Reading the Gospel of Mark Alone — Imagine No Other Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Mark is a thoroughly dark gospel when Mark 16:8 [And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid] is read as the original conclusion of the gospel. Reasons for accepting this verse as the original ending have been addressed in other posts. See Ending of the Gospel of Mark (16:8) — ANNOTATED INDEX

* On the one place in the Gospel of Mark where Nazareth is mentioned,  see https://vridar.org/2012/12/05/bart-ehrmans-unture-claims-about-the-nazareth-arguments-2/#nazareth

I can never forget the first time I read the Gospel of Mark in a modern translation — thus removed from familiar semantic reminders of the other gospels, or at best only muted echoes — and being deeply disturbed by its portrayal of Jesus.

Here was a Jesus alien to this world, at home in the world of heavenly voices and demonic spirits, not only incomprehensible to humans but deliberately speaking in mysteries to leave them blindly uncomprehending. Even his followers had no knowledge of who he was — except for a partial and dim glimpse towards the end — and deserted him in his climactic hour. Mark’s Jesus had some foreboding power  over them: they unnaturally dropped all to follow him, a mysterious stranger, who simply “came to Galilee”* without explanation about his identity or origins. The only direct introduction the reader is given is a voice from heaven after his baptism. He does not “go” into the wilderness but is “driven” by a spirit into the wilderness where he associates with wild beasts, Satan and angels. When he calls his first disciples, as though hypnotised, they instantly drop all and follow him. When he commands the storm to cease and drives out a legion of demons from a wild man among rocky tombs his disciples and the people of the region stand back in fear of him, the latter even imploring him to go away. The people react the same way as the demons — begging him to leave them alone.  Multitudes flock to him from afar to have demons cast out and to be healed. But how they know about this mysterious figure is not explained. The narrative follows the tropes of Israel and the Exodus in the Pentateuch and Isaiah. He is said to teach with authority but the crowds are not permitted to understand his parables and his message is never divulged to the reader. When he appears in his “real glory” on the mountain his closest disciples are totally confused. They remain blind to what his mission is all about. That mission is not to “save” and “enlighten” in any narrative sense but to die under the darkened sky in the middle of the day, deserted even by God, while the temple veil is mysteriously torn apart just as the sky had been torn apart at his baptism. Yet there is another kind of murky darkness even at the moment of his death since read strictly grammatically it is Simon of Cyrene — another mysterious stranger who appears out of nowhere — who is crucified. Simon appears to be introduced as a cipher for Jesus — another mystery. Ciphers for Jesus are found elsewhere in this gospel. Jesus is buried in a tomb “hewn from rock” (recalling Isaiah’s depiction of the fallen temple as a grave hewn from rock), and we recall the way the companions of the paralyzed man “hewed” a hole in the roof to allow their friend to be lowered into the house to be raised up. The paralyzed man is healed and walks out despite the earlier image of the door to the house being totally blocked. If a mature man of the wilderness and in wild clothing opened the gospel, it is closed by a youth in fine clothing within the tomb announcing that the mysterious figure of Jesus has again disappeared and returned to Galilee. Just as persons who had once been commanded to be silent felt compelled to speak out about what Jesus had done, so now those commanded to speak out are silenced by their own terror.

This is a dark gospel. Its Jesus is a terrifying and unnatural figure who does not belong to this world. His presence leaves others blinded and fearful. That includes his closest followers.

As a naturalistic narrative it makes no sense. Read in the context of the other gospels, however, the reader resolves all of the cognitive dissonances with injected explanations. The disciples had heard Jesus speak before and knew of him before he called them. The disciples struggle to understand but in the end they do grasp what it was all about, especially when Jesus clarifies it all after his resurrection. Even before then, we imagine Jesus teaching plainly about high spiritual values. And so on. But that narrative is not found in Mark. It is read into Mark from the perspective of the later gospels.

Mark’s Jesus is a terrifying and incomprehensible figure of unknown origin and clearly one who is a stranger in this world. His narrative evokes the images and tropes, artificially juxtaposed, of the Israel and prophets of the Jewish Scriptures.

I have lately imagined Jesus here as a personification of an idealized Israel but reflecting again on Mark’s presentation I have to think that that view does not fully explain this Jesus. — Unless, perhaps, we have in Mark an attempted personification of Daniel’s heavenly “son of man” figure (who first appeared as a metaphorical figure alongside the metaphors of wild beasts, the beasts representing gentiles and the son of man Israel).