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Is Mark’s Gospel Unsophisticated?

I’ll be be dealing with just one question in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag, since the response will require some explaining.  I has to do with the literary artistry of the Gospel of Mark – is it a fairly unsophisticated account of Jesus’ life and death?

The question itself will require a bit of set-up and explanation.  In an earlier post I argued that Mark’s Gospel almost certainly ended in chapter sixteen at verse 8.   Jesus has been crucified, dead, and buried.  On the third day some women go to his tomb to anoint his body more appropriately for burial, but when they arrive the tomb is already opened, Jesus’ body is not in it, but a young man is, who asks them if they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth.  He then tells them that he has been raised and that they, the women, are to go tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee.  The women, though, flee the tomb and don’t say anything to anyone because they were afraid.

In my post I argued that Mark meant to leave his ending abrupt and breath-taking, for several reasons.  One of them is that Mark throughout his Gospel emphasizes that no one could understand Jesus – almost no one at all.  His family thinks he has lost his mind; the people from his hometown can’t understand where he got all his knowledge; the Jewish leaders think he is possessed by the Devil; and even his own disciples never “get” who he is (Jesus harangues them for not understanding).  Mark is unique among the Gospels in stressing this idea that no one can figure out who Jesus is.  And in my view, the ending supports that motif: in the end, the disciples never *do* come to understand about him.  They never even hear he has been raised from the dead.  They are oblivious to the end.

This, then, was a question about that interpretation, raised by a reader:



Is it really likely that “Mark,” the least sophisticated of the gospel authors, would have intended an ending parallel to a motif of obliviousness?



I think Mark has an undeserved (though very common!) reputation for being unsophisticated.  I have just the contrary view.  I think as a literary artist Mark was extremely sophisticated, in ways that require deep study to recognize.

Let me give just one example….

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  1. Avatar
    erudite  April 2, 2017

    Did Christ actually prophesy is suffering and death or was this created by mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      I don’t think Jesus made these predictions. I’m not sure Mark invented them, but some story teller did — either Mark or someone before him.

  2. Avatar
    James Chalmers  April 2, 2017

    As i remember, it’s said that Mark’s Greek is less polished (sophisticated) than that of the other gospel writers’. Is this true? Does it count against Mark’s literary sophistication?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      Yes, it’s not as good as, say, Luke’s. It means that his philological skills were not finely honed. But he could still have a good literary sense (e.g., for plot, imagery, and so on)

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 4, 2017

        Is it likely Greek was not his first language?

  3. Avatar
    godspell  April 2, 2017

    Beautiful analysis. I think people assume the more elaborate story is always the more sophisticated story. This would mean the average 500 page commercial potboiler you buy at the airport, full of twists and turns, is more sophisticated than a short story by Kafka, or a Steinbeck novel. Sophistication in literature can be deceptive–sometimes what seems very simple and basic can have extraordinary depth, many layers of meaning. The most sophisticated writer may seem to be the least sophisticated, to someone who associates excessive ornamentation with artistry.

    Not to dismiss the three other gospels. They each have things to offer. But taken as a whole, as a story with a beginning, middle, and end, meant to convey overarching themes, and to make the reader work to understand the points being conveyed, Mark easily surpasses them all.

    Is it likely that such an amazing writer as ‘Mark’ would have only written one thing, you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      That’s a great question! I assume not!! Wow, it would be great to have some of his other things….

  4. Avatar
    wostraub  April 2, 2017

    Thank you, Prof. Ehrman, for another enlightening post. Like you, Mark is my favorite gospel, but for many years I’ve had a nagging question about it that you may have answered in previous blogs.

    In her excellent Great Courses lecture series “The Holy Land Revealed,” your colleague Jodi Magness notes that Jesus predicted the destruction of of the Second Temple. To me, the supposed prescience of this prophecy (Mark 13) stands or falls on whether Mark wrote his gospel before or after the event. Where do today’s scholars stand on this issue, and do you believe it will ever be resolved?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      No historical issue will ever be solved to general satisfaction. But my view is that the historical Jesus did indeed predict that the temple would be destroyed (as did other Jews both before and after his day), but that Mark was probalby written soon after the destruction.

  5. Avatar
    Judith  April 2, 2017

    As always, a superb post, Dr. Ehrman.

  6. Avatar
    roycecil  April 2, 2017

    Dr Bart, in one of the talks I watched in the internet , I heard you articulate that you believe that “Jesus was probably left to rot in the cross and dumped into a common grave” . Is that still your personal belief ?

    I have the following question for you. If that was what originally happened . How can you explain the origin of christianity ? How probable do you think is for some one to invent a story that he rose from the dead , if the whole Jerusalem watched the man die on the cross and have birds pick on his corpse .

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      That’s what my book How Jesus Became God is all about. No, I don’t think anyone tried to deceive anyone by inventing something they didn’t believe. I think some of jesus’ followers believed they saw him alive after his execution.

      • Avatar
        AnotherBart  February 5, 2018

        The kicker for me is Mary Magdalene’s (and Peter’s) obscured identities in Mat/Mark/Luke. She was the key eyewitness, having seen the pre & post resurrection feet of the L-rd– up close!! Thus Mag & Pete hidden in some scenes in writings done while they were alive, and revealed by John, after they had departed.

        in response to Dr. Ehrman’s comment:
        That’s what my book How Jesus Became God is all about. No, I don’t think anyone tried to deceive anyone by inventing something they didn’t believe. I think some of jesus’ followers believed they saw him alive after his execution.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  April 4, 2017

      And if the disciples fled back to Galilee immediately after the crucifixion, they never saw how long Jesus’s body was on the cross or what happened to it.

  7. Avatar
    gavriel  April 2, 2017

    Could it be that Mark in part can be considered a polemical work directed against Jewish Christians with a Palestinian background, where the motif is to explain why they have a wrong or an inferior theology? After all, in Mark , the disciples are mentally slow, do not understand very much, there is a traitor among them, and Peter is a coward.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      A book by a NT scholar named Weeden argued precisely that. I’m afraid he didn’t convince many experts, but it was a view people floated around for a bit.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 2, 2017

    The connection between the two passages is, as you have explained, quite “sophisticated.” It is still odd to me that who this Jesus, described by Mark, was would be so unclear to those around Him. Shouldn’t such a Jesus be clear to all? Why in the world didn’t all, at least many, catch on? If they didn’t catch on in the here and now, how in the world are we supposed to catch on 2,000 years later?

    I hope the Heels are practicing free throws today.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      Mark wants to emphasize that no one understood him, all as part of his theme that Jesus was a messiah no one expected (and so didn’t understand). Go Heels!

  9. Avatar
    Tony  April 2, 2017

    Mark’s Gospel is brilliant. Mark is also the single originator of the fabricated Jesus of Nazareth story. The other Gospels are later knock-offs, and embellishments, of the original Gospel of Mark.

    Mark likely used contemporary literature, such as the works of Josephus for characters such as John the Baptist and Pilate. The Septuagint was mined for prophesies and phrases. However, the most important literature Mark had in front of him were Paul’s letters.

    Mark transformed Paul’s heavenly Christ “hanged on a tree” event into an earthly crucifixion. The celestial Christ told Paul that Christ was sacrificially killed by Satan, and hanged on a tree – in Satan’s world, Gal 3:13. This is similar to Christ’s fate as told in the Ascension of Isaiah.

    It is not difficult to find other specific Pauline sources for Mark’s story, for example:

    When Mark in 3:14 first introduces his twelve disciples, he hedges his bets and actually calls them “apostles” (in some versions). This is based on Mark’s misinterpretation of 1 Cor 15:5 where “the twelve” do not include Peter (Cephas) and are not identified as disciples or apostles. Paul is silent of the designation of the twelve and never mentions the term disciples by name or function. Of course, that has not stopped scholars of all stripes to read the Gospel back into Paul’s “twelve” and make them disciples. The Power of Mark!

    Another obvious adaptation is Mark’s Lord’s Supper. Here Mark takes Paul’s Christ vision from 1 Cor 11:23-26 and uses near identical phrases for Mark’s bread and wine ceremony. Makes for great paintings! Again, we see well known NT scholars repeatedly claiming that Paul’s original ceremony included “his disciples”. So confident are these same scholars that they translate Paul’s “handed over” as “betrayed”. After all, that’s what the Gospels say….

    In view of such scholarly naivety, herd mentality and uncritical acceptance, is it any wonder that those not bound by faith through upbringing or association, are increasingly pushing the obvious alternative?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      I’m not sure that scholars who disagree with you are naive. Most of them study these texts for years, at great depth, in the original Greek.

      • Avatar
        Tony  April 4, 2017

        Scholarly naivety may be a kind term for an apparent inability to see the forest for the trees. Long years of study does not neccesarely equate with an ability or willingness to think outside the box.

  10. talmoore
    talmoore  April 2, 2017

    Is his Greek sophisticated?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      No, not really. By high literary standards it’s sub-par.

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  April 2, 2017

    Christianity in Antiquity / Christianity in Historical Context

    There is a resurrection cult (Osiris-Serapis) in Alexandria and throughout the Roman empire.
    The Jesus Son of Man Movement turns into a resurrection cult after Jesus’ death.
    Emperor Hadrian makes his deceased lover Antinous a god of resurrection.

    “Antinous had a marvelous life after death.
    His cult spread with great speed and his popularity grew with the years. As a god who dies and is resurrected, he even became a rival to Christianity for a while.”
    – Antony Everitt, bestelling author of “Cicero” in his book, Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome

    Inscriptions indicate that Antinous was seen primarily as a benevolent deity, who could be turned to aid his worshipers. He was also seen as a conqueror of death, with his name and image often being included in coffins. // The pagan philosopher Celsus also criticised it for what he perceived as the debauched nature of its Egyptian devotees, arguing that it led people into immoral behaviour, in this way comparing it to Christianity. //
    Surviving examples of Christian condemnation of the Antinous cultus come from figures like Tertullian, Origen, Jerome, and Epiphanios. Viewing the religion as a blasphemous rival to Christianity, they insisted that Antinous had simply been a mortal human and condemned his sexual activities with Hadrian as immoral.

    Dr. Ehrman, Jesus as a resurrection god does not seem to be unique. In the monotheism of Judaism, death does not seem to be as developed as in Hinduism, Egypt’s cult of Osiris, Ptolemy I Soter ‘s invention of the cult of Serapis which survived into the first century at Alexandria.

    Question: In your book How Jesus Became God or outside of that text, Judaism, via Judaism-Lite / Christianity, picks up more attention to death and life after death by Jesus being a deified resurrection figure along the lines of Shiva, Osiris, Serapis, Antinous, and the attention to death found in the gods Hades and Thanatos*; could there have been a triumph of Christianity without the integral Destruction / Death / Regeneration / Resurrection component found in the Gospels?

    *Hades was the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. After the overthrow of their father, Cronus, he drew lots with them to share the universe. He drew poorly, which resulted in becoming lord of the underworld and ruler of the dead. Nevertheless, he was not considered to be death itself, as this was a different god, called Thanatos.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      I would say that the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection is very different from the other examples you cite. But in any event, no, without the death-resurrection, there would be no Christianity.

      • Avatar
        Rogers  April 8, 2017

        But the apacalyptic Jewish belief, which Jesus was one proponent of, seems to have in mind a bodily resurrection, right? This is one fairly significant Jewish view about resurrection – that in the Last Days the dead would be resurrected in order to be judged? Jesus relates a story that exemplifies that kind of understanding, but this apacalyptic Jewish understanding was not unique to Jesus, and it preceded his time period, did it not?

        I’m bringing this up because Christianity ultimately becomes centered around a phyisical body resurrection of Jesus – not just a spirit form of resurrection. Seems Paul, in his epistles, the earliest of Christian writings, espouses this view more or less, though he elaborates that the new bodies are different in nature than existing phyisical mortal form of human beings.

        IOW, it is not surprising that Christianity took the direction it did in respect to how they viewed the nature of Jesus’s resurrection as it seems basically in accord (or at least stems from in a compatible manner) with pre-existing apocalyptic Jewish beliefs regarding resurrection of human beings.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 9, 2017

          Yes, I think Jesus inherited his view of the future resurrection from apocalpytic Jews before him (John the Baptist among them). ANd yes, this is the view of the earliest Christians, which is why they thought Jesus’ resurrection was bodily, not spiritual.

  12. Avatar
    Steefen  April 2, 2017

    Mark’s Gospel Unsophisticated?
    Given the many references to the Homeric Epics, it probably is not.
    See The Homeric Epics and The Gospel of Mark by Dennis R. MacDonald

  13. Avatar
    Steefen  April 2, 2017

    Interesting post, in my humble opinion, I give it 5 stars.

    You say the narrator knows and a Roman centurion knows Jesus was the son of God but no one else does.
    Catholic tradition has Mark, by request of Romans of some wealth, writing the Gospel of Mark. Rome initiates the Gospel of Mark which feeds the Gospel of Luke with Matthew being a third Synoptic Gospel.

    So, we have a Roman-sponsored (publisher and editor) influencing the narrator of this Gospel and for emphasis Rome via Roman centurion calling Jesus son of God. Despite all the references made to The Hebrew Bible about Jesus, it is Rome, not Judea or Galilee, Israel, that writes Jesus as Son of God for posterity.

    Dr. Ehrman, you have been against the notion that Rome did not sponsor the writing of any gospel; yet, Catholic tradition states otherwise. What are your disputes with Catholic tradition here?

    = = =
    Below we have an entry for St. Mark from catholic.org
    The second Gospel was written by St. Mark, who, in the New Testament, is sometimes called John Mark. Both he and his mother, Mary, were highly esteemed in the early Church, and his mother’s house in Jerusalem served as a meeting place for Christians there.

    St. Mark was associated with St. Paul and St. Barnabas (who was Mark’s cousin) on their missionary journey through the island of Cyprus. Later he accompanied St. Barnabas alone. We know also that he was in Rome with St. Peter and St. Paul. Tradition ascribes to him the founding of the Church in Alexandria.

    St. Mark wrote the second Gospel, probably in Rome sometime before the year 60 A.D.; he wrote it in Greek for the Gentile converts to Christianity. Tradition tells us that St. Mark was requested by the Romans to set down the teachings of St. Peter. This seems to be confirmed by the position which St. Peter has in this Gospel. In this way the second Gospel is a record of the life of Jesus as seen through the eyes of the Prince of the Apostles. His feast day is April 25.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      I’m not *against* the idea that Mark wrote in Rome. I just don’t see any real reason to think so.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 4, 2017

        The Catholic Encyclopedia article cited is from 105-110 years ago. Would composition in Rome have been a reasonable conjecture based on what was known at that time?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 5, 2017

          It was the age-old tradition.

          • Avatar
            Rogers  April 25, 2017

            In 1st century Rome, if a person was literate, would they be more likely to author text in Greek or in Latin?

            I guess I tend to think of Greek being predominate where Alexander the Great’s conquered. Given Gospel of Mark is in Greek, I suppose I tend to think it would not have been written in Rome. But am going solely on the intuition about Greek probably being fluent in the places that Alexander trod.

            Josephus wrote his histories in Greek (or was it originally his native language Aramaic, and then Greek)? And he was based in Rome at the time? So then perhaps Greek was considered THE language that would reach the widest audience in the 1st century Roman Empire.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 25, 2017

            The major authors in Rome at the time wrote in Latin (we’re talking roughly of the time of such figures as Livy and Seneca). Yes, Josephus learned Greek as a second language, and had some trouble with it. His works were penned in Rome.

  14. Avatar
    toejam  April 2, 2017

    Cool. Love learning new things about texts I thought I already knew inside out. I have a related question:

    Mark 8:14-21
    Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” 16 They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

    What do you think the numbers symbolize? I have read some ideas that suggest the broken ‘loaves’ are coded references to martyred disciples? I have to admit, I do not understand what the Markan Jesus assumes I should understand!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      Yeah, I’ve never figured out the numbers. Except to say that this is why biblical scholars are terrible at math (If you take five loaves and two fish, how many basket fulls are left over?)

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 4, 2017

        I don’t know if I read it somewhere or if I just assumed that the five loaves for the 5,000 represented the Torah with the result being twelve tribes (baskets) of Israel. Two fish I could never figure out, unless it was Moses and Elijah or some other dynamic duo. The seven loaves for the 4,000 yielding 7 baskets never clicked for me, that I can recall now. Seven hills of Rome? Maybe that’s the evidence the Catholic Encylopedia was banking on.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

      Perhaps these numbers were never intended to be symbolic, just simple hyperbole or exaggeration. Although it’s hard to imagine such an author using the number 12 without expecting readers to connect it with the tribes of Israel. Israel had 12 patriarchs because it had 12 tribes. At least the literary Israel. Even the texts show varying numbers of tribes and half-tribes which are somehow contrived to always add up to 12.

  15. Avatar
    JoeWallack  April 2, 2017

    “his own disciples never “get” who he is (Jesus harangues them for not understanding). Mark is unique among the Gospels in stressing this idea that no one can figure out who Jesus is. And in my view, the ending supports that motif: in the end, the disciples never *do* come to understand about him. They never even hear he has been raised from the dead. They are oblivious to the end.”


    “Fourth, less related point. We have records of visions of Jesus in Mark, M (Matthew’s special source), L (Luke’s special source), John, Acts (different traditions), and Paul. These sources are all independent of each other. It’s hard to believe that there was simply *one* source that made up the traditions of the visions, if all these sources describe the visions independently of one another.”

    El contraire Peter:

    1) You are a Master of contradiction in the Christian Bible yet you do not see the contradiction between GMark having a primary theme of discrediting the Disciples and thinking GMark is any type of support for the Disciples promoting a resurrected Jesus?

    2) GMark has no Jesus visions.

    3) GMark, as far as we know is the original Gospel narrative. See 2).

    4) Since the only thing we can be certain of here is that a resurrected Jesus did not appear to the Disciples, it is likely that they did not claim that a resurrected Jesus appeared to them and that explains GMark’s discrediting. It is exponentially more likely that those who were not Disciples claimed that the Disciples had visions of Jesus.

    5) None of the sources you mention are likely independent of each other.

    6) The sources all give different vision information.


  16. Avatar
    JamesSnappJr  April 2, 2017

    As far as the ending is concerned, verse 8 looks like an interrupted sentence, and the most likely reason for that is that Mark was interrupted, leaving the narrative unfinished until his colleagues attached a brief summary of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. (A summary that didn’t interlock precisely with verse 8 – which should elicit an acknowledgement that it was not written to conclude Mark’s Gospel, but was already extant.)

    B: “Even his own disciples never “get” who he is (Jesus harangues them for not understanding).”

    This seems true only up to a point: during Jesus’ ministry the disciples didn’t get what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah, but they *did* get who Jesus is, eventually, after His resurrection. When Mark wrote, he was one of a group of Christians, and they claimed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Mark is writing to vindicate a typical Christian claim, not something unique to him individually.

    B: “And in my view, the ending supports that motif: in the end, the disciples never *do* come to understand about him. They never even hear he has been raised from the dead. They are oblivious to the end.”

    Do you mean that Mark wrote to convey that the disciples *never* understood Jesus’ Messiahship? ‘Cause the whole early church regarded Mark’s Gospel-account as if it constituted the disciples’ own testimony — especially Peter’s — about Jesus, and thus a Petrine understanding of Jesus’ Messiahship went along with that.

    B: . . . “in ways that require deep study to recognize.”

    I can’t help but recollect the Emperor’s New Clothes when you say stuff like that.

    B: . . . “These all tie the two passages together, the first episode in Jesus’ life and the last episode. This is real literary artistry.”

    All (or mostly) valid points. But that doesn’t make the abruptness of 16:8 look non-accidental. Mark did not want to suggest that nobody *ever* understood Jesus’ Messiahship, or else that would include Mark himself among the non-understanders. Mark (the assistant of Peter, a la Papias et al) presents an apostolic point of view, and thus had no reason to convey that the apostles themselves *never* understood Jesus’ role (much less that they never got news of Jesus’ resurrection).

  17. Avatar
    Thomasfperkins  April 2, 2017

    My favorite post of the year.

  18. Avatar
    Jason  April 2, 2017

    Do any of these (or other) artistic interjections add to, diminish or confuse any points of historicity in the narrative for you?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      Well, they make the strict literal historicity dubious, in my opinion. These are literary touches.

  19. Avatar
    Tempo1936  April 2, 2017

    The hyperbole in John is off the charts

    John 12:31-32
    Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

    The claim above all claims do you agree?

  20. Avatar
    Seeker1952  April 2, 2017

    In a book about Jesus by John Spong I read recently, I was fascinated by his claim and accompanying explanation that early Jewish-Christians interpreted Jesus’s death through the lens of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Jesus paralleled the sacrificial lamb that was offered for the people’s sins (and may also have been conflated with the scapegoat that bore the people’s sins).

    That seems like a good hypothesis about the origin of the Christian doctrine of atonement. It also seems like a much less horrific way of understanding the doctrine of atonement. No doubt the lamb was slain and offered to God as part of a request for forgiveness. But, from what I can tell, there is no emphasis on the suffering of the lamb as somehow making up for the people’s sins. Likewise, Jesus’s death could be seen as a (perfect) sacrifice that was a part of reconciling humankind with God once and for all, but not as absorbing all the punishment due humankind for their sins. The lamb, and Jesus, are peace offerings.

    Is the general idea of the Christian doctrine of atonement being heavily dependent on Yom Kippur a common view among scholars? And is it correct that Yom Kippur did not put a lot of emphasis on the suffering of the lamb making up for sin?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2017

      One problem is that we don’t know how Yom Kippur was celebrated in the first century. But yes, the biblical account from Leviticus does seem to provide some of the sacrificial understanding underlying the views of atonement that developed in ealry Christianit.

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