One of the supreme ironies of biblical scholarship is that it fails to recognize the literary genius of the story called the Gospel of Mark, because it presumes the writing is something that it is not. For Christians, the “Gospels” must be historical works – biographies.
The Gospel of Mark was long the least appreciated of the Gospels. It appears that the Gospel of Matthew was the first well know Gospel story. Matthew is actually a recasting of the Gospel of Mark, and what Matthew does is it takes the story from Mark and makes it appear more like a biography, more like “real history”. The Gospel of Luke does the same thing. Both Matthew and Luke read much more like “historical accounts”.
So it seems that the historical nature of the other Gospels colored how people interpreted Mark as well. Believing that Mark was supposed to be a “true historical account” caused readers with that expectation to view Mark as a “poorly written” biography that “get’s many things wrong”. The geography of Mark is all messed up, the main characters in Mark are portrayed poorly, there aren’t any real lessons in Mark, scenes like the cursing of the fig tree seem unlikely and nonsensical, and many details seem to be left out. From the perspective of a “historical account”, this story seems to be a real mess.
But the reality is that Mark isn’t a work of history; it’s not a biography, it’s an entirely fictional story and a work of literary genius. Matthew and Luke aren’t the “real and accurate accounts”, with Mark being a poor parallel – Mark is the real story, from which everyone else copied.
But recognizing the literary genius of Mark means recognizing that Mark is fictional, and thus Christians are incapable of actually recognizing Mark for what it really is. It’s as if someone started a religion based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, and took his account of Middle Earth as the real literal early history of the world. It’s as if they took Tolkien’s stories as actual factual accounts and thus failed to recognize the real symbolism and creativity in them. Followers of such a religion would be incapable of recognizing Tolkien as a creative genius because that would mean that he wasn’t an accurate chronicler of real events.
That’s the situation Christians are in with the Gospel of Mark. Christianity is a religion founded on a fictional story and Christians can’t recognize the literary genius of the writer of the story they worship, because to do so would be to recognize that the figure they are worshiping is a fictional character, not a real god. This is a shame, because this story that Christians call the Gospel of Mark is actually one of the most ingeniously written stories ever composed, which has a lot to do with why a religion ended up forming around it.
The writer of the story incorporated so many layers of meaning and symbolism into the story, along with so many puzzles and mysteries, that the story mesmerized its audience. It was a story unlike anything anyone had read before, not in its basic outline, but in the tantalizing clues that hinted as deeper secrets. Many of the mysteries and puzzles got corrupted when they were inartfully copied by the writers of the other Gospels, but enough of them shone through to excite readers even through the other Gospels.
The way that the Gospel of Mark was written literally must have required a true genius to compose. The writer must have been deeply familiar with a wide body of works, including the works of the Jewish scriptures, the letters of Paul and likely other apocalyptic Jewish works and Greek classics. The writer was then able to take references to so many other works and weave all of these references together into a coherent multi-layered narrative. The story is compelling on its own with a superficial reading, but the story actually has two layers, and if you follow all of the other literary references made in the story you can see that there is a second narrative, or rather that the superficial narrative is augmented by the “hidden narrative”.
Making all of this work, especially at a time when the only way to really construct such complexities would be in your mind, is mind-blowing. Today it would be far easier with the ability to have many references on a computer to draw from, but whoever wrote this story must have memorized many writings and also had copies of them so that he could quote from them directly as well. But the writer would still had to have memorized them in order to be able to build the overall plot and have ideas about what references he wanted to use where.
Just thinking about how this story had to have been constructed is awe inspiring. Yet, Christians cannot recognize the genius of this story because doing so is to acknowledge its fictionality. I think the story called the Gospel of Mark (which really needs to be re-named to something else), should be recognized as one of the great master works of ancient literature and studied far more broadly in a secular context. The story truly is a masterpiece and deserves appreciation on par with the works of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, etc.
To be sure there were a handful of people worshiping “Jesus” prior to the writing of this story, but it is this story that really founded the religion. It is easy to see how this story and its derivatives inspired a religion, but its time to recognize the creative genius of the author instead of worshiping the fictional protagonist.
2 Replies to “The Gospel of Mark is an unrecognized literary masterpiece”
I wholeheartedly agree with the notions that Mark was a genius and wrote a superb fictional story with many layers and most ironically that it’s the foundation of the religion we now call Christianity. The level of psychological sophistication as the story progresses and the characters respond to challenges as their fortunes change is of a modernity that I often just struggle to believe it is composed in the age it is ascribed to.
However I just can’t see the connection with a heavenly Jesus concept presumably sported by the epistles of Paul. I don’t even see these epistles as having priority to the jolly message of Mark so seriously doubt there is any connection unless the composers of the epistles were directly familiar with Mark. I even doubt that and deem it much more likely they had some familiarity with the other gospels. Dutch Radical school already dated the epistles later than Mark and I think they had a point.
As I stated elsewhere in some short discussion with you, I think it is more likely that Mark was writing a satire or comedy about Judean/Galilean religion and culture, but surely not with the intention to support any other religion or cult as his mockery of all religious concepts in the story is obvious. The protagonist is portrayed as a false prophet and charlatan who deceives the people by clever sophistry and healing scams assisted by not to clever minions. As the story progresses his rising fame and fortune at the same time challenges his ability to keep the ever growing mobs and his dimwitted disciples in check as more and more mouths got to be fed by Ponzi schemes that are hilariously modern feeling. The need to get ever greater rewards out of the scam finally moves the plot to Jerusalem where his outrageous behaviour against the temple leads to his downfall as the priestly authorities can’t have that happening on their turf.
Why do I think it’s comedy you might ask? I have read the “original” Greek as preserved(what is lost, cross-contaminated and unrepairable, we might never know) and have spotted seemingly insignificant details in most of the subplots that are clues to nothing being what it looks like at first glance. Most of the miracles can be explained away as misunderstanding, laziness, bad hygiene or plain as day fraud. To give two famous examples that are begging far reaching credulity but are deemed miracles nonetheless:
There is no reason to declare the healings of the blind as miraculous, the first one is only blinded by his own filth and is healed just by cleaning his eyes with spit, like a mother cleans her toddlers’ dirty face. The blind beggar Bar Timeus is just that, a scam artist himself that sits by the road in a beggars robe(a professional attire shared with philosophers and prophets!), he throws of his robe and unassisted hurries some distance towards the Jesus company that passed him by, some miracle! And I can explain away all of the other so called miracles(the only exception the demon Legion, but there Jesus is foiled himself) with the same method and with hilarious results most of the time. So definitely comedy and the protagonist is not spared the onslaught.
I should add that the basic flaw in our understanding of the gospel by Mark lies in the translation of most of it being done through the precepts of the gospel by Matthew. The realization of the primacy of Mark, a real game-changer imo, should have resulted in a complete overhaul, but it was never done. I have been insulating myself from the other gospels while trying to retranslate Mark successfully, but afterwards tested my retranslation against Matthew’s version and lo and behold in every instance I overhauled in Mark, Matthew did the same but in the other direction by changing the suspect vocabulary thus removing the possible comedy connotations. In itself it is no proof, but this kind of coincidence fuels my suspicions I’ve got it right. I have a strong feeling that every translator of Mark so far uses Matthew as indicator, yes even determinator of meaning and unless a really skilled translator does the job again from scratch, this fallacy will continue. Mark deserves better.