Mark Summary in toto, Part 2

(to continue….)

As a result, I believe that Mark’s great contribution to Christianity was that he attempted to weld these two separate traditions into a single narrative that encompassed both interpretations of Jesus’ life and death, and the implications of both. He was largely successful in this attempt. I say ‘largely’ because there are definite ‘seams’ in the work, where it’s pretty apparent that different—and even contradictory—views are woven together with varying levels of success. 

That there were different interpretations of Jesus should not be controversial. Paul tells us as much when he complains bitterly about how the Galatians have been seduced by ‘another gospel’. And the early patristic thinkers spent a lot of time combatting what they came to see as heresies: non-orthodox views of Jesus. Railing against heretical interpretations of Jesus was a major source of employment for Clement and others. So we have direct, primary evidence of different interpretations of Jesus, beginning a generation after Jesus’ death and continuing, pretty much uninterrupted, until the present day. Therefore the idea that Mark came across at least two traditions should not surprise us in the least.

So what do these different traditions tell us? In the first half, with Jesus the Wonder-Worker, we are dealing with an historical figure that was not considered divine in the sense that Christians have conceived of Jesus as being since the time of Matthew’s gospel. We noted a number of times where the author was very ambivalent, or ambiguous about whether he thought of Jesus as a hyper-human, or non-human individual. 

Here it would be worth making a confession: it wasn’t until I was trying to write this summary that it truly dawned on me that, in the Jewish tradition, the Messiah was not divine. Rather, he was a standard-issue, garden-variety human who was marked out, or chosen by God to fulfill God’s purpose. As such, even when Jesus became the Messiah, as he clearly was by Chapter 11, that is not necessarily to say that the author of Mark believed that Jesus was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as Christians have described him since the Second or Third Century CE. There is no story in Mark about Jesus’s divine birth. This changed by the time we reach Matthew. There, Jesus was divine from conception, having been conceived by the sacred breath (Holy Spirit), which is clearly meant to signify that he was God’s own son. Jesus’ divinity was reinforced by Luke and underlined by John. At the beginning, Mark was not sure; Matthew had no doubts, and all the subsequent tradition followed Matthew. Mostly.

In my readings I have come across a text called the Didache. It was probably written sometime around the early Second Century. As such, it may pre-date some of the works that became canonical, such as John, or Revelation. I had never read this until I ran across a reference to it by Geza Vermes in an article in Biblical Archaeological Review. Vermes was one of the original translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls; he is an important figure in recent Biblical scholarship (who, unfortunately, died recently). As Vermes put it, the Didache, like much of Mark, also presents a portrait of Jesus that shows him as something less than fully divine. It does not doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, or the Saviour, but it is not at all clear that the author believed Jesus to be divine, an actual part of the Godhead. The point is that this document gives us something of the continuation of the tradition of the first half of the gospel, even though that non-divine status is hedged by Christ-belief. In fact, I think it will be worthwhile to translate and comment on this text; my plan is to do this after 1 Corinthians and Matthew.

What this all means is that Mark is a pivotal work in the development of the Jesus myth. Based on what is in Mark, it seems to me that Jesus began this narrative as a human being, became the Christ, and then (maybe) even attained divine status. Now, there is a tendency to see what one expects to see, or is prepared to see, or trained to see. I was trained in Classics, so my inclination is to see things in terms of the Graeco-Roman world-view. When I look at Jesus, and see/hear the claims that he is the son of God, what I see is something that fits in easily with prevalent Hellenistic beliefs. Alexander the Great claimed to be the son of (a) god; heroes like Achilles had been said to be of divine parentage for centuries. The Pharaohs had been incarnate gods (at least during some phases of Egyptian history. The Diadochoi, the successors of Alexander who divided up the latter’s empire were viewed as divine, at least by some. Julius Caesar became a god on his death; Octavian—better known as Augustus—claimed to see an eagle fly up to heaven from the pyre of his uncle/adoptive father, symbolizing the apotheosis of the dead Caesar. In short, as Jaroslav Pelikan put it, “the sky hung low in the ancient world. Traffic was heavy on the highway between earth and heaven”. From what I gather, the traffic was much lighter on the Jewish version of this highway. As such, praying to “Our Father” was more of a departure from Jewish custom than it was for a pagan, perhaps especially for a Roman. The chief of the Roman gods was Jupiter; the etymology of this word is ‘diu-pater’; “god the father” would not be a bad translation of these words.

I have suggested that Jesus’ relation to John the Baptist was not as clear-cut as people think. There have been numerous suggestions in Jesus histories that later Christians played down Jesus’ role as a disciple of John. In my opinion, this is backwards. John’s role becomes more prominent with each passing evangelist, culminating with John the Evangelist, who says much more about the Baptist than Mark did. The implication is that later Christians wanted to stress the connection to the Baptist, even to the point of overstating it. I have suggested that the purpose of this was to give Christianity a pedigree; by attaching Jesus to John, Christians (and by the time this over-emphasis was occurring, ‘Christians’ is probably an appropriate designation) could lay claim to the heritage of Moses and Abraham, giving a new religion a very deep pedigree. Doing this was very important, because the Greeks and Romans respected tradition, and didn’t think highly of innovation; as a result, Christians wanted to emphasize their pedigree.

Now, Jesus of course was a Jew. He had been raised in the Jewish culture and religious practice of his time and place. In the first half of Mark, Jesus is primarily—perhaps even solely—concerned with imparting his message to Jews. Gentiles are no more than a setting, such as when Jesus goes to the land of the Gerasenes, or when he exorcises a demon from the daughter of the Syro-Phonecian woman. Then, starting in Chapter 13, we start to hear Jesus telling his disciples to preach to everyone, Gentiles included. This, as I said at the time, reflects the changing demographics of the followers of Jesus; from being primarily Jews during Jesus’ life and in the first few decades after his death, Gentiles had become much more prominent. Of course, we cannot ever know when the tipping point was reached and Gentiles outnumbered Jews, but I would consider an argument for somewhere around 70 CE. IOW, that the tipping point came after the destruction of the Temple, and shortly before Mark wrote his gospel. But there is one other thing to consider.
Mark tells us that the Baptist was very popular. Josephus gives John more press than he gives to Jesus. Given these, it’s not absurd to suppose that John was as popular, if not more popular, than Jesus during the former’s lifetime. But yet, John faded away, becoming something like a footnote to the Jesus story, while the lesser figure became the foundation stone of one of the world’s Great Religions (as Toynbee called them). Here, I think, we need to look at the pagan part of the Jesus story for some hints as to why this came about. In the final analysis, the Baptist was wholly Jewish, as were the Essenes (as far as we know). Jesus—at least the version we have—OTOH, had at least a toehold, if not an entire foot, in the world of pagan thought as we have seen. As I mentioned above, I believe the prayer to “Our Father” represents more of a pagan, rather than a Jewish point of view.

Or, not to overstate this, it represents a more recent trend in the ongoing evolution of what has become modern Judaism. It is too easy to forget that Judaism as it is practiced today, is nuanced and hardly monolithic. Christianity is certainly a mixed bag, so that the same should be true about Judaism should not be controversial. XXXX, in his book XXXX, referred to the “Judahisms” that were practiced in Jesus’ day, and even if this description is not completely spot-on, I don’t think it strays too far from accuracy. We need to understand that Greek culture had been pervasive in Galilee and Judea for 300 years by the time Jesus lived. The conflicts between the purist Jews as opposed to the collaborating Jews is at the root of the story of the Maccabees, and it plays a very prominent role in Josephus. Herod and his kin were collaborators, and they evoked the ire of the purists as Josephus (himself a collaborator) tells us repeatedly. This is the story of the death of the Baptist. The point of pointing this out is that it’s probably delusional to believe that Hellenistic thought did not have some influence on some Jews. Perhaps one of these Jews was Jesus.

Having read Paul and now Mark, I believe that the process of the NT is clear. I have encountered many comments bemoaning the ‘unsatisfactory’ nature of Mark’s gospel. Why is it unsatisfactory? Because it’s now Matthew’s, or Luke’s, or John’s gospel. Those are fully developed narratives that include the divinity of Jesus as a baseline premise, as a datum, a given. We do not get that with Mark. Why not? Because Mark was presenting the traditions as he found them, not as they would become a generation or so after he wrote.

Mark came across two different traditions: the stories of the Wonder-Worker, and the belief in the Christ. This is a hugely significant and largely ignored proposition. I won’t be so bold as to say that no one has thought of this before, but I will say that this is not, as far as I can tell, part of the discussion about the historical Jesus. Mark is ambiguous, or ambivalent about Jesus because, when Mark wrote, the traditions he encountered were ambivalent and ambiguous. Matthew, I believe, took care of this by adding whatever he felt was necessary to make sure that the reader understood that Jesus was not only the Christ, but that, in the new telling, the Christ was divine from birth. Luke elaborated this theme even further and made Jesus divine before birth. John finished the job with the words “in the beginning was the Word”; with this statement, Jesus was divine before all time. He was co-eternal with the Father. That is, the NT is essentially a process of development. Paul believed that Jesus was the Christ, but that does not entail that Paul thought Jesus was divine from birth. Jesus became something more than human after the Resurrection, but he was neither divine, nor the Christ, until after the Resurrection. In Mark, Jesus seems to become divine during his ministry, perhaps at his baptism, perhaps not until the Transfiguration. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus was divine by way of being conceived by the sacred breath; John makes Jesus eternal. Seen in this light, Paul’s idea of Jesus is almost closer to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar than to the Jesus presented by Matthew, and certainly closer to Caesar than the Jesus presented by John. It took another generation or two before all of this worked itself through into something like a consistent story.

Let’s say that again: in Paul’s scheme of things, Jesus’ resurrection more closely resembles the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, who became Divus Julius at death, than he resembles the eternal God the Son of John. Greek and Roman gods and heroes, those who attained apotheosis upon death, often appeared to the faithful (again, see R L Fox, Pagans & Christians), just as Jesus appeared to Paul. To the best of my knowledge, there is really nothing that resembles this in Jewish literature; at least, not in classic Jewish literature, but I am not aware of anything similar in any of the apocryphal texts of the last centuries BCE. The only possible exception is the apparition of Samuel, who is conjured by the Witch of Endor; but even then, the apparition was conjured through unwholesome magic, and there is serious scholarly debate on whether this was actually Samuel, or if it was some sort of demon. So if Paul didn’t get this idea from his Jewish heritage, where did he get it? From the pagan milieu that surrounded him?

This “summary” is wholly inadequate to the size of the task that I have set myself. But then, this is a blog, and not a Ph.D. thesis. I do not want even to pretend, or hint that I’ve provided an adequate treatment of the topic. And I have certainly not provided anything even vaguely resembling a coherent—let alone convincing—argument for my position. Even the former is currently beyond what I can provide. So, for the moment, my modest objective is to put the idea out there. As I have said, I’m making this up as I go along, so this is a thesis-in-progress. Hope you stick around for the ride as we head back to Paul, to see if 1 Corinthians can shed any light on this.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on October 24, 2013, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thanks for the follow. Some interesting points. The attachmt to John the Baptist for deeper pedigree sounds credible. I also read my NT in Koine for the Greek I learned at Univ of PA as a Classics minor while studying linguistics.

  2. YW on the follow. Thought I’d done it before. And Thanks for the comment. Nice that someone else finds my ideas credible. I’m sort of outside the realm of respectable ideas here.

    And feel free to provide any insights you might have about my translation. I’m still at the “I can translate Greek” stage so I’m hardly an expert (But I do pretend to be one sometimes!). Learning this language is an ongoing process!

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