2013-01-14

Gospels as Parables ABOUT Jesus: Crossan, part 3 of 4

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by Neil Godfrey

This post was to conclude my series on Crossan’s new book, The Power of Parable, but since it is taking longer to complete than I anticipated I’ll post here only on Crossan’s treatment of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Luke-Acts and John can wait.

The Parable Gospel According to Mark

According to Crossan the author of this Gospel was not writing a history or biography of Jesus but a parable about church leadership and the meaning of true Christianity.

The author, says, was probably writing in Caesarea Philippi to refugees from the recent war against Rome. These people, Crossan says, “had lost everything — their lands and possessions, their homes and their loves, their hope and maybe even their faith.” (p. 173) (I shake my head a little every time I hear a theologian or any believer write about loss of faith as if it were something worse than losing loved ones and homes.)

So what was Mark’s parabolic message to these people?

In his gospel, Mark claims that false prophecy led Jerusalem’s Christian Jews astray by promising them that the (second) coming of the Messiah would save them from . . . Roman destruction. And, says Mark — with parabolic hindsight and fictional creativity — Jesus had warned against that very delusion . . . .

Furthermore, Mark lays full responsibility for that mistaken conflation of the coming of Christ with the coming of Rome on the shoulders of the Twelve, that is, on their misunderstanding of Jesus . . . . (p. 171)

Mark is writing a story to castigate the Twelve for getting Jesus wrong in every way.

He criticizes the Twelve

  • for failing to follow the mode and style of (servant) leadership of Jesus;
  • for failing to lead a united Jewish and Gentile Christian community instead of an exclusively Jewish one from Jerusalem;
  • for failing to understand that performed miracles for both the Jews on the western side of the lake and the gentiles on the eastern side.

Mark is taking what he sees as the sins of the Twelve throughout the forty years after Jesus (from the late 30s to the early 70s) and re-writing them so they appear in a story setting of their time with Jesus.

But there’s a problem. Crossan also knows that almost all of those Twelve were dead by the time Mark was writing. He intimates that Mark is writing a parable about problems in his own day and that have relevance for all Christians since.

Danish folklorist Axel Olrik (photographer unk...
Danish folklorist Axel Olrik (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That Mark’s gospel is fictional can be detected by various literary artifices that Crossan points out. The classic one is the “law of three” first formulated by folklorist, Axel Olrik. Between Mark 8 and 10 we have three prophecies by Jesus of his impending death and resurrection; three befuddled reactions by the disciples; and three responses by Jesus.

Need I emphasize the utterly parabolic, fictional, and artificial way in which Mark is creating this triple sequence? It is, by the way, another example of Olrik’s law of three . . . but Mark gives it — as we shall see below — a special final twist. . . . . . (p. 165)

That “special final twist” is Mark’s confounding the readers by having the Twelve fail the third test. The expectation is that after two failures they would get it right the third time.

Other reversals of expectations are also literary devices to convey Mark’s (not Jesus’s) message. Here Crossan proceeds by spotlighting the way this Gospel pits famous names we would expect to be successful leaders but who are really the failures against nameless persons, nobodies, who emerge as the real spiritual successes.

Peter, James and John are clearly emphasized as leaders of the Twelve in the Gospel of Mark. Yet Mark creates stories where Jesus calls Peter “Satan”; where Peter denies Jesus three times; where James and John are shown to be power-hungry siblings even as Jesus is on his way to crucifixion. Alongside these failures are their gynecological counterparts, Mary, Mary (twice) and Salome who think they still have to anoint the body of the dead Jesus after an anonymous woman has already done all that prior to Jesus’ death.

The unnamed woman anointed Jesus in preparation for his death on the eve of the Passover (Mark 14:3-9) is the heroine whose name will be spoken of throughout the ages. This unnamed woman is paired with the unnamed centurion who, alone, confesses at the foot of the cross that Jesus truly was the Son of God. That unnamed woman stands in contrast to the three named women who come to anoint Jesus (too late) and flee in terror after seeing he is no longer in his tomb. Crossan even goes so far as to remind readers that the author of this gospel is also “nameless”. (“Mark” is, of course, a later tradition.)

All of this is dramatic artifice, not history, in Crossan’s view (and I agree).

Crossan elaborates on these instances that I have covered here, not because they tell the full story of the Gospel of Mark, but because they give us some idea of what Mark was doing overall.

I digress:

I am coming to suspect Crossan is wrong in all of this. I have long been an advocate of any position that asserts Mark was preoccupied with putting “The Twelve” in their place as failures, but since looking more closely at William Wrede’s “The Messianic Secret” I am no longer so sure I have been right. Wrede’s view is that the Twelve, along with everyone else, simply had no way of comprehending who Jesus really was because he was, like God, “too big” to grasp.

English: William Wrede (1859-1906) Deutsch: Wi...
William Wrede (1859-1906) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wrede writes of Mark’s Jesus and his disciples:

The person of Jesus is dogmatically conceived. He is the bearer of a definite dignity bestowed by God, or, which comes to the same thing, he is a higher supernatural being. Jesus acts with divine power and he knows the future in advance. The motives for his actions do not derive from human peculiarity, human objectives and human necessities. The one pervasive motive rather takes the form of a divine decree lying above and beyond human comprehension. This he seeks to realise in his actions and his suffering. The teaching of Jesus is correspondingly supernatural. He is knowledge is such as no man can possess on his own account but he conceals it and conceals his own being because from the beginning his gaze is directed to the point of the whole story, i.e. the resurrection, which is the event that will make manifest for men what is secret. For he is known to the world beyond and already on earth he has a link with that world when he proves his power to the spirits or sees the heavens opening.

But the other main factors of the story are also theologically or dogmatically conceived. The disciples are by nature receivers of the highest revelation and are naturally and indeed by a higher necessity lacking in understanding. The people are by nature non-recipients of revelation, and the actual enemies of Jesus from the beginning are as it were essentially full of evil and contrariety and so far as men come into it bring about the end but thereby also the glory.

These motifs and not just the historical ones represent what actually motivates and determines the shape of the narrative in Mark. They give it its colouring. (p. 131, The Messianic Secret).

But this is a discussion for another time.

The Parable Gospel According to Matthew

Matthew’s Gospel begins with a story that modeled on the Exodus story of the birth of Moses. Jesus was being presented as the new Moses. Herod was to be the new Pharaoh. In order to bring Herod into the story, though, the author chose to have the Magi stop in Jerusalem to “ask directions” on their way to visit the newly born King of the Jews. Their guiding star appeared to have momentarily failed them for this purpose.

Crossan believes Matthew was written in the years after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and at a time when rabbinic Judaism and its study of the Torah had well-established itself as a replacement to the old Temple priesthood and sacrificial system.

Matthew wrote his gospel within that paradigm shift. It represents an intra-familial clash in Judaism between Christian-Jewish scribes and Pharisaic-Jewish scribes . . .

Strife within the family can, of course, be extremely bitter, since opposition can never create total separation . . . . (p. 194)

And this is what Matthew’s Gospel was about, says Crossan. The evidence he points to is the contradiction between Jesus delivering his highly ethical Sermon on the Mount and his later vicious verbal attack on the Pharisees.

For Crossan, Jesus does not teach love of enemies for the purpose of political prudence “or even ethical idealism”.

It is to be like, and thereby become children of, a God who acts in that way. In other words, for Jesus in Matthew’s new law — the fulfilled and renewed Torah — the positive nonviolence of loving enemies is derived from and modeled on the very character of God. (p. 185)

But then we come to “the glaring discrepancy” between this Jesus of Matthew 5 and the Jesus of Matthew 23 where he repeatedly castigates the scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites and fools and broods of vipers. Crossan asks rhetorically:

Does Jesus change his mind or does Matthew change his Jesus? (p. 187)

Matthew is drawing upon an earlier document, Q, and

the language of Jesus escalates into violent invective in Q — and Matthew accepts it fully. (p. 188)

Where Mark had Jesus make a mild and resigned statement that his disciples should leave any place that did not accept their message (Mark 6:11-12 — leave them to their fate), Matthew names specific places and threatens them with hellfire: Matthew 11:20-24; 10:15).

Similarly, where Mark’s Jesus merely responds with a laconic “no” to Pharisees who asked him to perform a sign (Mark 8:11-13), Matthew’s Jesus adds threats and condemnation to his refusal (Matt. 12:38-42; 16:1-4).

The Jesus of the Q Gospel is much nastier than the one in Mark, and Matthew combines them so that Q’s condemnatory language overcomes Mark’s far milder rhetoric. You can see, for example, how Mark’s “this generation” becomes “an evil and adulterous generation” in Matthew. (p. 190)

Matthew is also the one who adds to Jesus’ words images of the torments of hell, where those who oppose him will suffer “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.

The parable of Barabbas

In the Gospel of Mark is crafted a scene of Pilate offering the Jews a choice: Barabbas or Jesus? Pilate offers to release Jesus and execute the murderer, Barabbas, in his place. “The crowd”, as we know, choose to release Barabbas.

That mini-story is parable rather than history. Mark’s purpose was to say – in retrospect after the terrible Jewish war with Rome of 66-74 CE — that Jerusalem had chosen the wrong option. It had chosen the violent revolutionary Barabbas — “son of the father” — over the nonviolent revolutionary Jesus — “Son of the Father.” But [Crossan’s] present concern is how Matthew adopted and adapted his Markan source. (p. 192)

Brooklyn Museum - Barabbas - James Tissot
Brooklyn Museum – Barabbas – James Tissot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Crossan points to the way Matthew expands Mark’s singular “crowd” into “crowds” or “multitudes” and finally to “all the people”. Matthew is emphasizing the “rhetorical” and “ideological” violence of others against Jesus now, until they finally turn that violence back on themselves:

Now at that feast the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would. And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas.

But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.

When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.

Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.

One sees Crossan’s own ideological reading through and through, here. He cannot allow his God or his Jesus to be in the least violent, and he is at pains to stress that it is only in this “one place” in “the entire New Testament” where we read such an anti-semitic diatribe. Matthew is expressing the violent disputes, the “rhetorical invective” of his own day with its hostile debates between Christian Judaism and Pharisaic Judaism.

Indeed, the very nastiness of the language indicates a stern family feud in the 80s between Christian Jewish scholars and Pharisaic Jewish scholars. (One might even see a similar “rhetorically violent” replay by reading Christian scholars’ dealing with their opponents today. Perhaps Crossan’s book is a parable directed at his peers?)

Crossan concludes:

The Jesus of Matthew is regularly and rhetorically violent, but that is not Jesus himself; it is Matthew who is speaking. (p. 195)

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Neil Godfrey

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