Historical memory in the Gospel of Mark: a radical twist

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by Neil Godfrey

The Daughter of Jairus
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On my way to post something on the Old Testament again I met a strange idea in a very old book, one published in 1924 and with an introduction by the renowned if obsolete Sir James Frazer.

Now I happen to think the best explanation for the source of those miracles by Peter in the Book of Acts — those where he heals the paralyzed Aeneas and raises the deceased Dorcas — is that they were borrowed and adapted from the Gospel of Mark’s accounts of Jesus healing the paralyzed man and raising the daughter of Jairus.

But Paul-Louis Couchoud long-ago published an idea that had not crossed my mind before, or at least one I had quickly forgotten if it had.

To introduce this arresting idea Couchoud accepts as “very probable” the ancient rumour that circulated about Mark writing down from memory the things Peter had told him.

According to an Ephesian tradition dating from the early part of the second century, Mark had been the dragoman of Peter (whose only language was doubtless Aramaic); and Mark wrote down later from memory, but without omission or addition, all that he had heard from Peter about the oracles and miracles of the Messiah. This is very probable. Only one might suspect Peter’s conversation of having been revised under Paul’s influence. For if, in Mark’s Gospel, Peter and the Galilean Apostles are everywhere in the limelight, it is only to play the parts of totally unintelligent and cowardly persons, who are in striking contrast to the ideal figure of the Messiah. Yet, after all, Peter, with whom we are unacquainted, may have been capable of representing things in this piquant and modest manner. (p. 42)

I have a more literary take on the Gospel of Mark and see little reason to think of it as a collection of memoirs. But sometimes other ideas contain germs of concepts that may be developed in new directions.

But then Couchoud gets closer to his radical idea.

Only the astonishing point is a strange resemblance between certain miracles attributed to Peter himself in the Acts and miracles attributed to Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.

At Lydda:–

And he found there a certain man named Eneas, who had kept his bed for eight years, who was ill of the palsy. And Peter said to him: Eneas, the Lord Jesus Christ healeth thee: arise, and make thy bed. And immediately he arose. And all that dwelt at Lydda and Saron, saw him: who were converted to the Lord. (Acts 9:33-35)

At Capernaum:–

And they came to him, bringing one sick of the palsy, who was carried by four. And when they could not offer him unto him for the multitude, they uncovered the roof where he was; and opening it, they let down the bed wherein the man sick of the palsy lay. And when Jesus had seen their faith, he saith to the sick of the palsy, . . . Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thy house. And immediately he arose; and taking up his bed, went his way in the sight of all; so that all wondered and glorified God, saying: We never saw the like. (Mark 2:3-5, 11-12)

These two bedridden men may well have lain upon the same bed.

But there is a still more significant passage; a miracle worked by Peter:–

And in Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas. This woman was full of good works and almsdeeds which she did. And it came to pass in those days that she was sick, and died. Whom when they had washed, they laid her in an upper chamber. And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppa, the disciples hearing that Peter was there, sent unto him two men, desiring him that he would not be slack to come unto them. And Peter rising up, went with them. And when he was come, they brought him into the upper chamber. And all the widows stood about him weeping, and shewing him the coats and garments which Dorcas made them. And they all being put forth, Peter kneeling down prayed, and turning to the body, he said: Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes; and seeing Peter, she sat up. And giving her his hand, he lifted her up. And when he had called the saints and the widows, he presented her alive. And it was made known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord. (Acts 9:36-42)

It is a charming picture. One sees the assembled gossips sounding the praises (the mirologia) of the dead woman, as is still done in Greek countries.

The Miracle of Jesus:–

And he was nigh unto the sea. And there cometh one of the rulers of the synagogue named Jairus: and seeing him, falleth down at his feet. And he besought him much, saying: My daughter is at the point of death, come, lay thy hand upon her, that she may be safe, and may live. And he went with him. . . . And they come to the house of the ruler of the synagogue; and he seeth a tumult, and people weeping and wailing much. And going in, he saith to them: Why make you this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn. But he having put them all out . . . entereth in where the damsel was lying. And taking the damsel by the hand, he saith to her: Talitha cumi, which is, being interpreted: Damsel (I say to thee) arise. And immediately the damsel rose up, and walked: and she was twelve years old: and they were astonished with a great astonishment . . . and commanded that something should be given her to eat. (Mark 5:21-24, 38-43)

Tabitha cumi, Talitha cumi: one is under the impression that these must be two parallel versions of one marvellous deed which must have been much talked about in Christian circles.

There are other similar cases, such as the story of the Centurion in Luke 7:2-10 and in Matthew 8:5-13. This, Couchoud also observes, seems to be a transposition of the story of the Centurion in Acts 10.

I had to read this two or three times thinking either I had misunderstood or Couchoud had got his subjects and objects mixed up. But no, that’s the point. He is suggesting that the story in Acts (though written after the Gospels) represents the more natural and probably truer historical memory, and that these memories or stories were transposed to Jesus to create the Gospel narrative.

For the chronicler [of Acts] and the hagiographer [of the Gospel of Mark] it is the appearance of Peter which cured the paralytic and brought the dead to life. But Peter said to the paralytic: “Jesus Christ maketh thee whole.” And for the evangelist, beholding everything on the supernatural plane, whose task is to describe the marvels worked by the Messiah, Son of God, it is Jesus who said “Arise” both to the paralytic and the damsel, and who himself had the power to make them arise.

In order to introduce Peter’s recollections into his Gospel, Mark was obliged to transpose them. Perhaps Peter himself had arranged them already. One had to speak spiritually. One had to say Jesus where the realist would have said Peter. It was Jesus who had acted. For Peter owned that he himself was incapable of working any miracle, being, like the other apostles, only a simple fellow without any special power. (p. 45, my emphasis)

Such an interpretation coheres with Paul’s assertions that those who worked miracles, healings, spoke in tongues, prophesied, were mere agents of the Spirit doing these things through them.

I’m sure I’ve encountered this idea before somewhere, but having been reminded of it afresh I thought I’d jot it down now so I won’t be caught off guard next time.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Historical memory in the Gospel of Mark: a radical twist”

  1. All of the above amply substanuate Ogden and Betz’s quotes in my reconstruction. Ogden: “We now know that none of the OT writings is prohetic witness to {the HJ} – – but also that none of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness to {the HJ} as the early church itself understood apostolicity.” Betz: “This source {the SM} presents us with an early form – deriving from the {Jesus Movement} of the “Christian” faith as a whole, which had direct links to the teaching of the HJ and thus constituted an alternative to Gentile Christianity as known above all from the letters of Paul and the Gospels, as well as the later writings of the NT.” Thus an alternative to “Christianity”. Enough for now.

    1. I agree completely with your quotation from Ogden.

      But I know of no evidence to support Betz’s assertion that the Sermon on the Mount presents us with a direct link to the teaching of the historical Jesus.

      My own understanding is that the Gospel of Matthew itself is absent from the historical record until well into the second century.

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