Finding Paul in the Gospel of Mark — Volkmar translation

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by Neil Godfrey

Gustav Volkmar (wikidata)

Here is a copy of what I have posted as a standalone page — see the right side margin under Pages and scroll down to Gustav Volkmar.

. . . .

Gustav Volkmar (1809-1893) has been referenced a few times in this blog but the most detailed synopsis of his views on the Gospel of Mark came from a post by Roger Parvus: A Simonian Origin for Christianity, Part 16: Mark as Allegory

The following notes are taken from

  • Skoven, Anne Vig. “Mark as Allegorical Rewriting of Paul: Gustav Volkmar’s Understanding of the Gospel of Mark.” In Mark and Paul. Part II, For and against Pauline Influence on Mark: Comparative Essays, edited by Eve-Marie Becker, Troels Engberg-Pedersen, and Mogens Müller, 13–27. Beihefte Zur Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft Und Die Kunde Der Älteren Kirche; Volume 199. Berlin, Germany ; Boston, Massachusetts: De Gruyter, 2014. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783110314694.13/html?lang=en

    [Anne Vig Skoven who wrote this essay was a PhD student at the University of Copenhagen until her tragic, premature death in 2013]


Unlike exegetes of the patristic tradition and also unlike most of 20th century scholarship, biblical scholars of the 19th century were not foreign to the idea that Paulinism was to be found in the Gospel of Mark. The founder of the so-called Tubingen School, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), for instance, regarded the Gospel of Mark as a synthesis of Petrine and Pauline traditions. . . .

In 1857, the German exegete Gustav Hermann Joseph Philipp Volkmar (1809-93) characterized the Gospel of Mark as a Pauline gospel. Although Mark’s story was concerned with Jesus’ life and death, it was also, so Volkmar argued, permeated by Pauline theology. During his lifetime, Volkmar remained a solitary figure, and David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) once considered him a “närriger Kauz” [= a ludicrous little owl]. Nevertheless, at the end of the 19th century knowledge of Volkmar’s thesis and writings was widespread among German speaking scholars. His thesis drove a wedge into German biblical scholarship; Adolf Jülicher (1857-1938) and William Wrede (1859-1906) both appreciated Volkmar’s work, Albert Schweizer (1875-1965) and his student Martin Werner (1887-1964) did not. . . .

. . . . From 1833 to 1852, he taught in various Gymnasien, in which he primarily worked within the field of philology and classical studies. In 1850 he published a book on Marcion and the Gospel of Luke, in which he claimed against Baur and Albrecht Ritschl (1822- 1889) that Marcion’s gospel was a rewriting of Luke.’ According to Adolf Jülicher, Volkmar had deserved a chair for this – today widely accepted – thesis. However, a series of dramatic events prevented that. Due to church political controversies, Volkmar was arrested in the classroom in 1852 and charged with lese majesty and dismissed from his job. In 1853, he was called lo Zürich where he was finally appointed professor of New Testament studies in 1863. In Zürich he published the works which are of special relevance to the present study:

  • Die Religion Jesu und ihre erste Entwickelung nach dem gegenwärtigen Stande der Wissenschaft (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1857); a popular work, which introduced Volkmar’s thesis of Mark as a Pauline gospel.
  • Die Evangelien, oder Marcus und die Synopsis der kanonischen und ausserkanonischen Evangelien nach dem ältesten Text mit historisch-exegetischem Commentar (Leipzig: Ludw. Fr. Fues Verlag, 1870); a scholarly commentary on the Gospel of Mark, in which Volkmar, against Baur, forwarded his thesis that Mark was the first gospel, Luke the second and Matthew only the third. The commentary was republished in a slightly edited second edition with a new title in:
  • Marcus und die Synopse der Evangelien nach dem urkundlichen Text und das Geschichtliche vom Leben Jesu (Zürich: Verlag von Caesar Schmidt, 1876).

In addition to Volkmar’s traditional commentaries on the Markan text, the books from 1870/76 offer an early reception history of the Markan narratives. . . . .

In his biographical sketch of Gustav Volkmar from 1908, Adolf Jülicher characterizes Volkmar as an exegete whose work was framed to the one side by Baur’s Tendenztheorie and to the other side by Strauss’ scepticism (772 f). Yet, he differs from both schools on two important issues: historicity and Markan priority. With regard to Strauss, Volkmar welcomes his critique of the rationalistic and harmonizing exegesis of early 19th century scholarship. But he is also critical of Strauss’ concept of the gospel narratives as mythoi, instead he prefers the term “Poësie”. Unlike Strauss Volkmar emphasizes the historicity of the gospel narratives.Yet, his understanding of historicity, as well as his method are closer to those of 20th century redaction criticism than to the Leben Jesu Forschung of his own century. With regard to the Tübingen School, Volkmar treats the early Christian literature as Tendenzschriften. His overall project was to reconstruct the history of the gospel traditions as a reflection of the developments in early Christianity. But unlike the Tübingen exegetes, he accepted, as already mentioned, the thesis of Markan priority. Consequently, he rejected the idea of an “Ur-Evangelium” which was needed for the Tübingen explanation of the gospel relations. Likewise he rejected the idea of a Spruchbuch or Schriftquelle (1870, vili-xi; 1876, 646) – later identified as Q. According to Volkmar, Mark’s only sources were: the Old Testament writings, four Pauline letters (Romans, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians), the oral tradition of early Christian communities – and, surprisingly, Revelation.

(pp 13-16)

The work I have translated and made available here is Volkmar’s 1857 Die Religion Jesu. Perhaps I will also be able to make either his 1870 or 1876 work available in time.

The Religion of Jesus
and its first development according to
the current state of scholarly knowledge



Another Pioneering Work for Markan Priority / Gospel History Now Translated into English

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by Neil Godfrey

I have uploaded new files containing an English translation of Christian Hermann Weisse‘s Gospel History (Die evangelische geschichte, kritisch und philosophisch bearbeitet) on Vridar.info. Weisse published his case for the priority of the Gospel of Mark at the same time as, but independently of, Christian Gottlob Wilke.

I have added a static page link to these files — alongside the pages for translations of the works of Christian Gottlob Wilke and Bruno Bauer.

Thanks to Paul Trejo for prompting me to undertake this most enjoyable and profitable task.

Christian Hermann WEISSE — Translated into English

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by Neil Godfrey

Christian Hemann Weisse’s two-volume work pioneering the case for the priority of the Gospel of Mark — Die evangelische geschichte=Gospel History — is now translated into English. See vridar.info for details.

The source texts that I used for the translation are on archive.org: Volume 1 and Volume 2.

The English translation PDF file, volume 1 is no more than 7 MB — download here.

Volume 2 is no more than 6 MB — download here.

For the sake of completeness I have added a translation of Weisse’s corrections to his volumes, although I also applied the corrections to the main files. This page should be consulted when comparing the source text in archive.org with the English translation I have supplied: Weisse – Errata and CC Licence.




One more scene to delete from the original Gospel narrative?

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by Neil Godfrey

Antonio da Correggio, The Betrayal of Christ, with a soldier in pursuit of Mark the Evangelist, c. 1522 (Wikimedia)

How much has been written about that young man fleeing naked from those who came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane — how many literary analyses, how many theological interpretations. . . . But what if. . . .

Here is the passage — in Mark 14

43 Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.

44 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46 The men seized Jesus and arrested him. 47 Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

48 “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.”50Then everyone deserted him and fled.

51 A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, 52 he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.

Strange details stimulate creative imaginations and I once wrote of a view known to many — that the youth was to be identified with the young man in the tomb after Jesus’ resurrection: That Mysterious Young Man in the Gospel of Mark.

Renowned literary critic Frank Kermode wrote about this young fellow in The Genesis of Secrecy and compared his strange intrusion into the narrative to the stranger in the Macintosh in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Kermode begins with Joyce:

Let me remind you about the Man in the Macintosh. He first turns up at Paddy Dignam’s funeral, in the Hades chapter. Bloom wonders who he is. “Now who is that lanky looking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I’d like to know?” And Bloom reflects that the presence of this stranger increases the number of mourners to thirteen, “Death’s number.” “Where the deuce did he pop out of? He wasn’t in the chapel, that I’ll swear.” . . . (p. 50)

After some discussion K comes to the next instance of a cryptic character appearing suddenly out of nowhere….

“And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body; and they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” And that is all Mark has to say about this young man.

Kermode continues:

The difficulty is to explain where the deuce he popped up from. One way of solving it is to eliminate him, to argue that he has no business in the text at all. Perhaps Mark was blindly following some source that gave an inconsistent account of these events, simply copying it without thought. Perhaps somebody, for reasons irrecoverably lost, and quite extraneous to the original account, inserted the young man later. Perhaps Matthew and Luke omitted him [if they had him in their copies of Mark] because the incident followed so awkwardly upon the statement that all had fled. [It is also conjectured that the Greek verb translated as “followed,” sunekolouthei, might have the force of “continued to follow,” though all the rest had fled.*] Anyway, why is the youth naked? Some ancient texts omit the phrase epi gumnou, which is not the usual way of saying “about his body” and is sometimes called a scribal corruption; but that he ran away naked [gumnos] when his cloak was removed is not in doubt. So we have to deal with a young man who was out on a chilly spring night (fires were lit in the high priest’s courtyard) wearing nothing but an expensive, though not a warm, shirt. “Why,” asks one commentator, “should Mark insert such a trivial detail in so solemn a narrative?” ** And, if the episode of the youth had some significance, why did Matthew and Luke omit it? We can without difficulty find meanings for other episodes in the tale (for instance, the kiss of Judas, or the forbidding of violent resistance, which makes the point that Jesus was not a militant revolutionist) but there is nothing clearly indicated by this one. . . . (pp 55f)

* Kermode cites Taylor’s commentary, but compare also one of the points I copied recently from Wilke
** cites Cranfield’s commentary

Kermode lists common explanations and one of his own (my formatting):

If the episode is not rejected altogether, it is usually explained in one of three ways.

First, it refers to Mark’s own presence at the arrest he is describing. Thus it is a sort of reticent signature, like Alfred Hitchcock’s appearances in his own films, or Joyce’s as Macintosh. This is not widely believed, nor is it really credible.

Secondly, it is meant to lend the whole story verisimilitude, an odd incident that looks as if it belongs to history-like fortuity rather than to a story coherently invented – the sort of confirmatory detail that only an eyewitness could have provided – a contribution to what is now sometimes called l’effet du réel. We may note in passing that such registrations of reality are a commonplace of fiction; in their most highly developed forms we call them realism.

Thirdly, it is a piece of narrative developed (in a manner not unusual, of which I shall have something to say later) from Old Testament texts, notably Genesis 39:12 and Amos 2:16. Taylor, with Cranfield concurring, calls this proposition “desperate in the extreme.”

And his own “incorrect” option?

I suppose one should add a fourth option, which is, as with Macintosh, to give up the whole thing as a pseudoproblem, or anyway insoluble; but although commentators sometimes mention this as a way out they are usually prevented by self-respect and professional commitment from taking it.

That one hurts. A problem without a solution and thus not a real problem?

But what if….?

But Christian Gottlob Wilke whose searching in the early nineteenth century for the original gospel led to the now widely accepted view that the Gospel of Mark was the first written of our canonical gospels believed that someone for reasons unknown, or maybe for the sake of one of the options above, set forth reasons he believed the episode could not have been penned by the original author.

Wilke’s reasons for proposing to cut the scenario out of the original account:

1. the larger passage is about the fleeing of the disciples when the authorities come to arrest Jesus — the flight of the young man is an irrelevant intrusion

2. the account of the flight of the young man is out of place in the way the story is worded: it suggests the authorities were attempting to arrest the followers of Jesus before the arrest of Jesus

3. the point of the story is to tell us that only one person followed Jesus, viz Peter.

4. the story begins with the express statement that Jesus went with the twelve disciples only, and then says that it was those twelve who fled — leaving the introduction of the young man out of context.

Bruno Bauer drew attention to Wilke‘s conclusion and added that no other evangelist thought it fit to repeat the episode — suggesting it was not there to begin with.

I would add that Matthew loved to bring in as many explicit prophecy fulfillments as he could and even he passed up this opportunity to refer to the Amos prophecy of the flight of the youth naked.

It would follow, then, if we accept the above factors, that it was never part of the original gospel after all.

Of course, even if it were not part of the original narrative, we have no way of knowing if early Christians who liked Mark’s gospel thought the addition to be an improvement. Maybe even the author himself was persuaded to add it at some later point? We simply don’t know.

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


God reflects: “Oh dear, I didn’t mean for that bit to go into the Bible”

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by Neil Godfrey

44 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46 The men seized Jesus and arrested him. 47 Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. — Mark 14
A depiction of Peter striking Malchus (c. 1520, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon)

I came across a thought-provoking questioning of the authenticity of that Gospel detail describing the disciples carrying swords as they accompanied Jesus into Gethsemane while translating a famous nineteenth century work by Christian Gottlob Wilke. (“Famous” because it was in Der Urevangelist that Wilke established the case for the priority of the Gospel of Mark.) Wilke was unable to accept this scene of the sword wielding disciple (the Gospel of John attributes the action to the typically impulsive Peter) formed part of the original narrative. Here are his reasons:

Jesus expected that night, as the common account of Matthew 26:31 and Mark 14:27 tells us, only acts of cowardice from the disciples, and the same account follows through on this explicit expectation when it depicts all the disciples fleeing (Matt 26:56, Mark 14:50.) – evidence that the narrator had only planned to carry out the word of the prediction, and that therefore there was no question of an attempted resistance.

The sword is introduced to portray the disciples as resisting the arrest of Jesus — a detail that stands at odds with the theme of prophetic fulfilment that the author has been establishing.

Notice, too, how more naturally the narrative flows once this detail is removed. We begin with Jesus returning from his prayer and speaking to his disciples:

42 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

43 Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.

44 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46 The men seized Jesus and arrested him. 47 Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

48 “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” 50 Then everyone deserted him and fled.

Is it not strange that the author has Jesus addressing those who have arrested him while making no mention at all of the act that actually belies his words. Jesus implies that his own followers have not come “with swords and clubs” and have not performed any act of rebellion. So how could the author have managed to introduce this episode without any rebuke or explanation from Jesus?

The Jesus we find in the Gospel of Mark, Wilke points out, otherwise consistently addresses any specific act of his disciples. But here he seems not to have noticed what they have just done. Rather, his words indicate that his disciples have fearfully stood by before running to avoid the same fate as Jesus.

If a subsequent curator of the Gospel did add such a detail, one does wonder about the circumstances of their time. Were some Christians justifying armed resistance?

(Wilke makes his case with somewhat more technical detail by pointing to various emphases in the Greek words relating to the disciples fleeing and a more detailed discussion of the sequence of the phrases.)

Wilke, Christian Gottlob. Der Urevangelist oder exegetisch kritische Untersuchung über das Verwandtschaftsverhältniss der drei ersten Evangelien. Dresden ; Leipzig : Gerhard Fleischer, 1838. http://archive.org/details/derurevangelisto0000wilk. p. 495


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Curiosity One:

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

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

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

Curiosity Two:

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

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

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

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

Curiosity Three:

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

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

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

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

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

Solutions to the Riddles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Curiosity One?

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

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

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

Jesus appears on shore of “sea” of Galilee

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

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


A “Playful” Ambiguity in the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Mark is often ambiguous and disconcerting, but whether the intention of its author was “play” I doubt. Recently I was pulled up while reading an article about an ancient heresy that asserted Jesus was not real flesh but spirit in the guise of flesh, and that the one who was crucified was Simon of Cyrene, the one said in the synoptic gospels to have carried the cross of Jesus to Golgotha. — But none of that startled me because it is all well known. Rather, what pulled me up was the author’s reference to the Gospel of Mark 15:21f as an

overall playful discourse of the multiple and mistaken identities on stage during the Passion. (Hoklotubbe p. 57)

Ambiguity in the Gospel of Mark was not a new insight but what was new-ish for me was reading this notion in the context of a discussion about Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross of Jesus.

Before explaining why, let’s get orientated. Here is the passage in the Gospel of Mark from Young’s Literal Translation:

20 and when they [had] mocked him, they took the purple from off him, and clothed him in his own garments, and they led him forth, that they may crucify him.

21 And they impress a certain one passing by — Simon, a Cyrenian, coming from the field . . . . — that he may bear his cross,

22 and they bring him to the place Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, `Place of a skull;’

23 and they were giving him to drink wine mingled with myrrh, and he did not receive.

24 And having crucified him . . . .

Read the above carefully and ask yourself: whom do these verses say is being crucified?

Let’s backtrack a little. The quote I cited spoke of multiple mistaken identities during the Passion. Indeed, many of us know of Pilate asking the mob if he should release to them Barabbas instead of Jesus — the name Barabbas meaning “son of the father”. Jesus, of course, is known as the Son of the Father (God) among the mainstream faithful. The mob chose the wrong “son of the father”.

During the first trial of Jesus before the high priest he was asked if he were the Messiah. Mark 14:61-64

61 Again the chief priest was questioning him, and saith to him, `Art thou the Christ — the Son of the Blessed?’

62 and Jesus said, `I am; and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the power, and coming with the clouds, of the heaven.’

63 And the chief priest, having rent his garments, saith, `What need have we yet of witnesses?

64 Ye heard the evil speaking, what appeareth to you?’ and they all condemned him to be worthy of death

Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah but his audience understands his answer to be a lie.

Then at the opening of the trial before Pilate, Jesus was asked if he was the king of the Jews but Jesus curiousily replied, “You say it”. Then in the subsequent mocking of Jesus the soldiers pretend that he is the king — all highly ironical for the faithful reader of the gospel.

So yes, there is ambiguity aplenty over the identity of Jesus in Mark’s Passion narrative.

Surely, though, there can be no doubt that the gospel intended the readers to understand it was Jesus, and not Simon, who was crucified. Of that I can have no doubt at all since it was the clear intent of the gospel narrative from the opening verse of the opening chapter.

But we know that earlier in the narrative Jesus had spoken of the necessity for his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. Recall the time Jesus elicited multiple confusions over his identity before instructing Peter (originally named Simon) to take up his cross and follow Jesus with it. Mark 8…

27 And Jesus went out with His disciples into the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He asked His disciples, saying unto them, “Who do men say that I am?

28 And they answered, “John the Baptist; but some say Elijah, and others, one of the prophets.”

29 And He said unto them, “But whom say ye that I am?” And Peter answered and said unto Him, “Thou art the Christ.”

30 And He charged them that they should tell no man of Him.

31 And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and by the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

32 And He spoke that saying openly. And Peter took Him and began to rebuke Him.

33 But when He had turned about and looked on His disciples, He rebuked Peter, saying, “Get thee behind Me, Satan; for thou savorest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men.”

34 And when He had called the people unto Him with His disciples also, He said unto them, “Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.

Was the author of the Gospel of Mark being careless or subtle when he left the identity of the one being nailed to the cross open to ambiguity?

20 . . . . and they led him [sc. Jesus] forth, that they may crucify him.

21 And they impress a certain one passing by — Simon, a Cyrenian, coming from the field . . . . — that he may bear his cross,

22 and they bring him to the place Golgotha . . . .

24 And having crucified him . . . .

On the face of it, the immediate literal meaning is that they crucified Simon, but we know, of course, that it was really Jesus who was crucified.

Compare other ambiguities in this gospel:

Was the daughter of Jairus really dead or only in a deep sleep? It’s in Mark chapter 5:

22 Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. 23 He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him. . . . 

35 . . . . some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”

36 . . . . Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” . . . . 

38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40 But they laughed at him. . . . . 

41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” . . . .  42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around . . . .

Is the girl asleep or dead? Or is the author telling us through the ambiguity that there is no substantial difference between sleep and death?

Does the intended reader imbibe a similar message when they read about Simon taking the cross of Jesus … “and they crucified him”? The author could have easily and quite naturally have said, “And they bring Jesus to the place Golgotha….” instead of leaving the reader to do a mental double-flip to assume that he is no longer talking about Simon of Cyrene.

Confession time. I am attracted to the hypothesis of Andreas Bedenbender that the Gospel of Mark in many respects draws the inspiration for its narrative from the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. See The Crucifixion of Jesus as Implicit History of the Jewish War.

Many exegetes have further argued that this gospel draws heavily upon the letters of the apostle Paul. If so, we have good reason to believe that our author is deliberately telling readers that the crucifixion of Jesus has meaning only insofar as it means the crucifixion — the putting to “death” of the flesh — of all his followers.

Hoklotubbe, Chris. “What Is Docetism?” Re-Making the World: Christianity and Categories. Essays in Honor of Karen L. King, January 1, 2019. https://www.academia.edu/55282211/What_is_Docetism.


§ 92. The report of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey


Fourteenth Section.

The Story of the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.


§ 92.

The report of Mark

C. 16.

When the Sabbath was over, the women, among them Mary Magdalene, bought spices to embalm the body of Jesus and early in the morning after the Sabbath, as the sun rose, they went to the tomb.
Their anxiety as to who would roll away the stone from the vault of the tomb was lifted when they looked up and saw that the stone had been rolled away. They entered the tomb and saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were frightened. But he says to them: Do not be afraid; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the crucified – how inappropriate is the detail of this advertisement here in the assumed situation, i.e. how much the intention here betrays itself to present the contrast completely for the congregation—he has risen, he is not here. See there — again, how inappropriate and detailed! But the evangelist wants to exhaust all contrasts in brief — the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.


After these words, the conclusion begins immediately and not later, which later hands added to the original gospel and which displaced the true conclusion. Even the words, “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them” (Mark 16:8) are already partly the work of a later hand. Matthew still reveals the true content of the original report when he writes, “So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matthew 28:8). These words in their later form are inappropriate, for the angel whom the women met in the tomb had already dispelled all fear from them. However, the following belongs solely to the later hand: that the women said nothing to anyone out of fear, that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene in the morning, that she brought the fleeting message to the disciples but found no belief, that Jesus then appeared to two disciples in a foreign form on a walk, and finally to the Eleven when they were at table (Mark 16:8-14).

Mark’s pragmatism is not so uncontrolled and wasteful that he would leave the angel’s mission to the women so useless and futile, which gave Mary Magdalene a proof of Jesus’s resurrection once again, after she had already learned about it with the other women – as if the angel, who even took so much trouble to convince the women, was not credible enough – and then, after Magdalene again found no belief with her report, the Lord should be sent twice to the disciples. The note of the appearance that Magdalene was honored with is borrowed from Matthew and the Fourth Gospel, the characterization of Magdalene that the Lord cast out seven demons from her is from Luke, the same Luke provides the note that the disciples did not believe the unexpected message, and the note of Jesus’s appearance twice before the disciples.

There is no place in the Gospel for all these things, for only in Galilee should the Risen One appear to the disciples, as the angel expressly states.


The later hand therefore made a serious mistake in the conclusion by placing the last appearance of Jesus not in Galilee, but still in Jerusalem in connection with the previous revelations. The error became even more pronounced by not separating the last appearance (v. 15-20) from the preceding one that took place at the table, and now the matter comes down to the fact that Jesus gives his last instructions to the Eleven here at the table and is taken up into heaven.

In the original Gospel, Jesus can only appear to his followers once, in Galilee, and he must appear to them outdoors so that, after commanding them to preach the gospel to the whole world and baptize those who accept it, he can be taken up into heaven at the right hand of God without offense. The later glossator overlooked that Jesus, after giving his final instructions to the disciples, leads them out into the open country to Bethany, and that it is only after Luke (24:43-51) that the ascension takes place here.

The description of the miraculous power that is promised to the believers is patched together from the writings of Luke. That they (Mark 16:17-18) should drive out demons in the name of Jesus is necessary so that they may be like the Seventy; that they should pick up snakes is also appropriate so that they do not fall behind the Seventy who tread on snakes, and so that they become like Paul, who shook off a snake that had bitten his hand without any harm coming to him (Acts 28:3-6); that they will not be harmed if they drink something deadly is a proof that, like the Seventy (Luke 10:19), nothing can harm them; they will speak in new tongues, as actually happened according to the Acts of the Apostles, and finally they will lay their hands on the sick, as they had already healed the sick before, following the command of their Lord (Mark 6:13).


It does not seem that the original account promised the disciples the power of miracles, since they already had this power before and there is nothing in the parallel accounts of Matthew and Luke that suggests a promise of this kind was included in the original text

The power over snakes was given to the believers only by Luke, in whose writing the account of the Seventy was first created. Luke showed, through the example of Paul, that the privilege of the Seventy had been passed on to all messengers of faith. Luke found the source of this privilege in the Old Testament (Psalm 91:13).



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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

Having “settled” again (this time Thailand) I can resume my discussion of Nathanael Vette’s [NV] Writing With Scripture. We come now to the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Mark, the culmination of Mark’s narrative and the part most intertwined with Scriptural references and allusions. The point of NV’s discussion is to demonstrate that here our Markan author uses Scripture in the same way as we find it used in other extra-canonical Second Temple literature, sometimes explicitly but very often as implicit allusions. The former method is generally expositional (containing a commentary on the meaning of the Scripture), the latter compositional (repeating motifs and images to flesh out a story.) And the question that inevitably arises:

  • Are the scenes of the Passion Narrative created from Scripture?

NV zeroes in on five echoes of Scripture in the Passion Narrative:

  1. Mark 14:21 where Jesus cites Scripture to announce that one of the disciples eating with him would betray him;
  2. Mark 14:24 where Jesus speaks of his blood (represented by the wine) being poured out for many;
  3. Mark 14:27 where Jesus quotes Zechariah to predict his disciples would desert him;
  4. Mark 14:34 where we read of Jesus’ sorrow in Gethsemane;
  5. Mark 15:21-41 where the crucifixion reminds readers of Psalm 22.

NV studies each case by comparing how the other evangelists wrote the parallel scenes and how other Jewish texts also treated the Scripture Mark appears to have used. NV is also alert to the possibility that Mark is “scripturalizing” a pre-existing tradition or narrative — as per Mark Goodacre’s attempt to find a mid-way point between “prophecy historicized” and “history remembered” (Crossan). I think Crossan has the upper hand, though, insofar as he bases his analyses on the sources available. If there is no evidence for an existing tradition or source behind Mark then it is undoubtedly unnecessary to speculate on Mark’s adaptation of such a tradition or source.

The following notes focus only on key conclusions NV draws from in-depth discussions of each:

  1. Re Mark 14:21 — When NV notes that Matthew and Luke do not follow the details of Mark’s account of the betrayal with its apparent references to Psalm 41:9 (e.g. Judas eating bread with Jesus) he suggests the possibility that they did not recognize what we take to be Mark’s source in the Psalms. Perhaps. Yet the variants surely demonstrate that the simplest conclusion to draw and one that goes no farther than interpreting the evidence at hand rather than the mind of the author or hypothetical sources, is that the variations of the other Gospels indicate nothing more than that the authors were at liberty to rewrite Mark according to their own theological and literary interests and each felt free to use Scriptures as their source according to their narrative plans.
  2. Re Mark 14:24 — NV is unable to decide if the words “this is my blood of the covenant” (taken from Exodus 24:8) are combined with Isaiah’s suffering servant who is “poured out to death” and concludes with Howard Clark Kee, “There are no sure references to Isa 53.” (No mention is made of Leviticus 9:9 where Aaron’s sin offering involves blood being “poured out” (ἐξέχεεν) at the altar in preparation for making atonement for the people or the possibility that Mark was combining sacrificial terms from Exodus and Leviticus. We know from the opening verses of Mark that the author was quite capable of combining passages from different books to make a new “scripturalized” saying.)
  3. Re Mark 14:27 — While Zech 13:7 is quoted by Jesus to predict what his followers would do when he was handed over, the ensuing scene is not composed with the same words we find in Zechariah. Zechariah’s words for striking, fleeing, and the sword are replaced by effective synonyms in Mark’s description of the action: “It would appear then the words of Zech. 13:7 serve to interpret the flight of the disciples, not to describe the act of desertion itself.” (NV, p. 175) The words may not be the same but the actions described can surely be explained as being inspired by Zechariah as the narrative’s source. 
  4. Re Mark 14:34 — The echo of Psalm 42 is surely real given the regularity with which that Psalm is used in other Jewish literature in connection with the suffering of the righteous one.
  5. Re Mark 15:21-41 — There is little doubt that Psalm 22 was the source for many of the details of the crucifixion, just as the same Psalm is found as a source for narrative details for stories of Esther, in Qumran literature and in the story of Joseph and Aseneth. But it is not the only source since one finds sporadic details from other Scriptures in the mix, too. All this is one with other Jewish literature and its use of Scripture, as earlier posts have indicated.

NV notes the way Mark has woven the Passion Narrative with reminders of the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 (the command to Watch, the supernatural darkness, the prophecy of seeing the Son of Man coming, etc) in order to drive home the cosmic significance of the crucifixion. Mark links both directly and through symbolism the crucifixion to the war of 66-70 which was seen as God’s judgment on his people for their rejection of Jesus.

Something different about Mark

This brings me back to an important difference between Mark’s use of Scripture and how the other evangelists deployed it.

As NV writes, Mark does not

. . . introduce a schema of prophetic-fulfilment for the Passion Narrative as a whole. Elsewhere in the Gospel, there are isolated instances where certain events correspond to, or happen in fulfilment of, the Jewish scriptures. [Mk 1:2-3; 7:6-7; 9:12-13]. But Mark lacks the explicit interpretive schema one finds in the editorial comments of Matthew (1:22; 2:17,23:4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9) and John (12:16, 38; 15:25; 18:9; 19:24, 36). For the most part, the concept of prophetic-fulfilment is undeveloped in Mark. (NV, 165. My bolding in all quotations)

Other aspects (e.g. motivation of actions and words, explanatory background) of Mark’s narrative also appear undeveloped and the best reason I have found to explain such characteristics in Mark is given by Nicole Duran in Power of Disorder: Ritual Elements in Mark’s Passion Narrative. Mark is writing not only a “scripturalized narrative” but, unlike the other evangelists, he is also writing a “ritualized narrative”. Continue reading “How (and Why) Jewish Scriptures are used in Mark’s Passion Narrative — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 9”


Clarification of the Thesis — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 8

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

I have come to a turning point in my reading and review of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture. I first learned of the book on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum where a member described it as “amazing. A real game changer” — How could I not read it! What I was expecting was a theoretical analysis of how the author of the Gospel of Mark used Scripture to construct his narrative. It was with that optimism that I approached the book. After my first reading I thought I might have read too quickly and that I would see more with a slower re-reading as I wrote about it for this blog. But after having now arrived at what I think can be described as the beginning of the work’s most critical section, subtitled The Jewish scriptures in the Passion Narrative, and having re-read it several times, marking it, following up the footnotes, and trying to digest it as best I can, I have to conclude several things that fall within four categories:

1. I am not part of the reading audience the author had in mind;

2. The work is written primarily for New Testament scholars and informed lay “liberal” believers in the Bible;

3. The thesis advanced affirms that scripturally allusive passages in the Gospel of Mark “seem to have been triggered by some genuine aspect of Jesus’ career” and similar types of passages in the Passion Narrative likewise have some “traditional or historical sources” behind them – however uncertain we inevitably remain about the exact nature and extent of those sources.

4. The work conforms to the assumptions and methods embedded within mainstream biblical studies, a point I have difficulty with because, as I have demonstrated repeatedly by reference to other historians and philosophers of history, these assumptions and methods are at odds with much of the way historical work outside biblical studies is undertaken. Despite that difference, and when not engaged in apologetics disguised as scholarship, New Testament scholars do often produce works of informative insight and value.

I have also said that Nathanael Vette [NV] raises many issues that invite discussion and debate. And who can complain about that! So let’s continue. Continue reading “Clarification of the Thesis — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 8”


How Queen Esther Influenced the Fate of John the Baptist — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 7

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts reviewing Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture are archived at Vette : Writing With Scripture

With thanks to T&T Clark who forwarded me a review copy.

I was fascinated by Nathanael Vette’s (NV) discussion of the highly probable influence of the story of Esther on the Gospel of Mark‘s account of the death of John the Baptist. It’s not a new theory that the biblical Book of Esther inspired some of the details in Mark’s account but NV takes us back to a version of the story that preceded its Hebrew or common Septuagint rendering.

A closer look at the passage, however, reveals a much greater resemblance to another Greek text of Esther: the so-called Alpha-text. (NV, 149)

A translation of the Alpha text can be read online at https://www.scribd.com/read/439782177/Septuagint-Esther-Alpha-Version. In the “Forward” (sic) of that online text we read of the Alpha text:

There are two versions of the Book of Esther in the various copies of the Septuagint, however, neither originated at the Library of Alexandria. The common version of Esther is found in almost all copies, while the rare version is only found in four known manuscripts, numbered as 19, 93, 108, and 319. This version follows the rare version, also known as the Alpha version, using the oldest surviving copy as a source text, the Septuagint manuscript 319, while also comparing the other surviving manuscripts: 19, 93, and 108. . . . .

The Alpha Texts version only survives in a few copies of the Septuagint, and based on its dialect, it was translated somewhere in the Seleucid Empire. The Alpha version is probably the oldest of the four translations, as it includes several unique elements that appear to have disappeared in later translations.

NV observes the following Alpha text matches in Mark’s scene of the death of John the Baptist:

  • a young girl (κοράσιον)
  • pleases (ἤρεσεν)
  • at a banquet (συμπόσιον)
  • a king vows (ώμοσεν)
  • with an oath (ὅρκος)
  • “up to half of my kingdom” (ως [τοũ] ήμίσους τῆς βασιλείας μου). — although the expression is common, the Alpha text of Esther and the Gospel of Mark alone “omit the genitive article” found in other manuscript lines of Esther)

The author thereby composed a banquet scene in which a king offers half of his kingdom to a young girl who instead requests the death of one man. (NV, 150)

Rabbinic literature of late antiquity refers to other variations of the Esther narrative and since details from these are also found in the Gospel of Mark it is reasonable to believe that Mark knew of and used versions of Esther now lost to us. NV refers to Roger Aus’s “meticulous” study of the parallels between Mark’s scene of the death of the Baptist and details found in the rabbinic and other versions of Esther. (Some of Aus’s study is outlined in another Vridar post, The Death of John the Baptist — Sources and Less Obvious Contexts.) The most significant point in common is that the one whom the young girl requests to be executed is decapitated and his head is brought into the scene of feasting for display “on a platter”. Continue reading “How Queen Esther Influenced the Fate of John the Baptist — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 7”


The Message of the Feeding Miracles of Jesus — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 6

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by Neil Godfrey

Nathanael Vette (NV) establishes in detail how the miraculous feeding stories of Jesus borrow from the miracle of Elisha’s feeding of 100 men with twenty loaves. Many readers would no doubt assume that Mark’s source in 2 Kings 4 was obvious but NV takes the reader through each detail to leave nothing to assumption. Even though a reader of Mark’s gospel who is familiar with the Jewish Scriptures would inevitably recognize the relationship between the miracles of Elisha and Jesus, NV suggests that it was not Mark’s intention to demonstrate the superiority of Jesus over Elisha because Mark does not mention Elisha’s name. Interestingly, NV notes that,

More generally, scripturalized narratives tend to inflate the numbers of their scriptural source: whilst only a few guards are burnt in Dan. 3:22, Pseudo-Philo has 83,500 (LAB 6:17) and one thousand (LAB 38:4) burnt bystanders; whilst only Achan is uncovered in the lot of sin (Josh. 7:16-26), Kenaz uncovers 6,110 sinners (LAB 25:4). (NV, 141)

NV uses the two different occasions of Jesus’ miracle of feeding large numbers, each distinguished by differences in geographical setting, numbers of persons, loaves and baskets of leftover remains, to make a point that few readers would disagree with:

. . . the narrative setting of Mk 6:35-44 and 8:1-9 takes precedence over the scriptural model. In this way, the distinctive elements of the episodes – the circumstances leading to the miracles (6:35-37; 8:1-3), the geographical setting (6:35; 8:4). the inclusion of fish (6:38, 41; 8:7) and even the number of baskets (6:43; 8:8) – each reflect their respective Markan contexts. (NV, 142)

Marten van Valckenborch – Feeding the Five Thousand. Wikimedia Commons

NV’s main focus is on the particular ways Mark makes use of Scripture so when he refers to the common interpretation that the twin miracles events represent ministries to the Jews (5000 and twelve baskets leftover) and to the gentiles (4000 and seven baskets) he does so to make points about Mark adapting his use of Scripture to fit his narrative aims.

Secondary Scriptures are mingled with details from the primary source of 2 Kings so we find traces of Israel in the wilderness as well (e.g. “sheep without a shepherd”, “groups of hundreds and fifties”, the wilderness setting and the miracle of food being sent at evening time) and subsequent evangelists demonstrate their awareness of Mark’s primary and secondary sources.

One cannot make a consistent point-by-point comparison between Jesus and other figures from a single Scripture narrative, NV clarifies, simply because Jesus is modeled on multiple persons: not only Elisha but also Elijah, for example.

But once again NV speculates a “historical source” behind the scripturalized narrative:

The multiplication of food was a common feature of miracle-working traditions in antiquity and, at least in Jewish tradition, none was better known than the multiplication of loaves by Elisha.”’ In this sense, the author may have been led to the well-known miracle in 2 Kgs 4:42-44 by the reputation of Jesus as a miracle-worker. (NV, 146f)

I would rather think that it is more economical to speculate that the author was led to the Elisha miracle by the theological interest he had in demonstrating a particular role Jesus has in the gospel. NV includes another interesting set of citations and I’ll quote extracts from there that come to similar theological rationales for the presence of these feeding miracles. Again, as in an earlier post, I will go beyond what NV himself discusses and make a detour with a closer look at two of the works he cites and another work cited in one of those two. (And again, I am responsible for the bolded highlighting in all quotations.)

Analogous stories among other peoples

Outside Biblical and Jewish literature, too, we find many stories of food said to have been acquired or displayed in wonderful fashion. Origen quotes a pronouncement by Celsus in which this great opponent of the Christian faith ranks the miracles of Jesus with the works of the magicians: “and with those which are performed by them that have learned them from the Egyptians, who in the midst of the market places, for a few obols, disclose the venerable teachings, expel demons from men, blow away diseases, summon the souls of heroes, and display choice meals and tables and pastries and desserts which do not exist……..”  Gods and saints were credited with the power to produce or increase food. Bultmann points to Indian stories and the food miracles in the Mohammedan Hadith. A Finnish legend tells of a girl who prepared food for a whole army from three barleycorns. A German fairy-tale has for its subject a marvellous bread which filled an army. There is a wide selection of stories about goblets, bottles, baskets and tables that never empty. It is related that King Alexander had a goblet out of which his whole army could drink without the goblet having to be refilled.  A Celtic legend tells of the basket of Gwydnen Garanhir, in which nine men three times found the foods which they desired.  Ethiopia has a Sun Table which, according to the natives, is always supplied with food by the wish of the gods.  In Africa they tell of the wondrous speaking pot, which fills itself with the food desired. Many feeding miracles are attributed to saints: Francis of Assisi provided food for his fellow-passengers; André Corsini saw his bread increase in his bag; the basket full of fine cherries which the venerable Cottolengo, the “Intendant of Providence,” distributed to a large crowd of poor persons in Turin in 1883, did not become empty, and the abbess of Kildare caused cow’s milk to increase copiously. St. Nicholas fed 83 workmen who were building a new church on one loaf, and yet a large number of pieces were left, etc., etc. Saintyves, who collected a large number of stories and relates them with great verve, points to the literary dependence in the legends of the saints. He recalls the horn of plenty, the attribute of many old gods, and sees in it, as in the bottles, tables, etc., which never become empty, the idea of fertility and initiation rites. According to Saintyves we must therefore regard the loaves in the Gospels as “seasonal loaves the Biblical stories must be interpreted in the light of the pagan ones.

With such a wide variety of stories, it may be asked whether the New Testament accounts perhaps form part of this “pattern.” Did nothing happen? Or did something happen, and if so, what? (pp 625-627)

So what does the Markan scholar who wrote the above think is the motivation for the feeding miracles in the Gospel of Mark? Continue reading “The Message of the Feeding Miracles of Jesus — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 6”


Creating the Gospel of Mark — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 5

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by Neil Godfrey

Don’t look too hard to try to uncover hidden meanings in scriptural allusions in the Gospel of Mark. Those scriptural allusions may be “nothing more than” fillers to flesh out colourful story details. That’s the opening message of Nathanael Vette (NV) in his third and main chapter discussing five episodes in the Gospel of Mark.

The evangelist sometimes introduces Scripture explicitly to give readers a particular interpretation; other times Scripture is woven into the narrative more subtly. There is no consistent method in the use of Scripture.

The introductory message

Take the opening verses of the Gospel. It is not an exact quotation from any passage in the Old Testament.

To the contrary, the prologue shows an author primarily concerned with the immediate demands of their narrative, untroubled by the precise wording of their sources, and creative in their application of them.  Mark is nourished by the language of scripture more than the substance of it. (NV, 111. My bolding in all quotations)

NV guides the reader through both the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Scriptures in order to explore not only how the author may have arrived at the purported Isaianic quotation but also how to identify the one being prophesied: Elijah or the Messiah? In Malachi’s following chapter (4:5) the prophet speaks of Elijah coming before the “Day of the Lord” while elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark we learn that John the Baptist is the “Elijah to come”, yet the “messenger” in the source texts is surely a more exalted figure than a prophet. Some readers will be surprised to see that NV concludes . . .

In the final analysis, the garbled citation of LXX Isa. 40:3 and LXX Exod. 23:20 (and possibly Mal. 3:1), which is misattributed to Isaiah, is, above all, a prophecy concerning the coming of the Lord. Any reference to Elijah, if intended, is secondary to this aim. (NV, 116)

Perhaps so. Yet do we not find other studies pointing out how the Gospel of Mark is rich in ambiguities and ironies? Might not we read here another instance of Markan ambiguity rather than feel obligated to choose one or another option?

By his appearance you will know him

Continue reading “Creating the Gospel of Mark — a review of Writing with Scripture, part 5”

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