Mark’s Enigmas: One or Many Stories?

The Gospel of Mark is generally accepted as being the first Gospel to be composed. It was completed in Rome in about 70 C.E, when the Jewish Temple of Yahweh on Mount Zion in Jerusalem had been recently destroyed by the Romans. Mark’s date and location are generally agreed upon, but this is not the case with this Gospel’s stated purpose, with its multiple postulated “authors”, its various historical contexts, its different perspectives and with its contents and their origins, all of which continue to be debated in our present century.

Mark’s Gospel has often been described as a “enigma’ and this can apply both to the whole of Mark’s text, as well as to nearly all of its mysterious contents. There is not just one story-line, one discourse or one dimension to its depicted characters but Mark presents many and various aspects within his Gospel. This enigma involving multiple dimensions, levels and stages are in evidence in the following five important and multiple aspects of Mark’s Gospel. These include (1) the Gospel’s aim in relation to a Duo-physite Jesus, who is also presented as the “Son of God”; (2) the Gospel’s three authors; (3) its three historical contexts as present, past and prospective future; (4) the three different perspectives often applied to this Gospel and (5) its five stages of historical growth and development from its original sources to its formulated faith-statements, creeds and proclamations. These may appear at first to be very complicated but they are all essential for any intellectually honest and spiritually rewarding encounter with the first century’s Gospel of Mark, which is now about 2,000 years old.

[1] Jesus as both a Human Being and as a “Son of God”

Mark states very clearly in the first verse of his Gospel that his aim is to present the Good News about “Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. This of course raises semantic and etymological linguistic issues and also dualistic philosophical issues.

In the first-century context of this Gospel’s composition, these titles were written in what is now ancient Greek. A Semitic form of “Jesus Christ” would be more like “Yehoshua Messiah” and put into English, the words would be “Yahweh Saves”, “Anointed Ruler”. This use of the English translation of these terms would certainly help with the comprehension and understanding of these ancient terms within our present-day world. Likewise the concept of “Son of God” in its Greek background and theology becomes in its earlier Semitic context the “Son of Yahweh”, a concept often viewed as being a particular aspect or manifestation of Yahweh’s total Being and not as a biological “Son”. This view of aspects of Yahweh is similar to Yahweh’s biblically-depicted aspects as Ruach or Spirit, as Hokmah or Wisdom, as Dabar or Word and as Shekinah or divine light from the sun, most of which are of feminine gender. Some have concluded that this “Yahweh Saves” or “Jesus” aspect of Yahweh was the partial humanization of the heavenly Yahweh into the God-Man and miracle-working figure of “Yehoshua” or “Jesus”. Such a concept or construct maintains a connection with both the deified and heavenly Yahweh as Lord or “Adonay” and with a partially anthropomorphised human “Yahweh Saves” or “Jesus”, also called “Lord” or “Kyrios”.

These sort of concepts, which  relate to such  human and divine worlds, lead to the issue of the degree of divine and the human nature attributed to Mark’s chief character, Jesus the Nazarene. This issue was very hotly debated in Christianity’s early centuries and it gave rise to some very enthusiastic and theologically-literate “debating teams,” which included and were labelled as the Arians, the Docetists, the Mono-physites and the Duo-physites. Readers of Christian History know that the Duo-physites eventually declared themselves to be the winners and that they are continuing with their victorious claim to be the theological victors even today. Their use of concepts like papal infallibility and biblical inerrancy, in order to divinely authenticate their stance and position, is still very much alive and well.

However, some scholars would at present tend to see the victory of the Duo-physites only in terms of  their arguments back in ancient history. Now, within the context of our present-day world and with our present state of knowledge, these scholars would prefer to pass the victory laurel to the formerly defeated but now much more convincing Docetists. Other scholars, who are busily pursuing the on-going and never-ending quest for a purely biological and factually historical human Jesus, may prefer to express their sympathies with the Arians or with the Monophysites in their Jewish-Christian moments.

In addition, readers may like to ask themselves, which debating team they would endorse and join in our present-day world, in the event of a repeat of such debating duels. Clearly, the names of the labels may have changed but the basic issues have not really disappeared. They are still present and are continuing amongst various debaters of scientific, humanistic, universalistic, atheistic, theistic, deistic, theological and fundamentalistic persuasions. This line-up suggests that the previously victorious and often extremely intolerant, heresy-hunting and heretic-burning Duo-physites may not be able to rest on their laurels forever.

[2] The Gospel’s three authors.

Another aspect of the enigma of Mark’s Gospel is the use of recent narrative analysis to distinguish between various levels of authorship and motivation. These three authors or narrators are generally labelled (1) the real, actual or flesh-and-blood human author who physically writes the text or book; (2) the implied author, who emerges as a persona or mask from within the text and who presents a discourse or level of meaning with the support of the actual author in relation to the story and (3) a narrator who is a character in the story, engaged in presenting the story-line or narrative within the text. On such a basis, even Mark’s authorship is being viewed as three-fold.

[3] The Gospel’s Pivotal Present, its Past and its Future.

Time is experienced by everybody in temporal terms as the present, the past and the future. Within this perspective, our present can be viewed as the “pivotal point”, from which vantage humans can either look back onto their past or look forward to the future.

In our contemporary world of the 21st century, our present is obviously our present moment, which is always moving forward with the clock. However, our past and our future are determined by our position in the present moment within our 21st century.

In contrast to our contemporary world with our contemporary 21st century time, the Christian world’s most important figures, founding events and writings were present or took place back in the 1st century C.E. which is nearly 2,000 years ago.  For Mark’s Gospel, the important pivotal point was his Gospel’s eventual composition and distribution at the time of the destruction of Yahweh’s Temple at Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Since this date can be viewed as the emergence of this Gospel in Mark’s now historical present time, his Gospel’s looking backwards into the past can be seen to begin at 70 C.E. and its looking ahead into the future also begins at 70 C.E. Such historical repositioning of pivotal points is essential for understanding history and it requires both empathy and the ability to view Mark’s Gospel from his own perspective and within the temporal context in the first century.

In the case of Mark’s Gospel, students need to locate themselves in the Mediterranean World in 70.C.E and then move backwards from 70C.E, to investigate Mark’s sources, the genres and forms of literature which he used, the stories, the texts and whatever may have contributed to his enigmatic Gospel.

In regard to the future, Mark was unable to foresee what lay beyond 70 CE, although in our past-oriented perspective, we can in hind-sight see this Gospel’s impact on Matthew, on  Luke and on the its contributions to the reading of Mark’s Gospel stories in Christian gatherings and its influence in the examination of Christian origin  and the historicity of Jesus still today.

Therefore, although our contemporary pivotal present time is here and now in our 21st century, the Christian and Markan pivotal present or era of origins and Gospel creation and composition, was back 2,000 years ago in the first century. For Mark’s Gospel, readers need to remind themselves that the important temporal pivotal point was in about 70 C.E.

[4] Three Human Attitudes and Perspectives towards Mark’s Gospel

Most readers now realize that a text can be understood in more than one authorised way. The various types and perspectives of readers are apparent from the following three different attitudes or approaches, which can be taken when reading Mark’s Gospel.

Bible readers are aware that the biblical narratives are located in the three Realms of (1) the Sky Above, (2) the Earth Below and (3) the Soul Within.  However, these three realms and their narratives have been analysed and interpreted in at least three different ways.

(1) A Supernatural and theological interpretation has populated (1) the Sky with  invisible deities such as Zeus, El Shaddai, El Elyon,  manifest Deities such a Mithras and Yahweh, with angelic beings like Gabriel,  metaphysical locations such as Paradise and Hell and miraculous events, such as the daily and annual movements of the sun and stars. (2) On Earth, there are miracles, demons and human beings who are also deities. (3) The Soul is seen as an entity within humans, which are in need of salvation.

Some like to understand the Gospel’s contents through the eyes of “humble faith” and who are able to believe all of its supposedly factual and historical statements and stories about the first-century Palestinian Preacher or Galilean Guru called “Jesus the Nazarene”. They firmly believe such stories to be fully factual, entirely truthful and beyond all doubt whatever. Any such doubt and disbelief which arises in their minds tend to be quickly replaced with dogmatic belief and absolute certainty.

(2) A Scientific and naturalistic interpretation  prefers to view (1) the Sky in terms of  astronomy, with its telescopic observations and it’s application of physical laws in relation to the daily, seasonal and annual movement of the Stars, the Moon and especially the Sun on its path through the 12 Zodiacal constellations. It views (2) the Earth geographically in relation to its mountains, rivers, lakes, seas, towns, villages and people and it views humans within the context of psychology, depth psychology, sociology, culture and other ways of understanding and enriching humans.

On the other hand, there are other readers who also study the same Gospel Story in Mark but they do have doubts.  They tend to conclude that biblical narratives are not fully factual and are certainly not empirical and evidence-based factual reports of the life and activities of its main historical character called “Jesus the Nazarene” and later labelled the Christ or the Messiah and his followers “Christians”, as depicted in Acts 11:26.

Readers who open up the Gospel of Mark and who expect to complete the task of studying and understanding this Gospel story simply by reading the surface and literal level, will sooner or later realize that there is more in Mark than appears at face-value on this surface level. Can readers today be expected to accept as historical facts and cosmological realities, the many super-natural events or miracles and the supra-terrestrial locations and beings which constitute most of Mark’s short and fast-moving Gospel. There is a baptismal bird from heaven, a miracle of walking on water, a miraculous feeding of 5,000 people with a handful of bread and fish, an act of floating upwards in space during a Transfiguration, a supernatural return from physical death to life, all of which are not the world’s present-moment, current events, which are reported in our daily newspapers, on our daily news report on television and by other suppliers of each day’s bad and occasionally good news. Miracles usually only arise in reports which are also investigative and usually critical and which imply or conclude with the journalist’s verdict of deception and fraudulent cures or acts in the particular miraculous claim.

(3) A Symbolical understanding combines the Supernatural and the Scientific, as it draws its imagery, myths and symbols from the supernatural realm and uses these to represent the natural, spiritual processes within the soul or psyche of the human being.

A soul can benefit from both signs and symbols, as it pursues its spiritual journey from unconscious wholeness, through conscious unwholeness to conscious wholeness. It also benefits as it ascends up and descends down experienced levels of Being within the human being, including the physical, the instinctual, the mental, the spiritual and the celestial. Christianity’s signs and symbols are therefore most helpful for this anagogical appropriation of relevant biblical concepts and themes and the psyche’s display of “soul-openness” to this symbolical realm ensures that such symbols can be personally applied.

[5] The Gospel Story’s Five Stages of Development.

Mark’s Gospel contains the Messianic Secret but it also appears to contain the less obvious Yahwistic Secret and its connection with Galilean hill-top and mountain-top convocations. This may even be the reason why the last page of Mark’s Gospel appears to be lost!

Christianity has appealed to supernatural revelations and divine inspiration in relation to sources behind the Bible and its contents. However, a more realistic understanding is open to the investigation of all possible sources behind the Gospel of Mark. These include the impact of such natural phenomena as the sun, the consecutive processes of divinization, personification and humanization and the  needs of the human psyche or soul.

(1) The source behind the first stage of the narrative is approached scientifically, rationally, logically, and astronomically in relation to the solar cycle, which is performed annually by the sun as it passes through the 12 constellations of the Zodiac and through the four seasons. It begins at the Spring equinox in Aries, moves north into Galilee and into Cancer’s mid-summer solstice and the solar epiphany on the Mount of Transfiguration. It then moves south towards Jerusalem and Judea through the autumn equinox and finally to its decline and death at the winter solstice on 21 December. Three days later on 25th December, the sun returns to life and is reborn, ready to return to Galilee.

(2) The second and more supernatural, theistic, a-rational, intuitive and  subjective narrative deals with this same journey, but this time it is undertaken by a deified solar  Yahweh, the deity of the Israelites and Jews, as the deified sun, which shines its rays into the Temple in Jerusalem as the Shekinah.

(3) The third and equally supernatural, theistic, a-ratioanl, intuitive and subjective narrative depicts Yahweh being personified as both Yahweh Saves/ Yehoshua/Joshua/ Jesus and as combining with the Messiah/Christ/The Anointed  on a  heavenly and earthly journey, also based on the journey of the soul through the zodiacal constellations.  The Christ-soul in Aries gives rise to the sacrifice of the Heavenly Lamb and entry into Virgo enables the soul’s Virgin Birth into incarnation and the physical body.  The soul then ascends to Pisces where Jonah-like, it is cast back to its former home. The Docetists were naturally attracted to the divine element here.

(4) The fourth supernatural and subjective narrative relates to the humanized Jesus as the human Jesus the Nazarene, to whom the Ebionites, the Arians and the modern questers for the historical, human Jesus are greatly attracted. This is a story which distinguishes between actual and real sayings and actions of the earthly Jesus and the theological concepts brought into the story by either Jesus himself or his community as interpretations, explanations and expansions of the story.

(5) The fifth narrative relates to the realm of the symbolical, the psychological, the therapeutic, the spiritually sustaining and the personal aspects of each human’s journey of the soul, which is able to experience all of the above anagogically and which is able to appropriate both the historical activities and the theological complexities presented in this Gospel, including Jesus as the Son of Man, as an Exorcist and as a miracle-performing and supernaturally-endowed Son of God.

With these five discernable parallel narratives, this Gospel of Mark can be profitably read five times, so that each of the above journeys, both scientific and spiritual, can in turn be experienced and spiritually and symbolically appropriated.  The human soul can be expressed in the realm of symbols. Two of these scientifically and symbolically achieved journeys are in the sky or heaven, one is both in the sky and soul based, one takes place on the soil of the Earth, which is the main location for most people and one is in the human soul or psyche.

Hence, these five stories fit into the three contexts of (1) the Soul, (2) the Sky and (3) the Soil, also labelled (1) the Human  Soul, (2) the Heavens and (3) the  Earth;  or even the Mental, the Metaphysical and the Material realms.  While these stories have  faced and experienced recent programs to de-mythologize and de-symbolize such narratives along with their mostly celestially-oriented texts and journeys,  the above discussion of the three authors, historical contexts and approaches as well as these  five levels of narratives,  should indicate the need to move beyond  de-mythologization and to a program of re-symbolization and of the anagogical appropriation of such symbols to the sustenance and fulfilment of the soul or psyche, as it proceeds on its spiritual journey through life. Mark is enigmatic but, in the tradition of archaeological diggings, it is possible to dig deeper down into Mark’s Gospel at a sub-surface level and to there locate the soul’s much needed Treasure.

 

Some Relevant Books.

Anderson, Janice Capel and Stephen D Moore, Editors,  “Mark & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies”, Second Edition,  Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2008; ISBN978-0-8006-3851-1, 288 pages.

Armstrong, Karen et al, “The Once and Future Faith”, Polebridge Press, P.O Box 6144 Santa Rosa California 95406, 2001, ISBN 0-944344-85-2, 187 pages.

Bauckham, Richard, “Jesus and the God of Israel: ‘God Crucified’ and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity”;   Paternoster, Milton Keynes UK,  2008;  ISBN 978-1-84227-538-2 (Paperback); $39.95  285 pages.

Burger, Peter L, Editor,  “Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position”, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2010,  209 pages.

Casey, Maurice, “Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian’s Account of His Life and Teaching”, T&T Clark International, A Continuum Imprint, London and New York 2010; ISBN 13: 978-0-567-10408-3 (hardback) $183.95;  978-0-567-64517-3 (Paperback), $59.95, 560 pages.

Darlison, Bill: The Gospel and the Zodiac:  The Secret Truth about Jesus”, Duckworth Overlook, London, 2007.

Henderson, Timothy:The Gospel of Peter and Early Christian Apologetics: Rewriting the Story of Jesus’ Death, Burial and Resurrection”; Mohr Siebeck, Tubingen, Germany, 2011; ISBN 978-3-16-150709-0; 258 pages.

Fullmer, Paul M. “Resurrection in Mark’s Literary-Historical Perspective”,  T&T Clark London, 2007; ISBN 0-567-04553-6; 256 pages.

Hoffmann, R. Joseph,  Editor, “ Sources of the Jesus tradition: Separating History from Myth”, Prometheus Books, Amherst New York, 2010,  ISBN 978-1-61614-189 (hard cover), 287 pages.   

Licona, Michael, “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach”,  Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove Illinois USA, 2010, ISBN 978-0-8308-2719-0  (paperback) , 718 pp.

Stevenson, Kenneth, “Rooted in Detachment: Living the Transfiguration”, Darton Longman and Todd, London 2007, ISBN 0-232-52692-3, 175 pages.

Thatcher, Tom, Editor, “Jesus the Voice and the Text: Beyond the Oral and the Written Gospel”, Baylor University Press, Waco Texas 2008, ISBN 978-1-932792-60-7, $69.95, 317 pages

Winn, Adam:  “The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda”,  Mohr Siebeck, Tubingen Germany, 2009.

John Noack, July, 2012.    Email:   johnnoack@yahoo.com.au

John Noack (BA DipEd) has been a Lutheran clergy-person at Rainbow in Victoria, Australia. He has been a Tutor in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Melbourne Victoria and he has been a Teacher of History and World Religions at Trinity Grammar School in Kew, Victoria. He has conducted archaeological research at the Australian Institute of Archaeology and he has produced archaeological and text-related book reviews, which have been published in its Journal “Buried History”.  He is at present engaged in an academic investigation into the many enigmas in the Gospel according to St Mark.

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