What was the title of Mark’s play?

Here I investigate the title of the play behind the Gospel of Mark. In antiquity, comedies and mime plays seem to have been named for the profession or a particular quality of the main character, e.g., “The Grouch” or “The Girl from Samos.” Sometimes, the name referred to a plot development, “The False Accuser.” The titles of tragedies seem to have used the names of the protagonists. We can assume that the title of Mark’s play followed contemporary conventions.

Mark’s play was not a comedy, but as a whole it was not a tragedy either. The material before the Last Supper is often humorous. Therefore, I think the title followed convention for comedy rather than tragedy.

Jesus, the main character, does not have a profession in the world of the play. All of these descriptions are true but inadequate: fisherman, teacher, healer, exegete, philosopher, reformer. Nor can Mark use a situation: the play occurs in multiple locations and situations.

Against the title “Christ”

One possibility is that the play was titled “Christ,” i.e., “The anointed one.” That name, however, does not give much information to the person who hears it for the first time. “There’s a play scheduled for performance next week: ‘The Anointed One.’” Even if, as I think, the performance was private, for Mark’s congregation, this name is too vague to evoke interested anticipation of the performance. Mark’s Jesus was “anointed” in his identity as the Son of Man (heavenly high priest) and in his identity as the Son of God (a term traditionally used for kings). But there were other anointed figures in the audience’s world, such as the high priest in the earthly Temple, and–ordinary people at dinner parties. In addition, the name “anointed one” implied that the anointing occurred early in the play, and the rest of the play concerned the consequences of the anointing. But that does not happen in Mark’s play.

In favor of the title “Jesus Christ”

Another possibility is that the play was titled “Jesus Christ,” i.e., “Jesus, the anointed one.” That name would have told the audience in advance that the protagonist was their divine intermediary, Jesus, and that he would be anointed at some time in the play. They thought of him as their heavenly high priest—an anointed one. This name “Jesus Christ” gives the audience enough information to anticipate the play.

I note that the name “Jesus Christ” would not have ‘given away’ the end of the play, because the audience did not know how Mark would unfold the story. They could expect an anointing to take place during the play, but not how or when. Or the purpose of the anointing: for Jesus’s role as high priest in the heavens, for his death, or ?. So the play name “Jesus Christ” situated the story in the audience’s world, yet Mark could extend the story artistically and surprise them.

I note that the only contemporary texts extant that combine “Jesus” and “Christ” are the original versions of the Letter to the Hebrews and the Letters of Paul. It was all too easy for later redactors to backfill mentions of “Jesus” or “Christ” in these texts as “Jesus Christ” to show that the concept of “Jesus Christ” existed in the earliest Christian texts. Contrariwise, if we imagine Mark in a world where the concept of “Jesus the anointed one” was novel (except to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews), the title “Jesus Christ” had real dramatic value for him and for his audience.


    1. Good idea! I like it. But I wonder if that title would prejudice the audience: they would already know that the play had a happy ending.

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