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).

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50 thoughts on “Reading the Gospel of Mark Alone — Imagine No Other Gospels”

  1. “. . . read strictly grammatically it is Simon of Cyrene — another mysterious stranger who appears out of nowhere — who is crucified.” I’ve heard this before, but wonder which grammar we’re talking about. Is it demotic Greek grammar? i.e., the original language’s grammar?

    1. Mark 15:21ff Young’s Literal Translation:

      And they impress a certain one passing by — Simon, a Cyrenian, coming from the field, the father of Alexander and Rufus — that he may bear his cross, and they bring him to the place Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, `Place of a skull;’ and they were giving him to drink wine mingled with myrrh, and he did not receive. And having crucified him . . .

      καὶ ἀγγαρεύουσιν παράγοντά τινα σίμωνα κυρηναῖον ἐρχόμενον ἀπ᾽ ἀγροῦ, τὸν πατέρα ἀλεξάνδρου καὶ ῥούφου, ἵνα ἄρῃ τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ. καὶ φέρουσιν αὐτὸν ἐπὶ τὸν γολγοθᾶν τόπον, ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον κρανίου τόπος. καὶ ἐδίδουν αὐτῶ ἐσμυρνισμένον οἶνον, ὃς δὲ οὐκ ἔλαβεν. καὶ σταυροῦσιν αὐτὸν . . . .

        1. Many modern translations remove the gaffe by replacing one of the “he” pronouns with “Jesus” [see https://biblehub.com/mark/15-22.htm ] simply because left as it stands the natural reading does sound like the author is saying Simon was crucified, but we know of course that it was Jesus who was crucified. Much is written about Mark’s style but he was not incompetently clumsy. Read a Young’s Literal Translation of Mark and you will see immediately what scholars and ancient sources mean when they refer to Mark’s “stumpy fingers” writing: https://www.biblestudytools.com/ylt/mark/1.html — it reads like draft notes waiting to be fleshed out into something more literary. All of those “ands” and the use of present tense! The style conveys a sense of urgency throughout.

          But Mark was a master of ambiguities and ironies — he evidently introduced them deliberately. Take his reference to “son of man”. In some contexts it clearly refers to an ordinary human while other times it reminds us of the Danielic figure. Scholars have had loads of fun over that one — what did “Jesus” mean by the epithet? But it is not Jesus speaking; it is Mark.

          There are many other ambiguities and ironies that drive the narrative. Check out these posts where I have discussed them:


          There are many others. Peter, for example, means rock and a rock is an appropriate punning name for the leading apostle. But the only place Mark explains what rock means is in the parable of the sower where we find it means a person who has little root and falls away at the first sign of persecution. And that’s Peter, too.

          1. I defer to those with expertise, but from behind my veil of ignorance it doesn’t seem persuasive that Mark was intentionally seeding in the reader the notion that Simon of Cyrene was crucified in Jesus’ place, especially considering the empty tomb scene in the next chapter.

            Isn’t it possible people have just overthought this in course of 2000 years?

            1. As so many have sung: “Don’t let me be misunderstood“. . . . What I am trying to draw attention to is that the text on first reading suggests, technically/literally that Simon is crucified — SO the reader is made to pause before moving on knowing that this is not the story.

              No, the Gospel of Mark as we have it surely presents Jesus himself as the crucified one. There is no doubt about that. But Mark plays with ambiguities and ironies from the beginning. Figures in the narrative appear to be foreshadowing Jesus himself. (I posted links to discussions of many instances of these in the Gospel of Mark. — We have other reminders throughout the narrative that indicated other characters are ciphers for Jesus — I mentioned the paralytic lowered through the “hewn-out” roof as but one example.)

              What I believe the author is subtly hinting or suggesting is that Jesus represents more than one personality on the cross. All must be crucified; Jesus’ death is what all devotees must share. There are several hints of this message preceding this moment throughout the narrative.

              We have the same suggestion and identification at the baptism scene. How is it that Jesus can participate in the initiation ritual of baptism? Another divinity who came as a man did the same thing — Dionysus shared the initiation rites of that new members of his cult went through. (In the earliest sculptured artwork depicting Jesus we find Jesus being baptized with the same templates/images used for the initiation of Dionysus’s converts.)

              There were early Christians (followers of Basilides) who did believe Jesus was replaced by Simon on the cross, and though our Gospel of Mark technically allows for that possibility, I don’t believe that its author really intended to convey that message. Rather than replacement on the cross we have here another instance Jesus being the model all those whom he calls must follow. (Another possibility from another perspective is that Christ’s crucifixion represents in some sense the destruction of Jerusalem along with the Simonian rebel leaders at the time.)

              1. “What I believe the author is subtly hinting or suggesting is that Jesus represents more than one personality on the cross. All must be crucified; Jesus’ death is what all devotees must share. ”

                That’s an interesting take. I don’t buy it – I still think this is just the effect of 2000 years of overthinking – but that’s an interesting Mark character that’s being imagined. Just as orthodox Christians read the Bible and see the inerrant Word Of God, those with a more secular bent read Mark and see a Master Polemicist, and some who read the Warren Report see a thousand-tentacled arch-conspiracy. Of the three, your Mark is the most sympathetic. 🙂

              2. I still think this is just the effect of 2000 years of overthinking

                Except that interpreters as early as the second century said the same thing — on the basis of Mark’s gospel. The proto-orthodox were scandalized and the Gospel of Mark remained long among the “heretics”.

                You don’t have to buy it, but one should acknowledge the many similar confusions and ambiguities in Mark. One or two might be clumsiness, but five, six, seven all pointing to the same theme?

  2. “And they crucified him” is better, no participle… though if there were, the pivot would be even more Pythonesque. “And the Lord did grin…”

    I just attended a rhetoric and religion conference, and while I heard a fair amount of gospel references, not one was from Mark (save a sidebar about 16.8 being the oldest ending). Matt was always preferred even when there was a parallel. Then again, there were many practicing preachers. Mark’s, well, a downer. The social gospel that most of the attendees gravitated toward is lot harder to parse out of its bleakness alone.

  3. Yes.
    The the power of preconceptions to enter into things we encounter is amazing!, What we bring to a text can greatly pre-determine what we perceive and conclude.

    I see Russell G’s pic to the right and this reminds me of how his Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, gave me philosophical planning details about the bible. The centrality of the Law being a primary objective and how that gave me insights and perceptions because I could now see the planning in the product, the centrality of law based covenant relationship, put into the tale to make it seem historical – A very powerful philosophical ‘spell’.

    The above contrasts so much with my former pre-conceptions as a believer, that thought the old and new testaments were historical.

    These foundations of western society are so necessary to see it for what it is, both in the past and now. Plato’s ‘philosopher king’ rulers are still doing their thing and almost the whole world believes it is real-historical.

    cheers all

  4. It is very important to understand that the Homeric source is real. The term soma (which is also used by Mark and Paul for the body of the Lord) appears in written form for the first time in Homer’s work, in his usage, soma still means a human corpse or an animal carcass (e.g. in the Iliad). In Odysseus, Homer also used this word for the bodies of the dead in the underworld. The soma, as an interpretation of the body without vital functions, also appears strongly in the plays of the best-known Greek stage authors, such as Pindaros and Euripides.

    Mark is brilliant because after we understand his intention, we can realize that at first reading the Son appears as a boy sent by God, who “seems” to have a body of flesh. Then, when we reach the end of the story, and at the call of the young man in white who appears in the tomb, we follow the disciples to Galilee and start reading the Gospel from the beginning, (this is when the Gospel of the Anointed/Christ begins) then as the Anointed/Christ, the flesh Christ appears. Márk created a masterpiece of chiastic editing and “mimesis”.

    1. I like your idea that the young man in the empty tomb is directing the reader back to the beginning of the story, because I’ve floated this opinion in these niche waters and no-one has bitten; so I’m glad to find someone else mention this interpretive possibility. Jesus has ‘gone ahead’ to Galilee where ‘you will see him’. If you flick back to page one you will find… Jesus in Galilee, and you can make one more attempt at understanding… and then one more… etc…
      Apparently, the Greek word for ‘young man’ is used only twice in the gospel, the first being to describe the ‘young man’ who flees naked from the arrest scene. If this is the same character, he has been transformed from a state of fear to a state of wisdom and wears the white robes of an initiate, a disciple of the Way. The reader is offered the chance to undertake the same journey of transformation.
      “Do not fear…”

  5. I think besides Hebrew scriptures, the author of Mark is also using tropes from Greco-Roman stories. Specifically stories about deities who come into town as a stranger or in disguise. I think Mark has mystery cult and initiatory elements in his story. As you mentioned, Jesus speaks in mysteries that leave his followers confused. There’s evidence of riddling language and metaphors used in mystery cult initiations that aren’t understood until the person is initiated. Both Dionysus and Demeter have stories about them coming into town as outsiders and strangers or in disguise and bringing with them their initiation rituals. Jesus goes through suffering, death, and resurrection like a mystery deity and like the initiates into the mysteries. The disciples are also being initiated into his mysteries. A lot of stories during the Greco-Roman era show mystery cult/initiation influence e.g. Bacchae, Frogs, Chaereas and Callirhoe (which contains an empty tomb story like Mark), Metamorphosis/The Golden Ass etc., and I would include the Gospels and Acts.

    Is Jesus Athene or Odysseus?: Investigating the Unrecognisability and Metamorphosis of Jesus in his Post-Resurrection Appearances (Mohr Siebeck, 2019) Max Whitaker:
    ” A recurring theme in the Odyssey is gods visiting in disguise and being (or not being) given a hospitable welcome.67 This idea, that all strangers and beggars are from Zeus, is repeated elsewhere in the Odyssey,68 and elsewhere such as in the Argonautica where Zeus is mentioned as the strangers’ god… The categories of “entertaining gods” (theoxeny) and “god as messenger” are not mutually exclusive. Telemachus entertains Athene as a guest, and is then provided with information and issued instructions. In fact it is the providing of hospitality to the disguised god which shows that Telemachus, unlike the suitors, is worthy of receiving the help of the god. Odysseus is also received by the swineherd and shown hospitality in the same way as a visiting god would be, supporting the hypothesis that Odysseus’ disguise, at this time, is meant to be seen as similar to that of the gods…

    In the Hymn to Demeter the god (Demeter) takes on the form of a mortal woman to retreat from the world of the gods, and in disguise is shown hospitality by a human family, first by the daughters, but later by the mother. The family is rewarded by having their infant son raised to be a god-like immortal. There are two places in this story where the god is recognised. The first is only a partial revelation and recognition, where the god is described as both large and radiant and causes fear in Metaneira. However, she fully transforms herself when she is caught seemingly mistreating the infant. Here she stops looking old, changes her size and appearance and even her smell. Her divine body also shines brightly. This fits the general pattern of gods in Greco-Roman literature being more radiant and larger than humans even when disguised, and then becoming still larger and more luminous when they reveal their identity. Again Metaneira reacts with fear, but this time in a more extreme form. After revealing her true identity the god vanishes. This story also fits into more than one category – the goddess issues a command to the woman (to build a cultic centre for her) before vanishing, so as well as receiving and rewarding hospitality, she also acts as a messenger.

    In The Bacchae, as in the Hymn to Dionysus, Dionysus appears in disguise, and again the lack of hospitality theme plays a central role. The first lines of Euripides’ Bacchae reveal84 that Dionysus walked upon the earth in Hellas in the form of a man, specifically a priest of his own cult. Pentheus seeks to destroy the cult, and thus sends soldiers to capture the disguised Dionysus. Like Odysseus (and Athene), Dionysus creates a false identity and uses a fictional history to validate his physical “disguise.” Dionysus mocks the fact that Pentheus cannot see that the very god he inquires about is standing right before his eyes, saying that it is his impurity which stops him from seeing. Ultimately the punishment delivered to Pentheus for his inability to recognise the disguised god, and for his lack of hospitality, was death at the hands of his own mother…

    The exact details of who the author of each of the Gospels was, and where and when each Gospel was written, are all unknown. What can be concluded, however, is that all of the Gospels were written by Greek-speaking authors, in environments where there was some knowledge of, and interaction with, GrecoRoman culture. This, combined with what has been discussed about a literate Greek speaker’s familiarity with Greco-Roman literature, means that the task of comparing the Jesus appearance stories found in the Gospels with similar stories in Greco-Roman literature is reasonable. If this is true, it means that the writers of canonical post-resurrection appearances were probably familiar with the themes of unrecognisability, disguise and metamorphosis contained in Greek literature, and the thematic purpose for which they were being used.”

    The Transfiguration: an Exercise in Markan Accommodation (Yale University, 2004), Candida Moss:
    “A variety of Greek myths recount how the gods often walked amongst humans in disguise and it is certainly possible that, for those readers of the gospel well-versed in these traditions, Greek epiphanies formed a natural backdrop for the Markan transfiguration than the story about Moses. Oft-times this earthly socializing was intended to test the morality and piety of humanity, as in Apollodorus’ Library he recalls how, “Zeus desirous of putting their impiety to the proof, came to them in the likeness of a poor man … [and, following their human sacrifice] in disgust upset the table at the place which is still called Trapezus and blasted Lycaon and his sons by thunderbolts.”…

    The popularity of the notion that deities disguised themselves as the impoverished of society in order to try the virtue of humans is further attested in The Odyssey where Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, is struck by Antinoos. A more prudent suitor reprimands Antinoos’ impetuosity, saying: “A poor show, that—hitting this famished tramp— bad business, if he happened to be a god. You know they go in foreign guise, the gods do, Looking like strangers, turning up In towns and settlements to keep an eye On manners, good or bad.”…

    A particularly striking example of deities disguising themselves for a time and wandering amongst men in human form is that of Demeter. Following the loss of her daughter Persephone the distraught goddess transforms herself into the form of a spinster and wanders the earth in disguise: “She avoided the gathering of the gods on high Olympus, and went to the towns and rich fields of men, disfiguring her form a long while. And no one of men or deep-bosomed women knew her when they saw her, until she came to the house of wise Celsus who then was lord of fragrant Eleusis … And she was like an ancient woman who is cut off from childbearing and the gifts of garland-loving Aphrodite.”

    The metamorphosis of Demeter from illustrious deity to lowly spinster goes undetected by humans who do not recognize her because ‘the gods [in human form] are not easily discerned by mortals’. Demeter’s true identity is only revealed because she is angered by the misplaced accusations of a mortal woman. The goddess’s transformation is described as a dazzling enlightenment similar to that of Jesus in Mark… Throughout Greek myths of divine epiphanies the most frequently recurring motif is the illumination of the divine subject. The extraordinary brilliance of the divine body is almost unbearable to the human eye… This is certainly analogous to the ‘dazzling white’ garments of Jesus that shine brighter than ‘any fuller on earth could bleach them’ in Mark 9:3… Moreover, in Greek myths there is an explicit link between the revelation of divine identity and the special status of the recipient.”

    Mystery Cults, Theatre and Athenian Politics: A Reading of Euripides’ Bacchae and Aristophanes’ Frogs (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), Luigi Barzini:
    “We now turn to the nature of the two Athenian mystery cults and their definition in ethnological terms. In many respects, the Athenian Eleusinian and Dionysiac mystery cults are very similar. The twin role of the deities as coming to the polis of Athens as foreigners, xenoi, and of their giving of gifts to mankind, the collective polis-wide mode of their festivals, their life-changing initiation rituals and their eschatological content are some of the shared elements of the two cults… The two deities share some defining characteristics. First, both are described in myth as coming to Attica from abroad as outsiders, strangers, xenoi. In Athens, the legendary advent of the two deities was celebrated with xenismoi, public rituals of welcome and entertainment of the ‘foreign’ gods, according to Plutarch.”

    Tragedy, Ritual and Money in Ancient Greece: Selected Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2018), Richard Seaford:
    “All these formulae express the movement of the mystic initiand through initiation. All except perhaps (6) and (8) combine Satzparallelismus with antithesis, and in (9), (10) and (11) the antithesis expresses the passage through suffering or death to the eternal blessedness that we know from other texts to be the outcome of mystic initiation… The mysteries bring their initiands through death-like suffering into a state in which they may count on joyful immortality… Greek tragedy has much in common with the ritual of the mysteries. In both, an enactment of a myth of suffering, accompanied sometimes by lamentation and containing a reversal, creates great emotion among a group of onlookers,2 who may be envisaged as in some sense purified… The appearance of (torch)light in darkness marked the transition of the initiands from ignorance and suffering…

    The initiands suffer anxiety and confusion, but also (otherwise they would not be there) hope and passionate desire for something joyful… First, there are the connections and the structural similarity between hero cult and the mysteries. In both kinds of cult the human participants are associated, in a temporary death-like state (sometimes involving lamentation), with the death (or descent to the underworld) of the recipient of the cult, and this collective emotion might be of civic significance. Hero cult sometimes takes the form of mystery cult (or something very like it), heroes are sometimes honoured in mystery cult, and in myth heroes are initiated into the mysteries… The mysteries of course concerned a transition, from the uninitiated to the initiated state. It has been argued that this transition may sometimes have been expressed in terms of the transition from childhood to adulthood.9 It was sometimes imagined as a passage through death to a state of unending felicity,10 and usually involved a transition from ignorance to knowledge… Hence the well-known use by philosophers of the stages of mystic initiation to express progress towards the relatively inaccessible in philosophy… Demetrius in his essay On Style points out that any hinting expression is disturbing, and will be variously interpreted, whereas what is stated clearly and obviously is likely to be despised. He continues: ‘for that reason allegory is also used in the language of mystery cult, to provoke disorientation and anxiety, just like darkness and night. For allegory is similar to darkness and night.’ He then proceeds to warn against excess in this ‘that our language might not be reduced to riddles’. From this neglected passage, and others like it, it seems that riddling expressions might be used in the mysteries to confuse the initiand. And in the course of the ritual the ignorance and fear would eventually be dispelled… To conclude, it is insufficient to agree with Hugedé that the conjunction of mirror and ainigma is ‘natural’ in Greek. It seems to derive, remotely perhaps, from their analogous function in mystic [120] initiation, the function of confusing and stimulating the initiand as a prelude to the final revelation.”

  6. I have long thought that GMark would work very well as a horror story, with the man Jesus being portrayed as possessed by the god Jesus at Baptism who then wanders about within the man Jesus hypnotizing, deceiving (GMark 4:10-12), and performing miracles only to desert the man Jesus at crucifixion.

      1. Perhaps the GMark which I discuss was designed in order to instruct both spiritual mediums and their followers, in allegorical/didactic form, about how to deal with possession by the god Jesus and its aftermath. After all, the Man Jesus was supposedly resurrected despite his being abandoned by his god, and a medium, from what I understand, may struggle with sorrow after being abandoned by eir god/spirit. Similarly, Jesus disciples are portrayed as foolish for not understanding the god Jesus’s message despite following Jesus for his charisma – which might have been a useful counterpart to the ideal follower of a charismatic Jesus-Channelling leader in early Christianity. Is this interesting to you? I am just typing up my thoughts as I thing them in response to your question.

        1. It’s always good to think through our thoughts to try to understand what it is we are really thinking. What I look for in particular are independent strands from the time that give some support for our interpretations.

  7. Does it not follow then that before Mark the original sect and any converts would only have 6 or so Paul epistles to go by as the rest of Paul were much later forgeries?

    With Paul/Cephas aka Peter inventing Jesus, and Paul saying Jesus was created in heaven the first Christians would have worshipped a Jesus descended from heaven fully formed.

    Mark wouldn’t have changed such belief as Mark contains no creation, birth or history of Jesus.

    Q and the rest of the gospels attempting and eventually succeeding in historicizing Jesus came decades later.

    If there was an established history first (which Josephus alone proves there was not) an allegorized religion showing up a century later would not have gained any credence or adherents. Instead, the two versions of Jesus clashed for nearly a thousand years, proving to me anyway that the so-called gnostic version was the first.

    This argument over the nature of Jesus went underground after the Catholic genocide of the Cathars.

    Evidence that such an argument even existed began re-emerging gradually and eventually gaining academic acceptance after the Protestants were foolish enough to print the Bible for everyone to read.

    If Josephus did encounter Christians by 94 AD publication of his book, the odds are greater it would have been the (at the time) more organized and longer-established but still tiny sect of believers in a descended Jesus.

    1. I imagine a Christianity or proto-Christianities without Paul, or pre-Paul. Paul’s letters do seem to assume something prior to his arrival on the scene, after all. It seems there must have been something earlier for a book like Revelation and its Jesus figure to have been imagined, and for sects to have practised a sacral meal with bread and water and/or without any notion of a death of the Messiah (rather, a commemoration of his having come in the flesh or expectation of his second coming — compare the Quman’s Messianic Banquet).

      What Mark seems to have done is to create a story identifying Jesus with Israel, the old dying and the new living anew with all nations included as per Isaiah (and Paul). Mark followed the Pauline line and from there the other gospels took traction. But before all of that there was, maybe, a Christianity that identified their saviour with a son of man heavenly embodiment of “Israel” who was destined to expand his character according to Isaiah. It was the event of 70, or even perhaps 135, that initiated this notion. (Paul, after all, is only independently verified from the mid second century on.)

      1. “commemoration of his having come in the flesh”

        Would such a rite have been intended for a future, or was it a reaction to a Jesus who had come – whether mystically or normally – in your understanding?

        1. There appears to have been a pre-Christian Jewish rite of a Messianic Banquet which anticipated the coming of the messiah and this same rite appears to have been adapted to commemorate not only his anticipated second coming but to include a celebration of his first coming …. But all this is very much an etherial idea of mine at the moment. I am currently exploring it so nothing is settled. I need to do some more studies about ancient rituals and how they might change. I’m wondering at the moment if the changes in the meaning of Dionysiac rituals may help. I need more time to study the whole question.

      2. Why would Paul etc allegorize an already existing human presumably born of woman? Why not just say he was born there, said this, did that. Especially as Paul’s figure as written (fully formed in heaven using Seed of David on unnamed woman, paging Dr. Fronkenstein!) did not fulfill prophecy. The competing historicizer factions needed Jesus to fulfill prophecy — primarily because they wanted converts, the only way to initially grow an organized religion — so they started writing histories of him. Different authors appealing to different audiences. Which of course the fictional nature of Jesus still shines through as most of these authors likely didn’t even know of each other (unless Luke really did try to “correct” Matthew). Ending in something like 24 different sects with widely and sometimes wildly varying beliefs. The most infamous, Luke and Matthew can’t agree on the events surrounding Jesus birth. Seems any way you look at it, you end up with a concept not a reality.

        1. You have hit on the space where I veer from much conventional thinking — and where I believe that most attempts to write early Christian history are steeped in invalid (circular) methods.

          First, what do we know of the Pauline correspondence? If we look for independent confirmation then we do not find any evidence of Paul’s letters being known before the mid second century and they are even addressing second century questions. (This fact does not necessarily impinge on the Gospel of Mark’s debt to Paul’s theology since that Gospel is not testified until the second century either.) — And they are not in the camp of the proto-orthodox but in the hands of the “heretics”.

          Second, when we do find those letters they are from the beginning stained with controversies about their contents and there is a war for the identity and teachings of Paul as evidenced by a raft of different writings claiming to be by or about him, all with competing teachings and careers.

          Third, there is good internal and external evidence that the specific passages you refer to may well not have been part of the original writings. On Galatians 4:4 see https://vridar.org/series-index/the-born-of-a-woman-galatians-44-index/ ; on Romans 1:3 see https://vridar.org/2011/05/27/another-possible-interpolation-conceded-by-historicists-of-old-and-a-question-of-heavenly-trees/

          What all of the above means is that citing this or that passage from Paul as if it is evidence of first century core Christianity among gentiles is a highly unstable foundation for any historical reconstruction.

          You suggest that histories of Jesus were being written in order to attract followers for the new religion. But there were competing Christianities, presumably all interested in attracting followers to some extent, but they do not write earthly histories. Moreover, the canonical gospels are, from all studies I have seen, more interested in fighting theological battles than they are in producing some “historically appealing” narrative. The gospels came late on the scene. The Church Fathers themselves demonstrate an ignorance of them — even Justin Martyr, contrary to many modern assumptions that have not studied carefully the actual words he uses.

          Then we have the Book of Revelation — and this is arguably one of the earliest of our Christian writings. A few scholars have observed that certain Pauline ideas — and even the Gospel of Mark itself — are in direct opposition to the theology of Revelation. That suggests Revelation appeared on the scene prior to the Pauline and Markan texts. (And you may have noticed my posts arguing for a Hadrianic date for Revelation.)

          We know Second Temple era Jewish sects anticipated a messiah from heaven. We have early evidence of Christian sects speaking of a messiah who is more a philosophical (logos) concept than a historical figure. We have early “narratives” of a heavenly messiah figure descending in the appearance or form of a man.

          It is in that context that I am imagining the author of the Gospel of Mark deciding to construct a literary figure who was a personification of Israel (both old and new), inspired by Isaiah and Daniel texts (and Isaiah and Daniel are richly alluded to throughout the gospel), who was also the figure of the Son of Man (Daniel) cum Suffering Servant (Isaiah). (And prompted by the events of 66-73, 115-117, even 135?)

          Even if Paul’s letters were written in the first century (and I don’t know how we can utilise normative historical methods to establish that date) and the questionable (to various scholars) passages are indeed authentic, only a pro-gospel bias can convince us that they are not at the very least ambiguous. Paul’s letters, it has to be kept in mind, first appear among the “heretics” who were opposed by the authors at least of Matthew and Luke — and that fact should be allowed to prejudice our interpretation of them at least a little.

          1. How do you deal with the Turmel’s case for a Paul being surely interpolated a lot by “heretics” and Catholics, but precisely in virtue of this interpolation, a more historical Paul insofar the genuine (little) kernel of the his episles talks about a mere Jewish apocalypticist and follower of a nationalistic anti-Roman Jesus. Turmel’s case is based on the fact that the evolution was probably from an earthly view of the kingdom to a more mystical view of it, rather than the contrary. For example, just as in Revelation Rome is allegorized, for diplomatic reasons, as ‘Babilony’, so also in the original Paul the Aramaic expression maranatha is used, so that the Romans couldn’t realize that the hope was about the revenge by a warrior anti-Roman Messiah, the same Christ who was crucified by the Romans on the earth.

            1. Turmel’s argument in his Jésus: Sa Vie Terrestre is grounded in the same circular logic as many other arguments for any particular form of a historical Jesus. I do not know the specific argument of his that you mention (Paul following an anti-Roman zealot Messiah? — where does he make that specific point, if I understand you correctly?) — but my first thought would be to wonder how such a preacher could have had any appeal to gentiles and why anyone would have wanted to use his letters to interpolate them rather than simply reject them wholesale.

              I started to make public various translations I have made for personal use and will do so again for my translations of Turmel. — and I am reminded now of your Maranatha point. If the original Paul was looking to a resurrected zealot then I am not sure what relevance his original letters had for the rest of church history, given their multiple redactions to apparently hide that point.

              1. Indeed Turmel makes his case more diffusely in some chapters of the his monumental Histoire des dogmes in 5 vol.

                For example, so he writes (p. 24 of vol. 1):

                Quand les soldats de César prirent possession de notre pays, ils furent absorbés par le vaste territoire dont ils venaient de s’emparer. Mais ils lui inoculèrent leur langue, leurs institutions. Et la Gaule reçut de la conquète romaine une âme nouvelle qui la transforma. Quelque chose d’analogue arriva, aux environs de 140, aux communautés chrétiennes. A cette date, elles furent envahies par la phalange marcionite. Elles l’absorbèrent, mais ne purent échapper à son idéal, à ses aspirations, à son esprit. La conquête marcionite fut pour l’Église chrétienne une métamorphose. Voyons donc; 1° la place que le dogme de la chute occupait primitivement dans la pensée chrétienne; 2° ce que l’offensive marcionite voulut imposer à l’Église; 3° ce que l’Église accepta.

                As you may note already, a such view is strongly reminiscient of the view held today by Roger Parvus (only replace “Marcionites” with “Simonians”). Essentially, Turmel sees a drastic demarcation between a “before” and an “after” the Marcionite invasion, in terms of Christology (as witnessed by the various layers of tye “pauline” epistles). If the Christology was very low in the beginning (and it only increased enourmously with and after “Marcion”), then I don’t see how Jesus, conceived as a mere Jewish martyr vindicated by god after the death, could be meant differently from other Jewish martyrs, in terms of historicity (and ceteris paribus). Doubts about him should be extended to other figures (and vice versa as to certainties), hence making impossible even talking about an ‘agnostic’ stance.

                P. S. Just I can, I will send to you the Turmel’s pages about the historical Paul being a follower of a seditionist Jesus (and traces of rebellion in the kernel of the paulines survived to the criticism by Turmel).

              2. Thanks for the critical feedback. I need to think it all through some more. It is the Simon Magus factor that always bugs me and makes me wonder if I will have to turn around and change direction completely. But I do have difficulty relating Simon Magus to an anti-Roman zealot paradigm.

              3. Look forward to it, thanks. What I find difficult prima face is the notion of a zealot Jesus being an inspiration for a Paul who was so hostile to Judaization of converts.

              1. Neil,

                I’m putting in my own two cents in response to your words: “What I find difficult prima face is the notion of a zealot Jesus being an inspiration for a Paul who was so hostile to Judaization of converts.”

                I doubt the historical Paul was all that hostile to the Judaization of converts. I think he didn’t see it as necessary for them but would not have been against it for those converts who chose that route. I see Simonian interpolators of Paul’s letters as being the ones who were hostile to Judaization.

                But I also don’t think the historical Jesus was a Zealot. I still lean historical, but now find Hyam Maccoby’s scenario more plausible than my minimal Jesus one. For Maccoby Jesus was not a Zealot, but an apocalypticist, like Theudas and “the prophet from Egypt”, expecting a miracle in fulfilment of some Biblical prophecy.

                Maccoby writes:

                “At the same time, it must be realized that Jesus was not a Zealot. As we have seen, the Zealots, despite their religious fervour, were committed to a realistic programme of long-term guerilla fighting, and apocalyptic visions played little part in their thinking. They claimed no prophetic powers, and many of them were too republican in sentiment to believe in the advent of the Messiah. Jesus was first and foremost an apocalyptist: he believed in the miraculous character of the coming salvation, as described in the writings of the Scriptural prophets…. The important thing was spiritual preparedness, not military preparedness, though when the hour finally came fighting would be required, for the prophets had said that there would be a battle.” (“Revolution in Judaea”, p. 120)

                Maccoby thinks that Jesus, on the night he was arrested on the Mount of Oives, was convinced a particular prophecy of Zechariah’s was going to be fulfilled. But

                “The miraculous appearance of the Lord God on the Mount of Olives did not occur. Like Theudas and “the prophet from Egypt” … Jesus, despite his great healing powers and tremendous charisma, turned out to be deceived in his apocalyptic hopes. When the Roman troops arrived at Gethsamane they found a handful of rebels equipped with only two swords.” (p. 151)

                To me this kind of scenario seems more plausible than the zealot scenarios of, say, S.G.F Brandon and Reza Aslan.

              2. Yes, my remarks have been very much off the cuff — I have not yet thought deeply enough about all the potential alternatives. I recently noticed I hadn’t even finished reading all of the relevant Turmel works. (I’d like to revisit your series on Paul’s letters and do the same kind of colour coding for your take as I did for Turmel’s, by the way.)

                My main difficulty with any historical Jesus scenario is that I do not see how any of the proposals (Maccoby’s included) could have led to the Gospel of Mark. Historical figures have a life of their own and hagiographers attach mythical etc trappings to that life, but the Gospel of Mark is mythical and midrashic narrative right through to the central core. I don’t see any room for a historical figure in any of the narrated elements.

                That doesn’t mean there are not other ways of concluding a historical Jesus, of course, and I am quite open to the possibility.

              3. Just to clarify — an episode in the gospel can have a clear theological and literary explanation for its existence. To take such an episode and read into it an additional explanation for its existence — a historical one — seems to me to be unjustifiable. We already have an adequate explanation for the narrative which is backed up independently by evidence so how can we justify introducing another source explanation that has no supporting evidence?

        2. I should add that Daniel introduces the Son of Man as the somewhat indefinite “LIKE a Son of Man” — as gentile powers are “like beasts” so Israel is “like human”. This allows for the author of Mark to speak of a personified figure as the Son of Man — and interestingly he equates this Jesus with both Israel AND (new) Adam in the wilderness temptation. Compare “Son of Man/Adam” representing Israel — both the defeated one and the newly arisen one.

          1. In reply to Roger above:
            note that, according to Maccoby, Jesus thought that a certain measure of human co-operation (i.e. anti-Roman violence) could be significant, even decisive, for God’s final appearance:

            ‘He must have felt that this manifestation would depend, to some extent, on his own worthiness and that of his disciples’ (Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea, p. 194, my bold)

            ‘Jesus probably had in mind the example of Gideon… Salvation would have a military aspect and the faithful would not be mere onlookers at God’s miracles; but the glory of the victory would be primarily God’s’
            (Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea, p. 158, my bold).

            ‘Jesus…was a convinced apocalyptist, who considered that the fight against Rome would be won largely by miraculous means, and therefore made no serious military preparations…only a token military preparation was necessary… To drive out the Romans by force of arms, as Judas Maccabaeus had driven out the Greeks, was not his purpose; such success would only lead to the founding of one more dynasty like the Hasmoneans. Jesus would inaugurate the kingdom of God, a new era in world history, or nothing. It was this scorn of ordinary militarism that was perverted by the Gentile-Christian Church into a doctrine of pacifism’
            (Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea, pp. 172–73, my bold)

            ‘Jesus was crucified with two other revolutionaries, possibly members of his own movement’
            (Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea, p. 218, my bold)

            ‘Jesus was guilty of sedition; he was a patriot who fought against the Roman domination of his native land’
            (Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea, p. 204; italics original)

            This explains why Maccoby is often mentioned along the same names of Reimarus, Kautsky, Brandon, Charmicael, rather than not. A lesser degree of violence is not strictu senso absence at all of violence.

        3. Rather than the historical narrative per se, what seems to have been the principle advantage of the “catholic” sect was its reliance upon an “ancient text”, especially one from “the east” — and demonstrating its fulfilment of prophecies. That was the persuasive foundation, I suggest.

          1. Neil,

            Just to be clear. Maccoby believes Jesus was a historical figure and was an apocalypticist Jew. I lean historical, but I am still not convinced there was a historical Jesus.

            But it is really irrelevant to me whether there was a historical Jesus or not. Because even if there wasn’t, it still seems to me that the narrative underlying GMark – whether just theological fiction or not — is about an apocalypticist type of Jew. That is to say, I think the original narrative, even if fiction, presented its central character, Jesus, as a Jew who was expecting a divine intervention that did not occur, but who was ultimately vindicated when God raised him from the dead.

            But I also think that narrative (let’s call it the Gospel of the Nazarenes) at some point fell into the hands of a Simonian (Basilides?) whose changes to it turned it pretty much into the GMark we now have. What I still wonder about is why he did it. People can believe some pretty weird things, but more and more I think the motive may just have been some kind of entertainment value he found in fooling people. He gave us the laughing Jesus who laughed because he fooled the people who thought they were crucifying him. So, I wonder if his intent in modifying the earlier gospel was just to provide some laughs at the expense of the recently (135 CE) humiliated Jews and Jewish Christians. He turned their apocalypticist Jew into someone who taught the Jews that they didn’t even understand their own Scriptures. And who taught Jewish Christians that they didn’t even recognize who their Jesus really was. Which might all have been very funny to the author and his fellow Simonians. (Remember that about the time in question there was the Syrian Lucian of Samosata whose writings are full of laughing Gods and who loved poking fun at the religious beliefs of others. And Syria is where Basilides was said to have been a pupil of Menander.)

            If this scenario is correct, then Basilides’ theme-song should be “I Started a Joke” by the Bee Gees. But the apparent next step would be just as bizarre. Some Gentile admirers of Judaism came to know GMark and thought: “Hey, what the Simonians did with the Jesus character is actually pretty interesting. This has a lot of potential. You could make a religion out of this, keeping what you admire about Judaism and its Scriptures and leaving behind what you don’t like about it.” Enter the proto-orthodox.

            That is where I am at. I realize it sounds a bit crazy.

  8. Jews understand Daniel’s Son of Man to be all Humanity after being restored to how we were meant to be in The Resurrection.

    Many Christians developed a problem with that because of how often the title is associated with Jesus, but the truth is a number of NT titles of Jesus were never meant to be of only Jesus but of Jesus as the beginning of the restoration of Humanity.

    Jesus is the Son of David in Mark 10:47-48 and Mark 12:35-37 so Jesus was even then envisioned a flesh and blood Human Being.

    I notice the people at this Blog do sometimes try to distance themselves from the more extreme New Atheists. So I wonder how you’d react to my Capitalism is Atheistic in Nature thesis.

    1. I notice the people at this Blog do sometimes try to distance themselves from the more extreme New Atheists. So I wonder how you’d react to my Capitalism is Atheistic in Nature thesis.

      I don’t see “new atheists” as “extreme” — only as too often uninformed about the serious research into the nature of religion (and political situations, too).

      Capitalism was borns [correction: fanned/facilitated/influenced] historically from [correction: in the context of] Protestantism. But I am not interested in any argument that tries to associate Atheism or Jews or “the Deep State” or any other bogeyman with violent revolutions, communism, capitalism or tyrannies of any kind.

      Correction made 7 December 2023

        1. My point was nothing more than that I have no interest in any discussion suggesting that “capitalism is atheistic in nature”. It’s not a thought/thesis that interests me at all.

          1. The Protestant Work Ethic is based on Correlation=causation fallacy. Work is actually a Dirty word in the Protestant mind. democracy is what does come the Reformation.

            Of course New Atheists do love to take a lot from Protestantism. The Christ Myth stuff is just Alexander Hislop’s thesis taken a step further.

  9. That Simon was not the one crucified but its just a clumsy ambiguous pronoun antecedent as is clarified in verse 37 “And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.” And whose body gets buried in verse 43?

    But why is the original ending of Mark missing after 16:8?

    It fits very well with your reading of Jesus as an otherworldly figure in Mark: the most likely explanation is that the original ending was removed because it was Mark-ion-ite, i.e. something like “and the women ran and told the disciples but they did not believe, and therefore Jesus replaced them all with Paul.”

  10. Neil, that’s a nice summary of Bruno Bauer’s exegesis of the Gospel of Mark. Penetrating. Today I supplement my appreciation of Bruno Bauer with an appreciation of Morton Smith — whose method of demythologization reveals a real sociological type — a Jewish exorcist in the early 1st century. Thoroughly mesmerized by him, his followers would easily believe anything magical about this mysterious healer freely sharing hypnotic cures. A real wandering exorcist could only leave behind a legacy of magic.

    1. My problem with Morton Smith’s argument is that it is so heavily based on various “criteria of authenticity”, long a standard approach in historical Jesus research, but also problematic. (e.g. https://vridar.org/2012/10/03/take-two-chapter-2-of-jesus-criteria-and-the-demise-of-authenticity/ along with many other posts addressing this method.)

      There are other problems arising, too, in my view, from identifiable, even testable, potential sources for many of the episodes we read in the gospels.

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