Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot

The strange Jesus in Mark’s story

The Christian church has managed to pull off one of the biggest con jobs in history. It got away with it, I suppose, because lay people did not have access to reading the gospels for the first 1,500 years of Christian history. The laity trusted their priests that Christ the Redeemer was all that mattered; hence the down-and-dirty details in the gospels went unnoticed. As Richard Carrier has put it, “What Jesus did on earth was irrelevant to what he could do for you now that he was exalted in heaven, and it was the heavenly Jesus that was sold to the masses, not some dead carpenter from Galilee.” (The End of Christianity, 2011, ed. John Loftus)

That was the con. Part of which, also, has been the relentless marketing of the good, holy Jesus. For the lay consumers, he has been represented in stained glass, countless works of fine and mediocre art, romanticized and sanitized Bible storybooks, novels, choral works, and hymns. These days people ask, “What would Jesus Do?” assuming that he is the ultimate moral arbiter.

But then we read the gospels. When Christians do that, they really have to decide how weird they want their religion to be. This is especially the case with Mark’s version of the Jesus tale, second in the line-up of gospels, but first to be written. If you accept the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, you are well on the way to full-throttle crazy religion. No slick excuses offered by priests and pastors—none of their pious posturing about ‘our Lord and Savior’—can change that fact.

Christians can only hope that Mark is not history. Dennis MacDonald, in his book, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, has given believers an escape route: “The earliest evangelist was not writing a historical biography, as many interpreters suppose, but a novel, a prose anti-epic of sorts.” The other gospel writers, in their spinning of Jesus fiction, carried on the tradition of invention, e.g., take a look at how Matthew expanded Mark’s account of the Temptation of Jesus; two verses become eleven verses (Mark 1:12-13; Matt. 4:1-11)—and there is no way Matthew’s account is based on eyewitness accounts. John, of course, really got carried away inventing an alarmingly egotistical Jesus.

Gospel experts, of the apologetic Christian variety, won’t hear any of this. The gospels are history goddammit; they devote their careers to smoothing out rough edges and erasing Jesus blemishes.

Mark’s Version of Your Lord and Savior

I am not making up any of this, by the way. Just spend two or three hours carefully reading Mark. See for yourself.

(1) Jesus was an exorcist.

This is most vividly illustrated by the story in Mark 5:1-13, in which Jesus transfers demons from a severely mentally ill man into a herd of pigs. See what I mean by full-throttle crazy? Mark depicts Jesus talking to, bargaining with, the demons. Is this really the worldview that Christians these days want to adopt? Well, maybe so, since many Christians believe in ghosts, angels and dead saints who hear prayers—and demons, apparently. The faux modernist Pope Francis thinks that exorcism is a real thing, and thus—what a surprise—fails as a model of rational thought.

It was commonly believed in the first century that there was a vast spiritual realm—presumably with God (or gods) at the top, but populated by many lesser beings—with Satan somewhere in the hierarchy. Note that in Mark’s gospel, the demons know Jesus (3:11-12), because he has such high ranking in the spiritual world. See also 1:23-26, 1:34, 1:39, 3:15, 6: 7 & 13, 7:26-30, 9:25. I prefer to give wide berth to folks who think they can have chats with demons—or that mental illness can be traced to them.

(2) Jesus tried to fool people by teaching in parables.

Of course, this doesn’t make sense. What was Mark thinking? But here it is, Mark 4:10-12, which includes a quotation from Isaiah 6:9-10:

“When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

Scholars have long struggled to see how this ‘let’s keep ‘em in the dark’ Jesus fits with a good Jesus, who says in Mark 1:38: “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.” Even so, Mark doesn’t drop the theme of keeping the secret: “He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him” (8:29-30).

Another oddity, by the way, is found in Mark 4:33-34: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” It’s odd because—ooops—in John’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t teach in parables.

(3) Jesus believed in human sacrifice to get right with God.

This is a vestige of animal sacrifice superstition, and is a fine specimen of magical thinking: How can killing an animal cancel human sin? Why would a good god set up such a scheme? Mark would have us believe that a Galilean peasant got it into his head that he was selected for this mission (10:45): “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” How can Christians not notice that a human sacrifice to placate God is bad theology?

(4) Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God was immanent—and he was wrong.

The present world order was about to be wiped out, indeed “before this generation passes away”—and it would not be pretty. There would be massive human suffering to mark the initiation of the Kingdom of God. Please, Christians, read Mark 13 and seriously ponder how this fits in with your view of what would Jesus do. Calamities are a sign that God’s get-even theology will be realized; the tone of Mark 13 is urgency, with the closing words “keep watch.” Of course, no Kingdom arrived. Mark 13 is an example of religion gone off rails and closely matches the demented ramblings of the apostle Paul. John Loftus is right in describing Jesus as a failed apocalyptic prophet.

(5) Jesus the great moral teacher fails to show up.

The main focus of Jesus’s message in Mark’s gospel is the approaching Kingdom of God, with far too little said about how to be a moral person. The favorite parables about decent behavior, e.g., compassion (the Good Samaritan) and forgiveness (the Prodigal Son), are not found in Mark, where the parables are primarily lessons about the Kingdom that Jesus anticipated.

The best advice I can find comes at 11:25, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses”—and we know how much attention Christians have paid to that. There are a few other admirable sayings, e.g., 2:27, the Sabbath was made for man.

Moreover, there are comments in this gospel for which Jesus deserves demerits; we expect far better from a great moral teacher. His counsel on divorce at 10:9, for example, is inexplicable and irresponsible. Yes, we can understand that God created male and female—and expects a man to leave his parents to get married. But that does not mean that God has been matchmaker for every couple that ever was: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” In fact, this is a mindless non sequitur—and has caused so much misery.

Jesus gets a very poor grade as well for this bit of cult fanaticism, 10:29-30: “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” You will be rewarded for leaving your family? You’ll get a new set of relatives and new houses? How can Christians be comfortable with this?

(6) WTF did Jesus mean with this list?

What more could you want? It’s the resurrected Jesus who explains that “those who believe” will be able to do these five things (Mark 16:16-18):

1. Cast out demons (yes, we’re back to demons)
2. Speak in new tongues
3. Pick up snakes
4. Drink any deadly thing
5. Lay hands on people to heal them

Those who want to distance themselves from this text can point out that these verses were not in the original gospel: Mark 16:9-20 is a later addition. No one knows where this part of chapter 16 came from. But those want to dismiss these verses are admitting that fake news about Jesus made it into the New Testament. Alas, however, we don’t know where any of Mark’s gospel came from; maybe it’s all fake news. This list may not be from the mouth of Jesus, but whoever thought it up certainly had a goofy take on Christianity.

But, hey, here’s the challenge for apologists who insist that the gospels are based on eyewitness accounts and highly reliable oral tradition. These six items I’ve listed: Do you really want to argue that these reflect authentic Jesus information? Is this strange Jesus the one you want?

Maybe, after all, there’s a glimpse of history at Mark 3:21, where we find that Jesus’s family wasn’t too thrilled about his vocation. “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”

That sounds about right to me.

[With this post I begin a series of articles on Mark’s gospel—one on each of its 16 chapters. These will we spaced throughout the year.]

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.