Continuity — The Gospel of Mark

We looked into the Pauline epistles to try to get a glimpse of who these death-and-resurrection Christ cultists were and saw that they were explicitly and implicitly gentile. What can we learn from a similar prima facie reading of the gospel material?

The Markan Community

An overwhelming majority of scholars agree that Mark was likely the earliest of the synoptic gospels. Marcan priority is one of those rare topics in biblical scholarship on which there is in fact a remarkable agreement. It’s as close to an actual consensus in historical Jesus/Christian origins scholarship as it gets. This view of gospel chronology posits that the gospel we know as Mark very probably existed before— and was used as a primary source by— the other two synoptic evangelists who later constructed their own versions of the Jesus story around Mark's basic prototype.

Who was his audience?

I have heard it remarked that all of the evangelists were Jews with the possible exception of Luke. I challenge this notion. To my eyes, Mark reveals the least Judean perspective of the four canonical gospels. Its Greek may be crude, but it’s the crude Greek of a Hellenic individual, not a Judean. Are there reasons to doubt the Judean background of the author of this work?


The very opening verses of this gospel already contain a scriptural blunder, to start with:
"The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’ He is a voice calling out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord! Make his paths straight!’"
(GMark 1:1–3)

The author is referring here not to Jesus, but to John the Baptizer, a precursor to Jesus who figures prominently in all four tellings of the Jesus story, as we all know. The author of Mark has conflated two separate biblical quotations from two separate books and has credited Isaiah as the source of both, when in fact the first half is clearly a reference to Malachi 3:1 and not to Isaiah at all. If this author was a thorough Judean, he sure was sloppy with his Torah. This could, of course, be nothing more than a simple honest mistake, but it is just one among many indications that he in fact is very probably not a very literate Jew.

Another example reflects the author’s lack of knowledge of the geography of the Judean region, for instance:

"Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and went by way of Sidon towards the sea of Galilee …"

This would add thirty miles to the trip. Jesus would have rather ended up in Antioch had he gone by that route. It’s just plainly wrong, as any informed consultation of a biblical map will show. This does not necessarily disprove the author's "Jewishness," but it does bring us pause.

Another example of Mark’s sloppy exegesis: In chapter 2 (25–27), he anachronistically names the wrong High Priest (Abiathar) in relating a story about David.[1] If he is a Jew, Mark’s scriptural acumen seems to be consistently rusty.

Another pericope that I find problematic: In chapter 10 (6–8), Jesus quotes from both creation stories as though they are a single one. Mark has harmonized Genesis 1:27 with Genesis 2:24. Not only that, he has further placed the harmonization on Jesus very lips as a corrective to Moses' pragmatic leniency. This is not just going an extra mile on Jesus' part, as in the beatitudes, it is not just an exceeding of expectations; this is a direct abrogation of mosaic law. The author makes Jesus oppose Moses openly. This reflects, in my opinion, a post-"break" provenance of the text. Furthermore: Why do the Pharisees who confront Jesus with this question of divorce just disappear from view after the episode is related? Surely, this kind of affront would have met with pharisaic zeal. No? Pharisees loved to argue. It was their raison d'etre. This story in GMark shows a merely cursory understanding of contemporaneous Judaism, which is allowed a pass for the simple reason that the author's audience is no better informed about the Jews' idiosyncrasies than the author himself. As with E.F. Hutton: Jesus speaks and the Pharisees shup up, apparently shamed into silence by Jesus' unassailable rapier wit. However, in any realistic Sitz im Leben, Jesus would not have expressed himself in this way without some kind of repercussion. This story is a cartoon cell in the life of a mythic comic book hero.

Yet another episode that reflects this hypo-understanding of the Sitz im Leben in contemporaneous Judaism even more clearly is in chapter 12 (35), where Jesus is depicted as silencing the Pharisees with a single quotation from Psalm 110.

"The LORD said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool."

Such a theologically charged exegesis as Jesus' would only be truly possible if we posit that Jesus' Bible was the Septuagint, which uses the same word—"Lord"—to represent both the original "Lord" (YHVH, the god of Abraham and Moses) and "lord" (L'adonai, an honorific analogous to the still-current royal "my lord"). As an Aramaic speaker from the Galilee, Jesus' reading of the verse would have been that it is God speaking to David (the Levites narrating). This is the natural reading, but the author of this gospel is weaving christological connotations into a scripture that previously did not have them, and moreover, he is placing these connotations on the lips of Jesus' himself.

More relevant to our focus than this inadequate translation is the detailed fact that the Pharisees are said to be silenced by this one-liner self-referencing answer from Jesus. Jesus speaks and they are are struck dumb. Whoever wrote this episode down had little knowledge of Pharisaism. That Jesus might have held his own against the Pharisees is certainly possible, but … …complete submissive silence?   What little we know about the Pharisees all but precludes the possibility that they would have responded with silence to this theological/exegetical quantum leap on the part of Jesus. This episode simply could not have happened as described. Some argument would have ensued (in fact, I think Jesus didn't stand a chance there). It is another cell in the life of a mythic super hero, whose opponents are ideal, not real threats at all.

Another example (it is an embarrassment of riches) of bad exegesis placed on the lips of Jesus is when he quotes Exodus 3:6 (Mk 12:26) to assert the resurrection of the dead. There is simply no reference to "the living" in the story he cites. It is an over-reaching midrash that could have—and would have— been engaged heatedly by a literate Jew. That it would have seemed like a great response to anyone but a Christian initiate (much less a Jewish scribe) is unlikely.

Not only is he probably not Judean, in chapter 7:2–4, the author seems to assume that his listeners are primarily gentiles as well, else why the need to explain to them the Jewish custom of washing their hands, etc? This is a man writing about the customs of another people. He is clearly a gentile writing for other gentiles.

GºMark has a relatively low christology for a gospel; his Jesus is painfully human. This gospel is constructed in such a way that the reader is privy to some information that the characters in the narrative don’t have. Not even Jesus' closest companions, his disciples, have a clue. It is likely an intentional technique that creates a literary tension which is used to great effect in this deceptively crude gospel.[2] There’s irony in the central question of this work: Who is Jesus? (“Who do people say that I am?”) It’s the $64,000 question. On the one hand, in this gospel the true identity of Jesus is “Son of God” or alternately (a phrase introduced and used frequently in the second half of the gospel), the “son of man“, but no one knows this secret identity, except the reader (and some demons). All that everyone else in the story, including his disciples, seems to know is that Jesus is a confusing teacher and a healer. It’s not just that they don’t know his identity; when demons proclaim his messianic status, they are told repeatedly by Jesus to tell no one what or who he is. This is known as the “Messianic secret” motif in Mark. Jesus finally admits that he is the holy one of God at his trial before the Sanhedrin, and later hints at it once more during his hearing with Pilate. His disciples are, of course, not present for this revelation.

While this gospel does contain a series of stories which depict the Jewish authorities rejecting Jesus, there’s a relatively positive portrayal of gentiles in Mark. This work contains several stories in which the faith of gentiles surpasses that of Jesus' own disciples. The Syro-Phoenician woman's humorous comeback to his insult (he equates gentiles with dogs) endears her to him. Also, the Roman centurion at the site of the crucifixion is the first character in the story to declare Jesus’ “sonship” with such force and clarity. The first Christian could therefore be said to be this gentile in Mark’s gospel. Of course, the audience has known all along too that Jesus is the Messiah, which helps them to identify as fellow Christians with this gentile centurion's confession.

Although relating a story that is explicitly set in Judea, the Gospel According to Mark seems to be a gentile hagiographic expression about who Jesus was, told for the purpose of compelling the early Christians into seeing Jesus as a specifically Jewish messianic figure. This aligns to some degree with the Pauline urgency to include the gentiles in the salvation scheme of Judaic history. Why pagans would be so compelled to co-opt the Jewish God specifically is the crucial question of Christian origins and I will eventually take it up.

The central theme in this work is discipleship despite the fact that it portrays all of the disciples of Jesus as blundering idiots. Dunderheads. There seems to be a veiled challenge beneath this less-than-flattering portrayal of Jesus’ inner circle. It’s as though Mark was inviting his readers to do better than the disciples had in their own lives and in their own faith.

Mark is a fascinating document full of Jewish affectations, but it is nevertheless written by a gentile ... and more importantly,  for gentiles.

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1 — cf. 1 Sam 21:1–7
2 — Some point to this crudity as proof of the author's unsophistication and of the piecemeal and oral aspect of this work, but the forms and techniques he uses betrays a rather advanced knowledge of composition, which in turn highlights the crudity of the written Greek as intentional and tendentious. It's sort of like Mark Twain's intentional use of bad English in Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. 


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