The Gospel of Mark as Theological Allegory

3. Meaning and Purpose of Mark's Gospel

Book cover: The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems by Robert M. Price

3.3 A Polemic against the Judean Jews

I have argued in the previous section that Mark is polemicizing against the exclusivist, insular Jewish faction of early Christianity. But Mark's gospel also functions as a broader theological polemic against the Judean Jews as a whole.

Mark's gospel is a tale of how the Judean Jews rejected Jesus. Every major Jewish group in the story rejects Jesus. His own hometown 'takes offense at him' [Mk 6: 3]. The fickle Jewish masses demand to have him crucified, having only a week earlier praised him like a Messiah on his entry to Jerusalem [Mk 11: 8–10, 15: 6–14]. And, of course, the Jewish religious and political authorities plot to have him arrested and killed [Mk 3: 6]. Even Jesus' very own Jewish family suspects him of being mad [Mk 3: 21]. In Mark 6: 4–6, Jesus himself sums up the complete rejection of his own people: 'Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.'

Mark's message, however, is not simply that the Jews rejected Jesus. Recall again that Mark is written in the aftermath of the Jewish–Roman war and the destruction of the temple. To see the significance of this, we need to analyze closely the allusions that Mark makes to the Jewish scriptures, viz., the Old Testament. There is actually a distinct pattern to these allusions. Below is a table reproduced from Price [2014] that lists most of them. A large proportion (about one-third) refers directly to passages about God's coming judgment and punishment of Israel (see Price [2007]). I have italicized the subjects of these passages.

Table 1 – Gospel of Mark literary allusions to the Old Testament
Scene Reference Subject of Reference
The Proclamation of John the Baptist Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40; 2 Kings 1 Judgment of God on Israel; Comfort to Israel for fulfillment of punishment through destruction; Identification of Elijah
The Baptism of Jesus Isaiah 11; Isaiah 42 Identification of God's servant
Jesus Calls the First Disciples Jeremiah 16 Punishment of Israel
The Man with an Unclean Spirit Isaiah 65 God's people don't recognize him
Jesus Heals a Paralytic 2 Kings 5 Elijah/Elisha healing miracles
The Purpose of the Parables Isaiah 6 Punishment of Israel
Jesus Stills a Storm Psalm 107 Identification of the Lord
Jesus Heals the Gerasene Demoniac Isaiah 64 Punishment of Israel
A Girl Restored to Life and a Woman Healed 1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4 Elijah/Elisha healing miracles
Death of John the Baptist 2 Kings 2 Transfer of Spirit from Elijah to Elisha
Feeding the Five Thousand 2 Kings 4 Elijah/Elisha feeding miracles
Jesus Walks on Water Isaiah 43 Identification of the Savior of Israel
Feeding the Four Thousand 2 Kings 4 Elijah/Elisha feeding miracles
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection Isaiah 53 Suffering Servant
The Transfiguration Daniel 12 Description of eternal life and shining like a star for the righteous
Temptations to Sin Isaiah 66 Description of punishment for opponents of God
Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem Zachariah 14; Zachariah 9; Psalm 118 Identification of the ruler of Israel
Jesus Curses the Fig Tree and Clears the Temple Hosea 9 Admonition of the Jews, Punishment of Israel
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants Isaiah 5 Admonition of the Jews, Punishment of Israel
The Destruction of the Temple Foretold Isaiah 13, 14, 19 Admonition of the Jews, Punishment of Israel
The Desolating Sacrilege Daniel 9, 11, 12 Admonition of the Jews, Destruction foretold
The Coming of the Son of Man Isaiah 13, Daniel 7 Destruction, Punishment of the world; Coming of an eternal ruler
The Anointing at Bethany 2 Kings 9; 1 Samuel 10 Anointing of the ruler of Israel
Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus Amos 2 Admonition of the Jews, Punishment of Israel
The Passover with the Disciples 1 Samuel 10 Preparations for kingship
Jesus predicts his Betrayal Psalm 41 Invocation for revenge against transgressors
Peter's Denial Foretold Zechariah 13 Wrath against betrayers
The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus Amos 2 Admonition of the Jews, Punishment of Israel
Jesus before the Council Isaiah 53; Psalm 110; Psalm 35 Suffering Servant; Prayer for deliverance from enemies; Prayer for retribution on oppressors
Jesus before Pilate Isaiah 53 Suffering Servant
The Soldiers Mock Jesus Isaiah 50 Suffering Servant
The Crucifixion of Jesus Amos 2; Psalm 22; Amos 8 Judgment on Israel; Prayer for deliverance from suffering; Admonition of the Jews, Punishment of Israel
The Burial of Jesus Isaiah 53 Suffering Servant

The Destruction of the Temple and the Fig Tree

A powerful example of this literary allusion is found in Mark's Temple Scene, which is enveloped within a strange little story about a fig tree.

[12] The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. [13] Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. [14] Then he said to the tree, 'May no one ever eat fruit from you again.' And his disciples heard him say it. [15] On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. . . . [20] In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. [21] Peter remembered and said to Jesus, 'Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!'

[Mark 11: 12–21 (contracted and bold mine)]

The scene begins with Jesus doing something very odd. He curses a fig tree for not producing figs, even though the fig tree is out of season! Then a very angry Jesus famously storms the temple, overturning the tables and denouncing the moneychangers. The next day, Peter points out that the cursed fig tree has withered to the roots. All this is very strange until you understand that the entire fig tree and temple scene is part of an extended allusion to Hosea chapter 9, which is a fiery Old Testament text about God's coming judgment on Israel (see Price [2007, 2014]).

Here is the passage in Hosea.

[1] Do not rejoice, O Israel; do not be jubilant like the other nations. For you have been unfaithful to your God . . . [7] The days of punishment are coming, the days of reckoning are at hand . . . [10] When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw your fathers, it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. . . . [15] Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there. Because of their sinful deeds, I will drive them out of my house. I will no longer love them; all their leaders are rebellious. [16] Ephraim is blighted, their root is withered, they yield no fruit. . . . [17] My God will reject them because they have not obeyed him . . .

[Hosea 9: 1–17 (contracted and bold mine)]

From the first bolded lines [Hos 9: 1, 9: 7], you can see that this is a passage about God's punishment. The text reads, 'Do not rejoice, O Israel . . . For you have been unfaithful to your God . . . The days of punishment are coming . . .'

Book cover: Paul: A Very Short Introduction by E. P. Sanders

Further on, in verse 10, this picture of judgement is contrasted with the founding fathers of Israel who are likened to the 'early fruit on the fig tree'. This passage has clearly inspired Mark's own fig tree scene, except notice how he has reversed the imagery. In Mark, unlike Hosea, the fig tree does not bear early fruit; hence Jesus curses it. Mark is effectively saying that Israel, unlike the founding fathers, is no longer faithful to God.

In Mark 11: 15 we read, 'because of their sinful deeds I will drive them out of my house'. This text has clearly inspired Mark's temple scene. Finally, in the next verse, we have the haunting metaphor in which a disobedient and unfaithful Israel is compared to a 'withered fig tree, bearing no fruit.' This corresponds to Jesus and the disciples finding the cursed fig tree 'withered' outside the temple [Mk 11: 21].

There is no way all of these similarities can be a coincidence, especially given that Mark's allusions to the Hosea passage are made in the same order.[5] The entire temple/fig tree scene in Mark is very clearly a direct and deliberate allusion to Hosea 9. This, I need to stress, is just one of several similar examples running through Mark's gospel (see Turton [2004]; Price [2007]; Price [2011]).

How do we interpret this? As we have seen, Mark was written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem. But Mark was not just writing after this event. He is also providing a theological commentary on why it occurred. As we have seen the narrative is a tale about how the Jews rejected Jesus and the text frequently alludes to Old Testament passages about God's coming judgment on Israel. As Price has argued, Mark is effectively saying that the destruction of Jerusalem was God's punishment on the Jews for their unfaithfulness. According to Price [2007: 107], Mark's view was that the Jews 'had brought the calamity of the Roman war upon themselves' through their disobedience and unfaithfulness to God.

How had the Jews been unfaithful, according to Mark? Once again, Mark shared the view of Paul. Paul preached that faith in Christ was God's new mode of universal salvation for all; for both Jew and Gentile. But, as Paul reveals in his letter to the Romans 9–11, the early Church struggled to convert the Jews to the new faith. Paul, quoting scripture, accuses Israel of being a 'disobedient and contrary people' [Rom 10: 21]. Mark shared this view and thought the destruction of Jerusalem was God's resulting punishment for their lack of faithfulness.

Mark also shared Paul's theological explanation for why the Jews had rejected Christ. To see this, we must return to the parable of the sower. After telling the parable, Jesus pulls the disciples aside and explains the purpose of the parables. He says:

To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.

[Mark 4: 11–12 (bold mine)]

So, according to Jesus, the purpose of the parables is actually to prevent 'outsiders' from understanding the gospel. This passage has stumped Christian scholars for centuries! The key to understanding it is Paul's letter to the Romans.

Book cover: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt by Richard Carrier

In Romans, Paul is grappling with how God could have allowed Israel to reject the gospel. Paul's answer is that this was God's plan all along. God foreordained that the Jews would reject the gospel while the Gentiles would accept it. This, in turn, would make the Jews jealous so that, eventually, many of them would accept the gospel and be saved. To illustrate this point, Paul writes: 'God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day' [Rom 11:8]. In Mark's parable scene, Jesus says virtually the same thing. The eyes that don't see and ears that don't hear, in Paul, parallel the seeing but not perceiving and hearing but not understanding, in Mark.

Mark further illustrates the point about the Jews throughout his narrative: the Jews are mostly irresponsive to the message of Jesus, whereas the Gentiles are responsive. For Mark, following Paul [Rom 11: 7], God had hardened the hearts of Israel. And yet, in spite of this, neither Paul nor Mark doubted that the Jews were individually and collectively responsible for choosing to reject the Gospel.[6] For them, this was why God was now punishing them through the destruction of the temple.

You may, understandably, be concerned that this interpretation of Mark is effectively anti-Semitic. This is a misunderstanding. Mark is actually working within a long Jewish tradition of self-criticism. As Price [2007: 105] points out, 'one of the overarching themes of the Hebrew prophets in the Old Testament is the lack of faith of the Jewish people and how their God's wrath would destroy the Jews because of their lack of faith'.

Furthermore, Mark's interpretation of the destruction of Jerusalem as a God's punishment was a popular one among Hellenized Jews. The Jewish historian, Josephus, for example, interpreted the event in exactly the same way, albeit more explicitly through historical–political writing, rather than allegory (see Sanders [2001: 47]). Finally, it is likely that Mark shared Paul's view in Romans 11: 26 that God would ultimately ensure that the Jews would be reconciled to Christ. As a Christian, Mark would have believed that there was hope for God's chosen people.


  1. [5] Although, when alluding to Old Testament passages, Mark sometimes reverses the order in which each line originally appeared, usually as a deliberate way of making an ironic point. A classic example is his use of the Psalms in the crucifixion scene (compare, for example, Mk 15: 24–39 with Psalms 22: 1–30). For commentary, see Price [2007].
  2. [6] As Sanders [2001: ch. 5] has shown, most Jews, including Paul and Mark, held firm to the two fundamental theological convictions, even when they were in tension. First, that God was sovereign and controlled the course of history. Second, that humans were responsible for their own actions, including obedience and disobedience to God.

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