The Gospel of Mark as Theological Allegory

2. The Gospel of Mark in Context

2.1 Mysterious Composition

We don't actually know anything certain about who, when or where the Gospel of Mark was composed. Scholars have made educated guesses about these things, but very little is known for certain. We don't even know whether somebody named 'Mark' wrote the gospel. This is just a later attribution based on the guesswork of the second century Church. What we do know is based entirely on what can be deduced from analyzing the text itself. Despite this, for convenience, I will continue to refer to 'Mark' throughout this essay.

2.2 Literary Sources

The dominant view within New Testament scholarship is that Mark constructed his gospel out of oral tradition; that is, stories about Jesus that had been passed down to Mark from people who knew Jesus. However, although it is possible Mark drew partly on oral sources, Mark's main sources, and perhaps his only sources, were not oral but literary. That is, Mark drew primarily on pre-existing written sources to construct his gospel. This can actually be demonstrated very clearly by analyzing the themes, ideas and language common to Mark's gospel and the texts Mark used. Importantly, all these texts, apart from one—Paul's letters—originally had nothing to do with Jesus. Mark had just creatively used them, in various ways, to construct his own narrative. The diagram below illustrates the literary sources used by Mark.

Figure 1 – Literary sources used by the author of the Gospel of Mark

Diagram showing contributors to Mark's Gospel: Josephus?, Paul's letters, Jewish Scriptures, Homer, Mark's own creativity

The most important source was the Jewish Scriptures, or what Christians refer to as the Old Testament (OT). Large chunks of Mark are based on direct allusions to stories and passages found in a range of texts within the Old Testament (see Price [2007]; Price [2011]).

Another important source was the letters of Paul. Scholars know that Paul wrote seven letters, which are found in the New Testament (NT). These letters constitute our earliest source of Christian evidence. They were written around the middle of the first century to Christian Churches throughout the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Importantly, Mark was writing well after Paul and there is very good reasons for thinking, as I will explain in a moment, that he made extensive use of Paul's letters to construct his gospel.[2]

There are two other likely sources. Mark had very likely used themes and motifs drawn from Homer's classics, Iliad and Odysseus (see MacDonald [2006]; Price [2011]). This should not be surprising as Mark would have received a Greco–Roman education in which the teaching of Homer was very prominent. I also think it's quite probable that Mark had drawn on the famous Jewish historian, Josephus. This is quite controversial, so I have put a question mark against it and won't elaborate further on it in this essay.

There is one other 'source' in the above diagram. While it is not a prior literary source, it is very important to mention because it is often overlooked. This is Mark's own creativity. In my view, the author of Mark should be given credit as a competent and creative storyteller. His gospel contains all the elements of a good story, including narration, settings, character development, themes, plot development and suspense. The dominant oral tradition paradigm has often viewed Mark as made up of previously unrelated units of oral tradition, which Mark has more or less randomly cobbled together. As Dykstra [2012: 65] points out, this has tended to obscure the way in which Mark is a 'cohesive literary work, in which each part is carefully crafted and organized to serve the author's overall purposes'.

2.3 The Jewish–Roman War

Despite the uncertainty around Mark's composition, scholars are fairly sure it was written sometime after the Jewish war with Rome. The war began in AD 66 with a Jewish uprising against the Roman Occupation and concluded in AD 70 following a devastating Roman siege on Jerusalem and the complete destruction of the Jewish temple. Prior to its destruction, the temple was the central place of Jewish worship and ritual. In humiliating fashion, the Romans not only destroyed the temple, but also built a new pagan temple in its place.

The reason we know Mark is writing after the war is that he alludes to the destruction of the temple several times within the narrative. In chapter 13, for example, Jesus says, 'Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down' [Mk 13: 2]. This suggests knowledge of the temple's destruction and thus that Mark was writing after these events. I will return to the significance of this later in §3.3 below.

2.4 Early Church Politics

Book cover: The New Testament Introduction: Paul and Mark by Paul Nadim Tarazi

Finally, it's important to understand something about early Church politics. Paul's letters indicate that there was major division and disagreement within the early Church (see Dykstra [2012: ch. 2]; Tarazi [1999: ch. 1]). Later works, such as the Acts of the Apostles, attempt to portray a more harmonious picture, but actually we know from Paul himself that fierce disputes were a feature of the Church from the outset.

There was a basic dispute over the mission to the Gentiles; that is, the mission to convert non-Jews. Paul believed passionately that the Christian gospel was open to both Jews and Gentiles, on an inclusive and equal basis. In practical terms, this meant the Gentiles did not need to observe key aspects of the Jewish law—particularly circumcision, dietary laws and the Sabbath—in order to become Christians (see Sanders [2001: 103]). While Jews should keep practicing the Law, according to Paul, it was not necessary for Gentiles to do so. Faith in the saving work of Jesus was enough to guarantee their salvation. For Paul, as long as they had faith, they did not need to become fully-practicing Jews.

Paul, however, faced opposition from a Jewish-oriented faction of the Church based in Jerusalem. This arose particularly from the leadership, or 'pillars' as Paul calls them, Peter, James and John. We don't have the writings of this group, so we only have Paul's side of the story, as he recounts it in his letter to Galatians. According to Paul, the pillars preached 'another gospel' to the one that he was preaching. What he meant was that they were refusing to recognize uncircumcised Gentiles as Christians, or at least as first class Christians, equal with the Jews. While they agreed with Paul that 'faith in Christ' was God's new mode of salvation, they thought the Jewish law also still applied and that Gentile converts should uphold it.

Paul passionately opposed this. His life work centred on spreading the faith to the Gentiles and he believed that this mission would be irrevocably harmed if the Gentiles were required to observe the Jewish law. For Paul, both Jew and Gentile were part of the one Church worshipping the one God. As he writes, 'There is no distinction between Jew and Greek (meaning Gentile); the same lord is lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him [Rom 10: 12; see also Gal 3: 28; 1 Cor 12: 13; Col 3: 11]. Where does Mark fit in here? Well, as we will see, Mark takes Paul's side in this dispute. Mark endorses Paul's inclusive gospel for the Gentiles.


  1. [2] I would argue that Paul's letters are Mark's main source of information about Jesus. This is itself quite interesting because, as many scholars have pointed out, Paul's authentic letters actually tell us very little, if anything, about Jesus, the man. Indeed, according to the Jesus–Myth theory, Paul, as well as the early Church as a whole, never knew of Jesus as an earthly man and instead worshipped a heavenly/celestial Jesus (see, for example, Price [2011]; Carrier [2014]; Price [2014]). If this theory is correct, Mark actually had no information about Jesus of Nazareth; indeed, Mark invented Jesus out of whole cloth. In other words, via the creative pen of Mark, the heavenly Jesus of Paul is transformed into the gospel character Jesus of Nazareth. It should be stressed, however, that most scholars who view Mark as allegory, as argued here, do not subscribe to this theory. Most accept the mainstream view that Paul and the early Christian movement were responding to a man named Jesus of Nazareth.

Copyright © 2015

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