Why Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is so Sparsely Drawn: An Explanation

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by Neil Godfrey

You may or may not agree with the following summary of the way Jesus is depicted in the Gospel of Mark. I don’t think the account is very far off.

Lion of St Mark by Vittore Carpaccio

I also suggest that such a narrative of Jesus is closer to what one may expect if the figure of Jesus and his story had been sourced and fleshed out from a key texts in the Old Testament writings in particular. We saw in the previous post how the narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple and cursing the fig tree has been patchworked together from passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Zechariah.  To see illustrations of how other chapters ((11 to 16) in the Gospel of Mark have been woven out of at least 160 OT allusions and quotations, see 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16. I say “at least” because I know there are gaps in those lists and I list one more at the end of this post.

‘This then is the Marcan picture of Jesus. When we view it thus in isolation, it strikes us at once as being a very meagre story.

The chronological notices are so sparse and vague that one year might be taken as the duration of our Lord’s public ministry;

and even of that year large parts are unaccounted for.

The arrangement of the anecdotes in the Galilean section seems confused.

The story gives no explanation of the way in which Jesus’ name became known in Jerusalem; (there is no trace of an early ministry in Jerusalem such as the fourth Gospel records).

Jesus is presented as beginning as a teacher, but of his teaching in Galilee (and even later too) very little is recorded, and that little is mostly incidental.

It is a story about Jesus, but it does not give us much idea of what Jesus actually preached. If this were a biography, it would be a very defective one.’

And then, further on (pp. 52-53)

‘Thus the Marcan Jesus, is neither, as in Matthew, the giver of the new Law, nor as in Luke, the preacher of a Catholic fraternity.

The Marcan Jesus is an austere figure, mysterious, stormy, and impervious.

This portrait is drawn with the utmost economy of line and colour.

Practically all is subordinated to the emphasising of the Messianic intention. First He announces the Messianic Kingdom, then He admits the Messianic position, then He publicly assumes the Messianic role, goes up to Jerusalem to die, and dies for His Messianic claim.’

(John Bowman quoting Bishop A.W.F. Blunt’s 1935 commentary on the Gospel of Mark)

Another allusion was discerned by Karel Hanhart. See the first part of  Jesus’ Crucifixion As Symbol of Destruction of Temple and Judgment on the Jews for the evidence that Jesus’ tomb was itself based upon Isaiah’s description of the ruined temple.

In an earlier post I compared that picture of the “tomb hewn from a rock” with another earlier miracle narrative found in Mark, the one where a roof is “hewn out” to allow a paralytic man to be lowered and restored by Jesus. That we have more than one passage playing upon one original text (in this case Isaiah 22:16) is again, I suggest, another sign that the story has been pieced together from an imaginative re-working of scriptural passages.

Bowman, John. 1965. The Gospel of Mark: The New Christian Jewish Passover Haggadah. Brill. p.95

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Why Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is so Sparsely Drawn: An Explanation”

  1. “The chronological notices are so sparse and vague that one year might be taken as the duration of our Lord’s public ministry”
    By calling him “our Lord”, this writer basically abandons the pretense of being unbiased. I mean, I call Shakyamuni Buddha “the World-honoured One” except when I am trying to make a scholarly point and want to seem objective. But he cannot be bothered to do this.

    The sparsity of GMark’s portrayal of Jesus may be why multiple attestation is so important (in addition to the fact that biblical scholarship grew out of Christianity, whose canon has 4 gospels) – GMark’s Jesus is less a person than a force of nature, doing things for reasons that people cannot understand. The other gospels at least portray a Jesus with more human touches – even GJohn, whose Jesus cares for Mary even while dying.

  2. Yeah, I think this all just points to the thesis put forward by Doherty, Carrier, RMP, Dykstra, myself, etc.

    It’s amusing how biblical scholars have posed all these questions, but then we the answer that addresses them is presented, that Jesus never existed, they are appalled at the audacity of such a proposition.

  3. I haven’t been a fiction reader for many years, but I did grow up reading the bible. It appears to be just dawning on biblical scholars that the biblical authors were “inspired” by previous texts to get their ideas for characters and “plot devices”. The more we understand writers of the Hellenistic period, we see they ALSO used the same sort of “inspiration”.

    I contend this can be found with virtually ALL fiction (and much of non-fiction as well) all throughout history as it still is for modern fiction writers. Why is it so difficult for many biblical scholars to see this process of “literary allusion” in Scripture? I guess they will have to give up their belief in “historical biblical characters” first BEFORE they can see this process at work in the Bible.

    As Scripture itself says, “Inspiration (and faith) comes by hearing (or reading) the WORD” (i,e, Scripture).

  4. Moss, Candida (9 December 2018). “Are the Gospels Finished Works?”. The Daily Beast.

    Ancient Christian readers, [Matthew] Larsen shows, seemed to have seen Mark more as a collection of notes (like those described by Pliny) than a fully formed book.

    Cf. Larsen, Matthew D. C. (2018). Gospels Before the Book. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190848613.

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