Pagans and Christians and Mark, Part I

Some people ask whether one can be both Pagan and Christian. If you think of Jesus as the Lord of Glory living somewhere up in Heaven who has a rule against belonging to any other faith, and if you define “Pagan” as meaning merely “non-Christian,” then, no, they could not overlap. However, there are Christopagans who manage it, by not defining the terms as being mutually exclusive. A Jesus who was a visionary Rabbi, who was probably married, who even still appears to some people, is a different story.

The inquiry has to begin with trying to understand Jesus the Nazarene—Rabbi Yeshua ha-Notsri—as an historical human being, and so must begin with the Gospel According to Mark, which a great many people have been studying skeptically since the Enlightenment. I will be summarizing their work, but leaving out the footnotes.  The history of modern Biblical scholarship has been largely about the liberals beating back the conservatives step by step with a rod of reason, demonstrating that the gospels are theological, not historical.

Mark is hands down the most brilliant of all the New Testament authors. He invented the gospel as a new literary form; that is comparable to Aeschylus’ invention of drama. Mk (meaning the document, whereas “Mark” is its author), the shortest, earliest, and least pretentious of the four canonicals, is in many ways the most important. It is a mark of Mark’s genius that it took about eighteen centuries before anyone figured out that Mk is not history; it is at most what we would consider an historical novel.

Mark’s story is disingenuous. It reads like simple reporting of what Jesus said and did, and of what happened, without any editorializing. But that appearance of simplicity is itself the most brilliant aspect of what Mark achieved. It is not at all a simple reporting of unadorned facts, but instead a carefully constructed literary masterpiece. That Mark constructed his gospel was known in antiquity. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, in his Detection and Refutation of Knowledge Falsely So Called, gives the stories about the origins of the gospels that were circulating in his day, in the mid-second century CE, stories that had undergone some typical legendization. The story about Mark is that he was Peter’s secretary and wrote down what Peter had preached, but “not in the same order”—apparently a memory of the fact that he was not a clerk, copying preexisting materials, but instead a conscious author, taking moral responsibility for what he wrote, which is what Willi Marxsen proved.

The great nineteenth-century scholars, such as Bruno Baur, had deduced that Mark had constructed his story by carefully choosing the isolated bits and pieces he wanted out of all the oral traditions that were circulating by around 69 CE. All that work is well summarized in Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus, a topic not yet exhausted—and perhaps it never will be. Recently I discovered by accident one of the most useful discussions of Mk I have ever come across: Robert M. Price’s longish essay, “Messiah as Mishnah,” which you can find on his website, along with a vast number of other excellent essays.

Mk looks more historically reliable than the very different and incompatible story told in Jn, which seems to hold far more theological speculation and elaboration than Mk. But current scholarship says that they are equally (and not very) historical and equally theological. Both chose raw materials out of what was circulating and constructed them into a story intended to teach the theology that each of them sincerely believed was true. The major differences between them result from their quite different writing styles.

The theologies implicit in the Gospels about what made Jesus the Messiah cannot be reconciled, although the “harmonies,” lumping them all together, describe him as a pre-existent being who was born of a virgin and then empowered by the Holy Spirit. That’s overkill. Each of the Gospels asserts only one of those traits. (I’ll explain later how the virgin birth story apparently arose.)

The beginning of Mk, assuming it is historical to some degree rather than purely theological, seems to relate Jesus’s undergoing a “conversion experience.”  The Gnostics called that sort of experience an “Awakening”; I like that term. Mark’s theology is “Adoptionist”: he believed that Jesus was an ordinary human being who was adopted as a Son of God by that experience after his baptism. That Jesus was a gifted faith healer, as Mark makes clear, has nothing to do with whether he was the Messiah. Faith healing is a normal human talent, and the Essenes also forgave sins as a way to do healings.

Despite a few hyperbolic lines, Mark’s Jesus is essentially a prophet like John, and Mark does not describe anyone as seeing a risen Jesus (Mk 16:9 to the end is a later addition). In contrast, in Jn, Jesus is a pre-existent being who somehow came to earth, is always aware of his own divine nature, and hardly seems human at all, but an implicit assumption in Jn is that all human beings are incarnated from a pre-mortal existence. Neither Mark nor John knows anything about a virgin birth, since they don’t need that hypothesis; each presents Jesus’ siblings as full-blood brothers and sisters, and assumes that Jesus had a human father, as Jesus’s Jewish followers continued to believe. Jn states twice that Joseph was Jesus’s father.

It is usually assumed that Mark was Jewish, since he talks about things Jewish—but he gets all of them wrong. He apparently belonged to one of the communities founded by Paul, and he thinks like an anti-Semitic Gentile. He has a clear agenda of denigrating all of the original circle of Jesus’s family, friends, and students, who continued to be observant Jews and who preserved much more of Jesus’s actual visionary teachings.

We can now look at Jesus’s Awakening in more detail. Perhaps Mk’s description of it goes back to what Jesus told his students, perhaps not. A thread throughout modern Biblical studies is, “Oh, I thought that was a reliable historical fact. It’s not. It’s theological. Damn.”

Mk 1:9-13 says,

 Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

There are several issues here. First, the Gospel of the Hebrews says that Jesus’s entire family was baptized by John. Mark would have left that out, given his agenda of denigrating Jesus’s original circle. Then it makes sense why in both Paul and Acts, Jesus’s brothers are suddenly among his followers from the start.

Second, Jesus was probably not from Nazareth. That was how the Greek-speaking writers interpreted the Aramaic ha-Notsri, which meant “the Keeper” (of the commandments) and meant that he was an observant Jew.

As he came up from the water, he saw the heavens parting, and the Spirit, descending like a dove, entered into him. A voice came out of the sky, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

There are three issues here. First, the passage describes the heavens opening and the voice as a subjective experience. Only Jesus was aware of them. The other three gospels legendize this story by having John also be aware of the heavens parting and the voice.

Second, the Greek says plainly into, not upon. Translating the preposition in Mk as “upon” in order to harmonize it with the other gospels is intellectual dishonesty. The meaning is clearly that Jesus was “possessed” by the Spirit.

Third, why a dove? Is that just a symbol? Did a dove alight on him at that moment? If it did, and that is possible, he would have understood what it symbolized. The dove is usually interpreted as foreshadowing his sacrifice on the cross, since the dove was the cheapest of the possible sacrifices in the Temple. But why was a dove sacrificed to Yahweh at all? Because long before 621 BC, it had been sacrificed to the Queen of Heaven, and was still considered to be sacred to Aphrodite in Greek culture. Hence the dove did not have to symbolize his death. A Pagan can see it as symbolizing his dedication to the service of the Queen.

Immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. He was there in the wilderness forty days tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals; and angels were ministering to him.

 Rejecting this passage entirely because it cannot be literally true is sophomoric. This is the sort of metaphorical language that people often use to attempt to describe the psychological turmoil that is necessarily part of an Awakening. It is childish to assume that real physical angels and demons were involved.

Another relevant passage is a saying recorded in five different passages by Jerome and Origen: “My mother, the Holy Spirit, took me by one hair of my head and carried me off to the great mountain Tabor.” Again, this makes sense as metaphorical language trying to describe an Awakening. This saying is vastly important, in that Jesus here is identifying the Holy Spirit, which in Aramaic is feminine in gender, as his spiritual mother. There is another saying (in Tm 101), “My mother bore me, but my true mother gave me life.” In other words, Jesus was saying not only that he has both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, but also that his Heavenly Mother, given the symbolism of the dove, is the Queen of Heaven. Perhaps his anger when accused of being possessed by an evil spirit erupted because he considered such blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that had empowered him to be also blasphemy against the Queen of Heaven. And what was special about Mount Tabor? A quick search reveals that on Mount Tabor was and is the Cave of Melchizedek, the archetypal High Priest. Perhaps part of Jesus’ Awakening involved communing with the spirit of Melchizedek in that cave, thus becoming “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

Whatever sort of person Jesus might have been before his baptism, he was transformed into an utterly different sort of person afterward. When Jesus returned from the wilderness, he knew he had been “anointed” by the Holy Spirit, his true Mother, as a true prophet, like John, and believed that he had been granted the Rabbinic authority to interpret the will of Heaven. He began to work with John, plainly what he is doing at the beginning of Jn. Only after John has been imprisoned does Jesus begin to preach on his own, continuing John’s work.

The first words of Jesus’s preaching as given in Mk are usually translated as “The times are fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is upon you. Repent, and believe the good news.” These words are usually interpreted as meaning, “Feel sorry for what you have done wrong so that when God arrives, like Daddy coming home from work, he won’t punish you for them.” I cannot think of a more childish understanding of this central message, and it is a tragedy that so many humans have believed and still believe that it is correct.

The Greek word translated as “repent” is metanoie. It is related to “paranoia”; its roots mean “to think beyond.” It does not mean “feel sorry”; it means “change the way you think.” The Greek translated as “is upon you” is ambiguous; it can mean “is near” or “is already here.” I think Jesus intended the latter. I think what he meant was, “If you change the way you think, you will find yourself in the Kingdom of Heaven,” that is, in the presence of God. That interpretation seems very likely, considering these rediscovered sayings in the Gospel of Thomas:

 3b: “The kingdom is within you and it is outside you. (70) If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you [will] kill you.”

113: His students said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” [He replied] “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”

I am thus making the case that Jesus was a Gnostic, a Knower, and that at least the earliest, observant Gnostic Christians, who called themselves Nazarenes, stayed far more loyal to what he had actually taught than the Pauline faction did.

More will be revealed in Part II. Oh, yeah, Happy Easter.



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