The Hebrew Gospel/UrMark: working criteria

The comprehensive UrMark, cumulatively updated after each installment, is found here.
The canonical (color coded) Gospel of Mark, also updated after each installment, is found here.

As noted in the Introduction, in this series of posts I attempt a reconstruction of the earliest Gospel of Mark—a text that I identify with the “Hebrew Gospel” (a view, incidentally, not found anywhere else). Each post deals with a separate chapter, and two versions are offered: (1) a short, hypothetical “core”—the first draft of a Hebrew Gospel/UrMark reconstructed according to several criteria (see next paragraph); followed by (2) the entire chapter in the English translation (RSV). Both the short and the received versions are color coded.

In my view, the best way to extract the Hebrew Gospel/UrMark from the present Gospel of Mark is:
     (1) to remove all Pauline/Marcionite elements; and
     (2) to remove all “Stage 3” late Catholicizing elements.
If we are able to accomplish these excisions, then we will be left with a Jewish Christian document (“Stage 2a” in my typology—see below) that has not yet been Paulinized (the cosmic saving act was Jesus’ death on the cross) or Catholicized (“Jesus” = Jesus the Nazarene/of Nazareth). That document would date to the first century CE—before the canonical gospels but possibly contemporary with (and in opposition to?) the figure known as “Paul.”

It should be noted that the Jewish Christian document was itself a development away from the radical gnostic theology of Yeshu ha-Notsri (died c. 70 BCE) that I call “Stage 1.” The Hebrew Gospel/UrMark represents an attempted rapprochement with Judaism (as also did the Dead Sea Scriptures).

I would like to begin by giving the Stage 1 characteristics evident from several parameters (including non-canonical literature such as the Gospel of Thomas). Provisionally, the following are the earmarks of the gnostic theology of Yeshu ha-Notsri, continuing until c. 50 CE:

Stage 1 (Gnostic) characteristics: [To c. 50 CE]
     (1) The gnostic spirit “Jesus” is not exclusively Jewish
     (2) Yahweh, as depicted in the OT, is not the ultimate power
     (3) The creation is evil/unsatisfactory
     (4) Jesus (“Salvation”) is gnosis      [definition]
     (5) Salvation is only via gnosis       [activity]
     (6) Those around Yeshu (the “disciples”) did not understand his message
     (7) Anyone can become “Jesus” (saved through gnosis)      [non-exclusive Jesus]

The above elements were adapted by the Jewish Christians (on this Stage 2, see here). Some were changed (in green below). Other were completely reversed (red), as follows:

Stage 2a (Jewish Christian) characteristics: (c. 50–150 CE]
     (1) The gnostic spirit “Jesus” is exclusively Jewish
     (2) God is one (Yahweh), and He is only of the Jews
     (3) The creation is good
     (4) Jesus (“Salvation”) is the indwelling spirit of gnosis      [definition]
     (5) The salvation of gnosis is only via God’s grace + man’s obedience/faith [activity]
     (6) Some around Yeshu (the “disciples”) understood his message
     (7) Anyone can become “Jesus” (saved through gnosis)      [non-exclusive Jesus]

Thus, we see that the transition of Yeshu’s gnostic theology to the Jewish Christian stage involved principally an accommodation to Judaism: affirmation of Jewish election (the chosen people), of Yahweh, and of the creation (materiality, the flesh). I suspect that we witness the above form of theology already in the Dead Sea Scriptures.

In the Jewish Christian development, we also note a moderation of the gnosticism of Yeshu. “Jesus” is still the saving gnosis (point 4), but the gnosis is now given from on high (point 5)—it is not unilaterally acquired by man. In this way, agency (the ability to effect salvation) has returned to God/Yahweh. The religion of Yeshu was man-centered. That of the Jewish Christians was God-centered.

Finally, we see a continuation of point 7: anyone can become “Jesus” (saved through gnosis). This is close to the view of some proto-gnostic texts of the Dead Sea Sect. These texts were emphatically Jewish writings. At the same time, however, they endorsed ‘secret’ knowledge as well as the elevation of sect members to angelic status. The more extreme Dead Sea Scriptures emphasized the agency of Yahweh so strongly as to reduce man’s choice to nil—only those predestined by Yahweh were saved.

While I can find no proof that the Dead Sea Sect was Jewish Christian, I also cannot rule out that the Yahad was inspired—directly or indirectly—by the life and teachings of Yeshu ha-Notsri. (I expand on this possibility in NazarethGate pp. 461–71).

I think that we may actually possess an overlooked text giving unique insight into first century Jewish Christianity. The much-maligned Gospel of Barnabas is generally considered a Medieval work, one strongly influenced by Islam. While I do not doubt these scholarly conclusions, I also am convinced that the very long gospel contains a core that goes back even to the first century CE. I begin a series on the Gospel of Barnabas here. It is a Jewish Christian gospel that (once the late strata are removed) falls neatly into the category of first century theology described above: a strictly human (not divine) prophet possesses the spirit “Jesus.” The prophet’s historical name (“John”?) had been long considered unimportant and forgotten. Only “Jesus” is remembered—a convenient conflation of both human and divine elements. In any case, the prophet is pro-Jewish in all particulars, and he was placed (erroneously, I maintain) in the more recent historical time period of Herod-Pilate. The Jesus of GBar is also a union of the human and the divine, but the two elements are never merged as in later Catholic theology—the flesh is abased and the spirit divine. As a result of the indwelling divine spirit, the prophet of GBar is able to effect miracles. It is only one or two theological steps from this to the next Pauline stage: the cosmic, divine Son of God who alone entered history from above at some time in the remote past, and whose death on the cross is a redeeming act for those who believe.


In the second half of the first century CE—or perhaps early in the second century—a major new theological development seems to have taken place. It reinterpreted elements from the gnostic Stage 1. It also rejected the Jewish exclusivity of Stage 2—placing it in heated opposition with the existing Jewish Christian fellowship. It seems about this time that a prophet (“Paul”) took the message to the gentiles for the first time. In all this he was apparently opposed by the representatives of the Jerusalem Church.

Pauline theology radically reinterpreted the foregoing Jewish Christian elements. It essentially placed them in a cosmic framework. Initially, “Jesus” was still the indwelling spirit (point 4)—as we see in the Pauline epistles—but the union of that spirit with the prophet (Yeshu) in the now distant past had, for Paul, cosmic implications. The death of that founding prophet on the cross constituted redemption, in Paul’s mind, for mankind in general. All this of course was completely new. For Paul, the prophet had been God’s chosen Son, and we can all participate in the Son’s victory over the forces of evil if we believe in the divine and cosmic efficacy of his sacrifice.

I know of no gospel text that reflects this early (intermediate) Pauline position. Jesus of Nazareth had not yet been invented. If one were simply to describe its theological views in the manner above (now using the category “2b”), however, one might do so as follows:

Stage 2b: Pauline/Marcionite characteristics:
     (1) The gnostic spirit “Jesus” is not exclusively Jewish            [As in Stage 1]
     (2) Ditheism (Yahweh is not the only, or ultimate, power)   [Expansion of Stage 1]
     (3) The creation is evil/unsatisfactory                                        [As in Stage 1]
     (4) Salvation is Jesus Christ’s cosmic sacrifice on the cross      [New definition]
     (5) Salvation is through redemption, atonement, belief                  [New]
     (6) Those around Jesus Christ (the “disciples”) did not understand his message [As in Stage 1]
     (7) No one can become Jesus Christ, who fulfilled God’s one-time mission to redeem mankind     [Exclusive Jesus]

We see from the above that the Pauline/Marcionite development was astonishingly original as regards points 4, 5, and 7. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that those theological theses form the bedrock of Christianity as we know it. Even though neither Paul nor Marcion yet knew “Jesus of Nazareth” (belonging to the Catholic Stage 3), they knew a founding prophet “Christ Jesus” who was specially elected by God for His cosmic mission to save mankind. This founding prophet was thus quintessentially unique.

Despite its originality, Pauline theology coheres at several points with the old gnostic Stage 1. At the same time, it has no essential points in common with the prior Jewish Christian Stage 2a. More than that: the first three points are implicit repudiations of Judaism. It is difficult to align this repudiation with the figure of Paul in the New Testament, where the apostle is described as a zealous Pharisee (Gal 1:13–15; Acts 22:3)—which leads one to wonder whether the figure of “Paul” is not itself an invention of the later Church (Stage 3). In any case, the friction between the theologies 2a against 2b allow us to understand the acrimony from both sides of the divide, expressed in all the traditions (including the Pseudo-Clementine literature). The theologies were siblings: both believed that “Jesus” is the indwelling divine spirit. Beyond that, however, they had virtually nothing in common. Certainly, the Jewish Christians must have viewed Paul’s cosmic theology of the redeeming death on the cross with utter amazement and even disgust. To them, Paul was “the man of the lie.”


The incipient Catholic Church seems to have been mightily provoked by the appearance of Marcion about 140 CE in Rome. Marcion brought with him the Pauline theology described above. The Church liked what Marcion brought in numerous ways—this is why it was so interested, to the point of even accepting Marcion’s money. But one critical element was unacceptable: Marcion’s repudiation of the flesh/creation (“evil”). This element leads to a religion of denial and stern asceticism. It is a non-starter for a religion that wishes to become popular. In a matter of only a few years, the Catholics rejected Marcionism but adopted the Pauline theses of cosmic redemption. The result is the canonical gospels. All four works—with the new savior Jesus of Nazareth—seem to have been written by about mid-century, the Gospel of John being the last.

Just as Paul’s contribution of the ‘cosmic Jesus who died on the cross for our sins’ was revolutionary, so the Church’s contribution a century later was also: Jesus the Nazarene/of Nazareth, fully fleshed out with elaborate biographical details and a jaw-dropping mixture of authentic gnostic sayings, parables, miracles, invention, and parallels to both Jewish scripture and Hellenist religion.

Stage 3: Catholic theology
     (1) The gnostic spirit “Jesus” is not exclusively Jewish            [Similar to Stages 1, 2b]
     (2) God is one, and He is for all peoples                                    [Expansion of Stage 1]
     (3) The creation is good                                                              [As in Stage 2a]
     (4) Salvation is Jesus Christ’s cosmic sacrifice on the cross      [As in Stage 2b]
     (5) Salvation is through redemption, atonement, belief               [As in Stage 2b]
     (6) Some around Jesus Christ (the “disciples”) understood his message [New]
     (7) No one can become Jesus Christ, who fulfilled God’s one-time mission to redeem mankind     [As in Stage 2b]

We note that several of the above points are in common with Pauline/Marcionite thought (Stage 2b)—which demonstrates the indebtedness of Catholicity to Marcionism. Only in points 2, 3 and 6 are there departures—but these are critical. The theology of point 2 incorporates the God of the Jews—God is Yahweh, but he has made a ‘new covenant’ with all peoples through his Son, Jesus Christ. In point 3, the Church sided with the long tradition of Judaism as well as Hellenism in upholding the value of the creation, of the flesh, and of materiality. It rejected the stern extreme of Marcionite asceticism/encratism. All of us can be saved if we believe (point 5).

As for point 6, as I wrote in another post, it was critically important that the Church be firmly established on Jesus’ own teaching in history. Here is the Great Lie, of course (for there was no Jesus of Nazareth in history). However, for the Catholic Church to succeed, all depended on a physical lineage of authority going back to Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, at least some of the apostles needed to understand Jesus’ message and to recognize him as the “Christ.” This is precisely what Peter does at Mk 8:29—arguably the high point of that gospel. Matthew is even more explicit: he makes Peter the “rock” upon which the Church is built (Mt 16:18). All this is transparently political: it’s purpose is to shore up the Church’s credentials (it’s authentic lineage from the first disciples) and, ultimately, its power.

 Introduction          Chapter 1 

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


The Hebrew Gospel/UrMark: working criteria — 1 Comment

  1. Simply astonishing, René – and spot on

    The description of the phases and their development / progression is exactly what you have here. We can argue about what lies beneath it and how, but indeed: Paul was very familiar with “a Christ Jesus”, and naturally that is a xrestos IS – up until 5th and 5th CE it is xrestos, not xristos. The NHL translations also say Christ(ian) for the full word, but the text has xrestos everywhere

    The core is IS, and indeed he was Gnosis, salvation – and yet also he could give that to you and through him one could gain it: a counterpart, a helping hand, so to say… on the way to (re)creation 😉

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