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:
- 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.
- 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’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.