• Two Examples of Gospel Symbolism

    In Mark 11 there is a story told about Jesus ‘cleansing’ the temple by driving the money lenders out. Is it historical? The temple guards would have certainly arrested Jesus for making such a disturbance, and yet he makes it out unscathed.¹ If the story was made up, why? If we turn to the book of Hebrews (9:23) I think we can see the true origin of the story, for it records that Jesus’ sacrifice cleansed the heavenly temple, not the temple located in Jerusalem (recall that Christians believed that there were heavenly twins of all things on Earth). So, Mark has taken an event that believes took place in heaven and has told as if it happened on Earth. That ties in nicely with Richard Carrier’s thesis that the gospels are symbolic myths, and especially with his contention that the gospel writers occasionally wrote about heavenly events as if they had occurred on Earth.

    I would like to offer a little more of a defense of my interpretation: some scholars (Ehrman for instance) have posited that Mark’s story is just an exaggeration of a real event (maybe Jesus just caused a small disturbance in the temple). I don’t see any reason to trust the rest of the story after you have already admitted at least part of it is false, and especially if you have no corroboration for a “toned-down disturbance” from a more reliable source. Secondly, my explanation is more suited to Ockham’s razor than Ehrman’s: Under my theory, the root of Mark’s story is Hebrews 9:23. We know for dead-certain that my posited cause of the Mark’s story exists. However, Ehrman’s theory entails that the root of Mark’s story was a real event, which we cannot be dead-certain actually occurred; Ehrman’s posited cause is much theoretical and speculative than mine is.

    I’ve previously referenced the fact that Matthew’s genealogy is symbolic (as discussed here and here). As late my eyes have been opening to the symbolism in Matthew’s nativity story. It began when I read these passages in Philo:

    “…If we say that the Creator of the universe is also the father of his creation; and that the mother was the knowledge of the Creator with whom God uniting, not as a man unites, became the father of creation. And this knowledge having received the seed of God, when the day of her travail arrived, brought forth her only and well-beloved son, perceptible by the external senses, namely this world. Accordingly wisdom is represented by some one of the beings of the divine company as speaking of herself in this manner: ‘God created me as the first of his works, and before the beginning of time did he establish me.’ For it was necessary that all the things which came under the head of the creation must be younger than the mother and nurse of the whole universe.”  (On Drunkeness 30-31)

    “And the invisible divine reason, perceptible only by intellect, he calls the image of God. And the image of this image is that light, perceptible only by the intellect, which is the image of the divine reason, which has explained its generation. And it is a star above the heavens, the source of those stars which are perceptible by the external senses, and if any one were to call it universal light he would not be very wrong; since it is from that the sun and the moon, and all the other planets and fixed stars derive their due light, in proportion as each has power given to it; that unmingled and pure light being obscured when it begins to change, according to the change from that which is perceptible only by the intellect, to that which is perceptible by the external senses; for none of those things which are perceptible to the external senses is pure.” (On the Creation, 31)

    Notice that the first passage discusses what we might call a virgin birth: the feminine Wisdom figure brings forth a child but “without sexual union” (the text speaks of God ‘uniting’ with Wisdom but ‘not as a man unites’). Though the text calls the woman’s ‘only begotten son’ “the world” it seems clear to me that Philo was being inconsistent here: the world was created via the Logos (who is explicitly referred to as ‘God’s firstborn’), and the Logos was created via Wisdom and his creation could presumably be described the same way Philo describes the world.²

    Notice in the second passage that the ‘image of divine reason’ (whom Philo elsewhere makes explicit is the Logos³) is called a star, and that this star is perceptible only by the intellect. It’s most unusual that Matthew’s gospel speaks of a star that is followed by wise men, and speaks of it at the birth of the logos. A trio of coincidences? I’m more inclined to think Matthew was writing a symbolic narrative.

    I am also intrigued by the possibility that Jesus (the logos) may have been believed to have come from Wisdom (symbolized by Mary). In the gospels, the name of ‘Mary’ is Mariam or Miriam (recall the gospels were written in Greek) and Miriam/Mary was a common symbol of Wisdom. Moreover, Osiris (who is also called ‘logos’) is the son of Isis (who represents Wisdom and is called “The Great Virgin”). It strikes me as a viable hypothesis. See addendum for references on all of this.

    1. Tim Widowfield gives a good summary of the scholarship on the cleansing of the temple.

    2. Some interesting quotations are gathered together on the logos and Wisdom here.

    3. I’ve documented this with references here.

    Addendum: Logos and Wisdom Myth.

    On Mary being ‘Miriam,’ see J. P. Green, Interlinear Hebrew-Greek-English Bible, New Testament, Volume 4, p.x.

    On Miriam representing Wisdom, see Marget Barker, The Mother of the Lord: Volume 1 p.186.

    For Osiris being the logos and Isis being wisdom, Just search “Isis Wisdom” and “Osiris Logos” on google books. It’s a hypothesis that has been put forward before, with some scholars agreeing and others dissenting. On Isis being called ‘The Great Virgin,’ see R. E. Witt, Isis in the Ancient World, p.15 and Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity, p.106. It is also of note that there was Jewish lore that say the messiah would come from Miriam (see The Purpose of Biblical Genealogies, p.132).

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    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."