AN ATTEMPT TO VIEW MARK’S PARABLES FROM THE INSIDE
Samuel Sandmel, in his The Genius of Paul, made this observation:
The parable of the sower in Mark (and in Matthew and Luke) is so presented in the Gospels as to have us believe that, clear as it was, the disciples did not understand it and they require explanation in private. The Gospel would have us suppose that there was more in the parable than meets the eye. Unhappily, there is not. The same is true in page after page of the Gospels. (p. 214)
Mark’s presentation of the parable of the sower does hint quite loudly that there is more to it and its gospel (“all things”, Mk. 4:11) than meets the eye. Its author asserts that his Jesus deliberately hid his meaning from those “on the outside”. And even though he makes his Jesus give a “private” explanation of the parable, his letting any and every reader and hearer of the narrative have access to that explanation shows that the beans have really not been spilled at all. Furthermore, he warns us that just reading or hearing the parable and its explanation will not be much help, for there are many who “look and see but do not perceive, hear and listen but do not understand” (Mk. 4:12). And he drives that point home in the rest of his gospel by relating how the Twelve themselves—even after being given their private explanation—still failed to perceive or understand.
But I think that Sandmel is wrong to rule out that there is really something more below the surface. To know what if anything is hidden there, one would first have to know who the Markan insiders were. Their identity is the key to correctly understanding their gospel. And, unfortunately, the provenance of Mark’s Gospel has never been securely determined.
I have explained in comments on a few other Vridar posts* why I think the Markan insider circle was Simonian, i.e., composed of followers of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria. As I see it, canonical Mark is a proto-orthodox reworking of a Simonian gospel, urMark, that sometime between the end of the first century and 130 CE was put together using two components:
- an earlier succinct myth about a divine figure, the Son of God, who briefly descended to this world to trick the princes of this world into wrongfully crucifying him. He did this by transforming himself and surreptitiously switching places, as Simon Kyrenaios, with a failed Jewish Messiah being led out by the Romans for crucifixion. To this was prefaced
- a cryptic allegorical portrayal of the apostolic career of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria.
The seam between the two parts is Mk. 15:15, the release of the Son of the Father (Barabbas).
That a Simonian would compose such a two-part life of the Son of God was fitting, for Simon claimed to be a new manifestation of the Son “who seemed to suffer in Judaea” (Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, 6, 19).
In this post I conduct a kind of experiment. I assume— just to show where it can plausibly lead—that my identification of the insiders as Simonians is correct, and I examine how that identification changes our perspective of the parables in chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel.
I attempt to answer the questions: If the creators of the parables were Simonian, what was it they were looking to express by them, and what was it they were looking to hide? What was it they wanted outsiders to see but not perceive, hear but not understand?
Hippolytus, in a few short chapters of his The Refutation of All Heresies (which I will abbreviate, going forward, as RAH), describes the teaching of Simon of Samaria as it was presented by his Great Proclamation (the Apophasis Megale). Hippolytus’ exposition, short as it is, is the fullest explanation of Simon’s system that is extant. It provides enough, I submit, to reveal what the Markan parables are really about. The translation of the RAH I will use is that of G.R.S. Mead in his Simon Magus (link is to full-text online).
One big problem posed by chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel is that while it says that Jesus taught in parables—a method of illustration apparently common among Jewish teachers—what the text gives us are allegories, more popular by far in the Hellenistic world as a literary device. The Markan Jesus’ interpretation of the so-called “parable” of the sower is unmistakably allegorical, attaching significance not to just one feature of it, but to several. Scholars generally try get around this by claiming that during a supposed oral transmission stage of the gospel a changeover must have occurred from parable to allegory. Jesus was Jewish, they maintain, and Mark says he taught in parables, not allegories. So his parables must have been changed into allegories only after he was gone. But that solution is only a guess, and the embarrassing fact remains that in this gospel, widely acknowledged to be the earliest in writing, Jesus is an unabashed allegorizer. And not by accident. He uses that vehicle on purpose, to hide his proclamation of the gospel of God.
Now if I am right that a Simonian wrote urMark, the word “parable” would make sense as part of his disguise of Simon. It was one of the elements employed to make him pass on the surface as a Jewish messiah figure. It was one of the means used to cloak Simon’s allegorizing. And that Simon allegorized is clear from what Hippolytus says about him:
Now Simon in his paraphrasing of the Law of Moses speaks with artful misunderstanding. (RAH 6, 9, my emphasis here and where italics are used in what follows)
And he gives examples, for instance:
In speaking of the Garden, he says, Moses allegorically referred to the womb… (RAH 6, 14)
He ends his description of the Simon’s Proclamation with this summary:
So then Simon by such inventions got what interpretation he pleased, not only out of the writings of Moses, but also out of the writings of the (pagan) poets, by falsifying them. For he gives an allegorical interpretation of the wooden horse, and Helen with the torch, and a number of other things, which he metamorphoses and weaves into fictions concerning himself and his Thought. (RAH 6, 19)
And just as the proclamation of the gospel by the Markan Jesus is hidden, so too Simon says that his Great Proclamation is “sealed, hidden, concealed”. (RAH 6, 9).
There is another feature of the Markan parables that may betray Simonian provenance: the emphasis laid on “hearing”, “hearkening”. Twice in the chapter we read:
And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk. 4:9 and 23)
Corresponding to this in Simon’s Great Proclamation is the expression “those who have ears to hear” (RAH 16).
And the Markan version of the parable of the sower begins with the word ‘hear’:
Hearken! The sower went out to sow. (Mk. 4:3)
Both of the other Synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Luke), which I regard as proto-orthodox responses to urMark, drop the initial “Hearken.” The reason that suppression makes me suspicious is because Simon’s name is from the Hebrew word for ‘hear’, ‘’hearken’, as in the opening word of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). And Simonians attached great significance to the meaning of Simon’s name, interpreting ‘hearken’ in the sense of ‘obey’:
They (Simonians) said that he was called Simon, that is to say, the obedient, because he obeyed the Father when he sent him for our salvation. (Mansi, Coll. Conc. Tome 2, col. 1057., my translation from the Latin)
‘Hearken’, then, may be a cryptic identifier of who the sower was: Simon. And any subsequent proto-orthodox correctors of urMark who recognized that would not have been happy with the identifier.
Interesting too is that a similar situation is handled the same way in a later episode, when the Markan Jesus is asked, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” He replies:
The first is this: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mk. 12: 29-30)
Is this a cryptic identification of ‘Hear’ with God? In any case, both Matthew and Luke, in their versions of the episode, delete “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one!”
The content of the Markan parables
But what I find particularly remarkable is that, despite how little is known about Simon’s Great Proclamation, there are many apparent points of contact between what we do have of it and the teaching that is conveyed by the Markan parables. Too many, in my opinion, to be mere coincidence. The parables, I suspect, are a cryptic version of Simon’s system, a version that would have been recognized by Simonians, but missed by almost everyone else. Here’s what I mean:
The theme of the parables in chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel is the Kingdom of God, but the nature of that kingdom is nowhere clearly described by them. The parable of the sower is about the growth of the kingdom. But what kind of kingdom is it that will grow? One might wrongly assume—and the author of urMark, by his use of kingdom language, likely intended to provoke such a false assumption—that the kingdom was to be an earthly messianic one, a terrestrial reign of God much like the one envisioned by the community that gave us the book of Revelation. But unlike that book, the Markan parables do not locate the kingdom on earth. They do not describe its dimensions, or its wealth, or its duration, or the battles that will introduce it, or its king. So we apparently need to look elsewhere to unlock “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (Mk. 4:12).
Mark markets his products as parables of the kingdom but, in reality, what he gives us are allegories involving seeds, fruit, plants, and trees—all of which, as we shall see, loom large in Simon’s system. The Markan parables, I submit, are Simon’s system packaged with the “kingdom of God” wrapping of Jewish messianists.
In Simon’s Great Proclamation there is no earthly kingdom of God. And just as in the parable of the sower (Mk. 4:1-9; 14-20) growth is initiated by the seed of the word, so too in the Proclamation growth comes about by reception of an utterance. The Boundless Power is in man in potentiality, but needs to meet with “fitting utterance” in order to become perfected in actuality.
All ingenerables, he (Simon) says, are in us in potentiality, but not in actuality… And if they meet with befitting utterance and instruction… the Fire [i.e. God] will not have born to it husks and stocks, but perfect fruit, perfected in its imaging, as I said above, equal and similar to the ingenerable and Boundless Power (RAH 6, 16. According to Hippolytus, Simon’s use of the word ‘Fire’ for God was derived from Deuteronomy 4:24: “God is a fire burning and destroying”).
… that which is stored in them in potentiality, having obtained a fitting utterance, and an appointed place in which the utterance may be developed, starting as it were from the smallest spark, it will increase to all perfection, and expand, and be an infinite power, unchangeable, equal and similar to the unchangeable aeon, which is no more generated for the boundless eternity. (RAH 6, 17)
Notice how, as in parable of the mustard seed (Mk. 4:30-34), the smallness of the starting point is underlined: “starting as it were from the smallest spark”. Likewise, a bit earlier in Hippolytus’ account:
But if its imaging should be perfected and it should be generated from ‘an indivisible point’, as it is written in his (Simon’s) Proclamation, the small shall become great. (RAH 6, 14)
Notice too how Mark’s words in 4:25 (“To the one who has, more will be given; from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”) make good sense if interpreted as a cryptic version of the Proclamation’s doctrine of potentiality and actuality:
But if it remains in potentiality only, and its imaging is not perfected, then it disappears and perishes… (RAH 6, 12)
And if potentiality does not become actuality, it is
exactly as if it had not existed at all; and on the death of man it perishes with him (RAH 6, 12).
Plugging that into Mk. 4:25 gives us:
“To the one who has” in actuality, “more will be given” for the perfecting of that actuality; “but from the one who has not” in actuality, “even what he has”, namely, his potentiality, “will be taken away”.
Interesting too is how the key words in Mark 4:22 (“For there is nothing concealed which shall not be manifested; nor is anything secret which will not come to light”) have a prominent place in Simon’s Proclamation. So, again, in Mark we may be dealing with a cryptic summary of Simon’s doctrine about the concealed and the manifested:
The Fire has a twofold nature; and of this twofold nature he (Simon) calls the one side the concealed and the other the manifested… And generally we may say, of all things that are, both sensible and intelligible, which he designates manifested and concealed, the Fire, which is above the heavens, is the treasure house, as it were a great Tree… and he considers the manifested side of the Fire to be the trunk, branches, leaves, and the bark surrounding it on the outside. All these parts of the great Tree, he says, are set on fire from the all-devouring flame of the Fire and destroyed. But the fruit of the Tree, if its imaging has been perfected and it takes the shape of itself, is placed in the storehouse, and not cast into the fire. For the fruit, he says, is produced to be placed in the storehouse, but the husk to be committed to the fire; that is to say, the trunk, which is generated not for its own sake but for that of the fruit. (RAH 6, 9)
Plugging this into Mark 4:22 would give us:
“For there is nothing concealed” (namely, the fruit, which in Simon’s system is the perfecting of our spirit as an extension of the Boundless Power) “which will not be manifested” once the visible, sensible world (including our bodies) is destroyed by fire. The concealed side of the Fire will come to light once the material world is destroyed.
And the way the Proclamation describes the “trunk, branches, leaves, and bark” as being generated only for the sake of Fire/fruit alone which will then be put in the storehouse once it has reached perfection has an affinity with the description of the grain in the parable of the seed growing secretly (Mk. 4:26-29): “first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”
Intriguing too is the conclusion that Simon draws from the Scriptural verse, “A man of Judah is a well-beloved shoot” (Is. 5:7):
And if a man of Judah is a well-beloved shoot, it is shown, he (Simon) says, that a tree is nothing else than a man. (RAH 6, 10)
With that in mind, recall that in the Markan episode of the blind man of Bethsaida, Jesus heals the man in two stages. After his first application of spittle to the man’s eyes Jesus asks him, “Do you see anything?” The man replies:
I see men like trees walking. (Mk. 8:24)
Now, again, both Matthew and Luke have omitted this episode. It is usually claimed that they were probably embarrassed both by its magical aspect (use of spittle) and by the fact that the Markan Jesus apparently needed two tries to effect the cure. It is likely true that Jesus as a magus (magician) disturbed them, but I’m not sure they saw the use of two stages as a sign of weakness. Instead, they may have recognized the presence of Simonian doctrine in the episode. Jesus’ first application need not be viewed as a failure. From a Simonian perspective, seeing men as trees is evidence of the deeper insight that Simon revealed. That the healer goes on to give the man the same kind of sight everyone else has does not necessarily indicate an advance or progress..
There is one item in Mark’s treatment of the parables that does not correspond to anything in the Great Proclamation:
Is a lamp brought to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand? (Mk. 4:21)
Other early sources, however, do establish a connection—a derogatory one—between some Simonians and lamps. They were accused of engaging in promiscuous activity at their gatherings after extinguishing or covering the lamp. As early as Justin Martyr’s writings we find indications of the rumor. In a chapter of his First Apologia devoted to Simon, Menander (Simon’s successor), and Marcion, he writes:
And whether they perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds—the upsetting of the lamp and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh—we know not… (ch. 26)
So, to my mind, it makes best sense to see Mk. 4:21 as one of the inserts made by the proto-orthodox when they converted Simonian urMark into canonical Mark. It is a cryptic proto-orthodox jab at the Simonians and their doctrine of the concealed and the manifest. It says, in effect, “We are not fooled. We know who you are. How fitting that you speak of the concealed and the manifest when, as everyone knows, you cover the lamp at your gatherings in order to conceal your immorality!”
To people who held such beliefs the system of Simon was blasphemous
I should clarify what I mean by “the proto-orthodox”. I conceive them to be adherents of the kind of religion practiced by the 2nd century apologists. Earl Doherty, in his Jesus: Neither God, Nor Man, describes it well as “a religion of Platonic and Hellenistic Judaism” (p. 476). And
There is no question that it had roots in Judaism. It preached the monotheistic worship of the Jewish God, a God presented as much superior to those of the pagans. For information about this God it looked to the Hebrew Scriptures. It placed great value on a mode of life founded on Jewish ethics—again, something presented as superior to the ethical philosophy of the pagans. At the same time, it derived from Platonism the concept of a Son of God, a ‘second God’ or Logos (Word), a divine force active in the world and serving as the intermediary between God and humanity. In the 2nd century even more so than in the first, this idea of the Logos was floating in the air of most Greek philosophies as well as Hellenistic Judaism. For the apologists, this Logos was the emanation of the Jewish God, his “Son”.
Thus the religion of the apologists has been styled “Platonic-biblical” or “religious Platonism with a Judaistic cast,” although it was in the process of wresting away from those Jews the ancient promises of their God and even their own scriptures. It would seem to have grown out of mixed pagan and Jewish Diaspora circles which had immersed themselves in Greek philosophy.
To people who held such beliefs the system of Simon was blasphemous. It blurred the distinction between God and the human spirit by its claim that man’s spirit is potentially part of God. And its disparagement of the visible, material world was viewed as an insult to the maker of that world. I believe some of the proto-orthodox, in the 130s, decided it was time to do something about the blasphemy. They took on the project of remaking Simonian Christianity in their own image.
Canonical Mark was the response of one of their number. The Jesus of UrMark already resembled, by design, a Jewish messiah figure. And much of the clever ambiguity in his portrait was able to be left “as is”. But where necessary, the proto-orthodox made modifications to steal him away from the Simonians and make him one of their own..
Was Simon the imitator?
Even if one concedes a connection of some kind between the Markan parables and Simon’s system, it could be objected that Simon was the one who did the borrowing. The proto-orthodox acknowledged that Simon was already teaching a system of his own at the dawn of Christianity. And they acknowledged that he at some point became a Christian, albeit a phony one. But they claimed that Simon was the imitator, that he was the one who leeched off them, not vice versa.
That proto-orthodox claim seems very unlikely to me. The Great Proclamation was apparently an exposition of Simon’s system as it existed before he embraced belief in a crucified Son of God, for it contains no Christian content. The proto-orthodox claim cannot plausibly explain that fact. It is implausible to think that the Proclamation was subsequently de-Christianized. Justin admits that Simonians claimed to be Christians. So why would they have removed Christian content from the Proclamation?
I think that it is much more likely that Simon, after he became a Christian, did not abandon his doctrine, but instead meshed it—in private—with his new belief in “the Son who suffered in Judaea, although he did not really suffer, but only appeared to do so.” That would seem to be a normal progression. And I would take it one step further: his doctrine of the Boundless Power that is present and perfected in the spirits of believers developed—over the course of about twenty years as a Christian—into the one we see him propound in his later writings, the so-called Pauline letters. “Paul’s” doctrine of the body of Christ and its fullness (Pleroma) is a later, more mature development of the Boundless Power doctrine he taught in his Great Proclamation..
If the above scenario is correct, urMark was not, as is often supposed, a serious, straightforward exposition of the beliefs of an early Christian community. The Simonians did have internal writings of their own that were serious and straightforward. But urMark was not one of them. The mystification of the Sandmels of the world may have been the fun that the author had in mind when he sat down to write. He and his circle derived great amusement, I suspect, from the thought that so many people would “look and see but not perceive, hear and listen but not understand” their Gospel. I fear it was nothing more serious than amusement that was the motivation behind urMark. Basically: Disguise Simon as a Jewish messiah figure, make that figure ask, “Who do men say that I am?”, then sit back and enjoy the spectacle of outsiders being fooled by the disguise.
How many would figure it out? The expectation perhaps was “not one in a thousand, nor two in ten thousand” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1, 24, 6) . But, not surprisingly, the proto-orthodox did, in fact, find the key. Secrets are hard to keep secret. Sooner or later secret groups and organizations have disgruntled members who leave and spill the beans. I expect it was no different with the Simonans. One way or another, the proto-orthodox ultimately perceived and understood.
As already proposed, some of the proto-orthodox responded in kind to urMark. Canonical Mark, urLuke (and later canonical Luke), Matthew, and the document that underlies the Pseudo-Clementines are, as I see it, responses by proto-orthodox Christians to urMark. These take the Markan Jesus and make him unmistakably proto-orthodox.
And to add insult to injury, someone among them managed to get his hands on a collection of Simonian letters. These they touched-up and converted into letters of a proto-orthodox apostle they named Paul.
Simon had gone from being Megas (great) to being Paul (small)!
* Some related posts and comments:
- Comment at Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism . . . .
- See also comments beneath the post at Concluding My Response to Dr McGrath’s Review. . . .
- My comments at the Vridar post, Marcion’s Date
- And comment 3 to the Vridar post entitled “Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Part 27”
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