I wrote this essay for a 300-level religion course on early Christianity about 10 months ago, so apologies for the "academic-speak". A lot of the terms and concepts will only make sense having read Mack's book. "A Myth of Innocence" is a lot harder to read than "The Lost Gospel", or "Who Wrote the New Testament", but it's got some great stuff in it. Here's the essay:
“Events are for a man of talent nothing but a spring-board of ideas and style, since they are all mitigated or aggravated according to the needs of a cause... As far as documents which support them are concerned, it is even worse, since none of them is irreducible and all are reviewable. If they are not just apocryphal, other no less certain documents can be unearthed later which contradict them, waiting in turn to be devalued by the unearthing of yet other no less certain archives." J.-K. Huysmans, Lá-Bas (Huysmans, 27)
“A Theological Obituary of the Narrative Gospel"
The historicity of Mark’s gospel (and all other ‘posthumously-published’ accounts of the man Jesus) is a relatively recent problem. Religious scholars have traditionally viewed Mark as a play-by-play account of the ‘little big bang’ that catapulted the Son of God onto the world stage. Theologically-motivated, they have based their history on Mark, and have not questioned the possible social circumstances influencing and resulting in its creation. Unfortunately, their view of history is a retroactive projection of relatively modern beliefs onto an author with his (or their) own motivations.
Burton Mack argues that the story is an obvious fiction, written generations after the fact, which enhances a certain Jesus group’s ‘history’ to align with their present self-definition—a “charter document" (Mack, 1988, xii). Mark combined various sources (whether traditional Hebrew Scriptures, Greco-Roman themes and rhetoric, or memory-traditions of Jesus movements and Christ cults) into a narrative designed to justify the group’s existence in a period marked by chaos and war, predicting their vindication upon the Son of Man’s eventual coming. Unfortunately, these pre-Markan Jesus sources have not survived outside of Mark itself. The scholar must first identify the intertextualities based on the social concerns embedded in the text, and then extract them from their Markan context. Studying the way Mark changed their meaning, we can discern his intention behind the use of each. However, this analysis must be rigorous. The text’s specifics must be recognizably consistent with the social and literary environment of Galilee in the early first century—documents do not appear in a social vacuum.
Thus Mack reverses tradition, proposing to view the gospel “as the origin of the Christian notion of dramatic origins" (ibid, 9). Instead of looking for the mythic events at the beginning of Christianity, he seeks the “social and intellectual occasions of their being imagined" (ibid, 8). In other words, his methodology is one of the rhetoric and sociology of the theorized group responsible for what we know as Mark’s gospel.
Mark Hits the Books
Mack identifies different sources used by Mark: parables, pronouncements, miracles, Hebrew Scriptures, the Christ myth and ritual meal text. Mark takes what he needs from each, changing their original meanings when he sees fit. For example, he uses the Christ myth (the earliest account of which can be found in the pre-Pauline kerygma: 1 Cor 15:3-5) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-26) as the skeleton for his passion narrative, downplaying the cultic elements of the ritual meal and emphasizing Jesus as martyr (Mack, 1988, 303). With this as a starting point, Mark weaves a story of the falsely accused Righteous One who dies a noble death and is vindicated post-mortem (ibid, 106). This Hellenistic convention had its Jewish counterpart: the Wisdom Tale (see ibid, 265). Instead of a reversal in which Wisdom is saved and vindicated (like Susanna is saved from persecution by Daniel in Daniel 13), Jesus’ resurrection—from his perhaps inexplicable historical execution—was used as his vindication.
To justify Jesus’ persecution, Mark needed a tyrant, thus borrowing the unlucky Pharisees. The pronouncement stories (Mack, 1988, ch. 7) provide the backdrop. Because of their resemblance to Greek chreiai, Mack proposes they were originally passed on as rhetorical sayings of a Cynic sage-like Jesus whose challengers—usually authorities like the Pharisees—betray a concern with Jewish law and purity codes. Mark saw in this an ideal villain and, by combining these with the miracle stories (ibid, 235), a portrayal of Jesus as a man of authority—he always has the last word, thereby flustering his intellectually-impotent challengers!
Paul Achtemeier discovered two apparent chains of these miracle stories, each beginning with a water-related miracle (calming the storm in Mark 4.35-41 and walking on water in 6.45-51) and ending with a miraculous feeding. Also found in John, this sequence suggests a retelling of Jewish origins (Red Sea crossing to Passover) projected onto a Jesus group. Thus, they can be seen as a pre-Markan myth of origin (with Jesus as Moses and Elijah, who incidentally have brief cameos in Mark 9:4) transmuted into historical events documenting Jesus’ power, or exousia. To this, Mark adds demons and disciples for additional effect (Mack, 1995, 155). Thus, after a failed attempt at synagogue reform (Mack, 1988, 196), Mark sets up the link with Israel so that Christianity could rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of the Temple.
The parables (particularly in Mk 4) also appear to be pre-Markan, portraying Jesus elucidating concepts like the kingdom of god with clever allegories and aphorisms. To Mack, the parable of the seeds seems to have first applied to a failed attempt to spread the “kingdom." Spreading good seeds upon fertile soil was the goal, but some failure would be inevitable! Mark, however, flipped the rhetorical purpose of the parabolai to include the Christ cult’s enigmatic mystery. This esoteric fence placed the parables “outside the boundaries of understanding in order to precipitate the very events they encoded" (ibid, 171).
Mack’s socio-historical ‘digging’ through layers of tradition is groundbreaking and refreshingly plausible, but controversial. As Mack himself puts it, “the site is still inhabited" (ibid, xi). The church (in its various forms) depends on its conservative ‘myth of origins’ for existence. As Mark interpreted the miracle stories as historical accounts, so do modern believers interpret Mark. They may even raise an interesting challenge, as Adela Collins does in her review of Mack’s book: must every instance of religious experience be explained away as literary fiction and not historical report (Collins, 728)? Perhaps Mack holds humanity to an unrealistic standard when he says “the Christ myth […] was not the result of merely speculative adventure on the part of visionaries. Real people were involved (Mack, 1988, 115, quoted by Collins). However, while there is no shortage of fantastic claims made now (e.g. George Adamski’s contact with blonde Venusians), or in any historical time-frame (Joseph Smith’s encounter with the light-being, Moroni), Mack is right not to assume an essential “religious basis. Religious experience was not a necessary component in the case of Mark, and Mack’s social/literary approach reads just as plausibly, if not more so.
For his view of the historical Jesus, Mack relies heavily on Kloppenborg’s early layers of Q (ibid, 57-60). The aphoristic language and absence of any martyrological, ritualized mythology, leads him to believe that the earliest account of Jesus was as a social critic. From here we can see how the Q-group modified its focus to a more apocalyptic approach in later layers, and how these resignifications had their effect on later readers like Mark. While this seems to be a most plausible reading of the texts, Werner Kelber wonders if “the slim and contestable base of "the earliest layer of Q" (p. 60) bear the weight of so consequential a thesis (Kelber, 163). He wonders if Mack is not simply creating another myth of origins. Must every text be the result of social-formation or self-definition? Does a miracle-source need to imply a miracle group? Unfortunately, unless we discover some early Q-related documents, these questions cannot be definitively answered. As Vernon Robbins states the matter:
“If [Mack’s] attempt leaves wounded prides in its path and many questions unanswered, at least it shows us that it is possible to envision significantly different accounts of the social history of early Christianity than those envisioned during the past century and a half (Robbins, 20).
The Network Self-Destructs
Whenever a group promotes novel behaviour, suffers inner conflict, or splits into branches, it must justify its continued existence in the face of this opposition (or oppression). Before reading Mack’s books, I had very little understanding of the possible history of the earliest Jesus groups. I suspected the gospels were partially myth, but had no idea that so much could actually be hypothesized and never questioned some core assumptions. I was asking questions comparable to: “What years did Merlin instruct Arthur? I thought that, if there was anything to be found, it would be in the period after the composition of the gospels. Mack’s work changed my outlook, showing me that a text holds many secrets, some of which can be plausibly reconstructed. The lack of early documents limits the possibilities for inquiry, but textual analysis and comparison with contemporary literature reveals a lot: what people were reading, writing, teaching, and doing with each other. Textual clues can suggest what was actually going on in the group’s or individual’s recent socio-historical environment.
Most striking to me are Mack’s conclusions on the motives of the earliest Jesus groups, and the eventual changes that led to Mark. It is a story that is eerily familiar, both in history and the present. Two millennia ago, a group reimagined a society wherein salvation “meant the process of transferring one's social location from the constraints of an ethnic or national identity to the "freedom" and "acceptance" experienced within the new congregation (Mack, 1995, 12). They formed an association of like-minded, self-governing, freely-associating individuals that imagined a kingdom of God without exclusion and tyranny. Similar experiments occurred in the Languedoc region of France in the 12th century (see O’Shea, 2001) and recently with modern civil rights, anti-war, and 9/11 truth groups. What happens to them? The Cathars were murdered in the Albigensian Crusade, civil rights leaders are assassinated (in body and character), anti-war groups are kept under invasive surveillance and infiltrated by counter-intelligence operatives; in short, they are destroyed or manipulated to self-destruct by those with a vested interest in controlling the status quo.
Could Mark’s group have undergone similar circumstances? Mack sees a foundering egalitarian spirit (Mack, 1988, 346) in Mark. Is it possible his group underwent such vilification that he had to resort to imagining Jesus as a supreme authority, clearly defining the group’s boundaries so as to protect their original ideal? Unfortunately (in Mack’s view), these events amounted to “a remarkably pitiful moment of early Christian condemnation of the world (ibid, 376). Such an outlook is doomed for failure, and the irony is biting: through their own struggle to preserve mental hygiene (via acceptance of differences) and the inevitable hardships of such an affront to bigotry, the group created a document that would be used to justify the very thing they were originally trying to avoid. Without a clear look at authority (in all its totalitarian forms) and its truly psychopathic nature, similar groups will continue to be crucified.
Collins, Adela Yarbro. “A Myth of Innocence.
Journal of Biblical Literature 108
(Winter 1989): 726-29
Huysmans, Joris-Karl. La-bas. Paris: Plon, 1891, Ch. II.
Quoted in Fulcanelli (pseud.), Les Demeures
Philosophales, trans. Brigitte Donvez & Lionel Perrin
(Boulder: Archive Press & Communications, 1999).
Kelber, Werner H. “A Myth of Innocence.
Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52
(Jan 1990): 161-63
Mack, Burton L. A Myth of Innocence.
Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Mack, Burton L. Who Wrote the New Testament?
New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
O’Shea, Stephen. The Perfect Heresy.
New York: Walker and Company, 2001.
Robbins, Vernon K. “A Myth of Innocence.
Religious Studies Review 17
(Jan 1991): 16-22.