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
Missouri State University
1For a brief sketch of Mark’s literary method, see Hedrick, “Comparing Two Productions: Mark and Lincoln.” http://blog.charleshedrick.com/2020/10/
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.