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How No One Understands Jesus in Mark’s Gospel

In yesterday’s post I began to address the question: What is the Messianic Secret?  This is a term that scholars have applied for over a century to the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus repeatedly tells anyone who suspects his identity not to reveal it.  Why?   To make sense of this “Secret” of Jesus, it is important for us to have a fuller understanding of Mark’s portrayal of Jesus.

One of Mark’s major themes, quite apart from how one explains the apparent “secret” of Jesus’ messiahship, is that no one in Mark’s Gospel (remember, I’m speaking ONLY of Mark now; not the other Gospels) seems to understand who Jesus is.  Here is how I explain that in my discussion of Mark in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.


One way to establish misunderstanding as a Markan theme is to read carefully through the first half of the Gospel and ask, Who realizes that Jesus is the Son of God? The answer may come as a bit of a surprise. Clearly God knows that Jesus is his Son, because he himself declares it at the baptism (1:11). And since this declaration comes directly to Jesus (“You are my beloved Son”), the reader can assume that he knows it as well. In addition, the evil demons recognize Jesus as the Son of God; on several instances they scream it out when they encounter him (3:11; cf. 1:24). Who else knows? Only two other persons: the author of the Gospel, who recounts these various tales, and you, the one who reads them.

Throughout the first half of this Gospel, no one else …

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Throughout the first half of this Gospel, no one else recognizes Jesus’ identity, including even those who are closest to him. Early on, when he comes back to his hometown, his family tries to snatch him from the public eye because they think that he has gone crazy (3:21). Jesus’ own townspeople neither understand nor trust him. When he teaches in their synagogue, they take offense at his words and wonder how he has the ability to do such miraculous deeds, since he is a mere carpenter whose (unremarkable) family they know (6:1–6). The Jewish scholars think they know the source of his power. Refusing to acknowledge the divine authority behind Jesus’ words and deeds—how could one so profane come from God (2:7)?—they claim that he is possessed by Beelzebul, the prince of the demons, and so does miracles through the power of the Devil (3:22).

Perhaps most striking of all, Jesus’ own disciples fail to understand who he is, even though he has specially chosen them to follow him (3:13–19) and given them private instruction (e.g., 4:10–20). When they watch him calm a violent storm at sea with a word, their question is genuine: “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (4:41). When they later behold Jesus walking upon the water, they continue to be mystified: “For they did not understand . . . but their hearts were hardened” (6:51–52). When, later still, Jesus warns them “to beware of the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees” (8:15), they mistake his meaning, thinking he is angry because they have forgotten to bring bread, even though they had seen him miraculously feed thousands of hungry people on two different occasions. Now Jesus expresses his own exasperation: “Do you not yet understand?” (8:21). No, they do not. But they will begin to have an inkling, right here at the midpoint of the Gospel.

One of the keys to understanding Mark’s portrayal of Jesus lies in the sequence of stories that begins immediately after Jesus’ exasperated question of 8:21. The sequence begins with perhaps the most significant healing story of the Gospel, an account that Mark appears to have invested with special symbolic meaning. This is a story of a blind man who gradually regains his sight (8:22–26).

It is striking that the healing takes place in stages. Indeed, it is the only miracle in the Gospel that Jesus does not perform immediately and effortlessly. When he is asked to heal the blind man, he takes him by the hand, leads him out of the village, spits on his eyes, and asks if he can see. The man replies that he can, but only vaguely: people appear like walking trees. Jesus then lays his hands upon his eyes and looks intently at him, and the man begins to see clearly.

A perceptive reader will recognize the symbolism of the account in light of its immediate context. In the very next story, the disciples themselves, who until now have been blind to Jesus’ identity (cf. 8:21), gradually begin to see who he is, in stages. It starts with a question from Jesus: “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27). The disciples reply that some think he is John the Baptist, others Elijah, and yet others a prophet raised from the dead. He then turns the question on them: “But who do you say that I am?” (8:29). Peter, as spokesperson for the group, replies, “You are the Christ.”

This is a climactic moment in the narrative. Up to this point, Jesus has been misunderstood by everyone—by family, neighbors, religious leaders, and followers—and now, halfway through the account, someone finally realizes who he is, at least in part. (The reader knows that Peter’s confession is correct to some extent, since for Mark Jesus is the messiah: recall how he identifies him in the very first verse of the Gospel as “Jesus the Christ.”) Rather than rejecting or repudiating Peter’s confession, Jesus orders the disciples not to spread the word: “And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (8:30).

Still, Peter’s identification of Jesus as the messiah is correct only in part. That is to say, Peter has begun to see who Jesus is, but still perceives him only dimly. The reader knows this because of what happens next. Jesus begins to teach that he “must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise from the dead” (8:31). Jesus is the messiah, but he is the messiah who has to suffer and die. And this makes no sense to Peter. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him.

But why would Peter reject Jesus’ message of his approaching “Passion” (a term that comes from the Greek word for “suffering”)? Evidently he understands the role of the messiah quite differently from the way Jesus (and Mark) does. The author never delineates Peter’s view for us, but perhaps it is not so difficult to figure out. If Peter uses the term “messiah” in the way most other first-century Jews did, then he understands Jesus to be the future deliverer of Israel, a man of grandeur and power who will usher in God’s kingdom in a mighty way (whether as a warrior-king or as a cosmic judge of the earth). But for Mark, this is only a partial truth, a dim perception of who Jesus is. For him, Jesus is the messiah who must suffer and die to bring about salvation for the world.

Peter’s failure to perceive this truth forces Jesus to turn the rebuke back on him: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). The idea that the messiah had to suffer may have appeared totally anomalous to most Jews of the first century, including Jesus’ own disciples, but in Mark’s view, to understand Jesus in any other way is to succumb to the temptations of the Devil. Thus Peter has begun to see, but not yet clearly; he is like a blind man who has partially recovered his sight. Perhaps this is better than being totally blind, but in another sense it is worse, because partial perception can lead to misperception: people seem to be trees and Jesus appears to be the messiah of popular expectation. For Mark, however, Jesus is the suffering Son of God.

Mark’s Central Focus on Jesus’ Death
How Do We Explain the Messianic Secret?



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 4, 2019

    It might have helped if he hadn’t spoken in parables so that no one could understand him (Mark 4:10-12). I mean, why would he want people to understand the Good News?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      I think you mean why *wouldn’t* he. Yup, it’s all part of his messianic secret in Mark. Really interesting! I’ll get to it.

  2. Avatar
    Nichrob  February 4, 2019

    What are your thoughts on the author’s final words of Chrst: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      The author is trying to show that Jesus fulfilled Scripture (he is quoting Psalm 22:1). For Mark, Jesus appears to mean the words literally. Even at the end Jesus doesn’t quite understand. But the reader does!

      • Avatar
        godspell  February 6, 2019

        Or maybe Jesus himself was quoting the Psalm, and Mark is just reporting it?

        I know you don’t think anybody could have heard what he said, and that it would have been hard for him to say anything, but I suspect there were female followers of his nearby, trying to give him what comfort they could. Nobody in authority would have cared if they’d come close enough to hear him, or paid them any mind.

        People have undergone crucifixion in modern times for devotional purposes (hey, it’s no worse than the Plains Indian sundance), and have been able to speak–in the Philippines, they get good-sized platforms to stand on, so it’s really about undergoing the nails in the palms–but there would have been moments when Jesus could prop himself up for a time, relieve the pressure, and he would have wanted to speak–to pray. Joan of Arc cried out when she was burned, and her words were preserved. With additions, no doubt. We don’t doubt for the sake of doubting.

        Mark doesn’t talk a lot about scriptural prophecies (though I agree that when he does refrence the Old Testament, he does so more obliquely than the other gospel writers). Anyway a Psalm isn’t a prophecy, it’s a poem. That Jesus would probably have been well familiar with.

        I don’t really have an explanation either–not everything can be explained, we must at times admit. But Jesus would have been in despair, as well as enormous pain, and fear, and doubt. That isn’t hard to understand.

        It could be Mark putting words in his mouth, and it’s good to recognize the literary devices he’s employing–but if there wasn’t some memory of Jesus having said something like this, would the gospel have been accepted? Would Mark have dared to suggest the Messiah was capable of this degree of doubt? No other gospel does.

        Is it possible that the two later synoptics were not merely following in Mark’s footsteps, but also trying to some extent to erase some of the more troubling aspects of his account?

        Mark’s gospel is by far the most troubling. It’s also the only gospel that makes me cry. Sometimes.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  February 4, 2019

    It’s somewhat ironic that Mark writes about a Jesus who no one understands, and it’s taken us a very long time to begin to understand Mark.

    Question (that I assume can’t be definitively answered)–when Paul talks about how first we see through a glass darkly, then face to face–obviously he never read Mark, may never have heard any of the stories you refer to above.

    Could Mark have been referring indirectly to Paul? Influenced by that most powerful of the Pauline epistles? Could this concept of how we come to see Jesus clearly by degrees have been widespread in early Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      It’s possible. A good bit of their theologies overlap, especially the saving significance of Jesus’ death.

    • Robert
      Robert  February 5, 2019

      In the same Corinthian correspondence, Paul also has a (less developed) sense of a messianic secret which (unlike the glass darkly passage) relates directly to Jesus crucifixion:

      “Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” God has revealed these to us by the Spirit.” 1 Cor 2,7-10 NET

  4. Avatar
    NTDeist  February 4, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, do you see any parallels in the Gospel of Mark with the Greek story of Odysseus such as when Odysseus came home from his journey and was not recognized by his family and servants? It seems the author of Mark uses some Greek literary styles and symbolism in the Gospel. For example, I always interpreted the naked man running away at Jesus’ arrest as Greek symbolism for telling Jesus’s soon to be death – the man losing his clothes representing the body dying and the naked man the soul leaving the dead body. What are your thoughts on that?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      There are some distant parallels in overall theme, but the theme is found in lots and lots of ancient writings. I don’t see anything to suggest that Mark was *particularly* influenced by Homer. In this I disagree with the theses of my friend Dennis MacDonald who has written extensively on the matter.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  February 5, 2019

        One of Prof MacDonald’s contentions is that Homer would have been the subject of study for a writer of Greek But of course the NT writers are composing in Koine not Epic Greek. Do we know of versions of Homer in Koine? Do you think the writer of Mark had ever even heard of Homer?


        • Bart
          Bart  February 7, 2019

          No, I don’t believe he was ever plut into Koine. I don’t know if Mark ahd heard of Homer or not. Depends on what his educational background was. I suppose he must have? Or at least knew the stories? Don’t really know…

  5. Avatar
    Lopaka  February 4, 2019

    Odd question about memory if you don’t mind, since in watching your debates you seem to have a very strong recall of verses and such…
    I’m a pianist and often memorize long pieces and in my mind I’m often fuzzily conscious when I’m playing a piece I’ve memorized of WHERE on the page the notes I’m playing were. Is there something similar going on with you? Are you sort of picturing that the verse whatever Mark 4:1 is near the top of a page?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      I think it’s different because I have not learned all these verses from one particular edition of the Bible, but have read them in many many versions, and don’t locate them anywhere on a physical page (if that’s what you’re asking)

  6. Avatar
    nichael  February 4, 2019

    So, it is reasonable to assume that the actual reason that Mark needed to invent The Messianic Secret for his Gospel was that:

    1] on the one hand, the Historical Jesus never actually believed, much less taught, that he was the Messiah (and, in particular, it would have been common knowledge that he never made any such claim)

    2] but, on the other hand, Mark –and the (later) Christian Community for which he was writing– understood that Jesus _was_ the Messiah (something his closest disciples surely would have known)

    3] therefore, it _must_ have been the case that Jesus, for whatever reason, wanted to keep it a secret (and, for example, he probably revealed his true identity to his inner circle but ordered them not to tell anyone else).

    So Mark (or his sources) wove these stories into his Gospel in order to resolve this conflict?

    (In a way this seems analogous to the legends of the Oral Torah having been given to Moses at Sinai, but that it was subsequently passed down in secret through the follow centuries. This would then explains why its true nature –i.e. its divine origin– remained “hidden” until it was revealed in the Mishnah.)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      That’s the original view of W. Wrede who first came up with the idea and identified the “Messianic Secret.”

  7. Avatar
    Apocryphile  February 4, 2019

    Do you think it’s possible that this ‘messianic secret’ isn’t totally just a literary device invented by Mark? It does make sense, esp. as it isn’t in any other gospel, but if Jesus did indeed think he was the Messiah (I know this isn’t your view), it makes a good deal of sense for him not to want this knowledge spread around. He certainly was well aware of the fates of other self-proclaimed Jewish kings or messiahs, or even other ‘holy men’ who started to gather a sizable following (e.g. John the Baptist).

    As I said, you lay out a convincing argument for all this being a literary device by Mark, but it almost seems to me to be ‘too clever by half’, and almost as if he were still trying to convince his own Christian community that Jesus was the Messiah.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      Yes, I think it is some kind of literary device. More on that anon!

  8. Avatar
    Maciej Owczarzak  February 4, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I have read “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings”, is it worth reading Dale B. Martins “New Testament History and Literature” ? Since he is Your friend, i assume you’ve read the book, do you hold the same views? It would be great if you could write a post someday in which you recommand some worthy books about early christianity.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      Our views are very similar, but yes, it’s absolutely worth reading. It goes along with his free on-line Yale course on the NT.

  9. Avatar
    balivi  February 4, 2019

    Interesting, however, that after Peter uses the term “messiah”, Jesus forbids Peter to speak of his faith, and he start talking about the “son of man”. Then when Peter began to rebuke him, that is, Peter continues to insist on his faith, Jesus calls him the Satan.
    It seems to me, that Jesus wants to draw Peter’s attention to, that he (Jesus) is not the Christ whom Peter is waiting for, or whom Peter believes.

    • Avatar
      balivi  February 4, 2019

      IF Peter uses the term “messiah” in the way most other first-century Jews did, IF Peter really does. But the most other first-century Jews, who understands Christ to be the future deliverer of Israel, a man of grandeur and power who will usher in God’s kingdom in a mighty way, are literate. But Peter, however, was not literate. Peter was a disciple.
      This whole story, it is placed in the context of blindness and vision. Jesus / Mark wanted to teach something. Jesus / Mark wanted to teach something through the person of Peter, about the faith.
      When Jesus Heals the Blind, then he does not expect the faith. When Jesus Heals the Blind, then he does not wait for the Christ- faith. It doesn’t heal the blind to see Jesus like the warrior king, as the literates like see the Christ, but because, to see a “son of man”.
      Peter hasn’t learned this yet.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019


      • Avatar
        balivi  February 5, 2019

        Dear Prof!
        I’m going a little further if possible. I think Mark’s not talking here, that Jesus (whom they see) is other type Christ. Not another type Christ, but also NOT the Christ.
        This is what I think, because I think Mark is a Paul analogy. Relatively primitive, but is a Paul analogy, where the death of Jesus (the Son of God), that reveals the Christ. It is forbidden to believe until the death of Jesus (like Son of God), that Jesus is the Christ.
        I think this may be the background of the story.

        • Avatar
          balivi  February 11, 2019

          Anyway interesting, that before Judas betray Jesus, what’s happening:

          “She poured perfume on my body (soma;σῶμά) beforehand to prepare for my burial.” (Mark14:8)

          well then let’s look at… The word “soma” in written form first appeared in Homer’s work. In Homer’s terminology the word “soma” means the human deadbody or animal deadbody; In the most famous Greek stage authors (for example, Pindaras and Euripids) dramas, soma as an interpretation of the body without life functions.

          Many scientists say, Judas sin were, to betray the messianic secret. What was this secret?

          • Avatar
            balivi  February 11, 2019

            According to the Apostle Paul, the life of Jesus (like son of god), must be manifested in our bodies. (soma, 2Kor. 4, 10)
            At the same time, Paul also tells, he wants to be likeness the death of Jesus (Fil3:10). Does that mean, he want to die on the cross? I don’t think so. Paul wants to get in that death, in which the son of God, by God, on that night, when God gave his son into the hands of death (1Cor 11:23).

          • Bart
            Bart  February 12, 2019

            Sorry — I’m not sure what you’re asking.

          • Avatar
            balivi  February 13, 2019

            Imaginable, is it possible, that the Mark 14: 8 refers to the messianic secret? Because after this scene, after that the betrayal happens.
            We could understand here, the word “soma” is “deadbody”?
            Jesus could say: “She poured perfume on my body (soma;σῶμά; deadbody)?
            The coronation, the the anointed , dead happened.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 13, 2019

            Interesting idea. The word soma itself just means body — either living or dead. It doesn’t necessarily mean corpse. But yes, Jesus is imagining that she is anointing a body as good as dead for burial. This woman seems to be the only person in the entire Gospel who understands that Jesus has to die.

          • Avatar
            balivi  February 13, 2019

            Yes, but if we accept (IF), that Mark is a Paul allegory (where God is who gives to hand of the death his son, and not on the cross) , more big question remains:
            What does the woman understand? Jesus has to die, like the Son of God, or Jesus has to die, like the Christ (Jesus was he rejected this, in this the gospel), or Jesus has to die, like the son of man? When the woman is anointing the Jesus’s body, he whom, to whom the body anointing? This was the body of Son of god, or body of the Christ, or body of the son of man?
            Who will die on the cross, if God is who gave his son the hand of death before night??
            Who will be buried??
            Why have to everybody will remember the woman? Because he made the same mistake as Peter, and she thought of Jesus as Christ??
            Poetic issues:-) at all, is it possible that Mark is a Paul allegory?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 15, 2019

            I don’t know what a Paul allegory is.

          • Avatar
            balivi  February 16, 2019

            Which reflects Paul’s teaching. If you let me, some examples:

            1 Cor 11:23-25 – Mark 14: 22-24 This information did not come from flesh and blood, this is Paul’s own teaching, what he received from the Lord, first written by Paul, and not a historical event. So did the Lord give Paul history via revelations? I don’t believe it for one minute.

            2Cor10: 12 – Mark 13:6 Paul’s opponents, whos says to themself: “I am”:-) or “measure themselves by themselves”, or who commend themselves, and compare themselves with themselves. Against them Paul and Mark warns.

            And perhaps most importantly: deep silence is the physical resurrection.

          • Avatar
            balivi  February 16, 2019

            Remember in 1Cor 15, who’s the one they “saw”? Whom also? Not the resurrected Jesus (like Son of God), but also the Christ.
            The difference is between the (historical?) Jesus and Paul’s Christ is: the Christ regardless of historical age and time anyone can “see” him, to this day, who is baptized into the Christ, (see the 1Cor15, where more than 500 people “saw”; here the “SAW” is a revelation, a spiritual moment), while only a few (12?) saw (here the “SAW” means real vision) the historical Jesus.

            At Paul, Christ is not a certain person, but also a revelation, a spiritual moment, a secret, the secret of God.
            That’s why there is a deep silence, for the Jesus physical resurrection.

  10. Robert
    Robert  February 4, 2019

    “For him [Mark], Jesus is the messiah who must suffer and die to bring about salvation for the world.”

    Do you think this summarizes well the central message of Mark’s gospel? Or, is even the entirety of the messianic secrecy motif subservient to this central message?

    I think it is too limited to explain key aspects of his gospel. For example, do you have an explanation for why Mark ends his gospel with the silence and fear of the women at the tomb?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      It remains a secret! The disciples never do learn! An amazing ending.

      • Robert
        Robert  February 5, 2019

        … an explanation for why Mark ends his gospel with the silence and fear of the women at the tomb:

        “It remains a secret! The disciples never do learn! An amazing ending.”

        Do you really believe Mark intended his readers to think that the disciples never learned of the resurrection?

        If you really think that, how could this not be part of an anti-Jewish-Christianity polemic?

        In an earlier discussion:

        “Yes, as you know, since especially Weeden there have been scholars who have argued that the disciples are a foil in the Gospel of Mark. I mnyself think that both the family and disciple issues relate not to Jewish Christianity but to the Markan ignorance motif, that no one, in his life, understood who he was, since he was not the messiah anyone expected.”


        • Bart
          Bart  February 7, 2019

          No, I don’t think Mark is making a historical statement. He is using this as a *literary* device to make readers sit up and say WHAT???

          • Robert
            Robert  February 7, 2019

            “He is using this as a *literary* device to make readers sit up and say WHAT???”

            I agree, but the silence and fear of the woman at the tomb upon hearing of the resurrection and Jesus going before them to Galilee does not really work to reinforce the idea that the disciples never understood the necessity of Jesus’ suffering. They had already, finally understood that and run away, abandoning him, and Peter even denying that he knew him.

            But don’t worry, if and when I ever finish and publish my thesis, all will be made clear!

          • Bart
            Bart  February 8, 2019

            OK, we eagerly await! Till then, I don’t think the disciples ever did see the *necessity* of suffering in Mark. They did see the *reality* of it. And they appear never to have understood.

          • Avatar
            Duke12  February 13, 2019

            So if the Women never tell the disciples or anyone else about the angel and his message, with the result that the Resurrection remains a 100% secret to everyone except Jesus Himself and the angel in question, then how does Mark find out about the encounter between the women and the angel in the empty tomb it so that he can write about it? (just trying to work out the logic and make sure I understand your position)

          • Bart
            Bart  February 15, 2019

            Mark means it as a literary device, not a historical statement. (It’s like if you read a novel and there is a secret no one ever hears, but dies in the mind of the protagonist. Well, then, how did the author of the novel know?)

        • Avatar
          brenmcg  February 7, 2019

          I think Mark tells us in 16:7 that the disciples saw Jesus after he was risen.

          “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

          • Bart
            Bart  February 8, 2019

            No, I’d say that’s precisely what he does not tell us. He tells the women to tell the disciples. And they don’t tell anyone.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  February 9, 2019

            I think it’s an angelic figure making the resurrection announcement and coupled with Jesus saying “I’m going ahead of you into Galilee” at the last supper, if Mark has given the impression the disciples never learn of the resurrection he has also given the impression of Jesus hanging around Galilee waiting for the disciples to show up.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 10, 2019

            Well, if the women never told anyone, then he waited a long time!!

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  February 11, 2019

            Yes, unless the gospel wasn’t originally intended to end at 16:8

          • Bart
            Bart  February 11, 2019

            Yup, that’s the debate. I have a firm opinion about it, but others think there is a page missing at the end. My view is that this is a convenient argument for people who simply can’t *believe* that Mark would end at 16:8! And so they choose *not* to believe it!

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  February 11, 2019

            Yes interesting debate – I guess due to the lack of evidence the most objective view is that it ends at 16:8; though I’d still be in the “cant believe that Mark would end at 16:8” camp!

          • Bart
            Bart  February 12, 2019

            Repent and believe!

          • Avatar
            godspell  February 13, 2019

            Everybody reading Mark believes Jesus appeared to his followers after he was crucified. Everybody with any common sense knows they’d run back to Galilee after Jesus was crucified. It’s foreshadowing. Makes no difference whether the women tell the male disciples or not. They’re going to be in Galilee, and Jesus can appear to them anywhere.

            In Greek tragedy, which Mark might well have been familiar with, we are often told of things that don’t happen onstage–things the audience is well familiar with from earlier versions of the same story. It’s an effective dramatic technique. Often you get a more powerful effect from making your audience imagine some famous event.

            To me, that original ending of Mark (and it is the ending found in the earliest extant copies, like it or not) is more evocative than any of the other gospel endings we have.

            And it’s consistent with Mark’s theme–the women don’t understand either. It would take time, and effort, and revelation, for anyone to understand who Jesus was, and what his life, death, and resurrection really meant.

            But it makes no sense for him to write it that way from copying Luke and Matthew, who don’t share the same theme.

  11. Avatar
    anvikshiki  February 4, 2019

    I’m curious at the moment, just thinking about these messianic secret issues again through your posts, about not exactly sequential but parallel accounts in Mark and Matthew that seem to relate the messianic secret and the notion of the suffering and dying messiah to Jesus’ prediction that the son of man will come. This assumes the theory that some of the early Gospels’ “son of man” apocalyptic predictions are in fact historically attributable to Jesus, and that the early Gospels are trying to explain those sayings in light of their own invented suffering messiah theology. In the Marcan account, after the messianic secret motif is built up, we come to Mark 8:27-33, where Peter finally gets Jesus identity as messiah partly right, but when he learns the messiah is to suffer and die and he wants to prevent it, Jesus rebukes Peter. Then, in Mark 8:38-9:1, Jesus predicts the coming of the son of man and the kingdom of God. In certain episodes in Matthew, Jesus also tells various people to keep his messianic identity a secret, as when he casts out demons and explains why he teaches in parables. Then, after the version of the Peter episode in Matt. 16:13-20, Jesus again predicts the coming of the son of man (Matt. 16:27-28). If the “son of man” predictions of Jesus were in fact historically accurate representations of what Jesus said, it seems that both Mark and Matthew have decided to “explain” the “son of man” predictions of Jesus by having Jesus claim that the messiah must suffer and die before the son of man comes, and that way they can delay Jesus’ own prediction of the immanent coming of the son of man till after his death, and also “wrap” the “son of man” sayings into the unique suffering messiah theology that they have created for Jesus. This kind of “sheltering” of Jesus’ own apocalyptic prophecies under the umbrella of the early Gospels’ own suffering messiah theology helps the early Gospels extend the duration of the apocalypse until after Jesus’ lifetime. I don’t know if this sounds plausible or not, but after reading the two messianic secret posts, the sequencing of Mark’s and Matthew’s secret messiah instructions and coming son of man statements just occurred to me.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      Yes, that’s all plausible I think. One complication is that when Jesus talked about the coming Son of Man, historically, he was apparently referring to someone other than himself, but hte early Christians took them as predictions about his *own* return. So they have BOTH a suffering and a powerful/ruling messiah. It’s the first one they have to explain. They don’t give up on the standard messianic expectation, they significantly alter it (into two stages of his messiahship)

      • Avatar
        anvikshiki  February 5, 2019

        So then, one possible explanation of this development, and of the relation of the “son of man” and “messiah” figures in Jesus’ own sayings and the development of early Christianity might run roughly like this…
        1. Jesus takes himself to be the messiah who will, with his disciples, reign over Israel for a time, but as the messiah, he will pave the way for the coming son of man. But Jesus is executed and neither prediction is realised.
        2. At least some influential early Jesus traditions connect Jesus’ messiahship to his resurrection, and taking Jesus’ resurrection to be the “first fruits” of the immanent general resurrection, retain the expectation that the apocalypse is near at hand, with perhaps either the “son of man” (in preservation of “son of man” sayings in the Q tradition) or Jesus himself as “Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4; 1 Corinthians 15) to preside over the judgment.
        3. Early Gospel writers like Mark and Matthew establish the narrative of the suffering, dying and rising messiah and explain that Jesus’ predictions of the coming son of man could only be fulfilled after the resurrection. In both Gospels, there is a lingering distinction between these two figures, ex. Mark 8:38-9:1; 14:62; Matthew 24-25.
        4. For Luke and following Proto-Orthodox Christians, Jesus is clearly both the “messiah” and the “son of man,” which is how Luke can make sense of the idea that the Kingdom of God is present in Jesus pre-crucifixion and is coming (Luke 18:31-33; 21;27)

  12. Avatar
    Steefen  February 5, 2019

    Are you now embracing the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method to Textual Criticism? With what book did you start using it? Did it make a difference?

    I ran across a book: “A new Approach to Textual Criticism” by Tommy Wasserman

    = = =
    An essential introduction for scholars and students of New Testament Greek

    With the publication of the widely used twenty-eighth edition of Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece and the fifth edition of the United Bible Society Greek New Testament, a computer-assisted method known as the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method (CBGM) was used for the first time to determine the most valuable witnesses and establish the initial text. This book offers the first full-length, student-friendly introduction to this important new method. After setting out the method’s history, separate chapters clarify its key concepts such as genealogical coherence, textual flow diagrams, and the global stemma. Examples from across the New Testament are used to show how the method works in practice. The result is an essential introduction that will be of interest to students, translators, commentators, and anyone else who studies the Greek New Testament.


    A clear explanation of how and why the text of the Greek New Testament is changing
    Step-by-step guidance on how to use the CBGM in textual criticism
    Diagrams, illustrations, and glossary of key terms
    = = =
    An amazon 5-star review by Matthew D says:
    Paul Foster writes, “For anybody who cares about the text of the New Testament, there will be few books published in biblical studies over the next decade that will be more important than this one.”

    To say that this book was intellectually taxing for a semi-layperson such as myself, may be understatement! Lol. It only took the other reviewer two days to read, whereas it took me almost two weeks (and many headaches!) to absorb and to finish. He may have had more exposure to the field than myself. I came to this book having only read Aland’s Text of the NT, Comfort’s Encountering the Manuscripts, Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, Porter’s How We Got the NT and Fundamentals of NT Text Criticism, and a couple chapters of Gordon Fee and Eldon Epp’s Theory and Method of Textual Criticism (TC)…. plus a few others.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      This is a very serious method in textual criticism, and very, very difficult to understand. It arose after I moved from textual criticism to work on other things, so I’ve never used it or described it at any length in my books.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  February 5, 2019

        Is there a story (post) about your move from textual criticism to other things?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 7, 2019

          No, I don’t think so. But maybe I’ll post on it, as it comes up a lot!

  13. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 5, 2019

    I think Mark’s additional information to Matthew in the story of the leaven of the scribes and pharisees indicates Mark’s secondary nature as it contradicts the disciples discussion of what Jesus had meant.

    Matthew 16:5 “When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread.”
    Matthew 16:7 “They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”

    Mark 8:14 “The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat”
    Mark 8:16 “They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 5, 2019

      That passage in Mark always confused me (some obscure exercise in numerology?), and I thank you for bringing it up, since it motivated me to do a little digging around, and thinking about it. You won’t be surprised to hear, comparing the stories in Mark and Matthew, I find once again that you’ve got it backwards, and this demonstrates Mark came first. Mark is not ‘editing’ Matthew, but Matthew is rather ‘correcting’ Mark.

      First of all, what is the point of the story? In Mark, as always, it’s that the disciples don’t understand who Jesus is. They have a loaf of bread. It’s not nearly enough for all of them to share, so in their minds, they have no bread, since they must share everything they have, and they’ll all be just as hungry after they’ve divided it up. Jesus reminds them of two occasions when he’s made a few loaves into many. They’re staring at him blankly. They don’t get it. They’re still thinking like the Pharisees and Herod Antipas. Worshiping rules and power.

      Matthew converts Herod to Sadducees, since his gospel is very focused on how all the Jewish religious authorities are evil, but in Mark, the point is that faith is what matters, and through faith, one loaf can become many (and this would be true even if Jesus wasn’t there). God will always provide for those who believe.

      Matthew, like the disciples (and me) doesn’t get the point, so he changes the story to a form more satisfactory to him–it’s almost a commentary on the original, but I think an obtuse one. He’s bothered by them saying there’s no bread when they have one loaf that was already in the boat.

      He’s bothered by Jesus not giving them an outright explanation (Matthew is big on the explaining), so he provides one, and it’s about rejecting the Jewish religious authorities, not about faith. He doesn’t believe the disciples could have spent all this time with Jesus, and seen all these miracles, without having a much better idea of who Jesus is, and that’s probably a fair point, but it’s so damn literal. Mark isn’t trying to be literal. He’s looking for the deeper significance of the stories he’s heard of Jesus. He’s going beneath the surface of things.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  February 7, 2019

        The question is does the extra information in Mark “except for one loaf they had with them in the boat” have significance to the story or not. If Jesus took the one loaf and turned it in to many, or something similar, then it would have significance. But as it is the “one loaf” plays no part in the rest of story.

        Had Mark intended the story to be about the “one loaf” why did he write “the disciples had forgotten to bring bread”, why did he have the disciples say “we have no bread”, why didnt Jesus hold up the one loaf and say this can become many. These kind of questions don’t come up in Matthew’s account because Matthew is the original writer. It’s Marks additions that cause the problems.

        The additional information “except for one loaf they had with them in the boat” can be removed from Mark 8 with absolutely no loss of meaning for the rest of the story. That’s how you know its secondary.

        There is the account found in Matthew 16 and there is the additional information in Mark 8. The two can be separated for each other; one has been inserted into the other; they are the product of two different minds.

        • Avatar
          godspell  February 10, 2019

          In Mark’s story, there was a loaf of bread stored on the boat for its normal use in fishing, which would involve fewer people, thus requiring less bread. They forgot to bring MORE bread, for the larger number of people using the boat as a means of transport. The obvious parallel being drawn here is between the events where Jesus spoke, and too many people showed up to hear him, and there was only a small amount of bread–which Jesus miraculously multiplied through faith. Jesus is just reminding the disciples that they’ve seen worse situations than this, and God provided. It’s Mark’s theme–the disciples keep failing to understand. It’s totally consistent with the narrative as a whole. But if there was no bread to multiply, that would clash with the earlier stories Mark tells. So I have to insist you are wrong in saying it would make no difference. To Mark, the presence of that one loaf is essential, and really the story makes no sense without it.

          For Matthew, the story has a different point, and since he also tells both stories of the miraculous multiplication of existing food, he’s the one clashing with the earlier stories he copies from Mark, meaning he’s the one changing it, because his point is different–he believes the story is about not listening to the Jewish authorities about anything.

          You say Mark edits Matthew, but it really does seem to be the other way around. It’s more than just shortening the text–Matthew is often repurposing it. Mark’s original meaning is of less concern to him, since he probably believes Jesus could make food out of nothing if he wanted.

          In Mark’s story, Jesus isn’t concerned with the Sadducees–they aren’t on his radar yet, because in Mark’s version, he hasn’t been to Jerusalem yet. He’s saying people like the Pharisees and Herod don’t have faith in God, and rely instead on legalism and brute force. (I don’t assume this this is fair to all the Pharisees, but it’s pretty fair to Herod Antipas, based on the information we have).

          As to why Jesus didn’t say “I can make this loaf many”–this isn’t how Mark’s Jesus talks. He’s like one of those teachers who wants you to get to the answer by yourself. (Those are usually the best teachers.)

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  February 12, 2019

            But its not another miracle story. The symbolism of the loaves miracles is complete with 12 and 7. This story is supposed to highlight this symbolism – Jesus’s teaching vs the pharisees.

            Its about the yeast of the pharisees which in both Mark and Luke the disciples mistakenly think Jesus means literally. But he’s talking the teaching of the pharisees, which Luke confirms in his version Luke 12:1 “Be on your guard against the yeast of the pharisees which is hypocrisy”.

            Mark never mentions “yeast of the pharisees” again so either there was no point in him mentioning it and the story is about the disciples lack of faith – or the original version of the story was about the teaching of the pharisees and Mark messed up the re-telling.

        • Avatar
          godspell  February 12, 2019

          The loaf has to be there so Jesus would be able to tell them “If I could multiply the loaves for the multitudes, I could multiply them for you.” Otherwise, why bring up those earlier miracles, where a few loaves became many? Jesus never made food out of nothing (and there is precedent for that, in Exodus). He’s tempted by the Adversary to do just that in Mark, and he refuses. Man does not live by bread alone.

          I agree these are two different minds, but one came first, and that was Mark. Matthew wants the yeast of the Pharisees in there, and adds the Sadducees, because he’s always looking for an opportunity to make a point about how the Jewish authorities are a corrupting influence, dragging good people down with them to hell.

          Mark doesn’t feel that kind of hatred, and for him it’s about faith. If you trust in God, God will provide. God did provide, since they have bread they didn’t bring, and more can be given them if they only believe. Truthfully, Jesus is really saying “If you had the faith you should, you could multiply the loaf yourselves.” Just as Peter could walk on the water, and the people who healed Jesus have really healed themselves.

          The Pharisees and Herod don’t have that kind of faith, so they only have earthly bread they’ve purchased. Jesus is talking about a lot more than just a temporary filling of the belly.

          Matthew’s account came later.

  14. Avatar
    MaryPetra  February 5, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I’ve heard historians teach that the Judaism of Jesus’ time had already borrowed and incorporated legends about dying-and-rising gods from the Greek and Roman culture, so that the ideas of Christianity weren’t new and weren’t ludicrous any more to many or even most of the Jews at the time concerned.
    Richard Carrier makes this point in his book “On The Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason For Doubt” (2014). His book was published by a respected academic press and under formal peer review. What do you make of this piece of scholarship? Do you take it serious? I’d be highly interested in your opinion, thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2019

      I have to say, it’s a little strange for Carrier to keep saying that his work has been peer-reviewed. What published book is *not*?? (OK: books that are self-published or published by vanity presses; he’s saying this about this particular book because all of his others were not peer reviewed. And probably for good reason!) What people don’t widely realize is that the fact that peers reviewed a book doesn’t mean that these peers agreed with any of it!

      But in any event, yes, that is widely acknowledged, and has been for a very long time, that there are comparable ideas in Greek and Roman myths. BUT, in fact, contrary to what Carrier says, outside of Chrsitianity there are in fact no gods who die, return to earth in their body after death, and then rise to heaven,. His views have long been discounted by scholars who really are experts in the field. If you want to pursue the matter, see Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine. Smith was one of the greatest historians of religoin in the 20th century, who really did know what he was talking about!

      • Avatar
        MaryPetra  February 5, 2019

        I really appreciate your taking the time. Many thanks for your remarks and for your recommendation!

  15. The Agnostic Christian
    The Agnostic Christian  February 5, 2019

    Bart, I can imagine the blog has affected your life in various ways, but I’m wondering if it has affected the direction you have taken in your professional life as a scholar. Have certain questions or posts spurred you to move in a direction you may otherwise have not gone?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      Not so much that. Instead, the blog has been a very helpful way for me to think through some of the issues/problems I have been working on, to put them in words to help me reflect on them more. And, of course, writing this much every day has helped me understand how to communicate my ideas better.

  16. Avatar
    AstaKask  February 5, 2019

    I found a Jesus movie that doesn’t refer to the stoning of the adulteress! “Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter”, where Jesus teams up with a Mexican wrestler to protect a lesbian community from vampires. I think it’s from one of the apocrypha.

    You should show it in class.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      Yeah, maybe not….

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 10, 2019

      It’s on YouTube, so that would be a waste of classroom time.

      And the picture is a waste of film, but hey, better than Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Which came out over a decade later. I guess there’s literally nothing Hollywood won’t plagiarize……

  17. Avatar
    JohnKesler  February 5, 2019

    “Indeed, it is the only miracle in the Gospel that Jesus does not perform immediately and effortlessly.”

    Well, there is the cursing if the fig tree, which in Mark doesn’t wither until the next day (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21), contra Matthew’s instant death (Matthew 21:18-20).

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      Ah, good point. I should have said “healing miracle” (or exorcism)

  18. Avatar
    JohnKesler  February 6, 2019

    When Jesus forbids those healed to say nothing about it, yet they predictably tell all, is this on purpose by Jesus, or did he really think that requesting silence about the matter would work?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      It’s hard to say what is “on purpose” since this is a literary device, not a historical statement about what actually happened in Jesus’ life.

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