Is The Gospel of Mark Gnostic? (Part 2)

In my previous post about detectable Gnosticism in and around the Gospel of Mark, I discussed one of Mark’s presumed earliest consumers, Basilides.  The key feature of Basilides, and so many others, is that they omitted the virgin birth in their theology, believing instead that a transient spirit descended onto Jesus at the time of his baptism – a feature still extant in Mark’s Gospel.

This transient spirit hopped to Simon of Cyrene, the unknown stranger plucked from the field by Roman soldiers, and who was, in my opinion, foreshadowed as the Jesus’s last disciple and unnamed demon caster in Mark 9:35-40.

An intriguing question emerges in the Basilidean worldview:  what makes Simon of Cyrene so special?  Why is he placed specifically at the end of the story and given such a revered and sacred responsibility?

One speculation is that the Gospel story was simply a parable which described how the sacred Spirit, emanated from Elxai’s 96 mile tall sky angels, made its way into the human body.

Another speculation, and one which I prefer, is that Simon of Cyrene was a stand-in for the real inspiration behind the Gospel theology, Paul.   Paul was referred to as Simon by his theological adversaries, the Ebionites (Ir AH i.26.2).  Like Simon, Paul boasted of bearing Jesus Christ’s cross (Gal 6:14).

Like the Spirit, names seem to have been transient in Christianity.  A propensity for pseudonyms in early Christianity is confirmed in Lucian’s Passing of Peregrinus – in it Lucian says “I have heard that he no longer deigns to be called Proteus but has changed his name to Phoenix”.  Lucian also quips “He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god…”.  Compare this polemic in Lucian to a similar sect Irenaeus of Lyon referred to as the Carpocratians: “…some of them declare themselves similar to Jesus; while others, still more mighty”.  The Carpocratians also believed “[Jesus Christ] perfectly remembered those things which he had witnessed within the sphere of the unbegotten God”.

Consider my parallelomanic assembly:  The Christ bounced from person to person, and this Spirit went to Simon of Cyrene.  Suppose this Gospel activity occurred in “the realm of the unbegotten God”.  I have made the case Simon of Cyrene was a cipher for Paul.  Paul claimed to remember details which would only have made sense if he had perfect memory of his pre-birth (1 Corin 15:8, Gal 4:19); what we have in Paul is a Christ (messianic/Paraclete) claimant, similar to Simon Magus.  In this context, assuming the Basilideans played a role in Mark’s construction, then Jesus Christ is simply a cipher for Paul.

Consider another tact to investigate the Gospel’s Gnosticism:  let’s put Mark’s discrepancies from Matthew and Luke in the spotlight.  It is most reasonable to presume the contents of Mark preceded Matthew and Luke for a number of reasons, notably because it rarely contains content not contained in Matthew or Luke.  When there are small deviations between Mark and the other two Synoptics, it is usually Matthew or Luke correcting awkward language or technical errors, such as geographic or cultural goofs.

There are only a few passages in Mark not present in either Matthew or Luke.  In my theory, these passages ought to have Gnostic, or Gnostic-parallel elements in them.  Indeed, I think they do.

The Parable of the Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29)
“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

These agricultural tropes were common in Christian literature.  When one allows for the fact that Simon of Cyrene was plucked from the field, rather than the more commonly translated “country”, this feeds into the Basilidean view.  Simon of Cyrene was presumably not expecting to be forced to carry Jesus Christ’s cross.  Likewise, if one believes Simon is foreshadowed in Mark 9:35-40, the reader is left to wonder how Simon got the power to cast out demons if Jesus never granted such authority.  This question is not answered in the text, as far as I can tell.  But this notion of planting seeds in the field is likely a reference to the field in which the New Jerusalem will emerge (2 Esdras 10:3, 2 Esdras 10:27).  This notion of the New Jerusalem is also found in Revelation 21:2  – where the city emerges “as a bride adorned for her husband” – Revelation shares a common feature with 2 Esdras: the woman is the city.   In other words, the woman will mark the rebirth of Jerusalem.

This concern for a New Jerusalem is prominent with the Montanists, who were located in central Turkey, near Galatia.  The Montanists (and presumably generations before them), settled into central Turkey to make it the New Jerusalem.  They were planting seeds in the New Jerusalem.

The Healing of the Deaf Mute (Mark 7:31-37)

Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue.  He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. 

This might be a reference to the tradition of Paul becoming temporarily blind, which also seems to be inverted in Acts 13:11, when Paul tells bar Jesus “And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun”.  Of course, one reason Matthew’s community might have disliked this story is because Jesus is seemingly performing a parochial magic act, something Jewish communities would have grimaced at.  But if this tradition of Jesus as a magician was the original one, then that could mean the Simon Magus traditions perhaps were also original.

The Healing of the Blind Man (Mark 8:22-26)

Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?”  And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

Once again, we see an aspect of Jesus’s magic unique to Mark.  And once again, this calls into question Paul’s blindness on the Damascus Road.  It was sky-Jesus who catalyzed Paul’s blindness.  It was also the sky Christ’s collaboration with eye-scale-removing do gooder, Ananus to return Paul’s sight; in Mark, Jesus performed a similar act more than once.  Again, Acts seems, in my opinion, to be a sophisticated inversion of the earlier tradition.

The Naked Fugitive (Mark 14:51-52)

A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

There are many interpretations of this text, but to me, this appears to be a metaphor with relation to the Christ Spirit, which inhabits the Paraclete’s body.  The surviving Islamic tradition, that Jesus tricked the Romans, conveys a similar sentiment.  They caught the linen-clothed boy, but he ran off, leaving the cloth with them.  If the point of the Gospel was to prepare the reader (audience) for the Spirit hopping, a scene like this would have served to butter the audience up for the main event.

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Author: Tim...Stepping Out

Tim Stepping Out

15 thoughts on “Is The Gospel of Mark Gnostic? (Part 2)”

  1. There is a life rule I subscribe to: think incompetence nine times before malice. In a somewhat modified form, this fits situations like this. I suggest that a number of “stories” were placed in circulation that actually mock the beliefs of the people involved. Consider the Book of Job (God making a wager? Doesn’t he already know everything? etc.); it may well have been written as a critical diatribe and then gotten mistaken for a piece of sacred scripture.

    Of course, the people who believed that the holy spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove(?) lost the Jesus Wars, but that doesn’t mean that people who had such beliefs wouldn’t slip a phrase or chapter or two into an already extant “book” supporting their particular beliefs. And then incompetent clergy, of which there was no short supply, and fervent believers who were even less competent to understand the nuances, took over from there. Leaving us with scriptures with little land mines still buried within them.

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    1. There definitely is evidence of back-and-forth polemics in the NT. The mind blower for me is that, when I read the Gospel of Mark, in its entirety, through this Basilidean lens, the whole thing starts to make a lot more sense…same with Matthew and the Ebionites and Nazarenes. This suggests to me that the so-called heretics of the 1st-3rd centuries might have actually written the *bulk* of the extant texts (allowing for redaction and interpolation)

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    1. No. Not directly. I think the Mark community was reverent to Simon. The question of whether Simon was Paul – I don’t think that could ever be answered well, but I think there was a leader named Simon who was in Antioch and who hung around with Barnabus, just like what is proposed in Acts 11. And I think this community practiced all sorts of magic within the context of a mystery religion, and the deeper initiated you were, the more robust the magic/alchemy. The traditions are so obfuscated, it’s difficult to tease out the truth, but I do think it’s reasonable that Paul=Simon Magus=Simon of Cyrene.

      To advance that notion more, in terms of how this relates to the remembered traditions, I think John the Baptist, Theudas, and Dositheus (I don’t rule out that these 3 names were less than 3 individual people) were part of a core, and that after one of them died, Simon attempted some sort of coup, just like what is proposed by the pseudo-Clementines. It was from this community that Marcion and Valentinus emerged, each with their own take on the role of magic in the community. There was probably some interplay with the Naassene community, who was likewise Gnostic, but had reverence for James – probably that 1st century Jerusalem native who was killed by Ananus ben Ananus in the mid-1st century.

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  2. BTW, doing some research the other day I started to follow the language. You probably already know this, but at the tomb (in the original ending) the author of Mark, simply says a young man was there, and says: “He has risen.” That’s in English, but that word (the verb) in the original Koine Greek is ἠγέρθη (ēgerthē): meaning, Get up, Awake, Stand.

    The Koine Greek work for resurrection (as in, of the dead) is anástasi

    That word is not used in the original Mark text referring to Jesus. It is, however, used in Mark in two earlier passages (Mark 12:18, Mark 12:23), but talking about other things.

    Anástasi is used in regards to Jesus in Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Corinthians, Hebrews, 2Timothy, and Revelations.

    So, the author of the oldest version of the story, Mark, certainly knew the word, but didn’t use it in the passage at the tomb, choosing instead the past tense of the verb for getting up/standing (like from bed in the morning): ēgerthē.

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  3. Another reason why Mark is Gnostic based on my speculation:
    Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

    The Greek word for carpenter is “tekton” which means carpenter, craftsman, metalworker. artisan, poet as per Strong’s G5045. It’s odd that only in Mark’s gospel Jesus was described as a carpenter but not in the rest of the synoptics. However, In Plato’s Politicus (259e), he describe that the creator or Grand architect of the universe is a “builder” and he used the same Greek word “tekton”. In 1 Corinthians 3:10, Paul called himself a wise masterbuilder or “σοφὸς ἀρχιτέκτων/sophos architekton”. Since the Gnostic Christians especially Valentinians I think are big consumers of Plato, the proto-Mark might have viewed the demiurge or even the docetic Jesus the same way with Plato and included it in their gospel which predates the canonical Mark by decades.

    Also, I’m probably alone in this but it looks to me that the Johannine prologue (Jn 1:1-18)is originally a Gnostic version of creation where the divine pleroma, the demiurge, and Jesus are present. But then some Gnostics are antagonistic towards material possessions as well as the entire material world (ascetics) just like the Therapeutae described by Philo in his work “On the Contemplative Life (III, 21)” so some Gnostic sects may have a different view on the creation story,

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    1. Great insights on the link between Paul’s “masterbuilder”, Mark, and Plato’s Demiurge

      I think the Demiurge was a really contentious and complicated notion in early Christianity. For instance, the notion of a malevolent Demiurge is perfectly reasonable for some Gnostics, and outrageous to others. This seems to me to be the crux of all the debates in early Christianity. In terms of the question of whether Paul had the same Demiurge as Mark or Valentinus, it’s hard to say…I think clearly Mark differentiates (even in extant text) the Demiurge from the most high.

      I don’t think you’re alone in seeing John’s prologue as Gnostic. I think it was Bultman who proposed it was originally written in reverence of John the Baptist.

      I think there are lots of different takes on the creation story. Some versions have the Serpent=Logos, where some have Serpent=Sophia. Some say the tree of wisdom was the source of Gnosis, where others retained the tree of life. What I find interesting here is that there seem to be a lot of parallels between the Gnostic view of the archons in Eden and the Caananite Gods (of course there would be…), but I wonder if early Christians were a layer or two closer to those more original theologies than “mainstream” Judaism at the time (and that’s sort of the premise of my whole position).

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      1. I read somewhere that even before the earliest reference to Gnostic Christians has appeared, many diasporic Jews are incorporating Greek philosophies into their own which led to Jewish Gnostics.

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