The Gospel of Mark as Theological Allegory

3. Meaning and Purpose of Mark's Gospel

3.2 A Polemic against the Jewish Faction of the Early Church

Portrait of Mark in a Gospel According to the Four Evangelists

Mark is not just promoting Paul's gospel. He is also engaging in polemics against the Jewish-oriented Jerusalem Church. As I explained in §2.4 above, some within the Jerusalem Church were insisting that the Gentiles observe the Mosaic Law in order to become fully fledged Christians. In Mark, the twelve disciples are representative of Jewish-oriented Christians. In his letters, Paul also explicitly names the three leaders of the Jerusalem Church, or 'pillars' as he calls them; Peter, James and John. In Mark, the three pillars known to Paul become the three leading disciples of Jesus, also named Peter, James and John.

As anyone who reads Mark closely will notice, the three pillars, as well as the twelve disciples, continually 'misunderstand and lack faith in Jesus' [Dykstra 2012: 110]. A classic example of this occurs when Jesus teaches the disciples that they must welcome 'little children' [Mk 9: 42–8, 10: 13–16]. In direct disobedience, a few versus later, the disciples prevent little children from coming to Jesus. Jesus responds, not for the first time, by getting very upset at them [Mk 10: 13–16].

Mark is not actually making a literal point about Jesus' attitude to little children. The 'children' represent the Gentiles (see Dykstra [2012: 111–12]). Mark would have been inspired to use such symbolism by Paul, who frequently referred to his Gentile congregations as children who have been adopted by God through Christ (for example, [Gal 3: 26, 4: 19]). Mark's allegorical point is that the Jewish faction of the Church, as represented by the disciples, are actively hindering the Gentiles from full communion with Christ, by trying to make them conform to Jewish laws and customs.[4]

It is significant that Judas is the one who ends up betraying Jesus. The name Judas is a Hellenized version of the Hebrew name 'Judah'. This is Mark's way of saying that the Judean Christian Church was responsible for betraying the true spirit of the inclusive Pauline gospel.

The Parable of the Sower

The role of the disciples in Mark is actually beautifully summarized in the parable of the sower, told by Jesus in Mark chapter 4. Tolbert [1996] has shown how the main parables in Mark function as condensed summaries of the overall plot.

The parable is about a sower who sows seeds and each seed falls in different places with different results. I want to focus on the seed that falls on rocky ground. Jesus says, 'Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away [Mk 4: 5–6].'

Further on, Jesus explains that the seed that had fallen on 'rocky soil' is like the people who 'hear the word and immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away [Mk 4: 16–17].'

This is actually a perfect summary of what happens to the disciples throughout Mark's narrative. In the beginning, the disciples respond to Jesus' call very enthusiastically. They immediately drop their fishing nets and follow him [Mk 1: 18, 3: 13]. But from that point on everything goes awry. Immediately after the parable, they are seen to lack faith in Jesus, as they cross the stormy Sea of Galilee [Mk 4: 35–41].

At the last supper, Jesus predicts that all of the disciples will 'fall away'. The verb used for 'falling away' is exactly the same as the one used to describe those like 'rocky soil' in the sower parable. And, of course, Jesus' prediction comes true. The very next evening, when the Roman guards arrest him, the disciples, rather than show faith in Jesus as he taught them to do, flee in terror. When trouble and persecution arise, the disciples fall away, just as the parable predicted.

Book cover: Mark, Canonizer of Paul: A New Look at Intertextuality in Mark's Gospel by Tom Dykstra

While all twelve disciples are 'rocky', one is singled out as particularly rocky. This is Peter. It is no coincidence that Peter is Greek for 'the rock'. Poor old Peter is the epitome of a 'rocky' disciple. He can never get it right. He refuses to accept that Jesus must be crucified, which is the very essence of the gospel, according to Paul. To this refusal, Jesus responds by calling him Satan [Mk 8: 33]. Some scholars try and temper this by pointing out that Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. But the recognition is more significant for what it lacks. Peter crucially fails to recognize Jesus as the 'Son of God', which, as Dykstra [2012: 120] notes 'can hardly be an oversight given the title "Son of God" features so prominently in the prologue of Mark'. Ironically, the only human character to recognize Jesus as the Son of God is the Roman guard, immediately after Jesus had died [Mk 15: 39].

Most serious of all, Peter is revealed to be an outright hypocrite. At the Passover meal, Peter declares that even though all the others might 'fall away' he will never do so [Mk 14: 31]. However, Peter does fall away, and far worse than anyone else. He not only fails to stay awake at Gethsemane [Mk 14: 32–44], he alone denies Jesus three times in the courtyard, before the cock crows [Mk 14: 66–72]. And this happens despite the fact that Jesus had earlier warned his disciples to keep alert for the cry of the cock crow when waiting for the lord [Mk 13: 35]. To add insult to injury, Peter's denial of Jesus before the maids of the high priests is carefully contrasted with Jesus' self-declaration as the Son of God before the actual high priests [Mk 14: 53–62]. Peter's betrayal, in other words, amounts to a denial of Jesus as the Son of God.

Jesus teaches that anyone who wants to follow him must deny himself and take up his cross [Mk 8: 35–6]. But Peter ends up doing the exact opposite. As Goulder [1995: 18] rhetorically asks, 'Can you think of anyone in the Gospel story who wanted to save his life, who refused to come after Jesus and take us his cross, who did not deny himself but instead denied Jesus? Well so could Mark.' Ironically, it is the unknown Gentile, Simon of Cyrene, not Peter, who literally takes up Jesus' cross [Mk 15: 21].

The question is, why did Mark single out Peter as such a poor disciple? If the Gospel of Mark is an allegory, what is the message? The answer goes back to Paul and his dispute with the Jerusalem leaders. In Galatians 2, Paul is recounting his version of the dispute and singles out Peter for rebuke. Paul accuses Peter of 'hypocrisy' because, whereas once he had shared fellowship with the Gentiles, now he was refusing to do so under the influence of the leadership in Jerusalem [Gal 2: 11–14]. It seem likely, therefore, that Mark's portrait of Peter, the 'hypocrite', is a reference to the conflicts between the apostles Paul and Peter, as recounted in Paul's letters.


  1. [4] The message is reinforced through the parable that Jesus tells immediately following the children episode. Jesus famously declares, 'If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire' [Mk 9: 43]. Challenging words indeed, but not because Mark/Jesus wanted people to chop their hands off! The metaphor is directed at the Jewish-oriented church. And the message is that they might well have to be cut off if they continue to act as a barrier to full Gentile participation.

Copyright © 2015

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