2007-03-25

The Young Man in the Tomb in “The Existential Jesus”

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by Neil Godfrey

Wow, I love it when I read of an idea I have often wondered about being picked up by someone else who has obviously wondered the same things, but then gone on to develop that idea in a way that forces me to start reading the basic text again from scratch.

John Carroll does not allow for the young man who appears in the tomb at the end of Mark’s gospel to be an angel.

He is not an angel, as some have speculated; if we were, Mark would have said so. (p.127 of The Existential Jesus)

Mark reads more like a Greek tragedy in prose than a Christian text:

Mark’s story, written in Greek, does not read like any of its Old Testament predecessors — in narrative type, in method, or in tone. Its form most resembles that of classical Greek tragedy. . . . It involves the annihilation of the self — the aletheia (truth) that frees the self. In climaxes in the death of death, which means an a-lethal annihilation. As with Oedipus, the narrative is one of mounting suffering while all normal human hopes for a happy life . . . . are obliterated. As with Greek precedent, fate broods over the action . . . And there are Greek daimones, demi-gods or spirits which possess humans from time to time . . . . (p.253)

In that context, and cognizant of the textual clues that indicate the gospel was written for initiates into the faith, who is the young man in the tomb if not an angel?

John Carroll begins his reading with the man possessed by Legion. It is not original to notice that when that man is healed he is found sitting and clothed (5:15) , just like the young man in the tomb. But Carroll explores this further.

Legion, and the young man (x2?)

That man possessed by Legion lived among the tombs. He was naked. He had enormous strength. No-one could tame him and chains could not hold him. He cried out with a loud voice. And he said his name was Legion, “for we are many” (5:9). And when he was healed, those who came to see him became fearful, and asked Jesus to leave them. And he was the first person Jesus instructed to go and tell others about him. Till then Jesus had commanded silence.

We find another naked man at the end of the story. A young man in a moment of fear runs when someone grabs his clothing, escaping naked. But the young man, Carroll observes, is not like Peter. The young man returns, fully clothed, and is found again in the tomb. Like the one possessed by “Many” his home is among the tombs. Who rolled away that massive stone from the door of the tomb, that stone that is singularly noted to be “very large”? The young man who had been the home of Legion had incredible strength.

No one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces (Mark 5:3-4)

The young man in the tomb was able to move a mountain, just as anyone with faith could do:

Now in the morning as they passed they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter, remembering, said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered away.” So Jesus answered and said to them, “Have faith in God, for assuredly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will come to pass, he will have whatever he says. (Mark 11:20-23)

And who is it who delivers the message to all readers of the Gospel of Mark? It is, of course, the young man in the tomb. His message is not for the three women in the narrative. They are too fearful to pass it on to anyone. It is for the readers, the many. The young man who had named himself Legion was the first to deliver the message throughout Decapolis (the gentile area of ten cities) what Jesus had accomplished for him. The young man in the tomb delivers the message from the position of authority: he sits on the right side.

Beyond the text

There is much more, but one can see Mark’s anonymous characters representing seed in the good soil, and representing the only truly receptive hearers of the word, the audience of the gospel. The initiates. Those who go through the nakedness and re-clothing, and are reassured at the end not to fear.

But the re-clothing is not into the same that they wore before. The linen cloth (Greek, sindona) that Jesus was buried in is no longer found in the tomb. It was the linen cloth (Greek, sindona) that the young man lost when he fled naked. The young man now in the tomb is now wearing a white robe (stole leuke).

Mark has not artlessly stitched together a string of traditions and stories. His characters, his events, hang together with a meaning and subtlety that we cannot see when viewed through orthodox Christian paradigms, beginning with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Further study to come on Peter and the death that liberates

What I want to explore next is the possibility of a relationship between Mark’s anti-Petrine position and the symbolism of the stone boulder, the tomb hewn out of the rock (petros?), out of which Jesus leaves resurrected.

But John Carroll is prompting me to refresh my studies of the themes of Greek tragedy. Already I am recalling related themes in the Nag Hammadi texts: the loss of self, the death of the self, being the true way to inner liberation and rebirth.

Who knows, Carroll may convert me yet to his existential Jesus. :-)

And on the other exorcisms and adoptionism

I want to return also to topics I have covered in other essays on Mark, especially the exorcisms. John Carroll links the loud voice of Legion with the loud cry of Jesus on the cross at his moment of death. So I’m perhaps not alone in linking the acts of exorcism, especially the first one in the synagogue at Capernaum, with the death cry of Jesus as his spirit departs. And again, others have commented here in relation to the adoptionist view of Mark. The Christ spirit that possesses Jesus at the beginning departs him on the cross?

This adoptionism is the biggest hurdle that has kept me short of linking Mark’s gospel with a Pauline type community. But but but . . . . If Mark is written as a parable, and it surely is, and for initiates into some ritual entry into the faith, then is it possible that part of the parable or maybe symbolism is the adoptionist framework? Is the narrative meant to illustrate how we are all to be Christs? As symbolized by the “young man”? The ‘new man’?

  • Keith
    2011-04-26 08:23:42 UTC - 08:23 | Permalink

    …not how we may all become Christs but how we may become Christ’s.

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