Table of Contents

The book

1. Can you explain your method?

I started with the fact that the text of the Gospel of Mark exists. I examined the text for clues about Mark’s purpose for the text. The text was dramatic, but was not the script of a play. I thought about why the text might have that form. I came up with a theory: Mark wrote and performed a play; he also wrote a text in which he condensed the dialogue and added narration and other literary features. That is the text we have now.

I assumed that theory was true, unless I found some fact that absolutely contradicted it. I then imagined how the play was staged. I sometimes had to discard a line of thought, but I never found anything to force me to abandon my theory that a performed play had existed. An analogous situation is a person who finds some pieces of tile that look like they come from the same structure. After looking at them for a while, she hypothesizes that the structure was a dome. She begins by using pieces that make what looks like the outer edge. She then finds more pieces that fit into existing pieces. She finds some pieces that appear to have been mixed in from another structure; she sets aside those pieces. Eventually, she reconstructs enough that the dome shape is evident. She concludes that her hypothesis is probably right. The pieces could, in theory, have originally come from a different-shaped structure. But until someone else demonstrates that they have a better way to arrange the pieces, she has the right to say that they probably were originally part of a dome.

I acknowledge that the book is speculative. Other scholars are free to challenge it.

2. Why do you treat doctrine as irrelevant? Surely Mark wanted to evangelize.

I disagree. Mark did not write the Gospel text to evangelize. We cannot infer that he did based on the fact that later Christians canonized the Gospel of Mark and used it in evangelism. We have to treat his text as his work, written in a particular place and time, for his own purpose. I believe that purpose was “to preserve the performance of his play,” first, and to write a myth about the Jesus figure that could be used within the Jesus movement, second.

In the book, I take a director’s point of view. I am concerned with practical things, like how the actors move around the stage. I am not concerned with the content of Jesus’s teachings in the play or in the current version of the Gospel of Mark, or the doctrine expressed in the action of the play (e.g., Jesus ascends to the heavens).

The received text does contain doctrine, and Mark certainly had his own doctrine. But in the text, dialogue could have been–and was–easily altered by an editor without leaving any traces. For example, the parable teachings in Mark 4 all have the same voice. But they are too lengthy for a stage performance. An editor has added some of them. That is why I do not discuss doctrine as it is expressed in the current text.

3. Why do you use the term “Judean” instead of “Jew”?

It’s not accurate to use “Jews” and “Christians” for the first century CE because Judaism and Christianity had not yet separated. The issue of what term we moderns should use is addressed in an LA Review of Books debate.

Proto-Christianity

4. Who was Paul? Did Mark know him or his work?

Christianity claims that there was a man named Paul, who was originally named Saul, had a revelation on the road, visited Jerusalem, evangelized the Gentiles, wrote letters, and was martyred in Rome. This apparently simple story is a construction built out of the canonical Letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. The biography is sheer fabrication, and it is impossible to reach any underlying historical truth about any original “Paul.” Once you start looking into the identity of the writers of the letters and the circumstances of the letters’ composition, you find yourself in murky and turbulent waters. As scholars of second-century Christianity are painfully aware, the real situation was more complex than it seems. I have my own theory about the origin of the Letters of Paul, but my theory is too speculative to mention here.

That said, I think it is likely that the current Letters of Paul contain excerpts from pre-Markan texts that existed in Rome. Possibly Mark knew some of these texts and referenced them in the Gospel of Mark. He may even have known of some of the original Pauline texts.

Nevertheless, Mark had a powerful motivation to write a pro-Gentile play. He needed to praise the producer of the play, the congregation’s Gentile-born patron, Flavia Domitilla.

Mark’s beliefs and the Jesus figure

5. What was Mark’s religion like?

I think Mark’s fellow congregants who were ethnic Judeans thought of themselves as Judeans. (Their religious practice was within the Judean cultural universe.) Those who were born Gentiles thought of themselves as members of a Judean sect.

It may be relevant that the Emperor Vespasian had banished philosophers from Rome in 71 CE. Some of the congregation’s appeal may have been its admiration for wisdom and a simple lifestyle without the label of “philosophy.

I have no idea what was included in the congregation’s religious calendar or regular religious practices beyond what is present in the play. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus celebrates the Eucharist with a blessing. He sings a hymn. He prays and teaches.

6. Could Mark have been a Samaritan or Gentile?

No. There are three reasons. First, the calling of the fishermen emulates the calling of Elisha from the Book of Kings, which was a Judean text, and not used by Samaritans. Second, I believe that in the performance, Mark played the role of Jesus. Only an ethnic Judean could be convincing in that role because Jesus is in competition with the Council of Jerusalem (the Sanhedrin) for authority over the Chorus. The real Sanhedrin had no authority over Samaritans. Third, I cannot see a congregation consisting largely of Judeans accepting a born-Gentile playing the role of the high priest in the heavenly Temple.

7. Did Mark believe there had been a historical Jesus of Nazareth?

The Jesus of the play is a heavenly being, a sort of angel, who comes to earth on a mission from God and is tested by another heavenly being, Satan. Personally, I cannot imagine that an educated person like Mark would have transformed a wandering human teacher into a heavenly being and anointed high priest in the heavens only 60 years after his death on earth.

8. What was Mark like?

I discuss this in Chapter 5 of the book. Unfortunately, the Gospel gives us little information. And Mark’s real history was later obscured by his congregation, as I discuss in Chapter 7.

9. Where did Mark/his congregation get their Jesus figure from?

This really is the most important question, isn’t it? We know nothing about the history of Mark’s congregation or its intellectual influences. So I will say only two things. First, I suspect that the idea of Jesus as a divine intermediary is Alexandrian. See the article by Earl Doherty, “Tracing the Christian Lineage in Alexandria.” Second, the concepts of “Jesus” and “Christ” were initially separate. By Mark’s time, his congregation had put them together. They may have been the first to do so, or not. We just don’t know.

10.  Could there have been a historical Jesus and Mark wrote about him?

There could have been a wandering charismatic teacher who taught wisdom and competed with John the Baptist. He could have even healed people. But if he existed, Mark used him only as an inspiration for the “life” of Mark’s heavenly Jesus. The gospel story is fiction.

11.  Is your story compatible with a historical Jesus of Nazareth?

In my opinion, no.

The Roman congregation

12.  How large was the Roman congregation?

I have no idea. I can only say that it was large and prosperous enough that Flavia Domitilla felt that it was a going concern and her donated catacombs would be used for the foreseeable future. I think that her patronage of the congregation gave it a social cachet that it never lost, and ensured its continuity as a gathering place for rich Judeans and ideologically sympathetic Gentiles in Rome through the second and third centuries.

The Gospel of Mark

13.  How do you date the Gospel of Mark?

Flavia Domitilla was killed c. 95 CE. If we assume that she belonged to Mark’s congregation, then the play was performed before her death. So I estimate 90-95 CE. But Mark could have been working for years on dramatic material that he (re)used in the Gospel play.

14.  Are there any other examples of preserved plays from antiquity?

Not that I know of.

15.  You say that in the plot of the play, Jesus tries to complete his mission on earth, and Satan tries to stop him. Satan was originally more prominent in the text as well. Why did an editor or editors erase most of Satan’s presence?

Probably because both Satan and Jesus are heavenly beings who descend to the earth from the heavens at the beginning of the play, and return to the heavens at the end of the play. If Satan’s role is modified, the Jesus character seems more like a human being, and the play seems more like his biography. That may have been the editors’ major motivation. The editor(s) may also have been embarrassed by the prominence in the story of a clearly mythical being, Satan. I think this process of erasing Satan was incremental and incidental, and occurred over decades.

16.  Can you explain your theory in one paragraph?

In The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, Danila Oder argues that the Gospel of Mark is a preserved play. Mark wrote, directed, and starred in a play about a heavenly Jesus figure. The play was performed in a private theater circa 95 CE. The play was produced by the Roman aristocrat, Flavia Domitilla, as a gift to her Roman Jesus-movement congregation. Mark preserved the performance in a text. He condensed and narratized the play script, and added literary features like chiasms and references to the Scriptural sources of his stories. This two-step process explains why the Gospel of Mark is theatrical but is not the script of a play. Flavia’s involvement explains why the Roman congregation kept the text even though they knew it was not literally true. By the mid-second-century, this congregation had become the home of the popes, and the center of orthodoxy. It promoted Mark’s now-edited text as the biography of the human Jesus of Nazareth.

General and about me

17.  Why are you trying to take away people’s faith?

I am not anti-religion. I am pro-truth. That said, the book is not for everyone.

Mark and his congregants believed that Jesus was an intermediary between them and the Creator God. They just believed that Jesus had come temporarily to earth, then returned to the heavens.

Christianity is not “all Jesus all the time.” It is much more. Focus on the much more. You don’t have to get rid of Jesus, however you conceive of him. There are believing Christians today who recognize that the original Jesus was a heavenly figure.

18.  Why did you write this book?

I started out asking why Christianity was such a successful reform of Judaism. I thought I should look at the earliest Christian texts. I tried to, and didn’t get very far: some of the texts presented to me as early didn’t seem so, and the Letters of Paul seemed incoherent and obviously edited. So I read the Gospel of Mark, as I knew that was the earliest of the canonical gospels.

I had never read the Gospel of Mark before, and was shocked to discover how simple it was. I started reading it aloud, and realized it was a play. Even though it had a narrator. Among other features, there was consistent attention to placing the actors in position for their next scene. The scenes were almost all self-contained. The scenes were all stageable in a theater or similar performance space. There was no description. The narrator was invisible and had no personality.

I decided to try to figure out if and how that play was staged, and why the author wrote it. I know, as a writer, that writers are motivated by earthly rewards: money, fame, honor, etc. What was Mark’s motivation to write this play? I kept asking questions, and finding answers.

19.  What was the greatest difficulty you faced when writing the book?

Knowing enough to feel reasonably confident I had not missed a major fact. I had to read in many scholarly fields. The biggest challenge was making sure my theory fit with the original Christian texts of the second and third century CE. That meant I had to read the current texts, read scholarship about the texts, and try to penetrate the layers of editing to postulate a theory about their origins. I estimate I put about 10,000 hours into the book.

20.  Are you a Christian?

No, but I have a lot of sympathy for Mark’s version of Judean religion. It preserves monotheism and Judean heritage, and brings God closer to the worshiper. My book is not anti-Christian. It’s pro-proto-Christian.

21.  Can you help me with my paper?

No. The book and the blog are written for scholars and advanced amateurs who already know the text of the Gospel of Mark very well and who are comfortable with the assumption that Mark’s Jesus was a heavenly figure. If you are not familiar with that assumption, an excellent introduction is Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed at All, by David Fitzgerald. If you want to get to know the text of the Gospel of Mark, begin with Michael Turton’s Historical Commentary from a skeptical point of view.

I advise beginners not to read articles published in academic journals, because these articles are usually too specialized for a beginner. I also advise beginners to initially read general works only by authors who are Jesus mythicists. In contrast, authors who believe that a historical Jesus of Nazareth existed introduce assumptions (like “oral traditions”) into their work, which can seriously prejudice your thinking. If you do read the Letters of Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospels, keep in mind that they have been massively edited, and should not be treated as primary sources.

22.  Are you available to speak to my group about your book?

I am not an expert on the Bible, Early Christianity, ancient theater, or Roman history. I can provide a summary of my book, and I can talk about beginning to reconstruct the play. If you can restrict my talk to those subjects, or my process of researching and writing the book, yes.

23. Can I produce a reconstructed play?

You are free to do so, but please do not imply that I endorse your version unless I have given you approval in writing.

In my reconstruction of the action of the play (Appendix E in the book), in a few places I suggest what might have been the original dialogue. You can’t use those wordings without permission. The text I quote in the book is the New Revised Standard Version. You will need the NRSV publisher’s permission to use their translation for dialogue in your play. An alternative is to quote from a copyright-free version of the Gospel, or make your own translation. Or paraphrase the text.

24.  What makes you qualified to write this book?

What makes any historian qualified to write a book? Intellectual honesty. An abiding interest in the subject. Research skills. Persistence.

25. Why didn’t anyone else figure this out?

I assumed that Mark’s Jesus was a heavenly figure. I assumed that the Gospel was performed. I then asked, how was it performed. I found that I was on a path that never ran into any significant roadblocks no matter how far I traveled. I kept imagining the play, and finding that my reconstructions produced good theater. My reconstructions fit together. It was as though I successfully built a dome over me out of Legos, starting from the outside and working inward and upward–without an initial plan. The dome still has holes, but it is clearly a unified structure.

A number of independent scholars, including J. M. Robertson, Kenneth Humphreys and Michael Turton, have said that the Gospel of Mark is dramatic. But no one has investigated how it was performed. Some modern scholars think that the Gospel of Mark was performed as staged readings, and have given performances. But I argue in the book that the Gospel is not optimized for performative reading.

I was not constrained by the requirements of an academic position. I did not have teaching obligations. I was not required to publish a certain number of academic articles or books, or to affirm the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. I had the freedom and, fortunately, adequate time and health to pursue my investigation where it led me.

I had beginner’s mind. I was new to the field of biblical studies and also to the Gospel of Mark. I was not committed to historicist assumptions prevalent in biblical studies, like “Mark used oral traditions” and “Mark’s audience was poor Judeans who had known or heard about Jesus of Nazareth.”

I had a background in the relevant fields: academic history, biblical studies, theater (acting and playwriting). I never accepted the official Christian line: “Mark was the secretary of Peter.” As a writer myself, I recognized a skillful writer. Mark had an ego and he would not have written so well if he were writing for a humble congregation in rural Judea. He would have surrounded himself with people like him. Therefore, when I imagined the staging of the scene of the anointing at Bethany, I could propose that Flavia Domitilla had played the woman.

Publishing

26.  How can I inform you of errors in the book?

Contact me using the contact page. This website has an errata page, and I will include an errata sheet in books I mail out.

27.  Will the book be available as an e-book or a hardback?

No.

28.  Do you use social media?

No.  

29.  Will you have editions in other languages?  

Not at this time.

30. Can I order more than two books to one address and combine shipping?

Yes. Order, and I will refund any excess shipping costs. Or contact me through the Contact page and I will send you the correct total for you to pay.

31. Who designed the book?

I chose the fonts: Cardo for body text, and Seria Sans and Parisine Office for the headings. I designed and formatted the interior of the book, first in Word, then in InDesign. I did the index myself. Tim Barber of Dissect Designs designed the cover.