MARK page 3

Who was Mark?

W. ROBERT CONNOR  11/23/12
What I wrote a while ago is not quite right. Of course I’d like to know more about this Markos, who he was, when he lived, did he know Jesus; if so, how; if not, how did he learn about him? Had he a text before him, the “Q” of the Quellenforschers? And much, much more.

Come on, Marco. You do not have to strip yourself bare and reveal your inner being to us. But do at least what good ancient historians do at the outset — tell us just enough to know where they are coming from. Literally, “This is the presentation of the investigations of Herodotus of Halicarnassus…” or “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote this treatise … thinking that it would be a great war.” At least we know their location, and a little bit about what they thought they were up to.

It doesn’t take much to establish an author’s authority. But Mark won’t even tell us his name. We know it because some scribe wrote at the top “According to Mark”. If my earlier comments are right, the authority this text claims for itself comes not from the author but from the promise that it is the good news of Jesus Christ. Not about Jesus Christ. No. It is the good news that … what ? What kind of genitive is it? Does it mean the good news belongs to, or consists of, this Jesus?

Maybe Mark had good reason not to tell us his name. It’s a funny name for a hellenized Jew of this period, though he was not the only one to bear it.  It’s not a Jewish name nor a Greek one. It’s a Roman name – Marcus. A name from the hated oppressors, the brutal, profit-gouging conquerors of Judaea. The most famous person of that name and of that time, moreover, was the notorious profligate Marcus Antonius.  Who would name their son, Marcus, when his memory was fresh in mind?

Herod Agrippa  10 BCE -- 44 CE

Herod Agrippa
10 BCE — 44 CE

Actually it is pretty clear who would do that. Marc Antony and Octavian had worked together in 37 BCE to appoint Herod as ruler of Judaea. Some Jews went along with that; some were no doubt swept up in the temporary enthusiasm about the dashing Marc Antony . That would be the moment to secure your boy’s future by giving him a name that would ingratiate him to both Romans and Herod’s henchmen. If so, we might guess he was born the 30’s, and hence in his fifties when Jesus started drawing crowds.

Or should one think of another Marcus — Agrippa, twice appointed by Augustus as governor of the eastern provinces? This might date Mark’s naming as late as the BCE teens — somewhat younger but, alas, not young enough to be that naked youth (neaniskos) at J’s arrest. In any event, Mark is an unusual name for a Jew of this period and points to parents with Roman sympathies.

To stricter Jews, that would mean a family of collaborators, certainly not from the circle that wanted to overthrow the Roman puppet and re-establish the royal line of David on the throne. No wonder, then, that the tradition that came down from this Marcus pays no attention to the double genealogies that Matthew provides, tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to King David.

So if that’s his background – a family that supported Herod and could tolerate the Romans — what would draw their son to Jesus? Curiosity, perhaps, at least at first, desire to see a celebrity, or to keep an eye on a potential trouble-maker, maybe report on him if the occasion arose. Don’t expect him to tell you about Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, or Magi outwitting Herod.

In fact he won’t tell any stories about this Jesus before a certain moment. Was that the moment Marcus himself first came in contact with him, on the banks of the Jordan, the day Jesus was baptized and that strange dove fluttered down from the thermal overhead?

Maybe? Too speculative? Sure, but we can test it by watching how Marcus unravels his story — and, I bet, how he ends it.

bill berg photo crop 1WILLIAM BERG
This is great, Bob! About time someone shone a spotlight on those shadowy “Herodians” who lurk in the background of so much of the NT and must have been a real factor in the turn of events.

I’ve been browsing through Greek and Coptic traditions about Mark and can see that many people want a piece of him –literally as far as his relics are concerned. His head in Alexandria, a bone in Rome now returned to the Copts, and much much more in San Marco. Real Copts and Robbers stuff.

I especially like the speculation that he was the young man who dropped all and ran away naked in Mark 14:51. But I don’t see much to compel conviction in these (and my) attempts to identify him — unless they help us read the text with sharper eyes. Not sure about that, yet.

Just for the record, and cum grano salis, the last sentence of Alford’s summary of ecclesiastical tradition on Mark’s identity: “All this however is exceedingly uncertain.”

I cheated. I looked at the ending to see how it all came out.  What Rick detected in  verse one – an addition by some redactor – reappears, Big Time, at the ending.  Someone thought “You can’t just end it with a bunch of frightened women at the tomb.”  So he added a chunk to make sure we know what followed. You certainly shouldn’t end the story with “were afraid.” Unless …

Unless the tradition that came down from Mark restricts itself to what he actually experienced more or less first hand. Hence nothing on genealogy, birth, magi, early childhood education, precocious boy  in the temple.  Mark’s experience of Jesus seems to start at the river Jordan and end at the tomb. In between, some material already available (“Q”) matches his experience and he includes it; but he also provides some vivid details that sound to me like an eyewitness account  — the naked young man in ch. 14, for example. So, when it comes to finishing his story, he stops where he stopped himself.  Maybe he was afraid, just like the women were, and did not go ahead to Galilee. He sat that one out, though must have at some point come back into the circle of believers. He had seen enough to be convinced.

Very attractive theory!  We’ll look for such details to confirm that it’s an eyewitness account.  It would have been important for Mark to establish that (or so you’d think), because he neglected to come out like John (in both his gospel and first epistle) and declare openly that he, the writer, could personally attest to what he’s reporting.  Was he compelled by some tradition to suppress that fact, or was he just being bashful and/or somewhat leery of calling attention to the less-than-outstanding role he had played in the whole passion play and its aftermath?

I suspect that M. was hoist on his own petard — his starting assertion that the good news was J.C., not anything he had to say (or add to other accounts). So self-effacement was for him a literary self-imposed necessity.

rick pacific crop 3RICHARD McKIM   11/24/12
Rain on the parade: (1) I still don’t see a meaningful distinction between the good news being JC himself & its being what Mark has to say about him.

(2) This “eyewitness account” stuff makes me itchy — e.g. Mark was eye/ear witness to God’s voice like a dove at the baptism? Doesn’t “eyewitness” imply that we have to take Mark literally throughout, as either trustworthy or delusional? Especially if we assume he thinks that nothing beyond eyewitness reporting is part of the good news. Isn’t that a rather large interpretive leap at this stage? And doesn’t “looking for details to confirm” the theory somewhat prejudge whatever we might find? The naked guy, for example, doesn’t say “eyewitness” to me. It says “weird stray detail in the record that it’s my duty to transcribe even though I have no idea why it’s here.” Is it really so easy to square the eyewitness theory with copying from Q?

BERG   11/25/12
Folks, I’m getting the feeling that we might need to resolve the apparent enigmas of the first sentence before sallying any further into the gospel itself.  I have a couple of observations that may help:

1)  Isn’t the word ἀρχή more or less standard as an introduction to any piece of writing?  To the person opening the scroll, ἀρχή signals that he’s hit volume 1, chapter 1, and that nothing’s been torn away from the initial, outer section.  So if ἀρχή is first and foremost the “beginning” of a piece of writing, then εὐαγγέλιον must be a document of some sort, not a person.  In any case, it’s hard for me to see how ἀρχή could apply to Jesus himself, rather than to his message or revelation.

2) Which brings me to εὐαγγέλιον.  I did a bit of research into the three presumably earliest (and most arguably authentic) epistles of Paul — 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians — noting each occurrence of εὐαγγέλιον and the related verb εὐαγγελίζω.  Observing those words in Paul’s living context, I’m coming very close to concluding that as early as those epistles (which are probably earlier than Mark), the word εὐαγγέλιον had already evolved away from the literal meaning “good news” into a sort of technical term referring to a body of revealed dogma, not too far from what we mean by “gospel” today.  That dogma, that “truth,” belonged to Jesus; he first spoke it, it was his message and revelation, but it was not identical with him.  Paul, for example, could also refer to it as “my” εὐαγγέλιον (Romans 16:25), pointing to himself.

1. I find Bill’s arguments pretty persuasive but they leave me still puzzled. Ancient texts don’t begin with the author saying “This is the beginning of my work about…”. But mss. of a certain date (when does it start?) do have an “incipit” of this sort. That is a convenience to readers, as Bill notes. But scribes do that, not authors. In the NT that happens only in Mark. So there is something funny going on here; what is it? A guess: Mark 1:1 echoes scribal practice saying in effect, I am not a creative writer/biographer but a modest registering machine, who has written down what I [think I] know about the good news. Possible?

2. “What I [think I] know.” Eyewitnesses are far from infallible, as trial lawyers know. One might, for example, have seen the baptism, noted doves overhead, recognized their symbolic significance and heard the buzz that some people said they heard a voice saying “This is my beloved son…”. That’s not PROOF everything happened this way, but Mark could think “I saw enough to feel confident that Q was right about this.” Not incontrovertible, clearly, but of a different order from telling what Matthew says about the Magi — things Mark may have heard about, or read in a source, but may have felt he had no basis for reporting.

3. “Son of man.” Daniel 7:13 uses the phrase, clearly meaning something far beyond an ordinary human being. BUT did Mark and his readers have such passages in mind? If J. used the phrase, was he thinking, “Brush up on your Septuagint, guys”, or did he want at this point to pose a puzzle, using the ambiguity (just a man / the Messiah) to make those hearing him ask more intensely “Just who is he?”

So:  “The beginning of [what I (think I) know about] the good news…”?  Quite a lacuna to supplement there, Bob, but still possible.  Another possibility might be simply that that first sentence was actually written by a scribe, not Mark, and that the actual gospel begins with Ὡς γέγραπται …

Miracles, Authority, Love: Chapter 2

The “miracles” in the early sections of the gospel are, as Rick has noted, not especially impressive — unless, I suppose, you were the paralytic. In fact, I am not sure it is useful to think of them as “miracles” at all, that is as contraventions of natural law, designed to prove that Jesus was indeed supernatural.

They seem to me more one stage of an ongoing exploration of ἐξουσία, beginning in 1.22, when Jesus astonishes people by teaching as someone having ἐξουσία, not as we philologists do. We translate it “authority” and that is fine. But the reaction to this “authority” is the same as the reaction to the so called miracles — amazement, ἔκπληξις, shaking us out of our mental rut. What’s more, ἐξουσία is the substantive related to the impersonal verb ἔξεστι, which we translate “it is permitted”.That’s the verb that recurs in the discussion of Sabbath restrictions in 2.23ff, posing the question whether our conduct should be regulated by texts or shaped διὰ τὸν ἄνθρωπον, “for man”.

I guess what I am really wondering is this: What would a Christian humanism be, if we could reach beyond the texts to it? So the Greek brings out what we might otherwise glide over, that when there is discussion about “what is permitted” there is also a discussion going on about how we should think about authority, and hence about the basis for power of the religious establishment.

What would a Christian humanism be, if we could reach beyond the texts to it?
Yes, Bob, precisely the question that concerns Jesus, I think, throughout the NT.  And maybe not just “texts” generically, but specifically the text, the Torah. In Matthew 7:12 (towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus tells us, the multitudes, that the only text that matters is Leviticus 19:18, the “golden rule:” that is the Torah and the prophets! Whether or not Mark gets around to being that specific remains to be seen.

McKIM   11/27/12
The sabbath discussions in 2 & 3 are just about J’s first specific “teachings” to get play in Mark. Do they point toward humanism?

First, “new wine/old skins” (2:21-22). He seems to imply “I’ve come with new (moral?) standards that the old Law can’t accommodate & that render it obsolete.” Mark’s supposed to be a “Gentile” gospel, right? And doesn’t this sound a bit like proclaiming a new Judaism that even non-Jews can live by? If one side of the coin is that Jews don’t have to abide by the old dispensation anymore, isn’t the other that non–Jews can abide by the new one too? Then what the old guard finds so abominable about J isn’t just that he’s inviting Jews to violate the Torah but that he’s inviting everyone else in through the now–open door. That makes this otherwise seemingly inbred quarrel important enough to come first among J’s teachings.

Jesus heals the man with withered hand, Kariye Camii mosaic, Istanbul, 14thC

Jesus heals the man with withered hand, Kariye Camii mosaic, Istanbul, 14thC

Second, the withered hand episode 3:1-6. What does J’s great question mean? “Is it permitted/authorized on the Sabbath ἀγαθὸν ποιῆσαι ἢ κακοποιῆσαι, ψυχὴν σῶσαι ἢ ἀποκτεῖναι;” One way to take it: “Can we not do good on the sabbath but (only) do evil, not save souls but (only) destroy them?” Another way, roughly, “Is it forbidden to take urgent moral or life-and-death actions on the sabbath?”  A third, still rougher: “If somebody’s soul needs saving, are we to refuse to save it because of the day of the week?”

Whichever, why does the old guard find it unanswerable? Apparently they’ve never thought through that “no work on the sabbath” entails “no good work on the sabbath”, and J has maneuvered them into having to defend the second or say nothing. The old Law crumbles before J’s universalist moral imperative. Again he flings open that door.

I think I’m in the neighborhood of Bob’s “Christian humanism” question, but the phrase has Luther writhing in his grave — Erasmus redux?! — so the Luther fan in me resists that take on J’s mission, tho’ I’m impressed by Bill’s enthusiasm for it.

By the way, 2:28 is a crux for the meaning of ὁ υἱός τοῦ ἀνθρώπoυ — who J says is lord of the sabbath. In context it seems natural to take it as meaning man in general, not a special one, tho’ it could also mean that because the sabbath was made for men in general, the Son of Man, the special one, is its lord.

My impression is it’s almost universally accepted that Mark was written specifically for the Gentile audience.  It’s not just the fact that he avoids the usual scriptural citations, or that he’s always careful to translate and/or explain Hebrew/Aramaic terms.  If there’s any truth to the story that he was Paul’s sidekick, then we can certainly assume that Gentiles were his targets, and that Gentiles would readily share your assumptions about Jesus’ opening the door to them with these initial contra-sabbatical thrusts.

On the other hand, I’d hesitate to attribute the same motives to the historical Jesus, at least the way Matthew represents him;  there, we find Jesus emphasizing Jewish exclusivism.  He shuns Gentiles unless it’s absolutely unavoidable (e.g. 15.24-28) and cautions his missionaries not to go running after them (10.5). But Matthew is not Mark, and I find your suggestions for Mark perfectly reasonable.

McKIM   11/28/12
So Mark writes for the Gentile audience, Matthew for a Jewish  one. Just for that reason, might we trust Mark more as a reporter of this especially radical aspect of J’s message?  Trusting Matthew instead means supposing that the open-door policy got grafted on to the message post-J by others. But if consensus is right that Mark’s writing earliest, it seems at least plausible to suppose that Matthew’s fighting some sort of rearguard battle to reassure Jewish would-be Christians that J was indeed loyal to the tribe, despite what they may have heard from the likes of Mark.

So there’s a scholarly consensus that Mark is written for Gentiles. Let’s challenge that. The beginning verses assume that readers know Isaiah, and accepts the idea of OT prophecy. The ongoing narrative assumes we know something about Pharisees and the temple power structure. There is another sub-set of audience — neither traditionalist Jew nor “gentiles” but hellenizers,  on both sides of the aisle, trying to make sense of this strange Jew.

But notice, Bob, that the Isaiah is the only citation of scripture in all of Mark (15.28 is spurious, appearing in none of the oldest & best MSS).  And if you’re gonna write a gospel, it’s evidently de rigueur to include that prophecy — both Matthew (11.10) and Luke (7.27), the most obviously “Gentile” gospel, do it as well.  I’d guess that prophecy was pretty familiar to Gentiles who took any interest in Judaism in those days, as many did.  Jewish moral discipline offered them a stark contrast to the free-for-all morality of the times, and they’d crowd into the synagogues just to soak up a preachment (all in Greek everywhere, by then). Which is why the synagogues everywhere were such fertile ground for Paul; gave him easy first access to his target Gentiles.

I remember reading, amazed, of the apparent evidence that Virgil, already fascinated by prophecy in general, absorbed himself with Isaiah.  There was even a “Gentile court” in the temple precinct.  So they’d be pretty sure to know something about Pharisees (who made themselves so obvious with their tassels and fringes) and temple power structure.  But when it came to details, Mark had to explain it to them — see 7.3-4, for example.

CONNOR   11/29/12
Actually, Mark cites Jewish scriptures more than I thought — 12.29, 12.35, 13.24 f. , 14.27.  I think he assumes that his audience will recognize context and the weight of such citations.

Bob, you’re absolutely right. Sorry to have “misspoken,” as dear old Nixon used to say. Why couldn’t I remember those, esp. 12.29, equating the two commandments to love God and love your neighbor. In Matthew 22:36-40 likewise J uses gezerah shava to make them equivalent or identical and thus befuddle the Pharisees (by this time, ὅμοιον pretty much expressed an identity — cf. Euclid’s geometric figures that are ἴσα καὶ ὅμοια).

Speaking personally, I see those two as one and the same: loving your neighbor is loving God.  In other words, loving your neighbor takes care of the God thing; once you train yourself in brotherly love, you don’t need any god in your life. With love in your heart, who needs gods? Who cares if he, or they, exist or not? Let them take care of themselves, as per Epicurus.

The idea of loving god seems to me quite unHellenic (though I am writing a piece about Greek nympholepsy, and what is that but love between men and divinities!). It leaves me, like my imaginary Greek interlocutors, puzzled, and wondering how one might attain such a state.

Rick might argue that we need the first commandment (love God) in order to approach the second (love your neighbor). I’d say that the second is the only one to which we humans can possibly have ready access. Bob’s right: the idea of loving God just naturally leaves us cold.  But what a different world we’d have if people started putting the second commandment first, following Buddha into compassion rather than piety!  All we’d have to do is start being nicer to one another! And isn’t a different world (“the kingdom”) what it’s all about?

Yes, at this point J’s core  teaching seems clear in both gospels, the Great Simplification: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God … Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.”  Wow! You mean I don’t need a fine tooth comb while reading Leviticus?

Actually, the Great Simplification is even Simpler in Matthew 7:12, where there’s no talk of God, only of your neighbor. “Therefore as many things as you would like people to do for you, do also the same for them: that is the Torah and the prophets!”

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1 thought on “MARK page 3”

  1. William Berg said:

    On my revised interpretation of ἀρχὴ εὐαγγελίου (based on the same phrase in Philippians 4:15), see

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