This post is a response to a post on Vridar, Reading the Gospels through a Roman Philosopher’s Eyes, August 5, 2020. There, Neil Godfrey observes, “what the Stoic author Cornutus wrote about Hermes brings to mind several core motifs in the gospels, but in particular of the Gospel of Mark.” Several quotations from Cornutus [fl. 60s CE] follow, with Neil’s observations of how these characteristics of Hermes are paralleled in characteristics or actions of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. I found this post convincing, and valuable for understanding Mark’s literary process.
Mark was a writer. He decided to write a story in which Jesus, the heavenly high priest and divine intermediary, came to earth in order to die and rise. The tension in the story was provided by the heavenly adversary, Satan, who also came to earth and placed Satanic spirits in people, such that they revealed Jesus’s heavenly identity, thereby potentially inspiring people to treasure Jesus in his earthly form, and refuse to let him be killed (and complete his mission). That conflict between Jesus and Satan was the plot of Mark’s story.
That Jesus was just a spirit, or angel. To make the story interesting, Mark had to characterize Jesus-on-earth. Jesus-on-earth had to do particular things and say particular things, the way people do, and this characterization had to be plausibly consistent. A character in a play must be strongly characterized, or the character is dull and the audience stops paying attention. Here, Neil points out that parallels between Jesus (and Hermes) include the character being a guide, a leader, and a healer, and explaining things clearly, but not to everyone. There are more interesting parallels in the post.
It makes sense that Mark borrowed some characteristics for Jesus-on-earth from a popular Gentile savior figure. This characterization is complementary to scenarios taken from Scripture, such as the call of the fishermen, and the mocking/beating. Jesus-as-Hermes can still do things that Elisha did. There is no conflict. The more cultural elements emulated in Mark’s story, the richer it was. (It still engages readers and scholars 1900 years later.)
I want to stress that we cannot know how much Mark’s congregation/audience felt that a secular story about their divine intermediary was in good taste—or poor taste. Or if this varied by origin (Gentile or Judean.) We also cannot know how closely the ritual elements of the story—baptism, prayer, the Eucharist, hymn singing, building sukkahs/tents—reflected the rituals of the congregation. But we can be sure that the congregation did have religious services and practices.The later use of the Gospel of Mark as a history of Jesus of Nazareth is what makes the proposal that Mark’s Jesus was, to some degree, based on Hermes, possibly unsettling. But in Mark’s world, he and his congregation were secure that Jesus was a divine intermediary. They worshiped him as such. A secular story/play about him, even with ‘new’ details similar to Hermes, was probably no more problematic than a play about Hermes himself. They did not see it as a religious text. At least to a congregation that was highly Hellenized and probably contained a significant number of Gentiles—as I proposed in my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text.