More Ambiguities in the Gospel of Mark – and How to Account for Them

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by Neil Godfrey

Following on from the “playful discourse” around the Gospel of Mark’s confusion of identities in the Passion narrative —

Curiosity One:

Mark 1:1 A beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God. — Good news? Yet the gospel concludes with the women who hear from a young man in the tomb that Jesus has disappeared and gone to Galilee are too frightened to pass on that message to anyone.

and having entered into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting . . . .
And he saith to them, `Be not amazed, ye seek Jesus the Nazarene, the crucified: he did rise — he is not here; . . . .
and go, say to his disciples, and Peter, that he doth go before you to Galilee; . . . .’
And, having come forth quickly, they fled from the sepulchre, and trembling and amazement had seized them, and to no one said they anything, for they were afraid.

(The verses in many Bibles following verse 8 are later additions to the gospel.)

Curiosity Two:

Also in Mark 1 John the Baptist announces that Jesus will baptize with the holy spirit:

8 I indeed did baptize you with water, but he [Jesus] shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

But Jesus baptizes no-one and there is no further mention of “baptism in the holy spirit”. We do later (Mark 10:39) find Jesus describing his coming death as a baptism and asking his disciples if they also can share in that baptism. Is that a clue to the meaning of Jesus baptizing his followers with the holy spirit?

38 and Jesus said to them, `. . . . are ye able to drink of the cup that I drink of, and with the baptism that I am baptized with — to be baptized?’
39 And they [James and John] said to him, `We are able;’ and Jesus said to them, `. . . . with the baptism that I am baptized with, ye shall be baptized . . .

Curiosity Three:

Jesus tells his disciples that their generation will be alive to see the “Son of Man coming in clouds”: Mark 13

26 `And then they shall see the Son of Man coming in clouds with much power and glory, . . . .
30 Verily I say to you, that this generation may not pass away till all these things may come to pass

We generally read that as Jesus speaking of his return at the last days. But that generation did pass away and he did not come. So why was this passage preserved by the early church without any attempt to rewrite those words.

A few chapters earlier we read Jesus telling his disciples that some of them would be alive to see God’s kingdom set up on earth. Since what follows is the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, it is natural to assume that Mark 9:1 means that this also refers to the “second coming”:

And he said to them, `Verily I say to you, That there are certain of those standing here, who may not taste of death till they see the reign of God having come in power.’

Solutions to the Riddles

I think Curiosity Three is the easiest to resolve. Despite the common view that Jesus was speaking of his bodily return from heaven, the Scriptures from which the author of this gospel was drawing say something else. Our author made abundant use of the Book of Daniel (see The Little Apocalypse for details). There in chapter 7 we read of gentile kingdoms being compared to wild beasts — a lion with eagle’s wings, a bear, a four-winged leopard and a ten-horned monster — followed by God’s kingdom represented by a “son of man”. The original application of that fifth kingdom was to the Maccabean kingdom that had, through war, been freed from gentile rule.

A Psalm of David (Psalm 18 and repeated in 2 Samuel 22) describes God “coming down” to the earth in clouds not only to rescue David but to set him up as king over gentiles

He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning. . . . 

43 You have delivered me from the attacks of the people;
    you have made me the head of nations.
People I did not know now serve me.

I discussed this particular interpretation in more detail in When They Saw the Son of Man Coming in Clouds. Sometimes I learn more and reject what I once believed. In this case the more I have read the more convinced I have become that the Gospel of Mark, the first of the canonical gospels to be written, thought of Jesus as a literary figure, a personification of Israel, of both the physical nation of Israel and the resurrected spiritual or new Israel. Not long ago I discussed in depth a book by Nanine Charbonnel (emeritus professor of philosophy) making that same argument. I have since read Bruno Bauer’s studies which led him to the same conclusion.

That reading of the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark makes sense of some of that gospel’s ambiguities and apparent failures.

Jesus is the “son of man” who is the personification of the people of God or the “church”.

The destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE and the thousands of crucifixions of Judeans as part of that war were the kinds of events that Old Testament passages described in terms of God visiting nations on earth in clouds, with stars falling, all to be followed by the establishment or rescue of his nation.

If this interpretation of the Gospel of Mark is valid, it places (in the author’s mind) the replacement of the old kingdom and its temple cult of Moses with the new spiritual temple of God embodied in Joshua/Jesus.

And Curiosity One?

As for Jesus not being found in Jerusalem but in Galilee, as explained by the young man in the tomb, we know that our author drew upon major themes in the Book of Isaiah (see Mark As a Fulfilment of Isaiah’s New Exodus) so it is reasonable to think that he understood Galilee to represent “the nations”, the gentiles as per chapter 9

. . . . So the latter [time] hath honoured the way of the sea, Beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who are walking in darkness Have seen a great light, Dwellers in a land of death-shade, Light hath shone upon them.

If Mark was inspired by Isaiah’s New Exodus theme we may wonder if the inspiration for his setting of the activity of Jesus around the “sea of Galilee” was this particular passage. Whoever wrote the Gospel of Matthew certainly knew both the Gospel of Mark and that Isaiah prophecy about Galilee (Matthew 4:13ff). The church, the metaphorical body of Jesus, was no longer to be found in Jerusalem but among the gentiles, or more specifically in the land where Judeans and gentiles lived together.

Jesus appears on shore of “sea” of Galilee

Mark’s ambiguities can thus be explained when we view Jesus as a personification of the old and new idealized Israel.

Further, I cannot help but notice that such a reading is more easily found among scholars of literature and hermeneutics than it is among Christian theologians.


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “More Ambiguities in the Gospel of Mark – and How to Account for Them”

  1. Re, “Further, I cannot help but notice that such a reading is more easily found among scholars of literature and hermeneutics than it is among Christian theologians.”

    Well, duh . . . what churchman would want their savior to be an allegory?

  2. “Despite the common view that Jesus was speaking of his bodily return from heaven, the Scriptures from which the author of this gospel was drawing say something else…”

    I wonder whether 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 should be taken as a vaticinium ex eventu. Is it really possible that the author writing in Paul’s name was thinking about the events of the year 70?

    1. I haven’t thought through Paul’s take on it in the context of the possible interpretation in the Gospel of Mark that I mentioned in the post. So my first thoughts are that Paul did have a more literal or personal return of the person of the Saviour in mind. However, I have no idea at this point if Paul was writing in the 50s or someone closer to the 150s used his name or if the name represents a school of theologians.

    2. Further — I am continuing to read the never ending supply of studies on messianism before and into the present era and do not want to suggest that a personal messiah was an idea alien to the author of Mark’s gospel. What that writer did was recast that idea of a personal Son of Man into a personification of the church, which was probably closer to the original idea of Daniel’s Son of Man (a personification of the Maccabean kingdom) but that did not preclude other beliefs in a literal pesonal messiah to come.

      1. Thank you for sharing this. It has been an eye-opening experience to read the two blog posts (2008-10-19 and 2023-07-14). Key pieces of the puzzle seem to be falling into place.
        By pure coincidence, I read today about an American theologian, Max R. King (1930-2023), who would undoubtedly have nodded his head.
        According to Wikipedia, “King pioneered a field of theology that he termed ‘covenant eschatology’ which most call full preterism. Within fundamentalist and conservative Evangelical contexts, he contended that Biblical eschatology was not related to the end of the space-time universe, but to the transition of the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. King offered a unique interpretation concerning the millennium as found in Revelation 20 as pertaining to the forty-year period from 30-70 AD. He called this time ‘the transition period’ from Old Covenant to New Covenant. In King’s view, this transition opened the way for the full presence of God to dwell with all of humanity.”
        King’s magnus opus is his “The Cross and the Parousia of Christ” (1987). King is mentioned here:
        Josephus must have been an important source of inspiration for the early Christians, and it seems logical that the events of the year 70 were given great importance.

        1. I do wonder how people that write such things explain to themselves why their god needed to “open the way” to allow the god to “dwell with all of humanity”. There seems to be a constant tension between an all-powerful deity and one which requires all sorts of coy and tangential methods of approaching its worshippers despite protestations that there are none but it. What is there to be scared of, to cause such tentativeness?

          From the timberland link: “Realized eschatologists do not understand the proper tension between the “now” and the “not yet” because they do not fully grasp the principle of time-compression in prophecy.”

          “I shall roll a 6 on this dice.”
          “That’s a 3.”
          “I didn’t say I would roll a 6 immediately! My prophecy was time-compressed, you see. I will roll a 6 *eventually*.”

          A stage magician would be embarrassed to produce such “prophecies”.

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