Several nights before beginning this essay I watched the 2012 television production “Lincoln.” The film was well received in the media world and numerous awards were given to the film and to Daniel Day Lewis, who played Lincoln. Available to the writers, production staff, and actors were many artifacts, histories, photographs, and other video productions from which data could be drawn to develop the production. In fact, the historical events themselves are so well known that the sheer amount of data available no doubt frustrated the creative process of producing the film. The known facts of Mr. Lincoln’s presidency limited what the writers might have included in the script. It is nevertheless a work of creative fiction that is historically accurate—but not in every detail.1
Mark’s essay, on the other hand, is also a creative work, whose overall historical accuracy is dubious, but which, in part, is surely historically accurate. Very little was available to Mark from which to develop the narrative that he entitled: “Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (1:1). Mark’s story about Jesus narrates how the gospel (euaggellion, euaggelizomai) of the Markan community in the latter half of the first century began. Paul succinctly described the content of the gospel (“good news”) of the apostolic age in First Corinthians 15:1, 3-5. The natural context of “gospel” in Mark seems to be this later apostolic preaching of the church rather than the public career of Jesus.2 Its appearance in Mark’s story about the itinerant Galilean, Jesus the Anointed, strikes me as an anachronism. What Mark wishes to echo in the reader’s mind when he places “gospel” on the lips of Jesus is the apostolic message preached by his own community of faith.3
The anonymous author we call Mark wrote shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE) and he had at his disposal very little historical data about the public career of Jesus the Galilean, who was crucified by the Romans around 30CE, some forty years earlier. Mark lived in a world of Greek language and culture while the subject of his essay lived in Galilee of Judea, as the Romans called it, a world of Aramaic language and culture. Mark had neither material artifacts nor written sources4 available to him to inform his narrative. What was available to him were anonymous oral reports, church tradition and beliefs, and liturgy.5
Mark’s literary product, therefore, is a narrative of his own creative imagination and fashioning. Perhaps it is better to say Mark’s Gospel is “fiction” (from the Latin fictio, a making or fashioning). Mark was responsible for imagining the whole and for weaving into his narrative what little information was available to him. He had no known curriculum vitae (course of life) of Jesus that had to be followed. Hence, he had to decide the sequence of things. He strung together independent episodes that he composed and other sub-groupings of material into an overall geographical frame6 through the use of summary statements, which were intended to expand the activities of Jesus well beyond the few typical episodic incidents described more fully in the narrative. These statements “summarize new activities over broad general geographic areas and indefinite periods of time.”7 It was a technique Mark hoped would overcome the impression of how little information he actually did know.
As an author, Mark was a child of his day. If one judges by the criterion of literary realism, Mark’s narrative is more akin to modern romance than to historical narrative.8 That is, “it is an idealistic tale with supernatural and marvelous features,” more like legends of King Arthur and Harry Potter than Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War.9
Mark employs certain techniques of modern narrative fiction. As an author he is omniscient and knows everything that happens even to the extent of knowing what the characters are thinking. Throughout the narrative he provides the reader interior views of characters. That is, he reveals to readers what characters are thinking. “This shift in a reader’s point of view from seeing events from the narrator’s perspective to seeing the situation from within a paper-character’s mind is a primary feature of the rhetoric of fiction by which a flesh-and-blood author develops characters and furthers the plot of a novel.”10
What I take away from Mark’s essay is a vague image, a silhouette of a life devoted to the welfare of the faceless multitudes of his people, a life that ended in tragedy. Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed; also from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon a great multitude hearing all that he did came to him (Mark 1:7-8). According to Mark, Jesus told his disciples: Whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43-45).
Missouri State University
2The word “Gospel” appears in every NT book except John, Jude, James, 1-3 John, and 2 Peter.
3See Hedrick, “Parable and Kingdom. A Survey of the Evidence in Mark,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 27.2 (2000), 182.
4Dominick Crossan argued that Mark developed his story in part by reliance on the Gospel of Peter. See the brief reference in Paul Mirecki, “Peter Gospel of” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 5:279-81. From my reading of the evidence it appeared that Crossan’s evidence could cut either way. In other words, the author of the Gospel of Peter could also have borrowed from Mark.
5For example, with respect to the Passover meal, compare Mark 14:22-24, 1 Cor 11:23-25, and Didache 9:1-5 for the similar format.
6Hedrick, “What is a Gospel? Geography, Time, and Narrative Structure,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 10.3 (1983), 255-68.
7Hedrick, “The Role of ‘Summary Statements’ in the composition of the Gospel of Mark: A Dialogue with Karl Schmidt and Norman Perrin,” Novum Testamentum 26 (1984), 289-311.
8Hedrick, “Realism in Western Narrative and the Gospel of Mark: A Prolegomenon,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126.2 (2007), 345-59.
9Hedrick, “Realism,” 353; for a description of the supernatural and marvelous features see 358.
10Hedrick, “The Problem of History in Mark,” pp. 140-42 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths.
My goodness, Charlie, I think that this essay is among the top five, or perhaps even the best, that you have published on your blog. I'll do my best to find some things that I disagree with, perhaps some evidence of a couple written sources.
What a great little summary of Mark, with many things to be unpacked! Your reference to Paul made me realize that I never looked in Mark for the ideas found in Paul's letters. Has anyone written a book on that? I hadn't seen "gospel" in Mark as the anachronism it was, although other references are more obvious.
A prof from McCormick in Chicago said that Mark's message was that we should follow Jesus and it will lead to your death. Not a pleasant message, but Mark told it with immediacy.
I am still struggling with the quantity of developed theological statements about Jesus in I Thessalonians, written perhaps only eight years after the crucifixion. Crossan told me that all those ideas already existed in Roman culture, but it is difficult to imagine.
I love your comparison of Mark to Harry Potter.
I wouldn't call the Lincoln film a TV production, it was a full Hollywood, Spielburg work.
Ballston Spa NY
Good Morning Gene,
I hope that you are successful finding Markan sources, that will open up a whole new area of study!
Good Morning Denny,
Good to hear from you and thanks for posting. Do you know if Crossan ever wrote down the parallels?
I see the author of Mark taking the reader through a tale of Israel. I find a protagonist with powers like Moses and Elijah/Elisha, a group of students meant to represent the 12 tribes of Israel who fairly consistently lack understanding of his message (collectively, “The dense” or “hard of heart”), and a group of Judean authorities like those several of the prophets railed against (the “antagonists”), in a fairly contemporary setting, one generation before the temple was destroyed, with that form of Judaism lost except in homes and meeting houses. It is an allegory, as far as I can see, dripping with irony, though in the wake of the war of 66-70 it wasn’t as much a humorous as a hand wringing irony. If I read Mark divesting my mind of later gospels and Christian material, it seems an “update” of Israelite “history” (especially using imagery of the exodus, Psalms and a variety of prophets) to include a reason the temple was destroyed and, in chapter 16, to surprise the reader with a a positive expectation for the future, though as “history” seemed to point, it would probably repeat itself, as one might faintly pick up in the last word (“for”), which made me wonder if I couldn’t stick that to the beginning of Mark 1.1 and read it again. It seems as the themes of “history” in the past were seen as repeating, especially when one looks at the reiterative themes (and motifs) of Tanakh.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good afternoon Dennis,
I have always thought that allegorical interpretations of biblical texts tell us more about the interpreter and his/her views than about the text being interpreted. For example compare Mark's traditional interpretation of the story of the sower to the story itself. Unless, of course, the text being interpreted was deliberately composed as an allegory and the allegorical interpreter has independent knowledge of that fact other than the fact that his/her allegorical interpretation recommends itself to him/her. See my entry, "Parable" in the New Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible, 4:368-77 (p. 375 for allegory).
Regarding your assertion: "Mark had neither material artifacts NOR WRITTEN SOURCES available to him to inform his narrative. What was available to him were anonymous oral reports, church tradition and beliefs, and liturgy."
Mark 9:36-37: "Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms he said to them, 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.'" (Luke 9:46-48; Matthew 18:5-6)
Mark 9:38-41: A brief argument over an exorcist who doesn't identify with Jesus' inner group, but who uses Jesus' name and one who gives a cup of water in Jesus' name; both receive Jesus' approval.
The above verses suggest that Jesus accepts those adults who trust him: first, with children, then with exorcism power, then with relieving thirst.
Mark 9:42-48 appears to modify vs.36-37. "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones WHO BELIEVE IN ME, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell...better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet...better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye..." (Matthew 18:6-9; Luke 17:1-2). Sextus Sentences 13, "Cast away every part of the body that leads to intemperance....." (Origen's commentary on Matthew).
Perhaps we should see Mark 9:42-48 as an indirect reference to child abuse, with the phrase "who believe in me" added by a later interpolator and copied by Matt but not by Luke.[Perhaps Marcion's Evangelion (Proto-Luke) didn't have them.] Matthew 5:29-30 also recommends the same body mutilation for those tempted to be adulterers. The subject of child abuse is not specifically addressed anywhere in the gospels, but there is substantial evidence that it existed in the culture; e.g. leaving female infants to die.
THE ISSUE: Does Mark have an original written source about child abusers?
According to Aland's Greek New Testament (1968: x, 161) only the words "in me" have "dubious textual validity."
Suppose, then, that we eliminate "in me" and be faithful to the participle form of pisteuo in the text, "ton pisteuonton," meant to be read "those who are trusting" or "those exercising faith." The term 'faith' however has too many side-roads to travel. If the Jesus Seminar did anything, it alerted us to the superior definition of "trust" for pistis, and it fits children so much better. I suggest that we also find accepting God's kingdom (not belief in Jesus) attached specifically to a child's trusting behavior also in Mark 10:13-16 (Matt 19:13-15, Luke 18:15-17).
Consider further the type of response promoted in the passage - severing of limbs, gouging out eyes, etc. Those are punishments for offensive (abusive) actions, rather than offending beliefs. Remember that Matthew's alternative site for these punishments were verses describing actions, adulterous ones.
For me, the evidence leans toward a written source used by Mark which had an original child abuse context. The "in me" was added by a later interpolator. The original source included the millstone/drowning saying and a self-mutilations saying.
Regarding originality with Jesus, the JS gave the Millstone saying a Black vote and the body mutilation sayings a Gray vote. I would have said at least the other way around. I would have been tempted to give millstone a pink (probably) vote.
But I guess Mark, 30-60 years after Jesus death, could have been discussing these matters with a fellow congregation member, thinking about their present practices and about what had come down to them about Jesus, and formulated these two extreme reactions.
I disagree, if I am understanding you. One learns to notice allegorical features. They don't necessitate the author telling this to the reader or the reader creating them from nothing.
Looking at the story as literature, with what is known about the time frame in which it was ostensibly written, as well as the symbols from Tanakh, without overlaying other gospel material, allegorical features are there. Allegory is a way to get meaning across symbolically, and the symbols are available throughout Mark, found in a variety of motifs and reinforced by the ambiguity found in much of the language that takes specificity from time and place. It is, of course, fictional, but I think it had more of a purpose than a fiction about a guy named Jesus that probably few had heard of and probably none were around to remember, post-70. But, that, of course, leaves Christianity without an "original story," so I'll remain lone in my views. I will note that Burton Mack (A Myth of Innocence) noted a variety of different ways Mark could be read in chapters 24-27, which probably was the genesis of looking at the book as more than just pop fiction of its time.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Morning Dennis,
I think that you have plenty of company in applying the allegorical method to biblical texts. It still remains the queen of interpretation methods in ecclesiastical circles. It is the favored method of the evangelists in treating Jesus' stories in order to wrest a suitable religious meaning out of them. And not a few scholars even in SBL still apply the method to the parables.
I wasn't speaking of the parables or interpreting the stories, both of which I consider the creation of the author. My interest is more in what effect the story would have had on Jews of the time. I was talking about the book of Mark as a whole as an allegory, with the creation of s fictive Jesus (an ironic cue name perhaps)to explain a situation that had recently happened in Palestine (and portions of the diaspora). (As I posted above, Mack showed how the overall structure of Mark is chiastic and can also be read as parabolic. I just added what seemed to me, looking at what probably was a grief-stricken audience in the seventies, the logical "next step.")
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Evening Charlie,
1) Dennis referred to a "grief stricken" audience in the seventies... Is it your understanding that the gospel stories were created to soothe and assuage their grief? With a surprising "positive expectation" for the future? Is it logical to you that oppressed groups such as the Jews were eager participants in these romantic fantasies after suffering such devastating loss?
2) Do you see a parallel between the public's ongoing fascination with the two great martyrs- Jesus and Abraham Lincoln? What is about violent untimely death that seems to anoint people with sudden sainthood? In your opinion? The reason I ask is- we live not very far from the Lincoln Library in Springfield Illinois. (If you ever get a chance, it is a very interesting and fascinating museum to visit.) My husband and were doing some kid's craft together and I took a look at the line of visitors standing to have their picture taken with the wax figure of Lincoln. Still to this day, I cannot get over one thing about that crowd of people- all the different languages being spoken from all over the world. I counted at least half a dozen different languages. Some of them I recognized, some of them I didn't. What draws people from all over the globe to visit the resting place of this slain American president all these many years later??
3) I am currently working my way through a four volume series of book on Lincoln, and just this past weekend I read an account of a pastor who visited Lincoln shortly after the death of his son Willie. Reverend Vinton was consoling Lincoln during his grief, and mentioned that Willie was still alive and in heaven with Jesus. Lincoln was shocked and stunned to hear such a claim- "Alive?? Wille is alive, and not dead? How can this be?" So the Reverend told him about eternal life and heaven and Paradise, etc... I told my husband about it and he said "Well didn't Lincoln read the Bible?" I really don't think he didi- he was below the poverty level as a young child. He may have had it read to him, but I know of no accounts that he actually owned a Bible in his younger years. I only know about Blackstone's Commentaries and Aesop's fables... He wasn't a particularly religious man. Does it surprise you that Lincoln had never heard about going to heaven or that his son was in "Paradise?" How likely was it that he never read the Bible? (I know you're not a historian) Many thanks, Elizabeth
To answer Elizabeth's question in her first question to you:
The best example of a Jewish reaction to the grief of having the Temple razed, the population devastated and much of the population (once again) transferred is found in the gigantic composition "The Mishnah." It "is a document of imagination and fantasy, describing how things 'are' out of the sherds and remnants of reality, but in larger measure, building social being out of beams of hope" (Neusner, The Mishnah, p. xvii). In other words, a reaction. I see Mark as a fiction that attempted this in a completely different way, a different genre, in a different time, but which was historicized in the diaspora, where Jew and Greek came together. Both were reactions, totally different, to tragedy.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Morning Elizabeth,
1. Offhand I don't know of any post 60s sources among Jews who had survived the destruction of the Temple, but it is reasonable to assume that Jews who survived that tragedy would have been grief stricken had they been people of faith.
2. I have never thought (so far as I can recall) about the question you are asking and have no opinion. A lot of people in the distant past and in contemporary events have suffered an untimely and tragic death without being declared martyrs. What makes one a martyr and others not? Your last question I cannot answer but I note that three other US presidents have been assassinated: James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy's death may have captured the imagination of the public in a way similar to Lincoln's death, but will it endure into the ages as Lincoln's has?
3.I am not a Civil War historian. but like you I have an interest in Civil War history (having grown up in Mississippi). On one occasion I read through Shelby Foote's three volume work on the Civil War (he was born in Greenville, Mississippi where I grew up in the 40s and 50s). Here is a source that I googled on Lincoln's knowledge of the Bible: https://www.thetrumpet.com/21110-lincoln-and-the-bible
That's true Charlie- I am from Dallas and yes, the site where JFK was assassinated still draws worldwide visitors and interest. I've never been there, but I'm sure the site where MLK was assassinated also draws an equal amount of tourists... That's a good question about what makes someone a martyr. Perhaps it has to do with why they were killed and how much of an "agent of change" they were perceived to be by the public at large and by the ruling elite... And how much of a threat they posed to the ruling class as well as the archaic traditions/prejudices they represented. I'll have to look up the definition of martyr and see what it says. Thank you, Elizabeth
Here's another suggestion for written sources Charlie:
The sections below appear to represent two parallel cycles of pre-Markan material: a sea miracle, preaching, healings, and feedings. The healing in 8:22-26 is out of order due to Mark's thematic considerations (seeing clearly), and he inserted his own summary before it. The basic parallelism occurs as follows:
Achtemeier, Paul J. (1) "Toward the Isolation of the Pre-Markan Miracle Catenae." JBL 89 (1970), 265-91. (2)"The Origin and Function of the Pre-Markan Miracle Catanae." JBL 91 (1972), 198-221. (3)Mark. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.
Stilling a storm (4:35-41)
Healing a demoniac (5:1-20)
Healing a hemorrhaging woman (5:25-34)
Returning a child to life (5:21-23, 35-43)
Feeding 5000 (6:34-44, 53)
Walking on the sea (6:45-51)
Healing a blind man (8:22-26)
Healing of Syrophoenician child (7:24b-30)
Healing a deaf-mute (7:32-37}
Feeding 4000 (8:1-10)
Kee (Community of the New Age. 1977. p. 33) suggests that 4/5 of these miracle stories occur in territory that is clearly Gentile or on the borders.
Pharisees = Jews and Herod = Gentiles.
12 baskets left over equal the Jewish tribes, 7 baskets left over equal the 7 Gentile churches in Asia (Revelation 1:4ff.)
The feedings identify the Kingdom as small beginning - huge ending, consistent with some parables, like the Sower.
Suggestions for Mark's editorial work are 4:35 (?), 5:21c (?), 5:24, 6:34bc (?), 6:35b, 6:45c, 6:50c, 6:51b, 7:36, 8:1a. Mark inserted the teacher/proclaimer role of Jesus at 6:1-33 and 7:1-23 to counterbalance the emphasis in these stories on Jesus the Divine Man miracle worker.
Achtemeier holds that the feedings represent a type of eucharist in the post-crucifixion community which used only bread/fish. Offering general support for this eucharistic view are passages which connect Jesus the Risen One with meal celebrations: Luke 24:36-43, John 21:13, Revelation 3:20.
I recently heard that one of the meanings of martyr is one who bears witness so I decided to see what the OED had to say. I would think one would have to suffer for a belief, if not die, to be a martyr. OED:
“A person who bears witness for a belief, esp. the Christian faith. Cf. witness n. 8a. Now rare.
c1225 Worcester Glosses to Old Eng. Homilies in Anglia (1928) 52 22 Cyðere : martir.
1596 E. Coote Eng. Schoole-maister 86/2 Martyr, witnes.
1642 J. Milton Apol. Smectymnuus 39 These opening the prisons and dungeons cal'd out of darknesse and bonds, the elect Martyrs and witnesses of their Redeemer.
1651 T. Hobbes Leviathan iii. xlii. 272 Nor is it the Death of the Witnesse, but the Testimony it self that makes the Martyr: for the word signifieth nothing else, but the man that beareth Witnesse.
a1677 I. Barrow Of Contentm. (1685) 151 Having such a cloud of Martyrs [Hebrews 12:1].
Yeah, Marcia. According to Candida Moss (The Myth of Persecution, ch. 1) martyr was originally a Greek legal term, "someone who presented evidence in a trial." (She continued to say that Greeks "had their own technical terms for people who died for their religious belief. They were heroes who died good deaths.") It was probably Christians who developed the term to mean someone who died for witnessing to one's beliefs. Somewhere I read something about the development of the term, but I don't remember where I read it.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Thank you- I also looked up the dictionary definition of the term "martyr" and it said "someone who is killed for their religious beliefs." It makes sense that Christians developed the term. I know of no other religious group who were killed (or who did the killing themselves) based solely upon idealogical religious beliefs. I know that ancient tribes killed other tribes, but I don't' think it had to do with religion. Other than ritual sacrifices and offerings... So it was a mistake to refer to Lincoln as a martyr because he certainly was not killed for his religious beliefs.
I do wonder how many people in the 1860's had access to a personal Bible. It certainly sounds like Lincoln did not. I went to the website Charlie referenced and it sounds like he was not terribly familiar with holy scripture. He referred to certain passages but did not quote it off the top of his head the way some politicians do. Books were very costly and not many families had access to them. How many families owned a bible in the 1860's? Most likely not many did and their knowledge of biblical teachings came from whatever church they were able to attend. Elizabeth
Here is a source for Jewish Martyrs.
Christians did not invent martyrs.
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