In my last essay, I presented the argument for why the strength of the historical evidence for the life of Jesus provided by the Gospels basically reduces to the strength of the evidence provided by the anonymously-authored book, written shortly after AD 70, that subsequently acquired the title “The Gospel According to Mark” most likely sometime in the 2nd century AD (henceforth, “Mark”).
So now it’s time to ask how strong that evidence is.
Now, the next step in the argument is this: it would be entirely reasonable to interpret Mark as a literary work of allegory, rather than as an attempt at history to begin with.
This may sound absurd at first, because most of us reading today assume that the whole entire point of the Gospels is to attest to the historicity of Jesus’ life. But bear with me: once you see how much the hypothesis can make sense of, I think it seems downright obvious. This understanding of the Gospels as works whose point was to attest to the life of a historical Jesus comes from theological constructs that did not exist until after the Gospels had already been in existence for some time. Those constructs were then applied to the Gospels themselves, retroactively. As we’ll see, the same goes for the standard reading of the works of Paul.
First, I’ll outline a couple general stylistic elements that indicate that the book can plausibly be seen as residing in the genre of allegory. Then, I’ll show what the allegory was actually supposed to be about. To the first point, not only do the names of many characters in the story work to symbolically represent the role they play in the narrative, but there are multiple examples of stories in Mark that make no sense at all until we interpret them against the Old Testament passages to which they are making literary allusions.
When Jesus is being sentenced to his death, the Gospels claim that Pilate used his power to commute a prisoner’s death sentence by popular acclaim to offer the crowd a choice between a “Barabbas” and Jesus. In what appear to be the earliest variations of the text, Barabbas’ full name is actually given as “Jesus Barabbas”. Etymologically, the name “Bar–abbas” literally means “Son of the Father.” Is it a coincidence that the man offered up to the crowd as the alternative to Jesus happens to have a name which literally means “Jesus, Son of the Father?”
If you are reading this essay, you are probably aware that Judas is the name of the character that betrays Jesus and sells him over to his death for money. It is significant that in the original Greek, “Judah” (the land of the Jews) and “Judas” are literally the same word: Ἰούδας.
If you didn’t catch that, read it again: the name of the man who betrays Jesus is “Judah.”
And this particular coincidence becomes even more significant when comparing Gospel passages about Judas with the Old Testament passages to which they are making literary allusions.
For instance, pay close attention to this passage from Mark 14:
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’ So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.’ All of them deserted him and fled.
A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.
This random mention of a naked guy running around in the middle of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus has perplexed many scholars for a really long time. But pay attention to this passage from Amos, written some time around 750 BC:
Thus says the Lord; For three sins of the children of Judah, and for four, I will not turn away from him, because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept His ordinances, and their vain idols which they made, which their fathers followed, caused them to err. And I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the foundations of Jerusalem.
Thus says the Lord; for three sins of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away from him, because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for sandals, in which to tread on the dust of the earth, and they have smitten upon the heads of the poor, and have perverted the way of the lowly; and a son and his father have gone into the same maid, that they might profane the name of their God. … I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you about in the desert forty years, that you should inherit the land of the Amorites. And I took of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for consecration. Are not these things so, you sons of Israel? Says the Lord.
But you gave the consecrated ones wine to drink, and you commanded the prophets, saying, Prophesy not. … flight shall perish from the runner, and the strong shall not hold fast his strength, and the warrior shall not save his life; and the archer shall not withstand, and he that is swift of foot shall in by no means escape; and the horseman shall not save his life. And the strong shall find no confidence in power: the naked shall flee away in that day, says the Lord.
The passage talks about the “sins of the children of Judah [Judas],” emphasizes that “they sold the righteous for silver” (Matthew 26:15 amends Mark’s use of the word “money” to say that Judas betrayed Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver”), and ends saying that “the naked shall flee away.” The parallel is obvious. And it fully explains the otherwise bizarre inclusion of a random, nameless, previously unmentioned naked guy just running around during Jesus’ betrayal.
As it so happens, almost all of the details of Jesus’ life can be seen as adaptations from scriptures in this way. One could argue that the evidence can be read one of two ways: it could be that the Gospel writers created the story of Jesus’ life by lifting directly from the Old Testament, or it could be that Jesus’ life really did fulfill everything that was ever said by the prophets.
But we have one definite way of establishing that the former explanation is superior to the latter. Sometimes, when the Gospel writers add details to Jesus’ life from the Old Testament scriptures, they misinterpret them or rely on mistranslations present in only the Greek Septuagint. For instance, Zachariah 9:9, written around 520 BC:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The author is clearly repeating the line, “on a colt, the foal of a donkey” as a way of adding emphasis. The image is supposed to be of a King, humble enough to ride on such a lowly steed as a donkey—yes, a donkey. Grammatically, the idea might be represented better as so: “Humble and riding on a donkey—on a colt; the foal of a donkey.” But when the writer of The Gospel According to Matthew adopts this into his narrative in 21:2–7, he changes Mark’s original story of Jesus riding only a colt, and literally has Jesus riding a donkey and a colt at the same time:
Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her … Now this took place that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold your King is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” And the disciples went and did just as Jesus had directed them, and brought the donkey and the colt, and laid on them their garments, on which He sat.
Back to the parallel between Mark 14 and Amos 2. The important point here is not just how clearly the verses happen to parallel each other. The important point is why.
The traditional placement of the date of the writing of the Gospel According to Mark is based on the timing of the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem. The reasons for this conclusion are too numerous to list in detail here, but one indication is Mark 13’s prediction of the Temple’s destruction:
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
… Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
In any case, scholars unanimously appreciate the significance of the AD 70 destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem when it comes to dating the Gospel According to Mark. But they may have underestimated its significance when it comes to interpreting the meaning of its content.
According to Josephus, 1.1 million people, mostly Jewish, were killed during the AD 70 siege of Jerusalem, and 97,000 more were captured as slaves. Suffice it to say that this was a really big deal. The Talmud also addresses the causes of the destruction of the Temple directly:
[W]hy was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause …
This passage resides in a long list of Jewish writing that blames the calamities that befall the Jews on the Jews’ own sins—whether “idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed” or “groundless hatred,” a constant theme throughout Jewish writing is that calamities that befall the Jews are punishment by God for their own weakness of faith and actions of religious infidelity.
The Gospel According to Mark was an allegory to establish this same point.
What is the book of Amos about? Exactly the same topic. It was a prediction of the calamities that would befall the nation of Israel if they didn’t turn from their rebellion.
Here’s another passage that fits the same theme, and makes no sense otherwise.
Mark 11:12–21 —
The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.
On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written:
“‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
When evening came, they went out of the city.
In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
As a 21st-century reader, what am I supposed to believe here? Am I really supposed to believe that God, after incarnating himself as a man, got pissed off at a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season and then cursed a tree? Even if we step away from the religious element and just look at the Gospels as flawed, human works of their time, what am I supposed to believe? How could a story like this one have even grown out of legend?
It all makes sense when we turn to the Book of Hosea, also written in the 8th century BC.
Do not rejoice, O Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations. For you have been unfaithful to your God; . . .
The days of punishment are coming, the days of reckoning are at hand. Let Israel know this. Because your sins are so many and your hostility so great, the prophet is considered a fool, the inspired man a maniac. . . . When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became as vile as the thing they loved.
. . . Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there. Because of their sinful deeds, I will drive them out of my house. I will no longer love them; all their leaders are rebellious. Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit.
As this excerpt from Hosea 9:1–17 makes clear, the topic of the Book of Hosea was, likewise, the calamities that would befall the nation of Israel if they persisted in their behavior. And the parallels are once again remarkable: we have “early fruit on the fig tree” (Mark 11 makes it clear that the fig tree Jesus saw was “in leaf” and therefore that it was early in the growing season), we have people being driven “out of my house,” and then we have not only barren trees, but common use of a specific turn of phrase in “withered roots.”
Even if we were trying to take the “centrist” approach of interpreting the stories about Jesus as legends that grew up around a real historical figure, this passage makes no sense. But as literary allusion, it makes perfect sense. The most plausible way to understand this verse is that the author of the Gospel According to Mark was making the allusion intentionally—for literary purposes—because the book was a work of allegory, not about a historical Jesus, but about why the Jews brought the AD 70 destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem upon themselves. The Jesus of Mark’s story is just the medium for the delivery of the message.
As mentioned in the introduction to this series, the Gospel According to Matthew and the Gospel According to Luke both contradict each other by ten whopping years over the date when Jesus is born (Matthew’s story places his birth before 4 BC, because this is when the Herod it depicts died; Luke’s places it after AD 6, when Quirinius became governor of Syria).
But it is even more significant to recall why this was possible to begin with: Mark, the very first gospel, contains no stories about Jesus’ childhood. And modern readers would be surprised to learn how the very first–written of all the Gospels ended: there was no resurrection story. The elaborated endings of modern copies of Mark including resurrection stories are now known by all scholars, including the most conservative, to be forgeries.
As Richard A. Burridge puts it in Four Gospels, One Jesus?, “Mark’s [original story] ends as abruptly as it began. There was no introduction or background to Jesus’ arrival, and none for his departure. No one knew where he came from; no one knows where he has gone . . .”
In Mark 14:18, before the crucifixion, Jesus says: “But after that I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee.” Afterwards, the original story ends with Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome coming to anoint Jesus’ body, and finding inside the tomb a man who told them, “Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified . . . But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.” And the narrative ends on this verse: “And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they anything to any man; for they were afraid.”
In the next entry, I’ll fit the writing of the allegorical Gospel According to Mark into the context of the writings, and theology, of Paul.