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Mark’s Gospel as Greek tragedy

Transfiguration: ("richly wreathed" with grain) Demeter Mourning Persephone, painting by Evelyn De Morgan (aka Evelyn Pickering, English Pre-Raphaelite) (1906) on Staff and Scrip, Dr John Dunn Demeter's "Transfiguration"
The transfiguration in Mark 9:2-8 has parallels with Greek mythology that also would have likely evoked thoughts of gods walking the earth in human form. [...] A prominent example comes from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. [...] When she chooses to reveal her true identity, her transformation is described in terms reminiscent of Jesus' transfiguration: "the goddess changed her stature and her form, thrusting old age away from her: beauty spread round about her...and from the divine body of the goddess a light shown afar. Like Demeter, Jesus revealed his divine nature by thrusting away his humble disguise in exchange for resplendent clothing.


Transfiguration: ("richly wreathed" with grain) Demeter Mourning Persephone,
painting by Evelyn De Morgan (aka Evelyn Pickering, English Pre-Raphaelite) (1906)






I have already written about why Plato was attracted to a model of Eleusinian mystic initiation as a metaphor for philosophical enlightenment. Just as initiation at Eleusis transformed the individual so that he would achieve salvation in the afterworld, Plato claimed the initiation of the philosophic theoros purified and transformed the soul, guaranteeing it a blessed destiny. Plato’s philosopher, then, had much in common with the initiate at the Mysteries: in both cases, the theoros ‘saw’ a divine revelation that transformed him at soul.

I noted too how the Eleusinian flash of light and revelation - epoptika - was employed by Dante too at the end of the Paradisio.

...my mind was struck by a flash
In which what it desired came to it.


Plato and Dante both employed Eleusinian metaphors of transfigurative light to engage the reader in an act of the imagination, a defining characteristic of man that needs nothing of the world of sense-perception. This transfiguration was the realisation of capax Dei. Both Plato and Dante implied that the supreme good that one must grasp and possess resides in oneself.

We meet with this same epoptika in the Gospel of Mark - the Transfiguration.

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. (Mark 9)

The transfiguration is exactly in the middle of Mark’s Gospel. It is the middle or climax point of a structural composition entirely founded upon Greek tragedy, as outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics.

The very nature of Greek tragedy means that there will be a level of meaning for an inner circle of readers, and a more superficial one for ‘those on the outside’. In short, the gospel as a whole has the same two-tiered nature as a parable. Its deeper nature was accessible only by that part of the audience immersed in Greco-Roman culture. Outsiders would have to make do with a story.

Greek tragedy was no mere narrative. Tragedy was drama, not narrative, it ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells.’ A narrative deals with the particular and tragedy with the universal. Events that have happened may be due to accident or coincidence; they may be particular to a specific situation and not be part of a clear cause-and-effect chain. Therefore they have little relevance for others. Tragedy, however, was rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it created a cause-and-effect chain that clearly revealed what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the cosmos operates. Tragedy therefore aroused not only pity but also fear, because the audience could envision themselves within this cause-and-effect chain.

Mark can of course be read as a mere story, but that would be to miss the philosophical and universal message held within the drama. It is the latter to which Aristotle gave emphasis. It was the deeper level of UNDERSTANDING that the Greeks held to be of importance within the drama. There was no resurrection story in the Gospel of Mark for the its first 350 - 400 years. The Hellenised audience did not need this. The Gospel ended originally at the tomb. Resurrection and heaven would not have been a tragedy.

Wherever the Greeks conquered and the Hellenistic influence was felt, amphitheatres were built and tragedies enacted. These were the cathedrals, and the cosmic purpose revealed in the drama served as a quasi-religion. Ancient tragedy, which originated as cultic drama, never entirely lost its religious connotations, whether performed in Greece or the later Roman Empire, where playwrights would have remained very much aware of the Hellenic conventions.

Some scholars believe that the nine tragedies of the Roman Stoic Seneca the younger, published posthumously in 65 AD, once included a tenth about the life of Jesus, the Nazarenus. This latter could not be published because Christianity was a proscribed religion at the time. Nevertheless, the author of Mark’s Gospel may have read or witnessed a clandestine performance of Seneca’s lost tragedy. Mark’s Gospel is usually considered the first to be set down in writing, and its author resided in Rome. Most modern scholars hypothesise the gospel was probably written c.66–70 AD, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians. Seneca’s Nazarenus was probably consigned to oblivion because, in its raw state, it offended both Christians and pagans alike. Nevertheless, it is salutary to think that this tragedy may have been the first gospel in its pure unadulterated form.*

Seneca would have been fully aware of Aristotle’s Poetics, which described the structure of a Greek tragedy. The plot must be ‘a whole’, with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning, called by modern critics the incentive moment, must start the cause-and-effect chain but not be dependent on anything outside the compass of the play (i.e., its causes are downplayed but its effects are stressed). The middle, or climax, must be caused by earlier incidents and itself cause the incidents that follow it (i.e., its causes and effects are stressed). It is in this middle section that the turning point of the whole drama occurs. The end, or resolution, must be caused by the preceding events but not lead to other incidents outside the compass of the play (i.e., its causes are stressed but its effects downplayed); the end should therefore solve or resolve the problem created during the incentive moment. Aristotle called the cause-and-effect chain leading from the incentive moment to the climax the “tying up” (desis), in modern terminology the complication. He therefore terms the more rapid cause-and-effect chain from the climax to the resolution the “unravelling” (lusis), in modern terminology the dénouement.

The Gospel of Mark has the structure of Greek tragedy.

There is a beginning in and around Galilee, a middle on the way to Jerusalem and an end in Jerusalem. The middle phase, what Aristotle refers to as the turning point occurs in 8.29, continuing to 9.2.

Anyone reading Mark through the lens of Aristotle’s Poetics will see highlighted the phase between the plot’s ‘complication’ and its ‘denouement’.

The crisis point, or hinge between the initial phase and the denouement is Peter’s confession.

This constitutes a turning point in the action. Up to this point Jesus has attempted to suppress all talk of miracles and healing powers, anything that might enable the Jewish label of Messiah to be pinned upon him.

‘Do not tell anyone’ was his instruction to those he had healed. His only self-ascribed title to this point had been the ‘Son of Man’.

With the crisis point came Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah.

Jesus’s response, as previously to others, was to warn Peter and the other disciples immediately ‘not to tell anyone about him’.

Next, he rebuked Peter with the words ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ for any suggestion that the Son of Man should not suffer the fate that Jesus had predicted for himself following Peter’s confession. Note how quickly Jesus reasserted himself as the Son of Man, suppressing any mention of Messiahship.


Six versus after Jesus’s savage rebuke of Peter comes the high point for the ‘hero’ in the tragedy. The turning point and the Transfiguration are conjoined at the dead centre of the tragedy. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.(Mark 9)

Epoptika - in this Greek tragedy, the Greek metaphor of all metaphors, the transfigurative Eleusinian flash of light, is conjoined to the moment when the Son of Man becomes Son of God. This is the participative conjunction of man in God and God in man; incarnation, capax Dei.

In his famous speech in the Symposium, Socrates (relating the discourse of Diotima) compares the philosopher’s vision of the Forms, ‘divine beauty’, to the mystic revelation at Eleusis. According to Socrates, the philosopher who achieves the vision of ‘divine beauty’ becomes ‘beloved of god and - to the extent possible for any man - immortal’. What was heard after the transfiguration?

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’ (Mark 9)

From this climactic turning point of the middle section the tragic denouement begins as the tragic necessity, which Jesus foretold.

There is something in the hero's past that should have been dealt with. That was the principal ingredient of Greek tragedy. Ignoring the obvious has dire consequences in the future. That is tragedy and it is universally applicable.

What was it that Jesus ignored? First we must understand who Jesus was. For thousands of years, Jesus has been seen as a reformer of Judaism; that was his mission, a continuation of the Hebraic tradition.

What has really been going on is a struggle between the Hellenic and Judaic traditions. The 300 years of Hellenic influence over Galilee, Decapolis, the surrounding area, including even Judea, before Jesus’s birth, has been downplayed by scholars, in the interests of presenting Jesus in the midst of a thoroughly Jewish culture. Unfortunately for this view, archaeological evidence of Hellenisation in Galilee continues to increase.

Southern Galilee was Greek speaking in the first century and, although the Ptolemies and Seleucids had not founded a city in the middle of the region, Galilee was surrounded by cities on the Hellenistic model, with Scythopolis and Gadara within a day’s walk of Nazareth. Tiberius, founded by Herod Antiphous on the Sea of Galilee in 19 AD was built on the Hellenistic model. In all these a visitor from Nazareth could have experienced amphitheatres, sporting arenas and gymnasiums. Gadara in particular produced famous philosophers and poets of the Stoic and Cynic Schools.

Influenced heavily by Socrates, the Cynics understood the end of life to be virtue, not pleasure, and that it could only be obtained by independence of all earthly possessions and pleasures. The Cynics, as well as the Stoics who followed them, characterised the Cynic way of life as a ‘shortcut to virtue’ (see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 104 and Book 7, Chapter 122). Though they often suggested that they had discovered the quickest, and perhaps surest, path to the virtuous life, they recognised the difficulty of this route.

Take the qualities of Socrates who:

confronted the rich and powerful
shunned, ignored public office
showed a moral excellence
remained independent
remained poor
valued freedom
believed suffering was the result of having false beliefs about oneself
confronted people about their beliefs
searched continuously for truth
loved questions.

All the above captures completely the preoccupations of the Cynics. Seneca the younger for one would have recognised Cynic thought and action when he saw it, being a Socratic Stoic through and through, as evidenced by the Double Herm of Socrates and Seneca, in which the two philosophers are depicted symbolically as being in such complete accord that they are joined together at the back of the head.

Jesus as Cynic sage...

The preoccupations of the Cynics are reflected in the gospel of Thomas, a work from the Nag Hammadi library. This gospel too has close parallels with the material of Matthew and Luke, and can be compared to Mark.

Mark has 677 verses. Matthew took 90% of Mark. Luke looked at Mark and Matthew and took 62%. The sayings of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, are from and unknown source called Q (from ‘Quelle’, meaning ‘source’ in German). There are many similarities between the sayings of Jesus in Q and those on the gospel of Thomas, in language, style and ideas, and these are also picked up by Mark. If there is a case for Cynic philosophy playing a major role in the formation of the gospel of Thomas, and there is a direct link between Thomas and the material in Matthew and `luke called Q, then if the sayings recorded by Thomas are those of a Cynic, then Q too consists of Cynic sayings. Here is the case, building upon our picture of a thoroughly Hellenised Galilee, for Jesus being a Cynic sage.

After the symbolic high point of divine wisdom in the Transfiguration, things change. The turning point in the tragedy has passed. Jesus went to Judea and Jerusalem and challenged the authorities. He walked into a trap. The Jews were obsessed with pinning the charge of insurrection upon him.

So, we must return to the question posed earlier, what was it that Jesus ignored?

Before the crisis, Jesus did not deal adequately with the titles bestowed upon him. He may have asked those he healed to remain quiet and not to tell anyone about his powers, but this was insufficient and tantamount to ignoring the serious implications of these appellations. Anyone bearing the title Son of David, for example, would be considered a king, a Messiah in the political sense and, in the context of the times, a leader of insurrection.

He allowed these titles to persist unchallenged, he set up the conditions to be caught and he went where he was going to be caught. This was the tragedy. For a sage philosopher who spoke universal truths to be dragged down by narrowly racial clan beliefs, after achieving the highest vision of divine luminosity possible, was tragic.

Pilate asked Jesus ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’, before dismissing the charge with incredulity.

Ciaphus was much more astute. ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ he asked, being appreciative of the capax Dei nature of Jesus’s Eleusinian experience. ‘I am’ answered Jesus, before immediately reverting back to his self-styled title of ‘the Son of Man’.

Pilate nailed ‘King of the Jews’ to the cross out of a caprice of sarcasm and contempt towards the Jews. The translations have the centurion saying ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’. The words could equally have been translated ‘this man was a son of God’. The shape of the Greek tragedy of Mark suggests that the latter would have been much more appropriate.

*See M. Bryant, The Drama of Calvary, Bloomington, Author House, 2011, pp.100 -109

© John Dunn.


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