Making more sense of Jesus . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

One can argue that the author took historical traditions and sayings and edited them to give them a theological spin, but this is to make two assumptions when it is much simpler to make but one: that the author created the stories and sayings as theological parables.

Just as the healing of the paralytic is told in the shadow of the death and resurrection of Jesus (both laid in dug-out places, both rise and go through a massive block that prevents others from entering), so the withered hand miracle is also told as a reverberation of the withered growth in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:6) and the withering of the fig tree to mark the end of Jesus.

Thus the story and words of Jesus make sense when and only when they are read as an allegory. To read the story as a literal healing is to ruin the story and to disconnect the sayings of Jesus from the story.

By insisting on taking both literally one might even be tempted to suspect the author is clumsily trying to weld a saying from one source with a healing tradition from another, as has widely been done by scholars. It is much more economical to read the story as allegory! The moment we try to detect “historical traditions” behind the stories and sayings we are no longer working with the story and sayings that we have.

The healing of the Syro-Phoenician’s daughter:

Few modern readers feel comfortable with the sayings of Jesus taken literally in this pericope:

Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs (7:27)

The racism is too obvious for believers to accept this literally, and for critics of Jesus to overlook. In this case faithful readers are all too willing to accept the metaphoric nature of Jesus’ words and see a reference here to Jesus distinguishing between the primary mission to the Jews and the time of the Gentiles coming subsequently. And of course they are right, although in Mark’s gospel gentiles are fed or healed or saved as part of Jesus’ ministry to the Jews. He needs to escape from the Jewish side for a while and finds himself in gentile areas doing a similar work.

If this story is thus so clearly parabolic, as is its saying, then we surely have a strong clue that the other healings and sayings should be read likewise.

Not dead but sleeping

When Jesus says that Jairus’ daughter is sleeping and not dead he is mocked. That has led some who read the story literally to wonder if Jesus could recognize that the girl was merely in a coma. But surely it is obvious that Jesus is saying that to him death is but a sleep from which anyone he wills will awaken. The parabolic meaning of this story is cemented by the symbolic number and chiastic structure bindings to the story of the bleeding woman.

Other healings

So much commentary has been written on the symbolic message in other miracles that it is superfluous to discuss them here. The two attempts to heal the blind man matching the gradual, two-step loss of understanding on the part of the disciples; the Bartimaeus healing with its focus on casting away his cloak, old life; the exorcism of Legion, with its conclusion of a man sitting clad and its many associations again with the scenes of the last scenarios of the gospel — we know the symbolic messages of these.

Now of course we can argue that the author took historical traditions and gave them a spin to convey theological messages, but why make it so complicated to save a literalism that has wreaked so much suffering on so many? Why not just accept the simplest explanation, that the whole gospel is a parable? — Mark 4:34.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Making more sense of Jesus . . .”

  1. I am not sure this comment is germane to your post, but it does involve the healing of Bartimaeus. I noticed some interesting thematic parallels between the healing of Bartimaeus Mk 10:46-52 and Jesus’ arrest Mk 14:43-58.

    Bartimaeus and Judas:

    1. Both scenes have Jesus surrounded by a crowd. One more than likely friendly and the other hostile.
    2. Both describe a man approaching Jesus. One with good intentions and the other evil.
    3. Both men refer to Jesus as Rabbi.
    4. One blind man thinks of Jesus as the “Son of David” ; the other is blinded by his belief that Jesus was suppose to be the “Son of David”, but is not.
    5. Both men may be considered spiritually blind.
    6. Both scenes involve a great deal of action – jumping, fleeing, approaching, grabbing.

    Bartimaeus and the young man:

    1. The crowd tries to stop Bartimaeus from approaching Jesus. The other crowd tries to stop the “young man” from leaving.
    2. Bartimaeus leaves his coat behind to approach; the young man leaves his linen clothes behind to flee.
    3. One man had the courage to approach and follow Jesus, while the other is afraid and flees.
    4. One man can now see and follows Jesus on the path, while the other flees from Jesus into to the darkness and is now blind.

    take care,

  2. I especially find your second one, Bartimaeus and the young man, most interesting. Mark to my mind uses clothes as symbols, beginning with John the Baptist right through to the young man in the tomb. And there is also the baptismal association. Interpretation is where we have fewer guideposts, unfortunately. Might Mark be contrasting the experiences of Bartimaeus and the young man, or in fact conflating the two — explaining that coming to Jesus is to die/lose one’s life before rebirth? The young man, after his naked flight, reappears at the end, fully clothed and “on the right side” — the place of honour (compare Bartimaeus = son of honour?) in the tomb.

    As for your observations of Bartimaeus and Judas, it is the regularity or repetition of the same types of motifs, inside and out (ie sometimes varied only through inversion) throughout the gospel that is one of the reasons for suspecting that Mark is not so much telling a story but telling an hidden message for initiates, an allegory or parable of some sort. Judas, as much as Peter, are representative of the Twelve (Judas, after all, leaves to betray Jesus as a result of an incident in Bethany that offended all Twelve). I don’t know, but wonder if what Judas is being used to do is to turn all the maladies that Jesus had healed back on to Jesus himself. He is bound, so he cannot move apart from others leading him; he is blindfolded so he cannot sea; he is silent as if dumb; he is rendered unclean like a leper when spat on; and he is made dead — through the expulsion of his spirit as he screamed aloud and was recognized for who he was. I wonder if it is seeing too much in the “passion” of Jesus all the maladies he cured falling back down on him.

    Thanks for sharing interesting thoughts.

  3. Neil,you wrote:

    “Few modern readers feel comfortable with the sayings of Jesus taken literally in this pericope:

    Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs (7:27)

    The racism is too obvious for believers to accept this literally, and for critics of Jesus to overlook.”

    I too, but for a different reason, do not think the Jesus figure is here calling the Gentiles dogs. I think his reference to dogs may just be a clue—-one that the Simonians would have recognized but that we on the outside were rightly expected to misunderstand .

    As you know, my overall view of Mark’s Gospel is that it is an allegory about Simon of Samaria written by one of his later followers. And it was intended to be a kind of riddle about who the Jesus figure is. From various clues in the loosely connected episodes the reader or hearer of gMark was expected to answer something like: John the Baptist risen from the dead, for example, or Elijah who had returned, or one of the other prophets; Isaiah, say, or Jeremiah (Mk. 8:28). The author of gMark used clever wordplay and various other devices to insure that only insiders (his fellow Simonians) would make the correct identification: The Jesus figure is Simon. The expectation was that everyone else would see but not perceive, hear but not understand.

    Given that scenario, the trip of Jesus in this episode to Tyre where he frees the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter from unclean spirits is an allegorical portrayal of Simon of Samaria’s trip to Tyre where he freed the prostitute Helen from the angels who were holding her captive. The author of gMark actually cleverly gives us the daughter’s name: “The woman was Hellene.” (Mk. 7:26 ). The way he lays the verse out leads the unsuspecting to think that “woman” refers to the mother and that he was telling us that she was Greek. Part of the fun, in my opinion.

    How does the reference to dogs fit in? Simonians knew that, according to Simon, Helen had been undergoing forced incarnations ever since this visible world was made. The angels who made the world locked her in one humiliating body after another. The most degrading of her bodily incarcerations were apparently those where she was confined in the bodies of animals: “she reincarnating from female bodies into different bodies, both of the human kingdom, and OF BEASTS and other things” (The Panarion of Epiphanius, 2,2, my emphasis). Epiphanius is not more specific than that. So I can only guess that one of her recent humiliations was reincarnation as a dog.

    Simonians were known for their secrecy, but ultimately knowledge of some of their teachings did leak out. I see gLuke and gMatthew as proto-orthodox responses to the Simonian allegory. Having recognized what gMark was really about, the authors of gMatthew and gLuke took it and further manipulated it in various ways to suit their own purposes. That the author of gMatthew knew who the exorcised daughter was comes out in one of the changes he made to the episode. He makes the Jesus figure say: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt. 15:24). What is going on here becomes clear once we remember that Simonians referred to Helen as “the lost sheep” (Against Heresies 1, 23, 2). This, then, was one of gMatthew’s many ripostes to the Simonians. In effect: “See! You didn’t fool me. I saw through your game. Hope you are watching and weeping as you see what I’m doing to your gospel!”

    1. Interesting. But I must admit it takes some time for me to begin to appreciate your arguments — but I am beginning to appreciate their plausibilities more. Thomas Brodie speaks of the Myers Briggs personality tests and that he comes out strongly on the Intuition type, and this has had a negative relationship to his past communications of his arguments. I wonder if you would fall into a similar profile. I have had a similar response to both of your arguments. While some strike me as forceful — usually those addressing the larger picture — I have had difficulty always appreciating the micro supports for these. But I have learned that if I take more time and preparation to settle in to establishing the background to these arguments and time to think them through, I do begin to wonder if there is something there — both in Brodie’s and your own. It is very easy to dismiss Brodie’s arguments as maniacal parallelomania. But no, it takes a bit of effort to get past the superficial first reading and think things through afresh from that new perspective. Then one really does begin to wonder.

      1. Yes, the micro connections I see between Simonian teaching and gMark are admittedly speculative, but I am convinced that looking for those connections is justified. That is to say, I think that to understand earliest Christianity the place to look is in what the proto-orthodox tell us about their earliest competitor: Simon. As I see it, what they let slip while condemning him is likely to be more reliable than what they would have us believe about themselves. It is the difference between the full-blown pitch a team of unscrupulous salesmen gives for their own product and the unguarded bits of information we learn from them in passing about a competitor’s product. The salesmen at times bring up the claims of their competitor in order to assure the customer that they are false, and that their own product is the original, authentic and best one. If the customer already has reason to suspect the credibility of the sales team, and if he notices many holes in their pitch, he will tend to ignore the bias and will leave the store having learned at least a few things about the competitor’s product. I am that customer.

        In general, the proto-orthodox sales team’s credibility is compromised. For among its known sales tactics were forgeries, false attributions, fabrications, plagiarisms, and falsifications. See Bart Ehrman’s Forged for examples of each of these.

        And the proto-orthodox attempt, in particular, to establish the authenticity of its brand by appeal to the Acts of the Apostles falls flat. Not only does Acts fail to relate the careers of almost all of the Twelve, the one figure it does extensively cover—-Paul—-it clearly misrepresents. The falsity of its portrayal of Paul is evident from comparison with the Pauline letters.

        And proto-orthodox claims for the post-apostolic period fare no better. Their claim to unbroken continuity with the Jerusalem church doesn’t add up. Why did it take them until the time of Irenaeus to come up with a named line of succession for a single one of their communities (Rome)? And if they were in existence earlier than the 130s, why is Justin their first known heresy-hunter? Did they have no one to stand up to Menander? Did they let the Simonian heresy go unchallenged between 70 and 140 CE? They concede a continuous line of succession for heresy (Simon, Menander, Basilides and Satornilus), yet they are at a loss to tell us who among them prior to Justin protected the faithful from those heretics.

        Furthermore, they have no explanation for how Paul could have ended up being of such paramount importance to their canon, but go totally unmentioned by Justin and the pseudo-Clementines. Writings ascribed (rightly or wrongly) to Paul make up more than half the New Testament. And even those New Testament writings that are not attributed to him appear to have been influenced by him:

        We have seen, then, that Paul or his doctrine, or his influence impinged upon virtually every book in the New Testament except Revelation.* The original questions which we asked were these: Why was so much of the New Testament by Paul, or attributed to him? Did so few of Paul’s contemporaries write? Was it accident that so many letters of Paul survived?

        The answer which we have given has amounted to this: Except for Revelation, every writing in the New Testament is by Paul, or attributed to Paul, or deals with issues and problems created for the Church by reason of Paul’s tremendous contribution. (Samuel Sandmel, The Genius of Paul, pp. 207-208. In a footnote Sandmel adds: *”And in Revelation the prefatory letters have some minor veiled attacks on Paulinists, though I see no anti-Paulinism in the body of the writing.”)

        How could someone whose writings and influence loom so large in early Christianity be missing from Justin’s Apologias and Dialogue?

        So I think it is entirely justifiable to turn away from the proto-orthodox sales team and give consideration instead to the figure they acknowledge as their earliest competitor: Simon. Despite proto-orthodox protestations that their brand preceded heresy, to me it makes more sense to see it as a second-century reaction to a first-century Simonianism that had grown, branched out, and developed. Justin, the earliest proto-orthodox heresy hunter, acknowledges the established existence in his time of various Christian groups that had been around for a while; followers of Simon, Menander, Satornilus and Basilides. The proto-orthodox reaction, I maintain, was a 130s takeover and reworking by them of Simonian writings.

        This reaction scenario would explain why there are both proto-gnostic and proto-orthodox elements in the Pauline letters. And why the earliest written gospel provoked the writing of gospels to correct it. GMatthew and gLuke are not just minor touch-ups of gMark. They disapprove of gMark and were written to replace it. They rehabilitate Peter and the Twelve. And they bring in and put on the lips of the Markan Jesus a doctrine alien to him (Q). They dispose of the many puzzles in gMark and its secrecy motif. Those puzzles and secrecy make more sense as the work of a member a secretive Christian community known for its love of tortured allegorical interpretations of Scripture (e.g., Simonians, Basilideans, Satornilians). The removal of those items in gMAtthew and gLuke makes sense as a proto-orthodox correction.

        And this reaction scenario receives confirmation of sorts from Marcion. From the time written gospels and Pauline letters start to show up in the early record, his voice is heard protesting that the proto-orthodox versions of them had been tampered with by Judaizers. And the beliefs of Marcion’s Jesus and Paul resemble those of Simon much more than those of the proto-orthodox.

        And proto-orthodox takeover of Simonianism can explain why Simon looks so much like Paul in the pseudo-Clementines. And why there are so many similarities between Simon, ‘Paul,’ and the Markan Jesus. The proto-orthodox, I maintain, turned Simonian letters into letters of Paul. And they submitted the Jesus of gMark—-a Simonian allegory about Simon—-to proto-orthodox makeover.

        The information the proto-orthodox let through about Simon is admittedly scant, late, and second-hand. But, in my opinion, it can still be put together in a way that presents a more plausible scenario for Christian origins than the one the proto-orthodox themselves are selling.

        1. I’m wondering if you would also like to make explicit for others without the benefit of scholarly backgrounds why your “speculation” allows for justifiable scenarios while other speculations (I’m thinking here of astrotheology in particular) do not?

          This is something I’m thinking of trying to point out in future posts.

          1. My speculation at least uses information that the heresiologists themselves provide about earliest Christianity. They in effect say: “Our version is the original—-not theirs.” I take what they say about the earliest alternative version (i.e., Simon) and try to see if it makes more sense than their own. So in speculating on Christian origins, I am at least working with the earliest available claims regarding orthodoxy and heresy.

            In contrast, astro-theological speculation cannot appeal—-as far as I know—-to anything in the writings of the heresiologists. The heresy hunters give at least short descriptions of a myriad of Christian heresies from the first and second centuries. And some like Hippolytus explicitly aim not to leave any out. But I am not aware that any of the heresies of the first two centuries fit the astro-theological description.

            I know some would dismiss the anti-heretical writings as being just as “creative” as anything else the proto-orthodox wrote. I don’t think so. For one thing, for the first time we seem to have people really writing under their own name. (Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Epiphanius). And their writings do not appear to be doctored. It would have been easy, for instance, to add the names of the four canonical gospels to Justin. Or some account of Paul. The failure to fix Justin’s obvious shortcomings increases my confidence that he is what he purports to be. That is not something I can say about the Apostolic Fathers. Moreover, there have been subsequent confirmations of some of the information the heresiologists provide. The Nag Hammadi findings, for example, have confirmed the existence of some books and heresies mentioned by Irenaeus.

            So, as I see it, the earliest anti-heretical writings provide information that is potentially more useful than anything in the Acts of the Apostles for figuring out Christian origins. I know that is not necessarily saying much. I wish they were earlier, and that they were more detailed, but even with their many faults they are the best we have.

        2. I’d like to add to the comment I made on 2012-11-01. I wrote:

          GMatthew and GLuke are not just minor touch-ups of GMark. They disapprove of GMark and were written to replace it. They rehabilitate Peter and the Twelve. And they bring in and put on the lips of the Markan Jesus a doctrine alien to him (Q).

          I am more and more convinced that the provenance of the alien doctrine (“Q”) was the first-century community founded by John the Baptist and led, after his death, by James. John figures large in the material usually allotted to Q. In fact, Clare K. Rothschild, in her book Baptist Traditions and Q, argues that, “A close hermeneutical investigation of the NT Gospels, including literary phenomena such as the double attribution of sayings to John and to Jesus, contradictions among sayings of Jesus, and significant thematic continuities between Baptist traditions and Q sayings on topics such as the Son of Man and Kingdom of God, support the argument that at some point in the undoubtedly complex pre-history of its redactions Q existed as a source of Baptist traditions exclusively.” And as for James, the similarity between Q material and the epistle attributed to him has always been obvious.

          As I see it, putting Baptist and Jamesian sayings into the mouth of GMark’s Simonian Jesus figure would have been a particularly satisfying way for the proto-orthodox to turn the tables on their Simonian opponents. It was a way to not only manipulate the GMark allegory against its author, but to also provide a kind of vindication to the leaders of the original pillar community in regard to their first-century opponent Simon/”Paul.” By putting Q sayings on the lips of GMark’s Jesus, John the Baptist in a sense lives and speaks again. He, in a sense, has risen from the dead!

          I should clarify that I do not think the authors of GMatthew and GLuke ever actually belonged to the community of John and James. That community was long gone, a victim of the 66-70 CE war with Rome, by the time these two evangelists wrote their responses to GMark around 130 CE. They were probably Jewish proselytes or Gentile God-fearers who had some knowledge of John the Baptist and James, a collection of sayings by and about them, and an awareness of the breakaway movement that Simon/”Paul” had started among the Gentiles.

          Now, one question that this scenario provokes is this: If GMatthew had already provided a response to GMark that incorporated Q, why did the author of GLuke feel moved to compose another?

          My hunches are these:

          GMatthew had no aim beyond getting back at the Simonians for their creation of GMark. And because that was his only aim he was indiscriminate in his use of the sayings of John and James. The result is that GMatthew is not Gentile friendly. Its Jesus forbids the twelve to go among the Gentiles or enter a Samaritan town (Mt. 10:5). This likely reflects accurately the community of John and James in that any Gentiles who wished to be part of that community apparently had to become Jewish proselytes and observe every “jot and tittle” of the Jewish Law (Mt. 5:18). They too, for instance, had to “pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin” (Mt. 23:23). And they too had to “do and observe all things whatsoever they [the scribes and Pharisees who sat in the seat of Moses] tell you” (Mt. 23:3). No exceptions for the Gentiles.

          I think the author of GLuke, on the other hand, had an additional aim. He realized that GMatthew could be toned down and turned into a “Judaism-lite” that would appeal to Gentiles. He kept Judaism intact for Jews who became Christians, but exempted Gentile converts from the Jewish food and ritual cleanliness Laws. In contrast to the blasphemous Simon/”Paul,” the author of GLuke went about attracting Gentiles to his new religion without frontally attacking the Jewish Law or demoting the Jewish Creator God. It was a brilliant (and ultimately successful) move. In my opinion it was the author of GLuke (Clement of Rome?) who more than any other created proto-orthodox Christianity.

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