The earliest gospels 3 — Gospel of Mark (according to P.L. Couchoud)

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by Neil Godfrey

Couchoud’s take on the Gospel of Mark follows. This post should be seen as a continuation of the previous three. (That is, its take on the Gospel of Mark is entirely my understanding of Paul Louis Couchoud’s analysis of this gospel as a reaction to what he believes to have been the original Gospel produced by Marcion. Quotation page references are from Couchoud’s “The Creation of Christ”.)

Like Marcion’s gospel there is no mention of an author — “unless ‘the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ’ is intended to give the author” (p. 170). Couchoud earlier made the point that Marcion’s gospel was likewise anonymous and if pushed his followers would say it was “Christ’s” gospel.

It is possible that this gospel was written in Latin (Ephrem’s note), or was composed with a Latin and a Greek version. The surviving manuscripts are in poor condition with the original ending lost. (I do not believe the original ending was ever lost, but I am keeping my own views quiet while I focus on staging those of Couchoud for now.)

This is a Roman gospel.

At Rome the rupture with the Jews was accomplished. The Christian fraternities met in secret dwellings, buried their dead in catacombs, lived and died apart from the Jewries. Alone they suffered persecution under the law, whereas the Jews lived, as they had done for long years, under the protection of their privileges. Of the Jews the Christians expected nothing better than an occasional convert, and from the rest a more or less open and bitter hostility. The field was ready then for the growth of Paulinism, and, in particular, of the recent form, the narrative gospel. (p. 171)

But these Christians in Rome held fast to the Hebrew God of the Hebrew Bible as the ultimate authority. The scriptures or works for pious meditation consisted of the Jewish Bible and other works such as Tobit and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. What we classify as the Old Testament was interpreted in a manner contrary to normal Jewish interpretation, to be sure, and even in a way that denied the Jewish understanding completely of their own works. But most significantly, in opposition to Marcionism that taught that Jesus was from a higher Good God than the Jewish creator God, these Christians embraced the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible as the true god.

But in earlier posts I have cited Couchoud referencing the work of Hermas as indicative of Roman Christians. Here he posits a split in the ranks of Roman Christians between those represented by Hermas and those represented by the gospel that was eventually attributed to Mark. (More recent scholarship has opined that Mark was of Syrian origin.)

In Couchoud’s view, the split was over the interpretation of the identity of the Only Son of God or the Beloved Son and Heir of God as found in Psalm 2: “Thou art my beloved son.”

For Hermas, this son was identified as the Holy Spirit and as the heir of God and this Spirit was manifested as this Son and Heir in the Church itself. Jesus was also given a reward for his services, however, and was (as a great angel) designated as a Co-Heir of God and an associate of the Holy Spirit.

Not so, wrote the author of Hebrews, a letter or treatise that was passed off as a work of Paul. In Hebrews we read that Jesus is much greater than any angel.

Allowing for a typo in Bonner’s translation of Couchoud, I believe Couchoud declares Mark to be a follower of the theology represented by the author of Hebrews. For both this author and for “Mark” the Voice of God in the Jewish Scriptures declared to Jesus: “Thou art my Beloved (Only) Son.” Mark has Jesus being served by angels in the wilderness when tempted by Satan just after his baptism.

The Gospel of Mark is the earthly story of the heir of Jahweh told behind closed doors to catechumens who, for the greater part, were not of Jewish blood. (p. 172)

This author (let’s, for convenience sake, call him Mark),

took the discontinuous, almost formless story of his predecessor [Marcion] and endeavoured to make it into a coherent drama.

Drama? Reminds me of the thesis by Bilezikian.

[Mark] took the discontinuous, almost formless story of his predecessor and endeavoured to make it into a coherent drama. . . . Mark’s story is the first attempt to give the colour, concreteness, and perspective of history to a poem which was essentially allegorical and didactic. . . He does not hesitate to modify or to add whenever it serves his purpose. (pp. 172, 173)

In the Passion scene Mark portrays Jesus as the first of Christian martyrs and exemplar for all. Mark creates a fast-moving gospel where all events are leading inexorably to the final end.

He attempts to forge connecting links wherever he can by vague references to times and places, the trick of which is often too obvious.

As in Marcion’s gospel, Jesus appears suddenly.

Possibly influenced by Basilides he depicts the baptism as the Epiphany and the reason for the institution of Christian baptism.

Mark firmly identifies Jesus as the same Messiah of Jewish expectation by presenting John the Baptist as an Elijah figure, since Elijah was to herald that Messiah. Prophecies that foretold the very advent of Jahweh himself are quoted and made to refer to Jesus.

His Jesus has real flesh. Couchoud sees details like Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, and applying saliva to eyes, and such details as attempts at verisimilitude. His miracles have material meanings, such as teaching his disciples to have no worries about where their next meal is coming from. But C also acknowledges the symbolism in others, such as the healing of a woman afflicted for 12 years at the same time as raising a 12-year-old daughter of Jairus, a name meaning “awakes/arises”.

Mark is said to follow Paul in having Jesus condemn the twelve, and especially Peter, and enjoin service rather than a desire to rule. The law is no longer relevant — in accordance with Paul’s teaching. People are healed according to their faith.

The message of Jesus is given in a mystery to hide it from the Jews. The Jews will stand condemned for their rejection of Jesus. Jesus is rejected even by his own family. A curious footnote here suggests a possibility that the name of Jesus’ mother, Mary, “is perhaps the same as Miriai, name given by the Mandaeans to the sect of John the Baptist.”

Christ’s praise of “little ones” as the true inheritors of the kingdom in preference to the uncomprehending disciples are subtle references to Pauline Christians. Paul means “small”.

Again in accordance with Paul’s teaching Jesus visits the gentiles and gives them the blessings that the Jews hold in contempt — as illustrated by Jesus’ going to Tyre and Sidon and answers the prayer of a woman when she says even dogs (gentiles) are entitled to scraps dropped from the table.

Mark is addressing persecuted Christians and has in mind in particular the persecutions instigated by the Jewish Messiah, Bar Kochba. The abomination of desolation in Jesus’ prophecy is a reference to Hadrian’s new pagan temple on the site of the old. So the gospel must have been written shortly after 135.

Christ has a last supper at the time of the Passover meal in order to be sure that Jesus is not crucified at the time of the Passover sacrifice itself. The Last Supper and Trial scenes are filled with historical implausibilities but Mark is only interested in constructing a liturgy so historicity does not matter.

Simon of Cyrene is said to be a known person (unlike his appearance in Basilides’ gospel where Simon was crucified in place of Jesus.

The ending is lost. There was surely a resurrection scene in the original.

The overall theme is Jesus as the Son and Heir of God, the true Messiah unappreciated by his own, the Jews. Jesus was the perfect model for his followers who must likewise walk the way of the cross, enduring persecutions and martyrdom.

Such is the view of the nature of the first of the canonical gospels to have been written according to Paul Louis Couchoud.

Next, to look at Matthew’s Gospel.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “The earliest gospels 3 — Gospel of Mark (according to P.L. Couchoud)”

  1. Like the idea of Genesis-Kings being a Hellenistic product in your series about the Documentary Hypothesis, I’m keeping an open mind about Mark being a reaction to Marcion. At the same time, I like MacDonald’s idea that Mark is an update of the Homeric epics. The idea of Jesus’ message and identity being a mystery is explained by this to my satisfaction.

    It is clear enough that the Septuagint was another source for Mark. Paul is also an influence, as mentioned in your outline. And it’s been awhile since I’ve read about “Q,” but I recall the idea of a “Mark-Q overlap.” I can also see a possible reaction to “Jewish Christians” and their Gospel of the Hebrews (“Q”?). Is there any room for a reaction to Marcion’s gospel here (whatever that was)? I’ll keep an mind open, but these are some of my initial thoughts.

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