Omitting the Infancy and Resurrection Narratives: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish-Christian Leadership in Jerusalem

Even a cursory glance at the New Testament gospels reveals a startling number of differences both large and small in the telling of the sayings and deeds of Jesus. Similarities among the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are attributed by scholars to the use of the former by the latter two as well as their joint reliance on sayings source Q. Differences are traced to unique sources used by the evangelists or to their editorial activity. But how do we account for seemingly important omissions? Why, for example, do the Gospels of Mark and John not report the death of Judas? Why does the Gospel of John not include of the institution of the eucharist? Why do Mark, Matthew, and John not report Jesus’s hearing before Herod or Mark, Matthew, and Luke his hearing before Annas? Why do the synoptic gospels not know of the miracle at Cana or the Gospel of John the Transfiguration? Various theories have been developed to account for these omissions but none, to my knowledge, adequately accounts for one of the greatest sets of omissions of all. Why does the Gospel of Mark report nothing of the origins of Jesus nor of his resurrection appearance(s) to his disciples?

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both feature extensive narratives of Jesus’s infancy (John, in his prologue, chooses to locate Jesus’s origins before the Creation). And Matthew, Luke, and John include narratives describing appearances of the risen Jesus. I will suggest in this essay that Mark did know these traditions and deliberately suppressed them for political reasons in conformity with the ancient values of honor and shame. The author’s bias against the earliest leadership of the Jerusalem church, a leadership composed of Jesus’s family and a council of twelve elders of the Way, prevented him from including these narratives.

This essay owes a debt to the publications of Michael D. Goulder whose numerous works explore the biases and contentions among the evangelists and their reflection in the retelling of the story of Jesus, especially in light of Pauline theology.[1] In this regard, I accept the premise that Mark reflects, at least in general, Pauline theology. Joel Marcus helpfully summarizes the points of similarity between Paul’s and Mark’s theologies.[2] These include the atoning significance of the cross, faith in Christ as the only path to salvation, and the abrogation of Jewish food laws separating Jew from Gentile. Mark advocates for the Gentile church by showing that the historical Jesus was equally open to Gentiles and by denigrating that faction of the church, i.e., the family of Jesus and his Galilean followers, that championed a messiah and a coming kingdom primarily for Jews. Though the Jerusalem leadership was largely open to Gentile participation they were granted less than full membership.

That the Gospel of Mark was intended for Gentile readers has long been established though this in no way precludes its author from being a Jew who resided in Israel. Mark’s unfamiliarity with Palestinian topography and Pharisaic customs could reflect diaspora origins and perhaps indicate only a limited time spent in Judea or maybe only Jerusalem. As a diaspora Jew, he may have recently relocated to Jerusalem, perhaps during Jesus’s ministry. This accords with traditions that attribute the gospel to someone named Mark.

Many scholars now take the position that the gospels originally circulated anonymously despite later, second century, traditions attributing them to important apostolic or missionary figures. Included among the latter is “Mark” whom the second-century Hierapolitan bishop Papias described as a companion of Peter in Rome. It is highly likely that Papias was referring to John Mark, identified in the Acts of the Apostles as a son to Mary of Jerusalem and a cousin to Barnabas of Cyprus. Papias, in his rather apologetic explanation, excuses the author for his lack of attention to chronology and geographical sequencing by claiming that it was never Mark’s intention to satisfy this kind of requirement. At least in terms of the likelihood that any of the four New Testament gospels can seriously be considered to be the work of the authors identified by tradition, John Mark is a strong contender. However, rather than associating him with Peter, what little tradition there is seems to connect him more securely to Paul.

The book of Acts identifies John Mark as a cousin of Joseph Barnabas. Though the author has not specifically identified either of these men as being among those “Hellenists” who comprised one faction of the new, post-Easter, Jesus-community in Jerusalem (Acts 6), it is likely that they were. Both men have the requisite Greek and Semitic names, for example, and therefore likely spoke Greek. It can be implied from clues in the text that John Mark also hails from the island of Cyprus (Acts 4:36). These cousins later spent time together in Antioch, their departure point for missionary activity in the Mediterranean basin that at first included Paul. Later, after their separation from Paul, John Mark and Barnabas proceeded to join in revisiting Cyprus (Acts 15:39). Non-canonical tradition has both men traveling to Egypt, likely Alexandria, where they continued to conduct missionary work.[3]

Despite John Mark’s falling out with Paul (Acts 13:13) over a dispute which Acts (15:36-41) characterizes as stemming from Mark’s abandonment of their joint mission together, an individual named Mark is later mentioned in a letter universally attributed to Paul (Philemon 1:24) as well as in several letters whose Pauline authenticity is debated (Colossians 4:10, 2 Timothy 4:11). While many men were named Mark in the first century, Paul gives no further identifying information regarding Mark and thus assumes his readers will know exactly to whom he is referring. No other Mark from the early-to-mid first century Christian movement is known to us. Mark’s name also appears in the first letter attributed to Peter in the New Testament but, as with several of the Pauline letters, it is difficult to defend its authenticity (though some continue to try). Regardless, it seems likely that the tradition related by Papias draws from this connection made between Mark and Peter in First Peter. Doubtless Papias and the early church were sensitive to the falling out between Mark and Paul as reported in Acts. It may also have found it unlikely, or undesirable, that Mark would base his gospel about Jesus on the teachings of Paul who never knew Jesus. Mark’s gospel could be deemed more credible if its traditions were traced to Peter who had direct knowledge of Jesus. Whether this Mark was the author of the gospel can likely never be proven. But if he was, a connection with Paul makes much better sense of the gospel’s denigration of Peter and the Twelve as well as the family of Jesus than it would if Peter was the source. Paul was at odds with a number of Palestinian Jewish Christian missionaries during his travels and sparred with Peter, Barnabas, and representatives of James, the brother of Jesus, at different times in his life.

Commentators have long recognized that Mark’s treatment of Jesus’s family and followers is mostly negative. Though efforts arise from time to time to explain away the harsh treatment that Mark metes out to those closest to Jesus, these attempts are never wholly satisfactory. Even demons, the antithesis of the Kingdom of God’s saintly heirs, as well as a Roman soldier, the Gentile par excellence and representative of the enemy of the Jewish nation, better understood who Jesus was than most of the Palestinian Jewish disciples who populate the text (see Mark 1:24, 5:7, 15:39). I understand this negativity to be a reflection of Mark’s dissatisfaction or downright disapproval of the leadership in Jerusalem, a group comprised of the Palestinian disciples, whom Mark collects together as a representative group of Twelve, as well as Jesus’s biological family, represented by the brothers and mother of Jesus.


Mark and the Family of Jesus


Tellingly, it is Mark who, among all of our sources, first provides us with the names of Jesus’s brothers and mother (Mark 6:3). While he indicates that Jesus had sisters, Mark does not bother to name them. As they had no authority within the church, Mark is not interested in them. Mark calls Jesus the “son of Mary,” i.e., not the son of Joseph. In fact, Joseph is never mentioned in the gospel; it is Jesus who is the tekton (“carpenter,” “stoneworker,” “craftsman”) not Joseph. It is appropriate to ask at this point if Mark knows the story of Jesus’s birth but has chosen to omit it and any reference to Joseph.

Scholars generally date Mark’s gospel around 69-75 C.E. Therefore, only a decade or so separates this gospel from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (ca. 80-90 C.E.) which both include stories of Jesus’s divine origins. Scholars who support the two-source theory insist that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, though based on Mark, were composed independently of one another. Is it reasonable then to suggest that both Matthew and Luke nearly simultaneously created from their own imaginations birth stories for Jesus with common central elements including that Mary found herself pregnant by the Holy Spirit and Joseph married her anyway? It seems obvious that this core datum of the story, at least, had been in circulation for some time before Matthew and Luke composed their expanded narratives, long enough, in fact, for Mark to have probably been aware of it around 70 C.E. If that is the case, Mark has made a conscious decision not to include any reference to Jesus’s origins in his gospel. This was because the basic nativity story honors Jesus’s family, something Mark wished to avoid doing.

In the infancy narrative’s core, Mary and Joseph both demonstrate their indefatigable faith in God as they accept her unexpected pregnancy and believe in its sacred implications. And, if these honorable and faithful parents were divinely chosen to rear the Christ, they must have done a similarly successful job rearing honorable and faithful siblings. It is difficult to bring shame on a family so blessed that even the Holy Spirit chose to be one of its members! Mark would have had great difficulty challenging the family’s later claim to leadership if he acknowledged this tale of familial divine blessing.

Some have suggested that Mark’s reference to Jesus as his mother’s son implies that, though surviving long enough to become father to at least seven children, Joseph has, by the time that Jesus was an adult, died far enough in the past that Jesus became known only as the son of Mary. This is absurd. Jewish men were identified by many things in the ancient world: by their father, their hometown, their country, their occupation, even their physical disability, but not their mother. Mark had to know this but he chose to make a trade-off. He has deliberately obscured Jesus’s connections with his putative human father and siblings while permitting Jesus to be insulted (by Palestinian Jews, no less) as the son of a woman. By the time of Mark’s gospel, Mary must have already been remembered if not revered in certain Christian quarters so that Mark was obliged not to ignore her, at least not in the context of a forensic identification of Jesus (besides, she has no authority anyway). Why was she remembered and revered? It can only be because the story of her encounter with the sacred as the causal event to the birth of the messiah had already become known. But here Mark seems to have made a mistake. According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus is only (putatively) descended from the line of David through Joseph. Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies, evidence that these sorts of proof-texts were in circulation at the time, both trace Jesus’s Davidic lineage through Joseph. Mark knew that Jesus was of the line of David (Mark 10:47-48) just as Paul did (Rom. 1:3).[4] But if he had acknowledged Jesus’s connection to David through Joseph he would have brought additional honor to Jesus’s male (read: authoritative) family members (all Davidids). Therefore, Mark must completely disconnect Jesus from his paternal roots. Mark has cut umbilical ties between Jesus’s family and their history of involvement with the divine as well as the prophetic. Instead, Mark’s Jesus belongs to a fictive kinship to which only he can grant membership. Only this family, not his biological one, can do the will of God (Mark 3:33-35).[5]

As far as Mark is concerned, Jesus’s family and neighbors disavowed him during his ministry and continued after Easter to misunderstand the purpose of his mission.[6] Mark makes it clear that Jesus was not only rejected by his “hometown” (patridi), but by his “own relatives” (suggeneusin) and by “his own house” (oikia autou) (6:4). But the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of Paul, and early Christian tradition, combine to give testifimony to the early leadership of the Jerusalem church by Jesus’s family beginning with his eldest brother James.[7] Mark was aware of this. But he does not want their brand of messianic exclusivity to be sanctioned by Jesus. (This “true” messianic purpose, as well as Jesus’s identity, remains a secret to his followers. Only Paul will learn of them in a self-reported vision of the risen Christ – 1 Cor 15:8, Gal 1:11-16.) That is why Mark will allow no redemption for either Jesus’s family or for his closest companions, the Twelve. Mark knows that James and the Twelve will lead (and have led) the Jerusalem church. What he wants to convey is that Jesus’s family always misunderstood the “true meaning” of Jesus’s mission and message and are therefore now unauthorized and misguided usurpers. They failed to grasp what Mark recognizes as the ultimate goal of Jesus’s message: that, as Paul would teach, conversion to Judaism was not necessary for full participation in the Kingdom of God. The Jerusalem church, as described by both Acts and Paul, was not fully on board with this. Though they tolerated the admission of Gentiles into the Christian community it was only as provisional members. Mark, therefore, reacts to this “second class citizen” status imposed on Gentiles by portraying Jesus as being “amazed” at his own family’s unbelief (Mark 6:6).

In another telling episode, as Jesus is teaching, his family comes to take him away. According to Mark, they thought Jesus had “gone out of his mind.” The rationale for their diagnosis is explained in the very next passage in which scribes from Jerusalem accuse Jesus of being possessed by Beelzebul, the prince of demons. Deftly, Mark has interwoven the story of Jesus’s family’s assessment of his mental state with his enemy’s negative appraisal of his source of power. Mark has Jesus respond to both accusations by explaining that a house divided will not be able to stand. Here Mark’s Jesus is not just speaking of Satan’s domain but of the leadership of the church. The divided house is the house church in Jerusalem as controlled by Jesus’s family which, in Mark’s estimation, is theologically disconnected from Jesus’s missionary intentions and the resulting Gentile mission. It is doomed to fall (and will fall, temporarily at least, during the Jewish Revolt of 64-70 C.E.).

As with some passages in Q, Mark’s Jesus lauds the abandonment of kith and kin, specifically mentioning “brothers or sisters or mother” (Mark 10:29; Q 14:25-26). In a rare moment of praise for Peter, Jesus commends him for doing likewise. The Gospel of Thomas also preserves this likely authentic saying of Jesus (logion 55) but Mark has used it for a different purpose. While the Q/Thomas passage probably referred to the rejection, by certain Galilean disciples, of their family members for the purpose of mission, Mark’s Jesus speaks of the rejection of his own kin. But Peter rises in Jesus’s estimation only to sink further. It is this very apostle, first among the Twelve, who will deny ever knowing Jesus. Mark’s Jesus casts eschatological shame upon Peter when Jesus says, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words…of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed” (8:38).


Mark and the Twelve


Just as with the brothers and mother of Jesus, Mark is the author first responsible for providing us with the names of the Twelve (Mark 3:16-19).[8] According to Mark, Jesus sent them out “two by two and gave them authority over the unclean spirits” (6:7). And though on occasion they are said to successfully exorcise and heal (6:13)[9], it is clear to Mark that they hardly lived up to expectations (9:18). Jesus upbraids them for being “faithless” and chastises them for not praying properly before conducting a failed exorcism (9:29). According to Mark, the Twelve do not understand either Jesus’s parables (4:10, 13; 7:17) or his sayings (8:17; 9:32). They lack appropriate faith (4:40), have hardened hearts (8:17), continue to discount Jesus’s ability to perform miracles (6:37, 49-52) even if he has performed them before and in their very presence (8:4, 18-19). The twelve have to be defended by Jesus for failing to observe widespread Jewish customs[10] (7:2). They fail to grasp the meaning of Jesus’s transfiguration (9:5-6) and incorrectly rebuke another (Gentile?) exorcist because he was not one of them (9:38-39). Likewise, they in appropriately rebuke innocent children (i.e., Gentiles?) for trying to be with Jesus (10:13-14). These men fail to understand the prophecy about Elijah returning “before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (9:11; Mal 4:5-6) which even the scribes seem to understand. They object to Jesus’s anointing, the very act that inaugurates him as messiah (“anointed”) (14:4-5), a title which they otherwise only imperfectly grasp.

In a dispute which Mark records as arising among the twelve (Matthew and Luke attribute the argument to “the disciples” – Matt 18:1, Luke 9:43b, 46), they argue about which of them is the greatest (9:34). Could this pericope actually reflect a struggle for power in the early church? The passage and its implications seem out of place in the current context. Who could argue about being great in the company of Jesus? But the discussion makes perfect sense as a commentary on later developments. Is the passage a preview of a competition for authority in the worldwide church between James and Paul? Jesus settles their dispute by virtually quoting Paul: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35; cf. Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 7:22; 2 Cor. 11:7; Gal. 1:10; Phil 1:1).

Within the story of the Last Supper, Mark describes Jesus admonishing the twelve about “lording it over” Gentiles (Mark 10:42). Is this a condemnation of the leadership in Jerusalem who tried to control the Christian message especially in light of Paul’s missionary work with Gentiles? Paul had problems throughout his life with competing Palestinian Jewish Christian missionaries who attempted to regulate just who could become an acceptable member of the movement. In Mark’s pericope, Jesus once again takes the Pauline definition of greatness: “Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” Later, in a passage that could have been a biographical summary of Paul’s mission, Mark has Jesus predict how missionaries would be delivered to councils (Mark 13:9; cf. 2 Cor. 11:25; Acts 16:20, 22:30, 25:6), beaten in synagogues (Mark 13:9; cf. 2 Cor. 11:24, 26; Acts 21:30-31), called before governors (Mark 13:9; cf. Acts 23:33, 24:24) and kings (Mark 13:9; cf. Acts 25:21, 23-24), and brought to trial and delivered up (Mark 13:11; cf. 2 Cor. 11:23; Acts 16:22-23, 24:2). Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit, whom Mark will not credit with visiting the holy family, will instead speak through these (Pauline) witnesses teaching them what to say (Mark 13:11; cf. Rom. 8:9, 26; 1 Cor. 2:10-12, 12:13, 14:15; 2 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 5:25; Eph. 4:29-30; Acts 28:25). In a statement unlikely to have been made by the historical Jesus, the Pauline command is given that “the gospel must first be preached to all the nations” (13:10), marching orders indeed for the “apostle to the Gentiles (i.e., the nations).”

According to Mark, the eleven abandoned Jesus precisely at the hour of his arrest just as he told them they would (14:27, 50). Mark demonstrates that these are not the type of Christian leaders one should have confidence in: they cannot help but work against Jesus despite warnings that they would do so. Among those that fled Gethsemane that night, according to Mark, was a certain young man who left behind his linen covering. He goes unnamed in the story and some think he is a cypher for the author. It is tempting, though speculative, to see in him the young Symeon, Jesus’s cousin, who would later, at the time of Mark’s gospel, take the reins of the Jerusalem church following the death of James the Just. Perhaps Mark avoids naming him perhaps because he is still alive and still nominally in charge of the post-war, Jerusalem church.

Peter, and the rest of Jesus’s followers, never adequately grasped the importance of Jesus’s death and resurrection. According to Paul, Jesus had to die in order to atone for the sins of all (Gal. 1:3-4; 2:20; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:15-21; Rom. 5:7, 10; Eph. 5:2, 25). If Q is any guide to earlier soteriology, the death and resurrection of Jesus was of no importance to these Palestinian Christians. Instead, Peter and the Twelve await the Son of Man, probably the returning, divinely-vindicated Jesus, who will come to bring a new kingdom to replace the present evil age (Matt. 24-25; Rev. 19:11ff; 20:4-6). Paul’s Gentile converts await rather the rapture when the church will be taken away to paradise (1 Thess. 4:13-18) made possible by faith in Christ.

Jesus’s women followers fare little better than the men in Mark’s gospel. Many women offer sympathy and some appear at the crucifixion, a thing the male disciples fail to do (15:40-41). But sympathy is all that Mark will allow them to show. Stealthily, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses (is this a craftily disguised way of withholding the honor due Jesus’s mother who is, perhaps, here identified by her most obscure son?) follow Joseph of Arimathea to see where Jesus is buried (15:47). But when these two women, now accompanied by Salome (Jesus’s sister, similarly left unidentified?), arrive two days later to perform burial rites, they encounter a “young man.” He commands them to reveal to Peter and the rest that Jesus will meet them in Galilee (16:1-7). God had done his part but the women will not do theirs. They are too afraid and so they “said nothing to anyone” (16:8).

Much has been made of Mark’s abrupt ending coming at 16:8. Speculation arose that manuscript pages were lost that otherwise would have described Jesus’s resurrection appearance(s). Later Christian writers winced at the omission by Mark. Both canonical and non-canonical gospel writers gave free rein to their imaginations creating numerous appearance stories of the risen Jesus. In order to make sense of the missing conclusion, one must account for Mark’s agenda vis-à-vis Jesus’s family and the Twelve. Mark realizes that his readers know that Jesus rose from the dead – Jesus predicts it in his gospel five times (8:31, 9:9, 31, 10:34, 14:28). But Mark will not deign to give the twelve or Jesus’s family the honor of receiving the risen Jesus. It would validate their claim to Christian leadership if their authority could be seen as having been sanctioned by appearances of the risen Lord. Thus Mary Magdalene cannot deliver the words of the angel to the disciples. Besides, the Twelve were already aware of Jesus’s prediction of his appearance in Galilee following his death (14:28) something they seem to have misunderstood as well. Instead, they remain in ignorance throughout their lives. Mark’s ending is neither accidental nor the victim of misplaced manuscript leaves. Just as he will have no truck with a birth narrative that shines an honorable light on Jesus’s parents and siblings, so he cannot now shine that same light on the Jerusalem leadership. The light belongs with Paul and the Gentile wing of the church and, if Mark has anything to do with it, Christianity will never fall under the yoke of the Palestinian Jewish Christians and their Judeo-centric eschatology.

[1] See for example, Goulder’s “Those Outside (Mk. 4:10-12),” Novum Testamentum 33.4 (1991), 289-302; “The Jewish-Christian Mission,” ANRW 26.3 (1992), 1979-2037; St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), etc.

[2] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 74.

[3] For traditions about Mark in Alexandria, see Eusebius, Church History 2.16.24, Jerome, On Illustrious Men 8, the Apostolic Constitutions 7.46, and Epiphanius, Panarion 51.6. For those regarding Barnabas, see the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies. Also, many believe the Epistle of Barnabas originated in Alexandria though the text is only rarely attributed to the New Testament figure.

[4] Does Paul presume Jesus’s genealogy stemmed from Joseph or from Mary? This must have been considered. Thus, Paul knew some version of Jesus’s origin story and likely Mark did, too.

[5] Some may argue that perhaps Mark traced Jesus’s Davidic lineage through Mary and thus there was no reason to credit Joseph or any human father. But genealogies, invented or not, followed the male line, Matthew’s inclusion of four women in the mix notwithstanding.

[6] It is tempting to consider here the hard Q saying (Luke 14:26) about hating one’s family as a prerequisite for following Jesus.

[7] Other leaders from this family group include Symeon, Jesus’s cousin and leader of the Jerusalem church after James; Zoker (Zechariah) and James, leaders in Galilee prior to 69 C.E.; and perhaps Justus/Judas, succeeding Symeon in Jerusalem. See Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), 71-73.

[8] Matthew and Luke re-present the list with slight modifications. John gives no list of twelve names which may be telling. John’s gospel often has a better grasp of the historical situation than the other three. He makes no reference to the Twelve until chapter 21, an add-on chapter composed later. May we infer that there was no council of Twelve until after Easter?

[9] Palestinian Jewish Christian missionaries were known in Paul’s churches to have displayed spiritual gifts.

[10] Marcus, 1:441.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s