Oh Gospel of Mark, how you have led us on!

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by Neil Godfrey

How often have we found opinions expressed about those two sons of the cross-bearing Simon of Cyrene, Alexander and Rufus, mentioned only in the Gospel of Mark? Usually we read that the author was giving a wink to his local readers who knew them personally. But these readers all turned and smiled at the pair in their midst when the passage was read because no other gospel mentions them. The reason, we are commonly assured, is that the later authors did not know who they were so dropped them from their crucifixion narratives.

It’s a nice story, but surely a little reflection exposes it as false as the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. Did the authors following Mark personally know all of the characters mentioned by Mark? Did that personal ignorance lead them to drop any mention of them from their versions of events? Does not our experience with obscure figures in ancient literature teach us that rather than remove scenes that seem too sparse later authors prefer to augment them, to invent details to make stick figures more rounded? Compare, for instance, how the unnamed centurion plunging a spear into Jesus’ side in John’s gospel was later given a name and whole anecdotes were filled out about him.

Meanwhile, what are we to make of Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon of Cyrene?

A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. — Mark 15:21

Are they added because of their symbolism? A Jewish name being the father of a Greek and a Roman name? It certainly looks like an enticing idea — all nations represented at the moment of the crucifixion. Or do they represent gnostic leaders? Or are they figures recalling the destruction of the Jews in wars, as proposed by Andreas Bedenbender? There have been many proposals and many discussions in print and online. I once pointed to them to remark on what I saw as literary bookend patterns in Mark.

But what if….. what if they were never part of the Gospel of Mark when it was composed but were later additions that had no relevance to the gospel at all?

Bruno Bauer introduced me to that possibility and I was compelled to consult the source that led him to his doubts. In a footnote in the final volume of his critique of the gospel narrative he wrote:

The further specification, “the father of Alexander and Rufus,” is an excess that is unfamiliar to Mark. It is an addition that a much later reader inserted. The two names are arbitrarily taken from the letters of the New Testament. (p. 291, translation)

How could he say such a thing about a question that has puzzled and exercised so many minds and generated so many theories? Bauer frequently critically cites Christian Gottlob Wilke so back to his 1838 work on the first gospel I turned.

Wilke believed “Bartimaeus” was not a name given to the blind man Jesus healed in the original author of the Gospel of Mark. The original text simply called him a “blind man”. If he had been known by a certain name he would not subsequently (10:49) have been simply referred to as “the blind man”. (If that is correct, we are following another rabbit hole if we use Bartimaeus to decipher Plato’s influence coded in the gospel.)

Then Wilke writes about the words in Mark 15:21, “the father of Alexander and Rufus”, saying that they . . .

. . . do not belong to the original text. Had Simon been thus more particularly designated, how would it have been previously stated that “a certain man of Cyrene” was compelled? (The readers who knew the man did not need the stipulation that he was of Cyrene, and for those who did not know him the latter was sufficient, nay, it is evident from it that it was the very thing which should have substituted for the name). (p. 673, translation)

He continues by noting a similar case for Levi being designated a “son of Alphaeus” in Mark 3. If he is correct there, that demolishes another set of theories such as those of Dale and Patricia Miller.

But Wilke does have a point. The way “father of Alexander and Rufus” is introduced is not the typical way one would introduce a new figure who is supposedly recognized by the readers.

Whatever the reality, one point that we are reminded of here: our earliest surviving texts are far removed from the originals. We cannot guarantee “every jot and tittle” has been preserved without some sort of corruption. We do know that copyists for innocent reasons and for more malign motives did sometimes edit what they copied.

We do not have sound foundations on which to base any discussion that relies upon a conviction that specific words and names were part of the original documents — unless we have early independent supporting evidence to give us such assurance.

Bauer, Bruno. Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker und des Johannes. Vol. 3. 3 vols. Hildesheim ; New York : Olms, 1974 [1842]. http://archive.org/details/kritikderevangel0003baue.

Wilke, Christian Gottlob. Der Urevangelist oder exegetisch kritische Untersuchung über das Verwandtschaftsverhältniss der drei ersten Evangelien. Dresden ; Leipzig : Gerhard Fleischer, 1838. http://archive.org/details/derurevangelisto0000wilk.


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12 thoughts on “Oh Gospel of Mark, how you have led us on!”

  1. As I showed in chapter 4 of my book “Unlocking the Puzzle” the beginning of Mark, Mark 1:2-38 matches chiastically (the end is the reverse of the beginning) with the end of Mark, Mark 14:32-16:8 with 20 stitches. “The father of Alexander and Rufus” is the M’ stitch matching “James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother.” It was original to Mark. When there are 20 matches it must be a deliberate construction.

    1. Plausible re “father of Alexander and Rufus.” I note that I believe that “James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother” (1:19) was also not in Mark’s original work. The audience at the performance of Mark’s play was informed that a relationship existed *in the course of a stage action*, when Jesus publicly names the two men “Boanerges” (Sons of Thunder) (3:17). The explanations in 1:19 and 3:17 were added (by Mark or an editor) for the benefit of *readers* after the performance.

    2. Sometimes more can mean less, though. I recall Michael Turton identifying chiasms throughout the entire gospel of Mark but the implication of that would be that our present text of Mark is just what was first composed — and there are serious problems with that idea. To identify so many one does sometimes suspect a too liberal imagination at work. When a reader comes to the Romans throwing dice at the crucifix does their mind really cast back to James and John casting nets for fish? What meaning can such a “match” have?

      Then we have the difficulty of uncertainty. If there are reasonable grounds for believing that certain sections of our gospel were not part of the original composition then are we not putting the cart before the horse when we conclude that a chiastic pattern “proves” that the passages were original as we read today?

      Don’t get me wrong. There are clear chiasms throughout Mark and across the entire work. But those that are clear come with more than verbal allusions — they also come with thematic and topically meaningful connections.

      If chiasms were a memory aid and an aesthetic plan — inspired, as we think, by the architectural similarities of buildings, for example — then would not they necessarily be noticeable to the general audience? The wrapping of the Gospel of Mark with men in distinctive, though opposite, clothing is such an example.

      Wilke even thinks that the placing of James and John, sons of Zebedee, has been altered to a different place from where it was originally composed — so if one follows Wilke, one would think that both Alexander and Rufus and the place of the reference to James and John were not part of original work.

      1. Yes. I was first introduced to the chiastic structures of Mark in Michael Turton’s book. I have refined his work a bit in “Unlocking the puzzle”.

        I’m not sure what Mark’s literary purpose was for making a “match” between James and John casting nets and soldiers casting dice, but with 20 matches in exact reverse order, it must be deliberate to my way of thinking. Interestingly, the prologue of Mark (1:1-14) is also parallel with the epilogue, Mark:15:39-16:8, both beginning with “son of God.” There are 15 parallel matches in that structure. So that Mark made the beginning and ending of his gospel match forwards and backwards. I discovered this over 7 years ago and have not yet come up with a definitive reason why. Was he giving a key to expose later interpolation?

        Certainly it is a bit subjective in spotting these chiastic and parallel structures, but I try to rely on matching words and phrases and not concepts or interpretations.

        In “Unlocking” I use these large chiastic structures (across several chapters) to root out interpolations and find that there was only one miracle feeding. I also find that all but one of the pericopae between the two feedings were interpolated. The one original (Mark 7:1-23) should be repositioned between 10:46a and 10:46b as an event occurring in Jericho. Also the transfiguration/healing the epileptic should be repositioned earlier to follow 6:31 and the parable discourse should be repositioned later to follow the transfiguration/healing the epileptic.

        After this surgery Mark is a much better piece of literature, makes more sense, and has a different Christology.

  2. Simon bar Kokhba’s son was named Rufus. This can also help explain why the Gospel of Basilides has Jesus laughing at Simon taking his place on the cross. Under any other context, this would make Jesus a sadist, but in the context of him being Simon, it mocks him as a false Messiah.

        1. I found nothing in any of the major books on that Jewish revolt relating to sons of Simon bar Kokhba but I tracked down the source behind that little piece of information in the Jewish Virtual Library — and the Valset book if that is not simply copying from the Jewish Virtual Library. It is the Medieval Jewish Chronicles. It is a twelfth century story by rabbi Abraham ben David.

          I find it hard to accept that the information has any historical reliability. For one thing, I would be surprised if one such as Simon bar Kochba gave rise to a family with such stereotypical Roman names. The Chronicle refers to Simon bar Kochba as a messianic claimant but there are problems with that evidence. On his coins he presented himself as a Prince — as per the Prince in Ezekiel, but not as a messiah. I am also unaware that the revolt continued in any serious manner after Simon’s own death.

          Robert Eisler seems to have been among the first to use the source in his discussion of the revolt: https://archive.org/details/eislerrobert.diemessian.unabhangigkeitsbewegungc.winter1929301522ppos/page/718/mode/2up?view=theater

          The source itself is in English translation on archive.org: https://archive.org/details/criticaleditionw0000ibnd/page/n5/mode/2up

          If you search “Rufus” there you will find an explanation for how and why Abraham ben David came to invent Simon bar Kokhba’s son “Rufus” — and grandson Romulus. In short, he was symbolically setting up a false-messianic rebellion against the “final beast” type empire of Rome. The real Rufus of history was actually the Roman governor who fought against bar Kokhba.

          Abraham ben David even dates bar Kokhba’s rebellion to the time of Domitian — another detail he took from late Christian legends that associated Domitian with the emperor who sought to destroy the last of the Davidic kings of the Jews.

          In other words, the detail of Rufus being a son of Simon bar Kokhba is a late medieval invention by a kabbalist author creating apocalyptic type symbolic “history”.

          If there are any doubts about the fictional status of Abraham ben David’s historical accounts — note that he also has Rome being ruled by Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldeans!

          1. Good research! I definitely feel sloppy for having not traced that name to its original source. I am sincerely thankful to you for bringing that source to my attention.

            Now, having said that, I hope you’ll forgive what at this point must appear to be straw-grasping when I ask, can we be so sure this confusion of the name began in late medieval times? In my opinion, even without the Rufus connection, if its going to be a reference to someone, then it would be someone famous named Simon that was thought to have “carried a cross” of some kind and was hated by Gnostics for some reason. So for me, it’s kind of like saying Bugs and Daffy may have been friends in Space Jam: New Legacy, but they were enemies in the original Looney Tunes, so if Bugs is friends with Daffy in the Michael Jordan Space Jam movie, it must be a different Daffy. As for the Messiah stuff, I think the evidence is pretty convincing, but regardless of the title, you have to agree he was an important historical figure playing a similar role in attempting to bring the Jewish kingdom back so that there would still be a good reason for Jewish Christians to be sympathetic of him while war-eschewing Gnostics interested in the physical/spritiual Kingdom of God divide would consider him to be a kind of fake Jesus.

            1. I simply have to plead ignorance. I posted the Bauer/Wilke view because it is a serious contender that I had been unaware of — and that I think is unfortunately overlooked in the mainstream of scholarship today. What is interesting is the possibility that Simon bar Kokhba was viewed in some sort of positive light by the author of Revelation. Was the Gospel of Mark written after the horror of the consequences of Simon bar Kokhba’s failure began to sink in?

              That war, though, had been preceded by what appear to have been outright messianic inspired revolts throughout the eastern Mediterranean half of the empire. Now that I check for related posts I see that I have not yet posted about Livia Capponi’s work on those uprisings — as I thought I had done. That will definitely have to be my next little project here! The Cyrenian connection in that context is suggestive — whether deceptively so or surely relevant I have no idea, unfortunately.

              (Yes, Bauer says that the Cyrene label to Simon is meant to point to Jesus being crucified outside the city, but there are many other “outside Jerusalem” places that could have been used.)

              1. Not only Bauer thought so. Also Solomon Reinach thought that Alexander and Rufus were added in a second moment in Mark. The expression “Alexander and Rufus” appears only in current Mark and in the Acts of Peter and Andrew, in the same list where the name of ‘Glaukias’ appears (the same Glaukias said to be the teacher of Basilides). By making Simon the father of two early Christians, Simon is reduced to be a mere witness of the compassion by Roman soldiers towards the victim (Jesus). A different story talked about Jesus being persecuted hardly by the same Roman soldiers, but this suffering was only apparent: Simon was the real victim. Reinach is not able to explain why the provenance was ‘Cyrene’, but someone had already noted the occurrence of KRN in both ‘Kyrene’ and ‘place of the kranion’: the irony is that Simon was coming from the same place where at contrary he was directed in the original story.

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