The Gospel of Mark as a Dramatic Performance

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by Neil Godfrey

If we are serious about the idea of expanding our horizons with interdisciplinary studies, even those of ancient theatre, there is much that is thought-provoking here.

From time to time I encounter the idea that the Gospel of Mark was in some way related to dramatic performance or Greek tragedy. Mary Ann Beavis brings much of this literature together in her commentary on Mark (I have hyperlinked the bibliographical references):

A generic influence on Mark that may seem much more far-fetched to the modern reader is the suggestion that the Gospel resembles a Greek tragedy. Nonetheless, as noted above, many contemporary scholars see Mark as modeled on ancient drama (e.g., Bilezikian 1977; Standaert 1978; Stock 1982, 16–30; Beavis 1989, 31–35; S. Smith 1995; Lescow 2005 [link is to PDF]). Many others describe the Gospel more generally as having a dramatic quality (e.g., Perrin and Duling 1982, 237–39; Hengel 1985, 137; France 2002, 11–15; Burridge 2004, 239–40; Collins 2007, 91–93; for further references, see Beavis 1989, 192n134). Since Greek tragedy was very much a part of Greco-Roman education in the first century, it is plausible that Mark and the educated members of his audience would have had some familiarity with dramatic works, even if they had never attended a play, although attending theater was not confined to the upper classes in antiquity. Moreover, in Mark’s time the “closet drama,” a play written for private presentation rather than for public performance, was popular, at least among the social elite: all of the plays of Seneca belong to this genre. As Stephen H. Smith (1995, 229) remarks, “Mark’s Gospel was written with just this kind of situation in mind—to be read expressively by a lector before a closed circle of Christians in the setting of a private house” (cf. Beavis 1989, 33–35). As I have noted elsewhere,

If the author were a Jewish-Christian from Palestine, as the tradition asserts, there is no reason to rule out the influence of the theatre; Herod the Great built theatres in Jerusalem, Caesarea Maritima, Sepphoris, Damascus, and Sidon. There are records of Roman Jewish actors, and hellenistic Jews, like their Gentile neighbours, were avid theatre-goers. It has been argued that Job, Judith, 4 Maccabees, and the Apocalypse were modelled on Greek tragedy; the Alexandrian Jewish dramatist Ezekiel wrote a play based on the Exodus story. (Beavis 1989, 35)

In fact, Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagōgē, a drama about the Exodus written sometime between the second century BC and the first century AD by an Egyptian Jew, is the most complete surviving example of a Hellenistic tragedy (R. Robinson 1985, 805). Unlike the Exagōgē, Mark is not a play, but a Scripturelike narrative; however, as Collins (2007, 91) puts it, Mark is “written in the tragic mode,” and the Gospel’s plotting and structure show dramatic influence (see the section on structure below).

From that section below on structure . . .

. . . . Like an ancient drama, Mark begins and ends with a welldefined prologue (1:1–13) and epilogue (16:1–8). The first half of the narrative corresponds to the desis (“complication”) of a Greek tragedy, “the part from the beginning up to the point which immediately preceded the occurrence of a change from bad to good fortune or from good fortune to bad” (Aristotle, Poet. 18.2, trans. Halliwell 1927). In Mark, this corresponds with the Galilean mission (1:14–8:26), where Jesus teaches, preaches, and performs healings, miracles, and exorcisms with great success. This section of the Gospel is punctuated by choral outbursts from the crowds and the disciples, such as “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” (1:27; 2:12b; 4:41; 7:37). Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27–29) is a classic recognition scene (anagnōrisis), the discovery of an identity previously concealed—Jesus is the messiah (see Aristotle, Poet. 11, 16). This incident marks a “change of fortune” (“reversal,” peripeteia); immediately after Peter’s confession, for the first time, Jesus prophesies the suffering, death, and resurrection of the son of man (8:31–33). According to Aristotle, a recognition scene “is most effective when it coincides with reversals, . . .

As I have noted elsewhere, whether the author intended it or not, the physical layout of the Gospel “resembles that of a five-act Hellenistic play, with the place of the four choruses taken by teaching scenes” (Beavis 1989, 163). . . .

Beavis, Mary Ann. 2011. Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp. 16-17, 25-26.

The above summary by Beavis was indirectly cited by Danila Oder in her book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. Danila knows how theatre works. She has both studied playwriting and worked as an actor. In her book on the Gospel of Mark as performance and text Danila examines in painstaking detail how the Gospel of Mark might have been performed in an ancient Roman theatre. I found the insights of someone who has worked in theatre and clearly has an in-depth knowledge of ancient theatre a fascinating exploration of possibilities behind our gospel text. An entirely new world opened up to me through this book.

Note: Danila does not say that our current text of the gospel was written as a drama. Hence the title of her book, The Two Gospels of Mark. There is enough in the way our canonical text has been associated with ancient drama (see the links above) to lead one to seriously consider the possibility that what we are reading today is a summary or prose encapsulation of a play. Danila discusses what scenes in our received text are stageable and which ones are not, and why the unstageable ones have been added to the original work. Readers are given a clear picture of what the stage setting would have looked like, the role of the chorus and even the audience. I was keen to try to capture in my mind’s eye how it all would have appeared in performance so happily a proposed text for dramatic performance is included in an appendix. It’s a new world, a seriously fresh approach to the Gospel.

Much of what Danila Oder discusses must necessarily be hypothetical but it is nonetheless tightly argued and does oblige one to consider possibilities that are currently outside the standard view. If we are serious about the idea of expanding our horizons with interdisciplinary studies, even those of ancient theatre, there is much that is thought-provoking here.

Oder, Danila. 2019. The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. Los Angeles: Domus Press.


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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “The Gospel of Mark as a Dramatic Performance”

  1. I like the way Neil that you look at the mysterious writings that we know as the Christian gospels from different angles. This helps us try to put the pieces of the puzzle together (a la Earl Doherty’s book). Beavis’ contribution for me is in the same realm as comparison with the Homeric epics (a la Dennis MacDonald’s book). And I concur that to some readers in the original setting, drama was a prominent aspect of life. An alliteration emerges in my mind, in describing the gospels which we encounter after over 1,500 years of monopolistic control by the papacy
    – puzzle
    – play
    – propaganda
    – politics
    – piety

  2. Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27–29) is a classic recognition scene (anagnōrisis), the discovery of an identity previously concealed—Jesus is the messiah (see Aristotle, Poet. 11, 16).

    I disagree about the fact that the episode is a real “recognition”, since a possible interpretation (I accept) is that Jesus rejects the title.

    I even think that the original episode was:

    Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
    Peter answered, “[the people say:] You are the Messiah.”
    30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

    …where it was clear that the people around Caesarea (i.e. the Christians of Rome, in the real History) believed the equation: Jesus == Christ.

    More clues supporting my view:


  3. The first rule of writing is to “know your audience.” If one tries to tell a story using methods far from mainstream, listeners will be turn off and the story will die. So, who was the audience for the gospel we call Mark? It seems “to be read expressively by a lector before a closed circle of Christians in the setting of a private house” was highly likely and no amount of oratory would hold an audience listening to a poorly shaped story. I find the suggestion that Greek drama helped shape this writing highly plausible. And I think we will get a deeper understanding of what these writings are if we spend more time trying to identify both author and audience.

    Thank you for this.

    1. Danila Oder does indeed suggest known person/s involved in the staging of the performance. She further suggests some otherwise curious details in the gospel (e.g. the unnamed woman whose fame was to endure) are explained through her hypothesis and thinking through how/when/by whom it would have been performed.

  4. I’ve never given this idea any credence. I haven’t read this take on it, but as Charles says above, how does this square with the evidence of Pauline and OT influences? I regard this the same as MacDonald’s work. It’s interesting, but doesn’t hold up against more robust data. Still, I’ll at least read through some reviews and previews of this to see if there are any elements of interest.

  5. This adds to the theories of what Mark is about and how it came to be. If this is the case, does the idea that Mark copied Paul and the Old Testament for his story hold true (my favorite)? It’s amazing how many different theories can be applied to the Gospel of Mark. It becomes mind boggling. And leads us back to the idea that all we know about Jesus is that we don’t much of anything. If anything. I do like the idea for the ending of Mark where you are just left hanging at 16:8. I would say that makes a terrific ending for a play.

    1. Unfortunately, Danila Oder does not suggest that the play originally ended quite as bluntly as 16:8 indicates with the last image that of women fleeing in terror.

  6. Thank you very much, Neil, for taking the time to read my book. And for taking it seriously and describing it accurately.

    To Giuseppe: I think this was a recognition scene–but Peter was under Satan’s spell at the time.

    To R.G.: My work addresses the staging of the play, and what that implies for Mark’s biography and life-situation. I don’t talk at all about his literary sources because they’re irrelevant to my purpose. I recognize that Mark had literary sources, and that he referenced them in his text. My approach, if you will, treats Mark’s work in three dimensions: how it was experienced in real life. Source criticism treats it in two dimensions: on the page. They’re not in conflict.

    To Charles: 16:8 is a terrific ending for a modern play if the audience already knows the story. If they don’t–and Mark’s audience didn’t–the rest of the actors onstage don’t know what happened. They couldn’t hear the angel’s remarks to the women. The play ends with a lot of actors, including Peter in the courtyard, waiting on the stage for something to happen. There’s no reason for them to leave the stage. There were no blackout curtains. This problem is why I proposed that the play ended with an ascension scene. That gave everyone a reason to leave the stage.

  7. This problem is why I proposed that the play ended with an ascension scene

    Interesting. I know some French Mythicists (Georges Ory and André Wautier) who have proposed that the original ending of Mark was an ascension scene, precisely the Transfiguration episode, propedeutic to the celestial Jerusalem.

    The original crucifixion was in outer space, according to this image.

    When the euhemerizing editor wanted to traspose the crucifixion on earth (= when the ascension to celestial Jerusalem was transformed in an ascension to earthly Jerusalem), he did so by adding the Passion story on proto-Mark, insisting en passant again and again that the Son of Man had to die on earth (just as Son OF MAN).

    And so Moses and Elijah were replaced by the two thieves. The Transfiguration was replaced by an earthly Crucifixion.

    1. The 3 times Jesus predicts in advance the death of the Son of Man serve to secure the reader that the death of Jesus has to happen on the earth just he will ascend to earthly Jerusalem.

      Against the previous version of the same Gospel (ending with the Transfiguration episode) where the assumption a priori was that Jesus was crucified in outer space even BEFORE he descended on earth.

      Hence the evidence that Jesus didn’t exist is just in the three Son-of-Man predictions, their insistence, by the voice of Jesus himself, that Jesus will die on earth when the previous readers of proto-Mark assumed that he was already crucified in outer space (that is the reason because there is no witness of resurrection in Mark: the earthly Jesus is already the Risen Jesus).

  8. I’m dubious that the original performance had an ascension scene. G.Mk has, what? three or more endings tagged onto it by others because they didn’t think it worked the way it was written – and that is just G.Mk. That G.Mk was an epitome of G.Mt is over a century obsolete; if the argument doesn’t work for the Greisbach Hypothesis, it isn’t going to work in similar circumstances either.

    I don’t gainsay that there isn’t possibly a performance preceding G.Mk. There is a fair chunk of us who think, from Paul’s technical vocabulary amongst other things, that we are dealing in the Gospels with something that grew out of a mystery cult. There is some sort of performance involved in the individual’s progression into the innercircles of such cults. Paul speaks of the “foolish Galatians” seeing something with their own eyes – which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense except if that was some sort of performance, I think.

    I’ve often thought of G.Mk as enacting the outer mysteries of such a cult. Mithraeums have what looks like a story-board of whatever the cult myth of Mithraism was found with them. And drama evolved out of, and was still very much associated with, cult. I don’t think you can press the argument too far, I don’t think any argument for Xtian origins stacks up too well against “I don’t know” for that matter, but I’m intrigued enough to want to know more.

  9. Very sorry to hear of this scholar’s passing. Her work is eminently interesting, and was hinted at a century ago by the famous Bible scholar, J.M. Robertson in his book, “Pagan Christs” (1911).

    Robertson wrote that the Passion narrative, especially, is laid out like a stage play so clearly that he took this play as the original root of the Gospel.

    In my reading, Robertson did not conclude that the Gospel was a fiction — only that the writers of the Gospel had many artistic options, and a stage-play was clearly one of them.

    Other scholars today recognize the Homeric and Hellenistic elements of the Gospels, without ignoring their Jewish roots. The Gospels quote and allude to the Old Testament *hundreds* of times.

    As Hegel hinted, the Gospel appears to be an equal mixture of Greek and Jewish literature. As such, and as a biographical narrative of a wandering exorcist, it remains unique in 1st century literature.

    I will seek a hardcopy of Ms. Oder’s book, and I will read it with intense interest.

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