Did St. Mark Read Plato / Did Plato Read Moses?

The fact that we can detect Jesus’ followers moving away from his more radical teachings is evidence that we can see a radical teacher/healer who existed, contra the Christ Myth Theory.

It’s remarkable that we focus so intently on personal salvation and what Jesus did “for” us, that we ignore corporate sin and what we did “to” Jesus. From that latter point of view, perhaps the gospel writers took the known wrongful death of John the Baptist as we find in Josephus, and rewrote it to make it more wrongful and humiliating to anticipate a superlatively wrongful and humiliating death of Jesus (like Elisha being the successor and superior of Elijah). In Josephus John’s Death is:

  • Jewish Antiquities 18. 5. 2 John the Baptist gained a large following. Herod Antipas feared the widely popular John the Baptist would incite his followers to launch a rebellion against his rule. Therefore, he had John the Baptist arrested and imprisoned at Macherus. Herod Antipas later had John the Baptist executed ‘to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties.’ Some Jews believed God later destroyed Herod Antipas’ army as a punishment, because he had unjustly executed John the Baptist.

Whereas in Mark:

  • Mark 1:14, 6:17–29 John the Baptist criticised king Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s ex-wife Herodias. John the Baptist was therefore arrested by Herod Antipas. Herodias wanted John killed, but Herod Antipas protected John because he knew John was a just and holy man. John the Baptist was executed by beheading by Herod Antipas on the request of Herodias’ daughter. His disciples buried his remains.

Jesus thus is the new and greater John the Baptist, symbolized by Herod Antipas agreeing with those saying Jesus was actually John the Baptist risen from the dead. Matthew similarly identifies Jesus as the new and greater Moses. We have every reason to think the narrative of the death of the Baptizer in Mark is fiction, especially from Dennis MacDonald’s work. Price explains:

The Death of the Baptizer (Mark 6:14-29)

  • In view of the preceding parallels, it is hardly a surprise that Mark would have people inferring that Jesus is the returned Elijah. Indeed, their opinion is righter than Mark lets on!
- Usually scholars allow some core of historical reporting to underlie the story of the Baptizer’s death (though any reading of Mark must be harmonized with some difficulty with Josephus), recognizing just a bit of biblical embellishment to the narrative. For instance, it is apparent to all that Herod Antipas’ words to his step-daughter, “Whatever you ask of me I will give it to you, up to half my kingdom,” comes from Esther 5:3. Herod’s painting himself into the corner of having to order the execution of his favorite prophet may come from Darius’ bamboozlement in the case of Daniel (Daniel 6:6-15) (Miller, p. 178). But it is possible that the whole tale comes from literary sources.

- MacDonald (pp. 80-81, 176) shows how the story of John’s martyrdom matches in all essentials the Odyssey’s story of the murder of Agamemnon (3:254-308: 4:512-547; 11:404-434), even to the point that both are told in the form of an analepsis or flashback. Herodias, like Queen Clytemnestra, left her husband, preferring his cousin: Antipas in the one case, Aegisthus in the other. This tryst was threatened, in Clytemnestra’s case, by the return of her husband from the Trojan War, in Herodias’, by the denunciations of John. In both cases, the wicked adulteress plots the death of the nuisance. Aegisthus hosted a banquet to celebrate Agamemnon’s return, just as Herod hosted a feast. During the festivities Agamemnon is slain, sprawling amid the dinner plates, and the Baptizer is beheaded, his head displayed on a serving platter. Homer foreshadows danger awaiting the returning Odysseus with the story of Agamemnon’s murder, while Mark anticipates Jesus’ own martyrdom with that of John. The only outstanding difference, of course, is that in Mark’s version, the role of Agamemnon has been split between Herodias’ rightful husband (Philip according to Mark; another Herod according to Josephus) and John the Baptizer.

If we focus on this theme of what the world did to Jesus, we can make some interesting inferences to counter the Christ Myth Theory. We know Mark was using Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 to shape the passion narrative. So, there is a question as to the historicity of specific elements. But interestingly, Mark and Luke also seem to be using Psalm 19 (18 in the LXX): “The law of the Lord is faultless, turning souls…. Transgressions—who shall detect them? From my hidden ones clear me. (Psalm 18:7-12 LXX). The most recent NRSVUE translation of the Hebrew text of verse 12 is similar: “But who can detect one’s own errors? Clear me from hidden faults.”

The issue is the turning and converting power of the law—and the problem of hidden faults and what is to be done with them—for how can you repent of sins that you’re not aware of? This, in a nutshell, is the question that the New Testament writers are answering. The answer: The world wrongly condemns the specially chosen and favored one of God without cause, revealing their their hidden sin nature and making repentance possible—hence the soldier at the cross in Mark/Luke says: “Truly this was an innocent man.” The idea is to see yourself in the humanity that turned on Jesus. Analogously, if you had been a citizen in ancient Rome, you probably would have enjoyed the horrors of the arena as much as any other Roman of the time.

And the law?

The idea seems to be that of Socrates offering a prayer of thanksgiving for the poison hemlock curing him of his body and making conspicuous the hidden vileness of society, as well as the idea of the impaled just man from Plato’s Republic, the most famous book in the ancient world. That is, these Greek philosophical/ethical ideas had disseminated into Jewish theological thinking. Jesus is the “truth,” in the Greek sense of “aletheia,” because he un-covers (a-letheia) hidden sin par excellence. Why? He simultaneously un-covers the essence of the law, which then inspires a “turn” or “conversion,” or better, “a change of heart.” In this way, regarding Psalm 19:7, the New King James version’s analogous translation to the septuagint επιστρέφων, turning or converting, inspiring a change of heart like the soldier at the cross in Mark and Luke. This is also the sense in which Jesus is sinless or unblemished (άμωμος (Psalm 19:7, LXX). Why?

Jesus does not fall under the law like sinful humanity does, but re-veals it. Jesus, like God, is above the law. Jesus un-covers the essence of the law, such as in showing that adultery is not just the act; Jesus redefines it to include a lustful eye. Similarly, the essence of the law as hesed love is redefined from love of God and neighbor (widows, orphans, strangers) to selfless agape love of enemy as more important than self, or Jesus loving God and His plan in the Gethsemane prayer more than himself (“your will, not mine”). Jesus is the “agapetos” or specially beloved. Jesus on the cross as the specially favored one of God being wrongfully horrifically tortured and executed makes him the Law incarnate (personified, giving his life to uncover the eyes of his enemies). It is meant to inspire a change of heart, a turning or conversion, and so Christ does not abolish the law but fulfills the law with the cross not as penal substitution blood magic, but rather dis-closing or making conspicuous our hidden sinful nature to inspire repentance, since the point of the religion is God’s forgiveness is powerless if you don’t have a contrite heart, and so Jewish religious history is saturated with a forgiving God, but this wasn’t enough because they still ended up in a dystopian world under the Roman imperial thumb with a wicked Jewish elite and crowd whom Pilate would rather satisfy than bring to justice. That said, I simply don’t see how anyone can maintain a mythical outer space Jesus interpretation of Christian origins, for the whole point is that it isn’t just what Jesus did “for” us, but what we did “to” him.

Psalm 18 LXX seems to be particularly fruitful here. In Psalm 18 (19) , verse 7 we get the idea of the law inspiring a change of heart, and in verse 12 we get the idea of a sin nature that is hidden from us and must be un-covered: we are blind to ourselves, analogous to a teenager in a toxic romantic relationship who is too close to it to see the forest for the trees. This is moral influence theology, not penal substitution blood magic. And it makes sense seeing a compatibility of Greek and Jewish ideas. As Margaret Barker says:

  • “The early apologists, both Jewish and Christian, maintained that Plato learned from Moses, that he was Moses speaking Attic Greek. The most notable of these was Eusebius of Caesarea, who, in his work The Preparation of the Gospel, argued the case in great detail and listed all those who had held such views before him. Eusebius and the other apologists were probably correct. (Margaret Barker).”

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