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 ancestor of 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, or finds new pieces, she has the right to say that they probably were originally part of a dome.
I acknowledge that the book is speculative. I present many sub-theories. Some may be right and others wrong. Other scholars are free to challenge them.
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 limit myself to (partly) reconstructing the performed play, then briefly discuss Mark and his world, which I inferred from the fact of performance. When discussing the play, I take a director’s or stage manager’s point of view. I am concerned with practical issues, like how the actors move around the stage, or when the boat is removed from the orchestra. 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). I first must establish what happened before I can discuss why it happened. On this blog I enlarge the scope of my inquiry, and hope to eventually infer enough from the gospel to address Mark’s doctrine and rituals.
Another reason I do not discuss doctrine is that in the text, dialogue was easily altered by an editor without leaving any traces. For example, all the parable teachings in Mark 4 have the same voice. But they are too lengthy for a stage performance; the audience would be bored. An editor has added some of them, but I cannot tell which ones are original. Such changes are easily made. In contrast, the stage management, the physical action of a scene is the same regardless of whether an actor says “I believe X” or “I believe Y.”
This issue is addressed in an LA Review of Books debate. “Judean” refers to the ethnic group. In antiquity, people’s identities were their ethnic group (which is why followers of philosophers, e.g., Pythagoreans, were distinctly different). In Mark’s world, Mark’s sect was just as legitimate a version of “being Judean” as the Pharisees. Christianity had not yet become a distinct religion–a process that was kicked off by Nerva’s policy regarding who was required to pay the Judean tax to the Roman state.
Christianity claims that there was a man named Paul, who was originally named Saul, had a revelation on a road, visited Jerusalem, evangelized the Gentiles, wrote letters, and was martyred in Rome. This apparently simple story is a fabricated construction built out of the canonical Letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles. 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 on the ground was more complex than we have been told. I have my own theory about the origin of the Letters of Paul–obviously, real people wrote the first version of the letters, for their own particular purposes in their own times and places–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 texts that existed in Rome in Mark’s time. Possibly Mark and his editors knew some of these texts and referenced them in the Gospel of Mark. This, to me, adequately explains any similarity between doctrine in the Letters of Paul (excluding Hebrews) and the Gospel of Mark.
The producer of the play, I argue, was the congregation’s Gentile-born patron, Flavia Domitilla. The need to honor her/her memory, not contact with Paul or Paul’s works, explains the pro-Gentile slant of Mark’s work.
I think Mark’s fellow congregants who were ethnic Judeans who 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 rather philosophical 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 can be inferred from the play. Presumably they had Lord’s Day and festival observances. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus celebrates the Eucharist with a blessing. He sings a hymn. He prays and teaches.
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 a heavenly being who sits at the right hand of YHWH.
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. However, the pre-Markan concept of “Jesus” (Joshua/the new Moses) may have originated with a human figure (a respected teacher). René Salm makes a good case for this.
I address this in the brief Chapter 5 of the book. Mark’s real history was later obscured by his congregation, as I discuss in Chapter 7.
I suspect that the idea of the son of God as a divine intermediary is Alexandrian. See the article by Earl Doherty, “Tracing the Christian Lineage in Alexandria.” I think that the concepts of “Jesus” and “Christ” (anointed one) developed independently. Both have multiple origins. By Mark’s time, his congregation had joined Jesus, the Son of Man (heavenly high priest) and Jesus, the Son of God (national messiah/king but not the Davidic messiah–that comes from Luke). The term “Christ” “anointed one” meant the heavenly high priest to the congregation of Hebrews (which I believe was Mark’s predecessor), a personal savior to “Paul,” and a little later, the Davidic messiah to Luke and Matthew. The church fathers would have destroyed any texts that documented earlier uses of the “Jesus” concept by people outside the orthodox church, especially Samaritans.
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 earthly mission of Mark’s heavenly Jesus. The gospel story is fiction.
In my opinion, no.
It was large and prosperous enough that the Roman aristocrat and niece of Titus and Domitian, Flavia Domitilla, felt that it was a going concern and her donated catacombs would be used for the foreseeable future. In the second century, the congregation may have split off daughter congregations in different parts of Rome. Also, it very likely had different meeting times and locations for different groups of people, just as modern churches and synagogues do.
Flavia Domitilla was exiled (effectively 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.
Not that I know of. But that absence is not decisive. Who would have kept texts that were based on pagan plays? Most of the texts we have came through either the Catholic/Orthodox churches, or through the Arab world (which preserved useful texts like philosophy and science). I think that our best hope is another Egyptian rubbish dump.
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 he used. This two-step process explains why the Gospel of Mark is theatrical but is not the script of a play. The Roman congregation kept the text in its library because the text was a testament to Flavia’s benefaction (which included the use of catacombs on her property.) 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. (That idea, I believe, originated in the Asian church and was only reluctantly accepted, as a useful fiction, in Rome.)
I am not anti-religion. The book is not for everyone nor do I think everyone should read it. I write for people who are already sympathetic to Jesus mythicism and want to know how Christianity got started.
Mark and his congregants believed that Jesus was an intermediary between them and God. Intermediaries are a way of making the one god of monotheism closer and more accessible. In the play, Jesus came temporarily to earth, then returned to the heavens. In my opinion, Mark’s story is the Judean version of a common pagan myth, set in a Judean/Galilean milieu, using details and references drawn from Scripture. Nobody in Rome then, or indeed for at least another eighty years, thought this was history.
Christianity is not “all Jesus all the time.” It is much more. The concept that “Jesus” is a divine intermediary is still valid. There are believing Christians today who recognize that the original Jesus was a heavenly figure.
I started out asking why Christianity was such a successful reform of Judaism. I thought I should look at the earliest Christian texts. I read Alvar Ellegård’s Jesus – One Hundred Years Before Christ, but the early texts he reviews didn’t seem to fit into a plausible historical scenario. The supposedly early Letters of Paul seemed incoherent and obviously edited. So I read the Gospel of Mark, which I knew 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 typical of a play, the actors were consistently placed 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. Unlike a novel, 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, attention, eternal fame, etc. What was Mark’s motivation to write this play? Why did he use this form for his material? What theatrical tradition was he writing in? I kept asking questions, and finding answers.
Knowing enough to feel sufficiently confident I had not missed a major fact prior to publishing. I had to read in many scholarly fields. The biggest challenge was making sure my theory fit with the (originals of the) 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 the sequence of events prior to their creation. I estimate I put about 10,000 hours into the book.
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.
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 study the text of the Gospel of Mark, begin with Michael Turton’s Historical Commentary from a skeptical point of view. Read through the Gospel a couple of times. You might also find a gospel harmony useful as a reference tool.
In general, beginners should not read articles published in academic journals, because these articles address other scholars, not the general reader. I advise beginners to initially read general works only by authors who are Jesus mythicists or appear in mythicist or mythicist-friendly journals like The Journal of Higher Criticism (more recent issues available online only from a large bookstore) and SHERM. This is because authors who believe that a historical Jesus of Nazareth existed make assumptions (e.g., about dates) that create false premises for their 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 taken at face value. In fact, every early Christian text should be assumed to have been edited, and written by someone other than the purported author. That said, I have found The Catholic Encyclopedia an excellent source for the history of ancient texts and persons.
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.
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.
I suggest that you read my blog. Some of my posts concern the staging of the play.
What makes a historian qualified to write a book? An abiding interest in the subject. Research skills. Persistence. Willingness to stay with a problem until it is resolved. Intellectual honesty, including a commitment to giving credit where it is due, and differentiating, as best I can, between my levels of certainty in my conclusions.
A number of independent scholars, including J. M. Robertson, Kenneth Humphreys and Michael Turton, have said that the Gospel of Mark is dramatic, and some have hinted that there was a performed play. But no one has investigated how it was performed. And no one, to my knowledge, has claimed that Mark wrote a play AND a narrative text, and we have only the narrative text.
Why was I able to do this work? I was a scholar outside academia. 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.”
Almost all biblical scholars are interested in discerning the religious content or meaning of biblical texts. Fortunately for me, recent scholarship has (to my mind) settled the question of whether or not Jesus of Nazareth existed. I do not need to inquire into that question. I used Jesus mythicism as the foundation of my work.
I had a background in the relevant fields: academic history, biblical studies, theater (acting and playwriting).
And as a writer myself, I recognized Mark was a skillful writer. Mark would not have written so well if he were writing for a humble congregation in rural Judea. Rather, he would have surrounded himself with people like him. I wanted to know his motivation to write at all. I wanted to know about the circumstances in which this writer lived. This ‘on the ground’ approach is native to me, but rare in the field of biblical studies.
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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.
version December 25, 2020, updated September 21, 2022