Mark Shea: Names in the Gospels

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Last time in this space we looked at the spiritual meaning of names in Scripture.  But there is another aspect to names, particularly in the gospels, that I find equally fascinating: their ability to bring the gospels alive as living memories of real witnesses to the life of Christ.

It is common these days to run into people who treat the gospels like myths or legends. C.S. Lewis met the leading edge of this sort of thinking head-on sixty years ago. He criticised biblical scholars who call John a poetic, spiritual “romance” in these words: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like.” Very sensibly, he said that, if somebody “tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavor; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel.” He said, “Either this is reportage or else some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic, narrative.”

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham agrees and argues that the gospels, so far from conforming to the genre of myth, in fact take pains to conform to ancient Greco-Roman standards of historical reportage, complete with the use of various eyewitness sources.

Ancient word processors did not have a footnote function.  So the way you cited your sources, whenever you could, was to name the source.  This explains the curious mention of various figures in the gospels who otherwise play no part in the story and are socially insignificant figures.

Why, for instance, do we know the name of blind Bartimaeus, a beggar who sat by the road and was lower in the ancient social order than a parking lot attendant in ours.  Because he is the source of the story of his healing. He did not just disappear after his healing but “followed Jesus along the road” afterward.  That is, he became a disciple and a member of the early Church who told that story a thousand times (Mark 10:46-52).

Likewise, Jairus is the source of the story of the resurrection of his daughter (recounted in all three synoptic gospels).  He is a particularly valuable witness to the early Church because he was a synagogue ruler and therefore a respected member of the community.

Another curious detail in the gospels is the mention in Mark—and only in Mark—of Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon of Cyrene who helped Jesus carry his cross.  Why only in Mark?  And why would Mark mention two guys who play absolutely no role in the gospel story whatsoever?

The key is to look at Paul’s letter to the Romans.  At the end of that letter Paul offers a bunch of shout-outs to people in the Roman community that he knows.  Among them is this: “Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine” (Romans 16:13).

Mark’s gospel is likewise written to the Roman community and contains the gist of Peter’s preaching.  In all likelihood, he mentions Alexander and Rufus because they are members of the Christian community there.  He is saying, “You know those two guys you go to divine liturgy with?  It was their Dad who helped Jesus carry his cross.”  Suddenly, the gospel narratives become much more up close and personal.

Another curious example of the use of names in the gospels is Luke’s mention of the two witnesses on the Emmaus Road. Only one—Cleopas—is named.  Why?  Because he is again the source of the story.

And Cleopas isn’t just anybody. He is mentioned elsewhere as the husband of “the other Mary” who was present at the foot of the cross and at the empty tomb (cf. John 19:25, Matthew 28:1).  And she is, in turn, described both as the “sister” of the Blessed Virgin and as the mother of James (that is, the bishop of Jerusalem) and Joses.

In short, when Luke is relating the story of the encounter on the Emmaus Road, we are hearing the eyewitness testimony of something like the Kennedys of the early church: the closest living relatives of Jesus and Mary themselves.

Of course, the gospels don’t name every character.  And some characters are left unnamed in some gospels but named in others.  Next time, we will take a look at some of these figures, because this gives us insights too.

Related:

Mark Shea: What’s in a Name?
Mark Shea: Models of the Church