Mark dramatized “If Paul had met Jesus”

Paul and Jesus are said to be contemporary figures. Nevertheless, Paul’s surviving writings never say whether he ever met the natural Jesus. In a usual “argument from silence,” scholars generally conclude that Paul probably didn’t meet Jesus, assuming that Paul would have said so if he had. Furthermore, Paul strongly suggests that his first-ever meeting with any associate of Jesus (although Paul doesn’t identify them as such) occurred years after his conversion (Galatians 1:17-18). The absence of Paul as a character in any of the canonical Gospels reinforces the impression that he never met Jesus.

Mark wrote his Gospel approximately one or two decades after Paul’s letters. A major theme of Mark is the breathtaking variety of human reactions to Jesus’ earthly ministry of wisdom, signs and wonders.

A literary problem arises from the gap between when Mark was writing and when his story is set. Both Paul’s churches and the disciples’ disciples are presumably contending for prominence within the second-generation movement, but Paul has no role in the story Mark is writing. Peter, James, John and the other “inner circle” disciples who traveled with Jesus dominate Mark by default. Mark has no simple way to include both “sides” of the subsequent drama playing out around him.

The principal finding of this post is that Mark found a solution to maintain the timeliness of his story. He represented a hypothetical “Paul’s” reaction to the natural Jesus using the character of an unnamed scribe at verses 12:28-34. This character more readily understands and appreciates Jesus’ message than the probably mostly younger and less educated disciples. However, the scribe declines to join Jesus. If he did join the movement later on, he may well have required some additional sign first, just as Paul himself did.

The encounter and its foundation in Paul’s letters

From Mark 12:28-34

28 One of the scribes came, and heard [Pharisees and Sadducees] questioning together, and knowing that [Jesus] had answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?”

29 Jesus answered, “The greatest is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one: 30  you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. 31  The second is like this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

32 The scribe said to him, “Truly, teacher, you have said well that he is one, and there is none other but he, 33 and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, is more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from God’s Kingdom.”

Both the character of the scribe and the situation are crafted from elements found in Paul’s letters.

The word “scribe” is a potentially misleading translation of the Greek term grammateus. These “scribes” were learned teachers and advisers, not transcriptionists or copyists. A scribe might say, as Paul wrote of himself,

I advanced in the Jews’ religion beyond many of my own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. ~ Galatians 1:14

Mark’s scribe witnessed and admired Jesus’ defense of two religious propositions, in agreement with views later discussed more prosaically by Paul. The first debate was about the payment of taxes. Jesus’ “Render unto Caesar …” is more quotable than Paul’s “if you owe taxes, pay taxes” (Romans 13:7), but the advice is the same. In the second debate, Jesus rejected the idea that a multiply widowed and remarried woman will have any difficulty in her new resuurected life on account of having had several husbands in this life. The same conclusion follows directly from Paul’s view that the marriage bond ends with the death of a spouse (Romans 7:2-3). Jesus’ further remarks about the unearthly quality of the resurrected body fits nicely with Paul’s extended commentary on the same subject (1 Corinthians 15:42-50).

The mutually respectful ending of the story would hardly be different had the scribe answered (in place of verses 32 and 33):

Truly, teacher, you have spoken well, if anyone loves God, the same is known by him; there is no other God but one. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandments there are, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.

This alternate reply is syntheisized from Paul’s 1 Corinthians 8:3-4 and Romans 13:9-10. Mark’s scribe has no dealings with Jesus’ disciples.

And afterwards? How might the scribe have dealt with the earliest church?

Like most of the hundred or so characters in Mark, the scribe crisply disappears from the narrative after his encounter with Jesus. In some cases, there is a terse parting glimpse of a character’s future, like the former demoniac who becomes a preacher in the Decapolis region. Not so for the scribe, unless Jesus’ “you are not far from God’s kingdom” is read prophetically rather than only descriptively.

Is it plausible that a character like the scribe might persecute Jesus’ movement? Paul describes himself as a one-time persecutor of the “assembly of God” (1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1: 13, 22-23). He gives no specifics about his activities, nor the nature of his grievance with the movement. After Paul converts, the Judean churches (by then plural) are happy about his change of heart, but don’t know Paul personally (Galatians 1:23).

It isn’t clear when we meet the scribe whether he was already complicit with the hardening official opposition to Jesus. There is no indication that he made any effort to impede the killing of Jesus just a short time later. Perhaps not; a moment of respect for one’s opponent doesn’t imply reconciliation.

Mark provides a line during the crucifxion scene (at 15:31-32) which can be read two ways.

Likewise, also the chief priests mocking among themselves with the scribes said, “He saved others. He can’t save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross, that we may see and believe him.”

The spectacle of descending from the cross is sarcastic, but according to the story Jesus soon did something more remarkable: rising from the dead. The descent remark is ironic, then, since those who see Jesus after that miracle do become believers. That includes Paul (1 Corinthians 15:8).

It is not difficult to imagine somebody like the scribe, possibly a cog in the organized opposition to the living Jesus, becoming outraged by reports of a resurrection. It is entirely plausible that until he saw something for himself, the scribe might consider such reports as blasphemous and seditious lies.

Regardless, Jesus’ complaint against his disciples at 16:14 (which, as explained in earlier posts, I estimate to be plausibly authentic) applies to Paul by Paul’s own admission,

… he [Jesus] rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they didn’t believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

One other thing that should be true if the scribe were based on Paul’s writings about himself: the scribe should have a motive to remain reluctant later on to boast about his face-to-face encounter with Jesus.

Just before the scathing parable that precipitates the two debates and the scribe’s meeting, Jesus asks the Temple officials whether they believe John’s baptism was from heaven or from men. (A generation later, somebody apparently asked the same question about Paul’s gospel, judging from Galatians 1:11-12.)

They [the officials] reasoned with themselves, saying, “If we should say, ‘From heaven;’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ (Mark 11:31)

The scribe recognizes that Jesus’ teachings are ‘from heaven,’ but he doesn’t follow Jesus. If the scribe were to tell the story later, he would expose himself to questions about why, thinking as he did, he didn’t join. So, too, if Paul had ever met Jesus in the flesh. Apart from a general admission about the difficulty of doing what he knows he should (Romans 7:15ff.), better for Paul to stay on message that status within the movement depends only on a commision from the risen Jesus,

Therefore we know no one after the flesh from now on. Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. ~ 2 Corinthians 5:16


Mark’s Gospel is sometimes portrayed as “partisan,” favoring Paul over Jesus’ disciples. This is an odd accusation in light of Mark’s Peter being such a sympathetic, well-loved and much-copied character.

By his choice of setting, only the disciples can appear by name in Mark’s story. They are young, unseasoned and not chosen for scholarly accomplishments. Mark’s treatment of them is not reverent, but he shows them as nothing worse than human.

Direct comparison between them and Paul falls outside the scope of the story. Mark does, however, introduce a surrogate who agrees with Paul in attitudes, background and initial reluctance to join the movement. The surrogate comes off no better and no worse than the disciples. They are all human beings wrestling with what to believe about the charismatic Jesus, and why.

The net effect of verses 12:28-34 is to suggest that Mark offered an even-handed treatment of the leading figures of the apostolic generation. They were all, for a time, understandably out of their depth.


Photo: Detail, Saint Paul at his writing desk by Rembrandt

Bible translations are from the World English Bible project:


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