The First Gospel: History or Apocalyptic Drama?

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by Neil Godfrey

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.


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.

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37 thoughts on “The First Gospel: History or Apocalyptic Drama?”

  1. If you believe Josephus and The Wars of the Jews, which I do, you’d have to say Mark’s author is connecting Jesus to history (destruction of the Temple in 70 AD), via the Olivet Discourse, to apocalypse of Israel. Also reflects the chaos of the rulers. Nero dies in 68AD, Galba rules for only 7 months, Otho rules only 3 months, Vitellius rules only 8 months, then Vespasian takes over in 69AD, and his son Titus destroys Jerusalem. Rulers of the Age are messed up, but effective in their destruction…as maybe predicted in the Olivet Discourse. Maybe not, but the Mark story revives the Jesus story at the expense of Judaism. Daniel just reflects a similar scenario with Antiochus Epiphanes.

      1. The use of Daniel’s ‘Abomination of Desolation’ more closely fits the circumstances of the Bar Kochva War however, and I would date G.Mark about there.

    1. There is no question that Mark connects Jesus to history. Any apocalyptic drama by definition does that. How “historical” such a drama itself is, is quite another question.

  2. As Mark elaborates and smooths off the rough edges of Matthew, it is clearly NOT the first gospel. The direction is always towards improvement. Mark improves Matthew. Therefore it is NOT the first gospel. What has been omitted in Mark is either difficult to explain or reconcile – eg the genealogies, or unnecessary for salvation. It was written as a response to pagan criticism with the aim of being more believable than Matthew or Luke.

  3. What were the angels doing:

    Mark 1:13
    οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν (diikónoun) αὐτῷ
    the angels ministered attended to him

    And not doing:

    MacDonald (2000). The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. p. 162. ISBN 978-0-300-08012-4.

    ]Per Mark] None of the Twelve came to the tomb; in fact, Jesus himself was not there: he had gone to Galilee. In his place, one finds a mysterious young man inside the tomb. Although the other evangelists understood this youth as an angel (multiplied into two angels in Luke and John), he is a young man to Mark. lf the evangelist meant the youth at the tomb to be an angel, he certainly could have said so; he uses the word ἄγγελος five times in the Gospel to denote a heavenly being, and nowhere else does he call an angel a young man.

    1. Per Susan Garrett (in above bibliography) Mark’s account of the wilderness temptation is likely drawn from Psalm 91, the same source that Matthew and Luke used to add more detail to that episode.

      Psalm 91:9-14

      Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adders, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me I will deliver, I will protect those who know my name.

  4. A new Docetism! I think this genuinely progresses the debate, I’m really enjoying your work, and the incites you are bringing, at the moment. We have to be constructive and build a new paradigm for Xtian origins; not just tear the Temple down again so-to-speak – and this article and series are contributing more than a few bricks.

  5. It is not only demons who “use” earthly rulers to crucify Christ. It is also the divine Christ who “uses” a mere man named Jesus to defeat demons. So Mark is really a drama where all the actors are only pawns of a wider drama that is happening really in the lower heavens.

  6. Concerning “Rulers of the Age”, I’d like to compare again Josephus “The Wars of the Jews”, with Paul, Mark, and apocalypse. “The Wars of the Jews”, written about 75AD, ( “many of whom did not so much as know that the king was in danger, but supposed him still among them”, referring to Titus, the General in charge of reluctantly destroying the Temple. He was a General (son of Vespasian, who was Caesar), not King. When I say reluctantly, a theme of Josephus is that the Romans were forced into the destruction of the Temple by rebellious Jews who didn’t want to surrender. Similar to Pilate, according to the Gospels, forced into crucifying Jesus by rebellious Jews. Josephus, a Jew (certainly not a Christian, which was added later by redactors), and Paul, a Jew, seem to throw around “Rulers of the Age”, and “King” in similar fashion. Combine that with ( “There was a certain woman that dwelt beyond Jordan, her name was Mary; … who had fled away to Jerusalem with the rest of the multitude, and was with them besieged therein at this time….and it was now become impossible for her anyway to find any more food, while the famine pierced through her very bowels and marrow… She then attempted a most unnatural thing; and snatching up her son, who was a child sucking at her breast, she said “O, thou miserable infant! For whom shall I preserve thee in this war, this famine, and this sedition? As to the war with the Romans… yet are these seditious rogues [the rebellious Jews occupying the Temple] more terrible than both the other. Come on; be thou my food, and be thou a fury to these seditious varlets and a byword to the world, which is all that is now wanting to complete the calamities of us Jews.” As soon as she had said this she slew her son; and then roasted him, and ate the one half of him.”

    Tough times. Compare to Mark 13:17 “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days!”

    Almost makes me think the author of Mark may have read Josephus before writing the Gospel of Mark. Or at least heard the oral stories of the scenario floating around. Also makes me think that if Jerusalem and the Temple were not destroyed 30-40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, Jesus would have been forgotten about. Same for Paul. Paul’s “Rulers of the Age” would have also been history, not religious demons.

    1. Josephos’ story seems to be modelled on 2 Kings 6.26-29 and the siege of Samaria. The same skeptical lens as was applied to Thucydides in an earlier post by Neil shouls be applied to Josephos. He is not a neutral observer. Though I personally think G.Mark is 30-40 years later than Josephos, the resemblances could be because both authors are deriving their material from the same sources; even though a case can be made that G.Mark’s passion narrative is partly an inversion and transvaluation of the Josephan narrative.

      1. You mean you don’t think Josephus was a Jewish General captured by the Romans, then told the story of him aiding both Vespasian and Titus? And that the Romans didn’t surround the Temple, and the Jewish rebels didn’t burn the wheat storehouse in the Temple, and the Jews stuck there didn’t suffer starvation? I admit Josephus inflates his story to his benefit. But his writings on the Jewish War is as close to real history as you can get. I suppose Masada was based on something in the OT? I think not.

          1. Read the Thucydides post I mentioned. ‘Jewish Antiquities’ commonly refereed to as “Rewritten Bible”; “Jewish War” is amongst other things apologetics and self-serving excuses from a traitor. Like I said Josephos was not a neutral observer and not a reliable witness: he had an agenda and should be treated skeptically. Besides such, ancient historiography was pursued very differently than modern historiography; it was much more about teaching lessons and making moral and philosophical points. There are many posts on this blog about history and historiography, historians and historiographers, I suggest you read them. Treating an author skeptically does not mean rejecting them outright without examination. Don’t strawman me with things I neither said, claim, or believe.

            1. As I said, Josephus had a vested interest in making Romans sound good. Antiquities was written around 93AD, much later than Wars. Maybe I read you wrong, since it appeared you questioned the thread of history in Josephus. But that’s your opinion, and mine is my opinion. Unless this is an autocratic sight, I think I will continue to express my opinions as I see fit. With all due respect to you.

  7. Fredriksen, Paula (2017) [now bolded]. Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-300-22588-4:

    [Philippians 2] implies or even presupposes a four-stage cycle: [1.] descent (in “human form”); [2.] ascent/exaltation (following Jesus’s own resurrection); [3.] descent again (presumably at the Parousia, to subject those above the earth and on the earth and below the earth); [4.] absolute acknowledgment (all bowing at the name of Jesus, acknowledging him as Christos, to the glory of God the Father).

    • Per Mark, Jesus is the demon foe—Christos, right out of the gate.

    1. Do you agree with Paula Fredriksen’s interpretation of that passage in Philippians 2?

      6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
      did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
      7 rather, he made himself nothing
      by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
      being made in human likeness.
      8 And being found in appearance as a man,
      he humbled himself
      by becoming obedient to death—
      even death on a cross!

      9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
      and gave him the name that is above every name,
      10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
      in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
      11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
      to the glory of God the Father.

      Paula is reading into the passage orthodox Christian doctrine. (Yes, I understand that Paula Fredriksen is a Jew or has converted to Judaism but she is working within a Christian-centred study.) Even in that last part of the passage all we see and have reason to imagine is that with Christ now in heaven there will come a time when everyone will bow to him. Not the slightest suggestion in that particular passage of a need for him to descend to earth for that.

      1. Paula Fredriksen is reading her understanding of the the background story into the passage. Her interpretation of the the background story is likely not based on sound historical methodology.

        Given that it is a lesson on humility, where the target audience presumably knows the background story, we get to know:
        1. some cosmology.
        2. Jesus is deity, but initially not the most exalted (ditto with his name/title).
        3. Jesus is an obedient deity who is willing to humble himself by taking human form and being killed/hung-up.
        4. Jesus is rewarded

      2. Plainly read, this deity appears to have acquired his name, Jesus, AFTER his exaltation; Christ, of course, is not a name. I don’t see any reason to take most of these ‘consensus’ scholars seriously; they seem reading challenged to say the least.

          1. Couchoud, Paul Louis (1939). The Creation of Christ. 1. p. 33, §. Elements of Christianity:

            Jahweh [the deity] means when he says of Oshea “My Name is upon him” that one of the names of God is Jahweh saves.

        1. The name acquired is the unspeakable tetragrammaton, substiturted by Adonai. He does not just acquire a new name, he becomes The Name. Only this explains the allusion to Isaiah 45.

          The same process appears in the NHL writings Hypostasis of the Archons. Ialdabaoth is punished for declaring himself the one and only god. His son Sabaoth submits to Sophia and is then exalted.


          1. Where does Paul write that? I’m going off what is on the page; I don’t go off what is written centuries later, be that canonical writings, pseudepigrapha, or sectarian writings. That is not to say I give such no weight, but I give much greater weight to Paul’s far earlier writings. He cannot have known what had not been written.

            It can be argued all the sectarians (Not just “orthodox” or “gnostic”) launched off of Paul but their myths are much evolved and elaborated, and are very divergent of one another. How do you preference one later myth above any other later myth as being what Paul or any other believed centuries earlier?

            1. I wouldn’t be too quick to fall into line behind many of the mainstream biblical scholars on this question without first taking the time to examine closely the validity of their own arguments and supporting evidence.

            2. There is absolutely no evidence for Paul or the existence of any of his so-called letters, easily deytectable as a thoroughly patch-worked fabrication, before the middle of second century.

          2. Oh, Klaus. Ever the dogmatist! 🙂 What evidence do we have that the tetragrammaton was the “name above all names” in the second temple era?

            1. The substitution of ha-shem, The Name, for the tetragrammaton appears already in Genesis 2:4 and is reinforced somewhere in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

              1. Can you point me to the evidence for those assertions? (I am not doubting you; but you will appreciate I want to know the evidence that I am sure you yourself also have in mind.)

                Further, if a particular name was not to be pronounced, then how does it follow that that same name was “the name above all other names” and before which all creation will bow in worship? We know there were other secret names, too, after all. And why do we rule out the possibility that a name otherwise commonly known is also possibly the name above all names when used in a particular context? Recall that the demons attacked some imposters when they used the very common name of Jesus but that they fled at the name of Jesus when it was used by “the right people” who worshiped same.

              2. A point I have been implying throughout but don’t always make explicit:

                How can anyone bow down “at (ἐν) a name” they don’t know or cannot hear or say?

              3. I meant Exodus 20:7, the prohibition against the use of the name of YHWH. It has god a parallel in Deuteronomy 5:11. But these alone are only week hints and serve as a base for the later common usage of The Name as a replacement for YHWH, so they don’t really answer anything.

                The problem of bowing to a name which cannot be heard or said, disappears once the Son is understood not as a mere bearer of the assigned name, but as the personification of the Name .

                This was done in early Christianity, for example by Irenæus in the seventeenth chapter of the fourth book against heresies. Irenæus comments on Malachi 1, where YHWH Sabaoth declares that the Jews have offered hypocritical sacrifices, while his (YHWH Sabaoth’s) name is worshipped by the nations from East to West. According to Irenæus, Malachi expresses that the Son is the name of teh father. The worship of the Christ is thus a way of bowing to the name of gos, regardless of what sequence of letters is used.

                5. Again, giving directions to His disciples to offer to God the first-fruits of His own, created things-not as if He stood in need of them, but that they might be themselves neither
                unfruitful nor ungrateful-He took that created thing, bread, and gave thanks, and said, “This is My body.” And the cup likewise, which is part of that creation to which we belong, He
                confessed to be His blood, and taught the new oblation of the new covenant; which the Church receiving from the apostles, offers to God throughout all the world, to Him who gives us as the
                means of subsistence the first-fruits of His own gifts in the New Testament, concerning which Malachi, among the twelve prophets, thus spoke beforehand: “I have no pleasure in you, saith the
                Lord Omnipotent, and I will not accept sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun, unto the going down [of the same], My name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place
                incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is My name among the Gentiles, saith the Lord Omnipotent; ” -indicating in the plainest manner, by these words, that the former
                people [the Jews] shall indeed cease to make offerings to God, but that in every place sacrifice shall be offered to Him, and that a pure one; and His name is glorified among the Gentiles.

                6. But what other name is there which is glorified among the Gentiles than that of our Lord, by whom the Father is glorified, and man also? And because it is [the name] of His own Son, who
                was made man by Him, He calls it His own. Just as a king, if he himself paints a likeness of his son, is right in calling this likeness his own, for both these reasons, because it is [the
                likeness] of his son, and because it is his own production; so also does the Father confess the name of Jesus Christ, which is throughout all the world glorified in the Church, to be His
                own, both because it is that of His Son, and because He who thus describes it gave Him for the salvation of men. Since, therefore, the name of the Son belongs to the Father, and since in the
                omnipotent God the Church makes offerings through Jesus Christ, He says well on both these grounds, “And in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice.” Now John, in the
                Apocalypse, declares that the “incense” is “the prayers of the saints.”

                (translation taken from Peter Kirby’s site)

                That Irenæus, like divers other Greek fathers of the church, identified the Son of God with the theophanies of the Pentateuch, follows from 10:1 of the same book, which references the pericope of John 5:39-46 .

        2. Per “Demiurge”. Wikipedia. §. Yaldabaoth:

          The making of the world is ascribed to a company of seven archons, whose names are given, but still more prominent is their chief, “Yaldabaoth” (also known as “Yaltabaoth” or “Ialdabaoth”).

          In the Apocryphon of John c. AD 120–180, the demiurge arrogantly declares that he has made the world by himself:

          Now the archon [“ruler”] who is weak has three names. The first name is Yaltabaoth, the second is Saklas [“fool”], and the third is Samael. And he is impious in his arrogance which is in him. For he said, ‘I am God and there is no other God beside me,’ for he is ignorant of his strength, the place from which he had come.

          He is Demiurge and maker of man, but as a ray of light from above enters the body of man and gives him a soul, Yaldabaoth is filled with envy; he tries to limit man’s knowledge by forbidding him the fruit of knowledge in paradise. At the consummation of all things, all light will return to the Pleroma. But Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge, with the material world, will be cast into the lower depths.

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