Before returning to the Johannine stories containing the words and deeds of Nicodemus, I must digress briefly to discuss the issue of dependence. The Gospel of John contains countless mysteries, many of which can keep a scholar busy for a lifetime. Who actually wrote the gospel? What were his sources? Who is the Beloved Disciple? Can we find seams (aporias) that might reveal both sources and later redaction?
These puzzles may entertain the mind, but they can often become dark, twisting, endless rabbit holes. I would offer here a rather imperfect analogy to the so-called hard sciences in which we may not understand certain things (yet), but rather than beat our heads against the wall, we measure what we can and try to derive workable models and submit modest predictions. With that in mind, let’s look at larger patterns — looking less at syntax and semantics and more at pragmatics and narrative frames.
Typically, scholars will demonstrate the probability of independent, unique Johannine sources by means of declaration rather than explanation.
The author of the Fourth Gospel has built his own road, but he was clearly following already established paths. As an example, we have the narrative “Dead Zone” between Jesus’ burial and the discovery of the empty tomb. The curtain closes as the tomb is sealed. Nothing happens in the story for about 36 hours. The curtain lifts, the sun rises, and the truth is revealed.
Many scholars posit the existence of “traditional material” that lies behind the Fourth Gospel. They insist that John’s usage of such unknown, unseen, never-referred-to sources is more likely than John’s appropriation of and embellishment upon existing Markan frames. Typically, scholars will demonstrate the probability of independent, unique Johannine sources by means of declaration rather than explanation.
However, I would argue that the silence in the Dead Zone represents a Markan frame adhered to by John. We can more simply explain it as an artifact of literary dependence than as a coincidence among pre-existing (yet somehow always magically independent) sources. The silence signals dependence. Yet despite this shared silence, we can find clues that John ached to say more.
Last month I posted Another Pointer Towards a Late Date for the Gospel of Mark? but this morning I was reminded of an article I read and posted about some years back that surely calls for a date soon after 70 CE. That article does not address the date per se but it does raise difficulties for a date very much later than the days of Vespasian’s reign: 69-79.
In short, the core of Eric Eve’s thesis is that the author of the Gospel of Mark was responding to Vespasian propaganda that promoted him as a healer and as such either possessed by or strongly favoured by the god Serapis to be the rightful ruler of the world. Vespasian, you might recall (the details are in the earlier post), is known to have “miraculously” healed a blind man through the use of spittle while he was in Egypt and preparing to return to Rome to claim the emperorship.
Since Vespasian was not from the Roman aristocracy he relied heavily on propaganda programs to justify his aspirations to replace Nero and subsequent short-lived rulers. Roman historians, especially Tacitus, inform us that
while Vespasian was waiting at Alexandria. . . many marvels occurred to mark the favour of heaven and a certain partiality of the gods toward him (Hist. IV. 81)
The god Serapis was a composite deity constructed some generations earlier by Egypt’s post-Alexander Hellenistic rulers to encourage the unification of different peoples: (you will note the similarity with other posts suggesting the reason for the creation of Jesus was likewise to encourage a certain unity of Jews and gentiles in another context …. but we leave that for another discussion)
The Egyptian cult involved the worship of the sacred bull Osiris-Apis, or Osarapis, which became Sarapis in Greek translation. It may have been this god’s connections with the underworld and agricultural fertility that made him appear particularly suitable for the grafting on of Hellenistic elements. Sarapis took on the attributes of a number of Greek deities including first Dionysus and Hades, and subsequently Zeus, Helios and Asclepius [my note: Asclepius was the god of healing]. He may originally have been intended as a patron deity for the Greek citizens of Ptolemaic Alexandria, but he became particularly associated with the royal family, and thus, perhaps, with a ruler cult. Although Sarapis was probably intended to unite the Greek and Egyptian populations (of Alexandria, if not of Egypt), he failed in this purpose, since he never caught on with the native Egyptian population. He proved more popular with the Greek inhabitants, although his popularity declined towards the end of the Ptolemaic period. By the Roman period, Sarapis’s popularity seems to have been on the rise once more, and his cult had long since spread well beyond Egypt, aided, no doubt, by the fact that he was the consort of Isis; both deities had cults in Rome by the time of the late republic. That said, the major rise of the cult of Serapis was to come about through Flavian interest in the god. Vespasian arrived in Alexandria at a time when association with an aspiring emperor could benefit an aspiring god as much as the other way round; the Sarapis cult’s support for Vespasian helped both parties, and that may well have motivated the priests of Sarapis to play their part in the Flavian propaganda campaign.
The healings carried out by Vespasian seem designed to demonstrate the close association between the new emperor and the god. Healing was one of the powers long attributed to Sarapis, and the first healing miracle to be attributed to him was restoring sight to a blind man, one Demetrius of Phaleron, an Athenian politician. . . . In some minds Vespasian’s two healings might be taken as a sign, not simply that Vespasian enjoyed Sarapis’s blessing, but that he was in some sense to be identified with the god. This is in part suggested by the ancient Egyptian myth that the kings of Egypt were sons of Re, the sun-god, and is further borne out by the fact that Vespasian was saluted as ‘son of Ammon’ as well as ‘Caesar, god’ when he visited the hippodrome only a short while later.
Presumably the main targets of this propaganda were the population of Alexandria and the two legions stationed there, whose support Vespasian clearly needed to retain. No doubt different people will have understood this cluster of events in different ways. Some may have seen Vespasian as quasi-divine, others as a divinely aided thaumaturge and others as an exceptionally lucky man smiled on by fortuna and the gods. In any case the healing miracles and their association with Sarapis seem to have been designed more for eastern than western consumption.
Back in August this year, I introduced a hypothesis that what we read in Josephus’s Antiquities about John “the Baptist” is actually a misplaced episode about the John Hyrcanus II. (See the relevant section linked here in the discussion of the festschrift for Thomas L. Thompson, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.) I won’t go into the details of Doudna’s argument yet so check the summary to get the context for this post.
The point here is that if Doudna’s idea is correct then the gospel authors drew their template for John the Baptist from the writings of Josephus in the early 90s. There would be no reason to justify any other source; there was no oral tradition or historical person or event to draw upon — nothing but a literary confusion stands alone as the source.
Now why would the first evangelist to write a gospel (we’ll call him Mark) introduce a story about Jesus with an Elijah-like figure baptizing “all of Judea and Jerusalem” in the Jordan river?
By the way, I stress that Mark does not say “some” of the people of Judea and Jerusalem but he speaks of the whole population being baptized and Matthew follows him here. It is easy to dismiss this phrase as an exaggeration but why would our evangelists exaggerate to such an astonishing extent? Why would they begin the ministry of Jesus with a claim that Judea itself was baptized by John? If we try to imagine the evangelists putting a hyperbolic spin on “historical memories” then we have to wonder why they could not see that they somewhat overdid it and thereby undermined their credibility. Or — there is another explanation…. One of the oldest critics to spell out this alternative was David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century. He wrote:
The baptism of John could scarcely have been derived from the baptism of proselytes, for this rite was unquestionably posterior to the rise of Christianity. It was more analagous to the religious lustrations in practice amongst the Jews, especially the Essenes, and was apparently founded chiefly on certain expressions used by several of the prophets in a figurative sense, but afterwards understood literally.
* By “source”, I mean to exclude the notion that the evangelists used the Jewish Scriptures merely to add a bit of scriptural colouring to what were ultimately historical memories or traditions about Jesus. I mean the narrative described allusively to the Scriptures was itself inspired by the Scriptures. Unlike other historical accounts where historical figures are given mythical overlays, there is nothing left of the figure of Jesus once we remove those scriptural overlays. Alexander the Great and Hadrian may have been compared with Dionysus and Heracles, and Socrates may even have emulated Achilles in one sense, but remove those mythical images and we still have lots of the flesh of the historical persons visible to us. That’s not the case when we remove the myth from Jesus.
Ah yes, we return once more to the Jewish Scriptures being the source* of the gospels. So what are those “certain expressions used by several of the prophets”?
According to these expressions, God requires from the Israelitish people, as a condition of their restoration to his favour, a washing and purification from their iniquity, and he promises that he will himself cleanse them with water (Isaiah i. 16, Ez. xxxvi. 25, comp. Jer. ii. 22).
For those too rushed or lazy to click on the references here they are on a platter:
Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.
Add to this the Jewish notion that the Messiah would not appear with his kingdom until the Israelites repented,9 and we have the combination necessary for the belief that an ablution, symbolical of conversion and forgiveness of sins, must precede the advent of the Messiah.
9 Sanhedr. f. xcvii. 2 : R. Elieser dixit : si Israélite pænitentiam agunt, tunc per Croeiem liberantur ; sin vero, non liberantur. Schöttgen, horæ, 2, p. 780 ff.
I need to begin by having Israel repent so the Messiah can come — as we understand from our holy books. The Jordan River seems like a logical place to start. That’s where Joshua renewed the covenant with Israel. But how to get them all assembled there? And we need Elijah to be the herald of the Messiah at the same time, as per Malachi. . . . Hey, what was that in Josephus about John the Immerser? … Ah yes, perfect… I’ll use him. He gets arrested and sent to prison, and that’s something I can work with, too. And being a ritual baptizer, how convenient that that fits right in with the conversion of the nation being a washing or sprinkling in the prophets. Right…. here we go, clothing our John with Elijah’s garb and having him represent the “OT”…
And so we have it: all the Jews repent by going out to a John who is redescribed as Elijah and are baptized in the Jordan.
Once that “little detail” is out of the way, the journey of Jesus begins. Of course, the repentance of his people preceding his coming is soon forgotten as demons come in and Jesus has to contend with unbelievers, enemies, and so forth. But many do accept him even if they don’t fully understand what he’s all about till after the resurrection.
Is it likely, though, that Josephus could have been so “sloppy” as to misplace a story about John Hyrcanus so that later readers interpreted his John through their knowledge of the gospels? Recall certain observations I noted in Once more on Josephus, and questions arising . . . .
It is an uncomfortable fact for the more ambitious varieties of source criticism that Josephus has the authorial habit of repeating and contradicting himself, and of varying his terminology. These oddities call for analysis, but they may result from a variety of causes (e.g., sloppiness, rhetorical artifice, multiple editions, copyist’s interventions, and yes, sources);. . . (112).
Many scholars . . . argue that Josephus uses one or more assistants (συνεργοί), or if not assistants then sources, for this section of the Antiquitates.
One can imagine arguments breaking out from time to time in the editorial room.
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” — Mark 9:1
We know what follows so we read on to see “the fulfilment” of that saying six days later with Peter, James and John on the mountain witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus. But look what happens when we ignore the chapter breaks and read that passage in the context of the preceding verses.
8:34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” 9:1And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
He said to the crowd along with his disciples, “If any of you are ashamed of me then the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in glory and with the angels”, and, “some of you who are standing here will see the kingdom coming….”
The promise — or is it a warning? — that some of his audience would be alive to see the coming kingdom is spoken as an immediate follow-on from his warning that he would come in glory and with angels to judge that sinful and adulterous generation standing before him.
If you are one of those who have balked at this saying of Jesus hinting at Peter, James and John you are not alone. The message of “some who are standing here will not taste death before….” becomes a mock saying if it pointed to what was to happen only six days hence.
9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.
A better paragraph break would be,
8:34Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.35For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.36What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?37Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?38If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”9:1 And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.
Daniel 7:13-14In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
At his point, it is of special interest to observe that the same prophecy of the coming kingdom is repeated twice more, with all three times being a throw-back to Daniel 7:13-14. Moreover, the threefold saying is a distinctive feature of the Gospel of Mark, a tool by which the author held his story together, each repetition and accompanying setting alerting readers to unifying themes moving towards the crescendo of the crucifixion.
The first repetition is in Mark 13:26 where we are informed that those who see the kingdom coming in power and glory are the entire generation alive at the time:
At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.
(There is some debate over the identity of whom Jesus says will see his coming in this verse, but one thing is clear, and that is that Jesus is made to avoid directly referencing the disciples at this moment as he does in other selected passages.)
The third time the prophecy is put in Jesus’ mouth, Mark 14:62, it is directed at the high priest:
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
If one prefers to shy away from Jesus pointing personally to the high priest as the prophesied witness of events then it is less easy to avoid the view that he is addressing the temple establishment whom the high priest represented.
I have posted a similar viewpoint before but here I am expanding on it somewhat by reference to a thesis and a related article by Thomas Hatina. Since much of the above is a very abbreviated paraphrase of Hatina’s viewpoint it is time to hear him in his own words. He expands on the idea that in the above passages Jesus is claiming that it is the sinful generation, his opponents, who would be the ones to witness the coming kingdom:
That the antagonists of the story should “see” the manifestation of God would not have been an unusual anticipation for an early Jewish Christian like Mark. There were certainly enough precedents upon which to draw. For example, in Isa 64,1-2 the prophet says that God reveals himself, through acts of judgment, to the adversaries “that the nations may tremble”. And in Nah 1,5 when the prophet says that the “earth is up heaved by his [God’s] presence”, he is metaphorically describing the experience of judgment by the adversaries. A similar motif also appears in early Jewish and Christian martyrological tradition, in which the adversaries “see” the vindication of their victims (e.g. Wis 5,2; Rev 11,12; ApcEl 35,7). Vindication, once again, presupposes some kind of violent overthrow of the adversaries. A closer parallel to Mark is found in 1 Enoch 62,3-5 which foretells that the unrighteous worldly leaders are the ones who will “see” the son of man:
On the day of judgment, all the kings, the governors, the high officials, and the landlords shall see and recognize him — how he sits on the throne of his glory, and righteousness is judged before him…. They shall be terrified and dejected; and pain shall seize them when they see that son of man sitting on the throne of his glory”.
With respect to the language which conveys the power of God’s rule, Mark’s imagery in 9,1 is not unlike that which is found in the Septuagint where references to divine judgment commonly depict God in terms that assert his complete superiority over the enemies of the righteous — whether the enemies are human or divine, foreign or domestic.
The highlighting above is mine. For the implication that a metaphorical interpretation has for the “apocalyptic passages” of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark see When they saw the Son of Man coming in the clouds. Cosmic collapse is a metaphor for the destruction of Jerusalem just as the same metaphor spoke of the destruction of Babylon.
After a comment on the expression “kingdom of God” Hatina continues,
Assertions of God’s “power” (usually in the LXX as δύναμις, δυναστείο!ς or ισχύς) are often found in contexts of war or destruction. And in most cases, those who are condemned to witness the devastation (i.e. the power of God’s strength), be it in terms of “seeing” or “knowing”, are the enemies of Yahweh. . . . The display of divine power coheres more immediately to judgment than it does to blessing.
The precedent can be extended to other writings in early Judaism where terms like “glory’ and “power” are likewise used of divine acts of judgment.
Hatina cites supporting verses from both the Jewish Scriptures and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Contexts, both within the gospel and external to it, allow a good case for “the promise” of seeing the coming kingdom is being directed as a warning to those who do not follow Jesus.
The question remains, of course: Where does the coming of the kingdom of God fit in? I’ll set out my thoughts on the answer in another post.
Hatina, Thomas R. 2005. “Who Will See ‘The Kingdom of God Coming with Power’ in Mark 9,1 — Protagonists or Antagonists?” Biblica 86 (1): 20–34.
I don’t know if the Gospel of Mark did begin its life as a Hebrew text but in the light of the previous post it is necessary to share some of the reasons a few scholars (or at least Jean Carmignac : see also Wayback Machine) have thought it did.
Chapter three of The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels sets out the history of research into semitisms in the gospels and discusses in some detail nine types of them.
Semitisms of Borrowing
Semitisms of Imitation
Semitisms of Thought
Semitisms of Vocabulary
Semitisms of Syntax
Semitisms of Style
Semitisms of Composition
Semitisms of Transmission
Semitisms of Translation
I’ll post here a few of the parts in #7, Semitisms of Composition. Carmignac suggests that there are numerous turns of phrase in our Greek gospels that would not exist in our Greek texts unless they had been translated from a Semitic or Hebrew language original.
Crying in the wilderness
After its title: Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God, the Gospel of Mark begins in the following fashion:
As it is written in the Prophet Isaiah “Behold I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
20. The word “and” is not found in all the manuscripts, and one has good reason for thinking that it does not any longer figure in the primitive Greek text.
There was John baptizing in the desert (and)20 preaching (Mark 1:1-4).
How did this citation from Isaiah (which combines Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1 in a form other than is found in the Septuagint, and Isaiah 40:3) come about? (p. 27)
Carmignac finds a simple answer to his question. Isaiah 40:3 begins with “voice crying in the wilderness”:
in the wilderness
22. The initial syllable we corresponds to the conjunction “and ” present in certain Greek manuscripts but not in all.
23. The pesher consists in describing a present situation in the terms of a passage from the Old Testament.
. . . . and if Mark 1:4, is retranslated into Hebrew, we obtain the following: wayyehî Yôhânân matbtîl bemidbâr (we) qôré.22
The words bemidbâr (in the wilderness) and qôré’ (crying or preaching) are taken from Isaiah and applied to John the Baptist according to the process which is known as pesher, such as it was practiced at the time at Qumran (and elsewhere).23
The pesher only works in Hebrew, not with the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah. In the Greek text of Mark 1:4 a different word is used for John’s crying or preaching (κηρύσσων / kérussôn) whereas the Greek text of Isaiah 40:3 used “bôontos“.
In order that the pesher be noticed in English, it would be necessary to use the verb proclaim twice: from Isaiah, the voice proclaiming in the desert and from Mark, in the desert proclaiming a baptism of conversion.) Thus the citation from Isaiah only agrees with the account of Mark in Hebrew, but not in Greek in which its meaning disappears. (p. 27)
If we are serious about the idea of expanding our horizons with interdisciplinary studies, even those of ancient theatre, there is much that is thought-provoking here.
From time to time I encounter the idea that the Gospel of Mark was in some way related to dramatic performance or Greek tragedy. Mary Ann Beavis brings much of this literature together in her commentary on Mark (I have hyperlinked the bibliographical references):
A generic influence on Mark that may seem much more far-fetched to the modern reader is the suggestion that the Gospel resembles a Greek tragedy. Nonetheless, as noted above, many contemporary scholars see Mark as modeled on ancient drama (e.g., Bilezikian 1977; Standaert 1978; Stock 1982, 16–30; Beavis 1989, 31–35; S. Smith 1995; Lescow 2005 [link is to PDF]). Many others describe the Gospel more generally as having a dramatic quality (e.g., Perrin and Duling 1982, 237–39; Hengel 1985, 137; France 2002, 11–15; Burridge 2004, 239–40; Collins 2007, 91–93; for further references, see Beavis 1989, 192n134). Since Greek tragedy was very much a part of Greco-Roman education in the first century, it is plausible that Mark and the educated members of his audience would have had some familiarity with dramatic works, even if they had never attended a play, although attending theater was not confined to the upper classes in antiquity. Moreover, in Mark’s time the “closet drama,” a play written for private presentation rather than for public performance, was popular, at least among the social elite: all of the plays of Seneca belong to this genre. As Stephen H. Smith (1995, 229) remarks, “Mark’s Gospel was written with just this kind of situation in mind—to be read expressively by a lector before a closed circle of Christians in the setting of a private house” (cf. Beavis 1989, 33–35). As I have noted elsewhere,
If the author were a Jewish-Christian from Palestine, as the tradition asserts, there is no reason to rule out the influence of the theatre; Herod the Great built theatres in Jerusalem, Caesarea Maritima, Sepphoris, Damascus, and Sidon. There are records of Roman Jewish actors, and hellenistic Jews, like their Gentile neighbours, were avid theatre-goers. It has been argued that Job, Judith, 4 Maccabees, and the Apocalypse were modelled on Greek tragedy; the Alexandrian Jewish dramatist Ezekiel wrote a play based on the Exodus story. (Beavis 1989, 35)
In fact, Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagōgē, a drama about the Exodus written sometime between the second century BC and the first century AD by an Egyptian Jew, is the most complete surviving example of a Hellenistic tragedy (R. Robinson 1985, 805). Unlike the Exagōgē, Mark is not a play, but a Scripturelike narrative; however, as Collins (2007, 91) puts it, Mark is “written in the tragic mode,” and the Gospel’s plotting and structure show dramatic influence (see the section on structure below).
From that section below on structure . . .
. . . . Like an ancient drama, Mark begins and ends with a welldefined prologue (1:1–13) and epilogue (16:1–8). The first half of the narrative corresponds to the desis (“complication”) of a Greek tragedy, “the part from the beginning up to the point which immediately preceded the occurrence of a change from bad to good fortune or from good fortune to bad” (Aristotle, Poet. 18.2, trans. Halliwell 1927). In Mark, this corresponds with the Galilean mission (1:14–8:26), where Jesus teaches, preaches, and performs healings, miracles, and exorcisms with great success. This section of the Gospel is punctuated by choral outbursts from the crowds and the disciples, such as “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” (1:27; 2:12b; 4:41; 7:37). Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27–29) is a classic recognition scene (anagnōrisis), the discovery of an identity previously concealed—Jesus is the messiah (see Aristotle, Poet. 11, 16). This incident marks a “change of fortune” (“reversal,” peripeteia); immediately after Peter’s confession, for the first time, Jesus prophesies the suffering, death, and resurrection of the son of man (8:31–33). According to Aristotle, a recognition scene “is most effective when it coincides with reversals, . . .
As I have noted elsewhere, whether the author intended it or not, the physical layout of the Gospel “resembles that of a five-act Hellenistic play, with the place of the four choruses taken by teaching scenes” (Beavis 1989, 163). . . .
Beavis, Mary Ann. 2011. Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp. 16-17, 25-26.
The above summary by Beavis was indirectly cited by Danila Oder in her book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. Danila knows how theatre works. She has both studied playwriting and worked as an actor. In her book on the Gospel of Mark as performance and text Danila examines in painstaking detail how the Gospel of Mark might have been performed in an ancient Roman theatre. I found the insights of someone who has worked in theatre and clearly has an in-depth knowledge of ancient theatre a fascinating exploration of possibilities behind our gospel text. An entirely new world opened up to me through this book.
Note: Danila does not say that our current text of the gospel was written as a drama. Hence the title of her book, The Two Gospels of Mark. There is enough in the way our canonical text has been associated with ancient drama (see the links above) to lead one to seriously consider the possibility that what we are reading today is a summary or prose encapsulation of a play. Danila discusses what scenes in our received text are stageable and which ones are not, and why the unstageable ones have been added to the original work. Readers are given a clear picture of what the stage setting would have looked like, the role of the chorus and even the audience. I was keen to try to capture in my mind’s eye how it all would have appeared in performance so happily a proposed text for dramatic performance is included in an appendix. It’s a new world, a seriously fresh approach to the Gospel.
Much of what Danila Oder discusses must necessarily be hypothetical but it is nonetheless tightly argued and does oblige one to consider possibilities that are currently outside the standard view. If we are serious about the idea of expanding our horizons with interdisciplinary studies, even those of ancient theatre, there is much that is thought-provoking here.
A little detail in the previous post has kept me awake at night (maybe as long as a minute), wondering. It is Matthew 28:18-19
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations . . .
Why hadn’t I noticed before now the link Jeffrey Peterson makes with Daniel 7:14?
He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
The connection brings me back to a question that keeps coming back to me: Is it possible that the apocalyptic prophecy we read Jesus pronouncing in Mark 13 and Matthew 24 was couched in metaphor that only the “spiritually blind” would mistake for literal meaning. The language was taken from the prophets. Isaiah 13 portrays the fall of Babylon in terms of the darkening of the sun, moon and stars. The cosmic images were metaphors. They were “fulfilled” when the city fell to enemy forces. David speaks of God coming down to earth in clouds to rescue him from certain death at the hands of his enemies. I don’t believe the psalmist expected anyone to read of God’s descent to earth literally any more than we are to imagine literal “cords of death” binding the psalmist or to believe that the psalmist was literally in “deep waters”. Psalm 18 . . .
4 The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. 5 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.
6 In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. 7 The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry. 8 Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. 9 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. 13 The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. 14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. 15 The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils.
In the trial before the priests Jesus declares that the high priest will see the “second coming” or the coming of Jesus as the Danielic Son of Man. Matthew 26:63-64 . . .
The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
I am pretty sure that the priest was dead before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
What were the authors of the gospels of Mark and Matthew thinking? It’s probably worth keeping in mind that not even the author of Daniel thought of his scenario of a heavenly Son of Man coming in clouds before the Ancient of Days was was a literal event. That was a metaphor for the rising up of the Maccabean kingdom on earth.
I think it’s as if they were thinking that the coming of the kingdom of God was ushered in with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew 28 seems to assure us of this interpretation when we read there that Jesus announces, in effect, that he is the Son of Man who has from that point on been given the power and authority to lead his appointed apostles in beginning to bring in more converts to his kingdom.
The Pauline epistles likewise speak of Christ victory over the cross representing the victory over the demon-ruled cosmos. The demons in Mark and Matthew knew their days were numbered the moment they saw Jesus appear in Galilee. Some Church Fathers also spoke of Christ “reigning from the cross”.
Paul’s letters — all of the NT letters — speak of a coming of Christ, never of a “second coming”. The first evangelists to weave together a story of the Son of Man out of the verses of the Jewish Scriptures and other literary and imperial allusions likewise spoke of his coming as the critical event. (I have coloured the passage in Psalm 18 that one might relate directly to classic baptism scene of Jesus in Mark and Matthew.) If his arrival in Galilee marked the “nearness” of the time then the empty tomb was the sign that that time had begun. Is there any room at all for a “second coming” in the original tale?
But this interpretation raises as many questions as it seems to resolve. As I said, it sometimes keeps me awake at night . . . for a moment, sometimes.
The Gospel of Mark is shaped out of a re-weaving of Jewish Scriptures. If you want to know its sources then they are, principally but not exclusively, in the “Old Testament”. I have posted on the identification of 160 such scriptures in chapters 11-16 of the Gospel as identified by Howard Clark Kee. (There are more that could be added to that post, especially relating to chapter 12.)
I thought of going through the earlier chapters to make a similar list but the task is simply too much to get through right now. Instead, I have limited myself to a general overview of some of the more obvious allusions to Jewish Scripture in the first chapter only. I’d like to add other chapters over time.
The following table is not exhaustive even for chapter one. More allusions could be identified but some require more explanation that takes more time to present. So I’ve kept the list at a somewhat general level. Notice the story of the leper is a direct transvaluation rather than a more direct reworking of the original. Jesus and the leper are humble foils of Elisha and Naaman. If in the gospel of Mark the original text said Jesus was indignant (as opposed to the more widely attested “moved with compassion”) when the leper knelt and suggesting Jesus could heal him, there may be some significance related to the amount of indignation that runs rife through the 2 Kings narrative: both king Ahab and the leper Naaman at different times become enraged or indignant over the processes involved that led to the cleansing of the leper. Maybe something is missing from our text of Mark, or maybe “compassion” was original to the text after all.)
I have now returned to Australia from a regular overseas extended family visit, still somewhat sore from the accident I suffered over there, and in transit have been resisting the temptation to post easy “fillers” like more of the interesting differences encountered in Thailand or another response to an old McGrath post . . . hence the hiatus of the last few days. What has been on my mind, though, is some sort of extension to the previous post . . . Finally I settled on Mark 1:38 as the verse for the day. Jesus sneaked out of the house while it was still pre-dawn dark to find an isolated spot to pray. Eventually he was found by his disciples who complained that everyone had been looking for him. Jesus replied,
. . . . “Let us go somewhere else–to the nearby villages–so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”
Such a mundane set of words. Nothing special…? But if we pause to think for a moment about that last sentence, “That is why I came”, — what was in the author’s (or, if you prefer, the mind of Jesus) when those words were expressed?
“Why I came”.
Am I reading too much (or too little) into the words when I wonder why he did not say, “That is why I have come back here” or even “that is why I came here”? Hadn’t Jesus grown up in Nazareth, Galilee? I read on one site that there is a twisty turny road from Nazareth to Capernaum (where Jesus was found praying) that extends around 40 miles:
But Jesus did not say “This is why I have come here (to Capernaum, or even to Galilee)” but “This is why I have come (ἐξῆλθον).” Luke changed what he read in Mark’s gospel to the more passive, “This is why I have been sent (ἀπεστάλην).” Mark’s Jesus did not say he was sent for a reason. Mark’s Jesus said he came forth for a certain reason.
And Mark’s Jesus does not appear to be telling his disciples that he came to Capernaum or to Galilee, but that he “came forth” . . . that is somehow more open-ended, more universalist, more existentialist — it is the reason Jesus came to . . . dare we say, to earth? Or at least to the lands where Judeans (or maybe only Galileans) were to be found?
Some readers may wonder what on earth I am getting at. The Gospel of Mark is widely accepted as the earliest of the written gospels and it is also widely understood to present the most “human-like” of the Jesus figures when we compare the Jesus in the other gospels.
But here in this simple sentence Jesus is depicted as saying that he came ….he came for a purpose. He was not “born” for a purpose. Or at least that’s not what he said.
Our minds have to go back to the beginning of the gospel. Where did Jesus come from?
John the Baptist was baptizing away and saying that someone greater than he was going to appear on the scene, then we are told that Jesus came to be baptized.
Now here it gets a bit complex and no doubt many readers will think I am overstepping “the mark” (pun not intended). Our text says Jesus came “from Nazareth”. I don’t believe that was what “Mark” wrote at all. I am convinced that “from Nazareth” are a copyists addition to the text. If you can bear with me and wait for me to offer reasons later, then accept my proposal that our purportedly earliest written gospel bluntly said that Jesus came . . . to be baptized. He came from nowhere. Thus said (or sort of implied) the text.
He simply came to be baptized. The narrative tells us nothing about his background or even who this Jesus character was. We are so familiar with the story and with far more than the story as told in this gospel that it is easy for us not even to notice how little (or even exactly what) Mark actually says.
Then when we come to Jesus’ being found alone with his God in Mark 1:38 he reminds us that we have not yet been told who this Jesus character is or where he has come from. (A comment by Martin anticipated this post.) Everything we have read so far has “only” told us that everyone (person or demon) who encounters him is over-awed by his authority. Everyone falls over backwards or drops their families and livelihoods or travels many miles merely on coming in contact with or simply hearing about his power of authority.
“For this reason I came forth” is not a quotidian remark about why he decided one day to leave Nazareth and visit Capernaum. It is a pointer to Jesus having come from heaven.
Set the Gospels of Matthew and Mark side by side in their accounts of Jesus’ grand public entrance to his mission and something very odd emerges. Mark presents Jesus as having the power of presence, just from a word, that instils in hearers the same sort of awe that overcame those who heard the voice of God at Mount Sinai — except that Jesus does it without the thunder and lightning and earth-shaking and booming-voice effects.
Matthew rejects Mark’s account and replaces it with a more plausible narrative. Here is how Mark begins Jesus’ public career. Notice what it is that “amazes” his audience and starts the rumours flying “over the whole region of Galilee”:
1:21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
Luke 4:36 significantly changes the public reaction in Mark 1:27 so that the people are solely amazed at Jesus’ authority over the demon; in Mark the power over the demon is only one instance of something much bigger that awes them all.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
All the focus is on how the crowd are so awed by Jesus’ authority. He teaches with an “amazing” authority. There is clearly here more to be imagined than a bombastic orator who shouts like he knows better than anyone else. Such a person does not “amaze” anyone. No, Jesus’ “authority” is clearly meant to be understood as unique. It follows on from the scene where Jesus’ authority evidently “amazes” four disciples so that they simply drop everything, leave family and means of income, and follow him at his command:
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.
19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
The people in the synagogue witness that same authority over a demon and are amazed. But before that display they were amazed merely at his words, the way he spoke.
It is not the content of the teaching that amazes them. It is the authority with which he speaks and which gives the teaching itself an “amazing” quality.
In other words, the relation of Jesus to those who hear him is unnatural, it is nothing like anything “normative” in this world. Fishermen immediately drop all and follow him; he speaks, and crowds are amazed; only later is the crowd further amazed at his power over evil spirits. We are not reading history or biography. We are reading about a divine figure who remains a mystery to those who hear him.
Later when asked they express confusion: he is a prophet, they say. That’s a clearly inadequate response. It is evident to the reader that he is far more than a prophet or even a resurrected John the Baptist. He is a divine presence and the crowd’s failure to come to that obvious conclusion is as great a miracle as is the “authority” of Jesus itself.
Contrast Matthew’s gospel. Matthew does not even try to rewrite the scene. He leaves it out entirely and replaces it with the following far more plausible account. At least it’s plausible to anyone who believes in “normal” miracles:
4: 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
In Mark, Jesus’ first healing is done away from the public gaze, in an upper room, and he does not even speak to effect it. He simply takes Peter’s mother-in-law’s hand and the fever leaves her. As later with the haemorraging woman power comes out of his body and clothes. The crowds nonetheless flock to Jesus for healing entirely on the report of how he taught and commanded with authority in the synagogue.
That’s more “reasonable”, isn’t it? Jesus’ fame spreads because of the reputation he was building up as a healer. Later in Mark we read the same thing but that’s not how in Mark Jesus’ fame begins. In Mark we read that his reputation went out because of his authority, his “amazing” authority. What followed was that people from far and wide brought sick and demon possessed for him to cure.
In Matthew it is the other way around. It is the more plausible mission of preaching a particular message accompanied by healing miracles that attracts followers.
In Mark we are introduced to a mysterious figure that crowds cannot identify even though they hear demons call out is name and role. The actors in Mark’s drama remain deaf to the voice from heaven and the demons declaring who Jesus is. But the actors are as awed and overwhelmed by the mere presence of a word from Jesus as were, say, the multitudes at Sinai hearing the voice of God direct from heaven.
Mark’s Jesus is not at all “human” in any way, which is to say he is the opposite of the “most human” figure that some critics declare is found in that earliest gospel. Rather, Mark’s Jesus is far more like the Jesus in the Gospel of John. Recall John 19:
4 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”
5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) 6 When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
That’s the same overpowering Jesus we read of in the Gospel of Mark. People are amazed at his word. He speaks, and they follow; they are astonished; they flee from the temple; they fall over backwards. Even demons and the wild, raging storm obey him.
I think one has to avoid a close reading of the Gospel of Mark if one wants to treat it as presenting “the most human” figure of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew is the one that begins to present him as a more plausible, a more ‘natural’ figure.
Here’s a snippet of something I came across while venturing into all sorts of pathways to check the claims of, and/or to learn the background to, various publications by scholars of some note.
The common starting-point of all three writers [Smith, Robertson, Drews] is that the earliest Gospel narratives do not “describe any human character at all; on the contrary, the individuality in question is distinctly divine and not human, in the earliest portrayal. As time goes on it is true that certain human elements do creep in, particularly in Luke and John…… In Mark there is really no man at all; the Jesus is God, or at least essentially divine throughout. He wears only a transparent garment of flesh. Mark historizes only.”
. . .
“The received notion,” adds Professor Smith, “that in the early Marcan narratives the Jesus is distinctly human, and that the process of deification is fulfilled in John, is precisely the reverse of the truth.” Once more we rub our eyes. In Mark Jesus is little more than that most familiar of old Jewish figures, an earthly herald of the imminent kingdom of heaven; late and little by little he is recognized by his followers as himself the Messiah whose advent he formerly heralded. As yet he is neither divine nor the incarnation of a pre-existent quasi-divine Logos or angel. In John, on the other hand, Jesus has emerged from the purely Jewish phase of being Messiah, or servant of God (which is all that Lord or Son of God implies in Mark’s opening verses). He has become the eternal Logos or Reason, essentially divine and from the beginning with God. Here obviously we are well on our way to a deification of Jesus and an elimination of human traits; and the writer is so conscious of this that he goes out of his way to call our attention to the fact that Jesus was after all a man of flesh and blood, with human parents and real brethren who disbelieved in him.
(Conybeare 85f. My highlighting)
I use to accept Conybeare’s “obvious” overview of the development of Jesus in the four gospels. The progression of Jesus from human to increasingly divine was, after all, one of the themes that pointed to the sequence in which they were thought to have been composed. First, the crude Mark with his bumbling Jesus who needs a few attempts to heal sometimes, then the more exalted Jesus who passes through life with more poise and control, even showing his post-resurrection self to his followers, then Luke’s Jesus who vanishes before people’s eyes and reappears in the middle of a closed room, and finally the most thoroughly divine Jesus in the Gospel of John. Continue reading “Once More We Rub Our Eyes: The Gospel of Mark’s Jesus is No Human Character?”
Of particular interest is the detailed list of details that have given the Gospel of Mark its reputation for literary crudity. Being the first gospel and also in many respects being enigmatic it is tempting to view the gospel as the work of a genius. It may have been, but if we want to establish that point then it is only fair that we include a satisfactory explanation for the sorts of grammatical infelicities that have given its author the nickname “stumpy fingers”.
It is also tempting to rationalize Mark’s crudities as deliberate and even a further sign of his genius, as many do. But that theory runs into problems the closer we look:
To add weight to our suspicions, real mistakes and oddities do show up in the text of Mark belying any claims that his unrefined Greek was deliberate.
In Mark 4:41 the singular form of “obey” (hypakoui) is used when the subject is plural.
In Mark 5:10 when the demons are speaking, Mark says that ” he begged” (parekalei) when it should have been “they begged” (parekalesan).
Mark often uses redundant words in his writing. In Mark 1:32 he says “when the evening came when the sun went down” (opsias de genomenês hote edy ho hêlios) but the equivalent story in Matthew 8:16 simply says “that evening” (opsias de genomenês) and in Luke says “when the sun went down” (dynontos de tou hêlio).
In Mark 15:34 where Jesus says “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”. Matthew corrects the spelling to “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”.
One detail I question in the essay by Ste Richardsson is that Jesus is presented as a very human figure in the Gospel of Mark:
Mark is a very vivid and dramatic piece of prose which portrays Jesus as a human with thoughts, dreams and strong emotions.
Rather, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark surely comes across as dark, mysterious, frightening even, certainly a being from, and still within, the world of the supernatural. He is not understood and makes no effort to help clarify anything — he thrives on being otherworldly, not understood. His anger seems uncalled for at times (the leper begging for healing, the fig-tree not bearing fruit out of season). Many follow him in ignorance, and other crowds send him away in great fear.
A few days ago someone thoughtfully sent me a link to a Westar video interviewing Professor Arthur Dewey, author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered. Dewey begins by addressing the prevalent belief that the Passion story of Jesus is essentially true history. He says:
Unfortunately, not just people who are literalists who read the Bible assume this to be the case when we come to the Passion, but also many biblical historians. The reason for that is the assumption that the text is document and is reflecting what actually happened.
Of course regular readers will know that it is that assumption that we regularly question here. But Dewey, his interviewer and Westar generally are addressing a different audience and I like to think that that is the reason they seem to couch arguments in a way more appealing or acceptable to a certain kind of Christian believer, in something of a “liberal apologetic”, than I like to do.
I have not read his book (there does not seem to be a copy available either commercially or in any library in Australia, not even digitally) so my comments here are entirely my reactions to the interview.
Arthur Dewey begins by pointing out that ancient historians were primarily interested in “truth” as “insight” into the meaning of events for their audiences. He does not say that they were not interested in “facts”, too, but that their main focus lay elsewhere. There is a certain truth to this as (again) we have discussed many times when posting on the methods of ancient historians. What niggles me when I encounter a biblical scholar elaborating on this point (Dewey is far from the only biblical scholar to present this “truth as insight” characteristic of ancient historians) is that I think the other side of what ancient historians were all about is lost. I think they too easily overstate the case in the interests of attempting to keep the gospels relevant at least for the more liberally minded believers. I hope that’s not too harsh or unfair but it is how it comes across to me. Continue reading “Can the Gospels be “True Fiction”? Did Ancient Historians Have a Different Understanding of “True”?”