What’s in a Name?

Names and Narration in the Gospel of Mark


DRAFT: Comments and criticism welcome

The one thing we can say with some confidence about the author of the second gospel is that his name is Mark.[1] This name and that of a group to which he repeatedly refers, the Herodians, can open a fresh perspective on his narrative and the political circumstances surrounding Jesus’ ministry and death.

I.  “Mark”

The name Mark never occurs in the gospel text. We know it only from the heading, ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑRΚΟΝ, “According to Mark”, that serves as a title for the work. These words have often been thought a scribe’s addition, but if this gospel was indeed the first of a new genre of narrative, the evangelion, the unprecedented form of the title may have underlined the innovation.[2]

But what of the name Mark itself? It’s not an obvious choice for a boy born into a Jewish family in the first century BCE, especially when one considers the hostility to Roman rule among many groups in the eastern Mediterranean. Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities makes clear that in some quarters of Judaea that hostility was compounded by doubts whether the ruling dynasty of the Herods, closely collaborating with the Romans, was sufficiently strict in its adherence to religious law and tradition. A pious Jewish family of this persuasion would not have conferred a Roman-sounding name on their child.

But some groups surely recognized the advantages brought by the Pax Romana and the benefits a boy bearing such a name might enjoy, especially in circles that interacted frequently, and profitably, with the Roman traders and administrators.

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa

Herod the Great (circa 73 – 4 BCE) and his family certainly reaped benefits from their ties to the Romans and reflected their alliance in the names they chose. For example, the tetrarch we call Herod Agrippa (ca. 10 BCE – 44 CE) was given the name Marcus Julius Agrippa — a tip of the hat to the Roman imperial house of Julius Caesar and his successors, as well as a show of respect to the Roman governor of Syria, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (64 – 12 BCE), an intimate of Caesar Augustus. The emperor could be expected to note these implicit tributes to his adoptive father and his friend.

It might seem presumptuous for a family other than the Herods to adopt the surname Agrippa. But “Marcus” was common and inoffensive enough, while both signaling respect for Roman authority and implicitly approving Herod’s accommodation with Rome. The name may have been in vogue to some extent among Jews born when Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was alive or while his memory was still fresh.[3]  We meet men named Marcus, for example, in Acts, where sometimes the Latin name is joined with the Jewish “John.”[4] The most likely time to give a child in this area the name Marcus was the mid-teens BCE, when Agrippa’s role in the region was at its height. If so, the evangelist would be somewhat older than Jesus of Nazareth, and hence not, as some have suggested, one of the youths (neaniskoi) mentioned in the gospel.

This is speculative, to be sure, but the name Mark clearly indicated a Jewish family’s pro-Roman orientation. Since it was the urban, commercial and administrative classes that most benefited from the Romans and Herod’s collaboration with them, we can conjecture with some confidence about the milieu in which a child of this name would grow up. The ambience is not likely to have been a farming village in Galilee or elsewhere, and probably not the holy city of Jerusalem, but a center of trade and commerce such as Caesarea Maritima, founded and built by Herod the Great from about 25 – 13 BCE. This elegant city bore a Roman name and enjoyed many of the amenities of Roman urban life.[5]

In such a setting, parents eager for the success of their son would know what kind of education to provide for him.  Since Greek was the medium of communication in the eastern Roman empire, knowing it would be essential.  Students of this period learned to speak the common Greek language (koine). If they were serious they went on to study exemplary Greek poets and prose writers, and eventually learned to compose speeches or treatises of their own in that language.[6] It seems very likely that Mark was educated in this way.[7]

II. The Beheading of John the Baptist

Herod Agrippa  10 BCE -- 44 CE

Herod Agrippa
10 BCE — 44 CE

If there is reason to suspect that Mark was raised in a pro-Roman, pro-Herod ambiance, we will want to look closely to see how Herod is presented in this gospel. The most revealing episode is the beheading of John the Baptist in chapter 6.  Unlike the accounts in Matthew, Luke and Josephus, Mark’s version minimizes Herod’s responsibility. Mark makes no effort to deny that Herod gave the order for the execution, but presents the decision in the least damaging light. Mark’s version begins when Herod hears of the success of Jesus’ disciples in healing the sick and casting out demons: King Herod heard of it; for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him. But others said, It is Elijah. And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old. But when Herod heard of it he said, John, whom I beheaded, has been raised. (6:14-16)

Then comes a flashback (6:17-28): For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John said to Herod, It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife. And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him he was much perplexed (πολλὰ ήπόρει); and yet he heard him gladly (ἡδέως).[8] (6:17-20)

Having established that Herod was not motivated by anger at John, Mark can turn to the real villains: But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers (τοῖς μεγιστᾶσι) and officers (τοῖς χιλιάρχοις) and the leading men (τοῖς πρώτοις) of Galilee For when Herodias’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests and the king said to the girl, Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant (δὠσω) it.

The promise of the king should be sufficiently binding but Mark underlines it with an oath that repeats the crucial words: And he swore to her, Whatever you ask me, I will give you (δώσω), even half of my kingdom.[9] And she went out, and said to her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the baptizer.

The daughter twists her mother’s request in her own way, with a chilling addition. She wants the head served up on a platter: And the king became exceedingly sorry (περίλυπος); but because of his oath and his guests he did not wish to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard (σπεκουλάτορα) and gave orders to bring his head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.

This depiction of Herod’s role is as exculpatory as could possibly be arranged. Mark is silent, moreover, about another damaging story — the murder of the infants of Bethlehem, recounted in the second chapter of Matthew. Indeed he omits everything about the visit of the Magi, who in the account of Matthew make a fool of the great Herod (ἐνεπαίχθη: Matthew 2.16). Nor does Mark report the episode in Luke (23.6-12) that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod on the grounds that he was a Galilean. Mark says nothing of Herod’s involvement in Jesus’ condemnation.

III. The Herodians

But if in these instances Mark seems sympathetic to Herod’s dynasty, the same cannot be said of his treatment of the mysterious “Herodians.” Mark is the only gospel writer to mention them. Once again, the name itself tells a story. “Herodian” has a Latin-like suffix, -ιανοί. In Greek it sounds alien, quite possible pejorative, as the parallel term “Christian” originally was. Idiomatic classical Greek refers to the circle around a leader as “those around so-and-so – “οἱ περί” or as his friends (φίλοι). By using the Latin-like formation, rather than a Greek idiom, Mark distances himself from this group. Their exact identity cannot be determined but, in all three passages where he mentions Herodians, Mark makes clear he wants nothing to do with them.[10]

All three passages share another striking feature, associating Herodians with the Pharisees. In view of what Josephus, himself a Pharisee, tells us about the hostility between the Pharisees and Herod (Jewish Antiquities 17. (iii) 41 – 44) it is hard to see why any group associated with Herod would collaborate with the Pharisees, or vice versa. The Pharisees claimed, Josephus says, great prophetic powers, which could influence public opinion in ways most helpful to Herod, but they “were obviously intent on combating and injuring him” (17.41, trans. Marcus and Wikgren). They refused to take an oath of loyalty to Caesar and predicted that ”by God’s decree Herod’s throne would be taken from him, both from him and from his descendants” (17.43). So how is it possible that the two groups could collaborate? A shared antipathy to Jesus of Nazareth seems likely — among the Pharisees, fear that he lacked respect for the Law; among the Herodians, fear that he might mobilize his followers and seize power.

The first of Mark’s three references to Herodians occurs on a Sabbath when Jesus meets the man with a withered hand. The Pharisees are watching to see if Jesus will break the Sabbath by healing him, and so he asks them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3.4). When the Pharisees will not answer, Jesus, in anger and grief at their hardness of heart, goes ahead with the cure. That does it for the Pharisees. They withdraw and immediately “grant a joint meeting with the Herodians” (συμβούλιον ἐδίδουν).[11] The phrasing suggests that the Herodians had already been seeking such a meeting, with the intention of destroying (ἀπολέσωσιν) Jesus. Now, with Jesus clearly disregarding strict Sabbath law, the Pharisees were willing to reach out to the Herodians in what may have been a significant realignment of political forces, old adversaries allying against a new enemy.

Jesus may have been aware of this realignment, as Mark hints when he has Jesus himself make the second reference to Herodians. When his disciples are hungry and have only one loaf of bread among them, Jesus uses the image of bread rising to remind them what they are up against. “Look, see  — from the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of the Herodians.”[12] Jesus’ laconic phrasing makes best sense if we visualize him taking the one loaf and holding it up as if to say, “Bread? You want bread? Here is the bread our enemies make.” He then goes on to remind the disciples that they had seen 5,000 fed from five loaves of his own miraculous bread.

Ferment turns to entrapment when the Herodians make their third appearance. Jesus has entered Jerusalem; he has caused an uproar driving money changers from the temple. At first there is no mention of the Herodians or the Pharisees.  The Establishment comes en masse — chief priests, scholars and elders — to ask by what authority he has acted in this way (11.28). Jesus answers with a parable about an absentee landlord whose servants and son are killed by the tenants.  The delegation gets it: ”They perceived that he had told the parable against them” (12:12).

Then begins Mark’s second narrative of the testing of Jesus.[13] The first, of course, came from the devil when Jesus withdrew to the wilderness after his baptism.  The second comes from human beings – including “some Pharisees and Herodians” intent on entrapping him (12.13). Feigning respect, they ask Jesus if the Law allows the payment of taxes to Caesar. They think they’ve got him. If he says “Yes,” he will lose revolutionary appeal among the masses. If he says “No,” the Romans will take care of him. Jesus, however, won’t take the bait. He asks them to identify the image and read the inscription on a denarius. They leave, astonished at the way he has turned the tables on them.

That’s the last we hear in Mark of Herod or the Herodians. Destroying Jesus is now up to the religious establishment, the biblical scholars, and those on whom age should have conferred wisdom.

In summary: Biographical speculation about the man called Mark is easy to do and easy to dismiss, but it has value if one uses it to look more closely at the text. That is what I hope will result from this inquiry. If one wishes one can readily imagine someone born into the trading and commercial classes that prospered under the arrangements that Herod had worked out with the Romans. The family was so pro-Roman that it gave him not a Jewish or Greek name but a Latin one, echoing the practice of the royal family. As he matured he became interested in the Galilean Holy Man, observed him keenly and eventually developed a new way of writing about what he experienced. Sympathy for the family of the Herods may have remained to some degree, but not for their henchmen or (self-)appointed agents.

This biographical speculation cannot be corroborated but at every stage it alerts us to aspects of the text that we might otherwise pass over lightly. At least that is what it has done for me. I hope it will raise equally provocative questions for others.

June 2013

[1] The ancient traditions about Mark are cautiously assessed in The Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. St. Mark. Back to text

[2] On the genre evangelion, see my post “What’s a Gospel?” The use of kata as a title of a narrative is unprecedented. Most classical Greek texts begin with the name of the author in the genitive case, sometimes followed by the title of the work in the nominative. Kata plus the genitive of a personal name does occur in titles of orations but clearly means “against” in these cases. The lists of philosophical treatises in Diogenes Laertius never cite kata as part of the title. The books of the Septuagint typically have the name of the work (Genesis, Deuteronomy, etc.) without naming an author. Back to text

[3] Agrippa’s posthumous son (12 BCE – 20 CE) was given his father’s name. Back to text

[4] Acts 12:12, 25; 13:5, 13; 15:37; there is also a Mark the cousin of Barnabas mentioned in Colossians 4.10, and Philemon 24. Back to text

[5] So did the inland city of Caesarea Philippi, which Jesus approached in Mark 8.27.  Under the Romans this city came to have “countless architectural amenities: forums, amphitheatres, colonnaded streets, nymphaea, temples, stadia, gymnasiums, baths etc.“ John F. Wilson Caesarea Philippi (2004) p. 38. Back to text

[6] The general pattern of training in Greek in this period is best known from Egypt, where the papyri often preserve indications of what was taught and how it was learned. One can plausibly extend this picture to Palestine and Syria. See Raffaella Cribiore Gymnastics of the Mind (Princeton, 2001) passim, esp. p. 6. Back to text

[7] Mark’s Greek is often treated with contempt; yet, while not elegant by Attic standards, it is for the most part a perfectly acceptable koinē, well suited to the literary form of an euangelion. Back to text

[8] The word order is chiastic (a b b a): ἀκούσας αὐτοῦ … αὐτοῦ ἤκουσεν. This brackets the sentence as a separate unit within the narrative. Back to text

[9] In the Revised Standard Version the repetition is blurred ( “grant … give” ), I have modified the translation here and in a few other places. Back to text

[10] On the formation of the name and the many suggested identifications and the significance of the Herodians in this gospel see John P. Meier “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Herodians” Journal of Biblical Literature, 119, 4 (Winter, 2000), pp. 740-46. Back to text

[11] Many manuscripts have some form of ποιέω here, but ἐδίδουν is lectio difficilior and therefore to be preferred. Back to text

[12] A third century papyrus,( P 45 in the 27th edition of Nestle’s text) confirms the reading of some manuscripts Ἠρωδιάνων rather than Ηρωίδου – “Herodians” rather than “Herod.” Back to text

[13] Note πειράζετε in 12.15 echoes πειραζόμενος in 1.13. This is part of a chiastic (A,B,B,A) structure: A. the affirmation of Jesus’ sonship at his baptism (1.11), B. The testing in the wilderness (1.13), B. The testing in Jerusalem (12.15 ff.) A. The affirmation of his sonship at the crucifixion (15.39). Back to text

2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?”

  1. From Richard McKim:

    Bob, as you know I’m a skeptic about the whole idea that Mark is a contemporary “eyewitness” with a political take on J’s ministry, but you’ve done an impressive job of making the case. Three suggestions on your draft:

    (1) I don’t understand your reading of J’s “render unto Caesar” pronouncement. You say he won’t “take the bait” of the question whether Jews should pay taxes to Rome, because “no” gets him in trouble with the Romans and “yes” hurts his “revolutionary appeal”. But surely he does answer yes. Pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s; what you owe to God is another matter. Nothing revolutionary there. I think his interrogators leave “astonished” because they expected him to say the rebellious thing and instead he answers like a good tax-paying citizen. In fact, J’s reply suggests to me that political trouble-making is simply not part of his agenda, whatever the Herodians imagine.

    (2) I’m not sure the full-length text of the beheading episode is relevant. The only relevant difference from Matthew that I can see is that Mark says Herod kept John “safe” because he knew he was a holy man, whereas in Matthew he refrains from executing John only for fear of “the mob” (ἐφοβήθη τὸν ὄχλον) because THEY think he’s a prophet (Matthew 14:4).

    (3) You call the honchos at Herod’s dinner “the real villains” in John’s beheading but they’re not. The wife is. Their only function is as passive witnesses to Herod’s promise to his daughter. He feels he can’t get out of it, having made it in front of such distinguished company. RM

    • Thanks, Rick. These comments are helpful, as yours always are. Quick rejoinder:

      I will back away from the “eye-witness” suggestion. My next essay — yup, brace yourself, there’s more coming! — tries to put that issue in an entirely new light. It’s called “Taking Mark Seriously”.

      On the other points:
      1 You’re right that Jesus answer is, in effect, a Yes to the question about paying taxes to Caesar. But what a difference from saying, “Oh yeah, better do so, they have all the muscle.” It’s formulated in a way that establishes a division between spiritual and temporal quite contrary to expectations that the Messiah would be a warrior king like David. Jesus is able to distance himself from that while maintaining the authenticity of his teaching. Do you see what I’m trying to get at?

      2. I guess I got carried away by the beheading scene –and so did Mark! It is a remarkably full account in a relatively short gospel. That says to me, “Look closely; this is important!” And the closer I looked. the more contrasts I saw to Matthew, esp. on the culpability of Herod.

      3. The real villain is the mother figure, but the daughter has a nastiness all her own. What would all the artists do without her insistence that the head be served up on a platter!

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