Tag Archives: Gospel of Mark

“This Is Why I Have Come” (from where?)

I have now returned to Australia from a regular overseas extended family visit, still somewhat sore from the accident I suffered over there, and in transit have been resisting the temptation to post easy “fillers” like more of the interesting differences encountered in Thailand or another response to an old McGrath post . . . hence the hiatus of the last few days. What has been on my mind, though, is some sort of extension to the previous post . . . Finally I settled on Mark 1:38 as the verse for the day. Jesus sneaked out of the house while it was still pre-dawn dark to find an isolated spot to pray. Eventually he was found by his disciples who complained that everyone had been looking for him. Jesus replied,

. . . . “Let us go somewhere else–to the nearby villages–so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

Such a mundane set of words. Nothing special…? But if we pause to think for a moment about that last sentence, “That is why I came”, — what was in the author’s (or, if you prefer, the mind of Jesus) when those words were expressed?

“Why I came”.

Am I reading too much (or too little) into the words when I wonder why he did not say, “That is why I have come back here” or even “that is why I came here”? Hadn’t Jesus grown up in Nazareth, Galilee? I read on one site that there is a twisty turny road from Nazareth to Capernaum (where Jesus was found praying) that extends around 40 miles:

From https://stepharieger.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/the-jesus-trail-40-miles-from-nazareth-capernaum/

But Jesus did not say “This is why I have come here (to Capernaum, or even to Galilee)” but “This is why I have come (ἐξῆλθον).” Luke changed what he read in Mark’s gospel to the more passive, “This is why I have been sent (ἀπεστάλην).” Mark’s Jesus did not say he was sent for a reason. Mark’s Jesus said he came forth for a certain reason.

And Mark’s Jesus does not appear to be telling his disciples that he came to Capernaum or to Galilee, but that he “came forth” . . . that is somehow more open-ended, more universalist, more existentialist — it is the reason Jesus came to . . . dare we say, to earth? Or at least to the lands where Judeans (or maybe only Galileans) were to be found?

Some readers may wonder what on earth I am getting at. The Gospel of Mark is widely accepted as the earliest of the written gospels and it is also widely understood to present the most “human-like” of the Jesus figures when we compare the Jesus in the other gospels.

But here in this simple sentence Jesus is depicted as saying that he came ….he came for a purpose. He was not “born” for a purpose. Or at least that’s not what he said.

Our minds have to go back to the beginning of the gospel. Where did Jesus come from?

John the Baptist was baptizing away and saying that someone greater than he was going to appear on the scene, then we are told that Jesus came to be baptized.

Now here it gets a bit complex and no doubt many readers will think I am overstepping “the mark” (pun not intended). Our text says Jesus came “from Nazareth”. I don’t believe that was what “Mark” wrote at all. I am convinced that “from Nazareth” are a copyists addition to the text. If you can bear with me and wait for me to offer reasons later, then accept my proposal that our purportedly earliest written gospel bluntly said that Jesus came . . . to be baptized. He came from nowhere. Thus said (or sort of implied) the text.

He simply came to be baptized. The narrative tells us nothing about his background or even who this Jesus character was. We are so familiar with the story and with far more than the story as told in this gospel that it is easy for us not even to notice how little (or even exactly what) Mark actually says.

Then when we come to Jesus’ being found alone with his God in Mark 1:38 he reminds us that we have not yet been told who this Jesus character is or where he has come from. (A comment by Martin anticipated this post.) Everything we have read so far has “only” told us that everyone (person or demon) who encounters him is over-awed by his authority. Everyone falls over backwards or drops their families and livelihoods or travels many miles merely on coming in contact with or simply hearing about his power of authority.

“For this reason I came forth” is not a quotidian remark about why he decided one day to leave Nazareth and visit Capernaum. It is a pointer to Jesus having come from heaven.

But that pointer is not likely to be noticed if we have our heads filled with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke before we read the Gospel of Mark. read more »

The Mystery of the “Amazing” Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

Set the Gospels of Matthew and Mark side by side in their accounts of Jesus’ grand public entrance to his mission and something very odd emerges. Mark presents Jesus as having the power of presence, just from a word, that instils in hearers the same sort of awe that overcame those who heard the voice of God at Mount Sinai — except that Jesus does it without the thunder and lightning and earth-shaking and booming-voice effects.

Matthew rejects Mark’s account and replaces it with a more plausible narrative. Here is how Mark begins Jesus’ public career. Notice what it is that “amazes” his audience and starts the rumours flying “over the whole region of Galilee”:

1:21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

Luke 4:36 significantly changes the public reaction in Mark 1:27 so that the people are solely amazed at Jesus’ authority over the demon; in Mark the power over the demon is only one instance of something much bigger that awes them all.

27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

All the focus is on how the crowd are so awed by Jesus’ authority. He teaches with an “amazing” authority. There is clearly here more to be imagined than a bombastic orator who shouts like he knows better than anyone else. Such a person does not “amaze” anyone. No, Jesus’ “authority” is clearly meant to be understood as unique. It follows on from the scene where Jesus’ authority evidently “amazes” four disciples so that they simply drop everything, leave family and means of income, and follow him at his command:

16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.

19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

The people in the synagogue witness that same authority over a demon and are amazed. But before that display they were amazed merely at his words, the way he spoke.

It is not the content of the teaching that amazes them. It is the authority with which he speaks and which gives the teaching itself an “amazing” quality.

In other words, the relation of Jesus to those who hear him is unnatural, it is nothing like anything “normative” in this world. Fishermen immediately drop all and follow him; he speaks, and crowds are amazed; only later is the crowd further amazed at his power over evil spirits. We are not reading history or biography. We are reading about a divine figure who remains a mystery to those who hear him.

Later when asked they express confusion: he is a prophet, they say. That’s a clearly inadequate response. It is evident to the reader that he is far more than a prophet or even a resurrected John the Baptist. He is a divine presence and the crowd’s failure to come to that obvious conclusion is as great a miracle as is the “authority” of Jesus itself.

Contrast Matthew’s gospel. Matthew does not even try to rewrite the scene. He leaves it out entirely and replaces it with the following far more plausible account. At least it’s plausible to anyone who believes in “normal” miracles:

4: 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.

In Mark, Jesus’ first healing is done away from the public gaze, in an upper room, and he does not even speak to effect it. He simply takes Peter’s mother-in-law’s hand and the fever leaves her. As later with the haemorraging woman power comes out of his body and clothes. The crowds nonetheless flock to Jesus for healing entirely on the report of how he taught and commanded with authority in the synagogue.

That’s more “reasonable”, isn’t it? Jesus’ fame spreads because of the reputation he was building up as a healer. Later in Mark we read the same thing but that’s not how in Mark Jesus’ fame begins. In Mark we read that his reputation went out because of his authority, his “amazing” authority. What followed was that people from far and wide brought sick and demon possessed for him to cure.

In Matthew it is the other way around. It is the more plausible mission of preaching a particular message accompanied by healing miracles that attracts followers.

In Mark we are introduced to a mysterious figure that crowds cannot identify even though they hear demons call out is name and role. The actors in Mark’s drama remain deaf to the voice from heaven and the demons declaring who Jesus is. But the actors are as awed and overwhelmed by the mere presence of a word from Jesus as were, say, the multitudes at Sinai hearing the voice of God direct from heaven.

Mark’s Jesus is not at all “human” in any way, which is to say he is the opposite of the “most human” figure that some critics declare is found in that earliest gospel. Rather, Mark’s Jesus is far more like the Jesus in the Gospel of John. Recall John 19:

4 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”

5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.

I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) 6 When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.

That’s the same overpowering Jesus we read of in the Gospel of Mark. People are amazed at his word. He speaks, and they follow; they are astonished; they flee from the temple; they fall over backwards. Even demons and the wild, raging storm obey him.

I think one has to avoid a close reading of the Gospel of Mark if one wants to treat it as presenting “the most human” figure of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew is the one that begins to present him as a more plausible, a more ‘natural’ figure.

Once More We Rub Our Eyes: The Gospel of Mark’s Jesus is No Human Character?

Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare

Here’s a snippet of something I came across while venturing into all sorts of pathways to check the claims of, and/or to learn the background to, various publications by scholars of some note.

The common starting-point of all three writers [Smith, Robertson, Drews] is that the earliest Gospel narratives do not “describe any human character at all; on the contrary, the individuality in question is distinctly divine and not human, in the earliest portrayal. As time goes on it is true that certain human elements do creep in, particularly in Luke and John…… In Mark there is really no man  at all; the Jesus is God, or at least essentially divine throughout. He wears only a transparent garment of flesh. Mark historizes only.”

. . .

“The received notion,” adds Professor Smith, “that in the early Marcan narratives the Jesus is distinctly human, and that the process of deification is fulfilled in John, is precisely the reverse of the truth.” Once more we rub our eyes. In Mark Jesus is little more than that most familiar of old Jewish figures, an earthly herald of the imminent kingdom of heaven; late and little by little he is recognized by his followers as himself the Messiah whose advent he formerly heralded. As yet he is neither divine nor the incarnation of a pre-existent quasi-divine Logos or angel. In John, on the other hand, Jesus has emerged from the purely Jewish phase of being Messiah, or servant of God (which is all that Lord or Son of God implies in Mark’s opening verses). He has become the eternal Logos or Reason, essentially divine and from the beginning with God. Here obviously we are well on our way to a deification of Jesus and an elimination of human traits; and the writer is so conscious of this that he goes out of his way to call our attention to the fact that Jesus was after all a man of flesh and blood, with human parents and real brethren who disbelieved in him.

(Conybeare 85f. My highlighting)

I use to accept Conybeare’s “obvious” overview of the development of Jesus in the four gospels. The progression of Jesus from human to increasingly divine was, after all, one of the themes that pointed to the sequence in which they were thought to have been composed. First, the crude Mark with his bumbling Jesus who needs a few attempts to heal sometimes, then the more exalted Jesus who passes through life with more poise and control, even showing his post-resurrection self to his followers, then Luke’s Jesus who vanishes before people’s eyes and reappears in the middle of a closed room, and finally the most thoroughly divine Jesus in the Gospel of John. read more »

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

Can the Gospels be “True Fiction”? Did Ancient Historians Have a Different Understanding of “True”?

A few days ago someone thoughtfully sent me a link to a Westar video interviewing Professor Arthur Dewey, author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus Was Remembered. Dewey begins by addressing the prevalent belief that the Passion story of Jesus is essentially true history. He says:

Unfortunately, not just people who are literalists who read the Bible assume this to be the case when we come to the Passion, but also many biblical historians. The reason for that is the assumption that the text is document and is reflecting what actually happened. 

Of course regular readers will know that it is that assumption that we regularly question here. But Dewey, his interviewer and Westar generally are addressing a different audience and I like to think that that is the reason they seem to couch arguments in a way more appealing or acceptable to a certain kind of Christian believer, in something of a “liberal apologetic”, than I like to do.

I have not read his book (there does not seem to be a copy available either commercially or in any library in Australia, not even digitally) so my comments here are entirely my reactions to the interview.

Arthur Dewey begins by pointing out that ancient historians were primarily interested in “truth” as “insight” into the meaning of events for their audiences. He does not say that they were not interested in “facts”, too, but that their main focus lay elsewhere. There is a certain truth to this as (again) we have discussed many times when posting on the methods of ancient historians. What niggles me when I encounter a biblical scholar elaborating on this point (Dewey is far from the only biblical scholar to present this “truth as insight” characteristic of ancient historians) is that I think the other side of what ancient historians were all about is lost. I think they too easily overstate the case in the interests of attempting to keep the gospels relevant at least for the more liberally minded believers. I hope that’s not too harsh or unfair but it is how it comes across to me. read more »

How the Gospel of Mark Retrofitted Jesus into a Pre-Existing Christ Idea

The background to the following post is The Gospel of John as  a form of Jewish Messianism? (Part 2). It presumes some awareness of how in some Jewish quarters Daniel 7’s Son of Man was being interpreted in a way that led to controversial Jewish texts like the Similitudes of Enoch and the Gospel of John.

In my view Jesus was entirely unnecessary for the formation of Mark’s Christology, as he is the fulfillment, not the provocation of that Christology. — Boyarin, 354

Before the Gospel of Mark was written, even possibly before the figure of Jesus was existed in anyone’s mind, there were Jews who interpreted Daniel 7 to claim that the Messiah, the Christ, would be divine human and known as the Son of Man. Again on the basis ultimately of Daniel 7 those Jewish sectarians believed that the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of Man, would be a divine human with the “Father God” (“Ancient of Days”) having granted him total sovereignty on earth. The author of the Gospel of Mark was one of those who embraced this belief about the messianic prophecies. He chose to fit Jesus into that divine Son of Man messiah or christ template in his gospel.

(This notion of Christ was not the same as the one advanced by Paul. Paul never spoke of the messiah as a Danielic Son of Man figure. Perhaps the author of the gospel acquired the Danielic view of the Christ after Paul had done his work.)

Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, is the about the Messiah as a divine human (which is not to deny a Markan contribution to the development of such ideas). This article, in its present form, is intended as an answer to the question of “how the ‘Son of Man’ . . . came to appear on Jesus’ lips in Mark’s Gospel, or for that matter in the tradition as a whole.” My simple answer is that the “Son of Man” was on Jesus’ lips, because he was a first-century, Palestinian Jew, and “Son of Man” was the name that these Jews used for their expected divine-human (Christological!) redeemer. (354)

What evidence for this view can be found in the Gospel of Mark?

Mark 2:5-10

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins“—he said to the paralytic—

Boyarin argues that Mark 2:10 is meant to recall Daniel 7:14.

20 Indeed, even were it possible (which it is not) to entertain Vermes’s suggestion on
philological grounds, it would be excluded here. If Jesus is not identifying himself by a known title, then his claim to be the one (the only one) who has authority to remit sins would be unrelenting personal arrogance and indeed blasphemy. For this point, see Μ. Hooker, The Son of Man in Mark: A Study of the Background of the Terms “Son of Man” and Its Use in St Mark’s Gospel (Montreal: McGill University Press, 1967), 84.—22 See too, “In claiming this divine prerogative Jesus classes himself as the Son of Man into the category of the divine, and his superhuman act of healing is the sign for this claim. So already in 1927 O. Procksch suggested that here ‘the Son of Man’ stands for the Son of God,” S. Kim, “The ‘Son of Man’ as the Son of God” (WUNT 30; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1983), 2.—24 J. Marcus, Mark 1—8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 530. See too Kim, “The ‘’Son of Man’,” 90.

But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” This verse is the crux. Once we have excluded the possibility of “the Son of Man” being simply, another way of saying “I,” then I think it must be conceded that it is a title, here.20 The Son of Man has authority (obviously delegated by God) to do God’s work of the forgiving of sins on earth. From where could such a claim be derived if not from Daniel 7:14, in which we read that the One Like a Son of Man has been given, “authority, glory, kingship;” indeed an “authority that is eternal that will not pass away”? The term that we conventionally translate as “authority” in its New Testament contexts, έξουσία, is, of course, exactly the same term which translates Aramaic שלטן (compare Strong’s #7985) in the Septuagint, so what Jesus is claiming for the Son of Man is exactly that which has been granted to the (One Like a) Son of Man in Daniel. Given the meaning of the Aramaic Vorlage in Daniel, “authority” strikes me as a rather weak rendering; “sovereignty” would be much better. Sovereignty would surely explain why the Son of Man has the power to remit sins on earth. According to this tradition, then, there may be no question; this Jesus claims to be the Son of Man to whom divine authority on earth, “under the heavens” (Daniel 7:27) has been delegated. In contrast to most interpreters, I would argue, moreover, that this One to whom authority has been delegated, as a divine figure, is a redeemer king, as the Daniel passage clearly states, and thus ripe for identification with the Davidic Messiah, if not always clearly so identified.22 I thus here directly disagree with Yarbro Collins’s assumption that the title “Son of Man” conceals as much as it reveals or that we cannot understand that the audience of Mark already understood the epithet. I find much more compelling in this instance the statement of Joel Marcus:

This conclusion [that the “Son of Man” in the Similitudes is pre-Christian] is supported by the way in which Jesus, in the Gospels, generally treats the Son of Man as a known quantity, never bothering to explain the term, and the way in which certain of this figure’s characteristics, such as his identity with the Messiah or his prerogative of judging, are taken for granted. With apologies to Voltaire, we may say that if the Enochic Son of Man had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him to explain the Son of Man sayings in the Gospels.24

I would only shift the terms of the last phrase to indicate that what this means is that the usage of the Son of Man in the Gospels joins with the evidence of such usage from the Similitudes to lead us to consider this term used in this way (and more importantly the concept of a second divinity implied by it) as the common coin — which I emphasize does riot mean universal or uncontested — of Judaism already before Jesus. (359 f)

read more »

Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true

Let us now turn to a famous story found in the Babylonian Talmud, b. Taanit 5b. While sitting together at a meal Rav Nahman asked Rabbi Yitzhaq to expound on some subject. After some preliminary diversions, Rabbi Yitzhaq said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, “Our father Jacob never died.”

Rav Nahman was taken aback by this claim and said,  “But he was embalmed and buried.” How is possible to do such things to someone who has not died?

Rabbi Yitzhaq responds and says, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and he then cites Jer 30:10, “Therefore fear not, my servant Jacob, says the LORD; be not dismayed, Israel, for I will save you from afar and your seed from the land of their captivity.” He continues, “Israel is compared to his seed; just as his seed is alive so too is he alive.”

At first sight, it appears that the midrashic statement denying Jacob’s death is being derived from Jer 30:10. However, if we look closer at the passage, we will find a fascinating distinction between the biblical deathbed scenes of Abraham (Gen 25:8) and Isaac (35:29), on the one hand, and that of Jacob (49:33), on the other. In the former scenes, two verbs, . . . “expired,” and . . . “died,” and one phrase, . . . “was gathered to his people,” are used to describe their deaths. Regarding Jacob, however, only two verbs appear: expiring and being gathered to his people. For the midrashist, the absence of any verb from the root . . . “to die”, in the description of Jacob’s death cannot be by chance, but must be understood as communicating to us the Bible’s message that Jacob did not die.

According to the story, Rabbi Yitzhak’s statement to Rav Nahman was made in a completely neutral context — that is, outside of any context whatsoever. Consequently, Rav Nahman understood this claim as being functionally parallel to a claim such as “Elijah did not die.” The characteristic position of rabbinic Judaism is, of course, that Elijah never died but is still alive; indeed, according to the rabbis, he is the heavenly recorder of human deeds. Rav Nahman therefore asked Rabbi Yitzhak: But Jacob was embalmed and buried, so how can you claim he did not die. Rabbi Yitzhak’s response, . . . . “I am engaged in Bible elucidation,” and the citation of Jer 30:10, is not given to tell us the source of his previous statement, for as we have just seen, its source is the absence of any mention of death in Jacob’s deathbed scene. What he is doing is saying the following:

“You have misunderstood me; my statement that Jacob did not die is not to be understood as a literal-historical depiction of historical facts, but as midrash.”

Midrash comes to tell us a story placed in the biblical text by God, having no necessary relationship to the actual historical events, but whose purpose is to give us a message from God. That message is being explained to Rav Nahman by Rabbi Yitzhaq’s citation of Jeremiah. God’s exclusion of any mention of Jacob’s death is a promise found midrashically in Genesis and explicitly in Jeremiah: for Rabbi Yitzhaq, Jacob’s nondeath is a promise that his seed shall exist forever.

This midrash and its surrounding narrative are important because they give what we desperately need in reading midrash: a cultural and theoretical context. The original misunderstanding by Rav Nahman and the final exposition by Rabbi Yitzhak show, as clearly as possible, that midrashic narrative is explicitly demarcated from the historical-literal reconstruction of past events. Midrash is the rabbis’ reconstruction of God’s word to the Jewish people and not the rabbis’ reconstruction of what happened in the biblical past.

(Milikowsky, pp. 124 f.)

The Bible’s stories are never questioned. They are always bed-rock “true history”.

But the rabbis added stories to those Bible events that are clearly not factual, but nonetheless meaningful and explantory.

Why should the rabbis develop a mode of discourse that tells the truth by means of fictional events, when the only literature they have in front of them is the Bible, which tells the truth by means of true historical events?

For the answer to that question Milikowsky finds a significant discussion on the importance of “good fiction” in Plato’s Republic. At this point, return to the previous post: Why the rabbis . . .

Now what we see in the Gospel of Mark at one level looks like midrashic narrative. For example, we have quotations from Malachi mixed with quotations from Isaiah and Exodus. In the opening scene we have re-enactments of a “man of god” spending time in the wilderness and returning to call out a certain people and performing miracles. It is all familiar to anyone familiar with the Old Testament narratives.

So what is going on here? The question inevitably arises: Does the author of the earliest gospel expect hearers to believe the story as genuine history or as a “message from God” which the Bible texts assert to be “valid” or “true” without necessarily being “historically true”? If the latter, it is surely easy to see why it would be understood and accepted as true on both levels: as a message from God and as genuine history.


Milikowsky, Chaim. 2005. “Midrash as Fiction and Midrash as History: What Did the Rabbis Mean?” In Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian And Jewish Narrative, edited by et al Jo-Ann A. Brant, Charles W. Hedrick, and Chris Shea, 117–27. Symposium Series 32. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.


If we are going to move the Gospel of Mark to the second century . . . .

Bronze head of Hadrian found in the River Thames in London. Now in the British Museum. – Wikipedia

When we settle on a date for the composition of the Gospel of Mark soon after 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple by the armies of Vespasian and Titus, then it is only natural that we will want to study the lives and times of Vespasian and Titus. Perhaps the most significant political development that formed the backdrop of the generation that was the first to hear and reflect upon the Gospel of Mark was the dynamic thrust of Vespasian’s propaganda machine to demonstrate to the world that he was the rightful new emperor (burying in the hype the uncomfortable fact of his lowly and foreign origins), and a major plank of his propaganda efforts was the building up of the conquest of Judea into a major victory against a significant eastern threat to the empire.

Against such a backdrop our understanding of the Gospel of Mark as a counterimperial narrative, and our interpretation of the procession of Jesus to the cross as a mock-triumph.

If we prefer to see the Gospel being written at a time of persecutions, or at least fear and threat of persecution, then we may wish to place it in the 90s when and where some see the introduction of the Jewish synagogue curse being directed at Christians and where we may further see Domitian’s revival of the imperial cult.

But if we are toying with placing the Gospel in the second century, what we focus on then will depend how far into the second century we are prepared to go.

If we are working on the suggestions that our evangelist (let’s place him in Rome) was incorporating into his narrative some of what he had heard read in Josephus’s Antiquities, then we can place him anywhere in the mid and late 90s or early 100s. (We may prefer to settle on that date if we are persuaded by a reference found in Justin’s writings — let’s say as early as the 130s — that “memoirs of the apostles” spoke about Jesus nicknaming James and John “Sons of Thunder”, a detail found only in our Gospel of Mark.)

We may prefer to opt for a date closer to the mid century, let’s say later 130s or around 140s, if we think the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 makes best sense as a reference to Hadrian’s efforts to set up a pagan temple complete with statue of Jupiter on the site of the old Jewish temple and to Bar Kochba’s “messianic” war supported by the rabbi Akiba.

If we are going to explore where different threads end up by placing the gospel so “late” then another background worth studying is Hadrian’s rule more generally. Hadrian was renowned for more than crushing the the Bar Kochba rebellion. More generally Hadrian promoted himself as a restorer and even second founder of the Roman empire itself. In the beginning of his reign he promoted himself as the god Mars and then in the later years he presented himself (through coins, for example) as the new Romulus, founder of the original Rome. Romulus was also believed to have been the son of the god Mars. Hadrian loved to travel, but he was doing more than site-seeing. He was presenting himself as a second founder of major cities such as Athens. Temples and monuments and processions and such pomp drove home his message about both himself and what he was doing in his restoring of the Empire and the Pax Romana. The imperial cult became especially important. People were expected to turn up and demonstrate their piety when his image was entering a city. When he entered a city or a temple he did so as a god manifesting himself to his subjects. He even identified himself with Jupiter himself, the head god of the pantheon. As Jupiter ruled Olympus, so the emperor, an embodiment of Jupiter, ruled the “world”.

We can look for the time period where we find the most bits of the puzzle seeming to fit and settle on that for the date of the earliest gospel. But such a method will always remain open to question. We need to do more than simply look for pieces that fit, or more likely look for ways to fit as many pieces as possible. Remember our ever-present bane of confirmation bias.

 

 

Jesus and an Embarrassment-Free Baptism

A widespread understanding in much of the literature about the historical Jesus is that Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is an indisputable fact. The reason for such certainty is said to be that no follower of Jesus would fabricate a story in which Jesus appeared to submit to the authority of John; the event was too well known to be avoided.) That is, an appeal to what is called the “criterion of embarrassment”.

A handful of scholars (e.g. Arnal, Mack, Vaage) have expressed doubts about the historicity of the episode by appealing to its “mythic” character. Others have pointed to the dialogue in the first appearance of the scene in the Gospel of Mark (John says Jesus is greater than he), followed by the Gospel of Matthew’s dialogue in which Jesus has to persuade John to go through with the ceremony (John protests that Jesus should baptism him), then the brief incidental reference to the baptism in the Gospel of Luke (John is arrested and then we have a sideways remark, “Jesus also being baptized”….), through to the Gospel of John failing to mention the baptism completely.

So we see from the arguments attempting to explain the baptism that in at least one gospel the baptism could quite well be simply ignored. Further, as one reader here pointed out,

These allegedly embarrassing undeniable facts are being spread by the Christians themselves. It stands to reason that these story elements serve a purpose in the narrative.

We can also identify many verses in the Old Testament that the author of the Gospel of Mark used in order to flesh out the appearance, setting and words of John the Baptist but those details are for another time.

If the baptism of Jesus was fabricated by the earliest evangelist then we naturally want to know why.

One explanation that is sometimes suggested is that the Gospel of Mark presents an “adoptionist” Jesus. That is, Jesus the man only became a “son of God” at the baptism when the spirit entered into him. If so, then Jesus only became John’s “superior” after he had been baptized.

But reflecting on another recent post, Jesus’ Baptism Based on Abraham’s Binding of Isaac?, I think I can see another explanation, one that does not rely upon the adoptionist view of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.

If baptism in the Gospel of Mark is a symbol of death (as it is in the Epistle to the Romans and in Jesus’ own direct use of baptism as a metaphor for his crucifixion) it would follow, I think, that the baptism of Jesus would be no more embarrassing that Jesus’ crucifixion. (Given the way Paul finds himself boasting about Christ’s crucifixion and the way Mark makes the crucifixion as a central theme of his entire work I cannot accept that claim that early Christians were so “embarrassed” by it that they sought ways to explain and apologize for it.)

By opening his mission with baptism Jesus is said to have begun his earthly career with a symbolic act pointing to his death and subsequent glory.

That explanation would also help us understand why there is no baptism scene in the Gospel of John. That gospel consistently stressed the glory and power of Jesus and remove any “less than perfect” or “less than all-powerful” human attributes. If so, then there was no more room for Jesus to be baptized than there was that the Gospel of John’s Jesus would be in torment or helplessly arrested in Gethsemane.

 

 

Why Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is so Sparsely Drawn: An Explanation

You may or may not agree with the following summary of the way Jesus is depicted in the Gospel of Mark. I don’t think the account is very far off.

Lion of St Mark by Vittore Carpaccio

I also suggest that such a narrative of Jesus is closer to what one may expect if the figure of Jesus and his story had been sourced and fleshed out from a key texts in the Old Testament writings in particular. We saw in the previous post how the narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple and cursing the fig tree has been patchworked together from passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Zechariah.  To see illustrations of how other chapters ((11 to 16) in the Gospel of Mark have been woven out of at least 160 OT allusions and quotations, see 160 Scriptural Quotations and Allusions in Mark 11-16. I say “at least” because I know there are gaps in those lists and I list one more at the end of this post.

‘This then is the Marcan picture of Jesus. When we view it thus in isolation, it strikes us at once as being a very meagre story.

The chronological notices are so sparse and vague that one year might be taken as the duration of our Lord’s public ministry;

and even of that year large parts are unaccounted for.

The arrangement of the anecdotes in the Galilean section seems confused.

The story gives no explanation of the way in which Jesus’ name became known in Jerusalem; (there is no trace of an early ministry in Jerusalem such as the fourth Gospel records).

Jesus is presented as beginning as a teacher, but of his teaching in Galilee (and even later too) very little is recorded, and that little is mostly incidental.

It is a story about Jesus, but it does not give us much idea of what Jesus actually preached. If this were a biography, it would be a very defective one.’

And then, further on (pp. 52-53)

‘Thus the Marcan Jesus, is neither, as in Matthew, the giver of the new Law, nor as in Luke, the preacher of a Catholic fraternity.

The Marcan Jesus is an austere figure, mysterious, stormy, and impervious.

This portrait is drawn with the utmost economy of line and colour.

Practically all is subordinated to the emphasising of the Messianic intention. First He announces the Messianic Kingdom, then He admits the Messianic position, then He publicly assumes the Messianic role, goes up to Jerusalem to die, and dies for His Messianic claim.’

(John Bowman quoting Bishop A.W.F. Blunt’s 1935 commentary on the Gospel of Mark)

Another allusion was discerned by Karel Hanhart. See the first part of  Jesus’ Crucifixion As Symbol of Destruction of Temple and Judgment on the Jews for the evidence that Jesus’ tomb was itself based upon Isaiah’s description of the ruined temple.

In an earlier post I compared that picture of the “tomb hewn from a rock” with another earlier miracle narrative found in Mark, the one where a roof is “hewn out” to allow a paralytic man to be lowered and restored by Jesus. That we have more than one passage playing upon one original text (in this case Isaiah 22:16) is again, I suggest, another sign that the story has been pieced together from an imaginative re-working of scriptural passages.


Bowman, John. 1965. The Gospel of Mark: The New Christian Jewish Passover Haggadah. Brill. p.95


R.G. Price on the “Temple Cleansing” by Jesus

R.G. Price has posted an article expanding on his argument he made in Deciphering the Gospels that the “cleansing the Temple” scene is derived from an imaginative interpretation of a passage in Hosea and has no basis in any sort of historical memory of anything Jesus ever did. Price goes beyond the argument itself, however, and believes it is strong enough to serve as a lever against the standards of mainstream studies of the historical Jesus. He concludes:

The relationship between the temple cleansing scene and Hosea 9 is real and it needs to be addressed by mainstream biblical scholars. It requires revising the models of mainstream scholarship and seriously reevaluating mainstream positions. The implications are vast and profound. The idea that it’s, “certain that Jesus did something that caused a disturbance in the Temple,” is no longer tenable. Anyone continuing to claim it is in light of this evidence should no longer be considered credible. Anyone who addresses the temple cleansing scene without addressing this literary dependency is either unaware of the most recent scholarship or intentionally ignoring it because they are unable to address it. From this point forward, addressing the temple cleansing without addressing its relationship to Hosea 9 is untenable.

That’s not how “mainstream biblical scholars” are going to respond, of course. Once they start with the “secure fact” that Jesus was crucified they need to find some grounds for that crucifixion that will not undermine whatever attributes he had that enabled his former followers to believe he was the messiah who had been raised to heaven. A misunderstood event in the temple serves that function. I think many of those scholars are well aware that the evangelists have culled words from the canonical Hebrew texts to colour the episode, but none of that seems to lead many to doubt the historicity of the event. The literary borrowings are said to reflect the deep meaning that the authors gave to the historical event that they are nonetheless sure must have happened.

Price has elaborated upon details in Hosea 9 that have surely inspired the three-fold steps of the gospel narrative:

  • The idea of seeing fruit on a fig tree (Jesus approaches the fig tree looking for fruit)
  • Driving sinners out of the temple (Jesus drives out the money-changers)
  • The withering of the fig tree (the fig tree is found to be withered)

I think the case can be made even stronger by adding the other passages that our evangelist author has drawn upon. In addition to Hosea 9 we have Isaiah and Jeremiah:

Mark 11:15-17 (New King James Version)

15 So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 16 And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. 17 Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations?[a]But you have made it a den of thieves.[b]

Footnotes:

  1. Isaiah 56:7
  2. Jeremiah 7:11

(From BibleGateway.com)

Toss in Zechariah 14:21 for good measure:

No trader shall be seen in the house of the Lord.

In an earlier post I did point to the same passage in Hosea (along with other passages expressing the fig tree metaphor) but without Price’s elaboration of how it fits the structure of the episode in Mark:

The same theme of being planted to bear good fruit and being cursed and uprooted for bearing bad, and the lesson to be godly at all times, is repeated in Jeremiah 8.13; 32:36-41; Hosea 9:10-14.

Michael Turton also referenced the Hosea 9:10 passage in his commentary on Mark.

It is that last passage, Hosea 9:10-14 that Price teases apart and highlighting the chiastic structure of Hosea’s matching the chiastic structure of Mark’s “fig tree – temple – fig tree” unit.

We can go farther, yet. So far we can claim that each scene and each sentence in the narrative of the cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the temple can be sourced to Scriptural sources. That’s fine, but there is also the literary function of the double episode itself in the framework of the gospel’s plot. (Again, refer to that “earlier post” above for details.)

For further literary linkages see Michael Turton’s commentary on Mark.

Everything about the episode has been constructed from well-known canonical passages and constructed for narrative plot. The author of the Gospel of John presented a Jesus quite different from the one found in the Synoptic gospels and replaced the temple cleansing scene with the raising of Lazarus. It was the raising of Lazarus that prompted the Jewish authorities to do away with Jesus. The fourth evangelist treated the temple action as a theological or symbolic action that he was free to move to the beginning of the gospel. Tim has shown the reason for this move in one of his posts: it served as a replacement for the synoptic Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.

It is as clear that the story is a composite literary artifice. The only grounds for concluding that it does have some historical core are a belief that Jesus was crucified even though he was a righteous and good man consumed with zeal for God and purity of worship. That the theme of the righteous man being unjustly executed by authorities and becoming an atonement for others is another literary-cum-theological trope in literature (Jewish and Greek) is something to be discussed another day.

Jesus’ Baptism Based on Abraham’s Binding of Isaac?

The baptism of Jesus is easily associated with Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea before trekking forty years in the wilderness, even further with the subsequent crossing of the Jordan River into the “promised land” by Israel, then again by Elijah, nor forgetting Noah emerging from the Flood. The subsequent vision of the heavens being opened can be interpreted as a transvaluation of the Exodus story — the waters parted for Israel, but the heavens themselves parted for Jesus. All of these literary sources have been proposed by various scholars and we have set out their arguments on this blog.

Now it is time for one more likely source. The following is taken from a chapter by William R. Stegner in Abraham & Family: New Insights into the Patriarchal Narratives.

Before I start I should refer to another work that I consider to be critical background information. Jon D. Levenson argued what I think is a cogent case for the stories of Abraham’s offering of Isaac having a heavy influence on the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus. One of the most significant differences between the canonical narrative and the later rabbinic interpretation is that in the latter Isaac is said to be a mature man in his thirties and willingly giving himself to his father to be sacrificed. See my series of ten posts setting out the details of his argument. It appears that some Jewish interpreters of the Second Temple era even interpreted the Genesis account as a literal sacrifice of Isaac: Abraham was thought to have slain and shed the blood of Isaac before the angel had time to call out for him to stop the second time. Isaac was restored to life but his shed blood was believed to have had atoning power for the sins of all his descendants.

Stegner also finds interesting details in the extra-canonical interpretations of the “binding of Isaac” (or akedah).

Now we know that the Targums of the rabbis were written long after the first century. Sometimes, however, scholars do posit reasons for believing that some of these works originated in the Second Temple period. So we are basing our arguments on inference when we suggest that certain Targum narratives about Genesis were extant among scribes before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Hence my question mark in the title of this post. read more »

Lost Source — A Cry for Help!

I discovered a cache of printouts from way back in the late 90s and early 00’s that I am steadily digitising for my files. But I have run into a problem with one 15 page essay that is without author name, without website, …. nothing to tell me who is its creator. I know Michael Turton was some time ago very interested in Markan chiasms so may it was by you, Michael.

I copy here the first page. Please let me know who was responsible for this composition if you can:

 

Mark Points a Finger at Paul: The Structure of Chiasms in Mark

Introduction

One of the most challenging problems of the Gospel of Mark is perceiving the complex organizational structures that underlie the writer’s deceptively simple surface. The writer of the Gospel of Mark is obviously intimately familiar with the Tanakh, citing and alluding to it scores of times, as well as using its stories as models for his own narrative of Jesus. Given the depth of knowledge he displays about the Tanakh, as well as the ubiquity of chiasms in Hellenistic literary traditions, it seems incredible that the writer of Mark was unaware of the way chiastic structures organize even the shorter material in the Tanakh. This essay will argue that, in essence, the writer of Mark organized his shorter passages in complex chiastic structures fundamentally similar to, but far more elaborated than, the chiasms in the Tanakh.

Numerous scholars have grappled with the problem, finding chiastic structures in and between passages (Beavis, 1989; Dart, 2003; Myers, 1988; Tolbert, 1989) [ and ]

In this essay I will (1) propose a general model of chiastic structures in the Gospel of Mark; and (2) explore what this might mean for Markan priority; and (3) use a chiasm in Mark 12 to show that the writer of Mark knew and directly used the letters of Paul in constructing his gospel.

How Markan Chiasms Work

Although it goes under numerous names[ list them], a chiasm is fundamentally a structure of pairs that rolls out, ABC, and then rolls back up, CBA. It often pivots around a central idea or line. Varying in size, chiasms may consist of single words, lines, several parts of a single text, or the entire text itself. For example, a common chiastic form found in both the Old and New Testament is also one of the simplest, ABB’A’. In Mark this form is found as well. For example, Mark 2:27 states: And he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath ” where the ABBA format is a set of paired keywords: Sabbath-Man-Man-Sabbath. In addition to single verses, a structure like this might extend across several verses. For example, the pericope of Mark 7:24-30 has an ABB’A’ keyword sequence at its heart:

A let the children be fed!

B it’s not right to give good food to dogs B’ but even dogs under the table A’ eat the children’s crumbs

Response #2 to History for Atheists’ “JESUS THE APOCALYPTIC PROPHET”

The first part of my response to Tim O’Neill’s Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet is @ Examining the Evidence for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet. There we pointed out that there is no support in our historical sources (primarily Josephus) for the common assertion that Judaeans and Galileans in the early first century were pining for an imminent overthrow of Roman rule and the establishment of a liberating Kingdom of God. In other words, the assertion that apocalyptic prophets like our gospel depictions of John the Baptist and Jesus would have been enthusiastically welcomed at that time lacks evidence.

This post addresses one more significant but (as I hope to demonstrate) flawed plank in O’Neill’s argument. I expect to address one more final point in the Apocalyptic Prophet essay in a future post.

Tim O’Neill begins the next step of his argument with the following verse and without identifying the source of his translation: 

“Has come near”, as we shall see, is a disputed translation. But O’Neill is confident that his translation is the correct one, and he even asserts without reference to any evidence that Jesus was speaking of a soon-to-be end of human oppression, not just demonic rule:

The writer of gMark does not depict Jesus explaining what he means and expects his audience to understand – here Jesus is proclaiming that the expected end time had come, that the kingship of God was close and that those who believed this and repented would join the righteous when the imminent apocalypse arrived. Far from being a prophet of doom, Jesus is depicted proclaiming this imminent event as “good news” – the relief from oppression, both human and demonic, was almost here.

Towards the end of his post O’Neill does acknowledge that some scholars do dispute the translation but he sidelines their arguments by characterizing them as “a tactic” that was plotted “in reaction” to threats against conservative doctrines, and he accuses the scholars themselves of unscholarly “wish fullfilment (sic)”, and to cap it all off he infers that Schweitzer’s arguments have so stood the test of time that they are the only ones followed by entirely disinterested scholars: read more »