Tag Archives: Gospel of Mark

Is Oral Tradition Really Behind the Gospels? — another Kelber argument considered

henaut1This post continues with the series on Barry W. Henaut’s Oral Tradition and the Gospels, a critique of the assumption that oral traditions lie behind the gospel narratives. I have added to Henaut’s case more extensive quotations from works he is criticizing so we can have a better appreciation of both sides of the question.

Oral Clustering and Literary Texts

Kelber argues (rightly) that a hallmark of oral style is the clustering of genres, the sort of thing we can see in the Gospel of Mark where we have clusters of miracle stories together (2.1-3.6), clusters of parables (4.1-37), apophthegmatic controversy stories (11.27-12.37) and logoi (sayings) (13.1-37).

This sounds logical enough, and Kelber points to studies by W. J. Ong, E. Havelock and A. B. Lord (links are to the relevant works online or information about the works) to establish his point that oral communicators tend to group similar types of material for easier recall.

But such oral grouping of sayings brings with it a casualty when an author attempts to put it all in writing. An easy flowing chronological tale is easily lost. This is what lies behind the monotonous use of “and” (kai) in Mark as tale after tale is strung together with little carefully arranged narrative structure (so argues Kelber). It also explains

  • the preference in the text for direct speech;
  • the dominance of the historical present;
  • the lack of ‘artistically reflected prose’;
  • the incomplete characterization of Jesus;
  • the way the narrative is little more than a simple series of events;
  • the preference for the concrete over the abstract.

Kelber classifies the various stories in the Gospel of Mark into Heroic Tales, Polarization Stories and Didactic Stories. The distinctive patterns in each of these types, and the way these types are clustered together, he argues, testifies to them being derived from oral sources.

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Why is Peter’s Brother, Andrew, Overlooked So Much in the Gospel Narrative?

The picture is a Greek Catholic icon depicting...

The picture is a Greek Catholic icon depicting apostle Andrew with his typical cross with him. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why does the Gospel of Mark, generally agreed to be our earliest gospel, introduce Andrew as an equal to Simon Peter at the time Jesus calls them both but then drop him from the lime-light for most of the subsequent narrative?

I have always felt a bit sorry for Andrew. He seems to have been elbowed out by the other three, Peter, James and John, whenever Jesus wanted to share something special with his inner-circle. James and John could always be included as brothers, so why was Peter’s brother left out at special events like

  • the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:37);
  • the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2);
  • the time Jesus wanted his closest companions with him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33).

Even when Jesus ordained his special band of Twelve he gave James and John a collective title, “Sons of Thunder”, but dropped Andrew to fourth place as if he was no longer kin to Peter.

And Simon he surnamed Peter; And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:  And Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Canaanite . . . (Mark 3:16-18)

So if Andrew was not to play any meaningful role, even as a hanger-on, with Jesus in the Gospel what was the point of him starring in the scene of the very first call?

Now as [Jesus] walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him. (Mark 1:16-18)

Andrew’s response to Jesus’ call was no less admirable than was Peter’s.

There is one exception after this call where the Gospel does give Andrew a place beside Peter, James and John. For the first time since the opening scenes of the Gospel when Jesus called these four do we see them all performing together:

And as [Jesus] sat upon the mount of Olives over against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled? (Mark 13:3-4)

I have finally come across an explanation that just might make sense of this and give some well-deserved consolation to Andrew. (Regular readers know I’m currently reading Karel Hanhart’s The Open Tomb and will suspect this is my source. They will be correct.)

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Blind Bartimaeus in the Gospel of Mark: Interpreted by the Gospel of John?

Here beginneth the lesson. The Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, verses 46 to 52, in the original King James English:

And as [Jesus] went out of Jericho with his disciples and a great number of people, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the highway side begging.

And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me.

And many charged him that he should hold his peace: but he cried the more a great deal, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me.

And Jesus stood still, and commanded him to be called.

And they call the blind man, saying unto him, Be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee.

And he, casting away his garment, rose, and came to Jesus.

And Jesus answered and said unto him, What wilt thou that I should do unto thee? The blind man said unto him, Lord, that I might receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way.

The author of this passage appears to have inserted a couple of clues to alert the observant readers that they will miss the point entirely if they interpret this story literally. It is not about a real blind man who was literally healed by Jesus. But I’ll save those clues for the end of this post. (As Paul would say, “Does God take care for oxen and blind beggars? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written.”)

completely-differentThere are many commentaries on this passage and I have posted about Bartimaeus a few times now. But this time I’ve just read something completely different so here’s another one. (Well at least the bit about why Jesus stood still will be different, yes?)

Seeing

Mark uses different words for “sight” and “seeing”. Of the word used in “receive my sight” and “received his sight” is anablepo — “look up” — which Karel Hanhart says, the the Gospel of Mark (6:41; 7:34; 8:24; 16:4), “means to look at life with new eyes opened by faith”.

Many scholars agree that this usage is related to the two “blind receiving sight” stories (8:22-26; 10:46-52) which offset the central section of the Gospel and highlight the need of conversion if one is to understand Jesus’ “way to the cross” (cf. 8:34). (p. 124, The Open Tomb)

Hanhart, like a few other scholars who also identify Mark’s theme of the Way or Second Exodus in Isaiah, believes Mark is evoking passages such as Isaiah 42:16 read more »

Was the Empty Tomb Story Originally Meant to be Understood Literally?

emptytombThis post is about the miracles in what is generally considered the earliest written surviving gospel, the Gospel of Mark.

Dutch pastor and biblical scholar Karel Hanhart in The Open Tomb: A New Approach, Mark’s Passover Haggadah (± 72 C.E.) argues that Mark’s empty tomb story has been sewn together with semantic threads mostly from Isaiah in order to symbolize the fall of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE and the emergence of Christianity as a new force among the gentiles. That is, the story of the burial and resurrection of Jesus was not understood as a literal miracle about a person being buried in a tomb and rising again. The first readers, with memories of the national calamity and Jewish Scriptures fresh in their minds, would have recognized instantly the many allusions in Mark’s closing scene of the empty tomb to the Temple’s fall, the end of the old order as predicted by the Prophets, and the promise of the body of Christ surviving and thriving throughout the nations post 70 CE.

A later or more geographically distant generation for whom the fall of Jerusalem had little personal significance would easily have lost sight of the original meaning of the burial and resurrection miracle and read literally the narrative of Joseph taking Jesus’ corpse from Pilate and placing it in the tomb, his rolling the stone to block the entrance, the women coming to anoint the body, their seeing the young man inside and running off in fear when he tells them to tell Peter where to find Jesus.

I will not in this post engage with Karel Hanhart’s specific arguments identifying the “Old Testament” and historical sources of Mark’s closing scenes. That’s for another time. Here I take a step back and look at the reasons we should read Mark’s miracle stories symbolically rather than literally. Be warned, though. I do not always make it clear where Hanhart’s arguments end and my additions begin. Just take the post as-is. If it’s important to know the difference then just ask.

Form critics long ago categorized the miracle stories into different types: healings, exorcisms, nature miracles. Classification like this has allowed scholars to say some types are historical and others not. We can imagine dramatic healing or exorcism that is largely performed through powerful psychosomatic suggestion. But nature miracles? Walking on water? Nah.

The trouble with this division, as Hanhart points out, is that the Gospel of Mark makes no such distinctions in the way any of the miracles are narrated. The narrative audience response is always the same: fear and astonishment. So let’s ask the question: What was “Mark” doing? Was he expecting his readers to take the miracles — all of them — literally or symbolically?

And if we answer, “Symbolically”, then surely we should include the final miracle — the empty tomb story — in that answer, too.

None of the Synoptic evangelists made such a distinction [healing miracles, nature miracles, . . .]. And Mark placed the open tomb story on the same literal or symbolic plateau, or both, as the stilling of the storm and the transfiguration. The audience response was the same in each case, one of awe and fear (4:41; 16:8). (p. 5)

And if we answer symbolically, we need to explain what message Mark was trying to convey.

Hanhart points to the following reasons Mark gives readers to enable them to understand that he is not writing a literal history. read more »

How John Used Mark: Investigating the Methods of the Fourth Evangelist (Part 1)

Part 1: Turning Mark Inside Out

In a comment to Neil’s post, Discovering the Sources for the First Gospel, 3 — Criteria, from way back in May of 2012, I introduced a way to explain how the Fourth Evangelist may have used the Gospel of Mark. It might not be a novel approach — there is no new thing under the sun — and I certainly don’t have access to all the commentaries and exegeses on John. However, it’s new to me.

English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospe...

English: John the Evangelist, miniature, Gospel Book, Vatopedi monastery, cod. 16 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For simplicity’s sake, here’s my comment, with some minor edits:

In Mark 15:37, Jesus “breathes his last.” In the following verse the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. And in verse 39, the centurion declares him to be the Son of God.

Key words to notice in verse 15:36 are (1) ἐσχίσθη (eschisthē) — “was torn” and (2) ἄνωθεν (anōthen) — “from [the] top.” A close, literal translation of the verse might be: “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.”

In John, conversely, at the beginning of the crucifixion (19:23) the soldiers take Jesus’ belongings and split them among themselves. They divide his garments into four equal piles, but they notice that Jesus’ tunic is formed of a single piece of woven fabric without seams. John says that the tunic was “seamless from the top (anōthen), woven throughout all.” And in the next verse, they decide not to tear (σχίσωμεν (schisōmen)) the tunic, but cast lots for it instead. It was not torn.

The garment John describes has reminded several commentators of the priestly vestment described by Josephus: “Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back.” (http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-3.htm)

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Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (10)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 10: How Matthew and Luke changed Mark

The Martyrdom of the Apostle St.Matthew

The Martyrdom of the Apostle St.Matthew
(The evangelist prepares for the final cut.)
Jan de Beer (c.1530-1535)

Five months have passed since my previous post on The Messianic Secret. In the interim, I have focused on material related to the genre of the gospels, which has consumed most of my attention.

Recently, however, I’ve been simultaneously reading or re-reading several works on the problem of the Synoptic Gospels, including E.P. Sanders’ The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, William Farmer’s The Synoptic Problem, and Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q. I’ve learned much from reading each of these authors, but I would like to point out that we often will not necessarily understand what is important or significant until we read a work the second or third time.

Let me explain further. About a month ago I began reading The Synoptic Problem by William Farmer, and much to my surprise I learned quite a bit about how we arrived at the “Two-Source” (Mark and Q) consensus — things I didn’t pick up from reading Streeter or anyone else, for that matter. Farmer’s perspective gave him free rein to look for inconsistencies, bad logic, and questionable motives. I now feel the need to go back and re-read The Four Gospels with this new information in mind.

Reading Sanders and Goodacre (again) helped change my perspective on the problem. And as luck would have it, reading Schmidt’s The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature as well as the later chapters of The Messianic Secret forced me to re-evaluate those thorny questions.

Synoptic questions

The basic questions we ask ourselves concerning the Synoptic Problem — once we admit that the first three evangelists were somehow copying one another — are:

  1. Who copied whom?
  2. Who changed what?
  3. Why did they change it?

In order to mount a convincing argument as to which gospel came first we need some set of criteria that convincingly explains why an author would change his source material. That is, can we detect any editorial tendencies of an author that caused him to truncate or expand a story? What theological preconceptions might cause a later author to gloss over “difficult” or “uncongenial” passages?

Wrede tackled these sorts of questions in Part Two, “The Later Gospels: Matthew and Luke.”

A primary question will then have to be how the Markan material we have examined is treated in both Gospels.(p. 152)

He’s referring to the passages in Mark that deal with concealment and misunderstanding. If, in Wrede’s view, both Matthew and Luke recapitulate much of Mark, taking over his historical sequence (such as it is), then we should be able to acquire a “direct insight into the history of the approach, which is of interest to us.” (p. 152)

In his examination of Matthew’s use of Mark, Wrede closely examined several pericopae, identified the differences, and tried to develop a coherent reason or set of reasons for the author to change his source material. We will look at two of those stories now.

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The Gospel of Mark As a Fulfilment of Isaiah’s New Exodus

new-exodusRikki Watts presents a very thorough argument in Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (1997) that the major themes, structure, and narrative details in the Gospel of Mark were drawn directly from the Book of Isaiah, and in particular from the last chapters of Isaiah that speak of a New Exodus for Israel from captivity to various nations and back to Jerusalem.

Watts would surely disapprove of my saying so, but I do believe his argument so cogently explains the life and teachings of Jesus in this gospel that one must surely question whether introducing hypothetical sources pointing to an historical Jesus would only create difficulties and add nothing to the gospel. But that is a secondary question. Let’s stick with the outline of Watt’s argument. (It is too detailed to consider anything other than a broad outline in a single post.)

Isaiah Part 2

The second half of Isaiah opens with “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” calling upon God’s people to prepare the way for their coming Lord, God himself. The coming of the Lord will be through a tearing apart of the heavens; he will come as an overpowering warrior to destroy the rulers and idols of the nation; and he will also come as a Shepherd who heals his people, cares for them, and leads them back to a land of rest and true worship. Within these chapters we also read of a mysterious “Suffering Servant” whose suffering is somehow related to the salvation of all Israel. Many Jews have interpreted this figure as an ideal Israel.

When God comes he overthrows the nations who held his people in captivity. This is the beginning of Israel’s second Exodus. He then leads his people — even though they are blind — into the place where he will rule them from Jerusalem. read more »

How Literary Imitation Works: Are Differences More Important than Similarities?

Recently I disappointed the pastor of the Diamond Valley Community Church when I declined to respond to his point by point counter-claims to my comparison of the miraculous feeding of the 5000 as told in Mark 6:30-44 with Elisha’s feeding 100 followers with 20 loaves of bread in 2 Kings 4:38-44. This was a pity because he assures us that his efforts were “such a burden”, but we both know that those are the trials of a self-sacrificing follower of the Lord whose every breath is dedicated to banishing spiritual darkness from a godless world.

I have encountered the sorts of objections our burdened pastor made many times before and confess that by now I have lost all interest in engaging with them. Such objections — “this is not a real parallel because the story-reasons for the food shortage are different or because the prompts that led to groups of people sitting down are different in the two stories” — are a pointlessly puerile game of “spot the difference” where the pictures are quite different to begin with.

monlisas

Original images at:
http://alturl.com/uocjz http://alturl.com/57t8y (centre) http://alturl.com/quprv (right)

The differences in the above images are more striking than their similarities. One can search the net and easily find hundreds more and even more striking variations — different colour schemes, additional figures, different backgrounds, different positions and postures of the central figure . . . But one thing is clear: they are all adaptations of the original Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

We can spot mimesis so easily in a graphic. And this sort of imitation is easily enough recognized in literature. But when it comes to the Bible there are many apologists (and scholars, too) who just can’t or won’t see it. read more »

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (9)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 9: Concealment Despite Revelation

This unit continues with the section of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (1971 English translation) from pp. 82 through 114, which focuses on the phenomenon of the disciples (and others) seeing or hearing the truth about Jesus but failing to understand that truth.

Jesus with the Twelve(Duccio di Buoninsegna)

Jesus with the Twelve
“Are you guys even paying attention?”
(Duccio di Buoninsegna)

Where MacDonald went wrong

Somewhat coincidentally, Neil recently posted a piece called “Where Wrede Went Wrong? MacDonald vs Wrede on Why Jesus Tried to Hide His Identity.” In it, he discussed Dennis MacDonald’s contention that the Gospel of Mark at least in part draws upon narrative motifs from the Odyssey, including the necessity of secrecy as the travel-weary protagonist plots to take revenge against “the Suitors.”

According to MacDonald (see Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative), Wrede mistakenly placed the revelation of messiahship at the resurrection, when the actual revelation occurred earlier. He writes:

This understanding of secrecy [i.e., the one for which MacDonald is arguing] deviates from most other interpretations, including Wrede’s, by proposing that the disclosure of the secret takes place not at the empty tomb but at the Sanhedrin trial. (p. 142, emphasis mine)

While I am amenable to his proposal that Mark at times imitates Homer, MacDonald has failed to understand one of the enigmatic features of the messianic secret. For while self-concealment is a core component of the motif, Mark’s gospel also contains a number of instances in which the true identity of Jesus is plainly revealed to the people around him, and yet the secret remains intact.

By that I don’t mean that certain people “in the know” keep his secret. They hear all, but understand nothing. Only the demons seem to understand the full implications of the true nature of Jesus, and they weren’t told, but already knew it, owing to their supernatural existence.

MacDonald is correct about the disclosure of the secret at the Sanhedrin trial. In fact, from a narrative perspective, it is the turning point that inexorably sends Jesus down the path toward crucifixion. However, as we will see, this instance of disclosure resembles previous occurrences in that understanding does not follow revelation.

Scenes of recognition

The scene in the Odyssey in which Telemachus recognizes his father, MacDonald says, bears a strong resemblance to the scene in Mark wherein Peter “recognizes” that Jesus is the Christ. Interestingly, Telemachus first believes he is in the presence of a god and is frightened nearly out of his wits. At the close of both scenes, the protagonist orders silence. MacDonald writes:

read more »

Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (8)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 8: A Different Kind of Messiah? — An astonishingly persistent misconception

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan! (credit: Wikipedia)

This unit picks up after our mid-stream break in which we answered the question: “What Is the Messianic Secret?

Restatement of purpose

It is not my main purpose to argue for or against Wrede’s thesis. That isn’t why I’ve embarked on this reading expedition. My reasoning is straightforward: Before we agree or disagree with Wrede, we ought to know what he really said. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, The Messianic Secret had a profound impact on NT scholarship. Yet that impact is mostly misunderstood and largely muffled by scholars and laymen who opine on the subject with only the most cursory reference to the actual source material.

I note with some sadness the historical irony here. Wrede continually asked his fellow scholars to stop ignoring Mark. Instead of asking, “Why did Jesus do that?” we first should ask, “What did Mark mean when he wrote that?” Having learned nothing from The Messianic Secret, scholars now ignore both Wrede and Mark.

The vast majority of scholars who talk about the Messianic Secret are clearly ignorant of Wrede’s work. They waste our time by rehashing arguments that Wrede already convincingly addressed and discredited. And they do a disservice to their students and the reading public who get a distorted view of what the Messianic Secret is all about.

A short autobiographical digression

When I left the USAF back in ’92, I ended up working for a consulting company that specialized in information technology (IT) management, and which also dabbled in business process re-engineering (BPR). We became heavily involved in helping the Air Force with the merger of the old AF Systems Command and AF Logistics Command into the combined AF Materiel Command. Specifically, we were to assist them in deciding on a single set of IT standards, methods, processes, etc.

I found myself in the unexpected role of facilitator in round-table discussions, with a group of high-ranking, strong-willed people who had larger-than-life egos. They were all rulers of their fiefdoms, and quite unaccustomed to being told how to run their businesses.

My job was to keep the discussion on an even keel, to make sure everyone contributed to the discussion, and to gently guide the group to a consensus. One of the rules that we followed (and which I enforced) was this: Before anyone could disagree with a previous point, he or she had to restate it to the satisfaction of the person who had made that point. You would be amazed at how well this rule works not only in de-escalating tensions but in saving time.

How does it save time? Well, people don’t hear very well when they think they and their cherished beliefs are under attack. So when Mr. X would speak up and say, “I disagree with Ms. Y, because the real problem with . . .” My job was to say, “Hang on. Explain what Ms. Y said.” Immediately his posture would change. Instead of leaning forward aggressively, he would usually sit back, reflect a moment, and say: “Well, I think she said . . .” The ensuing give-and-take helped to clarify the issues at hand, and more often than not, Mr. X would admit that he had misunderstood Ms. Y. Frequently they found that they were actually in “violent agreement.”

I tell this story to explain why I have such a strong conviction about understanding a work before criticizing it or proposing “better” explanations. The vast majority of scholars who talk about the Messianic Secret are clearly ignorant of Wrede’s work. They waste our time by rehashing arguments that Wrede already convincingly addressed and discredited. And they do a disservice to their students and the reading public who get a distorted view of what the Messianic Secret is all about.

“Don’t get the wrong idea about me.”

I almost hate to bring up Bart Ehrman again as a bad example, because it’s starting to look as if we’re unduly picking on him. He is not uniquely wrong at explaining Wrede; in fact in some respects he’s better than most. However, his assessment of the Messianic Secret motif is very instructive with respect to the idea of “different kinds of messiahs.” In his survey textbook, The New Testament, he summarizes Wrede’s thesis. He misses many of the nuances of Wrede’s arguments, but he’s generally accurate.

However, because Ehrman sees the gospel of Mark as an “ancient religious biography” (see Chapter 4), and because he fails to understand that Wrede’s questions are more about Mark, not the historical Jesus, he finishes his assessment by shooting over the heads of Wrede and Mark, offering the following historical explanation to what is essentially a form-critical question:

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Reading Wrede Again for the First Time (7)

William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret

Part 7: “The Self-Concealment of the Messiah” — The injunctions to keep the Messianic secret

This unit continues Part 1, Section 2 (p. 34ff.) of Wrede’s The Messianic Secret (covering other features of the motif and the defense of a single coherent theory).

Demons in retrospect

Jesus Confronts Demons

Last time in Part 6 we finished up Wrede’s discussion of the demons’ recognition of the Messiah. At this point, we should probably mention why Wrede wrote about exorcisms first. And here, once again, I will refer to James D.G. Dunn’s 1970 paper, “The Messianic Secret in Mark” (PDF).

I rather suspect that Wrede was misled by taking the exorcisms as his starting point. It was natural that a nineteenth/twentieth century man should fasten on to these incidents which were to him among the most bizarre and incredible, and which for that very reason gave him immediate access to the theological viewpoint of the primitive Church — that is, to the way the primitive Church had viewed and worked over the historical facts. No psychological argument could explain how, for example, the Gerasene demoniac came to hail Jesus as Son of the Most High God, and recourse to a supernatural explanation was unacceptable. Therefore, Wrede concluded, we are in the presence of a legendary development in the tradition which leads us straight into the heart of the Messianic secret. Leaving aside the issue of demon possession and the possibility of supernatural knowledge, which I personally hold to be a far more open question than Wrede allowed, it still seems to me that Wrede’s approach was methodologically suspect. (p. 97 of the Journal, p. 6 of the PDF, bold emphasis mine)

Dunn thinks Wrede latched onto the stories of demonic possession (1) because they were “bizarre and incredible” and (2) because they give modern, critical scholars a window on the “theological viewpoint of the early church.” Yet Dunn is suspicious of Wrede’s methodology. Why would that be? Dunn is intimating that Wrede’s post-Enlightenment, scientific, naturalistic biases drew his focus to the exorcism stories, and that these biases further clouded his judgment, causing him to overstate his case.

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The assumption of orality behind written texts

Traveling again, but have brought along with me for spare-time reading Oral Tradition and the Gospels: The Problem of Mark 4 by Barry W. Henaut. Henaut argues in depth something many of us have surely wondered about from time to time. How can we really be so sure of an oral tradition behind our canonical Gospels? Have scholars really examined closely the literary forms against what is known of oral practices and truly eliminated the likelihood of literary creations?

Henaut does just such a close examination of the text of Mark against the various theories and research related to oral transmission. He demonstrates that many of those supposedly distinctly oral features of the Gospel of Mark are more simply explained as illustrations of the common techniques of ancient literary practices. At the same time he shows the inadequacies of several of the oral hypotheses to explain them.

I am unable at the moment to post details, but here are a few pointers of interest: read more »

Mark’s Parables as Simonian Allegories

AN ATTEMPT TO VIEW MARK’S PARABLES FROM THE INSIDE

Samuel Sandmel, in his The Genius of Paul (link is to full-text online), made this observation:

The parable of the sower in Mark (and in Matthew and Luke) is so presented in the Gospels as to have us believe that, clear as it was, the disciples did not understand it and they require explanation in private. The Gospel would have us suppose that there was more in the parable than meets the eye. Unhappily, there is not. The same is true in page after page of the Gospels. (p. 214)

Mark’s presentation of the parable of the sower does hint quite loudly that there is more to it and its gospel (“all things”, Mk. 4:11) than meets the eye. Its author asserts that his Jesus deliberately hid his meaning from those “on the outside”. And even though he makes his Jesus give a “private” explanation of the parable, his letting any and every reader and hearer of the narrative have access to that explanation shows that the beans have really not been spilled at all. Furthermore, he warns us that just reading or hearing the parable and its explanation will not be much help, for there are many who “look and see but do not perceive, hear and listen but do not understand” (Mk. 4:12). And he drives that point home in the rest of his gospel by relating how the Twelve themselves—even after being given their private explanation—still failed to perceive or understand.

To know what if anything is hidden [in the parables], one would first have to know who the Markan insiders were. Their identity is the key to correctly understanding their gospel.

But I think that Sandmel is wrong to rule out that there is really something more below the surface. To know what if anything is hidden there, one would first have to know who the Markan insiders were. Their identity is the key to correctly understanding their gospel. And, unfortunately, the provenance of Mark’s Gospel has never been securely determined.

I have explained in comments on a few other Vridar posts* why I think the Markan insider circle was Simonian, i.e., composed of followers of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria. As I see it, canonical Mark is a proto-orthodox reworking of a Simonian gospel, urMark, that sometime between the end of the first century and 130 CE was put together using two components:

  1. an earlier succinct myth about a divine figure, the Son of God, who briefly descended to this world to trick the princes of this world into wrongfully crucifying him. He did this by transforming himself and surreptitiously switching places, as Simon Kyrenaios, with a failed Jewish Messiah being led out by the Romans for crucifixion. To this was prefaced
  2. a cryptic allegorical portrayal of the apostolic career of “Paul”/Simon of Samaria.

The seam between the two parts is Mk. 15:15, the release of the Son of the Father (Barabbas).

That a Simonian would compose such a two-part life of the Son of God was fitting, for Simon claimed to be a new manifestation of the Son “who seemed to suffer in Judaea” (Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, 6, 19).

In this post I conduct a kind of experiment. . . . If the creators of the parables were Simonian, what was it they were looking to express by them, and what was it they were looking to hide?

In this post I conduct a kind of experiment. I assume— just to show where it can plausibly lead—that my identification of the insiders as Simonians is correct, and I examine how that identification changes our perspective of the parables in chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel.

I attempt to answer the questions: If the creators of the parables were Simonian, what was it they were looking to express by them, and what was it they were looking to hide? What was it they wanted outsiders to see but not perceive, hear but not understand?

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Hippolytus, in a few short chapters of his The Refutation of All Heresies (which I will abbreviate, going forward, as RAH), describes the teaching of Simon of Samaria as it was presented by his Great Proclamation (the Apophasis Megale). Hippolytus’ exposition, short as it is, is the fullest explanation of Simon’s system that is extant. It provides enough, I submit, to reveal what the Markan parables are really about. The translation of the RAH I will use is that of G.R.S. Mead in his Simon Magus (link is to full-text online). read more »

Understanding Mark’s Jesus through Philo’s Moses?

The upper part of The Transfiguration (1520) b...

The upper part of The Transfiguration (1520) by Raphael. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I posted an introduction to Burton Mack’s and Earle Hilgert’s suggestion that the pre-Passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark has striking affinities with Philo’s first volume of On the Life of Moses. I have since caught up with more of the background reading to their argument, but I have also taken their suggestions further and wonder if there is a plausible case to be made that the evangelist was influenced by Philo’s account of Moses in the way he portrayed the character and roles of Jesus through his teaching and controversial exchanges with others. This post is exploratory. The views expressed are in flux.

But I must address one point in particular before continuing. Some people reject any argument that a gospel’s narrative content was imitating or influenced by other specific literature on the grounds that it is possible to argue for influences or imitations of more than one other literary source. It is not difficult to find places where the Gospel of Mark has adapted tales from the Old Testament (e.g. Jesus’ call of the disciples being modeled on Elijah’s call of Elisha; the raising of Jairus’s daughter from the dead owing much to Elisha’s raising of the Shunammite’s son.) But we have also recently seen a study that argues for the influence of Homer’s epics, the Iliad and Odyssey. Is it not going too far to bring in yet another source into the mix? Spectres of “parallelomania” are raised. But this objection is ill-informed. Thomas L. Brodie in The Birthing of the New Testament demonstrates that it was common practice for authors of the time to draw upon and assimilate multiple sources in their composition of new works. (This will be addressed in a future post.)

Start with the Transfiguration

Mark’s transfiguration scene is teasingly alike yet unlike the biblical scenes of Moses atop Mount Sinai. read more »