2020-03-11

A Semitic Original for the Gospels of Mark and Matthew?

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by Neil Godfrey

Jean Carmignac

I don’t know if the Gospel of Mark did begin its life as a Hebrew text but in the light of the previous post it is necessary to share some of the reasons a few scholars (or at least Jean Carmignac : see also Wayback Machine) have thought it did.

Chapter three of The Birth of the Synoptic Gospels sets out the history of research into semitisms in the gospels and discusses in some detail nine types of them.

  1. Semitisms of Borrowing
  2. Semitisms of Imitation
  3. Semitisms of Thought
  4. Semitisms of Vocabulary
  5. Semitisms of Syntax
  6. Semitisms of Style
  7. Semitisms of Composition
  8. Semitisms of Transmission
  9. Semitisms of Translation

I’ll post here a few of the parts in #7, Semitisms of Composition. Carmignac suggests that there are numerous turns of phrase in our Greek gospels that would not exist in our Greek texts unless they had been translated from a Semitic or Hebrew language original.

Crying in the wilderness

After its title: Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God, the Gospel of Mark begins in the following fashion:

As it is written in the Prophet Isaiah “Behold I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

20. The word “and” is not found in all the manuscripts, and one has good reason for thinking that it does not any longer figure in the primitive Greek text.

There was John baptizing in the desert (and)20 preaching (Mark 1:1-4).

How did this citation from Isaiah (which combines Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1 in a form other than is found in the Septuagint, and Isaiah 40:3) come about? (p. 27)

Carmignac finds a simple answer to his question. Isaiah 40:3 begins with “voice crying in the wilderness”:

קול qôl voice
קורא qôré’ crying
במדבר bemidbâr in the wilderness
22. The initial syllable we corresponds to the conjunction “and ” present in certain Greek manuscripts but not in all.
23. The pesher consists in describing a present situation in the terms of a passage from the Old Testament.

. . . . and if Mark 1:4, is retranslated into Hebrew, we obtain the following: wayyehî Yôhânân matbtîl bemidbâr (we) qôré.22

The words bemidbâr (in the wilderness) and qôré’ (crying or preaching) are taken from Isaiah and applied to John the Baptist according to the process which is known as pesher, such as it was practiced at the time at Qumran (and elsewhere).23

The pesher only works in Hebrew, not with the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah. In the Greek text of Mark 1:4 a different word is used for John’s crying or preaching (κηρύσσων / kérussôn) whereas the Greek text of Isaiah 40:3 used “bôontos“. 

In order that the pesher be noticed in English, it would be necessary to use the verb proclaim twice: from Isaiah, the voice proclaiming in the desert and from Mark, in the desert proclaiming a baptism of conversion.) Thus the citation from Isaiah only agrees with the account of Mark in Hebrew, but not in Greek in which its meaning disappears. (p. 27)

Forgive us our debts

Continue reading “A Semitic Original for the Gospels of Mark and Matthew?”


2020-03-05

The Gospel of Mark as a Dramatic Performance

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by Neil Godfrey

If we are serious about the idea of expanding our horizons with interdisciplinary studies, even those of ancient theatre, there is much that is thought-provoking here.

From time to time I encounter the idea that the Gospel of Mark was in some way related to dramatic performance or Greek tragedy. Mary Ann Beavis brings much of this literature together in her commentary on Mark (I have hyperlinked the bibliographical references):

A generic influence on Mark that may seem much more far-fetched to the modern reader is the suggestion that the Gospel resembles a Greek tragedy. Nonetheless, as noted above, many contemporary scholars see Mark as modeled on ancient drama (e.g., Bilezikian 1977; Standaert 1978; Stock 1982, 16–30; Beavis 1989, 31–35; S. Smith 1995; Lescow 2005 [link is to PDF]). Many others describe the Gospel more generally as having a dramatic quality (e.g., Perrin and Duling 1982, 237–39; Hengel 1985, 137; France 2002, 11–15; Burridge 2004, 239–40; Collins 2007, 91–93; for further references, see Beavis 1989, 192n134). Since Greek tragedy was very much a part of Greco-Roman education in the first century, it is plausible that Mark and the educated members of his audience would have had some familiarity with dramatic works, even if they had never attended a play, although attending theater was not confined to the upper classes in antiquity. Moreover, in Mark’s time the “closet drama,” a play written for private presentation rather than for public performance, was popular, at least among the social elite: all of the plays of Seneca belong to this genre. As Stephen H. Smith (1995, 229) remarks, “Mark’s Gospel was written with just this kind of situation in mind—to be read expressively by a lector before a closed circle of Christians in the setting of a private house” (cf. Beavis 1989, 33–35). As I have noted elsewhere,

If the author were a Jewish-Christian from Palestine, as the tradition asserts, there is no reason to rule out the influence of the theatre; Herod the Great built theatres in Jerusalem, Caesarea Maritima, Sepphoris, Damascus, and Sidon. There are records of Roman Jewish actors, and hellenistic Jews, like their Gentile neighbours, were avid theatre-goers. It has been argued that Job, Judith, 4 Maccabees, and the Apocalypse were modelled on Greek tragedy; the Alexandrian Jewish dramatist Ezekiel wrote a play based on the Exodus story. (Beavis 1989, 35)

In fact, Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagōgē, a drama about the Exodus written sometime between the second century BC and the first century AD by an Egyptian Jew, is the most complete surviving example of a Hellenistic tragedy (R. Robinson 1985, 805). Unlike the Exagōgē, Mark is not a play, but a Scripturelike narrative; however, as Collins (2007, 91) puts it, Mark is “written in the tragic mode,” and the Gospel’s plotting and structure show dramatic influence (see the section on structure below).

From that section below on structure . . .

. . . . Like an ancient drama, Mark begins and ends with a welldefined prologue (1:1–13) and epilogue (16:1–8). The first half of the narrative corresponds to the desis (“complication”) of a Greek tragedy, “the part from the beginning up to the point which immediately preceded the occurrence of a change from bad to good fortune or from good fortune to bad” (Aristotle, Poet. 18.2, trans. Halliwell 1927). In Mark, this corresponds with the Galilean mission (1:14–8:26), where Jesus teaches, preaches, and performs healings, miracles, and exorcisms with great success. This section of the Gospel is punctuated by choral outbursts from the crowds and the disciples, such as “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” (1:27; 2:12b; 4:41; 7:37). Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27–29) is a classic recognition scene (anagnōrisis), the discovery of an identity previously concealed—Jesus is the messiah (see Aristotle, Poet. 11, 16). This incident marks a “change of fortune” (“reversal,” peripeteia); immediately after Peter’s confession, for the first time, Jesus prophesies the suffering, death, and resurrection of the son of man (8:31–33). According to Aristotle, a recognition scene “is most effective when it coincides with reversals, . . .

As I have noted elsewhere, whether the author intended it or not, the physical layout of the Gospel “resembles that of a five-act Hellenistic play, with the place of the four choruses taken by teaching scenes” (Beavis 1989, 163). . . .

Beavis, Mary Ann. 2011. Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp. 16-17, 25-26.

The above summary by Beavis was indirectly cited by Danila Oder in her book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. Danila knows how theatre works. She has both studied playwriting and worked as an actor. In her book on the Gospel of Mark as performance and text Danila examines in painstaking detail how the Gospel of Mark might have been performed in an ancient Roman theatre. I found the insights of someone who has worked in theatre and clearly has an in-depth knowledge of ancient theatre a fascinating exploration of possibilities behind our gospel text. An entirely new world opened up to me through this book.

Note: Danila does not say that our current text of the gospel was written as a drama. Hence the title of her book, The Two Gospels of Mark. There is enough in the way our canonical text has been associated with ancient drama (see the links above) to lead one to seriously consider the possibility that what we are reading today is a summary or prose encapsulation of a play. Danila discusses what scenes in our received text are stageable and which ones are not, and why the unstageable ones have been added to the original work. Readers are given a clear picture of what the stage setting would have looked like, the role of the chorus and even the audience. I was keen to try to capture in my mind’s eye how it all would have appeared in performance so happily a proposed text for dramatic performance is included in an appendix. It’s a new world, a seriously fresh approach to the Gospel.

Much of what Danila Oder discusses must necessarily be hypothetical but it is nonetheless tightly argued and does oblige one to consider possibilities that are currently outside the standard view. If we are serious about the idea of expanding our horizons with interdisciplinary studies, even those of ancient theatre, there is much that is thought-provoking here.


Oder, Danila. 2019. The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. Los Angeles: Domus Press.


 


2020-02-15

Jesus Came (End of Story?)

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by Neil Godfrey

A little detail in the previous post has kept me awake at night (maybe as long as a minute), wondering. It is Matthew 28:18-19

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations . . .

Why hadn’t I noticed before now the link Jeffrey Peterson makes with Daniel 7:14?

He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

The connection brings me back to a question that keeps coming back to me: Is it possible that the apocalyptic prophecy we read Jesus pronouncing in Mark 13 and Matthew 24 was couched in metaphor that only the “spiritually blind” would mistake for literal meaning. The language was taken from the prophets. Isaiah 13 portrays the fall of Babylon in terms of the darkening of the sun, moon and stars. The cosmic images were metaphors. They were “fulfilled” when the city fell to enemy forces. David speaks of God coming down to earth in clouds to rescue him from certain death at the hands of his enemies. I don’t believe the psalmist expected anyone to read of God’s descent to earth literally any more than we are to imagine literal “cords of death” binding the psalmist or to believe that the psalmist was literally in “deep waters”. Psalm 18 . . .

The cords of death entangled me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.

In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears.
The earth trembled and quaked,
    and the foundations of the mountains shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
    at the blast of breath from your nostrils.

In the trial before the priests Jesus declares that the high priest will see the “second coming” or the coming of Jesus as the Danielic Son of Man. Matthew 26:63-64 . . .

The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

I am pretty sure that the priest was dead before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

What were the authors of the gospels of Mark and Matthew thinking? It’s probably worth keeping in mind that not even the author of Daniel thought of his scenario of a heavenly Son of Man coming in clouds before the Ancient of Days was was a literal event. That was a metaphor for the rising up of the Maccabean kingdom on earth.

I think it’s as if they were thinking that the coming of the kingdom of God was ushered in with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew 28 seems to assure us of this interpretation when we read there that Jesus announces, in effect, that he is the Son of Man who has from that point on been given the power and authority to lead his appointed apostles in beginning to bring in more converts to his kingdom.

The Pauline epistles likewise speak of Christ victory over the cross representing the victory over the demon-ruled cosmos. The demons in Mark and Matthew knew their days were numbered the moment they saw Jesus appear in Galilee. Some Church Fathers also spoke of Christ “reigning from the cross”.

Paul’s letters — all of the NT letters — speak of a coming of Christ, never of a “second coming”. The first evangelists to weave together a story of the Son of Man out of the verses of the Jewish Scriptures and other literary and imperial allusions likewise spoke of his coming as the critical event. (I have coloured the passage in Psalm 18 that one might relate directly to classic baptism scene of Jesus in Mark and Matthew.) If his arrival in Galilee marked the “nearness” of the time then the empty tomb was the sign that that time had begun. Is there any room at all for a “second coming” in the original tale?

But this interpretation raises as many questions as it seems to resolve. As I said, it sometimes keeps me awake at night . . . for a moment, sometimes.


2019-10-05

OT Sources for the Gospel of Mark, chapters 2 and 3

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by Neil Godfrey

Okay, I give in. Here’s one more. Feel free to remind or alert me to any that I have forgotten or overlooked.

Intertextuality Table for Mark chapters 2 and 3: Continue reading “OT Sources for the Gospel of Mark, chapters 2 and 3”


2019-10-04

The OT Sources for Mark 1

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by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Mark is shaped out of a re-weaving of Jewish Scriptures. If you want to know its sources then they are, principally but not exclusively, in the “Old Testament”. I have posted on the identification of 160 such scriptures in chapters 11-16 of the Gospel as identified by Howard Clark Kee. (There are more that could be added to that post, especially relating to chapter 12.)

I thought of going through the earlier chapters to make a similar list but the task is simply too much to get through right now. Instead, I have limited myself to a general overview of some of the more obvious allusions to Jewish Scripture in the first chapter only. I’d like to add other chapters over time.

The following table is not exhaustive even for chapter one. More allusions could be identified but some require more explanation that takes more time to present. So I’ve kept the list at a somewhat general level. Notice the story of the leper is a direct transvaluation rather than a more direct reworking of the original. Jesus and the leper are humble foils of Elisha and Naaman. If in the gospel of Mark the original text said Jesus was indignant (as opposed to the more widely attested “moved with compassion”) when the leper knelt and suggesting Jesus could heal him, there may be some significance related to the amount of indignation that runs rife through the 2 Kings narrative: both king Ahab and the leper Naaman at different times become enraged or indignant over the processes involved that led to the cleansing of the leper. Maybe something is missing from our text of Mark, or maybe “compassion” was original to the text after all.)

Here’s the table: Continue reading “The OT Sources for Mark 1”


2019-07-11

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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


2019-07-08

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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.


2019-05-04

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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. Continue reading “Once More We Rub Our Eyes: The Gospel of Mark’s Jesus is No Human Character?”


2019-04-25

Gospel of Mark: Genius or Forrest Gump?

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by Neil Godfrey

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


2019-03-04

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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


2019-02-27

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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)

Continue reading “How the Gospel of Mark Retrofitted Jesus into a Pre-Existing Christ Idea”


2019-01-25

Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true

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by Neil Godfrey

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.



2019-01-23

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

 

 


2019-01-16

Jesus and an Embarrassment-Free Baptism

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by Neil Godfrey

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.