Though for much of Christian history the gospel of Matthew has been given primacy that honour actually belongs to the gospel of Mark, the shortest and least sophisticated of the Jesus stories. Mark's literary creation was the starting point for both Matthew and Luke. Of approximately eleven thousand words found in Mark, ninety-five per cent of those words – entire paragraphs and stories in fact – are reused in the gospel of Matthew and sixty-five per cent of them in the gospel of Luke. Contrariwise, where Matthew and Luke differ most from each other – in the nativity and resurrection episodes – it is in material not found and not copied from Mark. Thus, to understand the trajectory by which the Jesus tale developed from an original hero – a righteous man infused by God's holy spirit– through a hybrid godman possessing powers, to find final form as God incarnate on earth, one is best advised to begin with Mark's pithy masterpiece.
"Those who affirm him to have been a man, and to have been anointed by election, and then to have become Christ, appear to me to speak more plausibly than you who hold those opinions which you express."
– Trypho to Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, XLIX.
From Future to Past,
from Sky to Earth
era of the Maccabees and Bar Kochba's war (approximately 160
BC to 135 AD)
the increasingly radicalised factions of the Jews were animated
by an expected warrior/priest (or perhaps a warrior and a
priest) who would lead the 'nation of Israel' in triumph. The expectation
was thus of someone in the (imminent) future, no doubt of 'Davidic'
or even 'divine' lineage but otherwise, human.
This monumental hope/expectation
was equalled only by the monstrous calamities of 69-73,
114-117 and 132-135. Respectively, these three conflicts:
the Temple, its priesthood, the city of Jerusalem and Judaean
2. destroyed, impoverished,
enslaved and disheartened Jews of the 'diaspora';
3. destroyed dozens of
towns and hundreds of villages throughout Palestine, decimating
the Jewish population and leading to the enslavement of tens of
With this in mind, we
should not relate Mark to a spurious 'persecution
of Christians by Nero' (a reasoning favoured by Christian writers) but
to the very real suffering of a whole nation. Judaism itself was
against the wall. The weakness of its position had been exposed.
The Hebrew god had always punished his chosen people because they
had failed him: they had not obeyed the Law. But always the Jews
had redeemed themselves and lived to transgress again. But
in 135 Judaea was wiped off the map and the nation dispersed.
For any individual Jew, the heart of the problem was that the 'covenant'
was between the Jewish god and the whole nation of Israel. All
had to observe Righteousness. The errors of one bad apple imperilled
the whole people.
With the ultimate
disaster of 135, for many unhappy Jews the theology of a 'national
(or none at all) no longer gave hope. As Josephus said, God was
now with the Romans. Josephus remained a Jew but reasoned the
caesars were god's instrument of retribution. No doubt many despondent
apostatised and adopted one or other of the pagan faiths. At this
low point, the need was thus created for a radical revision of
the Jewish faith. The nation of Israel might perish but surely
a 'way' could be found for the pious to save themselves? The answer
was a new covenant between the individual and his god, for a path
to a personal salvation similar to that on offer from
the pagan mysteries.
As the dispersed and
desperate bands of Jews struggled with the problem, they must surely
have asked, 'How had (Jewish) scripture failed them so badly?'
Rather than doubt the veracity of their 'ancient oracles', priests,
safeguarding their future role, deliberated and reached the conclusion
that the fault was not in the texts but in the Jews themselves.
cue, as foretold, the Messiah had arrived! but the Jewish nation
the Jews collectively had failed to recognize him!! Even his hand-picked disciples had proved to be dullards, repeatedly failing to understand the divine message or carry forward the messianic legacy. As
a result the ferocious god Yahweh had punished the Jews even
mercilessly than he had punished them in the past.
The disaster now made
perfect sense. And hope could return. If the righteous individual
were to worship this erstwhile messiah, that individual, at least,
could be assured of a place in the 'new Israel'. Having decided
on the theology, the questions naturally arose, 'Who had been
the lost Messiah?' and 'Why had he not been recognised?'
Here, new meanings teased
out of old scripture (in good 'midrash' tradition) provided the
answer: he would have been in disguise; he would have
concealed his messiahship.
The new theology
needed to be woven into a convincing story, one that could be
to groups of dispirited Jews. From the moment the proto-Christian
priests adopted the conviction that a messiah had been and gone,
the hunt was on to identify the missed saviour. Temple records
much else had been lost in the wars (some, of course, secreted
away in jars at Qumran to be discovered twenty centuries later)
half-remembered stories and the rich corpus of pagan mythology
would provide the missing detail. If the letters of Rabbi Saul
(aka Paul) were available to them at all, they contributed only the popular
idea that the 'risen Christ' reigned in heaven and was a wholly
spiritual agency, who would descend on a cloud at the End Time.
For the proto-Christians
this arrival would be a second coming; they were about to
fabricate the first.
In the story that
emerged, the Gospel of Mark, essentially, the author composites
more than fifty 'micro-stories' (mainly healings and miracles,
of the type told of Apollonius),
sandwiched between a put-down of John the Baptist (whose followers
were serious rivals to the early proto-Christians) and a dying-saviour
sequence (of the kind then being officially promoted for the dead
The Lost Messiah
In resolving the theological
conundrum that 'the messiah had been but had gone unrecognised'
Mark has to have his hero perform endless miracles but then
command the persons healed, onlookers, disciples, and even demons
to silence (1.34; 1.44; 3.12; 5.43; 7.36; 8.26; 8.30; 9.9). The
entity that brings the Word tells them all to keep quiet about it! Of
course, this introduces an inconsistency whole towns witness
his deeds! but then inconsistency permeates the entire bible.
Mark's short story is
one of suffering (and the Jews were suffering), leading to
a place in the soon to arrive 'Kingdom of God ' for believers.
Mark begins building his Jesus based upon the 'suffering servant'
'The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the
The hope therefore
is that the present agonies will soon end.
But in this first
of the gospels, there is no genealogy; there is no star, no
nativity pageant, no Bethlehem. Mary is mentioned by name
once only (probably a later interpolation) and Joseph not at all.
Jesus actually disowns his family (3.31,35); they in turn think
he's gone mad (3.21). This can hardly be the Mary visited by an
archangel, who 'rejoices' in the 'great things done to her' when
she receives her divine pregnancy! There is no flight to Egypt,
nor murder of babies, no 12-year-old in the Temple. None of this
has yet been written.
Guided by the Holy Spirit – or
|In the Old
– the Book
of Esther – a drunken King
Ahasuerus makes an offer to his dancing queen:
author of Mark has
a drunken King Herod offer a reward
to his own exotic dancer:
"What is thy petition, queen Esther? and
it shall be granted thee: and what is thy request?
and it shall be performed, even
to the half of the kingdom."
– Esther 7.2.
me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.
And he vowed to her, "Whatever you ask me,
I will give you, even
half of my kingdom."
|In the original
tale, the royal chamberlain
||In Mark's copy John
the Baptist dies!
Nor has Mark's Jesus
yet become the perfect being of the later gospels. His hero is a
'Son of God' but nonetheless one with human characteristics. His
Jesus appears sorrowful (14:34), disappointed (8:12),
displeased (10:14), angry (11:1517), amazed
(6:6), and fatigued (4:38). In Nazareth, he was unable
to do 'powerful work' because he was not believed in. 'Like a
dove' the holy spirit had descended on him at baptism; presumably
before this he had been a mere mortal.
The first half of Mark
(chapters 1 - 9) is a catalogue of miracles and exorcisms, quite
a lot of it repetitive (he uses the word 'immediately' more than
40 times!), plus a whole bunch of parables, which serve only to
baffle his followers. Taking a more theatrical turn, Mark has his
Jesus 'transfigure' into a glowing figure on a convenient mountain
top where he is addressed by a speaking cloud confirming him as
Son of God. Thereafter, Jesus resumes the role of perambulating
exorcist on the road to Jerusalem.
There follows a curious
chapter of 'End Time' prophecy (chapter 13): Why the prophecy
It was widely known that Jesus ben Anania, in
62 AD, had made such a correct prophecy (as recorded
by Josephus in 79 AD). Mark wanted his hero to have no less a gift
of prophecy, so he took the most well-known example of a 'successful'
prophecy of the time and re-worked it.
The End Time Postponed
The world went on, despite the fall of the Temple, so Mark has Jesus
say the end shall not be yet. (13.7). Mark is
discounting any idea that the destruction of the first Jewish war
would have signalled the end time indicative
that he was writing long after conflict of 66-70 AD. Famously,
the godman says you shall hear of wars and rumours of wars,
which nicely covers all the subsequent rebellions of the early decades
of the second century.
this prophecy of
the so-called little Apocalypse of
Mark 13 actually fits much better a later date.
The clues are there:
1. false' Christs:
Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and
wonders, to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.(13,22)
fits Simon ben Kosiba (punned into a portentous 'Bar
Kochba' or ‘son of the star’ by his followers) better than
any other false
prophet. Many beside himself considered him the Messiah
and, with the blessing of the High Priest, Bar Kochba led the
war against Rome from 132-136. He was said to have spewed
fire from his mouth not a particularly difficult wonder to
have mastered, as Jerome later reported:
Barchochebas, the instigator of the Jewish uprising, kept
fanning a lighted blade of straw in his mouth with puffs
breath so as to give the impression that he was spewing out flames.'
– Jerome (Against Rufinus, 3.31)
The remainder of Mark
is taken up with 'the Passion' and oddly, the original Mark ends
abruptly and without sight of any resurrected Christ!
Frightened women flee an empty tomb and 'tell no-one' (16.8). Unabashed
later Christian writers will add an improved, more satisfying ending.
Pilate – Roman
Rascal Gets the Christian Make-over
virtually invents a new Pilate – a
well-meaning weakling solicitous
of justice but, as Mark depicts him, intimidated
by the chief priests, within his own council
chamber and by crowds shouting outside, so
that he executes a man he suspects may be innocent."
Pagels (The Origin of Satan, p10)
'weak' Pilate of Mark grows
increasingly more mellow in successive gospels.
In Mark 15.14 Pilate appeals to the obdurate
Jews not to 'demand' the execution of an innocent
man. "Why, what evil has he done?" he
version has the governor "wondering
greatly" and receiving advice from his
wife who has been enlightened by a dream (!) –
nothing to do with that righteous man,
for I have suffered much over him today
in a dream". – 27.19
Matthew has Pilate literally "wash
his hands" of the execution (Matthew
27.24), establishing his (and Rome's) innocence.
protracted 'trial' has a vexed Pilate calling
for a second opinion from Herod Antipas – who
happens to be somewhere across town! He has
Pilate even more determined to release JC:
find no crime in this man ... A third time
he said to them, "Why, what evil has
he done? I have found in him no crime deserving
death; I will therefore chastise him and
release him." (Luke 23.4 - 23.22)
is actually "afraid." His treatment
of the character has the Jews threatening to
this Pilate sought to release him, but
the Jews cried out, "If you release
this man, you are not Caesar's friend;
every one who makes himself a king sets
himself against Caesar." (John 19.12
doesn't end there. In time, Jesus scribes succeeded
in turning Pilate into a Christian (Origen,
Hom., in Mat., 35) and – in the
case of the Ethiopian Church – a
Saint! A supposed 'letter' from Pilate
to Emperor Tiberius almost converts the old
debauchee to Christ (apparently he doesn't
for "fear of the Senate"!
of this fantastic drama bears the slightest
historical scrutiny. Both Josephus and Philo
recorded something of the real character
of Pontius Pilate:
describes Pilate as a man of "inflexible,
stubborn, and cruel disposition" whose
administration was characterised by "greed,
violence, robbery, assault, abusive behaviour,
frequent executions without trial, and endless
savage ferocity." (Embassy
to Gaius, 301-2)
confirms Philo's judgment, recording several
episodes of Pilate's brutality and contempt
for the Jews. In Judea "a great number" were
slain protesting an aqueduct. In Samaria, "a
great band of horsemen and foot-men ... fell
upon those that were gotten together", an
incident which provoked protests to Vitellius,
Roman Legate of Syria.
rather more sensitive to geopolitical considerations,
removed the Prefect who had plundered the province
of Judea for a decade.
to obscure retirement in Rome – blissfully
unaware of the fame and infamy that awaited
internal dating evidence for Mark comes from the fact that Mark
has his Jesus prophesy the destruction of the Temple
in 70 AD. Mark makes it the last public discourse of Jesus before
And Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”
– Mark 13.2
writers (as early as Irenaeus) have used this earliest possible date for Mark as definitive making the jump that as there are
no obvious references to events later than 70 AD, we have Marks
date of origin. However, a well-known event like the fall of
the Temple could have been placed in the story anytime after
it had occurred, as early as 70 AD or as late as 170
The real clues are more cryptic.
2: Persecution, especially persecution from Jews:
for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in
the synagogues you shall be beaten
the 90s the Jews first introduced a curse upon apostates and
Jewish hostility to the Jewish/Christian heretics was greatest between
100 - 120 AD. The second Jewish war, unfortunately, did not have
its Josephus to record the events but it was, in fact, a larger conflict.
It had the more profound consequence of wiping Judaea off the map.
3. A final clue is a cryptic reference from Daniel 9.27 which
in the original referred to Antiochus profaning the Temple of Jerusalem
c.165 BC, with an image of Zeus.
The abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel
the prophet, standing where it ought not, (let the reader
understand,) then let them that be in Judaea flee to the mountains:
pray that your flight be not in the winter.(13.14,18)
have speculated that this refers to Caligulas intention of
placing a statue of himself in the Temple, announced in 40 AD.
But the statue was
never erected; Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD. Now in fact Hadrian
purposefully modelled himself on Antiochus Epiphanes and the catalyst
for the second Jewish revolt was his erection of not merely a
of Zeus/Jupiter, along with his own image, but an entire temple
to the god. The most terrible war followed.
aside that Mark adds 'Let the reader understand'
seems to indicate that he knows calling the temple of Jupiter 'an
abomination' could be regarded as seditious, and Hadrian came
hard on the Jews after the war of 135 AD. If Mark were just referring
to the desolation caused by the first war, the aside does not
sense. Even the Romans, at least according to Josephus, were sorry
about the destruction of the Temple.
also note that the reference to 'flight in winter' had
specific meaning for the events of the second Jewish war. It
was in winter that the Roman armies partially withdrew to regroup,
making a flight possible. Nothing like this happened in winter
time during the first war.
Thus we can piece together
the sequence of events:
In the aftermath
of the first Jewish War (66-73) remnants of the Essenes,
themselves the 'Church of God'. Their now dead Teacher of
Righteousness assumed retrospectively the mantle of the Messiah.
Challenged as they were by Gnostics (proponents
of an entirely divine Christ) and in a desperate attempt
to renew and widen their membership, they embarked on the process
romanticising the life of the half-forgotten hero. The process
of 'creative biography' was not lost on the Paulites, working
of the Greek cities.
the onset of the war, refugees from Palestine had flooded into
the city of Alexandria, taking their cults with them. Partisans
of Pauls celestial superman, agitating for support
in the crowded Jewish settlements, faced their main challenge not
from Gnostics or Essene survivors but from the baptisers both
followers of John the Baptist and the sun-worshipping Therapeutae. Like
the Paulites, the baptism factions had escaped
the carnage of the war by refusing to be drawn into a fight with
the Romans. The followers of John, with a real dead hero
and martyr, presented the greater challenge.
of Paul – or whoever the New Testament character "Paul" was based upon – left a void in the leadership of the 'gentile faction' within the proto-Christian movement. To
preserve and defend themselves they wrote a story of a 'Jesus'
character, inspired partly by the life and teachings of Paul
himself. In what proved to be the most profound act of religious
synthesis Pauls Judaised pagan sun-god was given
human form and placed in a recent past.
win over the Baptists, a clever story was woven. Firstly, the
importance was acknowledged but John is conveniently quoted as
saying that one greater than he will
follow (Mark 1.7). A less than celestial Jesus is then conjectured
and given a connection to the baptist Jesus, it would seem,
like any other follower, had gone to John to be baptised! The theology here
is very weak why would the
superior and sinless Jesus have need of a baptism of repentance
from the inferior, born with sin, John? Apparently,
at this point the Holy Spirit had worked its magic and had enlightened
Jesus as to his mission (and the Spirit like a dove descending
upon him) (Mark 1.10) and this, for the same Pauline
Christ that had existed since the world began
and presumably knew a thing or two!
Nonetheless, the superiority
of Jesus over John the Baptist was demonstrated by the
tale. Johns story was then closed off by his arrest (Now
after that John was put in prison
In less than three hundred words, the baptist was disposed of!
John safely out the way, Jesus began his own ministry, coming
out of the shadows (or rather, the ether) and taking on a public
role (in a Palestine, a half century earlier).
fictitious life of Jesus has been overlaid on the real life of John. The
divine eagle had landed.
a few years the legend that a celestial Christ had
actually lived on earth had gained embellishments.
John had met a pretty dramatic end by beheading; no better
way to upstage that fate than a torturous crucifixion.
The problem was squaring that particular claim with Jewish scripture.
Followers of a Pauline faction combed through the authoritative Greek/Jewish
text, the Septuagint for an answer. They already had
from pagan sources the notion that their hero went from
life to death to life again. Now they sought out each and every prophecy that
could confirm that a fallen leader could and would be the anticipated
Messiah. For them the crucial text was an obscure reference in
to a suffering lamb.
'We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished ...
Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him.
from the long dead sage (in reality, Isaiah is a work of many hands and reflects Jewish history of the 7th to 5th centuries) did not wash with most Jews (it was a blatant
wrenching out of context). But for the partisans of Christ it was
enough to prove the messiah would indeed be a sacrifice rather
than a conqueror. The embryonic crucifixion sequence
in Mark is very brief (it takes up just eight verses from a
total of six hundred and sixty five!), makes no mention of
resurrection, and ends with frightened women fleeing from an empty
tomb and saying nothing! (see J. Spong, Resurrection, p 59]
Paulites could now defend the ignominy of their fallen heros
wretched death by scripture but they faced an uphill struggle.
The later Matthew re-write will add tomb guards, cast
clothes and ecstatic women it is they who have the first,
uplifting encounter with the risen Christ. But for the moment,
the crucifixion/resurrection is a flimsy finale to a
gospel taken up more with baptism.
many Jews remained reluctant to accept that a pacifist messiah
had already lived and died it was because their vast messianic
hopes in no way
included a pathetic criminal, hanging limp on a cross.
But for gentiles,
with centuries of tradition of dying gods, the dramatic story had
great appeal ...
Did They Get Their Ideas From?
Crucifixion & "Resurrection"
Life' of Flavius Josephus
(aka Joseph ben Matthias)
For when the siege of Jotapata was over, and I was
among the Romans, I was kept with much care, by means
of the great respect that Vespasian showed me...
Alexandria, and was thence sent, together with Titus,
to the siege of Jerusalem, and was frequently in danger
of being put to death; while both the Jews were very
desirous to get me under their power, in order to have
me punished. And the Romans also, whenever they were
beaten, supposed that it was occasioned by my treachery,
and made continual clamours to the emperors, and desired
that they would bring me to punishment, as a traitor
when the city Jerusalem was taken by force, Titus Caesar
persuaded me frequently to take whatsoever I would
of the ruins of my country...
so I made this request to Titus, that my family might
have their liberty: I had also the holy books by Titus's
concession. Nor was it long after that I asked of him
the life of my brother, and of fifty friends with him,
and was not denied.
I also went once to the temple, by the permission of
Titus, where there were a great multitude of captive
women and children, I got all those that I remembered
as among my own friends and acquaintances to be set
free, being in number about one hundred and ninety;
and so I delivered them without their paying any price
of redemption, and restored them to their former fortune.
when I was sent by Titus Caesar with Cerealins, and
a thousand horsemen, to a certain village called Thecoa,
in order to know whether it were a place fit for a
camp, as I came back, I saw many captives
crucified, and remembered three of them as my former
was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with
tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them;
so he immediately commanded them to be taken down,
and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order
to their recovery; yet two of them died under the
physician's hands, while the third recovered."
S. Angus, The Mystery Religions (Dover Books, 1975)
Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries (Thorsons,
Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew (Harper Collins,1992)
Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale,
Josephus, The Jewish War (Penguin, 1959)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (Harper Collins, 1999)
Acharya S. The Christ Conspiracy (Adventures, 1999)
Michael Walsh, Roots of Christianity (Grafton, 1986)
Peter Roberts, In Search of Early Christian Unity (Vantage, 1985)
Robert L. Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings (SCM Press, 1971)
Michael Turton's excellent line-by-line
Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
For your copy order:
Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no material
herein is sold for profit.