The Gospel of Mark As A Greek Tragedy

It has been observed since the mid-20th century that the earliest Synoptic Gospel, Mark, follows the framework of Greco-Roman tragedy.  The first attention I can find paid to this topic was in 1977, in Bilezikian’s The Liberated Gospel and some 24 years earlier in the same author’s doctoral dissertation.

The pattern is quite clear: sparse dialog, frequent scene changes, narration, passion.  I recommend Ken Humphreys’ Youtube video on this topic as an introduction.

The point of this post is not to develop or convey findings of previous scholarship, but rather, to describe how I think this Gospel drama was used as a political and theological tool.

Picture this:  you are a late 1st or early 2nd century mystery cult member.  The cult to which you belong, the Christian mystery, is more compatible with your worldview and deepest longings than other mysteries; those other mysteries (and their Demigods) lack the personal touch which your mystery touts.  You regularly meet with other members of your local mystery community, and you are aware of,  by name or reputation, prominent members of surrounding communities.

Life is hard as an Iron Age Christian.  Many Christians are slaves…maybe you are too.  The drudgery of life is interrupted by your daily morning routine of worshiping toward the sun.  Of course, if you’re caught, you’ll either be whipped, imprisoned or killed.

Then one day the news comes!  The most famous proprietor of this mystery — the one who saunters around the Eastern Roman empire sharing the Good News, regardless of the tremendous risk — is coming to your town, somewhere in Roman Asia, the geographic space known today as Turkey.

This regional celebrity has developed his shtick well:  he goes from town-to-town, with props, wardrobe changes, and a crew of about a half dozen others.  In this sense, the celebrity is borrowing a well-developed trope within the mystery schools.  Dramatic depictions were common in the mysteries.

His most notable compatriot is a near-equal woman who simultaneously identifies as the archetypal mother and wife.

The dear leader makes curious claims, such as remembering previous lives and experiences in higher realms (Against Heresies i.25.1, i.25.4, Galatians 4:19).  He claims to have been born under odd circumstances (a miscarriage – 1 Corinthians 15:7-8), claims to possess a special spirit (1 Corinthians 2:12) which gives him amplified power of proselytization.  He usually brings a several-hundred word letter addressed to members of the community.  At some point during his stay, with his band of co-conspirators (and some local community involvement), he enacts a dramatic depiction which culminates in the crucifixion of one of the featured players – not the leader, though.


There is a feature in the play that did not translate to canonical paper.  To the audience members, the feature could not be clearer.

A little past the midpoint of the play (Mark 9:35-40), one of Jesus’s apostles comes to him and complains that an unnamed person was casting out demons!  New proselytes watching the play wonder “how could that be?”  Some minutes earlier, the play’s narration made it clear that it was only through Jesus Christ’s authority that his apostles could cast out demons (Mark 3:14-15).

Despite the snitching apostle not giving specifics about him, senior members in the audience immediately recognize this unrevealed, unnamed demon-caster.  The new initiates soon will too.

The characters in (and absent from) the scene, coupled with the audience’s intuition, eventually makes it clear who this unnamed ally is.  For added effect, Jesus assures his worried apostle that this anomalous wizard is on the straight-and-narrow (Mark 9:40).

The Gospel text eventually gives the name and face of the Jesus-sanctioned magician, but the obviousness of this revelation in the play is lost when translated to text (which lacks relevant stage directions).

The real star of the show, Simon (who went by at least one other name), had arrived in town with pomp and circumstance.  He is bombastic, educated in Alexandrian traditions.  He is a populist, but he operates with Aristocratic certainty – well funded, but pretends he is not.  After being conspicuously absent throughout the major dramatic movements, he shows up just in time to let the audience know that he is the new sheriff in town — the recipient of the Christ Spirit before Jesus was crucified (Mark 15:34).  He is front-and-center in the most important scene in the play.  The metaphor he conveys to audience members rings clear as a bell:  Simon bears Jesus Christ’s cross! (Galatians 6:14, Mark 15:21)

The metaphor means different things to different audience members.  To the newly (or soon-to-be) baptized proselytes, Simon’s role as the heroic cross-bearer, plucked from his otherwise unassuming role planting seeds in the field, demonstrates how Simon received the Spirit emanating from the higher heaven while aiding the dying Jesus against his Roman oppressors.  More senior initiates recognize the field as the “New Jerusalem” (2 Esdras 10), where marginalized Diaspora Jews could make pilgrimages in the absence of a safe and unadulterated Original Jerusalem.

For those deeply initiated in the mystery, Simon’s role is more robust, because they recognize the dramatic invocation of several features of the mystery:

  1.  The reference to historical events decades earlier makes it clear that these “heads of the church (ekklesia)” who put on the drama were acting as their previous incarnations on earth.  How else could someone operating in the late 1st or early 2nd century be so keenly aware of events occurring in the early 1st century?  Simon’s soul had migrated from one body to another (andanother) so he could bring this community the Good News.
  2. Alternatively, for full initiates, these events did not even occur on Earth; rather, they were in the realm above, a well-developed trope in the Jewish Diaspora, and certainly something early Christians would have been aware of.  Simon’s play demonstrates his perfect memory of the events in this realm.

Simon’s chief compatriot is a woman named Helen.  She claims she is from Tyre (Mark 7:24-30, Against Heresies i.23), and in the play begs Jesus to exorcise demons from her daughter.  Jesus is reluctant, but how can he deny the desperate pleas of such a grief-stricken woman?  She goes by the name Mary Magdalene in other scenes.  Like the character she plays, her real life persona has her former profession as a prostitute.  Like Simon, Helen had lived multiple lives, including that of Helen of Troy.  She is the female incarnation of the Paraclete.

Simon was not always the only leader.  There were dozens of leaders who employed Simon’s format.  For a time, there was a tense symbiosis which existed between he and other leaders (1 Corinthians 3:3-6, Galatians 1:8, 2 Corinthians 11:4).  Those leaders went by various names, including Cephas, Apollos, Cerinthus, Theudas, Dositheus, Menander, and John.  John’s claim to fame was dogmatic reliance on water tricks and magic associated with baptism.  After John died, Theudas (AKA Theodosius, Dositheus) took up his mandate.  For a time after John’s death, tensions were high between Simon and Dositheus; some even claimed Simon killed Dositheus, a claim which would help to mar Simon’s name forever (Recognitions xi).

Simon conveyed his esteem (or lack thereof) for others in the community via his treatment in the production.  John was treated well (Mark 1:4).  Cephas, not so much (Mark 8:33).

Simon’s time as leader of the church was nearing its end.  His abrasive bombast, coupled with a staunch resistance to recognize any of the other leaders as his peers (Galatians 2:6), made him wildly unpopular with others in power.

This tense symbiosis, which these leaders configured, devolved into treachery (Galatians 2:11).  Competing gospels were constructed which minimized Simon’s backstory and role in “the field” (Matthew 27:32).  Simon’s Gospel was embellished, and the role of the unnamed demon-caster was demoted – Jesus would say he never knew him (Matthew 7:21-23).  Additionally, the central tenet of Simon’s Gospel, which is to say an alternate to Mosaic law, would likewise make Simon the least in the kingdom (Matthew 5:19).

Simon tried and failed to recapture the power which gradually slipped out of his control (Galatians 3:1).  He changed his name and address.  His students tried to restore their teacher’s former glory.  One student even paid the “church” 200,000 sesterces to put his teacher’s theology back in the forefront of the church.  It was too late.  The old tricks did not work anymore.  A new Orthodoxy was on the rise.


Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

7 thoughts on “The Gospel of Mark As A Greek Tragedy”

  1. A problem I see with this, however, is the significance of the Paraclete to the Community of James. Now, before his brother died or disappeared he bestowed authority and leadership to James. (Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of Thomas). While one very well could argue that leaders of other communities (like that of the Zealots or Masada, or the Theraputae or Qumran) claimed to harbour the spirits of past leaders, insofar as the Jamesian Community goes — which I suspect was Qumranian — we have a clear idea who’s spirit he was believed to possess: John’s, or Yeshu ben Stada’s. But ben Stada’s claim as the prophet announced in Deuteronomy circumvents the need to extend the chain of incarceration anymore.

    Another possible thread to look at is James being seen as the risen Lord, due to the similarities between John and himself. Much like how in The Prestige, when Christian Bale’s character reveals himself to Hugh Jackman to seemingly be resurrected from the dead, only for it to be revealed to the audience that it was his twin brother. This also feeds into the Judas character, and Dydimus Judas Thomas, who conspicuously has Twin in two different languages as his name. This makes the figure to look at as the Paraclete the priest who is given the cloth from Jesus in Gospel of the Hebrews.

    Both Simon Magus and Simon of Cyrene are themselves fictional constructs patently designed to denigrate Paul/Marcion/Peregrinus, and then later Yeshu ben Stada.

    After James’s own death, there would definitely be a void to be filled in the Community. And who should happen by at this time? and was elected and honoured as a teacher, a prophet and a god? Peregrinus.

    Now another possibility is that John and James were the brothers who followed Lukuas Andreas, Julian and Pappus, and that Peregrinus took on his identity when he was either killed or disappeared to escape capture, as a sort of Prince and the Pauper tale.

    But insofar as I can see, Cerinthus, Menander or Dositheos claimed to possess the spirit of John/Ishu. Nor do I see Mark as a mystery play script. Galatians maybe referring to either the eclipse of 118ad, viewable from Galatia, and which revealed Christ and the Law being handed over to the cross of Cygnus, or to Lukuas’s possible crucifixion, which Peregrinus saw in the eclipse, as well as the two brothers, who were all assumed up to Heaven.


    1. Will respond in (at least) 2 comments. In terms of James, he is a problem using Acts’ formulation of him. I’m not convinced this is the proper or complete way to frame him, especially considering the Naassenes, who were Gnostic, yet revered Mariamne, who they called a disciple of James. In my mind, this helps to explain the Nazarene advent and integration of the virgin birth (although admittedly, it might explain nothing at all). But it is curious we have Mariamne as the topmost disciple in this Jamesian group, because it is not entirely expected that they would have such reverence for a woman…unless we assume the Naassenes were using a similar formula as Simon Magus (with Helen), Apelles (with Philumene), and Marcus the magician (with “the Asian deacon’s wife” – lol).


    2. RE: Mark as a tragedy. This is actually a theme in modern scholarship that is catching a bit of attention, originating with Bilezikian in the 50s, but others had also noted it – notably, Ernest Burch in 1931 (Tragic Action in the Second Gospel). Another notable one was Jerry Stone’s “The Gospel of Mark and Oedipus the King” (1984).

      There is a fantastic doctoral dissertation I stumbled up when reading up on this – “Of Conflict and Concealment: The Gospel of Mark As Tragedy” by A.Z. Wright


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