Tag Archives: Gospel of Mark

An experiment comparing gnostic and orthodox myths

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

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

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

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

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

3. The bird nourishes the child saviour in the mountain

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

5. The figure comes to the water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

read more »

Fishing for Parallels

“But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the LORD, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks. — Jeremiah 16:16

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And passing along by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. — Mark 1:16 -17

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They lay in heaps in the blood and dust, like fish that fishermen have dragged out of the grey surf in the meshes of their nets onto a bend of the beach, to lie in masses on the sand gasping for the salt sea water till the bright sun ends their lives. Thus, like a catch of fish, the Suitors lay there heaped upon each other. — Odyssey, Book 22, 380ff

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Nakht escapes from the clap-net in which the divine ‘fishermen’ seek to trap him (spell 153A). Papyrus of Nakht, late 18th or early 19th Dynasty, c. 1350-1290 bc.

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On this papyrus the illustrations to two spells, 153A and 153B, appear side-by-side. Both concern the deceased escaping from a net stretched by the gods to entrap her. The vignette of spell 153A, at the right, shows an open clap-net stretched between two pegs, one of which bears a human head. The text relating to this spell contains the deceased’s declaration of knowledge of the components of the net, by means of which she avoids being caught in it. . . . To the left is the vignette of spell 153B, ‘for escaping from the catcher of fish’. Three gods are shown hauling on a large net which they are dragging through the water to catch those who are unworthy of entering the next world.

 


  • Homer. 1946. The Odyssey. Translated by E.V Rieu. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books.
  • Taylor, John H., ed. 2010. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead : Journey through the Afterlife. London: The British Museum Press.

 

 

Does Josephus intend to bring to mind an image of “fishing for men”?

This post is a post-script to Why Joseph Atwill’s Caesar’s Messiah is “Type 2” mythicism

The synoptic gospels depict Jesus calling disciples to become “fishers of men”. The context indicates that Jesus wants them to gather people to Jesus, to have many Israelites repent and follow Jesus. The most obvious source for the image is Jeremiah 16:16. Look at it in context:

14 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;

15 But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers.

16 Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.

We know the authors of the synoptic gospels drew upon the “Old Testament” writings for many of their images and ideas.

Joseph Atwill, however, introduces an alternative explanation for the image of the disciples being called to fish for men in Caesar’s Messiah. Atwill sees “fishing for men” in the gospels as a cynical re-write of an actual battle on the lake of Galilee between Romans and Jews, and argues that the slaughter of Jews in that context was the original source for the concept of Jesus (a cipher for a Roman emperor) telling his followers to “fish for men”. Below I have copied his suggested source as Josephus narrates the battle along with my commentary on how it might relate to Atwill’s thesis. I have additionally raised a few questions about the narrative that I would be interested in following up — how much was Josephus fabricating the scene? The section is from the Jewish War 3:10

But now, when the vessels were gotten ready, Vespasian put upon ship-board as many of his forces as he thought sufficient to be too hard for those that were upon the lake, and set sail after them.

The battle on the lake of Galilee is about to begin. The Romans prepare in numbers to take on the Jews who had fled into the lake on their small boats.

[Question: Whose ships were the Romans boarding if the Jews had already fled in available ships?]

[Update 15th November 2018: My first question was based on the Whiston translation. Another translation speaks of “rafts” and I suspect that would be correct since it makes better sense in the context.]

Now these which were driven into the lake could neither fly to the land, where all was in their enemies’ hand, and in war against them; nor could they fight upon the level by sea, for their ships were small and fitted only for piracy; they were too weak to fight with Vespasian’s vessels, and the mariners that were in them were so few, that they were afraid to come near the Romans, who attacked them in great numbers.

The Jews who had fled in the ships were now isolated, unable to return to land because of the Roman forces there. Their ships were too small to take on the Roman forces, and they were too few in number, so they attempted to keep their distance from the Romans who were coming towards them in larger ships and greater numbers.

[Again, where did the Romans’ ships come from? It appears from the account that the Romans had larger ships than those of the Jews. If correct, did the Romans take time to build them? If they did, then could not the Jews in the smaller ships have sailed well away to some other part of the lake? Or were they completely surrounded? And if they were surrounded, then what need was there for the Romans to go to the trouble of building larger ships to pursue them? Why not simply let them die there?]

[Update 15th November 2018: As above — My first question was based on the Whiston translation. Another translation speaks of “rafts” and I suspect that would be correct since it makes better sense in the context.]

However, as they sailed round about the vessels, and sometimes as they came near them, they threw stones at the Romans when they were a good way off, or came closer and fought them; yet did they receive the greatest harm themselves in both cases.

They catapulted (presumably, rather than threw by hand) stones at the Romans. Some came closer to a Roman ship to engage in combat but only for the worse.

[Presumably the Romans in fact came up to the Jewish ships when they could catch them. Where did the stones that the Jewish forces threw come from? Did they gather them up before boarding? Did they have supplies for the light infantry slingers left over that they took with them?]

As for the stones they threw at the Romans, they only made a sound one after another, for they threw them against such as were in their armor, while the Roman darts could reach the Jews themselves; and when they ventured to come near the Romans, they became sufferers themselves before they could do any harm to the ether, and were drowned, they and their ships together.

Here we have an extension of the previous sentence. The significant difference of detail added this time is that Josephus tells us that those Jewish forces who made contact with the Romans in their ships were slaughtered. The Romans were able to sink their ships and fend off any Jewish attacker so that all the Jewish soldiers on board were killed by direct Roman action or indirectly by drowning.

Here we finally come closest to any conceivable image of “fishing for men”. For the first time “men” (Jewish) are said to be in the water, but drowned. They are not “fished” for in any sense that I can imagine.

As for those that endeavored to come to an actual fight, the Romans ran many of them through with their long poles. Sometimes the Romans leaped into their ships, with swords in their hands, and slew them; but when some of them met the vessels, the Romans caught them by the middle, and destroyed at once their ships and themselves who were taken in them.

Again we have an expansion on the previous image. Sometimes the Romans soldiers were able to leap into the Jewish ships and begin their slaughter; other times the Roman ships rammed and broke up the Jewish ships.

And for such as were drowning in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water, they were either killed by darts, or caught by the vessels; but if, in the desperate case they were in, they attempted to swim to their enemies, the Romans cut off either their heads or their hands;

Here we continue the extended elaboration of detail of the contact between the Romans and Jews on the lake. We have seen how the Jewish forces were overwhelmed by the ramming Roman ships so that many were struggling to stay alive after their ship was wrecked and they were left in the water. Some of the desperate Jews swam towards whatever ship they could see only to find that they had approached a Roman ship. They were duly dispatched.

One can understand “fishers of men” referring to a gathering of people in a way fish are gathered in nets. And that’s the image that comes to mind in Jeremiah 16:16. But I suggest the image is far removed from Josephus’s account. Simply hacking at drowning remnant of a force doe not strongly bring to mind an image of “fishing”. read more »

Another example of that bookend structure in ancient literature

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but here’s another instance of that bookend/concentric/ring/chiastic structure that once upon a time a long time ago I thought was evidence of divine inspiration when I saw it in the Bible. I posted an example from Suetonius recently. This one is from Josephus and his book Antiquities of the Jews. It is set out and discussed by Steve Mason in his commentary on Josephus’s Life. Life has a structure that mirrors the Antiquities, Mason shows. So without the details that he mentions to fill in much that is generalized here, here is the structure of Antiquities.

Prologue (1.1-26)

PART I: First Temple {Ant. 1-10)

A. The Lawgiver’s Establishment of the Constitution (1-4)

Antecedents: Creation to the deaths of Isaac and Rebecca; Abraham the first convert (vol. 1)—in Mesopotamia

Antecedents: Jacob and Esau to the Exodus (vol. 2)

The Judean constitution: summary of priestly laws (vol. 3)

Forty years in desert, rebellion to the death of Moses; summary of the law as constitution (vol. 4)

B. First Phase: senate, kings, and high priests of Eli’s descent (5-8)

Conquest of Canaan under Joshua (vol. 5)

Conflicts with Philistines under Samuel and Saul (vol. 6)

Zenith of the first monarchy: the reign of David (vol. 7)

The reign of Solomon and division of the kingdom (vol. 8)

C. Second Phase: decline through corruption of the constitution (9-10)

Problems with neighbors to the fall of the Northern Kingdom (vol. 9)

CENTRAL PANEL: Fall of the first Temple; the priest-prophet Jeremiah and prophet Daniel assert the Judean God’s control of affairs and predict the Roman era. Decisive proof of the Judean code’s effectiveness.

PART II: Second Temple {Ant. 11-20)

A. Re-establishment of the aristocracy through the glorious Hasmonean house; its decline (11-13)

Return of Jews under Cyrus to Alexander the Great (vol. 11)

Successful interaction with the Ptolemaic world from the death of Alexander; translation of the LXX; Tobiad story; the Hasmonean revolt (vol. 12)

Zenith of the Hasmonean dynasty with John Hyrcanus; monarchy and decline to the death of Alexandra (vol. 13)

B. Monarchy writ large: Herod (14-17)

The end of the Hasmoneans; Roman intervention in Judea; Herod’s rise to power; benefits to the Judeans (vol. 14)

Herod’s conquest of Jerusalem; building projects and dedication of Temple (vol. 15)

Herod at the peak of his power; his domestic conflicts (vol. 16)

The end of Herod’s life; his son Archelaus (vol. 17)

C. World-wide effectiveness of the Judean constitution (18-20)

Judea becomes a province; Judeans in Rome; Roman rule to Agrippa I; Herod’s descendants; Gaius’ plan fails and he is punished; Asinaeus and Anilaeus in Babylonia (vol. 18);

Detailed description of Gaius’ punishment; promotion of Claudius; career of Agrippa I; the Roman constitutional crisis; Judeans in Alexandria (vol. 19)

From the death of Agrippa I to the eve of the revolt; the conversion of Adiabene’s royal house in Mesopotamia; causes of the revolt; concluding remarks (vol. 20)

Epilogue (20.259-68)


Mason, Steve. 2001. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Volume 9: Life of Josephus. Leiden: Brill. p. xxiv


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

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

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

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

Justifications for after and not before:

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

Winn objects on two grounds:

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

But there is a stronger positive argument Winn uses.

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

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

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

Theology of Victory

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

History (or something else?) as Fulfilled Prophecy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . the Byzantines received an oracle that said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


 

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 11:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Direct revelation or from apostolic tradition?

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

(Loisy, p. 399 – my heading)

Some strange features confront us in this passage.

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

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

. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Curious Ring Composition or Chiastic Structure in Ancient Writings

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

Fig tree cursed

Temple cleansed

Fig tree withered

Ditto for the raising of Jairus’s daughter:

Jairus begs Jesus to come and heal his daughter

A woman touches him on the way to be healed

Jesus raises Jairus’s daughter

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

John the Baptist in wild clothing announces Jesus

Baptism of Jesus, symbolic of death and new life

Casts demon out of man in synagogue

Transfiguration of Jesus

Casts money changers out of temple

Death and resurrection of Jesus

Young man in fine white linen announces resurrected Jesus

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

Compare the Roman historian Suetonius

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

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

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

Thematic Diagram of Suetonius’ Galba

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

A. Destruction of statues, Nero (1)

B. Mythological ancestors (2)

C. Father, gibber (3)

D.1. Greek quotation, presage (4.1)

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

E. portents and dreams, Fortuna (4)

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

F.2. Failure to collect inheritance (5)

G. Use of power (6)

H. canescere (8)

I. Cruelty as administrator (9)

J. Ascent to power (10-11)

I. saevitia, avaritia as emperor (12)

H. Canus(12.3)

G. Abuse of power (14-15)

F.2. Failure to pay donative (16)

F.1. Adoption of heir (17)

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

D.2. Latin quotation, presage (20)

D.1. Greek quotation, youth (20)

C. Arthritis, caro (21)

B. Gluttony and excessive homosexuality (22)

A. Destruction of statues, Vespasian (23)

(Benediktson, p. 173)

read more »

The First Gospel: History or Apocalyptic Drama?

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

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

Jesus the Conspiracy Theorist

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

Mark 10:42

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

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

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

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

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

Next point.

The Devil You Don’t See

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

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

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

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

Let’s go back further.

Through the Wormhole

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apocalypse Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–o0o–


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

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

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


Is this statement about historicity within the Gospel of Mark true?

The same can be said of the alleged first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark. The aim was presumably to “prove” that the Gospel is reliable. That’s even more ironic, because no one seriously doubts that the Gospel of Mark was written in the first century, and whether it was or not is independent of questions about the historicity of information in it.

James McGrath, Rumors of First-Century Mark and the Resurrection, on the Religion Prof blog.

Even if the Gospel of Mark were composed in the second century (which “no one seriously” believes) that late date would have no relevance to the historicity of its contents? How can that be?

 

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:14-19

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

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

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

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

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

Mark 13:1-5

For whom is Mark recording this warning?

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

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

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

Haenchen’s solution resolves such problems.

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

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

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

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

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

Haenchen writes, p. 446 read more »

A Redactional Seam in Mark 8:28?

Raphael Keys
Raphael — Handing Over the Keys

In a recent comment, Giuseppe asked about Mark 8:27-30 (the Confession at Caesarea Philippi). At issue is a grammatical error in the text, mentioned in Robert M. Price‘s Holy Fable Volume 2, but first (apparently) noticed by Gerd Theissen in The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition. Both Theissen and Price argue that the error reveals a redactional seam in Mark’s gospel. Beyond that, Giuseppe suggests that the original text beneath or behind the existing text of Mark indicates that Peter confessed that Jesus was the Marcionite Christ, not the Jewish Messiah.

Lost in the weeds

I confess that I ruminated over the text in question for quite some time before I understood exactly what Theissen and Price were getting at. One can easily get lost in the weeds here, so I’ll try to break it down into small steps.

To begin with, we have two passages in Mark in which we find lists of possible identities for Jesus. The first happens when Herod Antipas hears about Jesus and thinks it must be John the Baptist raised from the dead.

14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”

15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”

16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

(Mark 6:14-16, NRSV)

The second happens just before Peter’s confession.

27 And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am?

28 And they answered, John the Baptist; but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets.

29 And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ.

30 And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.

(Mark 8:27-30, KJV)

John the Who?

I chose the NRSV for the first passage, because it stays very close to the original Greek, even to the point of “John the baptizer” vs. “John the Baptist.” In 6:14, we find the word βαπτίζων (baptizōn), the present participle. Put simply, the literal text would be something like “John, the Baptizing One.” (Note: this word, used as an appositive after John’s name, is found only in Mark’s gospel. The author of the fourth gospel uses it, but only as a participle describing an activity.)

On the other hand, in 8:28, Mark used a different word: βαπτιστήν (baptistēn), a noun in the accusative case. The NRSV helpfully gives us a verbal cue that something is different here by translating it as “John the Baptist,” which differs from the translation in 6:14. Unfortunately, the NRSV used “who” instead of “whom” in 8:27, so I went with the KJV there instead.

For our purposes here we need to know that at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks a question with an accusative “whom?” — τίνα (tina) — and so the answers need to be in the accusative as well. The point upon which Theissen builds his case will depend our understanding this error. In a stilted, word-for-word translation, we have something like: “Whom do the men pronounce me to be?” The words “whom” and “me” are in the objective (accusative) case; and in proper Greek, the answers should follow suit.

Two lists

The people haven’t figured out who Jesus is. They provide three wrong guesses. We see them listed in 8:28 — read more »