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Marx vs. Mark

David Cowles

Apr 15, 2024

“The Gospel of Mark is no biography…It’s a call to action, a manifesto, a How-To manual for non-violent guerilla warriors everywhere, 1st century…or 21st.”

The New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke are recognizable as biographies of Jesus. We may be forgiven for expecting the same from the shorter and darker Gospel tucked in between them. I mean, of course, the underappreciated Gospel of Mark. 

Mark was almost certainly the first Gospel written and many of the episodes recounted in Mark also appear in Matthew and Luke. It is very likely that the authors of these two later Gospels had prior knowledge of Mark’s version of events. 

The author of Mark is believed to have been a close confidant of Peter, lending additional authenticity to his account. For these and other reasons, I am inclined to view Mark as the most literal account of the goings-on in Israel c. 30 CE. 

The Gospel of Mark is no biography, not even by ancient standards! It is a call to action, a manifesto, a How-To manual for non-violent guerilla warriors everywhere, 1st century…or 21st. Looking for some modern parallels? Lenin’s What is to be Done, Giap’s People’s Army, People's War, Hoffman’s Revolution for the Hell of it.  

After a very brief intro, Mark kicks off with “After John (the Baptist) had been arrested…” John’s arrest and eventual beheading by Herod is a pivotal moment in the history of the ‘Good News (Gospel) Movement’. (Mark 1: 14) Think Kent State, Ruby Ridge, and Waco.

Jesus had previously been anointed by John (and the Holy Spirit) to be his ‘successor’ (1: 9-11). Following that baptism, Jesus retreated to the desert for 40 days of introspection, prayer, and preparation. Think Fidel Castro in Oriente Province.

“Last chance to back out, Jesus. Put your great talents to constructive use. Accumulate wealth and power, and do good if you must, but do so within the system.” We’ve all been there!

Thanks, but no thanks! So, “…Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: ‘The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you…’” And with that, Jesus began to build his spiritual army, beginning with Andrew, Peter, and the Sons of Thunder, James and John. (1: 14–20)

You cannot build a successful para-military movement with words alone. To win the adherence of the people, you must demonstrate concretely what life would be like under your proposed ‘new world order’. The Black Panthers did this with their Breakfast Program in the 1960’s. Apocalypse Now (Director’s Cut) shows local schools run by the Viet Cong and highlights the rich civic life in areas under their control. 

So, Jesus and his still tiny band of followers went throughout Galilee performing good works: teaching, counseling the afflicted (exorcism), and treating the sick. (1: 21-26)

The life of a guerilla leader is a double edged sword. On the one hand, you cannot build a successful revolutionary movement without intimate contact with the people you hope to serve. On the other hand, such contact brings with it security risks. 

Almost immediately, Jesus learns to live on the run. After a disastrous campaign rollout in the synagogue at Capernaum, he hides in the home of Andrew and Peter and meets with the people of the area only after dark. (1: 29 – 34)

Sidebar: Mark doesn’t tell us what happened at Capernaum, but we know from other sources that Jesus proclaimed a Jubilee, i.e., a total redistribution of productive property (e.g. farmland), in accordance with a mandate (mitzvah) found in Torah (Leviticus 25: 10). It is often said that Social Security is the ‘third rail of American politics’: touch it and you die! Jubilee might be the 3rd rail in 1st century Israel.

Next day, Jesus “…got up and went out to a lonely spot and remained there in prayer,” but to no avail. Peter finds him and warns, “They are all looking for you.” So Jesus decides, “Let us move to the country towns in the neighborhood…So all through Galilee he went, preaching in the synagogues and casting out the devils.” (1: 35 - 39)

At that time, Jesus cured a leper. Mindful of the risk involved, he swore his beneficiary to strict secrecy, “Be sure you say nothing to anybody.” (1: 44) Dilemma: it’s all well and good to perform good works under the cloak of secrecy…but then how do you build a popular movement? 

Jesus hits upon a middle course: “Go, show yourself to the priest.” But “…The man went out and made the whole story public; he spread it far and wide until Jesus could not show himself in any town…” (1: 45)

Unable to execute the public campaign he’d originally planned, Jesus turns to the task of building out his cadre, beginning with Levi son of Alphaeus (2: 14). “He then went up into the hill country and called the men he wanted… He appointed 12 as his companions, whom he would send out to proclaim the Gospel…” (3: 14) 

And he continued to teach: “No one puts new wine (revolution) into old wine skins (institutions); if he does, the wine will burst the skins and then wine and skins are both lost.” (2: 22) So much for trying to work within the system. “Fresh skins for fresh wine!” Our first bumper sticker.  

Next comes what is perhaps the most human scene in all of scripture. When you read about a great teacher or a fierce revolutionary, a grown man to boot, you don’t imagine his mother dragging him home like a naughty 8 year old to eat his supper:

“He entered a house; and once more such a crowd gathered around them that they had no chance to eat. When his family heard of this, they set out to take charge of him; for people were saying he was out of his mind.” (3: 20-21)  

After this, it’s no surprise that Jesus was forever belittled by his former neighbors whenever he returned home: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother (or cousin) of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (6: 3) It is no wonder then that “he could work no miracles there.” (6: 5)

Of course, Jesus’ relationship with his family was evolving. His mother was with him at the foot of the Cross and she played an important role in the Good News Movement. Jesus’ ‘brother’, James, became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem.

Like any persecuted revolutionary, Jesus learned to communicate with his followers via a sort of code. We call these teachings parables. It turned out to be a brilliant strategy. It’s hard to find evidence of treason or blasphemy when a man is simply telling homespun tales of everyday life: a sower of seeds, a bedside lamp, a mustard seed. (4: 4-34) Think Prairie Home Companion. Over time his inner circle grew to understand the full significance of these coded messages.

Sidebar: The traditional interpretation, that the use of parables was Jesus’ way of adapting his  message to the sophistication level of his audience, is ridiculous…not to say chauvinistic. Jesus’ followers were thoroughly familiar with OT scripture and perfectly capable of engaging in theological speculation. Obviously, Jesus used the parable form for security reasons. 

While Jesus’ message was encrypted, his good deeds were not. Even as he honed his revolutionary skills, Jesus and his apostles continued to do good works throughout the countryside. 

It is important to note that according to Mark, Jesus never leaves his ‘home base’ of Galilee, except to flee north to Lebanon, Syria, and the Trans-Jordan. Never that is until his final push into Saigon…I mean Jerusalem. Mark defines Jesus-stan as Galilee, Southern Lebanon, the Golan, the Decapolis (10 nearby Greek cities), and the East Bank of the Jordan. Notably missing: Judea and Jerusalem. YHWH didn’t raise no fool!

Now it's time to put this thing into 2nd gear: Jesus sends his 12 apostles in pairs to perform good works and to proclaim the Gospel. His instructions are telling: “When you are admitted to a house…stay there until you leave those parts.” In other words, keep a low profile; above all, do nothing to call attention to yourselves. 

By all accounts, the apostles’ mission was a great success, so great that when they rejoined Jesus, the crowds were even larger than before. To escape the press, Jesus frequently retreated onto the Sea of Galilee in a boat. Then he and his apostles would show up first here, then there, all along the shore, like 21st century ‘pop-up’ marketers. We’re I handling Jesus’ PR, I might call them “Wisdom Raids!”

These hit and run tactics provided some temporary relief, but eventually, like Cornwallis at Yorktown, Jesus finds himself ‘trapped’ by the crowd. It’s coming at nightfall, the people have not eaten, and the apostles are understandably concerned.

“Give them something to eat yourselves,” Jesus counsels. So they feed 5,000 with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish; and to make the point even clearer, they collect 12 large baskets of scraps at the end of the meal. No one went hungry!

The significance of the multiplication of loaves and fishes cannot be overstated. It is the only pre-resurrection miracle reported in all 4 Gospels. In fact, a second, similar but not identical, story appears in both Mark and Matthew. 4 Gospels, 6 ‘multiplications’.

The Evangelists clearly saw the Multiplication as a mission-defining moment, on a par with Transfiguration, Transubstantiation, and Resurrection, but we can only guess at how they understood it. Three things, I think, can be said with certainty:

  • Feeding the masses is a paradigmatic revolutionary act. It provides a concrete foretaste of the kingdom to come. (“Give us this day our daily bread.”)

  • The details of the story have symbolic significance. Jesus fed the crowd with 7 pieces of food (the Sabbath #), he fed them in groups of 50 (the Jubilee #), and he gathered the scraps into 12 baskets (the Zodiac #...and the # of the tribes of Israel).

  • All concerned, Jesus, the apostles, and the evangelists, understood this as heralding a new phase in Jesus’ ministry. Where acts of charity had previously been focused on individual beneficiaries and performed in relative secrecy, now Jesus was feeding a huge crowd, and he was doing so in full public view. It’s happening!

So, the establishment turned up the heat. A cadre of Pharisees and Doctors of Law (aka Scribes) were dispatched from Jerusalem to gather evidence against this Jesus. So, “he left that place and went into the territory of Tyre. He found a house to stay in and would have liked to remain unrecognized.” (7: 24)

How could anyone have missed this? Tyre is not ‘down the road’ from Galilee; it’s a three-day journey…minimum. It’s in Lebanon for crying out loud! Clearly, Jesus is on the run; he’s hiding out!

When Jesus left Tyre, he did not make a bee line for Galilee. We can only speculate as to his reasons. Instead, he goes in the exact opposite direction, north toward Sidon and then east through the (Greek speaking) Decapolis. Essentially, he circles Galilee…from a very safe distance…and he re enters from the East. Master tactician! He’s outflanked his enemies.

We don’t know how long Jesus was absent from Galilee, but when he returns, it’s clear that little has changed in his absence. He is immediately faced with another hungry crowd and with nettlesome Pharisees pressing him for a sign.

Again, Jesus feeds the crowd, this time using a different ratio of loaves and baskets. Clearly, the numerology is symbolic…and significant; but if you’re struggling to crack the code, take heart - the apostles didn’t have a clue either…much to Jesus’ consternation:

“‘Do you still not understand? Are your minds closed? You have eyes: can you not see? You have ears: can you not hear? Have you forgotten? When I broke the 5 loaves among the 5,000, how many basketfuls of scraps did you pick up?’ ’12,’ they said. ‘And how many when I broke the 7 loaves among the 4,000?’ They answered, ‘7.’ He said, ‘Do you still not understand?’” (8: 17-21) 

Was Jesus talking to his apostles…or to us?

On the first day of his public ministry, Jesus proclaimed a Jubilee at the synagogue in Capernaum. It failed…and he was very nearly killed. For the next 3 years, Jesus’ message never changed (Jubilee now!); but his strategy did. Like Joshua (Jos. 6), Jesus lived out his message in concrete deeds and communicated that message symbolically, even liturgically. 

Again, Jesus takes his band north, to the region around Caesarea Philippi. There is no record of Jesus entering the city; probably due to security concerns, he confined his activity to the surrounding villages. But Jesus clearly knew that he could not remain north of Galilee forever, playing cat and mouse indefinitely; eventually he would have to confront the political and religious authorities in Jerusalem. But when?

In preparation for the final event, Jesus returned to Galilee but “wished it to be kept secret.” (9: 31) Taking refuge in a ‘safe house’ in Capernaum, he confronted the fallacy of ideological purity with his apostles. Throughout history, revolutionary movements have failed by insisting on an unreasonably strict orthodoxy. Jesus sought to avoid that pitfall. 

John had complained that another man, not of Jesus’ party, was doing good works in the area. “Do not stop him…for he who is not against us is on our side.” (9: 39) In other words, we’ll take all the help we can get, whatever we can get. 

So the time has come, Stage Three: the ‘assault’ on Jerusalem. As Jesus approaches the City, he pauses to set up a base camp in Bethany, apparently a Good News stronghold. Jesus understood logistics; he was not going to out-run his supply lines.

Next day, his advance team orchestrates the first century version of a ticker tape parade, replete with palm branches and Hosannas, through the by-ways of Jerusalem. Jesus ended the day at the Temple but, as it was now quite late, the precincts were largely deserted; so he retreated to Bethany for the evening.

Next day, Jesus again returned to the Temple; he struck the stalls of the bankers and retailers who had set up shop on sacred ground. Again he retreated to Bethany at night, only to return to the Temple next morning, all the time teaching the people in parables and disputing with the Pharisees and Doctors of Law.

Like most revolutions, the Good News Movement was about to come to a seemingly bitter end. Two days later, Jesus would be executed, and the persecution of his followers would begin, just as Jesus had predicted. Ultimately, only two apostles escaped martyrdom, Judas who took his own life, and John who died a natural death, probably at a very old age.

Sidebar: Jesus tried valiantly to prepare his followers for what was about to occur. He even gave them post-Resurrection tactical advice: “…I will go before you to Galilee.” (14: 28) As always, Jesus knew the value of a good strategic retreat; but at the time he was ignored. Understandable – there was a lot going on!

So the order was repeated after the Resurrection to Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Apparently, the renewed directive never made it to Peter and the rest: “They said nothing to anybody, for they were afraid.” (16: 8)

Outside of Mark, there are reasons to believe that the apostles did not follow Jesus’ order, at least not immediately, with predictably disastrous results. But this revolution was like no other. It did not die with its leader. It lived on in the hearts of the people and it has re-rooted itself, time and again, all over the globe. Jesus sowed the seed, and unlike the infamous fig tree (11: 12-14), it yielded fruit, both in and out of season. 

We are perpetually rediscovering the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings and the justice of his agenda.  Last year (2023) marked the 175th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto…and the milestone passed largely unnoticed, at least in North America. Is that because we’ve moved on? From Marx to Mark?


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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