Anonymous Persons in Mark’s Gospel (Bauckham)

 When you read through the Gospels you often find that certain people are not named.  For one of many examples, Matthew does not give us the name of the rich young man in 19:18.  Critics sometimes use these instances of anonymous persons to cast doubt upon the accuracy or veracity of the Gospels.  However, there are good reasons why the author of a text – or the author of a Gospel – would not name a person.  One reason, argues Richard Bauckham, is what some scholars call “protective anonymity,” which especially helps explain the anonymity in Mark’s Gospel.

For example, Mark doesn’t tell us who cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant during Jesus’ arrest.  Nor does Mark tell us the name of the young man who later fled from the scene naked after someone tried to grab him and pulled off his cloak (Mk 14:43-52).  Furthermore, Mark doesn’t tell us the name of the man who gave the disciples the colt that Jesus would ride on (11:1-7) and he doesn’t share the name of the woman who anointed Jesus (14:3-9).  Why doesn’t Mark name these people who were associated with Jesus and most likely his followers or strong sympathizers? One good answer to this question is “protective anonymity.”  That is, keeping these people anonymous would protect them from the harm and harassment of Jewish authorities.

The owner of the colt, for example, could have been arrested and charged if the Jewish authorities knew who he was.  Bauckham: “It may well be that Jesus… recognizes the danger and makes the arrangements in such a way that the owner need not be directly implicated by loaning the colt.  Mark’s narrative, with its curious avoidance of reference to the owner, indicates to readers that from this point on Jesus enters a danger zone in which he must employ caution and subterfuge ” (188).  Or consider the woman who anointed Jesus: “…This woman would have been in danger were she identified as having been complicit in Jesus’ politically subversive claim to messianic kingship.  Her danger was perhaps even greater than that of the man who attacked the servant of the high priest, for it was she who had anointed Jesus as Messiah” (190).

This isn’t an infallible explanation of why Mark didn’t name some people in his Gospel.  However, it is a very probable explanation, one that should be seriously considered.  Mark wrote early enough after Jesus’ death and resurrection that the Jewish leaders were still very upset about Jesus and his followers (cf. Acts 3-4).  If Mark had named everyone involved in Christ’s ministry, everyone who helped him or followed him, the Jewish leaders could have used Mark’s testimony against these people.  Perhaps if they had known the name of the woman who anointed Jesus, they would’ve harassed her and her family like they did the man who was born blind (Jn 9).  We can’t be 100% sure, but it is a very plausible reason for Mark to leave some people anonymous in his account of Jesus’ life.

This is a very brief summary of a longer argument that Bauckham makes in chapter 8 of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2nd edition).  You’ll have to get the book to dig into the details of this helpful discussion.

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, chapter 8.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

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