Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?
(My latest book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, has just been released after ten years in the making. Or two thousand years in the making. Did Jesus Christ die at a prison called Machaerus years before he took his mission to Jerusalem? Did a book, written in that era, document his death? What happened to that book? All important questions. For answers, see Against Mark at: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.)
Nearly two thousand years since the Book of Mark went out into the world and scholars remain thoroughly confused. Who was this Mark? Why did he put forth his Gospel? When did this Gospel find its first printing? Was it the first in line, an original so to speak, predating Matt and Luke and John? Or, did it fall sometime after Matt, as order in the New Testament suggests? To add to these questions, scholars believe that one significant book went missing. Known as the Q or Quelle, German for source, it was a book of sayings and deeds. When the book was written remains a mystery. Assuming the book was written during the time of the Synoptics, the scholars’ question became: Did the Quelle help to explain the contradictions found in the Synoptics, and the sea change between the Synoptics and the Book of Revelation? And speaking of Revelation, why did the Jesus movement of that time need an expansion on their story, an outsized, furiously dramatic, heart-pounding, drums booming, lightning strike of a story that transformed the Synoptic narrative from man into God to God into man? Maybe John, the supposed writer of the work and apostle allegedly imprisoned on an island, was fighting off sea creatures left and right as he wrote?
Unfortunately, I have no records to share on Revelation. The historical record remains thoroughly perplexed. But something of remarkable consequence got uncovered during my travels and travails. A truer perception of Mark the Evangelist can now be pieced together. What follows is a portraiture in ten brushstrokes:
1) Let’s start with some literary history. As I uncovered in a crypt in Nazareth, there was a book written during the time of the Synoptics. This book was not a Gospel. It was not written in the traditions of hagiography and foreshadowing and allegory. It did not use biblical figures, like Isaiah, as a latent prefiguration for the Passion story. Rather, this book was a history, in the Greco-Roman tradition, introducing factual and credible information on its subject. This book, in the Jewish tradition, was a responsum. What was it responding to?
The title gave it away, Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus. This responsum then firmly established the Book of Mark as the first Gospel. Against Mark struck out against the Book of Mark. The Books of Matthew, Luke and John were then necessary to re-establish the Jesus narrative. As was the suppression of Against Mark.
Two questions quickly emerge. What specifically was in the book and who was its author? Let’s leave the first part of that question for the moment and attempt to answer the second part. Modern day readers of the Jesus Century will know the name Flavius Josephus (for my portraiture on the man, see https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/05/30/who-was-the-real-josephus/.) There were many pages in his passport: an educated Jew, a soldier fighting against the Roman lava flow, a general of a Jewish army, a prisoner of war, a prophet, a translator, a historian, a favorite of Emperors, a citizen of Rome. The latter was unheard of in those days. Jews did not become Roman citizens. Josephus apparently gained his citizenship due to his close relationship with the Emperors Vespasian and Titus. According to Josephus, he switched his given name to Flavius to fall in line with the Flavian Dynasty.
This profile of a man has come down to us because of Josephus. He is the only source we have. He is not a reliable source (again, see my profile). For Christians, though, throughout the centuries, Josephus was a very important author. In fact, there was a time when his name held quasi-scriptural authority. In around the year 94, Josephus published a 20-volume history entitled Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people. Antiquities surveyed the large swathe of time, from Jewish origin up to the Jewish rebellion against Rome at the end of the 60s in the Jesus Century. But a reference in Antiquities made the book particularly relevant to Christians. For Josephus, apparently, profiled Jesus. That profile came as a two-part sketch. The most explosive sketch work came in the first entry, or in volume 18. Aside from calling Jesus a “wise man” and “a teacher” who “performed surprising deeds,” aside from telling a part of the Passion story (condemned to the cross, appearing to his followers on the third day), Josephus called Jesus the “Messiah.”
Later scholars pounced on the term, suggesting that a Jew of his time would not have used the reference. Such a term, for a Jew, would have been blasphemy. The term then suggested that a Christian came along and interpolated the profile onto Josephus’s pages. Thus, the Testimonium Flavianum, as scholars called Josephus’s profile of Jesus, seemed flawed.
The scholars were wrong. Josephus did, in fact, use the term. There was no interpolation. He had two reasons for his word choice. The first revolved around identification. Let’s step away from the emotion of the rhetoric. What seems clear is that Josephus had many men named Jesus in his sightline. That is to say, Jesus was a very popular name in the Roman Empire period and Josephus needed some way to differentiate between this Jesus and that Jesus. Rather than identifying Jesus with his birthplace, as the Gospel writers did, Josephus chose what turned out to be inflammatory words. Josephus did not choose Jesus’s birthplace as identification because Josephus knew the Nazarene characterization to be inaccurate, but that’s a story for another time. His word choice was not inflammatory to himself, which brings us to the second reason for Josephus’s use of the term.
Josephus lived a complicated life. He was a Jew and enforced that identity until the day he died. But, there was pressure exerted on him to become a “Jew for Jesus,” a common term then apparently, an abomination now. He therefore used the term “Messiah” to quell the pressure. He had little choice. He had to satisfy a secret patron in Rome. Either call Jesus the Messiah or face condemnation on the cross. Either promote the narrative or find yourself asphyxiated up high on a road to Rome.
It turns out that Josephus’s patron secretly followed the early Church movement. Who was Josephus’s patron? His name was Gaev and he was a Roman senator who considered the apostle Paul “a teacher.” He quietly promoted Paul as the mouthpiece of the burgeoning Christian movement. This was at a time when there were many preachers vying for control of the Jesus movement, as is evidenced by Paul’s letters. This was also a time when the Roman authority wouldn’t permit life to the Jesus movement, as Jesus was considered a seditionist. So, this senator’s promotion of Paul took on the quietest form possible. His approach was the antithesis to that in the Book of Revelation.
This history, as surprising as it may seem, seems conclusive. It is a secret history never before told. For more on Gaev, please do see my portraiture on Josephus on this blog, or my book Satan’s Synagogue. My next book, it should be noted, will form around Gaev’s incredible life story.
2) But there’s more to this particular story. Apparently unknown to Gaev, Josephus published a history. He did so without attaching his name to it, but Josephus was the author behind Against Mark.
The title, it should be noted, fell in line with Josephus’s polemical career. His final book was called Against Apion. Apion was the most famous historian of the Jesus Century. He wouldn’t have written on a provincial like Jesus. Rather, his works centered on important figures like Homer. But Apion was intensely anti-Jewish, and in a famous work, he excoriated the Jews, rendering Moses as a leper. Calling Moses a leper not only stained the first generation of Jews but all who followed from those bloodlines. Unfortunately, Apion’s manuscript has not come down to us. We only know of Apion’s work through Josephus.
The title, Against Apion, promoted the book’s agenda. Against Apion was a defense of a people, as Josephus took on a whole kettle of commentators who screamed and whistled anti-Jewish invective. Against Apion was a roundhouse right of a responsum. Notably, content in Against Apion appeared, in fragmented form, in Against Mark. Josephus was playing with some ideas.
But let’s get back to our story. Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus was introduced to the world as the year 70 began. Sequential order is important here. Mark’s Gospel was published in the late 60s. Josephus fell under Roman rule in 67, after he surrendered his army in Galilee, according to his narrative. He soon became a favorite of Vespasian, then the general of the Roman army tasked with putting down the Jewish rebellion. Vespasian made Josephus his translator. While Josephus acted as translator in the Roman-Jewish war, he wrote his first book. Against Mark turned Mark’s Gospel on its head. Later Christians had no choice; if they wanted to perpetuate the legend of Jesus, they had to eviscerate its existence.
But the book did not die. We now turn our attention to the destruction of the Temple. There was a beadle with a saving acumen. As the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire began in the year 66, and leading up to the destruction of the Temple in August of 70, this beadle removed books from the Temple library. The Temple was the leading repository for Jewish scholarship and an original edition of Against Mark had made its way into the library’s holdings. Josephus, who was on scene as translator, perhaps donated the edition himself.
The beadle, as he did with other books in the library, squired them away in his robe and buried them in the coffins of Jews. The Jewish cemetery existed just beyond the Temple compound, outside city walls, as burial within Jerusalem would have been a heresy in Jewish traditions. The Jewish cemetery edged up to the City of David, or the first incarnation of the city we call Jerusalem. The Jewish cemetery, then and now, existed on the Mount of Olives. To Romans, who most certainly knew of the beadle’s movements, it looked like the deceased wanted to be buried with their favorite books. In actuality, it was a brilliant scheme devised by the beadle to maintain the lifeblood of a people. But the beadle took his scheme further. In the case of Against Mark, he let Josephus know of his exploits. He revealed the particular coffin holding the book, and the coordinates of that coffin in the Jewish cemetery.
Josephus became a prisoner of Rome. Though a citizen, he could not leave its boundaries. He then passed on the pertinent information of the book’s whereabouts to a relative. That information got passed on. There is a wonderful chemistry term called an autocatalytic phenomenon, or an increasing on itself. An autocatalytic phenomenon occurred and one relative would tell the next. These relatives became known as Josephus Direct Descendants, or JDDs. A direct line from Josephus to today knew of the book’s whereabouts. I have done extensive research to uncover the JDD line, though that may be a story for another book project. But I will say, notably among the JDDs, one famous and important figure stands out. He was the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the mid-18th century all the way into the years of the First World War. His name was Franz Joseph and he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1869. Unknown to the historical record, Joseph attempted to find Josephus’s book. He failed. This is a rather incredible discovery, for many reasons. But one reason shines like the halo later painters gave Jesus. Franz Joseph, the great Catholic, descended directly from Josephus, who descended from Jewish high priests. The Jewish royalty in Franz Joseph’s bloodlines dated back many millennia.
This JDD history got passed to me. I received a particular piece of mail from a relative. As he wishes to remain anonymous, I will simply refer to him as the latest JDD. In his letter, he asked to talk to me in person. We met. I suppose this relative is not the latest JDD. I am.
I did something no other JDD had done, with the exception of Franz Joseph. I went to Jerusalem, to the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. I found the burial spot. I didn’t find the book there. But as luck would have it, I chanced upon a clue that pointed toward another old city and another burial ground. This one was Christian. Meaning: this burial ground would be in the bottom layers of a church. I found the book.
3) With the authorship of Against Mark firmly established, let’s now turn to our second question. What specifically was in the book? And even more importantly, what can be learned about Mark in Against Mark?
Actually, let’s take one more detour. To get at those questions, let’s first try to understand Against Mark’s target, the Book of Mark. Let’s go back to some deeply steeped Jewish traditions. Let’s identify a force known as a dybbuk. The concept of evil spirits dates back to antiquity. Dybbuk MiRuah Ra means a cleaving of the evil spirit. Dybbukim were disembodied souls who couldn’t find a resting place after death. They attached to the bodies of living persons. A possessed person then had souls at war with one another.
As dybbukim gained a foothold in Jewish tradition, a counterforce arose. In Jesus’s time, they would have been known as maggidim, or itinerant orators. They traveled the countryside, preaching and performing exorcisms among their activities. In Jesus’s time, maggidim were so plentiful, they might have formed a profession all to themselves. To doubt them and their “babble,” as the Romans referred to the maggidim in Latin, was normal operating procedure. In the early 17th century, bastardized Latin, in the forms of Italian and French, rendered a new term for the maggidim: charlatanry.
At about that time, the maggidim morphed into the baalei shem, or masters of the name. These charismatic preachers traveled the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe, and sometimes far wider.
At the end of the 17th century a remarkable baal shem was born, though his powers were hidden for decades. His name was Israel Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht. The Gospel of the Besht recorded multiple exorcisms, including the expulsion of a dybbuk from a madwoman. The Gospel of the Besht has tentacles reaching directly back to the Gospels of the New Testament. But that’s a story for another time.
To understand the Book of Mark is to focus in on dybbukim, maggidim, and in particular one baal shem. His name, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth. In Mark’s worldview, the lands known as the Galilee, Phoenicia, and the Decapolis housed the sick and the decrepit. Jesus as baal shem then went about exorcising possessed persons everywhere. But the dybbukim and their possession of individuals were only the starting point for what truly ailed the nation. As Mark rendered, all rulers, from local landowners to regional Pharisees to Temple Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to the vassal king for the Roman Empire, Herod Antipas, to the Romans themselves, suffered from serious affliction. Power warped their minds. They acted with deleterious effect. In Mark’s rendering then, Jesus then moved from Jesus as baal shem to Jesus as seditionist. His actions forced the hand of the ruling parties. The seditionist had to die.
This synopsis brings us to the “Place of a Skull,” known as Golgotha. In Mark’s rendering, all of Jesus’s suffering on the crucifix formed in the Aramaic words, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’” Or, as Mark immediately translated, “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
From there, death came for Jesus, with witnesses to document the drama. The witnesses were women. Mark will use this device at the tail end of his narrative, as the women visit Jesus’s entombment and note, with amazement and fear, the empty crypt.
This is the narrative in condensed form. It went out into the world in the late 60s of the Jesus Century. It caught the attention of our man, Josephus. At that time, he was a prisoner of Rome, held by Vespasian’s forces in the Galilee. As the historical record shows, he immediately embarked upon a criticism. Did he feel personally bruised by Mark’s narrative? I believe so. Against Mark has a raw quality, as if the writer took the work as an affront to his sense of right and wrong. Against Mark is a correction.
Who read Against Mark and how was it received? There are no records to answer those questions. If Against Mark established Josephus as a historian of note, there would have been some tremendous irony. The readership for The Book of Mark would have grown. Maybe The Book of Mark, and the subsequent Gospels, became famous because of Against Mark as correction.
Some two thousand years later, Against Mark should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Gospels, or church history, or Ancient Rome, or Judaism in the Second Temple period. I’m not sure there’s been a more influential writer in the history of the western world than Josephus. He just never gained the recognition. Maybe that will start to change now.
4) Let’s now turn to our questions: What specifically was in Josephus’s book? And, more importantly for this study, what by extension can be learned about Mark? Let’s be blunt: Josephus rendered a very different Jesus to Mark’s version. To read the full text, please do see Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, but let me here give a few noteworthy details.
Mark opened his narrative with the prophet Isaiah as a herald, with John the Baptist and his illuminating words, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark’s very next words then introduced Jesus the Nazarene. The introduction bothered Josephus. He criticized in his book, “We learn nothing else of Jesus’s early history in Mark. We learn nothing of his genealogy, nothing of his origins, nothing of his birth. We learn very little of his family. It is a rather curious omission, considering what Jesus will become.”
Notably, something similar might be said of Mark. What really do we know of the man? According to Church traditions, he was born in Cyrene, an important town within the Egyptian Pentapolis in modern day Libya. The Pentapolis was really a Decapolis, but that’s a story for another day. Further, according to Church traditions, Mark became a traveling companion of Peter somewhere around Antioch, during Peter’s missionary run to Rome. Peter died in Rome on the orders of Nero. He was crucified, traditions purport, as the Great Fire consumed Rome.
If so, the year would have been 64. By then, Mark would have turned to the Church movement, fled from Rome, and returned to Egypt, putting down stakes in Alexandria. There, he founded a church. According to Church traditions, he then began the writing of his Gospel, using his notes taken during his journey with Peter. It seems that Mark wrote down Peter’s sermons in those churches from Antioch and up into Galatia and Bithynia and over to Corinth and onto Rome. The Gospel of Mark went out into the world sometime during the years 66-70.
Let me just say outright. That entire narrative is wrong. Except for the birthplace and the publishing of the Gospel. As I noted in Satan’s Synagogue, there was an epilogue to Against Mark. A series of letters between Peter and Mark offered essential detail. Those letters, with Peter in Jerusalem and Mark in Alexandria, established Peter as an authoritative witness and, as Peter granted full access to Mark, established Mark as expert. Those letters also noted the deteriorating health of Mark and Peter’s hope that Mark would join the one they call the Christ in heaven. The last letter permitted rare access into Mark. He called his finished work his “last will and testament” and expressed his final wishes: to die a quiet death and for his testimonium to gain notoriety. Those wishes have been fulfilled. Mark died in his bed, not, as Church traditions purport, with a rope around his neck and dragged through the streets. That’s just plain legend building, martyrdom silliness.
The last letter between Peter and Mark dated to the year 68. The year, of course, sets off alarm bells. If accurate, Peter did not die in Rome during the Great Fire of 64. He returned to Jerusalem. He outlived his friend and protégé Mark.
If all of this is considered some serious heresy to Church traditions, let’s add some more. In Against Mark, I claimed that those letters had gone missing. They hadn’t. When I found Josephus’s lost manuscript, I found the full manuscript, epilogue included. Truth is, I kept the letters for myself. I plan to use those letters to build the true personages of both Mark and Peter in my next book. Then, and only then, I will restore the letters to their rightful place as the epilogue to Against Mark. Selfish, you might say of my plan. I agree. Welcome to the world of scholarship.
Mark and Peter, it should be noted, did not meet in Antioch or any other town in Anatolia. Their intersection is clear, at least according to their letters. They met in Jerusalem, in the year 50, during, arguably, the most important conference in the entire history of Christianity. In a quiet room at a local inn not far from the Temple, Peter of Bethsaida and James the Just welcomed Paul and his fellow traveler, Barnabas, both of whom had just returned from their missionary romp around the Mediterranean. Mark attended on the invitation of his “cousin” Barnabas. Cousin here is used in the Latino definition, centuries before that definition came to identify anyone in the neighborhood. Apparently Egypt and Cyprus, Barnabas’s birthplace, were neighbors. Mark was a scribe, and a scribe was needed to document the conference. A bond was formed between Peter and Mark and when the Church elders decided to send Peter out on his missionary tour, Mark went along as scribe.
With their origin now firmly established, let’s get back to our story. As Mark introduced Jesus as a Nazarene in his Gospel, Josephus set the record straight. He wrote, “In my days as Governor General of the Galilee, I heard the people talk of this man named Jesus. Nearly two score had passed since Jesus walked the Galilee and he was still the talk of the nation. As I understood that talk, he was born in a place called Beth Lehem Zebulun. To differentiate this Beth Lehem from the polis in Judea, on the road to Jerusalem, the Galileans added the name of one of the twelve tribes. This Beth Lehem could be glimpsed from the top of Nazareth. It was hardly a day’s journey from one to the other. But as Beth Lehem Zebulun was a place of obscurity, Mark gave Jesus the distinction of a Nazareth birth. Nazareth, at that time, was the sister city of the famed Zippori, or Sepphoris as the Romans called it. Nazareth had status.”
Clearly, those reading The Book of Mark across the Empire would have heard of Nazareth. They would not have heard of Beth Lehem Zebulun. This accounts for the change in birthplace, according to Josephus. But what’s also interesting in Josephus’s rendering was the talk of Jesus. Forty years later, he remained on the Galileans’ mind. He therefore left some legacy. Josephus continued, “I now turn to Jesus as he traveled the Galilee whole and beyond, into the Decapolis, over to Tyre and Sidon, and up to Jerusalem, laying down the gospel and curing a nation of sick with both touch and word. Along the way, masses formed around his personage and a new movement known as Jews for Jesus was born.”
The Galilean section of the work centered around the town of Capernaum. It centered around Jesus-as-balm, Jesus-as-curative. It centered around the cleansing of unclean characters. It centered around a doctrine of silence. According to Josephus, Mark established a “story-telling device” from the very first unclean character. The demons knew the true identity of Jesus. Jesus rebuked the demon, “‘Be silent, and come out of him.’” The demon obeyed. As Josephus wrote, “Mark recycled this device again and again.”
To the brushstrokes established so far – Jesus-as-curative, Jesus as private of his true identity – Josephus infused more color. He transitioned to Jesus as lawgiver. In The Book of Mark, we find Jesus at table, seated beside tax collectors, and sinners, and scribes who were Pharisees. The scribes questioned his choice of guests. Mark eventually came to the nub, as Jesus answered, “‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.’” The words and tone must have struck the Pharisees as a rebellion to the old world order. That seemed to be Mark’s point, as he immediately followed with another. On a Sabbath, a congregation gathered at the synagogue. Pharisees comprised the congregants, as did a man with a withered arm. Jesus cured the man and questioned the Pharisees “hardness of heart” concerning Sabbath tradition. The Pharisees, Mark told us, responded by plotting to bring about Jesus’s death. They began to conspire with Herod’s court.
Josephus rendered the story along the line of a “Moses motif. Mark made Jesus into a lawgiver. He positioned Jesus as rebel and iconoclast. Jesus’s actions provoked the powers that be. These are the foundational traits of Moses in the Exodus.”
5) A question struck Josephus. The reference to Herod “infused” some historical accuracy into the account. Remove the oversized miracles and the story of a rebellion against the old world order emerged, with Galileans massing around the central figure who carried the pseudo secrecy of a Messiah identity. That identity would have been eye-popping and, indeed, would have caught the attention of both the Pharisees and the tetrarch, Herod. Josephus wondered why Herod didn’t arrest Jesus early in his mission, or as he wrote, “When Jesus struck the chord of insurrection, shouldn’t that have instigated his immediate downfall?”
As Josephus let the question linger, let’s push on. According to Josephus, Mark took a “detour” with his narrative. He focused on Jesus’s family, both the blood relatives and the external characters known as his disciples. In this “detour,” as Mark rendered the narrative, Jesus made official the appointments of his disciples. The appointments included Judas Iscariot, “who betrayed him.” While we learn biographical details of other disciples along the way – James and John were fishermen, so were Simon and his brother Andrew, Levi collected custom duties – Judas carried the mark of the betrayer from first mention. According to Josephus, “This set the stage for the climactic scene. It is a loose literary technique, but Mark, at this point in narration, had other biographies in mind.”
He moved from the disciples as a family of sorts to the reaction of Jesus’s actual family. As Mark told us, they tried to “restrain” him, as general reaction to Jesus claimed that he had “gone out of his mind.” According to Josephus, “Familial restraint came across as a saving technique, as if the family attempted to save Jesus from himself. Such a rendering spoke of a false prophet. Perhaps owing to the restraint, Jesus rejected his mother and brothers when they asked to see him.”
But there’s more to this brushstroke. As Josephus noted, Jesus-as-rebel posed a serious threat to his family. Rome and the tetrarch would have eradicated the family after eradicating the rebel. Mark framed the family as outside the ministry. He took the framing further with Jesus’s rejection of his own family. According to Josephus, “Mark’s passage then served as a protective layer for the family against Roman rule. Mark, writing nearly two score after these events, suggested that Jesus’s family continued on with their lives after these events occurred.” That may have been the case. The historical record goes silent on Jesus’s family and what happened following these events. With one exception. “That exception formed around James, also known as the Just,” Josephus wrote. “He was stoned to death in and around the year 62. The High Priest, Ananus ben Ananus, used the lack of imperial oversight to convene his Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin found James guilty of breaking the laws of Moses. James offended even the most fair-minded observers. In Jerusalem, we knew him for his eccentric behavior. He was mad and considered ‘out of his mind.’ As per Sanhedrin doctrine, he was stoned to death. Jerusalem did not object.”
To this rendering of James the Just, let’s be clear. There has been much scholarship on the question of whether this James was the biological brother of Jesus. The New Testament seems rather clear. He was. Later Church fathers, however, needed to foster the perpetual virginity of Mary and so Jesus’s siblings had to be removed a step or two from his biological line. They became half-siblings, or cousins. In Mark’s rendition of events, there wasn’t a question. Mark did not recognize a human father of Jesus. Joseph never entered the picture. Matthew and Luke recognized the hole in the story and introduced Joseph as the husband of Mary. Much confusion then reigned when considering Mary’s perpetual virginity. Josephus expressed no confusion, however, in his portrayal of James the Just. The Jewish world knew him as the biological brother. They considered him mad. Later Church fathers would spin this James as beloved by his followers. Both could be true, of course. As for the history, Josephus’s writing formed the only known reaction to James’s death. And, Josephus only recorded the reaction of the Jewish population. In Antiquities, Josephus returned to the subject. His colorization of James went out into the world. It would be interesting to note the other side. How did early Christians react to his death? Was he viewed as a madman or a martyr? Did the martyr framing come later, as builders of the faith needed to further perpetuate Christian martyrdom?
6) Let me now skip over some sections of Mark, and Josephus’s reaction. To be clear, there is great redundancy in Mark. The whole “Parable” and “Miracles” section should be cut. Josephus recognized this. He wrote to his readership, “I won’t bore you with a recount.”
Mark then changed the setting to the Decapolis. He introduced a man named Legion. He gave Legion distinct characteristics: wild, incredibly strong, uncontrollable. Even chains, Mark wrote, were useless on him. When Legion saw Jesus, he rushed to him for help. Jesus demanded that the unclean spirit come out of the man. Jesus then spoke to the spirit, who implored Jesus not to send him and the many other unclean spirits out of the district. Taking a look around, the spirit suggested that Jesus send the spirits into the pigs feeding nearby. Jesus did as asked. The herd of pigs then rushed into the lake, where they drowned. Quickly the news spread and the townsfolk came out to see the scene. There sat the man, now in health, with Jesus. The townsfolk reacted in fear and begged Jesus to leave. The man reacted by asking to go with Jesus. Jesus opposed the man’s request. Instead, he gave the man instructions: “‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’” The man then spread the news throughout the Decapolis. Mark shifted to reaction, as the residents were “amazed” by the man’s story. While Mark turned to the next story in his catalog, Josephus examined. He found it noteworthy that the unclean spirit was given a Roman name. “Nowhere else in Mark’s account do we come across a spirit with a Roman reference,” he wrote. Mark gave the spirit incredible strength, suggesting the power of Rome. Mark then moved to Jesus-as-curative. “The purification suggested the warrior Messiah ridding the Jewish body of the Roman parasite,” Josephus interpreted. “Mark had the entire spirit population die in the bodies of pigs. The pig is a stupid animal. In Mark’s story, they rushed to their death. The story then read as an anti-Rome allegory. Jesus cured the Roman of his Jewish hatred. He then banished that hatred to the population of pigs. He then drove that population to their death. Such is our nation’s reaction to the yoke of Roman rule. This passage reflects supremely on our current climate, as well as the situation nearly two score ago.”
This last line is extremely important in evaluating Josephus’s criticism. Both Josephus and Mark wrote their works in the age of rebellion. These were incredibly bloody times. When the Romans conquered the Galilee and Judea, they eradicated towns. They butchered all citizens. They left the most important on crucifixes. They burned everything to the ground. This is the imagery that Josephus, and Mark, had in mind. Who then was The Book of Mark written for? Was the narrative used to show that, indeed, the overthrow of Rome was soon to commence, led by the miraculous General-Governor-Lord known as Jesus Christ? Was it, in a way, a patriotic call to arms?
Maybe Josephus interpreted it as such. Maybe that’s why his criticism comes off as deeply personal. He didn’t believe in Jesus as savior. He didn’t rush into the open arms of Jesus’s new beginnings. He witnessed the brutality of the Roman landscape. He could never escape that landscape.
7) Mark next turned to the troubles of a synagogue president named Jairus. He approached Jesus with desperate news of his daughter’s terminal illness. He begged Jesus to save her life. Jesus consented and the two began the walk to Jairus’s house. Along the way, a woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years approached. She touched Jesus’s cloak and was cured. Jesus felt the “power had gone forth from him” and turned to confront the transgressor. In the crush of humanity, however, he couldn’t identify the person. The woman, in fear, came forward. Yet, Jesus did not reprimand her. Rather, he rewarded her, claiming that her faith had healed her. At that time, a messenger arrived from Jairus’s house with the news that the daughter had died. Jesus responded directly to Jairus, “‘Do not fear, only believe.’”
That line struck Josephus. He wrote, “From Torah to Tanakh and the Haftorah, there are references ad nauseam to the words, ‘Be not afraid.’ Beginning in Genesis and flowing through Exodus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, appearing in Joshua and Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, moving to Job and Jeremiah and Daniel and, importantly for this work, Isaiah, ‘Be not afraid’ forms the most common phrase in the large and wide literature. By speaking them here, Jesus established himself as the representative of the ancients.”
The party pressed on to Jairus’s house. There, Jesus claimed that the girl was only asleep. Those present laughed at Jesus’s words. With only the girl’s parents present, as well as a few of the disciples, Jesus told the girl to rise. Mark left those words in Aramaic while the rest of the text is in Greek. Mark immediately included a translation of the Aramaic. The girl rose. Mark emphasized her age of twelve years. That number conjoined with earlier references (the woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, the twelve disciples) to symbolize God’s power and authority. While those present reacted with amazement, Mark told us, Jesus demanded secrecy. And so the same themes continued: Jesus-as-curative, a pervasive sense of amazement from those present, Jesus calling for secrecy. Further, Mark gave Jesus the power of life and death. Jesus could now raise the dead. If anyone questioned such a rising, Mark added witnesses. All of this struck Josephus as “a literary tool.” Mark needed others present to corroborate the details of the story. Otherwise, the story “came across as more of an entertainment than a truth,” Josephus commented.
This last line, in my opinion, comes across as a tell to Josephus’s own writing career. In the events he alone portrayed at Masada, and in his testimony of his battle against the Romans at Jotapata, Josephus added witnesses. They survived these events and went on to tell the stories. If Josephus didn’t add witness account to his tales, would his narratives appear as “more of an entertainment than a truth”?
8) To read Josephus’s full portrayal of the events at Masada, or Jotapata, please do see my earlier book, Satan’s Synagogue. But, let’s take a jump in story. According to Josephus, Mark did “something curious with his story. He took a break.” He had Jesus command his disciples to go out into the Galilee and to continue their curative work. He then used that “dispersion” to return to an earlier story. What began on the first page of Mark’s narrative ended here, with the death of John the Baptist. Mark told his tale by noting Herod’s reaction to Jesus. As whispers of Jesus’s power reached Herod, Herod focused on a past beheading. While others in Herod’s court gave Jesus a prophetic profile, Herod announced, “‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’”
Josephus saw that announcement as “curious. In turning to the story of John’s beheading, Mark missed what might have been the true story of this character named Jesus. In my time in the Galilee, I heard the story of Jesus’s death often enough. Herod’s murder of John and the subsequent rise of Jesus struck fear in the tetrarch. He then repeated his actions: arresting Jesus as he did John, sending Jesus to Machaerus, ordering the beheading. Mark took his story in a different direction. That story comes across as an entertainment.”
As Mark wrote, Herod took the wife of his brother. Her name was Herodias. John the Baptist took umbrage with this union, as Herod’s brother was alive, and he made his feelings known to Herod. This turned Herodias against John. She held “a grudge” against John, “and wanted to kill him.” She could not. Herod “feared” John, believing John to be “a righteous and holy man.” Herod therefore “protected” John.
An opportunity for Herodias, however, eventually arose. During the festival of Herod’s birthday, Herod’s daughter performed a dance that delighted the tetrarch. In a mood of elation, Herod promised to give the girl a wish, anything she liked, up to half his kingdom. The girl consulted with Herodias. The request of John’s head, according to Mark, caused great distress for Herod. But he fulfilled his oath. A soldier beheaded John, then presented the head on a platter at the banquet. Mark ended this part of the story with his attention on John’s disciples, who took the body away and laid it in a tomb. Mark ended his story of Jesus with similar colors.
Josephus hated all of it. He wrote, “As I am determined to respect the truth of history, permit me to point out the neglect in Mark’s story. Mark missed the reaction of Herod’s wife before Herodias. Her name was Phasaelis and she was the daughter of King Aeneas, known as Aretas, who presided over the neighboring Nabataean Kingdom. Herod did, indeed, fall in love with Herodias and he planned to marry her. First, though, he needed to divorce Phasaelis. Phasaelis caught wind of Herod’s plan and she managed to escape and make her way back to her father’s kingdom. King Aretas reacted to the news with enmity. A further quarrel between Aretas and Herod over boundary issues set the stage for war. Aretas routed Herod’s forces. During the siege, Herod had all of his prisoners in Machaerus killed. Given his weakened state, he feared a revolt amongst his prison population. John died in that general murder spree, a victim of a wider war. To contest Aretas, Herod had no choice but to call for help from Rome. Tiberius, who wanted peace in the region, took his umbrage out on Aretas. He called for the governor in Syria, Lucius Vitellius, to bring Aretas to Rome, either alive in chains or dead with his head on a stick. Vitellius mustered his legions and moved against the Nabataeans. However, Tiberius died during the Passover in that eponymous place and Caligula recalled the mission. By then, though, the Nabataeans had moved back to their lands across the Jordan. Mark missed this entire truth of history with his story. His neglect is glaring. To call such a story an entertainment is a miscalculation on my part. With such a story, he enters the underworld, a place of darkness and deception, a place built by artifice, a place that can best be described as Satan’s Synagogue.”
Wow. That was my reaction when I first read this passage in Against Mark. This is, simply, some watershed text. Let’s start with the last words. I believe this is the first reference to Satan’s Synagogue. I believe the author of Revelation took from Against Mark. Notably, the author inverted Josephus’s phrase, going with the Synagogue of Satan. Or, at least those are the words that have come down to us in Gospel translations. Perhaps the original echoed Josephus.
To that notable, add another. What is this reference to Emperor Tiberius dying “in that eponymous place”? According to the historical record, Tiberius died in the great Roman port of Misenum in the province of Naples. What did Josephus know that the world did not?
To that notable, add another. Earlier I wrote of Josephus’s “bruised” feelings. I noted that Against Mark has a raw quality, as if the writer took The Book of Mark as an affront to his sense of right and wrong. Here, Josephus seemed to get his feelings hurt. He then lashed out. Perhaps Josephus’s attack had to do with John the Baptist. He was Josephus’s hero, it seems, and Josephus could not stand by as a falsification went out into the world. Notably, Josephus lost the war of words. His criticism disappeared from view while the Gospels became the book on which much of western civilization is based.
9) To all of this notable, let’s add another. Jesus died at the prison of Machaerus, beheaded under the orders of Herod. Josephus came back to that incredible detail. According to The Book of Mark, Jesus held a conversation with his disciples. The question on the table concerned identity: who did the people think Jesus was. He heard various responses: John the Baptist, Elijah or other unnamed prophets. He asked the disciples for their thoughts. Mark put important words in Peter’s mouth. “‘You are the Messiah,’” Peter declared.
According to Josephus, this declaration acted as “a narrative shift. In a literary foreshadowing, Jesus replied that the Son of Man must suffer, must be rejected by the ruling hierarchy, must be put to death, and he would then rise three days hence. With these words, the inexorable march to these events began. That the climax comes in Jerusalem was necessary, for Jesus had to confront the ruling hierarchy in the Temple. That Jesus’s words transcended the earthly authority of Rome was necessary too, for this Messiah story moved far beyond the prophetic stories of our ancient past. Was Jesus the Messiah? Mark, who took great pains to build a middle passage story for the Messiah in the Galilee section of his work, now moved the narrative to the only place a Messiah could truly be identified. But, my experience in the Galilee, and most notably during the battle at Jotapata, where all was lost, contradicts Mark’s narrative. The teaching of Jesus was a story that people still talked about. But his rebellion was put down. He died at Machaerus.”
Let me point out the obvious. Because people talked about Jesus and his death some thirty-five years later, and because Josephus heard the scuttlebutt, doesn’t mean the history actually played out that way. Stories tend to get corrupted. Eyewitness testimony tends to embellish, or omit. Josephus, though, certainly believed that Jesus died at Machaerus.
10) Did Peter and Mark address such a death in their letters? They did not. Did they quietly accept Jesus’s death at Machaerus while loudly, in the form of the Gospel, proclaim the Passion story? There are no conclusive answers. But without going into too much detail, as I want to go into depth in my next book, let me say this about the letters: there is an undertone. There is a sense of building. The story needed some construction. Peter and Mark became the chief architects. They recognized their roles, or as Mark wrote to Peter, “The voice of the Gospel is mine, but you are the sound engineer.”
As sound engineer, Peter made himself important. The Romans, in their writing of history, elevated the eyewitness. They developed a term: thereness. A history gained greater credibility with eyewitness thereness. Peter relished his thereness and Mark went along for the ride. The problem is, there wasn’t a check on Peter’s testimony. Mark was not a scholar in modern day terms. He did not seek corroborating sources. He gave his mentor a gift: free reign. Peter then grabbed a spotlight and became a kind of co-star. The thrice denial section of the Gospel speaks to this dynamic. It feels contrived. If Mark questioned Peter on his role during the trial of Jesus, there is no evidence in the letters. What does that say of Mark?
Here’s what we know. Mark dictated the Gospel to an unnamed scribe. Mark was moving ever closer to death and he didn’t have the vigor to actually do the writing. He spoke the story. A scribe transferred the narrative to parchment.
Mark was irritable. Part of his irritability stemmed from ill health. Part of his irritability stemmed from life experience. Part of his irritability stemmed from his general makeup. Mark was an irascible sort of fellow.
In his letters to Peter, he complained about most everything: the oppressive heat of Alexandria, the lack of Sea breezes, both the tardiness and the earliness of his scribe, the cost. The scribe did not come cheap and Mark had no money. Being a major player in the Church did not lead to a life of luxury. My, how things have changed.
Mark might have been senile at this point on his life. In Against Mark, Josephus railed against Mark’s basic misunderstanding of Galilean geography. For instance, Mark placed Bethsaida beside the Sea of Galilee. According to Josephus, Bethsaida resided north of the Galilee, in Gaulanitis. Bethsaida was a fishing village on the shores of Lake Ram. Philip the Tetrarch built up a neighboring town to Bethsaida and named it in honor of both Rome and himself, Caesaria Philippi. Both towns play a role in the first part of Mark’s Gospel.
Why did Mark move Bethsaida into the Galilee? Perhaps senility played a role. Perhaps he had another agenda. The other disciples all came from the same place, the Galilee, with the exception of Judas. But then the narrative of Judas is an exception, so that makes narrative sense. Perhaps Mark simply wanted the origins of the disciples to line up.
Mark considered himself a “Jew for Jesus.” He proclaimed it over and over again in his letters. The term then suggested an evolving sect of Judaism, outside and at odds with the dominant cultures governing the religion. In Mark’s day, the Christian schism with Judaism had not occurred. There were no Christians then. There was, though, a thorough dislike and distrust for the dominant Jewish cultures. As a Jew for Jesus, Mark railed against the power structure. This was a part of his irritability. The authorities in Jerusalem and their tentacles in the Galilee were a bane in Mark’s worldview. It’s no coincidence then that, in the Gospels, Jesus questions and embarrasses the power structure relentlessly.
Did Mark develop an inner hatred for the Jewish nation? Consider his description of Jerusalem in the Gospel. Decay, corruption, tradition gone asunder: these were the primary markers of Mark’s Jerusalem. His setting struck a tone of usury, and all debts must be repaid. The letters between Mark and Peter speak to this characterization. Both men want Jerusalem “torn down.” The term didn’t suggest the razing of the city, as the Romans did. And the city left in rubble for sixty years, as happened between the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt. The term suggested “a new beginning… a shining light.” To Mark and Peter that light hadn’t existed “since the Hashmona’im.”
It’s a curious reference to the Hasmonean dynasty. Begun by Judas Maccabeus and furthered by his brother, Simon the Wise, the dynasty threw off the rule of the Seleucid Empire and formed an independent state. Perhaps that history accounts for Mark’s and Peter’s evaluation of the Hasmonean years. But, the Hasmoneans were Hellenized and that must have disturbed the Jews for Jesus movement. The early Church movement wanted, above all else, self-determination. They wanted, through their conduit Jesus, to touch God. They saw all of these layers – Romans, Greeks, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin – as “pollutants of the soil,” to quote Peter in a letter. To them, Jesus was the way of “reduction, and restoration.”
The Hasmoneans were not. In addition, their independent state survived about fifty years. The Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for self-governance within the wider confines of foreign rule. The Romans eventually liquidated the Hasmoneans. Liquidation was the dynamic at the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospels. Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.
But if Peter’s and Mark’s reference to the Hasmoneans comes across as a bit convoluted, their inner hatred for the Jewish nation seems apparent. To Mark’s description of Jerusalem in his Gospel, let’s consider a second example. Pilate, as representative of Rome, displayed nothing but forbearance for Jesus. According to Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish realm pushed Pilate toward capitol punishment. Mark seemed rather clear in his conviction. The Jews killed Jesus. Mark then employed a literary technique. He had Pilate whip Jesus. That whipping set up the suffering that would follow. But the true enemy, as Mark spun his story, formed around the ruling Jewish culture.
Mark, nor Peter, lived to see the death of that Jewish culture. But it did die. The Second Temple period, which began with exiled Jews returning from Babylon, ended essentially with the Bar Kokhba revolt. A new exile would come into existence, with the Romans booting all Jews out of Judea.
Bar Kokhba, it should be noted, was ruthless to the Jews for Jesus movement, as those followers refused to fight against the Romans. Here was the break in history. The followers of the early Church movement choose to sit out a war against Rome. They could not support the dominant Jewish culture. Bar Kokhba punished them for their conviction. Meanwhile, the emperor of Rome, Hadrian, opened the door of leniency. And the new movement, known as Christianity, walked right through. But that’s a story for another day.
Mark wanted a final letter, to be sent to Peter after his death. His scribe complied. According to that death scene, Mark uttered the words Jesus once had at Golgotha, while suffering on the crucifix. “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’” Mark uttered them in Aramaic. His scribe did not translate the words into Hebrew, as Mark did in his Gospel. His scribe left the words in their original language.
It would be fascinating to know Peter’s reaction to these words. Mark’s deathbed cry basically ends their correspondence. I can interpret… but let me save that for a later book project.
Turning the page:
I usually don’t telegraph my upcoming work but here’s a coming attraction. My next profile – related to Against Mark, and my earlier book, Satan’s Synagogue – sketches a very different character. A funny thing happened with Satan’s Synagogue. It became hot news at the Trump White House. Recently, I took a meeting. For my reportage of that meeting, please tune in next week. Same Bat-time (next Friday). Same Bat-channel. But this Bat has nothing to do with the caped crusader. This Bat is an acronym. It tells the true story of a kidnapping plot against the president.