Daily Archives: 2019-04-25 12:56:19 GMT+0000

Gospel of Mark: Genius or Forrest Gump?

On aperi mentis is an interesting essay discussing several aspects of the canonical gospels:

Marcan Priority and a Textual and Theological Comparison of the Synoptic and Johannine Gospels

Of particular interest is the detailed list of details that have given the Gospel of Mark its reputation for literary crudity. Being the first gospel and also in many respects being enigmatic it is tempting to view the gospel as the work of a genius. It may have been, but if we want to establish that point then it is only fair that we include a satisfactory explanation for the sorts of grammatical infelicities that have given its author the nickname “stumpy fingers”.

It is also tempting to rationalize Mark’s crudities as deliberate and even a further sign of his genius, as many do. But that theory runs into problems the closer we look:

To add weight to our suspicions, real mistakes and oddities do show up in the text of Mark belying any claims that his unrefined Greek was deliberate.

    • In Mark 4:41 the singular form of “obey” (hypakoui) is used when the subject is plural.
    • In Mark 5:10 when the demons are speaking, Mark says that ” he begged” (parekalei) when it should have been “they begged” (parekalesan).
    • Mark often uses redundant words in his writing. In Mark 1:32 he says “when the evening came when the sun went down” (opsias de genomenês hote edy ho hêlios) but the equivalent story in Matthew 8:16 simply says “that evening” (opsias de genomenês) and in Luke says “when the sun went down” (dynontos de tou hêlio).
    • In Mark 15:34 where Jesus says “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”. Matthew corrects the spelling to “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”.

One detail I question in the essay by Ste Richardsson is that Jesus is presented as a very human figure in the Gospel of Mark:

Mark is a very vivid and dramatic piece of prose which portrays Jesus as a human with thoughts, dreams and strong emotions.

Rather, the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark surely comes across as dark, mysterious, frightening even, certainly a being from, and still within, the world of the supernatural. He is not understood and makes no effort to help clarify anything — he thrives on being otherworldly, not understood. His anger seems uncalled for at times (the leper begging for healing, the fig-tree not bearing fruit out of season). Many follow him in ignorance, and other crowds send him away in great fear.

Another post of interest on the same blog:

Creation Stories of Atum, Ptah, Yahweh and Elohim

What Christians Said About Jesus Before the New Testament Canon …. a post for Paul George

Another post I promised a commenter, this time Paul George. The point here is to clarify the grounds upon which Nodet and Taylor claimed that our canonical gospels are not the best place to start in order to understand Christian origins. The evidence they cited for this claim came from the Christian writings we have prior to the appearance in the literature of any explicit knowledge of our gospels. Our gospels evidently carried very little (= zero) weight as authoritative information about Jesus until the late second century.

Before there was a “written authoritative reference point”, that is, before the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were embraced as standard narratives about Jesus, how did Christians write about Jesus?

Ignatius of Antioch (we will assume here the conventional identity and date for Ignatius, with his writings dated early second century)

For Ignatius, the documents about Jesus to be relied upon were not written in ink:

My documents are Jesus Christ; my unimpeachable documents are his cross and resurrection, and the faith that comes from him. — Phil. 8:2

The Roman Creed

1. I believe in God the Father Almighty
2. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord;
3. Who was born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary;
4. Was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried;
5. The third day he rose from the dead;
6. He ascended into heaven; and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
8. And the Holy Ghost;
9. The Holy Church;
10. The forgiveness of sins;
11. The resurrection of the body (flesh)

Ignatius speaks often of Christ, but refers to precise events only in succinct statements which are very close to the primitive kerygma—the proclamation of the saving death and resurrection—or which resemble those of the Roman Creed. (Nodet and Taylor, 4)

Clement of Rome (writing 15 years before Ignatius)

As Christian Scripture he knows at most 1 Cor and recalls the context of crisis in which it was written. He refers often to salvation in Jesus Christ, but, like Ignatius, without ever alluding to the facts of the life of Jesus. Only once does he cite words of Jesus (13:2), but the logion is not known in this form in the NT, which shows that for Clement there is no official text (although that does not, of course, exclude the existence of some documents). He speaks of Jesus only by way of the OT. Thus, when speaking of Christ as the suffering servant, he makes no direct reference to his life but uses only a biblical passage (the song of Isa 53:1-12). It is interesting to note that Heb 10:5 does exactly the same: “Coming into the world, Christ said: ‘You did not want sacrifice or oblation, but you formed for me a body [. . .]’ (Ps 40:7).” (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

The Didache (widely judged to be first century CE)

The Didache knows and interprets the OT. It also quotes words of Jesus related to the Sermon on the Mount, but without a precise literary link with the Matthaean text, and a very similar version of the Lord’s Prayer; there is probably a common origin in the liturgy. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Didache chapter 9:
1. And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus:
2. First concerning the Cup, “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child; to thee be glory for ever.”
3. And concerning the broken Bread: “We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever.
4. As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.”
5. But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptised in the Lord’s Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

Not mentioned by Nodet and …. but surely significant is that the Didache interprets the eucharist as a thanksgiving meal without any relationship to a death of Jesus.

The Didache further admonishes a high regard be held for those who spread the word, for the importance of staying with likeminded saints and warning against false teachers. The scenario appears to be entirely oral. No written gospels (nor even epistles, for that matter) to rely upon to maintain true teaching.

Epistle of Barnabas

The Epistle of Barnabas is a Christian interpretation of traditions from the OT or related texts . . . . This interpretation is totally based on a typological reading of the OT, with several facts or words relating to Jesus, but in a rather stylized form and in any case without a literary link with the gospels as we know them. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp of Smyrna, whose background is similar to that of Ignatius of Antioch, is familiar with the writings of Paul and makes a number of references to them. He has some knowledge of Matt, perhaps in the form of written notes (compilations of logia), but certainly not as a normative work. (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

Polycarp also speaks of being attentive to the word handed down orally in order to refute those who deny the incarnation.

The Shepherd of Hermas

The Shepherd of Hermas belongs to the timeless world of apocalyptic and knows no Scripture apart from itself (cf. also Rev 22:18 f.). (Nodet and Taylor, 5)

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Given my obvious agenda. . . . A Post for Nathan

Nathan recently chastised me:

Why the double standard, Neil?

Barely a month ago you were empathizing with the Japanese by laying blame on the U.S. for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, noting that “the U.S. had just cut off 80% of Japan’s oil supply so [Japan] was obviously faced with a situation of complete capitulation or war with the U.S.”

Yet now, rather than empathize with Israel as well, you seem to lay the blame on them for the Six-Day War when you talk of the “myth of 1967 being the war when the Arabs attacked Israel,” and then refer to “the territory from which Israel launched its attack on the Arabs.”

Why not mention that the Soviet’s and Syria were spurring an Arab attack by incorrectly reporting Israel had plans to invade Syria? Why not mention that Nasser had asked and been granted his request to have UN peace-keeping forces removed from the Sinai Peninsula, and then had begun amassing Egyptian troops in the Sinai? Why not mention that Nasser was blockading Israeli ships in the Straits of Tiran? Why not mention that Jordan’s King Husayn had flown to Cairo to sign a defense pact with Egypt? In other words, Neil, why not mention the fact that, like Japan, Israel itself was faced with a situation of war? (Yes, Neil, these questions are rhetorical. Given your obvious agenda, it’s quite clear why you wouldn’t mention these things.)

I promised Nathan a response in a full post. So here we go.

Let’s take these points one by one:

  • Why not mention that the Soviet’s and Syria were spurring an Arab attack by incorrectly reporting Israel had plans to invade Syria?

I did. I wrote two days after the post about Japan the following about the 1967 War:

The Soviet Union, supporter of the Syrian government, in response sent a report to Syria’s ally Egypt to warn that Israel was moving its forces towards the northern border and planning to attack Syria. Egypt’s president, Nasser, was pressured to take some decisive action to maintain his credibility as leader of the Arab nations:

The report [from the USSR] was untrue and Nasser knew that it was untrue, but he was in a quandary. His army was bogged down in an inconclusive war in Yemen, and he knew that Israel was militarily stronger than all the Arab confrontation states taken together. Yet, politically, he could not afford to remain inactive, because his leadership of the Arab world was being challenged. . . . Syria had a defense pact with Egypt that compelled it to go to Syria’s aid in the event of an Israeli attack. Clearly, Nasser had to do something, both to preserve his own credibility as an ally and to restrain the hotheads in Damascus. There is general agreement among commentators that Nasser neither wanted nor planned to go to war with Israel. (252f)

Nasser decided on three-fold action to impress the Arab public . . . .

  • Why not mention that Nasser had asked and been granted his request to have UN peace-keeping forces removed from the Sinai Peninsula, and then had begun amassing Egyptian troops in the Sinai?

I did. I wrote in the same post (within two days of my Japan post):

Nasser decided on three-fold action to impress the Arab public:

1. He sent a large force into the Sinai

2. He ordered the removal of the U.N. peacekeepers from the Sinai

  • Why not mention that Nasser was blockading Israeli ships in the Straits of Tiran?

I did. That was the third point in the above list.

3. He closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel shipping

I even added a graphic to that same point:

I have circled the Straits of Tiran in red. Map is from p. 192 of Iron Wall

  • Why not mention that Jordan’s King Husayn had flown to Cairo to sign a defense pact with Egypt?

You caught me out on that one. But can you explain how a “defense pact” is evidence for a plot to wage a non-defensive war of aggression? Till then, I think you should take note of what I did post about Jordan and King Hussein:

The fighting on the eastern front was initiated by Jordan, not by Israel. King Hussein got carried along by the powerful current of Arab nationalism. . . . On 5 June, Jordan started shelling the Israeli side in Jerusalem. This could have been interpreted either as a salvo to uphold Jordanian honor or as a declaration of war. Eshkol decided to give King Hussein the benefit of the doubt. Through General Odd Bull, the Norwegian chief of staff of UNTSO, he sent the following message on the morning of 5 June: “We shall not initiate any action whatsoever against Jordan. However, should Jordan open hostilities, we shall react with all our might, and the king will have to bear the full responsibility for the consequences.” King Hussein told General Bull that it was too late; the die was cast. Hussein had already handed over command of his forces to an Egyptian general. He made the mistake of his life. Under Egyptian command the Jordanian forces intensified the shelling, captured Government House, where UNTSO had its headquarters, and started moving their tanks into the West Bank. (260)

  • Given your obvious agenda, it’s quite clear why you wouldn’t mention these things.

Well, since you can now see that I had indeed mentioned almost all of those things you said that I “would not mention”, has your view of “my agenda” changed in any way? read more »