Did Jesus Graduate from Hogwarts?

Mark, Chapter 1: The problems pile on, right from the start
The gospel of Mark is second in the iconic line-up of Jesus stories, but it’s universally agreed among New Testament scholars that Mark was written first; it’s not hard to tell that Matthew and Luke used it as a source. Well, let’s be honest: they copied most of it, without telling what they’d done. Today we call that plagiarism. Literary sin, however, is not our biggest worry. We have no idea what Mark’s sources were, which makes it virtually impossible to trust it as history.

Of course, it’s hard to get believers to think critically about the gospels. The aura of holiness hangs over them; congregations have traditionally stood to hear excerpts read aloud, under the glow of stained glass. This mystique blunts common sense and deflects curiosity. “What really happened?” is rarely asked.

In fact, Mark’s gospel, reflecting a very early version of Christianity, is a fantasy novel written perhaps 40 to 50 years after the events depicted. It displays a full menu of superstition and magical thinking, starting with the very first chapter.

[NOTE: This article is the first of my series on Mark’s gospel—one on each of its sixteen chapters—scheduled for 2018. The introductory article is found here.]

Pay Attention Folks (More than You Do in Church)

Problem Number 1: A Big Omission

It has been a source of some anxiety among theologians that Mark begins his story with Jesus as an adult: There is no mention whatever of a virgin birth. Why would Mark leave that out? For starters, of course, he may never have heard this story associated with Jesus. The apostle Paul, who had written a couple of decades earlier, hadn’t heard of it either—at least, he never mentions it.

Or Mark may have felt that this concept, common among religions of antiquity, didn’t belong in his story. He seems to have intended a different focus for his theology—which has been called “adoptionism”—that is, Jesus was adopted by God at the time of his baptism. As Jesus was coming out of the water, a voice from heaven announced, “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.” That was enough for Mark, no virgin birth required.

Problem Number 2: Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins

We read in vv. 4-5: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

Just what Jesus should do, right? Well, no. Why would the perfect, sinless son of God show up to be baptized? Mark’s naiveté has bothered theologians—starting with Matthew, who maneuvered to avoid this embarrassment. He adds extra script, i.e., that John the Baptist objected (3:14): “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus seems to say, “True, but let’s do it for appearances.” “But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness’” (v. 3:15). In John’s gospel Jesus doesn’t even set foot in the water. John says that he saw the spirit descend on Jesus “as a dove from heaven,” and declares, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Problem Number 3: The Powerful Savior Myth

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord”—“the one who is more powerful than I is coming after me” (v.7). These texts—and many others like them—usher us into the world of delusional thinking that seeks to bend history to fit theology. The Chosen People had been oppressed for centuries—which was inexplicable. What was the way out of this? It’ll be magic: There is a hero on the way, a messiah, one specially anointed by God, who will set things right. Thus one of the main themes of Mark is the proclamation of Jesus that the “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (v. 15).

But that didn’t happen. God has not intervened in human history to make everything better. When hope faded that the Son of Man would descend to Earth to establish the kingdom of God, Christian theologians made the adjustment: it became a “spiritual” reality. But we’re still dealing with a form of hero worship: “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

What? Someone can actually do that? Whether it’s intervening in history to rescue the Chosen People, or “taking away the sins of the world,” it’s wishful thinking, theology denying reality. This is the Superman fantasy, and outside of the ‘messiah’ version of it, nobody takes it seriously. Of course, in our own time, there have been so many spin-off super-heroes; this is fun fantasy, nothing more.

But gee, there it is in the gospels. And John the Baptist appears at the opening of Mark’s gospel to prepare the way of the super-hero. This thinking is very much at home in the context of first century Palestine; there were at least a dozen other messiah figures that we know about (see David Fitzgerald, Jesus: Mything in Action, Vol. I, pp. 113-118).

In his oratorio Messiah, Handel immortalized the text in Isaiah 9:6, which the NT never applied to Jesus, but never mind, it has been adopted by Christians for their superhero: “And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” In no sense whatever can this be applied to Jesus of Nazareth.

Problem Number 4: God’s Adversary

In the centuries prior to the Christian era, Satan emerged in theological speculations to explain why God can’t be blamed for so much bad stuff that happens: Somebody else does it. But Satan fails as a solution. This is one of theism’s many absurdities; little thought was given as to why God would tolerate, for even a minute, the existence of a powerful rival. It works only as long as you don’t think about it.

But Mark was among those who gave Satan a role in shaping the world: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (1:12-14). This text is a tipoff that Mark was weak on gathering facts. He was a theologian trying to mold his story on Old Testament themes. The historian would ask, “How do we know it was forty days? Who was there counting? How is that documented?” Mark was satisfied that “forth days” would recall the forty years that Israel wandered in the desert.

Matthew, by the way, was not satisfied with this brief mention of Satan. He expanded the episode to eleven verses and invented a conversation between Jesus and Satan; he even tells us that Satan had Jesus perch on the top of the Jerusalem Temple and took him to a ‘very high mountain’ “to show him all the kingdoms of the world.” Anyone who supposes that this is history has to ask, Why Jesus would allow Satan to do that?

Problem Number 5: Jesus the Exorcist

At vv. 23-25 we hit a brick wall, full-blown superstition that degrades faith. Why don’t Christians say, “Sorry, we don’t buy this”?

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’”

This theme continues at vv. 32-34:

“That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”

Since Jesus had high ranking in the spirit realm, he was recognized by the demons of much lower rank (but Jesus wanted to keep his status a secret, as will become more evident in Mark 4). But he had superior clout and defeated the demons. Why don’t Christians shake their heads at such nonsense and recognize this as one of the many negatives about Jesus in the gospels? Maybe we can just blame the storytellers, as well as modern purveyors of fakery—including Pope Francis, by the way, whose Vatican trains exorcists.

Problem Number 6: All That’s Missing is the Wand

Jesus the magician, the healer, also shows up right away in Mark’s story, in vv. 30-31:

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Vv. 32-33:

“That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases…”

Vv. 40-42:

“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling, he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”

May I point out that the issue here is not the possibility of miracles, because apologists will argue that Christ had the power to cure people. No, the issue is how were these stories created. Healing miracles are part of religious lore the world over—so it’s hardly a surprise that such narratives ended up in the gospels. Apologists have to provide the evidence that Mark’s healing stories aren’t just routine folklore.

Failing that, Jesus takes his place alongside Harry, Hermione and Ron as alumni of Hogwarts, healing by touching and casting spells. Believers tell us, We take it on faith. Which fails utterly to guarantee the accuracy of these accounts; indeed, many believers have downgraded these stories to “metaphors”—showing that Mark Twain was on the right track: “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true.”

Problem Number 7: The Message Without Substance

We’ll be searching for the substance of Jesus’s message as we make our way through Mark, but we don’t get many clues in the first chapter. In vv. 38-39 we read:

“He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

And in v. 22: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Likewise, v. 27: “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”

But what “astounded and amazed” them—other than roughing up the demons? What was the message that he taught with authority? Mark neglects to give us the details. We will see that Jesus talks a lot about the anticipated kingdom of God—which never showed up, by the way. Great moral teachings are conspicuously absent from Mark’s gospel.

What Do We Have So Far?

We have a hero introduced by a wilderness prophet and a voice from the sky. A peasant preacher turns out to be the son of God, who gets baptized and then tempted by Satan for forty days—and cared for by angels. He shows off his power with demons—they know who he is—and impresses the crowds with his exorcisms. He heals by touch and voice activation (“Be made clean!”).

No matter how confident the faithful are that Mark is telling the “true story of Jesus,” this is not biography. Mark fails to qualify as a historian; we have no way—none at all—to determine if there is any history at all in his narratives. Mark was a theologian who had a talent for the creation of religious fantasy literature.

Why are we not impressed, let alone convinced?

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.