A few of the intriguing thoughts provoked by The Existential Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Someone asked me what I found “daring and original” about “The Existential Jesus” by John Carroll. My replies, based on a reading of only 3/4 of the book, follow:

One instance that struck me was the conclusion he drew out from his linking of the scene of John the Baptist’s execution with the scene of the healing of Jairus’ daughter. I’ve heard of the verbal linking of the scenes through the description of the young girl in each as korasion, but JC went further as far as I am aware withi pairing Herodias and her daughter with the menopausal (haemorrhaging/stuck in menopause) woman and Jairus’ daughter. The day-night contrasts between the two women; the latter being “the corrupted female erotic [finding] its consummation in orgiastic sadism.” — as he notes Euripides explores in the Bacchae. The Bacchae would not normally count except it does find other touch-points with the gospel/NT stories. That, for me, set me thinking anew about both scenes, viewing each against the backdrop of the other more carefully. Who knows, I may end up waking up thinking they should not be viewed this way at all, but I find the whole idea intriguing enough to give it some time till then.

There are a few others that have hit me as I’ve read, too. Hope this is not just a case of desperation to find some value for my money in the midst of stuff that doesn’t do anything for me at all.

When I began reviewing Bauckham it never occurred to me that he’d be a believer in literal miracles and resurrections and when I first heard Carroll interviewed it never occurred to me that he’d be really finding personal (non-religious) meaning in Jesus — I assume anyone who is serious about studying Mark will be serious about textual and literary and historical criticisms. No doubt John Carroll is, and he has studied all of that. That’s obvious. (Hence I’m thankful he’s filled it out with footnotes at least.) But I just can’t handle the way he writes like a latter-day Nietzsche! I need a dry analytical scholar who registers no personal meaning in the characters to get me excited about the text of Mark.

Some of the other wilder things I found intriguing at least:

Jesus is the “I am” with no name. (Hence as mysterious a figure as Dr Who). Okay, Carroll is taking the existentialist slant here, but one must also acknowledge that the strongest argument against this arises from our assumptions of Jewish provenance. What if, what if, Mark really was imbued with a bit more Hellenism than most commentaries like to acknowledge. Then the question just may be closer in some ways to Socrates and the question of knowing oneself than we might like to normally think. No no, I’m not saying it is. I’m only saying Carroll opens up the question — I don’t embrace his existentialist view. But I’m at least willing to explore the possibilities his view opens. Where they’ll lead, if anywhere, I don’t know.

Carroll draws out the implications of the concept of “spirit” being found alike in Jesus as in demons.

The elaboration of the irrational fear the disciples feel in the presence of Jesus. — while others who are not his followers have no fear but love him.

His walk on the water is viewed in the context of a howling wind, “a great breathing wind” — the same word as related to spirit — on the sea where the ‘mad pigs’ had been hurtled, — now here its Jesus who descends from the mountain (where god had named himself “i am that i am”) like a ghost, a spirit to join the wild spirits. Carroll draws on the opening meaning of Jesus being driven/possessed by the spirit into the wilderness.

When Peter falls asleep, Carroll notes that he symbolically dies with Jesus after all — as he “promised” he would!

And Carroll also takes up Tolbert’s observation that Mark is caricaturing Peter’s name by associating it with the rocky soil where seed quickly withers after initial quick growth. The withered hand being healed the the fig tree being withered are symbolic of Jesus’ actions to and against Peter.

Fascinating stuff. Not at all acceptable to anyone who insists on reading Mark through Matthew and Luke.

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Neil Godfrey

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