Book Review: “Mark, Canonizer of Paul” by Tom Dykstra (2012) — Pt. 2

Chp. 3: The Chimera of Oral Tradition

Robert M. Price's The Pre-Nicene New Testament (PNNT), Signature Books 2006.

Robert M. Price’s
“The Pre-Nicene New Testament” (PNNT), Signature Books, 2006.

     Like the Aramaic substratum thesis (Casey et al) the poor oral tradition has really been taking a beating lately and seems to be going the way of the dodo. I have no problem dispensing with the oral tradition theory and so skipped this long chapter on the first run-through. Dykstra asks (41): “How can a narrative written 30-plus years after the events that it records include such vivid detail..?” And: “How is it that Mark’s elaborate narrative appeared suddenly out of nowhere after three decades?” Whoah. This dating is increasingly passé. Accumulating data are showing that the Gospel of Mark probably dates to the second century CE, not the first (hence GMt and GLk would be even later). Consider: Papias and other writers of mid-II CE do not know any gospels at all (despite Irenaeus’ claim regarding Papias—see Price PNNT xiv). And consider further: Detering and Price (PNNT 69) argue that the Little Apocalypse (Mk 13) harks back to the Second (not the First) Jewish Revolt. Finally, the second century (vs. the first) would clearly be indicated for GMk if he drew on the miracle-working life of Apollonius of Tyana (who was famous even during his lifetime and who died c. 100 CE).
     Now, I happen to believe that Mark the evangelist indeed drew on the legendary Apollonius—fresh in the memory of his contemporaries—for his character Jesus. If this is correct, it would effectively date GMk to the second century. Apollonius worked miracles (as did Jesus), traveled the countryside (as did Jesus), abjured wealth (as did Jesus), and brought extraordinary wisdom to mortals (as did Jesus). Hence, I am prone to see Markan dependence on the stories of the (allegedly) miracle-working Apollonius of Tyana, especially for the evangelist’s Gestalt of Jesus. Now, Apollonius died c.100 CE. So, if GMk drew on his life for the Jesus story—well then, we have another apparent terminus post quem for the Gospel of Mark: post-100 CE.
     Dykstra follows Brodie in finding the theory of an oral stage to be a “modern invention” beginning with H. Gunkel c. 1900 who simply presupposed an oral stage (p. 49). Dykstra then makes an important observation: “The modern oral tradition and form criticism paradigm has perpetuated the conception of the evangelists as scribes or redactors rather than authors” (47, emphasis added). In this new millennium I think we are coming to view the evangelists with more skepticism. Some of us are now able (and willing) to see them as fabricating rank fiction out of whole cloth, as novelists rather than historians. This represents a real paradigm shift. Dykstra points out that the standard “isms” taught in seminaries—form criticism, redaction criticism, narrative criticism—presuppose pre-existing logia, pericopes, or “that the bulk of the narrative came ready-made to the evangelists through oral tradition” (47). All this apparently is changing.
     Minor variations in stories have often been used as evidence for an oral stage, but Dykstra points out (52) that this is special pleading, for such variations are also found in purely literary environments—as we know well from text criticism.
     On p. 54 Dykstra makes a cunning observation: “Actually, if Paul did admit to receiving the tradition orally it would undermine virtually all of the arguments he so forcefully advanced in behalf of his own unique apostolic authority.” So right. Paul is adamant in this regard, going so far as to announce that the gospel “proclaimed by me is not of human origin” (Gal 1:11). Amen!
     Dykstra summarizes views of some scholars who have promoted an oral tradition stage (Gunkel, Bultmann, Lord, Dunn, Koester, Dodd, Hengel, Fitzmyer, Tolbert, Giblin, Botha, Goodacre). He concludes the chapter by finding the theory of oral tradition both unnecessary and unhelpful, and presents his thesis regarding the sources of GMk:

If eyewitness testimony and oral tradition both fail to explain the level of detail we actually find in the Gospel, two likely sources remain: the evangelist’s own imagination and other writings that were available to him. Other scholars have persuasively argued for Mark’s use of the Old Testament and Homeric epic. This book argues for Mark’s use also of Paul’s epistles.

     To these I would add two other sources: (1) Mark’s use of contemporary Apollonian rumors and anecdotes (especially for the image of Jesus as an impecunious, wandering teacher cum miracle-worker); and (2) a core of pithy sayings and parables which probably go back to some original prophet.

Digression: The sources of the Gospel of Mark 2015

     It may be worth while at this point to recap the status quaestionis regarding the sources for the Gospel of Mark, perhaps now better entitled The Adventures of Jesus. The sources above can be listed in rough chronological order as follows:

(1) Homeric epic (MacDonald)
(2) Jewish scripture (Brodie)
(3) A core of authentic and semi-authentic gnostic logia and parables (stemming from some as yet virtually unknown prophet—see below)
(4) Paul’s epistles (Dykstra, Tarazi, Adamczewski)
(5) The life of Apollonius of Tyana
(6 added) The life of the Buddha [Pursuant to ground-breaking work by H. Detering and myself in 2018]
(7) the evangelist’s own creativity

     In no. 7, I have substituted “creativity” for Dykstra’s “imagination,” mostly to include the evangelist’s strong predilection for allegorizing. Little work has been done on no. 5. I may be the only person at this time to espouse the enigmatic no. 3, to which I hope to dedicate one or more posts in future. A quick note is in order here. The theology of this ‘unknown prophet’ is actually fairly well known to us due to a number of transmitted sayings. An uncompromising, fearless, and authoritative character also comes through. Both Robert Price and Georges Ory have written about the possible conflation of the figure of John the Baptist with Jesus (links here/Price and here/Ory). Talmudic sources report on a curious Pharisaic protégé Yeshu who fled to Egypt in the time of Janneus and who was later excommunicated (see Chapter 14 of my forthcoming book NazarethGate on this). Finally, obscure Samaritan passages report on a certain prophet Dostai/Dusis/Dositheus who also comes out of Egypt, opposed the “High Priest,” started a much-villified gnostic branch of Samaritanism, was a writer, was hounded—but he converted those seeking him—and was evidently killed on the Day of Atonement. There is also the involvement of a certain “Simon the Wizard.” (For the extended passage in question, see Bowman, Samaritan Documents, pp. 162 ff.) Incidentally, Dositheus (“Gift of God”) is etymologically equivalent to Nathanael (Nathan-el) and Matthew (Mattan-yahu). Matthew, we recall, enigmatically “composed the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language” according to Papias (reported by Eusebius, HE iii:39).

Chp. 4: Defending the Gentile Mission
     Though Mark draws on all the sources mentioned above, the evangelist is actually only interested in the Gentile world. In this chapter Dykstra shows that the break with Palestinian precursors has occurred—and it was not an amicable break. It would appear, from a close reading of both Paul and GMk, that gentile Christianity turned against its forebears and in a sense enacted the old myth of the son killing the father.
     The subheadings in this chapter tell the story:
• A Gentile Christian Intended Audience
• Jesus Visits Gentile Lands
• Jesus Accepts Individual Gentiles As They Are
• Jesus Unites Jews and Gentiles at the Communal Meal
• Jesus Rejects Jewish Exclusivism
• Jesus Rejects Jewish Legalism

A Gentile Christian Intended Audience. Dykstra describes how Mark expects his readers to know some Latin (12:42; 15:16) but not to know Aramaic, which he translates for the reader (5:41 etc). The evangelist also makes mistakes in citing the ten commandments (10:19, listing “Do not defraud” as one and getting the order wrong).

Jesus Visits Gentile Lands. The evangelist obviously was more concerned with getting his main point across (“You gentiles are emphatically in the game”) than with getting details right. For example, Dykstra points out that he mangles the itinerary whereby Jesus visits gentile lands (Mk 7:31).

Digression: Nazara and Qumran

     The genesis of the Galilee as the locale of Jesus’ activity in GMk may ultimately derive from that province simply being a convenient place of “mixed Jewish-Gentile population” (p. 73). In any case, if Jesus (of Nazareth) is a pure invention, then certainly the Galilean setting for his activities is too. We can now appreciate that the Galilee is simply a very logical setting for an invented Jewish prophet (“Jesus”) who now must teach (per the Pauline kerygma) primarily to Gentiles. This is the nature of Mark’s Jesus, and that would have been the nature of the Galilee post-135 CE (Bar Kochba)—which we increasingly suspect is when GMk was actually written (see Pt. 1 of this review). After that time the Pharisees were indeed to be found in the Galilee (but not before), and “synagogues” began to appear as dedicated stand-alone structures. For mythicists, of course, Jesus was never in the Galilee or anywhere else. But now we have a good reason to put him there: Paul preached to the gentiles and, as Dykstra explains, the evangelist Mark did too.

     One more note on Markan geography. Placing Jesus in the Galilee would have been something quite novel, a break from earlier Judean roots (the James faction). In The Myth of Nazareth I termed these the “northern” and “southern” traditions in Early Christianity (pp. 296 f). Nazareth and its cognates are quite revealing in this regard. The earliest cognate linguistically is Nazara which occurs twice in the 4G (Mt 4:13, Lk 4:16). Hence, these passages are vestiges of the earliest attempt to place Jesus in a geographical setting, and they both retain clues of the southern locale for his origin. GMt 4:13 is a parallelismus membrorum (please see my first book p. 304) where Jesus leaves Judea and migrates into “the territory of Zebulun and Napthali.” The steep cliff in Lk. 4:29 (ending the other Nazara passage) evokes nothing other than the region of Qumran—a wonderful setting to throw a renegade prophet off of a cliff! In my earlier book I close with the observation, “in the earliest gospel stratum, Nazara is none other than the field of activity of John the Baptist” (p. 307). To put the various strands together: we have multiple hints that the Galilean Jesus is a complete fiction, but that an original prophet (upon which that Jesus was based) had some association with Qumran and John “the Baptist.”

     As Dykstra notes (p. 73), the Galilee is particularly suited to Mark’s message is that it reflects his audience which, at this early stage, is still mixed but increasingly gentile.

Looking up at Qumran Cave 4.

Looking up at Qumran Cave 4.

Jesus Accepts Individual Gentiles As They Are. The Marcan Jesus “makes no demands that [Gentiles] obey Jewish customs or traditions. For a narrative set in a pre-Pauline time, this represents as clearly as possible the Pauline concept that Gentiles who become Christians remain Gentiles and are not bound to adopt Jewish customs” (Dkystra p. 77).
Jesus Unites Jews and Gentiles at the Communal Meal. This is largely self-explanatory. Dykstra cites the Feeding of the 5,000 (Mk 8:14–21) and focusses on possible symbolism of the numbers 5 and 12. I would point out the gnostic core of the passage: the insistence on perceiving, understanding, and having a pure heart (8:17)—all which suggest that the “bread” was originally simply a symbol for the gnosis that saves. Mark has turned spiritual bread into literal bread!
     In GMk there are 5 loaves and 5,000 people (6:38, 43; 8:18). Dykstra points out that “the number five calls to mind the number of books of the Torah” (p. 80). It may also be noted that in Manichaeism five is the holy number, and in the Talmud Yeshu has five disciples.


About René Salm

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


Book Review: “Mark, Canonizer of Paul” by Tom Dykstra (2012) — Pt. 2 — 1 Comment

  1. Dykstra seems to forget that Mark also contains another feeding miracle with seven loaves for 4,000 people.

    It is necessary to view all synoptic accounts (4,000 or 5,000) side by side to make any sense of them. Each of the accounts contains numerous interpolations/glosses. Mark’s story is the end of a long history of redactions for diverging dogmatic reasons.

    This has been already worked out provisionally by Jean Magne of the Cercle Ernest Renan (starting on page 21).

    After eliminating all glosses, it becomes obvious that the story of the seven loaves is more original but without the fish and without the three days/people coming from afar. The purged account then reveals close parallels to the eucharist of the Roman Catholic mass, showing that the mass feeding stories were devised to provide etiological accounts for the eucharistic rites.

    The addition of the little fish in the seven-loaf miracle alludes to the little fish which the Israelites miss in the desert according to Numbers 11 after the precipitation of the manna/bread. The protagonist is thus another prophet like Moses, announced in Exodus. Like the Old Testament Joshua in the encounter with the Gibbionites, Jesus allows gentiles only reluctantly, as inferior subordinates to Jews. That is why they come from afar and stayed for three days with Jesus like the Gibionites.

    The addition of two large fish in the miracle of five loaves refers to Behemoth and Leviathan in the Syriac book of Baruch. The messiah is supposed to slay the two beasts and feed them to the Jewish masses at the eschatological dinner. At this point, the protagonist becomes the messiah of the Jewish apocalypses.

    The two-fish stories of Luke and Matthew differ significantly, with Mark combining elements from both of them. Luke uses the element of the war scroll of Qumran, dividing the Jews into groups for the eschatological battle. Matthew portrays the messiah as the good shepherd taking care of Israel, a flock on the pasture with no shepherd.

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