The Gospel Renegades project grew out of an email exchange between
Bob Connor and Rick McKim. Bob found himself reading Prometheus Bound
by Aeschylus and the gospel of Matthew side by side and wrote Rick about
the experience …
W. ROBERT CONNOR 8/29/12
Here’s a thing that puzzles me. I find I am reading Matthew in a very different way than I read Aeschylus. Ostensibly the same in time of day, setting, the same frequency with which I drill down to word choice or philological niceties (not very often). Yes, I have Griffith’s commentary on Prometheus, god bless him, and know nothing comparable for Matthew, but still. I find I read M. much more meditatively, less extractively, if you see what I mean. The whole feeling is different and
I wonder why.
Aeschylus must be the strangest bird of all great Western writers. Maybe because he’s the first to try drama? No rules, traditions, models — not counting the goatmen & what’s-his-name. But I always thought he’s a mystic, struggling to express something both elemental & transcendent, to dig down below & soar up beyond where words can reach. He’s torn in those two directions, down & up, blood & spirit, with no guidance as to how to sort them out, trying to get Greek to do what no language can. Kind of like Anaximander struggling to articulate to apeiron, the Boundless.
By comparison, Matthew & Mark are written by and for the plain man, no? You can meditate on the message without the language obtruding. With Aeschylus, the language IS the message — shades of McLuhan — but the message is paradoxically inexpressible!
Or are M&M, too, trying to express the inexpressible in their plain-spoken way? Does their Jesus somehow embody it?
Really good observations on A. The audience for the gospels has to be, I think, the Jewish diaspora in the Greek-speaking cities of the eastern Mediterranean periphery. The guys Paul was sending his letters to — folks for whom, like us, Greek was a second language, needing to be simplified but still a vital, living, workable language. So how did they learn it? Not on mama’s lap, but by going to school and getting it slapped into them, and then using it as best they could to communicate with other Greek-as-a-second-language speakers, make money, deal with the bureaucrats etc. Spare the rod and spoil the optative. If they were good pupils, they probably were made to read easy Greek authors. Paul quotes Menander. What did John know? Philo?
If this picture is right, we have to take their Greek seriously, not shrugging off anything we don’t understand as “illiterate” or a bad translation from the Aramaic.
A few impressions on dipping into Mark & Matt:
(1) Mark’s Jesus is to Matthew’s as Xenophon’s Socrates is to Plato’s. Same question arises: Was the original person less complex & deep than Matthew/Plato makes him, or more complex & deep than Mark/Xenophon was equipped to grasp?
(3) What’s with all J’s “tell no one about this” commands? No reason for secrecy is ever made clear, and it seems to have no consequences either. The multitudes gather anyway, the “king of the Jews” claim gets widely known … So the disciples were blabbermouths? But Jesus himself goes public with healings & teachings all over the place, proclaiming himself above the Law etc. “Tell no one” seems to be a trace element of some secret-society aspect of J’s mission that’s lost in the mists of time & that I can’t get a grip on.
(4) I’m struck afresh by J’s good cop/bad cop routine. The bad cop part has been almost totally swept under the rug, at least by the mainstream churches. But look at the Sermon on the Mount, for example. Blessed are the poor etc, sure, but much of it is terrifying — impossibly high moral standards and ultimate penalties for our inevitable failure to live up to them. Then there’s all the fire & brimstone in Mark’s last judgment prophecy. This terrifying dimension gets ignored nowadays in favor of the feel-good vibe of God is Love, of Jesus as a very nice man who was kind to children — a willful blindness not unconnected, I suspect, with the enfeebling of faith. To me, the terror is essential to the power of the gospel.
(5) This is Martin Luther territory — we can’t possibly earn salvation by God’s standards, which we can never live up to, so all we can do is believe & hope for grace in return. If we’re to take Christianity seriously at all, I think Luther was basically right.
Serendipity, Rick. As you were writing me about Martin Luther and grace, I was struggling with Aeschylus P.V. 545 ff, where the Greek “grace” (charis) looms large, translated “favor” by Mark Griffith in his commentary. The chorus of sorority girls scold Prometheus for doing unrequited favors to human beings and thereby getting in big trouble. Griffith: “Come now tell us in what way that favor (of yours) is a (real) favor (i.e. requited), my friend. Where (is there) any aid (for you)?” [or is alke better rendered as “strength” than as “aid”?] He explains: “The essence of charis is that it is reciprocal (cf. 782, 821); but in this case mortals can do nothing in return for P.’s benefaction.”
I think that’s right. Charis, which the Romans rendered gratia, a word we mangled into “grace,” describes a reciprocal relationship. It can be pretty crass, “manus manum lavat”, or mutual back scratching, though among the Greeks one expects it to be warm, affectionate, “gracious,” and mutually supportive. How then can there be true charis between god(s) and humans? Humans have no power (alke) with which to reciprocate. Doesn’t it have to be a one-way street? We can receive a benefaction, and say we are grateful, ”eucharisto”, but how could I possibly do anything that would repay the favor? “Thank you very much,” I say, and off I go. Unless…
Unless we are missing something. Suppose there were a god who took on human flesh and hence human weakness, who became one of us, who needs us even as we need one another? I am sorry, John Donne, he’s not a battering ram, an assaulting army, who will force his way in and ravish us all. He stands at the door and knocks, waiting to see if we will let him in, and if we do, what does he do? Give us fire and every other technology under the sun, as Prometheus claims he did, or a lecture and a scolding, which we much deserve? No, he dines with us and we with him. We feed him and we feed us. Dines? How could that possibly be? In the Eucharistic meal, perhaps, or is it in the feeding of other hungry people, for if we do that for them, we also, he says, do it for Him?
You sound like George Herbert! “‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’ / So I did sit and eat.” It takes an Anglican to nail these things just right.
There’s a spooky pre-echo of Christ on the cross in A’s Prometheus. So much so that Griffith’s view of charis seems a bit pedestrian to me. I’d like to think the chorus could mean roughly “Where’s the grace in this?” — with a similar fog of associations that we’d have with that question, all the way from the vague everyday meaning of graciousness or kindliness to the grace of God (the point being, Zeus lacks it). I want to say that our “grace” isn’t a mangling but a kind of return to the richness of the Greek term after the pedestrian-minded Romans flattened it out. But perhaps Griffith (or you) would knowledgeably tell me that my wish is an historical or contextual impossibility.
Remnants of the storm gusting around this morning. For me, powerful Qi Gong amid the gusts. Brain may be open to think about charis some more …
The concept is clouded, I think, by the notion that Greek religion is the same as the Roman do ut des. Bribe the gods and they’ll give you a boost. That’s what I meant by Roman gratia mangling the subtler, warmer Greek understanding of charis. Let’s ponder.
Actually, you originally wrote that we (English) mangled the Roman gratia into grace. I like this revised version much better! Greek grace flows into Christian, bypassing Rome.
Here’s a meditative episode for you to chew on: In the midst of my morning Zen-like state, I was seeking enlightenment when I found myself chuckling at the trap of meditation: What is this “I”? If it is “I” that seek enlightenment, am I not affirming the “I” and thereby blocking what I seek?
Maybe that’s why, in Matthew’s Lord’s Prayer, it is not my will be done, but thine.
Ah, the interfering Western “I” … Let me trade you a few words of Wittgenstein for the Lord’s Prayer. W was a great mystic whose purpose was to shut philosophy up so that he could commune with das Mystische in blessed silence. He seems to want to balloon the “I” into an almost Hindu-esque notion of a single world-soul via his dog-with-a-bone obsession with solipsism. To wit: “What the solipsist means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest. … The world is my world … I am my world.” And then (surprise! — on the same page) “There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas. The subject does not belong to the world; rather, it is a limit of the world.”
Put this together with a few other passages & it looks as if, for W, the solipsist is “correct” in the sense that all our subjective awarenesses are aspects of the One awareness that constitutes (& transcends?) the “limit” of the world we’re aware of — though Ludwig thought that any attempt to say what I just attempted to say is a nonsensical abuse of language, as per his famous zinger “That whereof we cannot speak, thereof must we remain silent.” A wise dictum yet impossible to obey, even for W himself.
I was cured of solipsism ages ago by a certain unpleasant drug experience, but still I’m not yet willing to abandon my “I” entirely as nothing but an obstacle. Language won’t let me anyway. Consider: “I’m not the same person I was when I was younger.” Or: “I have no unchanging identity; I’m just a bundle of ever-changing perceptions” (Hume). Who is this ever-abiding, irreducible I? We can’t get rid of it in grammar, even when we’re denying its existence. I think it’s obvious that language here, rather than controlling what we can think, per so much latter-day philosophy, is reflecting what we really think, despite what we may say.
Christian tradition calls this “I” the soul and grants it immortality. I’d like to believe that Matthew’s Jesus gives the tradition some grounding.
Matthew lets us grope for a while, I think. Jesus could be any of a number of things. He is a thaumaturge, that’s for sure, and a double descendant of David, so Messiah material. But then there was the voice at the baptism, “My beloved son”. What does that mean? The disciples don’t know. Maybe he’s Elijah come back from the dead. But finally there comes the exchange with Peter in ch. 16. “Who do you say I am?” And P. answers the anointed one, i.e. the Messiah, the son of God — in THAT sense. (Explosive; keep it a secret.) That’s the claim in Matt. If so, of course he can do what pagan thaumaturges do and plenty more besides.
But does it really matter if he is the Messiah the Jews have been waiting for? Who is he for us?
Yes, I think it does matter. I’ve always thought the two religions are two editions of one — Christianity for us non-chosen who need an intermediary in relating to God, Judaism for the chosen people who don’t. This is opposed to the notion that the Jews missed the boat with JC, failing to recognize their Messiah. Or maybe he was the Messiah but had a mission completely different from what the Jews expected, just as his life & fate were completely out of whack with expectations — not an unusual modus operandi for God! The Messiah wasn’t sent to save them (they don’t need it), but to salvage the rest of us. Judaism does triumph as promised, then, but in a divinely paradoxical way.
Sorting this out — whether JC is the Messiah & what yes or no means — seems to me central to Judaism & Christianity alike. And not just in theory, as the historical consequences of the “missed the boat” conception show.
At this point, Bob & Rick realized they were hooked, and so Bob suggested bringing Bill Berg on board to form a mini book club and read a gospel straight through together. As a translator of the entire New Testament, Bill brings some badly needed experience to the table, not to mention an atheist’s irreverence. Deciding to start with the so-called earliest gospel, Mark, the Gospel Renegades began their journey toward the empty tomb …