Daily Archives: 2018-07-27 00:06:20 UTC

The First Gospel: History or Apocalyptic Drama?

We know about the demons disturbing the peace in the Gospel of Mark, how they scream out when they see Jesus entering a synagogue or crossing a lake. But what if those fiends are but the tip of the iceberg and that in fact the gospel tells of a conflict between innumerable demonic beings behind the scenes on the one hand and Jesus on earth on the other. Such a possible interpretation of the Gospel of Mark came to me while following footnote byways in my study into Paul’s reference to the “rulers of this age” crucifying the “Lord of Glory” (see box insert at end of this post).

from Apocalipsis cu[m] figuris, Nuremburg: 1498, by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
If so, then the Gospel of Mark perhaps deserves to be shelved alongside stories like the Book of Daniel or even the Book of Revelation rather than beside genuine histories as some students of the Bible believe it should be.

Jesus the Conspiracy Theorist

The first swallow to arrive with this news about Mark left me sceptical about the onset of summer. Here is the message it brought:

Mark 10:42

But Jesus calling them, saith to them: You know that they who seem to rule over the Gentiles, lord it over them: and their princes have power over them. (Douay-Rheims)

An equally adequate translation would be, “those who are thought to rule over the nations”. See δοκέω (dokeó) for other uses of the word.

Matthew and Luke did not like the way Mark put it so they changed his wording to “those who rule”. Surely Mark could have said the same if that’s what he meant.

Is there anything else in the Gospel of Mark that might shed light on what Mark (I’ll speak of him as the author of the gospel) was thinking when he wrote that? Here we might pause to recollect that Mark makes considerable use of the Book of Daniel and in that book we read about earthly potentates being somewhat like the shadows following the warring angelic powers in heaven. Daniel 10:20, for instance, explains that the earthly fates of Persia and Greece follow the contest between Gabriel and the angelic powers set over those peoples.

So does Mark 10:42 alert us to a picture of angelic powers above being the real powers over earthly emperors and kings?

Next point.

The Devil You Don’t See

We know that Mark had Jesus speak in parables and that even his entire gospel may have been a parable if we concur with scholars such as Mary Ann Tolbert. In Mark 4 Jesus is found speaking in parables so that only his select few could truly understand what he was saying and to hide his meaning from the outsiders. Given that function of the parables, note the first three parables in the gospel. They are all about Satan and his demons acting upon people on this earth.

In Mark 4:13 Satan is the one who seals the fate of the unbelievers. It is not their own doing.

In Mark 3:27 Jesus teaches through parable that he must first overpower Satan in order to save humans now in his clutches.

And immediately prior to that parable he spoke another one about the ruling kingdom of Satan over this world.

Let’s go back further.

Through the Wormhole

When Jesus emerges from baptism he sees heavens being torn open and he hears a voice coming from there. We are to imagine no one else around him sees or hears any of this. Jesus alone is able to see and hear this “parallel world” right alongside ours. This experience is followed by a spirit “casting him out” into the wilderness. Jesus is not in control but he is being compelled by a spirit to go and face Satan. After he overcomes the temptations there angels come and care for him.

Then the demons in those possessed recognize him and know he has come to torment them and remove them from their power over humanity.

And then we had Jesus for a moment directly communicating with that other world, becoming half earthling and half divinity at the transfiguration. On the mountain top it appears for a moment he was actually both in that world and this one, in a doorway between the two, so to speak.

Jesus was “tested” in the wilderness and he continued to be “tested” throughout his time leading up to the crucifixion. The same word is used for scribes and others, even his followers, testing him with their hopes to trap him or their lack of faith in him. It is how the Greek language Book of Job described what Satan did to Job. By now we know where these tests are ultimately coming from.

Perhaps Mark 10:42 is starting to look more like an allusion to the demonic rulers behind the scenes after all.

But we need to study the climax of the gospel and not just its beginning.

Apocalypse Now

For Mark the crucifixion of Jesus was an apocalpytic event. That means it was a turning point in history. Apocalypticism conveys the idea that here and now only a handful of chosen ones have had the real picture of what’s happening revealed to them. The rest of the world lies in the darkness of ignorance. The elect few are the recipients of divine revelation. That revelation reveals the workings of heavenly powers and their plans for the nations. Recall the Books of Daniel and Revelation where the chosen ones are shown the mysteries of divine and other angelic beings and what they are doing now and what they are about to do that will mean catastrophe for many and salvation for a few.

As an apocalyptic event the crucifixion of Jesus wreaked the destruction of the demonic powers — at least the beginnings of that destruction. Their powers would be totally annulled at the coming of Jesus Christ in glory, as per Mark 13. But the process has begun now. The demons are being beaten back by the faithful through the protection of the heavenly Jesus. The coming of Jesus in glory is only a short time away.

Apocalyptic events come with apocalyptic signs. It happens unexpectedly when the faithful have fallen asleep. Sinners flee and hide. The sky turns dark at noon. Each hour is announced as the next event is announced that brings us closer to the climax. There is silence before a great shout. Even the veil hiding the Holy of Holies in the Temple will be torn by angelic powers from top to bottom, signalling that at that moment all who believe have access directly to God the Father. Gentiles see and glorify God.

That is how Mark described the crucifixion of Jesus. He even hinted at it in similar terms in his “little Apocalypse” of Mark 13. The apocalyptic language and imagery of Mark’s crucifixion scene is not full blown with the sky falling in and the moon turning red it is certainly “foot in the door” apocalyptic. One may think the author represents the death of Jesus as but the beginning of the wholesale apocalypse.

Real History with a Few Embellishments or Apocalyptic Drama to the Core?

Mark’s story can surely be read as an apocalyptic drama. The Son of God comes from heaven to take on the world of Satan and his demons and to free humanity from their powers.

One regularly hears how the Gospel of Mark is, unlike the Gospel of John, very “prosaic”, very “history-like” or “biographical” in its presentation of Jesus. We have addressed reasons to dispute this interpretation in the past and we do so again with this present post.

–o0o–


Garrett, Susan R. 1998. Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans.

Marcus, Joel. 1984. “Mark 4:10-12 and Marcan Epistemology.” Journal of Biblical Literature 103 (4): 557–74.

Robinson, James M. 1977. The Problem of History in Mark. London: SCM Press.