Book Review: “Mark, Canonizer of Paul” by Tom Dykstra (2012) — Pt. 4

Deception and power

     Dykstra writes that the canonical gospels are “scriptural historiography… The narrative is anchored to known historical facts, it is written to achieve a practical political or religious purpose, and in the furtherance of that purpose the author is free to invent whatever does not unreasonably transgress the bounds of plausibility” (p. 198). Dykstra then flat-out states that the evangelist is “compelled to invent whatever is necessary to achieve his purpose.” Well, that about sums up the situation: the evangelists invented what suited their purposes and that they could get away with (which is another way of saying: “whatever does not unreasonably transgress the bounds of plausibility”).

     The closest contemporary genre to the above is probably what we would today call “historical fiction.” There, the novelist anchors his story in historical times and places, interweaving famous personages into the story as necessary. But his story is invented, as is usually the main character. The canonical gospels are very similar: the main character, Jesus, is invented. The events that involve him are also invented. Furthermore, the evangelists anchor the story in the time of Pontius Pilate, and the setting is real: Galilee/Jerusalem. They execute all this imperfectly, however, often unwittingly transposing second century circumstances (when they were writing) into the early first century. They also make mistakes of geography. Sometimes they even invent places (Bethabara, Bethany, Bethlehem, etc).

     “Historical fiction,” however, is openly presented and advertised as fiction. The gospels, on the other hand, are intended to convince the reader that the described events actually occurred. This is the fundamental reason that the accusation of deception must be leveled against the evangelists. The gospels intend to deceive. There is no way around this conclusion.

     Gospel deception was successful because Christianity was able to control the message. Dykstra points out that “a unified church leadership [produced] this literature and tightly controlled its propagation over an extended period of time” (173). This was possible because “the manuscripts derive from a single archetype, which in turn suggests that a single editor or publisher deliberately created the entire package at some very early date” (173). Thus, we have a point source: the Gospel of Mark.

     It is clear, however, that the emergent Church was able to control the message only imperfectly. After all, we have four different canonical gospels—and sometimes they are incompatible. But the essential Gestalt of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, is uniform throughout. Only the episodes and the details vary (with the Fourth Gospel departing the furthest from the Marcan template).

     When we recognize the ‘point source’ of the Christian message residing in the Gospel of Mark, then Mark’s dependence on Paul becomes even more fundamental. Paul is the heart of the Christian message. Jesus is simply window dressing—part of the “invention” mentioned above that the evangelists “could get away with.”

     And, obviously, the evangelists did get away with the grand deception that is ‘Jesus.’ Let’s be clear: the purpose of that deception was to propagate the theology of Paul—that a divine redeemer came into history, died for us, and that we must believe this if we are to be ‘saved.’ This last element is crucial. Belief in Pauline/Christian theology is what saves—not God’s action; not even Jesus’ death on the cross. In turn, rallying around that single, clear belief—like rallying around a flag held high—fostered, and even greatly accelerated, formation of the Church. The evangelists were at heart (like Paul) Church-builders. Their primary concern was not God, Jesus, nor even our immortal souls. It was fashioning a standard around which all could rally, thus building a universal Church and wielding the earthly power accruing to that formidable endeavor. In sum, the evangelists were megalomaniacs. The popes, bishops, and prelates that followed them have been also.

Wrapping up

     Dykstra also looks at the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. He gives a nod to Brodie, noting that “Luke’s use of the Elijah-Elisha text is systematic, complete” (215). Dykstra also observes: “Goulder concludes… that Luke made up virtually all of the narrative in Lk 1:5–2:40, inspired by stories he found in the Torah and the Former Prophets” (215). The other synoptics were, however, also reliant on Paul: “Brodie finds that Romans was the source for much of the material in Matthew 1–17” (217). The Fourth Gospel, too, primarily made use of the synoptics and Ephesians (218).

     The fifth and last major section of Dykstra’s book is entitled “The Historical Jesus in Mark” (Chapters 12–14). We may wonder what “the historical Jesus” might be without an historical Jesus! Dykstra is evidently not (yet) a Jesus mythicist. It may not be long, however…

     In closing, I appreciate Dykstra’s openness to the changing face of Biblical Studies today. He cogently observes:

A consensus among scholars is even more resistant to change than one that petrifies among the general public because of a phenomenon that Goulder laments: a field’s “professors have made their reputations by assuming and extending it, and will not lightly abandon it.” That is why “[s]hifts of paradigm do not come from professors; they come from young men, and from those on the margin of the subject.” And that is why those who are most prominent in a given field and most forcefully defend its established views may be the least in tune with reality…

     How true. Scholarship today operates not in freedom but with hands tightly bound, threatened daily to toe the line of orthodoxy at risk of losing paycheck, prestige, and promotion. Of course, there are those—like Ehrman—who push the envelope. But those who cross the line in the sand (e.g. Brodie) suffer immediate and drastic consequences. Brodie not only doubted the existence of Jesus—he announced that doubt in his 2012 book. And then he lost his job and was forbidden to teach.

     While Dykstra’s work reveals that the gospel of Mark rests upon and transmits Paul’s theology, we note that Paul is himself an enigma, a cipher, and may now ask: What was “Paul”? Was “he” even an actual figure of history? Or was “he” perhaps the effigy, the figure, that the Church used to embody its desired dogma? In other words, one cipher may yield another—all leading to “what the evangelists could get away with” (above)—namely, pure invention.

—René Salm

About René Salm

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *