Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot Never Existed: The Author of the Gospel of Mark Created Them (Guest Blog by New Testament Scholar Dennis MacDonald)

MacDonaldBelow is a guest blog that NT scholar Dennis MacDonald asked me to post here on Κέλσος. MacDonald argues that both Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot are fictional characters that never historically existed, but were created by the author of Mark. This post is heavily related to my previous essay, which discusses the creation of fictional characters in the Alexander Romance, namely prince Nicolaus of the Arcarnanians and Lysias the divider.

I should note that my posting of MacDonald’s essay here does not constitute endorsement, since I also think that Mary and Judas could have existed as historical persons (or been invented for reasons other than Homeric mimesis). Nevertheless, I likewise think that MacDonald’s hypothesis is interesting and certainly plausible. Here is MacDonald’s essay:

I’ve had enough! I’m writing this paper at 4:00 a.m. March 28, 2016, the day after Easter. Throughout Holy Week New Testament scholars, many of whom are not only my colleagues but my friends, have naively proposed in various popular media some variation on the historical Judas and Magdalene and how later tradition reshaped and contested their legacies. I heard no one challenging the presumption that such characters actually existed, even though the earliest Christian records don’t mention them, namely the authentic epistles of Paul and the lost Gospel Q, which I prefer to call the Logoi of Jesus. They both first appear in Christian texts in the Gospel of Mark, and every single reference to them later issues—whether directly or indirectly—from that single work. The existence of both characters thus depends on one’s assessment of what Mark says about them. This not to say that later both characters became exceedingly and controversial dramatis personae in Jesus narratives and their interpretations, but both first appear in Mark, who frequently created character with significant names.

According to Mark 5:9, Jesus asked the ferocious demoniac, “‘What is your name?’ And he says to him, ‘My name is Legion [Λεγιών], for we are many.’” The transliteration of the Latin Legion surely associates the two thousand demons with the Roman army. To the sons of Zebedee Mark’s Jesus gave “the name Boanerges,” just as he “gave the name Peter to Simon” (3:16-17). “The epithet [Βοανηργής] probably transliterates Aramaic בני רגשא (‘sons of noise’) [1].” Its significance for Mark lies in his translation “Sons of Thunder,” which links him to the famous Greek mythological twins Castor and Polydeuces, who shared the name Dioscuri, “sons of Zeus.” They, like James and John, were fishermen.

The name Jairus (᾿Ιάϊρος) transliterates the Hebrew יאיר, “he will brighten.” This “leader of the synagogue” is the father of a girl whom Jesus raises from the dead; Jesus thus brightens his life. The episode of the raising of the girl and the embedded story of the hemorrhaging woman are imitations of the death of Sarpedon and the unstanchable wound of Glaucus (Il. 2.876 and 16.593), whose name derives from the adjective γλαυκός, “gleaming.”

The place name Dalmanoutha (Δαλμανουθά) is not independently attested; the name is not historical or traditional but compositionally significant and derives from the Aramaic particle ד, “of,” למן, “the harbor,” a loan word from the Greek word for harbor λιμήν, and ותא, probably an Aramaic ending for place names. Mark’s bilingual reader thus may have understood 8:10 to mean that Jesus and his disciples sailed “into the region Of-the-Harbor.” The conflict that takes place at Dalmanoutha modestly resembles one that takes place at a dangerous harbor in Od. 10.

Barabbas (Βαραββᾶς) is not the rogue’s birth name; it is a nickname: ὁ λεγόμενος (15:7). Even Mark’s Greek readers would have known that this name in Aramaic means “son of a father [בר אבא ].” Mark translated βαρ- as υἱός in 10:46 and αββα as πατήρ in 14:36. So when readers come to Jesus’ trial, they see that the Jewish authorities are given a choice between two sons of God,  Jesus and “son of [the] Father” (15:7). Some manuscripts of Matthew name the rogue “Jesus Barabbas,” which may indeed preserve Matthew’s original reading (Matt 27:16) [2]. If so, at least one of Mark’s ancient readers seems to have noticed the contrast with Jesus, Son of God, and made the comparison even more obvious by adding the name Jesus before the patronymic [3]. Barabbas is a mimetic descendent of Homer’s Irus, a beggar whom Penelope’s suitors favored in a fight against Odysseus in disguise. Like Barabbas, Irus’s nickname is significant insofar as it is the masculine form of Iris, the messenger of the gods; the suitors gave him this moniker because he did their bidding. “Irus all the young men called him” (Od. 18.6).

No writing earlier than Mark ever mentioned the city Arimathea, the hometown of Joseph. Scholars have not unreasonably stretched for possible analogies, but to a Greek ear the place name would sound like “excellent discipleship” (αρι-μαθαια). Joseph, who shares his name with the traditional name of Jesus’ father, plays the role of Hector’s father who famously acquired the body of his son for burial in the final book of the Iliad.

The names Judas Iscariot and Mary of Magdala also are significant. No one in antiquity apart from Judas (and his father Simon in the Gospel of John) was called Iscariot (᾿Ισκαριώθ). Mark apparently created this neologism by combining the Greek preposition εἰς, into, with a transliteration of an Aramaic word for city (καριωθ, קריתא) to evoke Homer’s villain Melanthius, “blacky,” whom the reader of the Odyssey first encounters on his way “to the city” to provide goats for Penelope’s suitors. Judas repeatedly plays a role similar to Homer’s Melanthius. Here is a distillation of the parallels that I propose in The Gospels and Homer (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014):

Od. 17-22 Mark
• Odysseus’s slave “Melanthius, son of Dolius [Blacky, son of Deceitful]” first appears in the epic as he drives goats into the city for the suitors’ feasts. Judas Iscariot (Into-the-city) changes his loyalties from Jesus to his rivals.
The suitors rewarded Melanthius by allowing him to feast with them. The chief priests rewarded Judas with cash.
Melanthius nearly revealed to the suitors the beggar’s true identity as the master of the estate and later supplied them with weapons. With a kiss Judas identified Jesus for those who came to arrest Jesus “with swords and clubs.”
Odysseus punished his treacherous slave with mutilation, including the removal of his ears. Someone in the crowd cut off the ear of “the slave of the chief priest,” who likely was none other than Judas.

Significant too is Mary the Magdalene (Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνή). The word Μαγδαληνή comes from the Hebrew word מגדל, “tower,” and the derivative Aramaic epithet מגדלאה or מגדליא, “of Magdala.” Magdala was “Towertown,” and the foundations of the ancient structure are visible today. As we shall see, Mark related Mary to this city to notify his cleverer readers that she was an emulation of Homer’s Andromache.

This assessment finds confirmation by comparing what Mark says about Mary with Homer’s Andromache. According to Il. 22, three women watched Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot: his mother Hecuba, is sister-in-law Helen, and his wife Andromache. Three women watch Jesus’ death: Mary the mother of James and Joses (significantly, she shares her name with Jesus’ mother, and her sons share names with two of Jesus’ brothers!), Salome, and Mary Magdalene (who also shares her name with Jesus’ mother). As we have seen, Joseph of Arimathea shares his name with the traditional name of Jesus’ father. By means of these names Mark illustrates Jesus’ statement that his true family are those who do his will (see 3:31-35).

It was not Simon Peter who carried Jesus’ cross, as he had sworn (Mark 14:31), but Simon of Cyrene. It was not James and John who died at his right and left, as they had promised in 10:37-39, but two bandits. It will not be Joseph of Nazareth who buries him but Joseph of Arimathea. Mark’s penchant for creating characters to contrast with Jesus’ family and closest disciples applies also to the names of the women at the tomb. One might have expected Jesus’ mother, Mary of Nazareth, to have attended to the body and tomb of her son; instead, it was two other women named Mary and a Salome.

Compare the following:

Il. 22.430, 460-464, and 515 Mark 15:40
Hecuba led the shrieking lament among the Trojan women. / . . . She [Andromache] rushed through the hall like a mad woman, / her heart
pounding, and her maidservants went with her. / When she got to the tower [πύργον] and the crowd of men, / she stopped at the wall to take a look and saw him / [Hector] Women [γυναῖκες] were watching from a distance, among them were Mary of Towertown, Mary the mother of James the short and Joses, and Salome.
being dragged around the city. . . . / [She gave her lament.] So she spoke, weeping, and the women [γυναῖκες] added their groans.

If one attributes the three women watching Jesus’ death to Mark’s imitation of the Trojan women watching the death of Hector, the presence of three women at the cross in the Gospel of John should be taken as evidence of dependence on the Synoptics. In fact, John 19:25 appears to be a conflation of Mark and Luke. Instead of keeping Jesus’ loved ones at a distance, John places them at the foot of the cross. Although the Johannine Evangelist retains Mark’s reference to Mary Magdalene, he makes Mary the mother of James and Joses into the mother of Clopas, and omits Salome in favor of Jesus’ mother. Of course, if Mark created Mary Magdalene in imitation of Homer’s Andromache, her appearance in this role also in John betrays knowledge of the Synoptics.

In Il. 22 Hecuba sees Hector’s limp body trailing Achilles’ chariot, as do “the wives of his brothers” (473), who would have included Helen, Paris’ wife. Later, Andromache learns of her husband’s death. In book 24, when Priam returns from the Achaean camp, Andromache and Hecuba are at the gate (710); Helen is missing. At the funeral, however, the three women give their laments: Andromache first (725-745); Hecuba second (747-759); and Helen last (762-775). A strikingly similar sequence appears in Mark [4].

Il. 22 and 24 Mark
Female witnesses to Hector’s death (22.430-514) Female witnesses to Jesus’ death (15:40)
Hecuba U+2198.svg U+2199.svg “Mary Magdalene, and
Helen U+2198.svg U+2196.svg Mary the mother [μήτηρ] of James the short,
Andromache U+2197.svg U+2196.svg and Salome”
Female witnesses to Hector’s return (24.710) Female witnesses to Jesus’ burial (15:47)
Andromache (“his dear wife”) U+2192.svg U+2190.svg “Mary Magdalene,
Hecuba (“royal mother [μήτηρ]”) U+2192.svg U+2190.svg and Mary the mother of Joses”
No Helen No Salome
Female mourners at Hector’s funeral Female mourners at Jesus’ tomb (16:1)
Andromache U+2192.svg U+2190.svg “Mary Magdalene,
Hecuba U+2192.svg U+2190.svg and Mary the mother of James,
Helen U+2192.svg U+2190.svg and Salome”

Notice that the order of the women generally is Andromache/the Magdalene; then Hecuba/Mary the mother of X; and finally Helen/Salome.

Nowhere does Mary Magdalene play a more significant role than in the Gospel of John, and many scholars have proposed that Jesus’ appearance to her preserves ancient Christian tradition. Surely this is not the case. Few have taken seriously the following parallels between Jesus’ appearance to her in John 20 and the appearances in Luke 24 [5].

Luke 24 John 20
• 1 On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [three women] went to the tomb bringing aromatic lotions that they had prepared. . . . 1 On the first day of the week, early, while it was still dark,
9 When they returned from the tomb, they announced all these things [ταῦτα] to the eleven and all the others.

10 They were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them. They were telling these things [ταῦτα] to the apostles.




Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, [Cf. vs. 18: “Mary Magdalene goes to tell the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ and that he had said these things [ταῦτα] to her.”] And saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. . . .

• 3 When they entered it, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 It happened that while they were at a loss about this situation, suddenly two men in radiant clothing stood before them. 11b As she wept, she stooped into the tomb

12 and saw two angels in white garments sitting there.

In Luke, the men/angels declare that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In John, however, it is Jesus who asks a question of Mary, unaccompanied by the other women, which resembles his question to the two disciples in Luke. The disciples and Mary are unable to recognize the risen Jesus.

Luke 24 John 20
• 17 Jesus said to them, “What are you discussing with each other as you walk?” 13 And they say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She says to them, “They have removed my Lord, and I do not know where they placed him.”
• 15 And it so happened while they were talking and looking for answers Jesus himself was approaching and joined them in their journey. 14 Once she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there
• 16 Their eyes were kept from recognizing him. and did not know that it was Jesus.
• 17 Jesus said to them, “What are 15 Jesus says to her, “Woman,
you discussing with each other as you walk? And why have you stopped momentarily full of gloom?” why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”
• 37 They were startled and terrified—they supposed [ἐδόκουν] they were seeing a spirit. [In vv. 19-20 the two disciples told the stranger about the death of Jesus.] She, supposing [δοκοῦσα] that he was a gardener, says to him, “Sir, if you have carried him off, tell me where you have placed him, and I will fetch him.”
• 30 While he was reclining with them he took the bread and blessed it; having broken it, he gave it to them. 16 Jesus says to her, “Mary.”
• 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him. On turning she says to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni” (i.e. teacher) [6].
• 38 And he said to them, 39 “. . . Touch me and look: a mere spirit does not have flesh and bone as you see that I have.” 17 Jesus says to her, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.
• 34 They were saying that the Lord truly was raised, and appeared to Simon. But go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father. . . .”
35 Then they told what had happened on the road and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. (cf. 22-23) 18 Mary Magdalene goes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” and that he had said these things to her.

Two differences between Luke and John are most striking. In the first place, whereas Jesus in Luke invites the disciples to touch him, he insists that Mary not do so. Scholars have proposed a wide variety of interpretations for this prohibition [7]. Mary Rose D’Angelo cites as an illustrative parallel the following passage from the Apocalypse of Moses (= Life of Adam and Eve) 31:3-4. On his death bed, Adam told Eve,

[W]hen I die, leave me alone and let no one touch me [μηδείς μου ἅψηται] until the angel of the Lord shall say something about me; for God will not forget me, but will seek his own vessel which he has formed. But rather rise to pray to God until I shall give back my spirit into the hand of the one who has given it [8].

D’Angelo argues that shortly after his death Adam was undergoing an ontological transformation; only after his soul had escaped could his body be buried [9]. Similarly in John 20:17, Jesus may have prohibited Mary from touching him because his soul had not yet separated from the body.

But the Johannine author also made a second significant transformation: he substituted Mary to play the role that Luke had awarded to Cleopas and his companion. He may have done so under the influence of Euripides’ Bacchae, the tragic recognition by Agave.

  • After Pentheus’s death, his mother appears alone on stage unaware that she was carrying the head of her son, mistaking it as the head of a lion. Similarly, after Jesus’ death Mary appears in the garden alone, sees Jesus’ empty tomb, and is unaware what had happened to his body. Later, she fails to recognize him, mistaking him for a gardener.
  • Agave asks the chorus, “Where [ποῦ] is my son Pentheus?” (1212); later she asks Cadmus, “Where [ποῦ] is the body of my dear son?” (1298). Mary tells the angels why she wept: “They have removed my Lord, and I do not know where [ποῦ] they placed him” (20:13). To “the gardener” she says, “Sir, if you have carried him off, tell me where [ποῦ] you have placed him, and I will fetch him” (20:15).
  • In the end, Agave recognizes the head atop her thyrsus to be that of her beloved son. When Jesus addresses Mary by name, she recognizes him.
  • More striking than the similarities are the differences: Agave’s jubilation turns to tears when she recognizes the head of her son; Mary’s tears turn to jubilation when she recognizes the gardener to be her teacher. Here one finds a spectacular emulation, an emotional inversion.

In sum, it would appear that the Johannine author skillfully borrowed from two models for the composition of Jesus’ appearance to Mary. He redacted Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus but transformed the two disciples into one woman, who replaces Agave’s tears at the death of her son with joy at Jesus’ resurrection.


No reliable information exists that Judas Iscariot or Mary of Magdala ever existed. Their names are entirely missing in the earliest Christian sources, the letters of Paul and the missing Gospel Q (Logoi of Jesus). There is no debate that their names first appear in the Gospel of Mark, but there is a huge debate about whether the Evangelist knew of them from traditions or created them. This paper has argued for the latter.

  • Every reference to Judas or Mary Magdalene later than Mark relies on it either directly, as in Matthew, Luke, and John, or indirectly on canonical Gospels. There is no exception; their existence relies entirely on one’s assessment of Mark.
  • The Markan Evangelist created many significant names, several of which are markers to readers to compare his narrative with characters in the Homeric epics, such as Boanerges, Jairus, and Barabbas.
  • By designating Judas as Iscariot, “into-the-city,” Mark evokes Homer’s first reference to Melanthius in the Odyssey who was driving goats into the city for the feasting suitors. Throughout Mark Judas plays the role of Odysseus’s most treacherous slave.
  • By designating Mary as the Magdalene, “of-Tower-town,” Mark accomplishes two tasks: first, he presents her as the namesake of Jesus’ mother, who is conspicuously absent at the cross; second, he evokes weeping Andromache, who watches the death of her husband from the walls of Troy and laments at his funeral.
  • Jesus’ appearance to Mary in the Gospel of John does not represent a tradition independent of the Synoptics but relies on Mark for her appearance at the tomb and on Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus for her recognition of the gardener as Jesus. The change of gender from Luke’s Cleopas and his (male?) companion to Mary may reflect the Johannine Evangelist’s investment in portraying Jesus as a rival to Euripides’ Dionysus. At the end of the Bacchae Agave recognizes to her horror that the head atop her thyrsus, which she thought was from a lion, was the head of her son, whom she had just killed.

Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene thus never existed before Mark created them.

-Dennis MacDonald

[1] Joan E. Taylor, “The Name ‘Iskarioth’ [Iscariot],” JBL 129 (2010): 381.

[2]  See the excellent defense of “Jesus Barabbas” by Eldon Jay Epp, “Textual Criticism and New Testament Interpretation,” in Method and Meaning: Essays on New Testament Interpretation in Honor of Harold W. Attridge (ed. Andrew B. McGowan and Kent Harold Richards; RBS 67; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), 92-102.

[3] Origen gives this reading of Mark in Comm. Matt. 27:16-18 (GCS 38.255-56).

[4] For this observation I am indebted to Taegyu Shin.

[5] The Gospels and Homer (320-26) argued that Luke created Jesus’ appearances on the road to Emmaus and then to the eleven by imitating Homer’s depiction of Odysseus’s revelation of his identity to his father Laertes and his slaves.

[6] Both in Luke 24 and John 20 one finds anagnōrisis, or recognition, so important in ancient Greek tragedy. Brant: “The act of recognition [by the Magdalene] in the Gospel [of John] ends, as do many such scenes, with an embrace” (Dialogue and Drama, 56).

[7] See the judicious treatment by Harold W. Attridge, “’Don’t Be Touching Me’: Recent Feminist Scholarship on Mary Magdalene,” in vol. 2 of A Feminist Companion Companion to John (ed. Amy-Jill Levine; Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003), 140-66.

[8] Translated by Marshall D. Johnson in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. James H. Charlesworth, 2 vols; Garden City: Doubleday, 1983 and 1985), 2.287.

[9] “A Critical Note: John 20:17 and Apocalypse of Moses 31,” JTS ns 41 (1990): 529-36.

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20 Responses to Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot Never Existed: The Author of the Gospel of Mark Created Them (Guest Blog by New Testament Scholar Dennis MacDonald)

  1. Arthur says:

    To be honest. This article just seems like cherry picking parts to support a conclusion previously made.

    They’re not mentioned by paul or Q, they must be fake!

    Anyone can go through and pick anything from the (rather large) Greek canon to find similarities.

    This author is talking about conspiracy, his tone is similar to 9/11 conspiracy theorists. He is therefore a 9/11 conspiracy theorist.

    Look at this word usage, it’s similar to other 9/11 conspiracy articles.

    Judas is responsible for the death of jesus, and he ended up killing himself. He’s exactly like the terrorists that flew the planes.

    See how that works? The letters of Paul don’t mention MANY people, but that doesn’t mean they never existed. You can make a proof based on lack of evidence – only conjecture.

    I heard that Q was recently discovered. I would love to see an article about that.

    • Dear Arthur,

      First off, the alleged discovery of Q was an April Fools’ joke.

      Secondly, I don’t think that MacDonald is arguing that Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot didn’t exist solely because they are not found in Paul or Q. Rather, their absence in sources prior to the Gospel of Mark leaves open the possibility that Mark created them. MacDonald does not base his conclusion on just that possibility. Rather, he provides further arguments based on the name epithets and the surrounding narrative context.

      I should point out that apologists also frequently straw man and misinterpret arguments like this when they act as if they are arguments from silence. They aren’t. What they are is a diachronic analysis of sources, which posits an invention in a later source. If earlier sources lack the detail, this leaves open the *possibility* that a later source added it. That’s only a possibility, and additional arguments are then provided to make the case for a later addition. But it is a straw man to assume that the absence in earlier sources is the basis of the argument, when it is only a *necessary condition* for the argument.

      Finally, that fictional characters exist like this in ancient literature is a well-documented phenomenon. I just wrote a blog post discussing clear fictional characters in the Alexander Romance:

      And, I have been talking with Classicist Trevor Luke about how even historical authors like Plutarch create fictional characters in this way. Plato does, too, and he was even an eyewitness of Socrates writing within a generation of his death, who still depicts him interacting with fictional characters.

      Regarding “conspiracy theorists,” I think you are just focusing on MacDonald’s opening line. It was a bit more verbose than what I would have started with, but MacDonald isn’t positing a conspiracy, rather than that Mark is engaging in a literary technique that is a well-documented phenomenon in ancient literature from this period. MacDonald is also a NT expert. How many civil engineering and architectural experts argue for 9/11 conspiracies?

      That said, as I have noted above, I don’t endorse MacDonald’s hypothesis on this. I think he has made a stronger case for Homeric mimesis in other parts of the Gospels and Acts (e.g. Eutychus in Acts 20:7-12 being modeled off of Elpenor), but I think MacDonald overstates the extent to which the Gospels and Acts imitate Homer, and his case here for Mary and Judas I think is weaker than other parallels he draws.

  2. Caleb G says:

    Wow. Do you agree with the main thesis of this article? It strikes me as quite implausible for several reasons. First it assumes that the gospels are thoroughly influenced by Homer and other Greek/Roman legends. I have not seen any credible evidence for this level of intertexual borrowing or influence. I think a stronger case can be made for Markan invention of characters based on the Hebrew Bible, than based on Greek and Roman mythology. Second, MacDonald’s elaborate case for seeing Judas and Mary Magdalene as Markan inventions seems far more contrived than the simple explanation that Mark is drawing on previous stories whether written or oral for information about Judas and Mary. Ockam’s razor here seems to argue against MacDonald’s thesis. Finally, based on the criterion of embarrassment, the story that one of Jesus 12 closest followers betrayed Jesus to the authorities is not a story Jesus followers would want to make up. Luke records Jesus as promising the 12 that they would sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel. Why would Luke record that since Jesus later followers believed that Jesus had been betrayed by one of the 12? Even if the name Judas Iscariot was invented by Mark, the character was not. For me, the criterion of embarressment is the decisive argument against MacDonald’s basic thesis.

    • Hi Caleb,

      I agree that mimesis of the Septuagint and Hebrew literature is easier to establish in the Gospels than mimesis of Greek literature and mythology. Nevertheless, Acts 14:8-18 makes a clear reference to Greek mythology, and may be interacting with a story that also appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 8.626ff (which is not to say that it was taken directly from Ovid):

      Note, too, that MacDonald has made a case for the Testament of Abraham imitating Homer, as well as the Acts of Andrew, so there are probably other Judeo-Christian texts that engage in this kind of literary technique:

      As for Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, note that even Bart Ehrman (who is critical of MacDonald elsewhere) agrees that Paul shows no knowledge of Judas betraying Jesus:

      An important point that Ehrman brings up is that 1 Cor. 11:23 uses the verb παραδίδωμι (“to hand over”) to refer to the night that Jesus was given over to the authorities. That is not the Greek word for “betray,” which is προδίδωμι. So, Paul seems to imply that Jesus was captured, not necessarily betrayed.

      As for your argument using the criterion of embarrassment, if Jesus was crucified (and let’s assume it was not from betrayal, but simply from being captured by the Jewish/Roman authorities), it makes sense that later authors would want to place blame somewhere. Betrayal by one’s subordinates was a common motif in ancient literature, as shown in the Odyssey when Odysseus is betrayed by his men and his servant Melanthius. Regardless of whether any of the Gospels imitate the Odyssey, this is still a common literary trope. I don’t think an argument from embarrassment is that strong, therefore. There could be lot of reasons to invent a disciple betraying Jesus.

      Note, too, that Paul in 1 Cor. 15:5 also refers to Jesus appearing to the “twelve” and not “eleven.”

      The other possibility that you suggest about only the name “Judas Iscariot” being invented, based on a historical betrayal that was done by a person with a different name, I don’t think that interferes with MacDonald’s hypothesis. MacDonald is arguing that the name was an invention. It could have been tacked onto a real person/event, however, sure.

      As I say at the top of this post, I think that MacDonald’s thesis is “plausible,” but I don’t endorse it. I think that Mary and Judas could have been historical, sure. MacDonald’s hypothesis is simply one possibility for how to interpret the evidence. I disagree with you though that it is “quite implausible.” To be “implausible” something needs to not be possible to begin with. The fact that these characters don’t appear before Mark at least makes it *possible* that they are Markan inventions. What I think you really mean is that it is “quite improbable.”

  3. Giuseppe says:

    I like the MacDonald’s explanation of Joseph of Arimathea when he writes:
    It will not be Joseph of Nazareth who buries him but Joseph of Arimathea.

    But the problem is that Joseph of Nazareth is not mentioned in Mark.
    I see that you have already realized the problem:

    Jesus’ father is not named as Joseph until the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but MacDonald (2000:155) argues, “Mark surely could have known this tradition.” Another possibility for the name, noted by Carrier (pers. comm.) is a parallel with Joseph the Patriarch who in Gen. 40:4-6 asks Pharaoh for permission to bury Jacob (symbolizing Israel) in a cave tomb.

    Click to access gmark-homeric-mimesis-tomb.pdf

    The problem is not resolved entirely. Contra Carrier, Joseph the Patriarch did bury his father, while MacDonald requires that Jesus was buried by someone with the same name of his father. Therefore he resorts to chimeric oral tradition as mere expedient: “Mark surely could have known this tradition.”

    What if a best solution is that Mark is playing with the Jewish tradition of a suffering Messiah Son of Joseph? The Pharisee Joseph of Arimathea believes that Jesus is the suffering Messiah Son of Joseph (while the irony is that just him, so suffering, is named Joseph!) hence destined not to to rise again. But after three days Jesus rises, therefore confirming he is not the Messiah Son of Joseph but is the same victorious Messiah Son of David.

    What do you think?

    Thanks in advance for any correction or comment,

    • I agree that Joseph’s name not appearing in Mark is at least a minor problem for MacDonald’s hypothesis. Likewise, Joseph of Nazareth does not appear in Paul or Q either, as far as I am aware, so you could raise the same problems that MacDonald raises with Judas and Mary. (Though, as I have pointed out above, MacDonald is not making an argument from silence, but is only establishing a necessary condition for a Markan invention of these characters).

      I’m not sure how you are arguing “contra Carrier,” if you agree that Joseph buried Jacob. Do you mind elaborating?

      Your hypothesis about the Messiah Ben Joseph is interesting, but is there much evidence that Christians knew about or interacted with this figure? I think the first references to him are among Jewish sources in the late-1st century BCE (though correct me if I am wrong), which could make it plausible. But I am not aware of any other interaction with this figure in Christian texts (at least in the 1st century or early-2nd century CE).

      As a note, I’ve been talking to Richard Miller about this, who thinks that even if Joseph of Arimathea was a historical person, it still has little bearing on the story of the empty tomb:

      Miller thinks that the Gospels refer to mostly historical people, but they fictionalize their role in the narrative. Even if Joseph of Arimathea is not an allegorical character, therefore, his role in Mark may still be an invention.

      (I should note too that the essay you cite is a grad paper I wrote a number of years ago, which I have since modified some of my positions on, though I still think the main thesis is plausible.)

      • Giuseppe says:

        I’m not sure how you are arguing “contra Carrier,” if you agree that Joseph buried Jacob. Do you mind elaborating?

        I mean that Carrier’s solution is not entirely satisfactory because the Patriarch Joseph buries his father (the buried is his father and not his son), while MadDonald’s antithesis between Joseph of Arimathea and Joseph of Nazareth (according the line: parents/disciples of Jesus versus his true family of faith) requires that Mark is assuming that a ‘Joseph’ was the (presumed) father of Jesus, so that another Joseph (of Arimathea) buries him (hence the antithesis).

        Your hypothesis about the Messiah Ben Joseph is interesting, but is there much evidence that Christians knew about or interacted with this figure? I think the first references to him are among Jewish sources in the late-1st century BCE (though correct me if I am wrong), which could make it plausible.

        Dr. Carrier makes an interesting point in OHJ, p.73-74:

        There is no plausible way later Jews would invent interpretations of their scripture that supported and vindicated Christians. [The talmudist Jews] would not invent a Christ with a father named Joseph who dies and is resurrected (as the Talmud does indeed describe). They would not proclaim Isaiah 53 to be about this messiah and admit that Isaiah had there predicted this messiah would die and be resurrected. That was the very biblical passage Christians were using to prove their case. Moreover, the presentation of this ideology in the Talmud makes no mention of Christianity and gives no evidence of being any kind of polemic or response to it. So we have evidence here of a Jewish belief that possibly predates Christian evangelizing, even if that evidence survives only in later sources.
        The alternative is to assume a rather unbelievable coincidence: that Christians and Jews, completely independently of each other, just happened at some point to see Isaiah 53 as messianic and from that same passage preach an ideology of a messiah with a father named Joseph (literally or symbolically), who endures great suffering, dies and is resurrected (all in accord with the savior depicted in Isaiah 53, as by then understood). Such an amazing coincidence is simply improbable. But a causal connection is not: if this was a pre-Christian ideology that influenced (and thus caused) both the Christian and the Jewish ideologies, then we have only one element to explain (the rise of this idea once, being adapted in different ways) instead of having to believe the same idea arose twice, purely coincidentally.

        I think that this may well be the ‘tradition’ (to quote MacDonald) that ‘Mark’ knew about a father of Jesus named ‘Joseph’.

        Thanks for any reply,

        • Hey Giuseppe,

          I see that you have been discussing this essay on

          With regard to your statement:

          “I mean that Carrier’s solution is not entirely satisfactory because the Patriarch Joseph buries his father (the buried is his father and not his son)”

          I think your possible solution there:

          “But maybe the solution of Carrier hides an antithesis in subtle support of Mark’s point:

          1) Joseph the Patriarch buried his father, the old Israel.

          2) Joseph of Arimathea buried his ‘son’, the new Israel.”

          Could fix the issue you see with Carrier’s hypothesis. Likewise, I’m not sure that Mark has to maintain the same son/father relationship between Joseph/Jacob for the name “Joseph” to have still been taken from the Patriarch.

  4. Giuseppe says:

    And I find another curious parallelism from Homer that is clearly ignored by MacDonald.

    The prof MacDonald says that Salome before the cross (and the empty tomb) in Mark would be allegorically Helen of Troy.

    Notice that the order of the women generally is Andromache/the Magdalene; then Hecuba/Mary the mother of X; and finally Helen/Salome.

    The daughter of king Herod is named Salome, too, even if she appears without a name in Mark.

    The princess Helen of Troy seduced both the Troyan prince Paris and the Greek king of Sparta Menelaus, causing the decennal War of Troy (and the death of many people).

    The Salome who is daughter of Herodias seduced the king Herod (Mark 6:22), causing the death of John the Baptist.

    Therefore I am proposing that Mark introduced a new ‘Salome’/Helen (antithetical in comparison with the ‘old’ Salome/Helen) before the cross to make the point that the members of his new family, in the ”Galilee” of gentiles, are entirely pure and freed from materialistic passions and vices. They are redeemed.

    While John the Baptist had to fight (and failed) against the corruption of the old ethnic Israel (symbolized by Herod and company, too), Jesus had created (by his death and resurrection) a new spiritual Israel, a new family (and he did win).

    Matthew, I’m really curious to know what Prof MacDonald thinks about this my imaginative sighting. What do you say? 🙂

    Thanks in advance,

  5. Ruben de Rus says:

    Couple of questions. First, why would the author of Mark create two imaginary characters? Second, why would two eye witnesses, as Matthew and John were, support the invention of two unreal characters in their respective gospels? Maybe MacDonald does not supports Matthean and Johannine authorship neither.

    • Hi Ruben,

      First off, MacDonald doesn’t argue that the author of Mark created just two fictional characters, but also a number of other ones besides Mary and Judas. Secondly, this is not uncommon in ancient literature. I discuss in the essay linked below two fictional characters that are created in the Alexander Romance, a novelistic biography that is similar to the genre of the Gospels. One of these fictional characters is even inserted into a historical episode:

      MacDonald, like most biblical scholars, does not believe in Matthean or Johannine authorship. That this is the majority view is even acknowledged by mainstream Christian scholars. Raymond Brown, a Christian scholar, for example, explains in An Introduction to the New Testament (pp. 368-369):

      “As with the other Gospels it is doubted by most scholars that this Gospel [John] was written by an eyewitness of the public ministry of Jesus.”

      But even if the Gospels had been written by eyewitnesses, there is little reason to think that they wouldn’t have included fictional characters in the narrative. Plato, for example, was an eyewitness of Socrates, and yet in his dialogues Plato includes fictional persons–such as Diotima, Callicles, and Timaeus–who even interact with Socrates. Likewise, Classicist Trevor Luke argues that even historiographical authors like Plutarch made use of fictional characters. And there were eyewitnesses of Alexander the Great, such as Onesicritus, who told of him meeting mythical figures, such as the Amazonians.

      But furthermore, even Robert Gundry, a conservative scholar who has defended Matthean authorship, still argues that there are fictional characters in the Gospel of Matthew, albeit unnamed ones. Gundry does not believe that Magi visited Jesus (Mt. 2.1-12), for example, effectively making it a fictitious encounter with anonymous characters (of an unspecified number), who are even depicted as interacting with historical figures like Herod the Great:

      It is important to remember that people in antiquity did not have the same understanding of history as our own. Fictional characters were used as literary devices across a wide range of ancient literature, including even eyewitness and historiographical accounts. As such, I don’t think that it is improbable that the Gospel authors created characters like this, as well.

  6. Giuseppe says:

    I find this ethymology of ”Herodias”:

    The name Herodias is a feminized version of the name Herod. It’s not clear where either name comes from, but here at Abarim Publications we like to propose that the name Herod(ias) may have to do with the Hebrew verb ערד (‘arad), meaning to flee, or חרד (harad), meaning [i]to tremble or be afraid (and please see our article on the name Herod for the details).

    The name Herodias may mean Fleer or Afraid.

    Thus her name convey an idea of vulnerability, of fear, which is the opposite of what can mean the meaning of ”Magdalena”, or ”towered town” (according to MacDonald). A ”fortified city” (i.e.: Troy), by definition, conveys security, courage, strong position, the exact opposite of vulnerability.

    The word Μαγδαληνή comes from the Hebrew word מגדל, “tower,” and the derivative Aramaic epithet מגדלאה or מגדליא, “of Magdala.” Magdala was “Towertown,” and the foundations of the ancient structure are visible today.

    We observe a common trait among Magdalene and Herodias: both see the remains of a hero at his Death (resp., John the Baptist and Jesus). Both have the function of confirming the happened death of the hero.

    I am inclined to think now that MacDonald is right: Mary of Nazaret is not the Mary mother of James the Less and Joses. Just as Joseph of Nazaret is not the Joseph of Nazaret. Just as Salome is not the daughter of Herod. Just as Mary Magdalena is not Herodias. Just as Simon of Cyrene is not Simon Peter.

  7. Ronald Huggins has written a critical response to this essay at the following link:

    I posted some comments there to counter-balance some of his arguments, but overall we had a constructive and friendly discussion that is worth reading in the thread beneath the post.

    • Jeff says:

      Matthew: I read Huggins article – doesn’t seem to contribute much, but I can’t seem to view the comments to the article – it continuously tries to load but no cigar. Can you post any relevant interaction?

      • Celsus says:

        It looks like the section with my comment isn’t loading. Alas, I don’t have a copy of my original comment on hand, and unfortunately I don’t have the time now to respond a second time.

  8. Mark 6:3 names James and Jose (also Simon and Juda) as brothers of Jesus, so the “Mary, mother of “”James and Jose,” or ‘mother of Joses” who accompanied Mary Magdalene at the cross and tomb are very likely references to Mary, the mother of Jesus (rather than to her sister—parents don’t usually give two daughters the same name!)… Further, the title (epithet) of Mary “the Magdalene” is IMO derived from the Hebrew Bible prophecy of Micah 4:8-11, addressed to the “Magdal-eder,”–the tower of the flock–a personification of the Daughter of Sion crying at the tomb of the deceased king and sent, defiled and defamed into foreign exile. This prophecy sums up in four lines the post-crucifixion fate of Mary Magdalene (a political refugee in Gaul, according to French legends). The translation of the command of Jesus to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, “Do not touch me” is misleading. The Greek verb is more appropriately translated, “Do not keep clinging to me”–clearly meant for a woman who was embracing him—as only a wife would do! I have no problem with Dr. MacDonald’s analogy of Mary Magdalene’s role with that of Andromache. The Gospels clearly place the Magdalene in that role: “Why are you crying” (John 20) is a poignant echo of Micah 4–the Holy Bride lamenting at the tomb of the Sacrificed King. Please see my website for more information about the title “H Magdalhnh” and her association with ancient goddesses of love and fertility:

  9. Gavin Lyall says:

    The Homeric (and Euripidean) parallels drawn here are awfully indirect; even if they were conscious allusions by the Markan author, he hardly could have expected them to be obvious to his audience. It would seem at least as reasonable to consider many of them simple conventions – tried-and-true plot devices the author felt would lend a sense of gravitas or sacredness.

    That Mark (and/or perhaps a lost earlier narrative) makes up allegorical names for people and places should be beyond dispute. A most overt example left out here would be “Bethphage”, the “House of Figs”, which is primarily the setting for Jesus to curse a fig tree. Judas’ name is almost as overt, being the personification of “the Jews” who betray their own Messiah; but “into-the-city” as a direct reference to Melanthius’ introduction seems pretty obscure. If “Iscariot” is to be read as “into-the-city” (perhaps as a pun on “sicariot”), we could surely find more relevant references, even within the story of Mark (while Jesus is agonizing and his other disciples falling asleep, where does Judas go?)

    That the moniker “Magdalene” also had symbolic import is not unlikely, but that “every single reference to (her) later issues—whether directly or indirectly—from” Mark is probably incorrect (more so than the case for Judas, which Ronald Huggins covers) – unless we’re only meant to consider canonical texts. For example, Mark never implies that Jesus often kissed her, imparted special teachings to her, or that the other disciples were jealous of her. Of course, we can argue about how much later such stories appeared; but it seems clear that the Magdalene quickly became a much more fully-realized character than Judas, and from such a variety of texts that pre-Markan sources are hardly implausible.

  10. 2016dfda says:

    “Someone in the crowd cut off the ear of “the slave of the chief priest,” who likely was none other than Judas”
    The gJohn identies the servant as Malchus and the “someone” as none other than Peter.

  11. ‘Through all four Gospels one can see a Judas Trajectory development, in which each stage in turn magnifies and intensifies the perfidy of Judas, in the order
    Mk > Mt > Lk > Jn

    ‘The Trajectory is evidence for that order of the Gospels, or at any rate of their final compositional states. Similar trajectories can be demonstrated for the divinization of Jesus and the respect and sympathy shown to Mary, for the decreasing prominence of Jesus’ baptism, and for the increasing prominence of Jerusalem in the story of Jesus. Except for the last, which is probably a reflection of the transfer of the center of the Jesus movement from Galilee to Jerusalem, and is thus merely circumstantial, none of these developments is very likely to have run in the opposite direction. Taken together, they would appear to put the priority of Mark beyond serious doubt.’

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