Here I will defend my theory that Mark wrote a play that was performed on a stage, and a narrative text that condensed the play. This post supplements the case I made in my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text.
The genre of the Gospel of Mark is still open
The Gospel of Mark has been called a biography, a history, a new ‘gospel’ genre, etc., etc. There is no agreement. It is dramatic but lacks the dramatic extensivity of a play. A few people have explicitly claimed that it was performed. A few say that it was read dramatically. A very few say it was a play, but do not elaborate on the context (Michael Turton, J. M. Robertson, Livio Stecchini). This absence of agreement strongly suggests that the right answer has not been proposed.
I have a new explanation. Mark wrote two texts: a play and a narrative text. The dramatic features of GMark derive from its original form as a play. Its dense literary references testify to Mark’s intention to convert the play into a narrative myth in the style of Scripture.
Not a staged reading
Some modern scholars think that the Gospel of Mark was written for staged reading. I disagree. First, there is consistent attention to the logical movements of the actors. Second, the entire story is stageable in a Greek theater with a two-level stage, an orchestra, two side entrances, and a minimal set. Third, a staged reading (which you can try for yourself), lacks the dramatic extensivity required to make an impression on the viewer. And fourth, the text itself tells the reader that dialogue is missing, e.g., “Then the chief priests accused him of many things. (15:3)”. If you were writing a staged reading, wouldn’t you want to provide all the dialogue?
The Gospel of Mark has many features of a play
In contrast, the Gospel of Mark has many features consistent with an origin as a play. These features include:
- an omniscient and invisible, personless narrator
- a well-structured plot with a protagonist, an antagonist, a third character, a climax, and a resolution
- a small number of characters whose names are pronounced within the play
- a small number of speaking characters
- a Chorus that is onstage for the entire play (seemy staging in Appendix A of the book)
- stage directions without visual description (e.g., “they came to Capernaum”). For this and other theatrical elements of GMark, see the essay by Michael Turton called “Was Mark meant to be Performed?”.
- logical movement of the actors within the theater. They are always in place for the next scene.
- stageability of the entire play on a two-level Greek theater with a permanent set including a mountain and a tomb
- very few unstageable elements (and these are explainable as contributions by later editors, e.g., the sojourn in the wilderness, versus the original scene [in my opinion]: the very dramatic and stageable Temptation found in GMatthew.)
- use of contemporary theater technologies (e.g., descending dove, stage crane, rolling boat, clouds)
Titus Flavius Clemens and Flavia Domitilla could have produced a play
A private performance of a play on a sectarian subject was feasible in Rome during the reign of Domitian. The emperor banned public performances of plays but allowed private performances. As members of the imperial family, Titus Flavius Clemens and Flavia Domitilla had the money to commission a new play, and the real estate to construct a wooden theater for a private performance.
A dramatic genre suitable for Mark’s plot was popular: mime
In the first century in Rome, tragedy and comedy were out of fashion. In fashion were pantomime and mime. The pantomime, a silent dancer, enacted a story, accompanied by music and singers. As a genre, mime concerned ‘imitation of everyday life’. Mime performances ranged from improvised skits at street fairs, to performances at dinner parties, to full plays. Actors did not wear masks. They improvised and interacted with the audience. We know that mime plays were performed at festivals, which implies that these plays were a) full-length and b) written out in advance. These plays were necessarily more formal in structure than the vaudeville of street and dinner-party mime performances. I think Mark wrote in the genre of full-length mime plays.
Mark’s play had these characteristics of mime:
- non-stock characters (compare comedy, which had stock characters)
- female actors
- no masks
- ordinary language in dialogue (compare Seneca’s elaborate language in his plays)
- humorous characters and situations (prior to Gethsemane)
- a stupid sidekick: Peter “rocky ground”
- likely, improvisation by the protagonist (Jesus actor)
- exaggerated (farcical) villains
- audience interaction
- topical references (to Josephus and Vespasian)
- a raucous melée (the arrest scene). Mime performances ended with a raucous melée. I think there was also one in the ascension scene that (I believe) ended the play.
I see Mark’s play as mime until Gethsemane, then a mini-tragedy. However, the genre of mime was capacious and I also see the entire play as a vaudeville-type mime that incorporated a tragic section.
I think Mark wrote his playscript in several stages. Even believers see the Passion (beginning approximately with the Last Supper) as originally a separate text. Mark could have written this tragedy earlier and adapted it to the story of Jesus. It’s possible that Mark, or another writer, had already constructed from Scripture a ‘Life of Jesus’, for some other purpose, which Mark used/built on to create his play/narrative.
It was worth Mark’s time to rewrite his play as a narrative
In late first-century Rome, writers of full plays had very few opportunities to sell their work: occasional festivals and rare elite private performances.
There was no market for copies of their (new) plays. At best, the authors could stage them again for dinner parties. There were no copyright protections, so playwrights had no incentives to publish their plays, or to rewrite them as narratives and try to sell them.
Probably the inherently ephemeral nature of first-century plays is why we have no other texts that seem to be rewritten plays.
Mark, on the other hand, was a client of the imperial family. Mark could reasonably expect his narrative of the sponsored performance to survive. It was worth his time to write a narrative that also (he hoped) was a candidate for Scripture.
My theory is unique, comprehensive and plausible
My theory that Mark wrote a play, then a narrative, is unique in that it places Mark in a real time, a real place, with real historical people, with a real motive to write the text we know as the Gospel of Mark. My theory is consistent with what we know about elite entertainment in first-century Rome. My theory is consistent with the lives of Clemens and Flavia Domitilla. My theory is consistent with the history of the Roman congregation (the home of the popes) before and after Mark’s time. My theory explains why the Roman congregation preserved Mark’s text but apparently did not use it as Scripture.
Objections to my scenario
First, I know of no other texts extant from antiquity that seem to be rewritten staged plays. This objection is not decisive, because, as mentioned above, writers had no motivation to transform their plays into narratives. And even if they did, secular works had a very low chance of survival.
Second, plays consist mostly of dialogue. Mark’s text refers to omitted dialogue, but even so, the play looks like it has relatively little dialogue compared to the two extant mime plays from the period. Could Mark have borrowed an action-heavy, dialogue-light dramatic style from mystery dramas? Or did the performance have a lot of improvisation? These questions must remain open for now.
Third, Mark had to be extraordinarily intelligent and skillful to compose two texts at once. He built a play out of Scriptural references, many of which were not salient during performance, or only in the grossest detail, while planning his narrative text. Then he condensed the play and constructed a text in chiasms. But Shakespeare also seems superhuman. Such people do walk among us. Maybe Mark was the Shakespeare of his day.
[version March 19, 2022: added to last paragraph of post; May 13, 2022: minor editing, added Turton link; edited December 22, 2022, January 19, 2023]