Sunday, November 29, 2020

Named Characters in the Gospel of Mark

Mark is an author and not just a transmitter of tradition. Such a judgment means that the author we call Mark is responsible for everything that appears in the narrative, the order in which it appears, and the cast of characters that live in the pages of the narrative, as well as their names.1 In contemporary and ancient narrative fiction it is the general rule that authors must invent the names of their characters, unless the narrative is historical fiction or the author includes historical figures in the narrative. A name personalizes the characters and helps the reader follow the progress of the narrative easier. If the narrative is narrated history there should be no invented names, but if the narrative is quasi-historical, as Mark is, the odds are increased that some characters and names may be invented.

Later so-called “apocryphal gospels,” for example, add characters to the gospel narratives known from the first century, while expanding aspects of the traditional story. For example, the middle second-century Infancy Gospel of James draws from, and in part rewrites, the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. It also expands their narratives by focusing on the pregnancy of Mary and in so doing increases the cast of characters by inventing several minor characters, such as Rubel (1:5), Juhine (2:6), Samuel (17:5). The author of the Gospel of James even invents major characters, such as Ana (2:1) and Joachim (1:5) and develops the character of Joseph, who “is now turned into an old man, a widower with grown sons.”2 If this information is correct with regard to the Infancy Gospel of James, it suggests that Matthew and Luke may have filled in information on the origins of Jesus for theological and “historical” reasons by inventing certain named characters for their different infancy narratives, which they added to material they took from Mark.3

The named characters in Mark’s gospel can be classified under three types:

1. There are named characters confirmed by extra-Biblical sources (in this case, Josephus, The Antiquities) as actual historical figures who played roles in the affairs of first-century Judean history: Jesus, Pilate, Herod, Herodias (married to Herod), John the Baptist. These characters in Mark were actual historical figures, although it is uncertain if they played in life the role to which Mark assigned them in his narrative about the tragic career of Jesus of Nazareth.

2. There are named characters in Mark known only from Christian tradition, but their names can be confirmed as not being invented by Mark, since they are named characters in other independent early Christian sources. In the Gospel of John: Simon/Peter/Cephas, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Judas Iscariot, Mary of Magdala, Barabbas, Zebedee, Thomas (one of the twelve, called the twin), Judas, Joseph of Arimathea. On the theory that John has not utilized Mark as a source, most of these characters are confirmed as not being invented by Mark. A few characters are confirmed as not invented by Mark, since they appear in one of Paul’s letters: James and John (two of the twelve, Gal 2:9), James (the brother of Jesus, Gal 1:19).4

3. There are also named characters in Mark that cannot be confirmed from another independent source: Bartholomew, Jairus, Bartimaeus, Levi, Matthew, Mary (the mother of Jesus), Joses (the brother of Jesus), Judas (the brother of Jesus), Simon (the brother of Jesus), Simon, the leper, Simon of Cyrene, Mary (the mother of James [the younger], Joses, and Salome), Joses, Salome. Of those in this category seven names can be confirmed as having been used in Israelite history and were names of real persons at one time, but the names are not of those persons in Mark’s narrative: Mary, Judas, Simon, James, Salome.

One interesting aspect of the named characters in Mark is what is revealed about the nuclear family of Jesus. Mary is named as Jesus’ mother only once (6:3). Mark usually refers to the matriarch of the family as “his” (Jesus) mother and always in connection with “his brothers,” who are unnamed (3:31-35). Joseph is not a named character in Mark. On the other hand, the mother of Jesus is never named in the Gospel of John. She is designated as “the mother of Jesus” (like a title) or “his”/“your” mother (2:1, 3, 12; 19:25-27). John, however, specifically names Joseph, as the “father” of Jesus (6:42). Paul refers to the mother of Jesus even more obliquely as simply: a “woman” who gave birth to Jesus (Gal 4:4). Paul either did not know Mary’s name or did not regard it as significant, or both. She is named in Acts 1:14 but Acts is written by the same author who wrote Luke and used the Gospel of Mark as a source.

            Did Mark invent the names of any of his characters? One can never certain, but here is an example of one name that may hold that dubious distinction: the name Levi (Mark 2:14), which in the Christian tradition is only known in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:24, 29). In Mark the call of Levi, a tax collector, appears as a solitary incident although one may infer that the call of Levi is related to the story that follows by assuming that the obscure “his house” in 2:15 is Levi’s house. Luke makes that assumption and has Levi throw Jesus a great feast (Luke 5:29); the occasion of the feast introduces the logia in 5:31-32. Matthew, on the other hand changes “his house” to “the house” (9:10), and also changes the name of Levi to Matthew (9:9). It is popularly thought that Matthew and Levi are the same person. Likely because if one did not do so, one would then be forced to entertain the idea that either Mark has invented the name Levi or the author we think of as “Matthew” has invented the name Matthew.5

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For a brief sketch of Mark’s literary method, see Hedrick, “Comparing Two Productions: Mark and Lincoln.”

2Robert J. Miller, ed., The Complete Gospels (4th ed; Polebridge Press, 1992), 363.

3The infancy narratives are Matt 1:2-2:23 and Luke 1:5-2:52.

4The brothers of the Lord are mentioned in 1 Cor 9:5 but not by name. In Mark the names of the brothers of the Lord are James, Joses, Judas, and Simon; his sisters are unnamed.

5See the entry by Stanley Porter (“Levi,” ABD, 4:295), who gives a brief discussion of the problem. Porter notes that there are several scholarly explanations. Porter sides with none of them.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Does God do Bad Things to People?

My question falls under the rubric of theodicy, which is “the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.”1 God’s goodness clashes with God’s omnipotence when bad things happen to people. That is, if God were good and all-powerful, bad things could never happen to people. But bad things do happen to people. Hence, one of these two propositions is untrue. Religious people, however, need for both propositions to be true; they want to maintain that God is both “good” and “in control of the world” in the face of common human experience that denies the truth of one of these two propositions. The obvious clash between the propositions has led some to attempt a resolution of the dissonance between them in the following two ways:

1.               By arguing that “learning to view bad things as good things in disguise are disciplines God wants his children to develop as they mature spiritually”;

2.               By arguing that “God will not allow anything to happen to you without his permission. He will not allow any ‘bad thing’ to happen that will not ultimately bring you more good than destruction.”2

The first argument cites 1 Cor 2:14 and Rom 8:1-17 in support. This solution, however, requires self-delusion, since one must convince oneself that bad is actually good. The second argument cites 1 Pet 4:12-13, Rom 9:14-24, Isa 55:8-9, Job 1:6-12, and Gen 50:20 in support. (In neither instance does the scriptural support seem to be on point.) This second argument also requires self-delusion, since it asserts that bad is not actually bad but rather only bad on the surface, for the belief is that it will ultimately bring a situation that is more good than bad.

I simply cannot lie to myself that bad things are not bad but rather they are good things. With respect to my own life I know the difference between good and bad, as most people do. I agree, however, that sometimes good comes out of bad, but statistically it does not happen that often. Bad remains bad even though we may eventually get our lives back in order. In 1979 in a tight academic job market, I was fired from Wagner College along with 24 other members of the faculty because of a financial exigency crisis at the college. It so happened that after sending out what seemed to me hundreds of job applications, I was hired to the faculty of Missouri State University. In my case the situation worked out, but the good (a new job) never has completely eradicated the bad (a painful memory of a being fired and without a future in academia).

In response to my question, it is unfortunately true that the Bible specifically depicts God doing bad things to some people and allowing bad things to happen to others. Here are two examples: God does bad things: 1 Sam 15:1-3, 7-9; Isa 45:7. God allows bad things to happen: the classic instance is depicted in the prose introduction to Job 1:1-2:22.

            The question of theodicy “why does God do what s/he does?” continues to plague me like a tiny unfindable pebble in my shoe. I have addressed it obliquely in a number of essays, and this year published two other essays specifically on the question of theodicy.3 The reason it bothers me is because the lack of resolution to the clash between God’s goodness and omnipotence ultimately challenges the very concept of God for a rational person. How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1990), s.v. “theodicy.”

2Institute of Basic Life Principles, “Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen,”

3“A Conundrum: Two incompatible Propositions,” April 27, 2020: and “Did God Cause (Or Allow) the Covid-19 Pandemic?” April 12, 2020: