2010-11-24

Mark’s Ambiguity Fools Some Scholars

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by Neil Godfrey

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How quaint to debate whether Jesus originally meant “an ordinary man” or the titular “THE Son of Man” when in Mark’s Gospel he says: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”, or, “The son of man is lord of the Sabbath”.

Mark’s Gospel is a work of ambiguities. Especially in the first part of his Gospel the central theme is the very ambiguity of Jesus himself: to the human characters in the Gospel he is a mere man, to the spirit characters and readers of the Gospel he is The Holy One of God. He astonishes innocent bystanders and disciples alike with his God powers of twice subduing the forces of watery chaos, speaking with authority and commanding demons, and performing all sorts of miracles.

So when Mark has Jesus say that “the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath”, the natural literal meaning of “son of man” in this context is, “man” and nothing more. But at the same time the reader of the Gospel knows more about Jesus than any of the characters ever do. For them Jesus is THE Son of Man.

The same ambiguity applies to “Christ”. When Peter acknowledges Jesus is the Christ, he attempts to reprove Jesus for announcing that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed. So Jesus rebukes him and calls him Satan. Peter has interpreted the Christ as an earthly Davidic conqueror instead of a spiritual conqueror who must die to defeat death. The reader of the Gospel understands the ambiguity of the word.

Similarly, Jesus appears to accept without protest being acclaimed the Son of David, first by Bartimaeus and then by the crowds as he entered Jerusalem. But Jesus also refers to Psalm 110 to apparently deny that he is the Son of David:

David therefore himself calls him Lord; and whence therefore is he his son? (12:37)

Again, the ambiguity is clear to the reader if not the literary characters. The sonship of David is the sonship of the pious saint (and psalmist) who suffers and is delivered out of all his troubles. His reign on David’s throne is to be heavenly or spiritual, not earthly.

Then in the final scenes Jesus is mocked by the Roman soldiers as a fool-king, yet readers know he really is the highest King of all. His procession to the cross is like a Roman Triumph, but the literary characters only see a victim on his way to execution.

How much energy has been wasted on discussions over whether Jesus meant one thing or the other! It is not Jesus who is talking. It is “Mark” who is writing. Jesus is a literary figure, one of many, in his literary work. Mark is creating a story with meanings at two levels: one for the literary characters (the literal meaning) and the other for his readers (the spiritual or parabolic or allegorical meaning).

Literary criticism should always precede any attempt to mine a narrative for historical roots. It can save a lot of wasted time and energy.

First know what it is you are reading. Astrologers make the same mistake. They think the planets tell the past, present and future lives of persons. They fail to acknowledge the real nature of the planets they are “reading”.

In the case of the Gospel of Mark, scholars who interpret Jesus words in their literal sense are aligning themselves with the very characters the author set up as foils (and fools) to teach the readers spiritual lessons.

 

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Neil Godfrey

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  • mikelioso
    2010-11-25 04:59:00 UTC - 04:59 | Permalink

    It doesn’t appear “Son of Man” as term for Jesus or one that Jesus uses originates with Mark, not does it seem to be something Paul used and it’s popularity with the latter Church coincides with its use in the gospels, they prefer different terms. So I don’t think it is a waste of time to investigate what the term meant to the original users. It need not be Jesus, it could be a hypothetical early Christan tradition of ascribing son of man language to Jesus, but it is an early relic of things ascribed to Jesus. But the term has a history in Christianity prior Mark’s use of it in the gospel.

    • 2010-11-25 05:08:45 UTC - 05:08 | Permalink

      Where is it used in Christianity prior to Mark’s gospel?

      But even if this is the case then by all means study it there. But Mark’s characters are literary, and as Thompson would say, we must deal with them first and foremost as they are — as literary characters.

  • mikelioso
    2010-11-25 05:42:24 UTC - 05:42 | Permalink

    “So when Mark has Jesus say that “the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath”, the natural literal meaning of “son of man” in this context is, “man” and nothing more. But at the same time the reader of the Gospel knows more about Jesus than any of the characters ever do. For them Jesus is THE Son of Man.”

    Mark hasn’t explained what the son of man references mean so if the reader knows about the son of man, it wasn’t from reading Mark. with out a set date for Mark, knowing whether a work using son of man predates Mark is difficult. Does the book of Revelation predate Mark? Most scholars say no, you may have different ideas. I was thinking of Q. Again it is widely held to be earlier than Mark, or at least independent of it. That Q is dependent on Mark however is baseless conjecture.

    • 2010-11-25 06:27:26 UTC - 06:27 | Permalink

      Mark explains who Jesus is in the opening verses. We later learn that the Son of Man is understood as the title of the heavenly figure from Daniel. So we know from Mark itself that it was written for readers who wll identify Jesus as the Danielic Son of Man.

  • mikelioso
    2010-11-25 11:25:18 UTC - 11:25 | Permalink

    “one for the literary characters (the literal meaning) and the other for his readers (the spiritual or parabolic or allegorical meaning).”
    I suppose more to the point, why would a scholar assume Mark invented all the dialog he attributes to “literary characters” he is promoting as non fictional people? Even if Jesus is a mythic being like Michael the Archangel, he is attributing words to the being and with no evidence that Mark is the originator of Christianity, we should suspect that Mark actually incorporates material from earlier sources.

  • 2010-11-25 16:35:49 UTC - 16:35 | Permalink

    I do not share your assumption that Mark is “promoting [the characters in his gospel] as non fictional people” so this is a question for you to sort out.

    There is no doubt that Mark incorporates some material from “earlier sources” and we can see some of the more obvious ones in the Old Testament. As for “sayings” of Jesus, Mark is not a “sayings gospel” as are the others. What Jesus says is all consistent and coherent with the plot and theme of the gospel so I am quite comfortable with an author capable of creating the storyline having some competence in constructing appropriate dialogue, too.

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