In a recent comment, Giuseppe asked about Mark 8:27-30 (the Confession at Caesarea Philippi). At issue is a grammatical error in the text, mentioned in Robert M. Price‘s Holy Fable Volume 2, but first (apparently) noticed by Gerd Theissen in The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition. Both Theissen and Price argue that the error reveals a redactional seam in Mark’s gospel. Beyond that, Giuseppe suggests that the original text beneath or behind the existing text of Mark indicates that Peter confessed that Jesus was the Marcionite Christ, not the Jewish Messiah.
Lost in the weeds
I confess that I ruminated over the text in question for quite some time before I understood exactly what Theissen and Price were getting at. One can easily get lost in the weeds here, so I’ll try to break it down into small steps.
To begin with, we have two passages in Mark in which we find lists of possible identities for Jesus. The first happens when Herod Antipas hears about Jesus and thinks it must be John the Baptist raised from the dead.
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”
15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”
16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
(Mark 6:14-16, NRSV)
The second happens just before Peter’s confession.
27 And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am?
28 And they answered, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets.
29 And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ.
30 And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.
(Mark 8:27-30, KJV)
John the Who?
I chose the NRSV for the first passage, because it stays very close to the original Greek, even to the point of “John the baptizer” vs. “John the Baptist.” In 6:14, we find the word βαπτίζων (baptizōn), the present participle. Put simply, the literal text would be something like “John, the Baptizing One.” (Note: this word, used as an appositive after John’s name, is found only in Mark’s gospel. The author of the fourth gospel uses it, but only as a participle describing an activity.)
On the other hand, in 8:28, Mark used a different word: βαπτιστήν (baptistēn), a noun in the accusative case. The NRSV helpfully gives us a verbal cue that something is different here by translating it as “John the Baptist,” which differs from the translation in 6:14. Unfortunately, the NRSV used “who” instead of “whom” in 8:27, so I went with the KJV there instead.
For our purposes here we need to know that at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks a question with an accusative “whom?” — τίνα (tina) — and so the answers need to be in the accusative as well. The point upon which Theissen builds his case will depend our understanding this error. In a stilted, word-for-word translation, we have something like: “Whom do the men pronounce me to be?” The words “whom” and “me” are in the objective (accusative) case; and in proper Greek, the answers should follow suit.
The people haven’t figured out who Jesus is. They provide three wrong guesses. We see them listed in 8:28 —
- John the Baptist
ὅτι Ἰωάνην τὸν Βαπτιστήν
hoti Iōannēn ton Baptistēn
(All three words are in the accusative case. See the “n” endings.)
- and others, Elias (Elijah)
καὶ ἄλλοι Ἠλίαν
kai alloi Ēlian
(Elias is in the accusative.)
- others, moreover, one of the prophets
ἄλλοι δὲ ὅτι εἷς τῶν προφητῶν
alloi de hoti eis tōn prophētōn
(The word, “one,” is nominative followed by “the prophets,” in the genitive case.)
Our problem here is the three-letter word for “one.” It ought to be in the accusative, but it’s in the nominative case. To a native speaker, it should sound as strange as: “They gave him, her, and I a loaf of bread.” Ouch!
Matthew fixed it, while embellishing a bit. He changed eis to ena, while adding Jeremiah (gratuitously) and the conjunction “or.”
Theissen says the list in chapter 8 is an echo of the list in chapter 6. The biggest difference between the two lists, grammatically, is the case. The earlier passage is in the nominative, because Mark was using indirect speech. They say “that” he is Elijah.
Since we have the time and space here to do pretty much whatever we want here, let’s compare lists. Here’s what we find in 6:14-15 — “People said . . .”
- that John the Baptizing One has been raised from the dead, etc.
ὅτι Ἰωάνης ὁ βαπτίζων ἐγήγερται ἐκ νεκρῶν, κτλ
hoti Iōannēs ho baptizōn legousin ek nekrōn, ktl
(John is in the nominative.)
- that he is Elias (Elijah)
ὅτι Ἡλείας ἐστίν
hoti Ēlias estin
(Elias is in the nominative.)
- that he is a prophet such as one of the prophets (of old?)
ὅτι προφήτης ὡς εἷς τῶν προφητῶν
hoti prophētēs hōs eis tōn prophētōn
(Both prophet and one are in the nominative.)
According to Price:
In the earlier passage [i.e., 6:14-16], the three options are put in indirect discourse, as secondhand reports, and issue in accusatives. In the Caesarea Philippi version [i.e., 8:27-30], Mark purports to offer direct quotes from the disciples, introduced with the conjunction hoti (“that”) and issuing in nominatives—in the first and second options. But the third one is introduced the same way (and should be direct discourse) but has the accusative instead of the nominative. It looks like Mark just forgot to change the third option consistently. And you see what this means, right? The Caesarea Philippi scene is completely a Markan creation.
(Price, Robert M., 2017. Holy Fable Volume 2: The Gospels and Acts Undistorted by Faith (Kindle Locations 1043-1047). Mindvendor. Kindle Edition.)
As I said, I was a bit confused about the essence of Price’s argument. Recall that in the Caesarea Philippi version, which you can read above, we have three items: John the Baptist, Elias, and one of the prophets. The first two, contra Price, are in the accusative, and the last is in the nominative. These mistakes make Price’s argument thoroughly unintelligible.
Does it matter? Well, it mattered to me, because I was stuck, utterly confused — staring at the original Greek of both passages and wondering what the hell was going on. What was I missing? I took a long walk to clear my head, but that didn’t help. Only by turning to the original argument in Theissen’s book did I finally comprehend was going on.
Out of the fog
Theissen explains the mistake in Mark 8 this way:
The evangelist puts the first two clauses in the accusative and only leaves the previous nominative unchanged at the end, since the influence of the question is less strong here. This implies that Mark has turned direct speech into indirect.
(Gerd Theissen, 1983. The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition (Kindle Locations 2107). Kindle Edition)
Now we’re getting somewhere. The fog is lifting. He continues:
A second peculiarity [in the Caesarea Philippi passage] is the absence of ὅτι [hoti] in the last clause; it would be normal with a dependent statement, and can only be left out in direct speech. Originally the whole reply may have been in the nominative and been direct speech. The question in [Mark 8] 27b demands an answer with an accusative and infinitive of indirect speech.
(Gerd Theissen, 1983. The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition (Kindle Locations 2107-2109). Kindle Edition, emphasis mine.)
Let’s go back to chapter 6. The items are in the nominative and direct speech. In English, we would use quotation marks, like this: They said, “He is John the Baptizing One.”
Just to clarify, Price wrote:
- “In the earlier passage the three options are put in indirect discourse, as secondhand reports, and issue in accusatives.” No. That is exactly the opposite of what we find in the earlier passage. All three options in 6:14-15 are in direct speech and in the nominative.
- “In the Caesarea Philippi version, Mark purports to offer direct quotes from the disciples, introduced with the conjunction hoti (“that”) and issuing in nominatives—in the first and second options.” That is also exactly wrong. The first two in 8:28 appear in indirect speech and in the accusative case.
- “But the third one is introduced the same way (and should be direct discourse) but has the accusative instead of the nominative.” Also completely wrong. The third one is in the nominative case, but it should have been in the accusative case, which is the nub of Theissen’s argument.
Before going any further, I should point out that Theissen incorrectly faults Mark for dropping the hoti in the third item (the “last clause”) of 8:28. Instead, what we find is hoti missing from the second item, which means Mark was already making a linguistic mess of it by the second item. Later on, Theissen correctly identifies the missing hoti in item two, which reappears in item three, so I think it could be a typo. (It’s wrong in the original German, too, by the way.)
Theissen’s form-critical stance leads him to posit that the list in chapter 6 is from a “source,” either in the Oral Tradition or some unknown written source. And because Mark botched the list in chapter 8, he must have transposed the list clumsily, and “forgot” to convert the third item into the accusative case.
There is no doubt about the grammatical error in 8:28. Scribes fixed it in later manuscripts. Matthew changed it, too. For the argument to work, however, we need to prove that “editorial fatigue” is the best explanation.
The best explanation?
In the first place are we really dealing with the same list? Let’s consider.
Both lists begin with John the Baptist, right? Well, not exactly. The first has “John the One Baptizing,” the second, “John the Baptist.” We also have an unresolved issue: Who is saying this? Some manuscripts have “they are saying,” while others have “he is saying.” Some editions (e.g., the Textus Receptus, Tischendorf) settled on the plural. Other editions (e.g., Nestle-Aland, SBL) decided it should be singular.
It makes a difference, because either Herod was speaking, or the anonymous people said it. So in the KJV we read “he said,” but in the NIV we find “some were saying.”
Even if Mark originally intended the people as the speaker for the first item in chapter 6, we then find a pile of words following “John the One Baptizing.” In English (my translation): “. . . has been risen from the dead and because of this miraculous powers are operating within him.” The digression disrupts the list.
We find the biggest difference, however, in the third item. In chapter 6, the people say Jesus is a “prophet, like one of the prophets.” But in chapter 8, they’re saying he is one of the prophets, presumably raised from the dead. This is no slight difference. In the first, they’re describing what they think Jesus is. In the second, they’re musing about who Jesus is.
To be fair, Theissen’s argument does not rest solely on the grammatical error in position three of the second list. If that were true, we would be building sandcastles on a single word — eis.
A grammatical mess
He has other arguments. First, he notes (as we mentioned above) that hoti is missing from one of the elements in chapter 8. But even more striking, for Theissen, is trying to figure out who the “others” are in each item. He writes:
At the beginning it is the disciples, but then the problems start. If οἱ δὲ/καὶ ἄλλοι/ἄλλοι δὲ be are coordinate, the translation has to be: ‘and other (disciples said that some thought him) to be Elijah’. Then, however, the last clause no longer makes sense: ‘Other (disciples), however, said that he (was) one of the prophets.’ contradicts the obvious meaning, since in the following question Jesus turns to the disciples in a deliberate antithesis: ‘But you, who do you say that I am?’ By ἄλλοι δὲ Mark can only have meant anonymous persons, but if that is so οἱ δὲ and καὶ ἄλλοι must also refer to unnamed persons. Mark seems to have introduced a break into his list of popular opinions by making of be refer to the disciples, and this is further confirmation of the hypothesis that he has attributed what were originally utterances of the people to the disciples.
(Gerd Theissen, 1983. The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition (Kindle Locations 2111-2116). Kindle Edition.)
Assuming I can actually follow Theissen’s argument, I can’t fully accept it, because he tries to put us in the mind of Mark and lead us to the conclusion that the list in chapter 6 comes to us cleanly, from a “source,” while the second list in chapter 8 was reconstructed from the original. And in the process of editing, Mark botches the passage.
On the other hand, I would remind you that we are talking about Mark, the evangelist, whose overall work amply demonstrates that he was fully capable of creating linguistic mayhem in any situation.
Theissen ultimately wishes to prove that the synoptic tradition contained many miracle stories, all of which probably ended with what he calls “titular acclamations” by the people. Mark, in the process of writing the first narrative gospel, suppresses these acclamations, either by erasing them completely or by having them said by demons: “Look, it’s the Christ!” “Oh no — it’s the Son of God!”
The suppressed acclamations were converted into mistaken acclamations, which found their way into the list in chapter 6 and in the (very private) confession at Caesarea Philippi. Most astonishingly, Mark puts the only public titular acclamation uttered by a human being on the lips of the centurion at the crucifixion.
Jesus’ hidden majesty is publicly proclaimed by only one person, the centurion at the cross. The relationship between his confession and the immediately preceding miraculous events is unmistakable. . . . Has Mark perhaps avoided realising titular acclamations anywhere else in order to highlight this one confession? I regard it as very likely.
(Gerd Theissen, 1983. The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition (Kindle Locations 2125-2127). Kindle Edition.)
Mark’s main purpose, Theissen insists, for the secrecy motif (the struggle between public acclamation and the orders from Jesus to be quiet or to keep it all under wraps) is the sudden public realization of who Jesus really is at the moment of his death, uttered by a Roman. It took a Gentile, one of the very people responsible for killing him, to make the very first public confession.
What kind of Messiah?
Price also correctly identifies the Messianic Secret at work here in chapter 8. The people have no idea who Jesus really is, because he hasn’t told them. Peter guesses who it is and is told to shut up. Unfortunately, at this point Price goes off the rails and into the cornfield.
How many times have you heard it piously said that Jesus did think himself the Messiah but completely redefined it. Uh, you mean, in other words, he didn’t think he was the Messiah? Because that’s like saying, “Yes, I’m a Socialist, but of course I mean that in the sense that I believe in free markets and private ownership of the means of production. Are you with me, comrades?” Because if you define “Messiah” as a savior who surrenders to death on a Roman cross, rises again, and gets enthroned invisibly in heaven—you’re not talking about the Jewish Messiah anymore. Unless you’re the Cheshire Cat.
(Price, Robert M., 2017. Holy Fable Volume 2: The Gospels and Acts Undistorted by Faith (Kindle Locations 1059-1066). Mindvendor. Kindle Edition, emphasis mine.)
He would do well to go back and read Wrede carefully. At issue is not what Jesus thought but what Mark thought. That is, we might be able to guess what the historical Jesus thought about Messiahship, but what we have before us in the text is what the characters in Mark’s story thought it meant.
Scholars have spilled thousands of gallons of ink over the past century confidently explaining that this or that feature of Jesus’ earthly career had nothing to do with being the Messiah. And each time, the argument boiled down to this: The definition of the Jewish Messiah did not contain feature “X”; therefore, when Wrede said Jesus suppressed “X” it had nothing to do with his “Messiahship.”
I’ll repeat what I said in a previous post:
For Mark the titles Christ (Messiah), Son of the Blessed (a circumlocution for God), and Son of Man are all bound up in the identity of Jesus. It is a mistake to apply to Mark a modern notion about discrete aspects of Jesus. So when Wrede’s detractors say the Jesus was hiding his “Sonship” at one point and his “Great Healer” aspect at another, hoping to divide and conquer, they are once again ignoring Mark. They are so intent on proving the historical nature of the Messianic Secret that they take no consideration of Mark’s view of Messiahship.
Did Mark’s view of Messiahship coincide with the traditional Jewish view? Does a singular, definitive view of the Jewish Messiah even exist?
On rigid definitions and the perils of ignorance
An ironic clue reveals itself in Price’s curious lack of knowledge regarding socialism. Can socialists “believe in” free markets? Yes. Many do. See Market Socialism. Can socialists “believe in” private ownership? Well, of course they can. In worker cooperatives, for example, the owner is not the state, but the people who do the work. They are private owners who work collectively. The fundamental idea of “workers controlling the means of production” does not require public or private ownership. It never did. Nor does it require the eradication of all free markets. These are ancillary features. All it requires is that the workers decide what to make, when to work, how to divide earnings, etc.
The essential nature of socialism in its various incarnations does not depend on Price’s blinkered (and wrong) definition. Nor must the “original,” “true” definition of Messiah (whatever that is) correspond to what Mark and other early Christians thought it meant. Moreover, if early Christians — many of whom were Jews, after all — had different conceptions about messianism, why not the historical Jesus? I am not arguing the Jesus redefined it, but that he may very well have had notions about Messiahship that defied rigid categorization, which he shared with lots of other Jews at the time.
I’m not speaking for Wrede here. He believed the historical Jesus would have had the traditional view of Messiahship, and mostly argued over the question of whether Jesus thought he was the Messiah — his Selbstverständigung. Wrede concluded that he probably did not, but left the door open for further research and analysis.
On the other hand, Neil has been doing an admirable job here of cataloguing views on Messiahship, including the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah. Here are just a few:
- The Dying Messiah Before Christianity
- Jewish Expectations of a Slain Messiah — the Early Evidence
- Messiah to Be Killed in Pre-Christian Jewish Expectation — the Late Evidence
- Suffering Messiah Is a Very Jewish Idea
- How Early Did Some Jews Believe in a Slain Messiah son of Joseph?
- Suffering and Dying Messiahs: Typically Jewish Beliefs
- Continuing a case for an early Jewish belief in a slain messiah
And that’s just scratching the surface.
The Jewish Messiah or the Marcionite Christ?
The relevant, essential nature of Messiahship, I would argue, is an anointed one who leads, saves, or rescues his people. Beyond that, many details can differ, including what it means to lead, to save, or to rescue. Can he die and still save “his people”? Who are his people? Not only can the details differ, but they can evolve over time.
And so, ultimately, the question about whether the original Gospel of Mark (or the tradition behind the text) was really talking about the Marcionite Christ is a nonstarter, if only because we don’t know exactly what all Mark believed about the Messiah. We don’t know how much was in the tradition and how much he invented.
Apparently, Mark thought working miracles and driving out demons proved Jesus was the Messiah. He also thought suffering and death were part of the package. Was that new? — a kind of post-Easter add-on deal? Possibly. It’s what experts like Bart Ehrman will tell you. But don’t be so sure until you’ve investigated the matter further. (See Neil’s posts above)
The one constant in my studies of the New Testament is this: My previous certainty on almost every subject was unwarranted. We know far less than we think we do.
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