Mark’s Gospel as the First Biography of Jesus – and 10 reasons why it matters

Although our author may have drawn on a variety of sources of varying historical accuracy, he would doubtless have been selective in what he included and would not have been slow to embellish or augment an anecdote in the interests of his broader narrative and theological interests. The so-called “nature miracles” in particular – walking on water, stilling the storm, and feeding the multitudes – may well have been embellished and enhanced, not in the interests of historical reporting, but to say something profoundly “true” about Jesus’ identity as Son of God.

See Also: The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark's Gospel (Eerdmans, 2020).

By Helen K Bond
Professor of Christian Origins
Head of the School of Divinity
University of Edinburgh
September 2020

The last few decades have seen an emerging scholarly consensus that the Gospels are best understood as ancient biographies, or bioi in Greek (Burridge 2018). Yet little attention has been given to the “so what?” question: What difference does reading Mark as a biography make to the way that we interpret it? Do some things become clearer or make more sense? And what does all this tell us about the person who wrote it?

The closest analogies to Mark’s work are the Greek lives of philosophers. While Romans tended to write about statesmen, generals, and kings, Greek biography was always more concerned with philosophers and teachers. The life of Socrates provided a particularly influential model. Luckily, many of these have survived – from the works of Philo of Alexandria in the Jewish world to those of Lucian, Philostratus, and Diogenes Laertius. Biography has also experienced something of a revival among Classicists lately; rather than “failed historians,” biographers are now understood as creative writers with clear agendas of their own (Hägg 2012; De Temmerman and Demoen 2016). In what follows, I shall indicate ten ways in which thinking about Mark as a biographer, quite possibly the first biographer of Jesus, helps us understand his work (for more detail, see Bond 2020).

  1. Mark’s structure

It’s common to talk of Mark’s geographical structure, whereby the first half of the Gospel contains Galilean material and the second half concerns events in Jerusalem, with a lengthy journey section in the middle (8:22-10:52). This is certainly true, but it’s also the case that most of Mark is composed of short anecdotes and isolated sayings arranged in topical groups. So we have a series of conflicts in chapters 2-3, parables in chapter 4, miracles in chapter 5, sayings on purity in chapter 7, and so on. Few of these units contain close links with either what proceeds or follows, creating what’s known as an “episodic narrative” in which the plot develops not so much in terms of cause and effect but rather as a scatter of mosaic tiles, each adding something to the final portrait. It’s only in the passion narrative (from chapter 14 onwards) that material develops chronologically, one scene leading to another. Rather than attribute this change in structure to Mark’s use of a passion source, as is traditionally supposed, a comparison with other biographies shows it’s entirely in keeping with the genre. Biographies of teachers and philosophers often exhibit very little structure regarding the hero’s early life, only to adopt a chronological account when it comes to his death. (How else could death be recounted?) Lucian’s Demonax, for example, includes a large number of loosely assembled anecdotes in the main body of the work but adopts a chronological arrangement at the end.

  1. Mark’s characterization

Ancient biographies tended to “show” rather than “tell,” leaving audiences to work out the hero’s character for themselves. More importantly, biography was closely linked to morality, with heroes frequently held up as examples to imitate or occasionally avoid. This inevitably led to a certain “flattening” of character. Rather than well-rounded personalities with their own quirks and foibles, biographical heroes tended to be the embodiment of particular virtues that the author hoped to encourage in his audience. All of this produces the kind of “flat” characters whom we find in Mark with little real development across the narrative. It was not that ancient audiences were unaware of the depths of human nature  – the Greek tragedies dispel any such notion, but rather that biographies were not the place to explore it.

  1. Jesus as a model for followers

Jesus is clearly the hero of Mark’s biography – he is the subject of nearly every verb, and he appears in almost every scene. Mark’s purpose is not only to commemorate Jesus’ life, to provide a written memorial to a great man, but also to show how Jesus lived his life and to encourage others to imitate him. This plays out in a number of ways. Most clearly is the persistent call to “follow me” throughout the narrative, most dramatically at the call of the first disciples (1:17, see also 8:34 and 10:21). Would-be disciples are called to “follow” Jesus to learn from his example and model their lives on his. Strikingly, Mark’s work begins with baptism, where the Christian journey also begins, and ends with a renewed call to start again from Galilee now that the audience is in full possession of all the facts (16:7).

Mark portrays a Jesus who exhibits a number of virtuous qualities: while followers clearly don’t have Jesus’ great powers, they can emulate his compassion for others. Like him, they might renounce a life of wealth and luxury and adopt a modest demeanor. And while they may not have his ability in debate, his example might provide them strength and courage as they also face opponents. The Gospel displays a three-fold pattern whereby John the Baptist appears, preaches, and is handed over; Jesus also appears, preaches and is handed over; and finally, followers will themselves preach and potentially be handed over (13.9-13). The repetition adds a note of inevitability to the narrative and also reinforces the ominous possibility that believers may need to follow Jesus even to death (see 8:34).

  1. Mark’s disciples

The unswerving focus on Jesus means that all other characters are thrown into the shade. Many are confined within their own pericope/ae and exist primarily as foils to Jesus. We might think of “King” Herod here, the Pharisees, or the Syro-Phoenician woman. Even the twelve disciples, who appear in several episodes, are brought into the narrative mainly to shed light on Jesus. Creating a coherent characterization for the Twelve is notoriously difficult; scholars are forced to conclude that their portrayal is at best ambiguous. Much is resolved, however, when we realize that Mark’s audience does not look to the disciples for role models but to Jesus (as noted above). Although individual disciples might occasionally provide examples – mostly negative ones, such as Peter and Judas, the primary purpose of the Twelve is to develop the portrait of Jesus further. In the early part of the Gospel, the Twelve provide a body of intimate companions, enhancing Mark’s portrait of Jesus as a charismatic teacher. In the middle section of the Gospel, the Twelve repeatedly ask questions, their misunderstanding acting as a literary trope which allows the Markan Jesus further opportunities to explain his counter-cultural teaching. And in the concluding chapters, the Twelve’s cowardice highlights Jesus’ obedience to the Father and purposeful journey to the cross. It’s clear that the Markan Jesus has to die alone – his death is a ransom, creating a [new] covenant with God – and the departure of the Twelve shines the light ever more intensely on our hero.

Although Mark’s use of the Twelve is extreme, disciples frequently act as foils to their masters in other biographies. The despair of Socrates’ friends at his imminent execution throws the Athenian philosopher’s resolution into sharp relief. Philostratus’ account of Apollonius is full of disciples who desert or misunderstand their master – particularly Damis, who has much in common with Peter. Biographies, of course, offer only one more facet to people who have an independent existence. Mark’s audience doubtless knew much about the disciples already; the work points to their activities beyond the narrative, specifically their later missionary work (1.17) and future restoration (14.28, 16.7). Read in the context of later admiration and respect, the disciples’ failures in Mark’s narrative illustrate to hearers just how hard following Jesus can be, even to the most celebrated of followers.

  1. Jesus’ adoption by the God of Israel

Ancient biographies typically start with a note of the hero’s ancestry and nobility of descent, characteristically recording a person’s home city, parents, and any unusual phenomena at birth. Even when no details are given, it is essential to note that the family was illustrious – noble character was thought to be hereditary. Although he provides few details, Philo, for example, briefly notes that Moses’ parents were the best in their generation (Feldman 2007: 16-17).

Sometimes, of course, biographical heroes did not come from eminent families. Socrates, for example, was the son of a midwife and stone-carver. In his progymnasmata, Theon offers a several ways in which an orator might turn humble origins to his advantage: he might say that his subject had not been brought low by misfortune, or that he became illustrious despite coming from a small town (Kennedy 2003: 52). Such a course would undoubtedly have been an option for Mark, who knew at least something of Jesus’ origins in Nazareth as a carpenter (6:1-6). Instead, however, he chooses a very different strategy, presenting an opening scene in which a divine voice declares Jesus to be the Son of God (1:9-11). Whether Mark imagines Jesus to have been God’s son before this event is unclear. More likely, as Michael Peppard has argued (2011), the torn heavens and infusion by the Spirit signify a change in Jesus’ status. The God of Israel has entered the human realm and adopted Jesus as his Son – thus, the Markan Jesus has the most illustrious paternity of all.

  1. “Fictionalization”

Cicero cited Polybius in support of his view that while historians had to stick to the truth, a biographer could take more liberties with the facts (Letters to Friends 5.12). Indeed, the moralizing purpose of most biographies meant that their authors were selective and tended towards caricature and idealization – anything that didn’t fit was quietly dropped. A recent collection of essays on biography has warned against any easy oppositions between “truth” and “fiction” (De Temmerman and Demoen 2016). In order to expose the subject’s “soul,” Plutarch’s term, the biographer is often thrown back on conjecture and gap-filling, selectivity and fiction – invented speech, created genealogies, fabricated links with other well-known characters, etc. Anecdotes, by their nature, tend to be fluid and almost infinitely adaptable. After all, “apocryphal” stories – even in our own day – can often encapsulate a person’s character more accurately than any amount of accurate reporting. We might think here of George Washington and his father’s cherry tree. Although some biographers made at least an attempt at historical veracity (on this, see Keener 2019), most were a mixture of facticity and conjecture, interpretation and imaginative reconstruction.

All of this is, no doubt, equally applicable to Mark. Although our author may have drawn on a variety of sources of varying historical accuracy, he would doubtless have been selective in what he included and would not have been slow to embellish or augment an anecdote in the interests of his broader narrative and theological interests. The so-called “nature miracles” in particular – walking on water, stilling the storm, and feeding the multitudes – may well have been embellished and enhanced, not in the interests of historical reporting, but to say something profoundly “true” about Jesus’ identity as Son of God.

  1. Jesus’ death

The subject’s death is always important in a biography. If nothing else, it is the moment when character is most revealed. A “good” death – in a courageous, composed, and tranquil manner – enhances the subject’s nobility, while a “bad” death – accompanied by sniveling and cowardly attempts at self-preservation – draws a line under the life of a reprobate. In the case of philosophers, the teacher’s death needed to correspond to his teaching. This was the most decisive test, and the “good” philosopher should remain true to his teaching to the end.

There is no doubt that Mark gives Jesus what can only be considered a bad death; he dies in the manner of a slave as a victim of crucifixion. And yet this is an entirely logical consequence of his teaching on self-denial and making oneself a slave in the body of teaching in the middle section of Mark (8:22-10:52). Jesus’ teaching, along with his manner of death, is certainly counter-cultural, going against everything that was considered honorable and praiseworthy in the contemporary world. Yet they are all of a theme – a slave’s death is the result of a life of radical self-denial.

It is easy to forget that Mark could have recounted Jesus’ crucifixion in many different ways. It would surely have been possible to describe it much more briefly. As it stands, Mark’s is the longest account of crucifixion to have come down to us from antiquity. Our author does not dwell on Jesus’ physical sufferings, but he has much to say about his humiliation and shame, his increasing passivity, and lack of manliness. No doubt the body of teaching in the middle of the gospel, which is itself carefully composed around the three passion predictions, was put together by Mark in anticipation of his lengthy account of Jesus’ shameful death. The once confident, powerful, and compassionate Son of God heeds his own teaching and dies a slave’s death on the cross. The honor codes of the Roman world are turned upside down by a Jesus who is true to his teaching to the end (see Bond 2019).

  1. Mark’s bios as “gospel”

Much speculation has surrounded Mark’s opening declaration – “The beginning of the gospel” (1:1). Does he refer to the opening verses or the work as a whole? And why “beginning?” Here, too, reading Mark as a biography can suggest possibilities.

The term “gospel,” of course, was not a literary genre. Often in the plural, the term was used in the Graeco-Roman world to refer to the proclamation of significant news or imperial edicts. When Paul talks of “the gospel” he has in mind Christian preaching concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus, such as the material in 1 Cor 15:3b-5. Although he can sometimes use the word in a similar way, Mark’s great innovation was to include the life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus within his understanding of “gospel” (see 1:1, 14, 15; 8:35, 10:29; 13:10; 14:9). When he writes of the “beginning” of the gospel, then, he seems to have in mind everything that leads up to Jesus’ death, presenting Jesus tradition now in a biographical manner and declaring that this too should be part of Christian proclamation. Mark encourages his audience to define themselves by their commitment to Jesus and express that commitment by modeling their lives on that of their founder. They, in turn, express their solidarity, both to Jesus and to one another, by their faithfulness to a shared text. In this way, the term “gospel” is both expanded and connected with a specific book or books, once others were written. Small wonder, perhaps, that these books themselves quickly became known not as bioi but as Gospels.

  1. Mark’s educational and cultural outlook

Mark’s engagement with the biographical tradition suggests he received a substantial Greek education. His use of chreiai (anecdotes), exempla, and synkrisis (comparison), all indicate an author who was at home with Greek forms, even if he chose to express himself in a vibrant and colloquial manner – his use of the present tense, for example; his use of sentences joined with “and,” or his fondness for groups of three. Yet his language is not that of Homer but the Greek Scriptures. Throughout his work, there are constant echoes of the words, phrases, and cadences of the LXX, just as the theology and story of Israel are apparent in every line. Greek literary style seems to be rejected by our author just as thoroughly as his Jesus rejects the honor system of Rome. What we seem to have here is an indigenous appropriation of Greek biography, combining its forms and tropes with an equally strong adherence to the Scriptures and the broader story of God’s dealings with Israel. Furthermore, recognizing Mark’s indebtedness to Greek biography situates him within a vibrant writing culture right at the earliest period of Christian origins. We should not overplay Mark’s scholarly abilities, nor should we underplay his significant literary achievement.

  1. Biography is never the last word

One of the fascinating things about biography is the fact that every age takes the liberty to update their heroes, rewrite their lives so that they speak to new generations or new circumstances. There are always new things to be told, new angles to explore. Several characters from the ancient world attracted multiple biographies, often from different groups of supporters. Socrates, for example, inspired a number of different accounts from his students. Diogenes Laertius was obviously in possession of a range of biographies for some of his philosophical subjects, though few now survive. Some might aim to supplement earlier accounts; others compete with or replace them.

Presumably, the same sorts of processes are at work with Mark and the other canonical Gospels. Matthew, Luke, and John clearly hold Mark in high esteem and take his work as a model for their own, but at the same time, they are quite happy to alter his account and make his portrait of Jesus more relevant to their own intended audiences. They alter and rearrange, add more material and enhance scriptural links, and form the first in a chain of reappropriations of Jesus that continues through the non-canonical gospels and into the present day. But the credit for casting Jesus material into a coherent biographical tradition – perhaps the first to attempt such a thing – has to go to Mark, the first biographer of Jesus.

References

Bond, Helen K. 2020. The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

———. 2019. “A Fitting End? Self-Denial and a Slave’s Death in Mark’s Life of Jesus.” NTS 65: 425-42.

Burridge, Richard. 2018. What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. 3rd eds. Waco: Baylor.

De Temmermann, Koen, and Kristoffel Demoen, eds. 2016. Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization. Cambridge: CUP.

Feldman, Louis H. 2007. Philo’s Portrayal of Moses in the Context of Ancient Judaism. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame.

Hägg, Tomas. 2012. The Art of Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keener, Craig S. 2019. Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Kennedy, George A. 2003. Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric. Leiden: Brill.

Peppard, Michael. 2011. The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context. New York: OUP.

 

Article Comments

Submitted by Richard Faussette on Fri, 10/02/2020 - 09:25

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Helen K. Bond wrote:
"The so-called “nature miracles” in particular – walking on water**, stilling the storm, and feeding the multitudes – may well have been embellished and enhanced, not in the interests of historical reporting, but to say something profoundly “true” about Jesus’ identity as Son of God."

Dear Helen K. Bond,

You may enjoy my paper: "The Biblical Significance of Walking on Water." Walking on Water is a further development of two midrashim: The Midrash on Genesis (Abraham's trials) is from the Medrash Tanchuma, Vayera 22.2. The Midrash on Exodus (Nachshon at the shore of the Red Sea) is from the Mechilta, B’Shalach 14:22. The paper is at academia.edu.

Best,
Richard Faussette

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