That Time Saint Peter Got a Demotion

“The Bible is a war-zone, and its authors are the combatants”
It’s just a fact that the books of the New Testament don’t belong together. In this disparate collection of documents, theological differences and discrepancies in the stories become obvious…well, for those who pay attention. Thus Randel Helms has warned:

“…the Bible is a self-destructing artifact…What inattentive readers call the unity of the Bible is in fact a large, and extremely fragile, cultural fiction—or rather a group of competing fictions, since there has never been even a consensus about the number of little books to which the word ‘Bible’ refers.” (Randel Helms, The Bible Against Itself: Why the Bible Seems to Contradict Itself, p. i)

In an article here a few weeks ago, I pointed out that it was a big blunder to publish the four gospels side-by-side; careful readers can see the errors and inconsistencies. It’s probably too harsh to say that the authors were good liars; we should be kind and just accept that they wrote pious fiction. We shouldn’t even look for fragments of history in the gospels; there’s no way to be sure which verses preserve authentic memories of Jesus events.

The problems abound when the gospels are studied against the background of the epistles. The apostle Paul, for example, wrote his letters well before the gospels existed, and seems to have known precious little about Jesus—and had no interest in finding out. Paul blustered along, writing reams of theology, little suspecting that he was undermining stories that the later gospel writers would tell.

Consider, for example, an excerpt from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 13:1-4:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good.”

The governing authorities are the good guys. For Paul, that meant the Roman authorities. He seems to have been unaware that Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities, prodded to do so by the religious governing authorities, at least according to the story that the author of Mark’s gospel would make so famous, and that the other gospel writers would build on.

In fact, there are so many improbabilities in Mark 15, where we find the story of Jesus questioned by Pilate, followed by the crucifixion; we can be confident we’re reading theology, not history. There is so much fantasy, folklore, superstition, and magical thinking in Mark’s gospel, we’d be surprised if we did bump into history.

This is another of my articles on each of the chapters of Mark’s gospel. The Introduction to the series is here; my comments on Mark 14 are here.

The opening verses of chapter 15 should spark Christian suspicions:

“As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.”

Christians might want to ask, for starters,

• “Who was taking notes?”
• And, “How could this exchange have been recorded and passed down accurately for several decades, until it ended up in Mark’s gospel?”
• Or even, “Is it plausible that Pilate would have interviewed a delusional peasant preacher who had upset the religious bureaucrats?”

Mark was building up his cult hero. Yes, we’re entitled to be skeptical, especially since the remainder of this Pilate episode—the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus (vv. 8-15)—fails to qualify as history.

C.F.D. Moule, in his 1965 commentary on Mark, showed measured skepticism:

“It seems highly improbable that the people could really demand a release and choose their man, and there is no external evidence of this custom.” (p. 124, emphasis added) This brings us to the heart of the problem—for those wish Mark to be history: we don’t know Mark’s sources, and, failing that, we’re not dealing with history.

Richard Carrier calls the Barabbas story “a good example” of Mark “creating fiction”:

“This is surely myth, not fact. No Roman magistrate (least of all the infamously ruthless Pilate), would let a murderous rebel go free, and no such Roman ceremony is attested as ever having existed; nor is it at all plausible.” (On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, p. 403)

Mark would have us believe, it seems, that his King of the Jews was crucified through blunder and villainy. He has to explain it somehow, since, according to his script, Jesus had predicted these events three times (and yet his disciples were too dense to ‘get it’).

Curious, skeptical readers should also pause to consider verse 21: “They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.” Those who grasp how history is written want to know:

• Was there a reporter on hand who asked Simon his name, where he was from, and the names of his sons, Alexander and Rufus?
• When Matthew and Luke copied Mark’s story, why did they omit the sons’ names?
• Why did the author of John’s gospel fail to mention Simon at all (let alone his sons)? He reports that Jesus carried the cross “by himself.” His Jesus, after all, was ‘one with the Father,’ and John would have none of the idea that Jesus was too weak to carry his cross.

But let’s dig a little deeper. What’s really going on here? Remember that our famous disciple Simon Peter is pretty much a failure in Mark’s gospel. He merited the rebuke, “Get thee behind me, Satan,” and, when push came to shove, he denied Jesus. There has been endless and fruitless speculation about who wrote Mark’s gospel, but R. G. Price has ruled out any friend of Peter’s:

“That the Gospel of Mark would have been written by a confidant of Peter seems absurd, since the Gospel called Mark portrays Peter very poorly. Peter is depicted as a fool and basically a traitor to Jesus.” (p. 89, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed)

Recall that Mark’s Jesus-script included these words at 8:34, addressed to the crowds and the disciples—and coming right after his rebuke of Peter: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Richard Carrier has identified Mark’s sense of irony:

“This is thus what Peter is instructed to do. But our expectations are reversed: instead of Simon Peter ‘taking up his cross and following Jesus,’ Simon the Cyrenaean does. This is a complete stranger, never mentioned before or ever again. He appears in just this single verse. Meanwhile, Simon Peter not only abandons Jesus but denies him.

“This makes sense of why Mark invented a second Simon to stand in for Simon Peter, being not only a stranger (to contrast with Peter being Jesus’ number-one disciple) but also a foreigner (from the distant land of Cyrene, a province on the other side of Egypt and thus not even bordering Palestine), a perfect representation of ‘the least shall be first.’ Contrary to expectation, it is, of all people one could imagine, Simon of Cyrene who is the first to take up his cross and follow. A powerful message indeed.” (OHJ,p. 446)

And what about those two sons? I refer readers to Richard Carrier’s extended analysis (OHJ, pp. 447-451), but this is a hint at Mark’s creativity—as mythographer, not historian; he intended this reference as a symbol of power and wisdom subservient to Jesus:

“I suspect they are meant to refer to the most famous men of all time who held those names: Alexander the Great and Musonius Rufus. Alexander the Great was the world’s most famous deified conqueror, the paragon of military victory and of the use of violence to effect power, the ideal any militaristic messiah would want to emulate. Musonius Rufus was the world’s most famous pacifist, a philosopher of greatest renown, second only to Socrates…” (OHJ, p. 447)

It would appear that the author of Matthew’s gospel was bothered by Mark’s negativity about Simon Peter, so he came up with this script (Matthew 16:18-19):

“…you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Wow! What more could Peter want than that? Matthew moved in to promote Peter, after reading Mark’s demotion. This text is found nowhere else, by the way. It’s missing from Mark (no surprise), Luke and John. And these words are a dead giveaway that this script was invented: “on this rock I will build my church.” Matthew wrote after the church had been created, but Mark’s Jesus wasn’t thinking about a “church.” Mark portrays Jesus eagerly anticipating a Kingdom of God that was about to happen. Questioned by the high priest in Mark 14, Jesus claims that he is the messiah, and…

“…you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven… (v. 62)

History would come to can end—no more governments and earthly authorities. And no church: the Kingdom would soon come rushing in.

It seems clear that Matthew wrote for a community that had its roots in the more conservative Jewish faction of the early church that held Simon Peter in high regard. So we suspect this is more politics than religion, one faction of the church vying with another: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

“…Matthew does not care about getting the historical facts right. He just makes up what he wants or feels is needed.” (Carrier, OHJ, p. 460)

Mark used quotes from Old Testament to craft his story of the crucifixion:

Mark 15:24: And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

…is based on Psalm 22:18: they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

Mark 15:31: In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.

…is based on Psalm 22:7-8: All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

Mark 15:34: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

…is based on Psalm 22:1: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

[For more on the use of this technique in creating the Jesus story, see David Chumney’s Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts]

The case has been made as well that the author of Mark was well schooled in the Greek classics. A crucial work for understanding Mark’s gospel in its ancient context is Dennis MacDonald’s The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. Richard Carrier references another of MacDonald’s works, ‘Imitations of Greek Epic,’ in this passage in OHJ:

“In constructing his Gospel, the first we know to have been written, Mark merged Homeric with biblical mythology to create something new, a mythical syncretism, centered around his cult’s savior god, the Lord Jesus Christ…We observed already how Mark created the crucifixion narrative from the Jewish Bible, for example; that he also honed it by drawing in features from the epics of Homer is what Dennis MacDonald has shown…” (OHJ, p. 437)

MacDonald: “…virtually all of Mark 15:22-46 seems to have been generated from biblical texts and Iliad 22 and 24…” and thus “need not have known a coherent oral narrative of Jesus’ death…one can trace all stories in the NT concerning Jesus’ demise to Mark’s literary creativity.” (OHJ, p. 437, emphasis added)

We seem to have another invented character in Mark 15—besides Simon of Cyrene. Scholars have long been stumped by Joseph of Arimathea, who emerges out of nowhere to bury Jesus in his own tomb (again the family and disciples of Jesus don’t show up):

“…Joseph of Arimathea is not just a fictive recreation of Priam, who in Homer seeks the body of Hector (as MacDonald shows), but also a type of Joseph the Patriarch, who in Gen. 50:4-6 asks Pharaoh for permission to bury Jacob (i.e., Israel), and lays him in a cave-tomb Jacob had hewn, just like the tomb in which the parallel Joseph lays Jesus. Thus, Mark derived the burier’s name as ‘Joseph.’ The rest of his description comes from Mark’s use of Homer and his own symbolic imagination.” (OHJ, pp. 438-439, emphasis added)

And, no surprise, the three other gospel writers who copied the Joseph of Arimathea story pulled details out of their own imaginations to make it more plausible. Need I say it again? There is no contemporary documentation for any of their accretions to Mark’s basic tale. As Carrier points out, “…each of the Gospels we have is in direct competition with the others, each author disagreeing with his predecessor and rewriting the narrative… “ (OHJ, p. 437)

As Randel Helms has pointed out, inattentive Bible readers miss all this. It’s actually pretty deadly that the gospels ended up being bound together. Their authors had different target audiences and different theological agendas—and a great mess remains in their wake.

Which is why New Testament scholars have failed utterly to agree on just who Jesus was and what he said and did. Not surprisingly, of course, inattentive Bible readers remain unaware of this turmoil in Jesus studies. Hence they have no way to grasp another of Helms’ zingers, “The Bible is a war-zone, and its authors are the combatants.”

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 reissued last year by Tellectual Press, with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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