Three New Testament Christianities
Let me make my assumptions clear here: I find that there are three early Christian forms which present themselves prominently in the New Testament, which I call Jewish, Pauline, and Proto-Catholic Christianities. I have previously discussed and defined what I identify as the authentic Pauline and Proto-Catholic Christianities in the heavily edited and interpolated Pauline epistles. (I also discussed a potential timeline of the development of rival forms of Christianity here.)
Briefly, the epistolary statements defining what I regard as true Pauline Christianity say that conformity with the Jewish Law was incapable of providing salvation: "But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain … Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace." Attempting to comply with the old covenant of the Torah deprived you of the salvation worked by Jesus.
More than that, the Law is an instrument of oppression: "For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression." That's right: no Law, no sin! The Torah is something evil: it created sin and mandated the wrathful punishment of death for it.
What Jesus did, on this Pauline Christianity, was not to provide a substitute sacrifice to appease that wrath and thus open the way to reconciliation with the Lawgiver. The Law was a temporary stop-gap regime that was never a route to salvation:
For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.If the Law were not an instrument of salvation, then Jesus could not have bought humanity's salvation by fulfilling it. Rather, the Pauline doctrine is that Jesus freed humanity from the Law by dying and being born again. When a human being is baptised, they are united with the resurrected Jesus. Since one can only suffer one death, and given that one is united with a Jesus who has already died that once, one cannot die again. Thus the Law that creates sin and punishes it with death no longer holds that punishment of death over human beings who are baptised into Jesus' death and resurrection. The Pauline epistles state this doctrine of salvation multiple times:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
This is, in my opinion, the authentic Paulinism: Jesus died under the Law to free humanity from it, as long as they are united with him in death and resurrection.Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? … Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
What is even more curious, is that Pauline Christianity surely envisages the Law as the creation of evil, demonic forces, and not of the God of Jesus. Note in this regard how Paul says: "Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God." The other to whom Paul's brothers previously belonged seems to be the power of Sin, but this is a power represented by distinct beings:
"I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. ... Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?"What guardians and managers, which by nature are not Gods, enslaved humanity under the Law, a regime under which "you did not know God"? Naturally, these must be evil spiritual beings, demons. This, then, is Pauline Christianity.
What I see as Proto-Catholic Christianity, on the other hand, is presented in what I hold to be interpolations (later insertions) in the Pauline epistles, which are meant to twist the doctrine originally asserted there. As I wrote previously, these interpolations assert that the Law was good (although humanity was too weak to follow it sinlessly) and that Jesus saved humanity by fulfilling it:
That is a perfectly clear statement of a radically different soteriology (theory of salvation) from the Pauline form of Christianity I just described. Instead of freeing humanity from the Law, Jesus fulfils it. Instead of the Law being an evil oppression, it is a righteous requirement. This is Proto-Catholic Christianity, the origin of all modern Christianity (excepting perhaps medieval heresies like Catharism).God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Jewish Christianity is presented clearly in the book called Hebrews. Its doctrine is based on the idea that the customary temple sacrifices are inadequate to purge the Jewish people of their sins. For how can meagre offerings of roasted meat make proper amends for the disobedience of a nation to its god? The old covenant is "obsolete" due to its inefficacy, and a new one has arrived. Jesus is the permanent replacement high priest of this new route to salvation, since he has offered to God the fittingly complete sacrifice of his sinlessly innocent and obedient self as an upgrade on the Jews' feeble barbecued offerings:
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.The idea has a scriptural foundation in Psalm 40, a version of which is quoted in Hebrews:
Consequently, when [Jesus Christ] came into the world, he said,(As is normal in the New Testament outside the Gospels, the words attributed to Jesus are quoted out of the Psalms, just as the words of the Holy Spirit are quoted out of a prophetic book in the next source.)
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body have you prepared for me;in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”
Another quoted source for the doctrine is Jeremiah:
And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,It would seem that Jewish Christians are no longer expected to obey the Jewish Law (Torah). While they can still fall away by sin, the ethics presented in Hebrews is much vaguer than and independent of the Old Testament commandments:
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts,
and write them on their minds,”then he adds,“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have...(Although, curiously, there appears also to have been a movement to impose the Torah on Christians, as evidenced among other things by Jesus' exhortation in GMatthew: "For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.")
Nevertheless, the focus of this Jewish Christianity appears to be entirely on the Jewish people:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son...
For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.Thus there are three predominant Christianities in the New Testament: a Jewish Christianity focussed on the Jewish people, in which Jesus' sacrifice propitiates the wrath of God over the Jews' sins against his Law, buying them forgiveness and reconciliation; a Pauline Christianity which regards the Law as a demonic oppression from which Jesus saved humanity by dying and rising back to life, so that by uniting with him you dodge a punishing death for yourself; and a Proto-Catholic Christianity which combines the Pauline concern with humanity as a whole, with the Jewish-Christian belief in the righteousness and divinity of the Law.
Which form of Christianity produced Mark's Gospel?
Mark's Gospel is tricky to pin down to an attitude about the Jewish Law. Let us look through a few passages that bear on the matter:
Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”So Jesus' disciples do not undertake Jewish fasts because they have Jesus with them, although they will fast when he is gone. This is hard to pin to any of our three Christianities because it seems to both disclaim and recommend fasting. Jesus' metaphors seem to suggest that his new dispensation should not be patched onto the old one; here is something new. So if the disciples fast when he is taken away, it will be for a new reason.
One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”The Sabbath, a major Torah commandment, is subordinate to Jesus' needs, as also those of David. This seems to deny its morally imperative force.
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,Jesus denies the authority of the Law on kashrut (kosher foods) and does not expect his disciples to be ritually purified before eating. He instead emphasises behaviour that proceeds from within a person. Yet he criticises the Pharisees for failing to obey the Torah commandment to honour one's parents.
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate."Jesus is quoting Genesis, although not words spoken by God. He dismisses the Torah's commandment about divorce as given to the Jews for their hardness of heart.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”This sums it up: while Jesus clearly reveres the divine tradition of the Jews embodied in the Torah, what he reveres are the essential ethics of love, goodness, charity, integrity. He dismisses divorce law as invalid because it was given for the Jews' deficit of goodness. He does not care about fasting, kashrut or ritual purity. He brings a new wine that is not to be contained in old wineskins.
For me, this situates GMark on the Jewish or Proto-Catholic side, as opposed to the Pauline or Matthean sides. Jesus is not a "not one jot" Torah enthusiast like Matthew makes him out to be in places. Nor does he reject the Law as a source of sin, or the imposition of demonic oppressors. Jesus holds the Law to be divine but inessential. This mirrors the Jewish Christians' lack of consideration for Torah particulars in favour of the vague brotherly ethics preached in Hebrews, and it is of course also familiar Proto-Catholic territory: respecting the divinity of the Torah without actually following its commandments.
The difficult, however, is that GMark is also deeply anti-Petrine. Mark's Peter is a disgraceful failure, famously denying Jesus thrice before the cock crew twice. Despite what Christians would like to believe, there is no restoration of Peter in Mark's story. Jesus gives him the name "Rock" in Greek not because, as Matthew claims, he is to be the "Rock of the Church", but because he embodies the seed that falls on rocky ground (Πέτρος / τὸ πετρῶδες) in the Parable of the Sower:
And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.So Peter's faith starts to grow, but is destroyed by the slightest hint of danger. At the end of the Gospel, he does not even get the message that the women are supposed to convey from the angel at the tomb: "and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." Jesus has even gone so far as to call Peter "Satan"! Pace Christians who would like to be able to retrieve Peter's reputation in GMark, the Gospel is nothing less than a total destruction of Peter's claim to authority.
Yet Peter has usually been taken to be a leader of Jewish Christianity (by critical historians) or of Catholic Christianity, in concert with Paul (by tradition). He is criticised by Paul for trying to hypocritically impose Torah demands on Christians:
Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised ... But when Cephas [Peter in Aramaic] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”It would be perfectly understandable for GMark to besmirch Peter's reputation if it were a Pauline document, but it doesn't seem to be so. What could have led a Jewish or Proto-Catholic, non-Pauline writer to attack Peter (and the rest of the disciples with him, but less prominently) as a disgrace who failed entirely to live up to the faith he ought to have in Jesus? We should expect this from a Paulinist, who would regard Peter and the disciples as having misunderstood and Judaised the originally anti-Torah gospel about Jesus, which Paul then had to purify and correct. If the disciples were failures, and Paul's position is ignored, then what would be the channel of transmission of the gospel? Who holds authority in the Church that produced GMark? There is nobody in GMark left with his reputation intact to act as a preacher of Jesus' message: "And they all left him and fled." Yet there is nothing to suggest support for Paul or his doctrine.
This is the biggest mystery of Mark's Gospel, and I don't know what can be said to resolve it.