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.


bobinberea said...

Interesting, Charlie. FYI, I have always suspected that Judas Iscariot was invented by Mark, "Judas" being an implied slam against "Jews." Paul never mentions Judas, even though a traitor among the Twelve might have given Paul some leverage in his dealings with the "pillars" in Jerusalem. If Mark is the first of the canonical gospels, then all the rest might be following in Mark's footsteps by embellishing the Judas storytelling first begun by Mark. Got any Judas references older than Mark? :-) Bob Fowler

Hedrick jr said...

So do you think that Matthew understood his writing in more or less the same way that modern writers understand fiction? Or is fiction a modern category? And what is fiction anyway? Something just purely "made up"? If Matthew does make up names, does that necessarily imply that the story that goes with the name is also made up?

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Bob,
Thank you for weighing in. In favor of Judas' existence is the fact that his name and role as betrayer is confirmed in the Gospel of John, which I take to be independent of the information in the Gospel of Mark. That is about it, as far as I can see. Paul does mention in a liturgical context "on the night in which he [Jesus] was betrayed" in 1 Cor 11:23. But so far as I know the earliest reference to Judas as the betrayer is in Mark.
I discussed the development of betrayal tradition in a blog essay: "An Allusion in Search of a Narrative: Betraying Jesus." Friday Nov 1, 2013.

Anonymous said...

Charlie, since I realize this is not an “orthodox” view, I condensed it.

Reading Mark as a story, several names of characters not attested outside of Christianity (like Pilate, Herod, and John the Immerser, which give the reader a setting) function as cue-names. Two of the main forces in the book, Peter and Judas, and the marginal character Jairus, play this role. Jairus the Judean synagogue leader with trust, has a name meaning “enlightened.” Judas the turncoat reminds the reader of “Judah” and the complicity of the Judeans. (Simon) Peter, the ironic “Rock,” befits the rocky soil in which the word is sowed, (He “receives the word immediately with joy... then when trouble or persecution arises... immediately” he “falls away.” Note the three-fold denial.) While they could refer to historical figures, this doesn’t speak to a function the names seem to serve in the book.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Charles,
1. Mark knew s/he wrote fiction?: I don't think so. I describe the gospel as propaganda literature. Mark likely regarded what s/he wrote as an honest telling of the story of Jesus.
2. Fiction a modern category?: It depends on whom you ask. Some think of it as having begun in the 1700s; others track it to the middle ages; and some few track it to the Greco-Roman period (Konstans).
3. What is fiction?: "a narrative drawn from the imagination rather than history of fact" (Holmes and Harmon).
4. Is the story also fiction if the name is?: It could be.

Anonymous said...

Parsing what I posted, the first sentence seems ambiguous. I meant that Pilate, Herod and John were attested outside of Christianity and they give the reader a sense of "when" and "where."

Elizabeth said...

1) What about Mark himself- was he a fictional character also? I don't think he was a disciple.

2) If he wasn't a disciple, who was he supposed to have been? In other words, how did he even know Jesus?

3) Who do you think came up with the name "Mark" and why do you think his writings were preserved? Why would he have been considered an important enough person to keep his account of Jesus's life in tact? I just wonder why he wasn't mentioned by any of Jesus's inner circle. Elizabeth

Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Elizabeth,
The name Mark was associated with this text in antiquity, and no one knows for certain who this figure was. He was not named in the list of disciples in Mark 3.
There are two figures named Mark in later texts: Acts 12:12 John whose surname was Mark (cousin or nephew of Barnabas, the companion of Paul). The second: A son or disciple of Peter, said to have written the gospel bearing the name "Mark"--1 Pet 5:13.
In critical scholarship the "author" of the Gospel of Mark never met Jesus. He was from a later period of the movement.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Another angle of perception; the story of Jesus using definitions of the names in GMark. These sites usually have Hebrew/Greek origins.

The story of 1:1 Jesus Christ- "deliverer/savior anointed," baptized by 1:4 6:14 11:30 John#1 (the Baptist) - "God's favor/mercy," tempted by 1:13 Satan - "adversary." He had strong associations with 1:16 Simon#1 - "one who obeys," 1:16, 13:3 Andrew - "a strong man," and 1:19 3:17 5:37 9:2 10:35ff 13:3 14:33 James(#1) - "one that supplants," and 1:19 5:37 9:2 9:38 10:35ff 13:3 14:33 John#2 (see above). He ate with 2:14 Levi - "attached to," the son of 2:14 3:18 Alphaeus [father of Levi and James(#2)] - "a learned chief."

Jesus banded together with 3:16 5:37 8:29ff 9:2ff 10:28 11:20 13:3 14:29 14:33 14:54,66ff Peter(the renamed Simon #1) - "a rock/stone," 3:18 James#2 son of Alphaeus (see above), 3:17 the Boanerges (James#1 and John#2) - "sons of thunder" (Zebedee 1:20); 3:18 Phillip - "friend of horses;" 3:18 Bartholomew - "son of a farmer;" 3:18 Matthew - "gift of God;" 3:18 Thomas - "a twin;" 3:18 Thaddaeus - "courageous heart;" 3:18 Simon#2 (see above) the Cananean; and 3:19 14:10 14:43 Judas Iscariot (Jude); Greek form of the Hebrew Judah - "one praised." Judas of Kerioth: "man of Kerioth," a town in the tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:25).

He healed the daughter of 5:22 Jairus - "God enlightens."

His family were ordinary folks: 6:3 Mary (Miriam), Jesus' Mother - "bitter:" And Jesus' brothers: 6:3 James#3 (see above), 6:3 Joses - "God shall add (another son)," 6:3 Judas#2 (see above): 6:3 Simon#3 (see above).

6:14 8:16 Herod - "son of a hero," ordered John#1 (see above) killed, who was thought by the populace to be 6:15 8:28 9:4 9:11ff 15:35 Elijah - "God the Lord." John objected to Herod marrying his brother 6:17 Philip#2's (see above) wife 6:17 Herodias - "song of the Hero."

Jesus participated in a vision in which he spoke with Elijah (see above) and 9:4 Moses - "drawn forth (from water)."

He cured the blindness of 10:46 Bar/timaeus - son of/the honorable.

He ate at the home in Bethany of 14:3 Simon#4 (see above) the leper.

He was sentenced to crucifixion by 15:2ff 15:44 Pilate - "with darts, spears." His cross was carried by 15:21 Simon#5 of Cyrene (see above), whose sons were 15:21 Alexander - "defender of men, warrior" and 15:21 Rufus - "red haired." Women were present at the crucifixion and empty tomb 15:40 15:47 16:1 Mary#2 (see above) Magdalene (of Magdala), 15:40 15:47 16:1, Mary#1 mother of James the younger and Joses (see above), and 15:40 16:1 Salome (Salmon) - "peaceful." 15:43ff Joseph (of Arimathea) - "to increase (a crop)," buried Jesus in a tomb. The same women discovered the tomb empty.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa

Anonymous said...

Of those, Jairus's part in Mark, along with that of Judas & Peter, are probably cue names, not because their names meant something (my first name is derived from Dionysus, the surname fairly obvious), but because of the role the character plays in the story. A cue name serves to reinforce aspects of the story the author would "highlight." Not all names serve that function. Sometimes, they are just "place holders." On the other hand, "Peter" becomes almost a motif.

"Jesus" as a cue name for Mark would be an example of Mark's irony. (Jesus couldn't even save himself, as the Judeans said). It is enticing, given Mark's use of irony, and Christian soteriology, but if Josephus is a source of first century names, it was fairly common in his writings, so I doubt it. But...

The use of cue names in ancient Jewish and Greek literature is long attested. I noticed that the Acts Seminar ("Acts and Christian Beginnings") had a cameo essay about its use of these. One of the funniest cue name in Acts is "Eutychus," or "Lucky," who was sleeping through a long-winded Paul talk, dozed right out the third story window, splatted, and was dead until Paul lifted him up... That boy was LUCKY!

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

Allow me one more thought...
Sometimes, the function of a cue name can be to provide significance to what is expected of a particular person. The choice in Acts of who would become “helpers” of the community was such an example, I believe.

from Acts 6.5: “... and they chose Stephen, a man full of trust and spirit, and Philip and Prochorus, and Nicanor and Timon, and Parmenas,, and Nicolaus, proselyte from Antioch ...”

These seven names, where “Hellenists” are associated with the movement, seem to be purposely invented, six of them representing honorable traits. Stephen (crown – a martyr in Christian history wore the “crown of immortality”), Prochorus (chorus leader... think Greek drama and the utility of the chorus), Nicanor (conqueror), Timon (honorable), Parmenas (steadfast), and Nicolaus (conqueror of the people). The other name, Philip, means “horse lover,” which sounds out of step with the others until one recalls that he was the one who ran down the Ethiopian’s chariot later in Acts (8.26-40). Five disappear after their introduction, which seems to make it clear that in choosing “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” there was a purposeful choice of names that spoke to this idea of “men of good standing.” The characters represented more than “place holders.” (That is a footnote from an essay I wrote, "Did the First Evangelists Wait Tables?")

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you Charlie... It's unbelievable to me that I grew up believing the gospels were actually written by disciples of Jesus who sat at his feet taking "notes." Of course, the apologists claim these accounts were passed down by oral tradition. I can't remember what you wrote about oral tradition in Wisdom of Jesus- as an historian, do you assign any credibility or validity in the use of oral tradition as a means of preserving historic events and people? I still can't get over that "Mark" (whoever he was) never even met Jesus... Or that there's little to no historic evidence of his real identity. Many thanks, Elizabeth

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Elizabeth,
On the use of oral tradition discussed in "The Wisdom of Jesus" see chapter 5, pages 77-90.