things have their entrance, immortal things their exit — in Timaeus 75D, Plato actually establishes a contrast between necessary things (a)nagkai=a) and best things (a)/rista). The context in Philo is that the mouth is one of the seven openings in the head. The parallel section in LA 1.12 does not mention the Plato connection.

    (3) Op 128 [see above, the conclusion]: Moses exceeded the scientists among the Greeks and barbarians in according honor to the number seven by incorporating it into the Law and by ordaining the observance of the seventh day as holy. HM observes that “even in this perfunctory bow to Moses, Philo describes the purpose of the sabbath observance in purely universalistic and philosophical terms — ‘giving their time to the one sole object of philosophy with a view to the improvement of character and submission to the scrutiny of conscience.'”

    In contrast, for instance, reference to Sabbath in Exodus 23.12 and Deuteronomy 5.14 speaks of a day of rest after working six days. Those physically resting include family members, slaves, livestock and resident aliens. And I doubt those oxen or donkeys or even many of those hardworking people were engaged in intellectually stimulating philosophical pursuit.

    Presentation of “Sabbath” possibly would have considered the audience(s) addressed.

    I wonder to what extent the author of Mark might have shared with Philo a “universalistic and philosophical” purpose of the Sabbath. Any clues?

    1. Mark surely shared Philo’s interest in numbers (it wasn’t only Philo’s hobby, of course). The main giveaway for this is that he links the disciples’ failure to understand something about Jesus walking on water because they failed to understand the miracle of the loaves and fishes (Mark 6:52). And this was a miracle with numbers at the centre of its meaning — as Jesus reminds his disciples later: Mark 8:19-21. And 7 is a pivotal number there with the multiples of 5 and 12, difference being 7, and the 5 loaves+2 fish, then the 7 loaves and 7 baskets.

      But like you, I have far more questions about Mark than anything that might approach an answer.

      The shadowy links between the gospels of Mark and John are intriguing, too. And John’s is another gospel whose author had a fascination with numbers — even shaping his narratives so that key thematic words were in the exact middle, certain numbers of words or syllables either side, etc. But what else would you expect in gospels that were from the earliest days associated with heretics.

      (I corrected the link, by the way.)

  3. I don’t think we have to postulate a specific direct link between the formation of the Christian myths/legends/stories [whatever you want to call them] and specific predecessors who provided exact elements in the gospels stories as if they were directly plagiarised or borrowed [again using whatever is the preferred term].
    Instead what is discernible is that there was, in the era before and contemporary with the formation of the gospels [probably g’Mark’ specifically] and their depiction of an historical Jesus saying and doing various things, a common known body of motifs and themes which could be utilised to ‘flesh out’ such stories of an HJ whether or not such existed.
    The motifs et al are like a wardrobe of clothes able to be placed upon a body real, fictive or imagined.
    I believe it was Crossan who said something along the lines that [nearly ?] all of the elements of “Mark’s” passion story are to be found either specifically or generically in the pre-existing Jewish scriptures. [Maybe someone can quote Crossan, I’m operating from memory.]
    The author of “Mark” just re-told the storoies/motifs/themes in a different context.
    Nothing new in that.
    Similarly Thompson’s “The Messiah Myth” has this blurb on the back cover:
    “Like King David before him, the Jesus of the Bible is an amalgamation of themes from Near eastern mythology and traditions of kingship and divinity. The theme of a messiah – a divinely appointed king who restores the world to perfection – is typical of Egyptian and Babylonian royal ideology dating back to the Bronze Age …the contemporary audience for whom the Old and new Testament were written would naturally have interpreted David and Jesus not as historical figures, but as metaphors embodying long-established messianic traditions.”
    And within the text Thompson gives numerous highly relevant examples of such writings, close to indistinguishable in their concepts and language, that provided the bulk for the new stories from a wide range of sources.
    The 3 such examples referred to in this post need not have been in front of the author “Mark’s” eyes as he wrote, they were part of a culture that he absorbed, adapted and utilised as he created a new chapter based on the existing.
    Grist for the mill.

    1. Yes, true.

      However, it could be beneficial to consciously wrench Mark out of a mindset that claimed Mark to be part of a compendium of literature acceptable to a more mainstream version(s) of Christianity. We don’t have to start with a “Jesus of the Bible”. We can start with Mark in its contemporary setting.

  4. Hi Neil

    Thanks for the parallel for the Markan parallel in Philo. Hadn’t notice that before.

    For better or worse I have written extensively on the subject of parallels between Philo and the Alexandrian Christian tradition (which in turn is ‘according to St. Mark’). It is worth noting that the Copts themselves say that Philo and St. Mark were related (just as Photius and others infer that Philo was Christianity’s first bishop).

    The current Pope of the thirteen million strong tradition cites Josephus(!) to this effect – viz. “Josephus, in his book, mentioned that he was the cousin of Philo.” [http://tasbeha.org/content/hh_books/Stmark/] The reference is to Josephus’s reference to Marcus Julius Alexander marrying Berenice Julias Agrippa but the passage can be interpret in other ways.

    The connections between Mark and Philo also extend into the discussion of the origins of the Therapeutae in Eusebius who claims that they were established by Mark.

    I have always found it very frustrating when I see people interpret how Philo related to the gospels (in this case the Gospel of Mark) without analyzing the CONTEXT out of which Christianity developed.

    Our existing understanding (which bases its ENTIRE HISTORY on an obviously ANTI-ALEXANDRIAN text viz. the Acts of the Apostles) prevents us from seeing all of the connections because we already start with assumptions which diminish and ‘ghettoize’ (its a real word apparently) the tradition of Mark.

    Once we take Alexandrian Christianity and the tradition of Clement as Markan (and to Theodore PROVES that) it opens the door to a whole world of new possibilities. I think it is like being Howard Carter standing on the threshold of the discovery of Tutankhamun (but I am very dramatic).

    The Gospel of Mark was understood to have a completely DIFFERENT CONTEXT in Alexandria. It was the basis to their baptism rituals – which we know from Irenaeus – were based on the concept of the apolutrosis of the crossing of the Red Sea.

    My next post at my blog will bring forward Philo’s reference to a prayer sung at the Jewish temple of Alexandria (not a Heliopolis but Alexandria – so the entire rabbinic tradition; Josephus is corrupt) which demonstrates how Jews in Alexandria WERE NOT WAITING FOR ‘REDEMPTION’ in the land of Canaan but a heavenly apolutrosis which in turn became the basis for the mystery of Alexandrian baptism developed through the Gospel of Mark.

    I know it sounds like I am speaking another language but I want to stress that all our inherited concepts relating to Christianity ARE EUROPEAN and were developed by Irenaeus in the late second century to ‘refute and overthrow’ a pre-existing Alexandrian gnosis developed in the name of Mark from sources like Philo.

    I want to thank you for your post. I found it very interesting and enlightening.


      1. Sorry but I haven’t written the post yet. I have absolutely no self-discipline. I got sidetracked with a reader’s question and developed it into a point he couldn’t possibly have imagined. I will start writing it tomorrow I think barring any crisis at work.

        Thanks for the interest

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