Category Archives: Gospel of Mark

An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths

This post is a follow up from Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness. I may come to see this attempt to compare the structures of the myths as a sad misadventure but till then, let’s see what happens.

Detail from the Santa Maria sarcophagus (late second century?). Was Jesus depicted as a child because the myth declared him to be a child at this point or is he depicted as a child to merely symbolize the beginning of a new life beside the aged John the Baptist representing the old?

We begin with the “gnostic myth” of the advent of an illuminator or saviour figure that was announced by the second kingdom:

1. A prophet is said to be the beginning of the saviour figure who is presented as a child.

2. A bird takes the saviour to a mountain, presumably a wilderness setting

3. The bird nourishes the child saviour in the mountain

4. Presumably after the child has become an adult an angel appears to declare the saviour figure now has power and glory

5. The figure comes to the water.

The image below attempts to illustrate that particular structure. (For the understanding of coming “upon” water as an expression relating to power and submission see the previous post.)

Next, look at a similar myth in the Book of Revelation, though we will simplify it for starters. This structure is illustrated in the middle column.

1. The prophet John is writing, or announcing, the advent of the child saviour figure from the time he is born.

2. An angelic voice declares that great power and glory has now come into being, presumably a proleptic announcement concerning the child. (The mother and child are separated; the mother will be a proxy for those who follow the saviour-child).

3. A bird (eagle) carries the mother of the child to the wilderness

4. The woman is nourished and cared for in the wilderness (by….?)

5. The water of chaos, a flood, attempts to destroy the woman but she is protected by the wilderness earth.

The larger structure is essentially the same as the gnostic myth but the middle two steps are reversed. This reversal appears to be a function of the splitting of the child from its mother (and rest of her seed).

The structure the previous two myths is completely inverted with the Gospel of Mark. Coming to the water or facing the water is now moved to the beginning, along with the prophet, and is no longer the culmination of the story. In this gospel the water has become a symbol of baptism which is a figure of the death of the old man (as per Paul). In the Gospel of Mark we have the narrative bookended by narratives of death and emergence from death, first symbolically in the water, then finally through the cross.

1. The prophet announces the advent of the man saviour.

2. The saviour figure comes to the water and as he emerges from it.

3. The saviour figure is addressed as a sacrificial victim — the inverse of the power and glory we saw in the other two myths. For “my beloved son” as a signal of a son to be sacrificed see Jon Levenson’s studies on the Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. But the power and glory is still latent because the saviour figure is still the son of God.

4. The spirit (identified as a bird, in this case the dove) drives or propels the saviour figure into the wilderness.

5. The saviour figure is nourished by angels in the wilderness. (Matthew and Luke add the mountain.)

The angels and the bird take on inverted meanings. The angels feed and nourish the saviour in the wilderness, thus doing enough merely to keep him alive after his long fast and encounter with Satan. There is no roaring declaration of the saviour being imbued with power and glory.

The bird has changed from an eagle to a dove. The eagle had the power to rescue and carry a person in flight. The dove drives the saviour figure into the wilderness but has already come to him at the moment he is declared to be the beloved son (for sacrifice).

The Gospel of Mark may be thought of as inverting the rival myths of a messiah or saviour coming with great power. The water has become a means of symbolic death and birth as a “beloved son” destined to be sacrificed.

The earlier myth of power is not completely displaced, however. We see the saviour figure in the wilderness nourishing his followers by the thousands; he then ascendes a mountain before returning to walk upon the water to his disciples. Several details of this narrative indicate it is to be understood as a theophany, or perhaps even originally a post-resurrection appearance. The myth of power is not completely replaced but it is supplemented by an inverted form of the myth to take place first.


Jesus’ Baptism in the Context of the Myth of Water, Flight and Wilderness

An important consequence follows. If a myth is made up of all its variants, structural analysis should take all of them into account. — Claude Lévi-Strauss (435)
The structural analysis developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss invites one to compare the variants of a myth so as to define the rules that led to their transformation. . . . [A] myth is comprised of all of its variants — meaning that one version alone of a myth is not held to be unique and authentic . . . . However, Lévi-Strauss shows that the nature of any myth is to reinvent itself through each new speaker who appropriates it.  — Philippe Wajdenbaum (1)


Our canonical gospels all begin the career of Jesus with John the Baptist. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) all follow the baptism of Jesus with a wilderness testing of Jesus. Why don’t we see more variation in starting points and details if each author had his own set of historical or biographical traditions to draw upon?

I am aware that the terms “gnostic” and “gnosticism” have become problematic among a number of scholars in more recent years but I use the terms here as they were used by Robinson in his 1970 essay. For the sake of convenience I also use Mark to refer to the author of the Gospel of Mark.

One more point: Certainly the baptism and wilderness episodes in the gospels derive largely from the Exodus account of Israel leaving through the Red Sea and spending 40 years in the wilderness. I do not deny that association. But it also appears that there are other accounts that may derive from reinterpretations of the Exodus event, or that the Exodus narrative was in some way remoulded several times to produce the different narratives discussed here: Apocalypse of Adam, Revelation, Gospel of Hebrews, synoptic gospels.

The reading that led me to produce this post was prompted by James M. Robinson On the Gattung of Mark (and John) (1970). Robinson suggests a common source lies behind the Gospel of Mark’s beginning with the baptism and wilderness experience of Jesus, our canonical Book of Revelation’s reference to the birth of a child and the fleeing of its mother to the wilderness, a section of the “gnostic” “Apocalypse (or Revelation) of Adam and a passage in the now mostly lost Gospel of Hebrews.

Robinson does not think that our Gospel of Mark was an attempt to historicize spiritual gnostic teachings but that Mark adapted genuinely historical traditions to conform to a pattern of gnostic thought. We may wonder if it is necessary to bring any assumption of historical traditions to the question but that’s for each of us to decide.

The section of the Apocalypse of Adam is a list of proclamations from thirteen kingdoms. This part of the apocalypse is generally understood to have originated separately from the rest of the text because of various inconsistencies in the way it fits into the surrounding narrative. As for dating it, I have seen arguments for it being dated to very late second or third century (a reference to Solomon matches a late trajectory of evolving myths related to Solomon’s power over demons) and other arguments for it being dated as early as the first century CE or even BCE (it lacks the sophisticated philosophical elements of later gnostic myths with their various emanations from a single remote deity and eclectic inclusions of other gospel references).

Here is the thirteen kingdoms passage taken from Barnstone’s The Other Bible:

“Now the first kingdom says of him. …
He was nourished in the heavens.
He received the glory of that one and the power.
He came to the bosom of his mother.
And thus he came to the water.

And the second kingdom says about him that he came from a great prophet.
And a bird came, took the child who was born and brought him onto a high mountain.
And he was nourished by the bird of Heaven.
An angel came forth there.
He said to him, ‘Arise! God has given glory to you.’
He received glory and strength.
And thus he came to the water.

“The third kingdom says of him that he came from a virgin womb.
He was cast out of his city, he and his mother; he was brought to a desert place.
He was nourished there.
He came and received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“The fourth kingdom says of him that he came from a virgin. .. .
Solomon sought her, he and Phersalo and Sauel and his armies, which had been sent out.
Solomon himself sent his army of demons to seek out the virgin.
And they did not find the one whom they sought, but the virgin who was given to them.
It was she whom they fetched. Solomon took her.
The virgin became pregnant and gave birth to the child there.
She nourished him on a border of the desert.
When he had been nourished, he received glory and power from the seed from which he had been begotten.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the fifth kingdom says of him that he came from a drop from Heaven.
He was thrown into the sea.
The abyss received him, gave birth to him, and brought him to Heaven.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the sixth kingdom says that a [ . . . ] down to the Aeon which is below, in order, to gather flowers.
She became pregnant from the desire of the flowers.
She gave birth to him in that place.
The angels of the flower garden nourished him.
He received glory there and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the seventh kingdom says of him that he is a drop.
It came from Heaven to earth.
Dragons brought him down to caves.
He became a child.
A spirit came upon him and brought him on high to the place where the drop had come forth.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the eighth kingdom says of him that a cloud came upon the earth and enveloped a rock.
He came from it.
The angels who were above the cloud nourished him.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the ninth kingdom says of him that from the nine Muses one separated away.
She came to a high mountain and spent some time seated there, so that she desired herself alone in order to become androgynous.
She fulfilled her desire and became pregnant from her desire.
He was born.
The angels who were over the desire nourished him.
And he received glory there and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“The tenth kingdom says of him that his god loved a cloud of desire.
He begot him in his hand and cast upon the cloud above him some of the drop, and he was born.
He received glory and power there.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the eleventh kingdom says of him that the father desired his own daughter.
She herself became pregnant from her father.
She cast [ . . . ] tomb out in the desert.
The angel nourished him there.
And thus he came to the water.

“The twelfth kingdom says of him that he came from two illuminators.
He was nourished there.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water.

“And the thirteenth kingdom says of him that every birth of their ruler is a word.
And this word received a mandate there.
He received glory and power.
And thus he came to the water, in order that the desire of those powers might be satisfied.

read more »

Why and when “Mark” wrote the first gospel: a new explanation

We have another argument (I don’t mean evidence-free speculation) for when and why somebody sat down and wrote the first gospel, the one we know as the Gospel According to Saint Mark. I’m going to have to set several of these arguments (beginning with William Wrede and on up through Burton Mack, Dennis MacDonald, and most recently till now R.G. Price) and set all their key points of argument out in a table and compare.

I will try here to set out the main gist of Adam Winn’s case.

He begins with the date of its composition because on the relative date hangs his whole thesis. It was written, he believes, not soon prior to but after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Justifications for after and not before:

Some scholars say the gospel was written just prior to the destruction of the temple and point to some specific details in Jesus’ prophecy not being literally fulfilled; so “Mark” (I’ll call the author Mark henceforth for convenience) was recording a tradition that Jesus did predict the temple’s destruction.

Winn objects on two grounds:

  1. an overly literal emphasis on a reading of the prophecy (e.g. not one stone left standing on another) misses the nature and point of apocalyptic prophecies. They are never meant to be read strictly literally but for overall fearful impact;
  2. even if Jesus did predict the temple’s destruction it would be irrelevant to the question of whether Mark wrote before or after its fulfillment. In fact, it would be risky for the author to record it before the event because he could not have known if it was going to happen and he would know he could eventually lose the confidence of his audience if it didn’t. (Even during the siege of Jerusalem itself it was not clear that the Temple would finally be destroyed.) It is more likely that Mark wrote after the prophecy had been fulfilled when the prophecy would be vindicated among readers.

But there is a stronger positive argument Winn uses.

Winn sets out the arguments and evidence for the gospel being written in Rome and primarily for a gentile audience. I won’t repeat all of the details here. That’s point one.

Point two. We can know from Paul’s letters to gentile Christians that the temple of Jerusalem was simply not a thing in the everyday consciousness of gentile Christians. It was not discussed. It was not important for their beliefs. It never arose in Paul’s conversations with them. Yet — in the gospel of Mark there are several chapters given to addressing the temple, its authorities, its fate and theirs. From the time Jesus enters Jerusalem and is welcomed by “the people” through to his trial the temple, its destruction, and the demise of the authorities of that temple, is constantly before us. Even Jesus’ debates with the leaders are debates with those who bear responsibility for the temple’s doom, and those debates are concluded with a parable pointing to their bloody end.

So why? Why does Mark devote so much of his narrative to the fate of the temple and those responsible for its end in a gospel written to gentiles who heretofore had not thought much about the temple at all? It presumably had no theological significance for them. So why?

Theology of Victory

The answer, suggests Winn, lies in the propaganda the emperor Vespasian was so masterfully spreading throughout the empire after his and his son Titus’s victory in 70 CE. (I have written about this propaganda effort of Vespasian’s before so won’t go into details now.) In effect, we can say that Roman emperors ruled by divine right that was passed on through natural succession. But when the system broke down and a new leader arose through military conquest (as had Augustus before him) then the assumption was that the gods had given a special display of “virtue” or courage and manliness and strength to become the rightful ruler.

Vespasian not only defeated the last rival for the imperial chair but promoted his victory in Judea as a massive triumph, even declaring (falsely) that he had been the first to conquer that region. He displayed his greatness through this victory in statues, buildings, monuments of various kinds, and with stories spread of his miraculous powers (he healed the blind and restored a crippled man’s hand) and divine-scale beneficence (he fed a hungry Rome from his own largesse in Alexandria, Egypt). There were other miracles and wonderful acts that I won’t list here at this time.

So what had happened? Vespasian had overthrown the god of the Jews! To prove it all the loot from the temple was now in Rome. Jewish captives were marched by their hundreds in his triumphal procession. The temple of the Jews was destroyed and that proved that Vespasian’s gods had been more powerful, had subjected the god the Christians had looked to.

Suddenly the temple, now destroyed, became a problem for many Christians. This is the inference that Adam Winn draws. If Christians were not popular before this time then one can imagine pagans concerned for their souls trying to bring them back to normalcy by taunting them over the fate of the Jewish god.

And so Mark got to work. A story needed to be created to assure the flock that all was not lost, but that Jesus, the Son of God, really was more powerful and had in fact turned the tables on these ignorant fools boasting in their victory.

I have many things to write about and will add more to this post in due course.

Winn, Adam. 2018. Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.


Jesus, from a corpse hung on a tree to a man slain on a cross

Stéphane, Marc. 1959. La Passion de Jésus : Fait d’histoire Ou Objet de Croyance. Dervy-livres Besançon, impr. Jacques et Demontrond.

The French historian Marc Stéphane took up the question of the existence of Jesus and after engaging with the critical scholarship of his day, in particular that of “anti-mythicists” Alfred Loisy and Charles Guignebert, as well as mythicist Prosper Alfaric, and after delicately warning devout believers that he was not seeking to undermine their faith but was endeavouring to write an argument from a point of view that believers were free to ignore, wrote his own perspective on the question.

In brief, and to zero in on points I think are of more interest to many today, Stéphane

  1. Argued that the Gospel of Mark was the first to create a narrative of Jesus in a historical setting, drawing upon other writings such as the Jewish scriptures and the letters of Paul; fleshing out various images in these writings into narrative form;
  2. This gospel was probably written around the turn of the century, between 95 and 100 CE;
  3. Before the gospel was written, the view of the death of Jesus that was set out in 1 Cor 2:8 aligned with the same narrative we read in the Ascension of Isaiah: the Prince of this world, Satan and his archangels, killed the Lord of Glory and hung him up on a cross;
  4. The Ascension of Isaiah, in a Latin manuscript, conforms with the standard Jewish law that an executed criminal’s body would be hung on a tree as a public warning; that is, the hanging of a body on the tree an act that followed the execution; this was the standard Jewish understanding of what it meant for a body to be cursed by hanging on a tree;
  5. In one manuscript line of the Gospel of Mark Jesus is said to have called out at his moment of death, “My God, my God, why have you cursed me?” — thus adhering to what Paul wrote about the fate of the Son of God;
  6. The author of the Gospel of Mark had no historical material to shape into a narrative; there are many indications of this in the gospel itself (in addition to the evidence of source material from the Jewish scriptures and Paul’s letters): the lack of background and explanatory setting, characters and crowds just come and go as needed for each piece of story, the story is written in the style of a master narrator, breathlessly bringing his audience along with him “immediately” scene by vivid scene; the stylized structuring of three-fold sections throughout the narrative, especially with the 3rd, 6th and 9th hours of the Passion; and also the many anachronistic and unrealistic details of the narrative itself (e.g. Pharisees are portrayed unlike the sect they really were, and Pilate is also depicted most unlike his actual self);
  7. The author was writing for a Roman audience and decided to change the Jewish custom of hanging the body on a tree after death and place the crucifixion in a Roman setting: this further involved the need to have a Roman magistrate issue the final order for the crucifixion, and the name Pontius Pilate was well enough known and came conveniently to hand;

Seven points. I’ll stop there. Why spoil God’s design!


History (or something else?) as Fulfilled Prophecy

Once again I am succumbing to the temptation to do an easy post, little more than a copy and paste of something I posted on the earlywritings forum recently.

A topic I was addressing had to do with the significance of prophecy, or rather, fulfilled prophecy, in the narrative of our apparently earliest gospel, that according to Mark. Fulfilled prophecy, the original idea went, surely meant that the narrative was deemed literally historical.

I took the opportunity at this point to relate how ancient historians of the day were not necessarily considered very reliable or truthful and posted a section of my earlier post, The evidence of ancient historians, in which a Roman philosopher scoffs at historians of his day as nothing more than outright liars.

But I followed up with something a bit more substantial, an observation that the motif of fulfilled prophecy was a characteristic of ancient fiction, even historical fictions.

The use of prophecy was a stock tool for driving the plot of both fiction and history.

Herodotus, the “father of history”, narrated many instances of prophetic utterances of the Delphic oracle and it has been argued that Herodotus’s Histories was as theological in function as the Hebrew Bible’s history books — meant to teach the power of Apollo and need to submit to his will.

Homer’s epics are driven by prophetic announcements, too — and Homer was considered to be a “historian” in ancient times.

Then there are the clearly fictional novellas (or “historical novels”) whose plots are primarily driven by prophecies. E.g. Xenophon of Ephesus and his Ephesian Tale. After a few paragraphs setting the scene the author begins the story proper with a prophecy that no-one can understand but is only made clear after it is fulfilled. Sound familiar? Perhaps the author was inspired by the Gospel of Mark to write a similar fiction?

The temple of Apollo in Colophon is not far away; it is ten miles’ sail from Ephesus. There the messengers from both parties asked the god for a true oracle. They had come with the same question, and the god gave the same oracle in verse to both. It went like this.

Why do you long to learn the end of a malady, and its beginning?
One disease has both in its grasp, and from that the remedy must be accomplished.
But for them I see terrible sufferings and toils that are endless;
Both will flee over the sea pursued by madness;
They will suffer chains at the hands of men who mingle with the waters;
And a tomb shall be the burial chamber for both, and fire the destroyer; And beside the waters of the river Nile, to Holy Isis The savior you will afterwards offer rich gifts;
But still after their sufferings a better fate is in store.2

When this oracle was brought to Ephesus, their fathers were at once at a loss and had no idea at all what the danger was, and they could not understand the god’s utterance. They did not know what he meant by their illness, the flight, the chains, the tomb, the river, or the help from the goddess. . . . .

Achilles Tatius wrote Leucippe and Clitophon, another fiction, with a similar motif, though the opening prophecy came in the form of a dream. But other more direct prophecies pop up in the course of the narrative and again the hearers are as bewildered as Mark’s disciples about they mean.

. . . . the Byzantines received an oracle that said

Both island and city, people named for a plant,
Isthmus and channel, joined to the mainland,
Hephaistos embraces grey-eyed Athena,
Send there an offering to Herakles.

They were all puzzling over the meaning of the prophecy when . . . .

What follows is an attempt to decipher the “parable” by finding what each detail represented in code. At the end of the story the hero bewails that fact that it seems the god prophesied only something negative, loss and failure … but he is to be proven wrong. It’s a similar motif as we find in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus prophecies his death. Peter protests, but he is over-ruled and eventually learns that it’s all good.

Other “novellas” follow the same pattern. Another is The Ethiopian Story by Heliodorus.

There is a “historical novel”, a fictional narrative, about Alexander the Great (said to be by a “pseudo-Callisthenes”) that is also prophecy driven.

One might even say that the motif of a prophecy-driven plot is a characteristic of fiction, or even fictionalized history.

When historians wanted to be taken most seriously they cited their sources or told readers why and how they judged some source more reliable than another. They were not even beyond making up fictional sources — e.g. Herodotus. Or beyond rewriting scenes from plays and presenting them as an eyewitness narrative — e.g. Thucydides. Hence Seneca’s cynicism towards historians as quoted in my earlier comment.

Fehling, Detlev. 1989. Herodotus and His Sources: Citation, Invention and Narrative Art. Francis Cairns Publications.

Mandell, Sara, and David Noel Freedman. 1993. The Relationship between Herodotus’ History and Primary History. Atlanta, Ga: University of South Florida.

Reardon, Bryan P., ed. 1989. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press.


The Two Steps to move the Lord’s Celebratory Supper to a Memorial of his Death

While speaking about the origin of the Lord’s Supper discussions prompted me to revisit the question of the integrity of our canonical texts and whether we can be confident they preserve what was originally written by Paul and the author of the Gospel of Mark.

Well, I’ve tracked down several studies on just that question and though I will have to wait a few weeks before a number of them arrive I can post the arguments of one critical scholar, Alfred Loisy. Loisy set out his reasons for believing that the passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he claims to have received the instructions about the Lord’s Supper from the Lord himself is a later addition, and similarly for the passage in the Gospel of Mark narrating Jesus instituting a mystical rite the eve before his death. On the contrary, Loisy argues, before the ritual of the death of Jesus the Christian communities knew only of a celebratory fellowship meal that anticipated the imminent arrival of the Kingdom where they would all be feasting with Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 11:

20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper.

21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken.

22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? what shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.

23 For I have received from [ἀπὸ] the Lord [τοῦ Κυρίου] that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread:

24 And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.

25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.

26 For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.

Many of us who have read the above passage may at some time, especially when we first encountered it, have had some “back of our mind” sense that there was something slightly odd with it. But of course repetition when and where all around us evidently accept it as unproblematic dulled our curiosity. But Loisy revives and sharpens our early questions:

Direct revelation or from apostolic tradition?

35 There has been much dissertation about the meaning of the preposition από (before τον κυρίου in verse 23), which need not exclude intermediaries between Jesus and the author of the story. But on the hypothesis of intermediaries, as the matter concerns an act of the Christ and not a plain teaching, we should expect περί rather than από. The author places the case of the Supper among the other παραδόσεις which the Corinthians have received from him. Are all these to be transformed into Gospel traditions passed on by the Galilean apostles? Moreover, whether it be tradition or private vision, the story as here given is not in the primitive Gospel.

(Loisy, p. 399 – my heading)

Some strange features confront us in this passage.

  • It is strange that Paul, if he had really told all this to the Corinthians before, should here be obliged to recall it;
  • strange that he should present it as a revelation received by him from the Lord;35
  • strange that a doctrine implying the theory of redemption by the blood of the Christ, and linked artificially to the benediction of bread and wine customary at Jewish meals, should see the light in the first generation, when Christians lived in expectation of an immediate parousia.

On the other hand it is significant that regard is here paid to that expectation. Evidently the vision of the institution of the Supper which Paul professes to have had is conceived in the framework of a story relating the last meal of Jesus with his disciples in which preoccupation with the Great Event was the dominant feature.

. . . .

In the economy of the Supper as a mystic rite this reference to the parousia, made at a time when it was no longer thought of as imminent, is out of place. The mention of it is due to an old and firmly established tradition. There is ground therefore for saying that mystic commemoration of the saving death, the mystic communion with the crucified Christ, is superposed on a form of the Supper as an anticipation of the banquet of the elect in the Kingdom of God, a form clearly indicated in a saying embedded in the oldest tradition of the synoptic Gospels:

Verily, verily, I tell you
   that I will drink no more
      of the fruit of the vine,
   Until that day
      when I drink it new
         in the Kingdom of God.

The account of the mystic Supper, in First Corinthians, belongs to the evolution of the Christian Mystery at a stage in the development of that mystery earlier than Justin, earlier even than the canonical edition of the first three Gospels but notably later than Paul and the apostolic age. It must be dated in the period when the common meal was in process of transformation into a simple liturgical act. The passage in question is a conscious attempt to further the transformation by giving it the apostolical authority of Paul. . . .

(Loisy, pp. 244f, my formatting and bolding)

Loisy suggests that the transformation was made some time in the late first century or early second century, towards, say, the time of Marcion (who esteemed Paul as his sole apostolic authority) in 140 CE.

That makes sense to me. In my earlier post I referred to early traditions, clearly in tension with the one we read in 1 Cor 11: 23-26, that speak of a Lord’s Supper as a happy fellowship occasion for thanksgiving and with no connection at all with mystic symbolism of blood and flesh.

But what of the canonical gospels? If the mystical ritual in Paul’s letter was not part of what Paul himself wrote, and if the earliest canonical gospel that of Mark, was (as some argue – Tarazi, Dykstra, R.G.Price) indebted to Paul’s ideas, how do we explain the gospel account of Jesus instituting that ceremony? read more »

That Curious Ring Composition or Chiastic Structure in Ancient Writings

Anyone familiar with the gospel stories has noticed “bookending” or chiastic structure in certain episodes. Recall in the Gospel of Mark how Jesus passes by and curses a fruitless fig tree, goes to the temple to cause a ruckus, and then returns past the fig tree to see it has been withered.

Fig tree cursed

Temple cleansed

Fig tree withered

Ditto for the raising of Jairus’s daughter:

Jairus begs Jesus to come and heal his daughter

A woman touches him on the way to be healed

Jesus raises Jairus’s daughter

There are many such structures, and some more complex than those examples. Some have further seen that the entire gospel is written as a ring structure:

John the Baptist in wild clothing announces Jesus

Baptism of Jesus, symbolic of death and new life

Casts demon out of man in synagogue

Transfiguration of Jesus

Casts money changers out of temple

Death and resurrection of Jesus

Young man in fine white linen announces resurrected Jesus

But there are many other steps in between extending that same pattern. Michael Turton has studied chiasms in the Gospel of Mark and over GMark as a whole. For Michael’s analysis see Another pattern pattern encompassing the entire gospel is discerned by Mary Ann Tolbert in Sowing the Gospel. There are numerous others.

Compare the Roman historian Suetonius

We would be wrong if we thought that these literary patterns were unique to the biblical literature, however. We might not be surprised to find such patterns in poetic works but what is surprising (at least it was to me) was to find the same type of ring structure in the prose history of the Roman historian Suetonius.

Suetonius was born around the time the Jerusalem temple was destroyed and wrote his Lives of the Twelve Caesars in the early part of the second century.

Here is one example, his life of the emperor Galba who succeeded Nero. The pattern I post here was discerned by the classicist Thomas Benediktson. Here is how he saw Suetonius’s structure in his biographical account of Galba. The numbers in brackets refer to the chapter sections of the work. They have been added by later editors so are not original to Suetonius.

Thematic Diagram of Suetonius’ Galba

Pasiphae preparing to deceive a bull by donning a cow skin.

A. Destruction of statues, Nero (1)

B. Mythological ancestors (2)

C. Father, gibber (3)

D.1. Greek quotation, presage (4.1)

D.2. Latin quotation, old age (4.1)

E. portents and dreams, Fortuna (4)

F.1. Marriage, lack of heirs (5)

F.2. Failure to collect inheritance (5)

G. Use of power (6)

H. canescere (8)

I. Cruelty as administrator (9)

J. Ascent to power (10-11)

I. saevitia, avaritia as emperor (12)

H. Canus(12.3)

G. Abuse of power (14-15)

F.2. Failure to pay donative (16)

F.1. Adoption of heir (17)

E. Portents and dreams, Fortuna (18-19)

D.2. Latin quotation, presage (20)

D.1. Greek quotation, youth (20)

C. Arthritis, caro (21)

B. Gluttony and excessive homosexuality (22)

A. Destruction of statues, Vespasian (23)

(Benediktson, p. 173)

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The First Gospel: History or Apocalyptic Drama?

We know about the demons disturbing the peace in the Gospel of Mark, how they scream out when they see Jesus entering a synagogue or crossing a lake. But what if those fiends are but the tip of the iceberg and that in fact the gospel tells of a conflict between innumerable demonic beings behind the scenes on the one hand and Jesus on earth on the other. Such a possible interpretation of the Gospel of Mark came to me while following footnote byways in my study into Paul’s reference to the “rulers of this age” crucifying the “Lord of Glory” (see box insert at end of this post).

from Apocalipsis cu[m] figuris, Nuremburg: 1498, by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
If so, then the Gospel of Mark perhaps deserves to be shelved alongside stories like the Book of Daniel or even the Book of Revelation rather than beside genuine histories as some students of the Bible believe it should be.

Jesus the Conspiracy Theorist

The first swallow to arrive with this news about Mark left me sceptical about the onset of summer. Here is the message it brought:

Mark 10:42

But Jesus calling them, saith to them: You know that they who seem to rule over the Gentiles, lord it over them: and their princes have power over them. (Douay-Rheims)

An equally adequate translation would be, “those who are thought to rule over the nations”. See δοκέω (dokeó) for other uses of the word.

Matthew and Luke did not like the way Mark put it so they changed his wording to “those who rule”. Surely Mark could have said the same if that’s what he meant.

Is there anything else in the Gospel of Mark that might shed light on what Mark (I’ll speak of him as the author of the gospel) was thinking when he wrote that? Here we might pause to recollect that Mark makes considerable use of the Book of Daniel and in that book we read about earthly potentates being somewhat like the shadows following the warring angelic powers in heaven. Daniel 10:20, for instance, explains that the earthly fates of Persia and Greece follow the contest between Gabriel and the angelic powers set over those peoples.

So does Mark 10:42 alert us to a picture of angelic powers above being the real powers over earthly emperors and kings?

Next point.

The Devil You Don’t See

We know that Mark had Jesus speak in parables and that even his entire gospel may have been a parable if we concur with scholars such as Mary Ann Tolbert. In Mark 4 Jesus is found speaking in parables so that only his select few could truly understand what he was saying and to hide his meaning from the outsiders. Given that function of the parables, note the first three parables in the gospel. They are all about Satan and his demons acting upon people on this earth.

In Mark 4:13 Satan is the one who seals the fate of the unbelievers. It is not their own doing.

In Mark 3:27 Jesus teaches through parable that he must first overpower Satan in order to save humans now in his clutches.

And immediately prior to that parable he spoke another one about the ruling kingdom of Satan over this world.

Let’s go back further.

Through the Wormhole

When Jesus emerges from baptism he sees heavens being torn open and he hears a voice coming from there. We are to imagine no one else around him sees or hears any of this. Jesus alone is able to see and hear this “parallel world” right alongside ours. This experience is followed by a spirit “casting him out” into the wilderness. Jesus is not in control but he is being compelled by a spirit to go and face Satan. After he overcomes the temptations there angels come and care for him.

Then the demons in those possessed recognize him and know he has come to torment them and remove them from their power over humanity.

And then we had Jesus for a moment directly communicating with that other world, becoming half earthling and half divinity at the transfiguration. On the mountain top it appears for a moment he was actually both in that world and this one, in a doorway between the two, so to speak.

Jesus was “tested” in the wilderness and he continued to be “tested” throughout his time leading up to the crucifixion. The same word is used for scribes and others, even his followers, testing him with their hopes to trap him or their lack of faith in him. It is how the Greek language Book of Job described what Satan did to Job. By now we know where these tests are ultimately coming from.

Perhaps Mark 10:42 is starting to look more like an allusion to the demonic rulers behind the scenes after all.

But we need to study the climax of the gospel and not just its beginning.

Apocalypse Now

For Mark the crucifixion of Jesus was an apocalpytic event. That means it was a turning point in history. Apocalypticism conveys the idea that here and now only a handful of chosen ones have had the real picture of what’s happening revealed to them. The rest of the world lies in the darkness of ignorance. The elect few are the recipients of divine revelation. That revelation reveals the workings of heavenly powers and their plans for the nations. Recall the Books of Daniel and Revelation where the chosen ones are shown the mysteries of divine and other angelic beings and what they are doing now and what they are about to do that will mean catastrophe for many and salvation for a few.

As an apocalyptic event the crucifixion of Jesus wreaked the destruction of the demonic powers — at least the beginnings of that destruction. Their powers would be totally annulled at the coming of Jesus Christ in glory, as per Mark 13. But the process has begun now. The demons are being beaten back by the faithful through the protection of the heavenly Jesus. The coming of Jesus in glory is only a short time away.

Apocalyptic events come with apocalyptic signs. It happens unexpectedly when the faithful have fallen asleep. Sinners flee and hide. The sky turns dark at noon. Each hour is announced as the next event is announced that brings us closer to the climax. There is silence before a great shout. Even the veil hiding the Holy of Holies in the Temple will be torn by angelic powers from top to bottom, signalling that at that moment all who believe have access directly to God the Father. Gentiles see and glorify God.

That is how Mark described the crucifixion of Jesus. He even hinted at it in similar terms in his “little Apocalypse” of Mark 13. The apocalyptic language and imagery of Mark’s crucifixion scene is not full blown with the sky falling in and the moon turning red it is certainly “foot in the door” apocalyptic. One may think the author represents the death of Jesus as but the beginning of the wholesale apocalypse.

Real History with a Few Embellishments or Apocalyptic Drama to the Core?

Mark’s story can surely be read as an apocalyptic drama. The Son of God comes from heaven to take on the world of Satan and his demons and to free humanity from their powers.

One regularly hears how the Gospel of Mark is, unlike the Gospel of John, very “prosaic”, very “history-like” or “biographical” in its presentation of Jesus. We have addressed reasons to dispute this interpretation in the past and we do so again with this present post.


Garrett, Susan R. 1998. Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans.

Marcus, Joel. 1984. “Mark 4:10-12 and Marcan Epistemology.” Journal of Biblical Literature 103 (4): 557–74.

Robinson, James M. 1977. The Problem of History in Mark. London: SCM Press.

The Abomination of Desolation in Mark 13: What Did the Reader Need to Understand?

“Today, we know only too well the experiences of refugee treks, what such an escape can look like.” Yazidis of Iraq fleeing to the mountains.

When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.

Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that this will not take place in winter, because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.

Mark 13:14-19

What was that “abomination of desolation”? When we read “let the reader understand” we surely are right to think that it is some sort of mystery to be decoded or explained to us.

The following explanation comes from Der Weg Jesu by Ernst Haenchen (1968). Since it is in German I have had to resort to a machine translation. Fortunately, though, Ken Olson on the Biblical Criticism and History Forum set out the main argument to enable me to get started. I recommend reading his post for more detail than I will provide here.

To begin with Jesus is addressing an inner circle of his disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, “in private”. So it is secret teaching that we are reading.

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus said to them . . . .

Mark 13:1-5

For whom is Mark recording this warning?

Haenchen pulls us back from immersion in the story and confronts us with the question: Who was “Mark” writing this for? Was he writing a warning for Christians who were caught up in the Jewish war of 66 to 70 CE? If so, what was the point? The warning was recorded too late for them.

Further, the warning is for those who “see”, not “hear about”, the abomination of desolation. So was the abomination of desolation something that could be seen by all and sundry “in Judea”, not just in Jerusalem?

Common explanations suggest the abomination was something set up by the Roman army in or near the temple in Jerusalem. But if that were the case then what was the point in telling people throughout Judea to run for the hills at that point? If the Romans were already inside Jerusalem then they had already swept through Judea. Why wait to run until after the enemy has occupied your homeland?

Haenchen’s solution resolves such problems.

“Then the king’s officials came to the town of Modein”

Compare the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. Symbolic language is used, arguably to protect those who treasure the writing. It is proposed that explicitly anticipating the fall of Rome was not something to shout out about so Babylon was substituted for Rome. Those “in the know” knew the coded language. The Book of Revelation also speaks in its thirteenth chapter of a terrifying moment when God’s chosen would face an image of a beast and be ordered to worship it or be killed.

What situation in these early days of Christianity, in the days when the Gospel of Mark and the Book of Revelation were being written, would arouse such fear that the only way out was to drop everything and run immediately into the wilderness and hide in the hills?

The answer: the visit to one’s town of an imperial official setting up an altar and calling on all inhabitants to sacrifice to the emperor. Penalty for refusal was death. The mere possibility of such a moment was enough to generate fear.

Mark was not writing a warning for the people of Judea long after any danger facing them had passed. The war was over. What he was doing was couching (or coding) a warning to his readers in Italy, Syria, anywhere throughout the Roman empire, in the language of Daniel the prophet.

Haenchen writes, p. 446 read more »

If the Gospel of Mark Condemns Peter, Why Do We Sympathize With Him?

Peter’s Denial / Robert Leinweber

Especially since reading Theodore J. Weeden’s Mark — Traditions in Conflict, and several other works influenced by Weeden’s thesis, I have tended to assume that the Gospel of Mark seeks to denigrate Peter and the Twelve. They are nothing but failures, “obtuse and wrongheaded” (John Drury’s phrase) in every way. Was the author of the gospel (let’s call him Mark) firing shrapnel at Peter and his associates as part of some sort of ideological battle involving Paul?

But if Mark wanted to condemn Peter then why is it so easy to read the gospel and feel sympathetic towards him? Are we really unconsciously reading Mark through the later evangelists?

Before continuing, I must admit that I am conscious of the fact that I am relying entirely upon the Gospel of Mark as we have it in its canonical form and that the original composition may well have contained significant differences. Be that as it may, to continue…..

Finn Damgaard raised and answered my question in “Persecution and Denial – Paradigmatic Apostolic Portrayals in Paul and Mark”, a chapter at the end of Mark and Paul, Comparative Essays Part II. For and Against Pauline Influence on Mark (2014).

Mark singles out Peter for special mention throughout his gospel so we naturally take a particular interest in him:

  • Peter is the first disciple to appear in the gospel and the first to be called, the first to confess Jesus is the Christ (in the middle of the gospel) and the last disciple mentioned in the gospel;
  • We learn more about Peter than any other disciple: he has a mother-in-law so is or has been married; he has a house in Capernaum that he shares with his brother Andrew;
  • Peter is the first listed of the apostles and the first to be renamed by Jesus, and his words are used to initiate teachings by Jesus on discipleship;
  • He appears to be more “rounded” as a character than the others in his arguments with Jesus and his three denials and subsequent tears.

Peter’s failings are certainly many:

  • he denies Jesus three times
  • he is forgetful and uncomprehending
  • Jesus calls him Satan

But notice how the author also leads us to sympathize with Peter. Peter may be a foil to Jesus but he is not portrayed as wicked. Mark keeps the readers on Peter’s side by letting the readers see into Peter’s well-meaning nature, his good intentions and genuine bafflement and tearful remorse over his most serious failures. read more »

Aesop, Guide to a Very Late Date for the Gospels?

Is it possible that our canonical gospels, even the apparently pioneering Gospel of Mark, were really composed well into the second century? The possibility has been argued by a few and I don’t discount it. I often find myself suspecting it is true although very often for the sake of argument I will assume that at least the Gospel of Mark was written relatively soon after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. There are reasonable arguments in favour of a first-century date, after all, but it is also undeniable that an early date for Mark “just happens” to favour orthodox Christian beliefs and traditional models for the sources and general reliability of the Gospels. It does not hurt to keep in mind the fundamentals for dating any text (see Scientific and Unscientific Dating of the Gospels) and that we ought always to start first with where we have the most secure evidence for the existence of a work, not from where we have the least.

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the [Bible’s books] to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (Lemche, N. P. (2001) “The Old Testament — A Hellenistic Book?” in Lester L. Grabbe (ed) Did Moses Speak Attic? Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield. p. 294)

The earliest evidence that anyone knew of passages that appear in our canonical gospels are the writings of Justin Martyr from around 140 to 150 CE. I have posted a table cross-referencing Justin’s writings with Gospel content at (The table needs updating because I’ve since found a few mistakes in it, but overall it is useful for getting a general idea.)

Now it “just so happens” that Justin was writing at a time when there was a strong interest in the life and writings of the apostle Paul although you would not know it if you read only Justin. Paul is conspicuous in Justin’s works by his complete absence. Presumably the reason for Justin’s silence (despite the evidence we have for volcanic debates erupting over Paul all around him) is his refusal to acknowledge the apostle who was reputed to be the pillar of “the heretics”.

This interest in Paul is the point of this post’s argument for dating the gospels as I’ll explain.

But before I do, note the evidence for this strong interest in Paul in the second century. It was at this time that a canonical collection of Paul’s letters first appears. Since it happened to be the “heretical” Marcionites who produced this canon the “proto-orthodox” writers took hold of the same writings and accused their opponents of editing out the bits they did not like. And so the battle raged over what, exactly, the original texts of Paul’s letters looked like. Before the second century we have no record of any interest being shown in Paul’s letters.

It was also in the second century that we find stories being written about Paul and his career as an apostle. One of these is our New Testament book of Acts. There was another “Acts” of Paul that took a very different view of him and his message, “The Acts of Paul and Thecla”, which apparently proved to be very popular despite being condemned by Tertullian.

Moreover, we have Pastoral epistles falsely claiming to be by the apostle Paul — 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus — also being produced in this era. And there is 2 Peter with its concluding reference to widespread controversy over Paul’s letters likewise being written (or forged under Peter’s name) in the second century.

Some readers have no doubt jumped ahead and know where I am headed with how this point relates to the date of the gospels.

If the Gospel of Mark was influenced by the letters of Paul, then it is reasonable to date it to a time when there was clearly known to be strong evidence for an interest in Paul’s letters.

And not a few scholars have argued for the Gospel of Mark’s indebtedness to Paul. We have over 300 pages of debate in Mark and Paul, Comparative Essays Part II. For and Against Pauline Influence on Mark. Many of us know about Tom Dykstra’s Mark, Canonizer of Paul. There is also Alan Cadwallader’s The Struggle for Paul in the Context of Empire: Mark as a Deutero-Pauline Text and many more likeminded publications.

I was reminded of all of the above as I completed reading a discussion by Tomas Hägg in The Art of Biography in Antiquity about the Life of Aesop (by Anonymous) composed probably in the first century CE. Addressing the time the Life appeared and the context of its emergence, Hägg writes

The biographical interest, in turn, is no doubt a result of the renewed actuality of the ‘Aesopic’ fables in the first two centuries of the Roman Empire. This is the time when Phaedrus, a slave of Thacian origin who became a freedman of Emperor Augustus, wrote his well-known fables in Latin iambic verse . . . ; when Babrius, . . . ‘a hellenized Italian living in Syria, or somewhere near by in Asia Minor’, published his two books of Mythiambi, versified Aesopic fables in Greek; and when Plutarch, who in his works often refers to Aesopic fables, invites the fabulist himself to take part, as an outsider, in his Banquet of the Seven Sages to debate with Solon and others. The author of the Life [of Aesop] was evidently part of this vogue and set out to answer the question of who the legendary first inventor of the popular prose genre really was. . . . . (Hägg, p. 127. My highlighting)

So can we likewise say that the author of the Gospel of Mark was evidently part of this vogue of interest in Paul, a second century development?

It would surely be more logical to assume that the author was writing at a time when we have strong awareness of Paul’s writings than at a time when we have no other evidence for even knowledge of Paul’s letters. Obviously I cannot prove any of the above. But it is suggestive, is it not? It would be unusual to date the Life of Aesop to a time when there was no other interest in Aesop if it can be safely dated to a time when Aesop was the vogue of the day.


We saw a very similar argument expressed by Lemche concerning the date of the Old Testament writings:

How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?



160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16

As an addendum to the previous post I refer here to Howard Clark Kee’s list of scriptural quotations, allusions and influences in the second half of the Gospel of Mark, chapters 11 to 16. Kee points out that

Even a casual glance at the margins of the Nestle-Aland text of Mark will suggest that in the passion section the number of quotations from and allusions to scripture increases sharply as compared with the first ten chapters of the book. When to the categories of quotations and allusions is added the less precise factor of ‘influence’, the links between the Jewish biblical tradition and the later chapters of Mark become even more numerous and potentially significant. . . .

Of the approximately 160 allusions to scripture in Mk 11-16, nearly half are from the prophets (exclusive of Daniel), a fourth are evenly divided between Daniel and the Psalms, slightly fewer than an eighth are from the extra-canonical writings (mostly from what are known as Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha), and the remainder are from Torah, the historical books and the other writings.

(Lee, Howard Clark, 1975. “The Function of Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16” in E.E. Earle and W.G. Keummel (eds) Jesus and Paulus, Geottingen, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht. pp. 165-188)

I have set out Kee’s list of quotations and allusions in three posts:

Chapters 11-12

Chapter 13

Chapters 14-16



Evidence Mark Used Written Sources

A.T. Cadoux (See also Cadoux ancestry)
A.T. Cadoux (See also Cadoux ancestry)

Though in recent years I have preferred to see the author of the second gospel as a creative writer (with some subsequent editorial additions made to give us the canonical version we know today) my reading has only skimmed the surface of what is available and I remain open to other possibilities. Roger Parvus cited The Sources of the Second Gospel by A. T. Cadoux as one work that has proposed the Gospel of Mark (GMark) used other earlier gospels as sources. Luckily an old copy of Cadoux somehow found its way into my mailbox so I can set out now the evidence for this hypothesis.

1. Two Accounts of the Feeding of the Multitudes

Mark 6:33ff Mark 8:1ff
33 But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him. 34 And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things. 35 When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. 36 Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.”

37 But He answered and said to them, “You give them something to eat.”

And they said to Him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?”

38 But He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”

And when they found out they said, “Five, and two fish.”

39 Then He commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties. 41 And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all. 42 So they all ate and were filled. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish. 44 Now those who had eaten the loaves were about five thousand men.

1 In those days, the multitude being very great and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples to Him and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. 3 And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar.”

4 Then His disciples answered Him, “How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?”

5 He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?”

And they said, “Seven.”

6 So He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. And He took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and they set them before the multitude. 7 They also had a few small fish; and having blessed them, He said to set them also before them. 8 So they ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets of leftover fragments. 9 Now those who had eaten were about four thousand. And He sent them away, 10 immediately got into the boat with His disciples, and came to the region of Dalmanutha.

These passages look very much like variant accounts of the same event.

For it is not conceivable that a company of me who had taken part in the experience of 6:30ff. should soon afterwards on a similar occasion ask, “Whence shall one be able to fill these men with bread here in a desert place?” (8:4). But the evangelist gives them as two separate events, and this makes us ask how any writer interested in the reliability of his witnesses should represent them as forgetful and obtuse to the point of imbecility. The only answer seems to be that he was a conservative compiler who, finding the same event given with different details in two authoritative sources, took it to be two different events and felt constrained to include both. (Cadoux 1935, pp. 16f.)

Different words are used for “basket” in the two passages, also, a further indication they derive from different sources since there would appear to be no reason for the author to change the word he used for the second account.

That all sounds quite reasonable.

It is, of course, founded on the assumption that unless the author felt so compelled to copy his sources exactly as he found them that he was willing to leave the final product sounding utterly silly. Such dedication to preservation of the originals. One has to ask, then, why the author felt incapable of adding some sort of explanation. A clear explanation of the two different sources would have helped. And if the author wanted to inspire trust why would he withhold his own identity and that of his sources? There are many other passages throughout the gospel that strain the credulity of most readers and that would have been helped in that regard by the mention of some reassuring evidence. That’s how historians of the day helped their readers trust their accounts and some of the reports of divine acts they recounted. But if the author wanted to portray the disciples as dimwitted as the hard-hearted Israelites wandering in the wilderness and giving Moses such grief for forty years because of their lack of faith despite miracle after miracle, then drawing attention to the disciples’ “imbecility” in Mark 8 makes sense.

Cadoux’s assumption appears to be close to those of the faithful, that the gospels were written to preserve real edifying historical events. I think we need to look elsewhere in the gospel for find support for either argument.

2. Extraordinary Syntactical Violence

In 6.8, 9 extraordinary violence is done to the construction of a sentence, which runs,

And he commanded them that they should take nothing for the journey, save a staff only; no bread, no wallet, no money in their purse; but shod with sandals: and put not on two coats.

Dr. Swete (Gospel according to St. Mark, p. 111) says it is “suggestive of the disjointed notes on which the evangelist depended,” though he evidently considers them to be the evangelist’s own notes. (Cadoux 1935, p. 17)

3. Awkward Naming of Peter

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How the Gospel of John Uses and Completes the Gospel of Mark

I skip ahead to the fourth paper of the first day of the Memory and the Reception of Jesus in Early Christianity Conference (10th-11th June 2016, St Mary’s University):

  • Helen Bond
    Helen Bond

    “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John” by Helen Bond

I will return in the next post to the third and the discussion following. Bond’s topic I find much more interesting.

We can see how the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark: they copied much of it and only slightly revised other parts. But that was not the way authors of that time normally used other texts. Matthew and Luke are unusual. Ancient authors were taught to add material, to omit and to re-arrange their source texts, even if only to produce something distinctively fresh and new. The Gospel of John has much more in common with other literature of the day in the way it uses its source material (Mark) and it is Matthew and Luke that are the outliers.

The blame for scholars in recent decades having had a difficult time accepting the idea that John was indebted to the synoptic gospels, in particular Mark, can be laid at the feet of form criticism. Form critics approached the gospels as if they were fundamentally copy and compilation documents. Their authors were transcribing other source and artlessly sticking them together to look like some sort of narrative. This view has not always been the common one, and once again it is being challenged by scholars who specialize in narrative criticism. Form critics have believed John could not possibly have known of Mark because its story segments are so alien to anything found in Mark. Narrative critics have always seen things differently and read John as a most artful composition, with even its awkward scene changes being the consciously constructed as rhetorical devices. Not that the gospel as we have it now was written in one go since there are nonetheless indications that the author returned a number of times to revise and add to it. Recall the second ending tagged on apparently as an afterthought, for example.

So how could John be so different from Mark yet still be dependent upon Mark? Helen Bond’s answer makes a lot of sense to me. The author of the fourth gospel knew the Gospel of Mark intimately, possibly so well we can imagine he knew it by heart. He had long reflected on Mark; had assimilated it into his own thinking and thought deeply, long and often, about its many facets and themes and messages. He was thus in a position to re-write it inside out, bringing to the fore his own meditations arising from its scenes and sayings.

Thus we find . . . .

John had no need to copy Mark’s exorcism episodes, because he realized Mark’s Jesus was in fact the conqueror of the ruler of the world — all of Mark’s episodic defeats of demons were subsumed under the direct presentation of Jesus as the one who defeated all powers.

John had no need to present John the Baptist as the Elijah because he had arrived at a new eschatology rendering Mark’s obsolete.

John had no need for a transfiguration scene because his Jesus was shown to be the ruler of all throughout the gospel.

Specific stories and sayings in Mark are broadened out in John to large thematic discussions. Mark’s Jesus spoke of serving all to be the first of all; John has a whole scene demonstrating this — the foot washing. Similarly the eucharist and baptism and holy spirit narratives in Mark are replaced by lengthy discussions of the meaning of the eucharist, of baptism and of the holy spirit.

The crucifixion scene in John takes up and develops ideas that are only muted in Mark. Example, Mark has the titulus crucis declaring Jesus to be the King of the Jews while John takes this detail and makes it a controlling metaphor of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.

It is often said that John’s trial scene owes little to those found in the synoptics but Helen Bond disagrees. Rather, the argument is advanced that the “Synoptic Jewish Trial” is scattered throughout John:

  • Mark’s Sanhedrin trial (prior to Jesus being sent to Pilate) is the source of John 11’s portrayal of the Sanhedrin condemning Jesus after the raising of Lazarus
  • Mark’s witnesses accusing Jesus of threatening to destroy the temple is expanded in John 2 with Jesus declaring just that
  • The question of Messiahship in Luke 22:67-70 is found in John 10.
  • Jesus announcement that his judges would see the Son of Man in the heavenly realm is transferred in John to chapter 1.

Bond compares the viewpoint of the renowned Raymond Brown who argued that John’s trial scene was more historically accurate than those in the synoptics because the author of John had to have relied upon eyewitnesses, whereas in the synoptic versions we know that the disciples had fled the scene and could not have relayed the events that are written there. The synoptic authors instead cobbled together a more convoluted trial scene(s) by drawing upon recollections of disparate scenes throughout Jesus’ life. (Brown apparently was so steeped in form-critical assumptions and unable to seriously consider John as a creative author rewriting Markan themes that he argued that he only knew of the cleansing of the Temple story from an isolated account on a single leaf or sheet and not as part of a narrative — hence his placing it at the beginning of the gospel and not at the end as in Mark.)

Helen Bond believes that John could only have used and played with Mark these ways if he knew Mark intimately and had pondered it deeply.

How was the Gospel of John received?

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