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 condensed the dialogue and added narration, preserving the performance. 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 alter my course a little, but I never found anything to force me to abandon my theory. 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 throws out 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 the dome is the best solution for now.
I acknowledge that the book is speculative. It is my best explanation of the facts. Other scholars are free to challenge it.
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 that could be used within the Jesus movement, second.
Mark did portray doctrine in the action of the play. (For example, Jesus is visited by the Holy Spirit.) In the book, I take a director’s point of view. I am mainly concerned with practical things, likehow the actors move around the stage. I am not concerned with the content of Jesus’s teachings. Dialogue could have been easily altered by an editor without leaving any traces.
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.
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. 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.
That said, I think it is likely that some texts that are excerpted from in the current Letters of Paul as we have them date from before Mark wrote. Possibly Mark knew them and valued them. But not as the output of the revered “Paul.” That character did not yet exist. And almost certainly, no one was martyred in Rome for being Christian in the first century.
Outside Rome, a contemplative, scholarly congregation in Jerusalem. Hellenized Judeans in Egypt and possibly Syria. Possibly Samaritan congregations. Possibly a gnostic sect led by Simon of Samaria–a still mysterious figure.
From my reading of the early documents, before the founding of Mark’s congregation, and in many places after his writing of his Gospel, congregations had a Jesus figure or a “Christ/anointed one” figure, but not both. Mark’s congregation may have been the first to unite them.
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 on his accession in 71 CE. Some of the congregation’s appeal may have been its admiration for wisdom and a simple lifestyle.
I have no idea what was included in the congregation’s religious calendar or regular religious practices. In the Gospel, Jesus celebrates the Eucharist with a blessing. He sings a hymn. He prays and teaches. This all might have translated into the congregation’s services.
No. There are two reasons. I think that only a Judean secure in his Judean identity could have convinced the Gentile producer of the play, Flavia Domitilla, that the combination of Jesus and Christ was an authentic way to be Judean. Second, I believe that in the play, 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.
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 Mark or any other human being 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.
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. I think that he was an ordinary member of the congregation, not a congregational official.
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 Christ 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. There were congregations interested in “Christ” and congregations interested in “Jesus,” with no sense that either was deficient. By Mark’s time, his congregation had put them together. They may have been the first, or not. We just don’t know.
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.
My theory does not rule out his existence. But the Jesus story in the Gospel of Mark is a fiction. The text is not a biography, a catechism, or a history. It cannot be trusted to preserve any historical details about a living Jesus and his disciples, if they existed.
I have no idea. I can only say that it was large and prosperous enough that Flavia Domitilla felt that her donated catacombs would be used for the foreseeable future.
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. But Mark could have been working for years on dramatic material that he (re)used in the Gospel play.
Not that I know of.
16. You say that the Gospel of Mark originally had a Satan-Jesus plot. Why did an editor or editors erase most of Satan’s presence?
In the second century, the orthodox leaders and scribes who decided to create Jesus of Nazareth, the human founder of the religion, out of Mark’s original heavenly Jesus, erased the original plot conflict between two heavenly beings. Satan remained in the background of the story as an evil force who tested the human Jesus.
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 literal biography of Jesus of Nazareth.
I am not anti-religion. I am pro-truth.
Mark and Matthew and their 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.
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 any of GMark before, and was shocked to discover how simple it was. I started reading it aloud, and realized it was a play. It had a narrator, but it was obviously a play. 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 barely there, just a third-person voice.
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, prestige, adulation, etc. What was Mark’s motivation to write this play? I kept asking questions, and finding answers. I present my scenario for Mark’s life-situation and motivation in the book.
Knowing enough to feel reasonably confident I had not missed a major fact. The biggest challenge was Christian history of the second century CE. It is a minefield. Most of the Christian texts that survive were entirely or partially fabricated, and that includes the Gospels. 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, while bringing God closer to the worshiper. My book is not anti-Christian. It’s pro-proto-Christian.
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 avoid works by authors who believe that a historical Jesus of Nazareth existed. If you read the Letters of Paul, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospels, keep in mind that they have been massively edited, and Acts is almost entirely fiction.
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 reconstructed play, 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 their 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.
What makes any historian qualified to write a book? Intellectual honesty. An abiding interest in the subject. Research skills. Persistence. A commitment to writing for the reader.
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 were 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. 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 was not required to publish on schedule, 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 was new to the field of biblical studies and also to the Gospel of Mark as a text. Therefore my head was not cluttered with irrelevant material.
I have 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, and I proposed that Flavia Domitilla had played the woman, everything fell into place. Mark worked for the elite of Rome. Flavia provided the theater and produced the play. Mark wrote a play that honored Flavia. It all fits.
Contact me using the contact page. This website has an errata page, and I will include an errata sheet in books I mail out.
I don’t have any plans at this time.
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.
I chose the fonts: Cardo for body text, and Seria Sans and Parisine Office for the headings. I designed and formatted the body, first in MS Word, then in InDesign. I did the index myself. Tim Barber of Dissect Designs designed the cover.