The foregoing blogs are only an initial attempt at grasping the sort of story told by Mark’ Gospel. All the groundwork – the history, sociology, anthropology, economics, politics and culture of the society in which it was written are missing from my account, although some amounts of all of these have fed my understanding over the years of my study of this text.
Q. So, wouldn’t it be better to start with these basics rather than rushing into the kind of theological overview I have given. Surely that overview may need altered by the results of these other disciplines?
A. Yes, it may need alteration, but some grasp of the extraordinary story which Mark told, is necessary in advance of using these disciplines more thoroughly, if only to guide that use and make it fruitful. So, for example, my overview reveals that this text is not an eyewitness account of Jesus’ life and death, but rather a narrative meditation on the memory of Jesus held by the author and the community of faith to which he or she belonged.
I do not need therefore to use the resources of history to discover factual evidence for every event in the narrative. It is irrelevant whether or not Pilate had the custom of releasing a political prisoner at Passover time, since Mark is using a typical folktale motif – the choice of which prisoner to be released- to show the determination of the Jewish leaders that Jesus should be killed. If we found out from historical sources that Pilate did in fact have this custom, that would add to our knowledge of Pilate, but would not make it more certain that Mark’s story is factual, because any sensible person who reads it, knows that it is not primarily a factual report.
Yet historical study is necessary to show that it does contain some factual material: the fact of Jesus’ life and its location; the period of time and the social conditions in which he lived; the faith of the Jewish people and its institutions; the geography of Galilee and Jerusalem; the Roman Empire and its administration of Galilee and Judaea; the politics of the occupied territories; the language of Jesus as different from the language of the Gospel; the fact of slavery; the economics of these areas; their climate and ecology; the teaching, healings and death of Jesus; the existence of his disciples as a group. And much more. Enough to show that although the Gospel is not a factual report, neither is it a theological fantasy with a wholly imagined hero, based on an extreme form of Judaism.
Q. Another question is why I permitted myself the freedom of re-imagining Mark’s story. Surely that involves an illegitimate leap from the language of the first century into that of the twenty first? As if we could mean the same thing by the word “God” as Mark meant. And why adultérate Mark’s imagination by mine?
A. If the leap is impossible, there is no point in reading the Gospel as it would remain a mere time capsule, opaque to our understanding. And if imagination was necessary for Mark’s understanding of Jesus, it may also be true that mine is essential to my understanding of Mark, and may be useful to others, provided I do not try to conceal it. One of the debilitating assumptions of the worship of the Church of Scotland is that the mere reading of Scripture is meaningful to the congregation. Yes, a sermon follows which may assist such understanding, but often by that time the reading itself will have been forgotten. A good translation can assist the transfer of meaning from text to people, but often the clearer the translation the more opaque the text which is rooted in another time, place and culture. Attempts to overcome this problem by forms of scripture which are frankly paraphrase rather than translation are unsuccessful because they limit the scripture to the skill and honesty of one paraphraser. But a re-imagining of scripture based on the best practice of Christian scholars is a reasonable task for clergy in the reformed churches. Mark needs many others like me to make his/her imagination comprehensible to twenty first century readers.
Q. You don’t need to be a Marxist to see that theological ideas however imaginative belong to the ideological superstructure of a communal event of which the lives of particular persons in a particular society are the material basis. Given that God cannot be seen, the reality of what he/she does must somehow be evident in what people say and do and suffer. Yet my re-imagining of Mark takes very little account a) of the people who participated in the ministry of Jesus, especially the Galilean disciples, or b) the people from whom Mark learned the story of Jesus forty years after that ministry.
A. I agree with this objection: the people of Galilee, those who encountered him and those who followed him; the people of Jerusalem who participated in the events of the last period of his life before his murder; the Pharisees, Sadducees, priests and High Priest; the Roman officials and soldiers; all these need attention, as we cannot understand the story of the Gospel without them.
Then there are simple but vital pieces of historical information: what is a denarius? What was the average daily wage of a Galilean peasant? How was the fishing trade organised in Galilee? What was a “carpenter”? How does crucifixion kill you? Familiarisation with such matters is also necessary for interpretation.
I can only plead that I have studied all or most of these matters over the years, and do not feel I need to detail them in this series of blogs. Those who want this kind of information could usefully read The Historical Jesus, a Comprehensive Guide by Gerd Theissen, Fortress Press.
Q. Usually scholars interpret the tearing of the temple curtain in one of two ways: as signifying an end to the temple worship for those who trust in the crucified Jesus; or as signifying a new open access to the heart of God. I suggest that it signifies the rending of the partnership of God and Jesus, meaning it is one with his cry of abandonment. How can I be sure I’m right, given especially that Jesus was quoting a psalm which ends with trust in God?
A. Let’s remember that one of these events did not happen – the tearing of the curtain – and that the other may have, but who would have heard it? So this is how Mark imagined Jesus dying, and therefore the details are his. I think he means the cry to be one of abandonment. Luke supplied details which end with an expression of trust; Mark could have done so. The curtain is a more difficult matter. As it screened the Most Holy Place it can be interpreted as the interface between humanity and God, a symbol of the relationship of God and Jesus. But yes, the tearing of it can be seen as a symbol of revelation, of the un- concealment of God. Such a meaning seems to contradict the cry of Jesus, whereas my interpretation, that it symbolises the state of abandonment would be more appropriate. Perhaps it could be seen as the tearing apart of the flesh of Jesus to reveal his divine holiness? That might chime with the response of the Centurion,”Surely this man was a son of God!” I want to focus on the reality of the abandonment, which I see as central to Mark’s understanding of the murder of Jesus. I am aware that in all probability Mark had access to an account of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem concluding with his death, which may have been written or memorised and spoken. Some of the details he used may have been in that account, but the choice of detail remains his.
I wonder if my interpretation of the resurrection in Mark is totally honest. I say that I am following Mark, who gives no detail about the resurrection. That’s true, but I also should have stated that I start from the conviction that no “supernatural” events happen in this world. So corpses blasting their way out of tombs is not on my list of possible happenings. But even when I believed that the resurrection happened much as recounted, I nevertheless thought it disappointing that after trying to save the world through a human being, God intervened by force majeure to rescue Jesus and defeat the powers of evil. After all, presumably he could have just solved all the problems of the world by supernatural action, and saved Jesus the trouble. My interpretation doesn’t rule out divine action in the divine sphere, where God takes Jesus into Godself forever, while leaving his disciples to be persuaded of his resurrection by his life and death. The nature of that persuasion can be seen in Paul’s description of the appearance of the risen Jesus to him: “it pleased God to reveal his son in me.” For Paul this risen life fills all worlds, but is manifested in him and other believers. There is something in Paul’s experience of himself, which he calls, “messiah in me,” but equally he writes of “ growing into the full stature of Messiah, and of belonging with others to the “body of Messiah”, in which believers comprise the organs and limbs of the body. The risen Jesus is wonderfully greater than his followers but not separate from them. Their imagination of him still matters.