Gospel of Mark: Genius or Forrest Gump?

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by Neil Godfrey

On aperi mentis is an interesting essay discussing several aspects of the canonical gospels:

Marcan Priority and a Textual and Theological Comparison of the Synoptic and Johannine Gospels

Of particular interest is the detailed list of details that have given the Gospel of Mark its reputation for literary crudity. Being the first gospel and also in many respects being enigmatic it is tempting to view the gospel as the work of a genius. It may have been, but if we want to establish that point then it is only fair that we include a satisfactory explanation for the sorts of grammatical infelicities that have given its author the nickname “stumpy fingers”.

It is also tempting to rationalize Mark’s crudities as deliberate and even a further sign of his genius, as many do. But that theory runs into problems the closer we look:

To add weight to our suspicions, real mistakes and oddities do show up in the text of Mark belying any claims that his unrefined Greek was deliberate.

    • In Mark 4:41 the singular form of “obey” (hypakoui) is used when the subject is plural.
    • In Mark 5:10 when the demons are speaking, Mark says that ” he begged” (parekalei) when it should have been “they begged” (parekalesan).
    • Mark often uses redundant words in his writing. In Mark 1:32 he says “when the evening came when the sun went down” (opsias de genomenês hote edy ho hêlios) but the equivalent story in Matthew 8:16 simply says “that evening” (opsias de genomenês) and in Luke says “when the sun went down” (dynontos de tou hêlio).
    • In Mark 15:34 where Jesus says “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”. Matthew corrects the spelling to “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”.

One detail I question in the essay by Ste Richardsson is that Jesus is presented as a very human figure in the Gospel of Mark:

Mark is a very vivid and dramatic piece of prose which portrays Jesus as a human with thoughts, dreams and strong emotions.

Rather, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark surely comes across as dark, mysterious, frightening even, certainly a being from, and still within, the world of the supernatural. He is not understood and makes no effort to help clarify anything — he thrives on being otherworldly, not understood. His anger seems uncalled for at times (the leper begging for healing, the fig-tree not bearing fruit out of season). Many follow him in ignorance, and other crowds send him away in great fear.

Another post of interest on the same blog:

Creation Stories of Atum, Ptah, Yahweh and Elohim

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10 thoughts on “Gospel of Mark: Genius or Forrest Gump?”

  1. Here is what I posted there. I was in a rush, so its a little crude:

    Some interesting comments. To start, I’m the author of a recent book that focuses on Mark, called Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed (http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/). I say that just to let you know the perspective I’m coming from.

    I’ll take a few things bit by bit here.

    “John is so different from the other 3 gospels in content, style and theology that Matthew, Mark and Luke are referred to collectively as the “Synoptic Gospels”.”

    John is not actually very different from Mark. Yes, compared to Matthew and Luke, which essentially copy of all of Mark word for word John is relatively different, but in all John is the same basic story of Mark, just rearranged a bit, with some added theology and an added “miraculous signs” narrative, which is clearly written in reaction to the “signs” passage in Mark.

    The following are major scenes that exist across all four of the Gospels and originated in the Gospel of Mark as literary allusions. But this doesn’t even really scratch the surface, as there are many other scenes shared between John and Mark but not the other two, plus there are similarities that don’t stems from literary references.

    – Jesus and John the Baptist
    – Jesus feeds five thousand
    – Who is Jesus?
    – The triumphal entry
    – The cleansing of the temple
    – Anointing of Jesus
    – Getting ready for the Passover
    – Jesus’s betrayal foretold
    – Jesus says Peter will deny him
    – Th e betrayal and arrest of Jesus
    – Jesus is taken before the high priest
    – Peter denies Jesus
    – Jesus is taken before Pilate
    – Crucifixion of Jesus
    – The women find the tomb empty

    So clearly, John is not really “so different”.

    “In order to explain the fact that Matthew and Luke share so much not found in Mark, the hypothesis also holds that Matthew and Luke also drew from an additional hypothetical document known as Q”

    Q is clearly nonsense. It’s a contrivance of biblical scholars trying to avoid the obvious conclusion that really everything stems from Mark alone. See my comments on Q here: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/on_q.html

    “In addition to his crude and repetitive vocabulary”

    This is, at least in part, due to the very rigid structure that Mark was using. Virtually all of Mark is written in a complex chiastic style, and on top of that virtually every scene is based on literary references to the Jewish scriptures, with many of the teachings having been copies from the letters of Paul. All of this limited the freedom the author had to write elegant prose, because he was structuring everything in very specific ways and tying all of this scenes into other texts. Also how many of these supposed grammatical errors are parts of literary references? I honestly don’t know. I suspect, however, that what you will find is that these grammatical errors are present when Mark is alluding to scriptures that use these same words.

    “Mark also starts so many of his sentences with “and”.”

    At least several of the cases you listed are joins between literary references.

    “Many others suggest that it was originally read out ad lib and written down by a scribe with all the imperfections and repetitions that that method involves.”

    This is impossible due to the complex structure of the text, both in terms of its chiastic style and its very precise use of literary references.

    “Still others have posited that it was intended to have been read orally, with an emphasis on the performer’s gestures and tone of voice to bring out special emphases. ”

    Not at all likely, because so much of the story of Mark is dependent on recognizing and understanding the literary references.

    “To add weight to our suspicions, real mistakes and oddities do show up in the text of Mark belying any claims that his unrefined Greek was deliberate.”

    Again, are these parts of literary references?

    “A non-academic, probably Aramaic speaking, fisherman would fit this description, perfectly.”

    Aramaic speaker possibly.That would explain the Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.

    The idea that Mark is non-academic is betrayed by the fact that Mark is the most symbolically complex of the
    Gospels, indeed one of the most symbolically complex stories ever written. Whoever wrote Mark had to have studied the Jewish scriptures in detail for many years. Mark is also, especially, our first witness to the collected Epistles of Paul, which he had also clearly studied. In addition, Mark was very familiar with many of the concepts that we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well. His use of Isaiah and the Psalms as inspiration draw very closely from commentaries among the Qumranic scrolls.

    “Mark has fewer references to Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecy and is just a relatively sparse account of Jesus’ life.”

    Actually, what happened is that Mark uses literary references to the Jewish scriptures throughout his story. Virtually every scene is based on a scripture. The other later writers recognized some of these references, and they concludes that these were instances of prophecy fulfillment. Thus, what they do is they more explicitly call out such cases and also build their own new “prophecies” by taking cues from Mark. I deal much of this in my book.

    I’ve got to go, so I can’t finish, but overall I like where you’re going with this and its certainly an interesting topic.

  2. Regarding the creation stories post on that blog, there’s a lot of parallels between Egyptian and Biblical creation accounts. Things like god creating through speech, making mankind in his image, the breath of life, creating everything for the benefit of mankind, etc.

    The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Richard H. Wilkinson

    The text alludes to the Heliopolitan creation account centered on the god Atum, but goes on to claim that the Memphite god Ptah preceded the sun god and that it was Ptah who created Atum and ultimately the other gods and all else ‘through his heart and through his tongue’. The expression alludes to the conscious planning
    of creation and it’s execution through rational thought and speech, and this story of creation ex nihilo as attributed to Ptah by the priests of Memphis is the earliest known example of the so-called ‘logos’ doctrine in whuch the world is formed through a god’s creative speech…It lies before, and in line with, the philosophical concepts
    found in the Hebrew Bible where ‘God said, let there be light, and there was light'(Genesis 1:3), and the Christian scriptures which state that ‘In the beginning was the word[logos]…and the word was God…all things were made by him…'(John 1:1,3).

    Ancient Egyptian “Monotheism”: A Comparative Analysis, Stephen O. Smoot

    “Well-cared for are humans, the livestock of God. He made heaven and earth for
    their hearts, he drove off the greediness of the water, he created the air of the heart
    so that their nostrils might live. They are his images who came forth from his
    body. He shines in the heaven for their hearts, he made for them plants and
    animals, fowl and fish, in order to nourish them. He slays his enemies, having
    punished his children because they intended to carry out rebellion. He creates
    daylight for their hearts and sails for them [in the heaven] to see. He erected a
    shrine behind them, and when they weep he is listening. He created rulers for
    them in the egg, and commanders to command at the back of the vulnerable. He
    made magic for them as a weapon to repel fate, watching over them at night just
    as at day. He slew the cowardly in their midst, as a man strikes his son on account
    of his brother. God knows every name.”

    Commenting on these lines, Assmann notices that “this [text] is not only an extremely
    anthropocentric view of creation, it is also a monotheistic view of the divine. The text speaks of
    God; other gods are not mentioned.”21 Accordingly, Assmann renders ntr as the indefinite (and
    capitalized) “God” throughout his own translation of the passage (a convention I find appropriate
    in this context, and so have followed). In this instance the deity being addressed is the abstract
    (unnamed) solar god, made clear by the imagery of him creating daylight and sailing in the

    What’s especially striking is how “strongly reminiscent of [the] biblical” conception the
    sun god is in this passage. In language that closely parallels Genesis 1, the god of Merikare is
    said to create heaven and earth, flora and fauna, day (and implicitly night), and protect his human
    “livestock” who are “his images” (snnw.f). Unlike Aristotle’s “unmoved mover,” the god of
    Merikare, like the biblical God, is anthropopathic, listening with a parental care for his creations
    when they weep or are distressed. These details lead Assmann to persuasively conclude that “in
    the perspective of moral philosophy [of Egyptian wisdom texts such as Merikare], this is the only
    god that really counts, the one god on which everything else (including the other gods)
    depends.”22 As such, Assmann’s neologism “monotheism of perspective” is appropriate to
    qualify the more vague “henotheism” that one might otherwise be tempted to employ in this
    instance. This “monotheism of perspective” is not strict ontological monotheism that denies the
    existence of other gods but rather a monotheism of ideological recognition and preference

    1. It’s a frequent claim — found in commentaries on the Gospel of Mark — that the “low style” was intended to appeal to “the everyday person” rather than the literary elites.

      1. Why can’t it be both, in the spirit of Mark 4:11?

        At one level, you have the “low Greek style” appealing to the masses with lots of exciting miracle stories and whatnot, and on another hidden level there is the brilliant puzzle to be interpretively put together constructed of prophesy, haggadic midrash, mimesis, etc., like R.G. Price envisions.

        1. My point was nothing more than that the view expressed by Carrier is very widespread in some form or other. — But if we are sticking with points made in the post then such an explanation should find a way to also account for indications in Mark that the style was the consequence of an author not very fluent in Greek rather than entirely trying to consciously be “low class”.

  3. Well, my first reply still hasn’t shown up, so it appears he’s not monitoring his replies to approve them.

    Anyway, there is no question that Mark is complex in many ways. Unfortunately I don’t know any ancient languages, so its a bit hard for me to really comment on this issue, but I suspect that at least part of what makes Mark’s literary style appear crude is the rigid structure that he was using. The combination of chiastic style and scriptural references limited his linguistic choices. In addition, I do suspect that some of the time when it appears that he’s made odd word choices it is because the words he’s using actually come from the scriptures that he is alluding to or building on. Another possibility is that he was a native Aramaic writer, but I don’t really know how satisfactory that is. Maybe that’s a good explanation or maybe it isn’t.

  4. I’d like to read more about the hypothesis of “Judaism” being a post-exilic, localised version of Zoroastrian monotheism. It makes a lot of sense, but I’d like to see something peer-reviewed.

  5. The singular Mark 5:10 does not look like a grammatical mistake to me – Mark could very well mean one demon begged. The preceding phrase “my name is legion for we are many” is an allusion to the roman legions, and doesn’t mean we have to assume many demons said this and the following words. For example, “He said: I am a Texas Ranger and we [i.e. the Texas Rangers] always get our man. Then he begged, please let us [i.e. the Texas Rangers], handle this case”.

    Later 5:12 when Mark explicitly has ALL the demons ask a question Mark uses the plural.

  6. It’s looking more and more to me like the idea that Mark was a poor writer who used bad grammar is really just n another misconception. I’ve been researching this recently, and ironically a lot of the defenders of Mark’s grammatical prowess are devout Christians defending the reputation of supposed evangelist, but they make good points.

    Here is a paper that looks to be pretty good on the topic: https://www.academia.edu/31038055/Does_the_Gospel_of_Mark_use_Bad_Grammar_A_Response_to_Robert_H._Stein

    This seems to confirm my suspicions, which is that a lot of what has been called poor grammar actually has precedent and follows patterns that are found in the Septuagint.

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