D R A F T
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TAKING MARK SERIOUSLY
Authority and Literary Technique in the Gospel According to Mark
W. ROBERT CONNOR
Introduction: Before I began reading the Gospel according to Mark in Greek with my two Gospel Renegades friends, I thought I knew what I would find. The Greek would be execrable, the narrative a pastiche of anecdotes and sayings, simultaneously incomplete and redundant. The work was, loosely strung together, by someone whose best efforts were duplicated in the other synoptic gospels. I could not expect a truly literary work, not even “sub-literary,” just scissors and paste stuff, an accumulation of sayings poorly translated from the original Aramaic, anecdotes, implausible stories of amazing healings and so on. So I had heard. But when I tried to read it as if it were a newly found Greek text, and tried to bring to it what I had learned over the years about reading Greek narrative, what I found surprised me – not that the criticisms of Mark are entirely false but the text commanded my attention and seemed to speak with unexpected authority. And so I asked how did it achieve that effect? What was the source of its authority?
The Issue of Authority in Mark: This gospel turns to a large extent on one kind of authority – the authority of Jesus. That is the question the chief priests and scribes put to Jesus in 11.28, after he has driven out those who bought and sold in the temple: “By what authority (ἐξουσία) are you doing these things or who gave you the authority (ἐξουσία) to do them?” (RSV). Jesus counters with a question, promising if they answer it, he will tell them “in what authority” (ἐν ποἰαι ἐξουσίαι ταῦτα ποιῶ 11.28). The question is whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men (11.30). The priests and scribes decline to answer, and so does Jesus, repeating the phraseology of his original offer ( οὐδὲ ἐγὼ λἐγω ὑμὶν ἐν ποἰαι ἐξουσίαι ταῦτα ποιῶ 11.32).
But Jesus does implicitly answer the question through the parable that follows (12. 1 – 11). A man developed a vineyard, entrusted its management to the local farmers, and went away. At harvest time he sent a slave to ask for some of the proceeds. The farmers whipped the slave and sent him empty away. When he sent others, the violence escalated even to the point of killings. Finally the owner sent his one son, the beloved (υἱὸν ἀγαπητὀν (12.6). We then hear the farmers plotting to kill this son, hoping thereby to inherit the vineyard. Then the story turns from past to future with the question “What will the lord of the vineyard do?” Immediately the question is answered, “The lord of the vineyard will come and destroy the farmers, and give the vineyard to others.”
The implication is clear. Jesus is the son, acting with the authority of the father. The reader awareness of this claim is reinforced by the theme of sonship in this gospel. At the very beginning of the gospel, at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are split open (σχιζομένους) and a voice from heaven says “You are my son, the beloved ( ὁ υἱὀς … ὁ ἀγαπητὀς); in you am I well pleased” (1.11). So Jesus, like the son of the lord of the vineyard, comes with the authority of the father and he too will be killed, and, by implication, the metaphorical vineyard will be given to others, unspecified, but clearly not temple priests and scribes.
The parable speaks of authority in terms of sonship, the theme that shapes Mark from the first chapter through the crucifixion, when the veil of the temple is “split” (a form of the same verb is used as in 1.10 –ἐσχίσθη (15.38 ) and another voice, that of a Roman centurion, echoes that in the first chapter, saying, “Truly this person was son of God” ( ἀληθῶς οὖτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος υἱὸς θεοῦ ἦν (15.39). And, as we shall see, the theme of sonship is also present at the very center of the gospel, tied explicitly to the identification of Jesus as the Christ.
The Authority of Mark’s Narrative: This brief investigation of the ostensibly separate question of Mark’s treatment of Jesus’ religious authority can help us see why one might take Mark seriously as a writer. Mark does not simply assert that Jesus had authority from God the father. The text interweaves that understanding of Jesus with episodes that illuminate it. Meaning in Mark is often of this sort, implicit, deriving from the structure of the narrative as much as from explicit assertion.
That does not mean, however, that the text claims authority for itself. In fact, it seems to avoid the claims that some other ancient prose narratives make for themselves. In John, for example, there are hints that the author of the gospel was a special favorite of Jesus. In Mark there is no suggestion that Jesus even met the writer, let alone held him in special favor. Nor is there any indication that he was a disciple as Matthew was. Furthermore, this gospel lays no claim to divine inspiration; no angel is said to have come down, as in Revelation 1.1, nor is the Holy Spirit said to have disclosed things otherwise kept secret. Eventually, to be sure, Christians ascribed a special authority to the four canonical gospels, but Mark makes no such claim for itself.
Nor does Mark use the strategy of authority found in many other ancient narratives – reminding the reader that the author was a contemporary, an eyewitness of some or all of the events described in his work. Josephus, for example, writing not far from the time of this gospels, introduces himself in the preface of his Jewish War as “the son of Matthias, by birth a Jew, and a priest, and one who at first fought against the Romans myself.” Clearly, then, this writer must know whereof he speaks. Josephus is following a tradition well established among ancient historians. Thucydides, for example, lets his readers know at the very beginning of his history of the Peloponnesian War that he had studied the war from its outset. Elsewhere he indicates that he had experienced plague, battle and exile. Herodotus points to his research in his first sentence: “This is the presentation of the investigations of Herodotus of Halicarnassus…. ,” His travels and sources of information can often be inferred from his stories.
Mark will have none of this. The author never introduces himself, does not tell how he knows what he reports. He never speaks of having been an eyewitness. The authority of Mark comes in two other ways – by its ability to make readers into eyewitnesses, and, paradoxically, by what it does not say. Let’s look at each of these sources of authority and then consider one possible implication – a minimalist Christianity.
The Reader as Eye-Witness: Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist, through a paraphrase of Isaiah (40.3) and Malachi (3.1), treated as prophecies of this John. And, as we have seen, John’s baptism of Jesus is the start of Mark’s narrative about Jesus’ ministry. Late on, as we have seen, when the priests and scribes press Jesus about the source of his authority, he asks them whether John’s baptism came from heaven or from human beings (11.31 ). John’s importance in the narrative is also evident, however, in Mark’s account of the birthday party of King Herod (6.14 ff.), which ends with the murder of John. This is the longest episode in the gospel, with the exception of the events leading up to the death of Jesus himself. While the death of John the baptist is also related in Matthew (14.2 –12) and briefly in Luke (3.19- 20), Mark’s version is far more vivid. We are told, for example, who attended the gathering, — “courtiers, officers and the leading men of Galilee” (6. 21). He provides precise titles, chiliarchs for the officers, and speculator (a transliteration of a Roman military term) for the soldier who was sent off to do the deed. The dialogue is swift, almost staccato, and all presented as direct quotation, for example:
… when Herodias’ daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant (δὠσω) it.’
The promise of the king should be sufficiently binding but Mark underlines it with an oath that repeats the crucial words:
And he swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give (δώσω) you even half of my kingdom.’ (6.24) And she went out, and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask?’ And she said, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’
The daughter agrees and makes her own chilling addition to the request, the detail that shapes the iconography of the scene:
… she came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, saying, ‘I wish you to give (δῶις) me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter (6.25)
The action is emphatically fast paced ( “… came in immediately with haste” … “give me at once…’”, “ …immediately the king sent …”), so much so that we not only imagine ourselves there; we are eyewitnesses, and can even feel events getting out of control; we may even share some of the king’s sorrow (περίλυπος γενόμενος, (6. 26) at the promise he has rashly given.
This detailed, vivid narrative seems not to be intended to advance a claim that Mark was present at the gathering and saw it all for himself. He makes no claim to have been an eye-witness. Rather the vividness has the effect of calling the scene up before the readers’ eyes and making them the eyewitnesses.
A Man Seeking Eternal Life: These techniques – vivid detail, fast paced action, direct quotation — can also be seen in the story of a man who came to Jesus seeking eternal life. The story, told in all three synoptic gospels, could easily be cast as a tale of a rich man, unable to let go of his possessions. That is indeed part of the story, as Matthew (19.16-22) and Luke (18.18-23) emphasize. But in Mark (10.17-22) the story is more complicated, more vivid, and richer in its attention to the emotions, both of Jesus and of the man who approached him. In Matthew and Luke the man simply appears. In Mark, however, he is all eagerness: he comes running and falls on his knees before Jesus. We might expect the compassionate Jesus to raise him up, but apparently he remains kneeling until the end of the conversation. The language with which Mark represents the man speaking is revealing as well. In Matthew he simply says he wants to have (σχῶ 19.16) eternal life; in Luke and Mark he wants to inherit it (κληρονομήσω 10.17); he’s a man whose eagerness for eternal life is tied to the thought of what he will acquire when his father dies. In all three gospels the man is quite sure that he has kept all the commandments, though he has to ask which commandments Jesus has in mind. Jesus lists the familiar ones, but Mark adds one not in either Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5. It’s from Sirach 4,1: “Thou shalt not extort” (μἠ ἀποστερήσηις (10.19). Was that so relevant to this man that Jesus was impelled to add it to the usual list? In any event, the addition does not trouble the man, who reports, ”Teacher, all these have I kept from my youth…” with never a slip or a stumble? we ask. It is easy to dismiss or condemn the man. But in Mark Jesus looks at him, kneeling there with all his eagerness and all his faults, and loves him (ἠγάπησεν 10.21). There’s not a hint of this in Matthew or Luke. Their narratives go directly to the man’s question of what is holding him back. and invites him to come and follow him, — but only after he sells all he has and gives it to the poor. That is the opposite of the inheritance he had in mind. He cannot accept this condition, and so goes away, sad (λυπούμενος) in Matthew 19.22 , “very sad” (περίλυπος ) in Luke 18.23). But Mark is more intense; this narrative makes us look at the emotion on the man’s face, and not just that ‘his countenance fell,’ as the RSV blandly renders στυγνάσας (10.22). With that word we envision a Stygian flood of feelings, a compounded abhorrence, loathing, and perhaps self-revulsion – the very opposite of the love Jesus had felt when he looked at the man a few seconds earlier.
Curing the Blind: Two stories about the curing blind men show the same visual and emotional acuity, but something more as well. They are part of a complex narrative unit, another example of the structuring of meaning in Mark.
The first of the two stories, told only in Mark, may seem formulaic. Holy men are often said to effect cures by the laying on of hands. That is what the villagers at Bethsaida want Jesus to do: They entreat Jesus to touch the man (παρακαλοῦσιν αὐτὸν ἴνα αὐτοῦ ἄψηται 8.22). But Jesus has his own way of proceeding; instead of laying his hands on the man’s eyes, he took him by his hand (ἐπιλαβόμενος τῆς χειρὀς) and led him out of the village. (the tense shifts from present to past.). There Jesus spat, not onto the ground to make some therapeutic mud, but right into the blind man’s eyes. Only after that did Jesus lay his hands on the man, and ask, “Do you see anything?” (8.23: the tense switches back to the present in the quotation.) The blind man replied with the unforgettable words, “I see men; but they look like trees walking” (8.24). The cure, in other words, was still only partially successful. Jesus did not stop. Mark says that he laid his hands upon the man’s eyes again. This time it worked. In a flurry of verbs Mark describes what followed. The man “saw through”, (διέβλεψεν 8.25), that is right through the spittle in his eyes; he “was restored” and saw everything clearly (τηλαυγῶς). And the reader sees it all clearly as well.
There is one more stage to the story. If the blind man goes back to the village, there will surely be gossip and speculation about whether his healer was a prophet, or something more. Jesus discouraged such speculation. He told the man to go directly to his house; then Mark switches once again to direct discourse in the present tense, ”And don’t go into the village” (8.26). Any discussion of what power Jesus must have had in order to do this is blocked at this point, both for the recently blind man, and in a literary sense for the reader. For the reader it will, however, come into focus soon enough.
A second cure of a blind person is reported two chapters later (10.46 – 52) as Jesus arrives at Jericho. Similar stories are told in Matthew (9. 27 -31 and 20.29 – 34) and Luke (18.35 – 43), with an anonymous central character. But Mark sets the story on a personal basis by reporting the man’s name, Bar-Timaios, the son of Timaios (10.46). It is a revealing detail: the name is half Aramaic, half Greek. His family must have partially Hellenized.
Bartimaios is confident that he knows the answer to the question that Jesus deflected after the earlier curing of a blind man – who is this Jesus? Sitting by the side of the road, he shouted out, “Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me.” People rebuked him (ἐπετίμων – perhaps word play on his name Τιμαῖος) but he cried all the more loudly. Mark again uses direct discourse, “Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me.” When Bartimaios was told that Jesus was calling him, he threw off his tunic (himation), and rushed over to Jesus (10.50). This time the healing comes without spittle or the laying on of hands. It is all verbal, and all dependent on the man’s trust in Jesus (ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε (10.52 – in the Greek Jesus seems almost to hiss at the man with six sigmas alliterating in five words!). Mark does not make explicit in what that faith consisted – is it simply that he was confident that Jesus could cure him, or did that confidence derive from his belief that Jesus was the son of David, that is the Messiah? In any event Bartimaios follows Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.
Structure: To a modern reader these two stories of the healing of the blind may seem redundant., or even a mistaken doubling of the same story . Surely either one of them would be sufficient to make the point that Jesus could cure blindness, or to demonstrate the writer’s mastery of vivid detail. But an ancient reader may have recognized something quite different. Readers of ancient Greek soon become accustomed to various ways of structuring narratives. Framing is a favorite, that is, using similar episodes, similar language, to surround, and thereby emphasize the importance of the intervening material.
That, I believe, is exactly what is happening in chapters 8 – 10 of Mark. The two stories of blindness cured surround a complex narrative about who Jesus is. Jesus himself poses that question when he asks his disciples who people think he is, and then asks “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s response is “The Christ” (8.29). But that may not be all. Along with some other manuscripts the codex Sinaiticus, our best manuscript of the New Testament, adds “the son of God (υἰὸς τοῦ θεοῦ).” Editors demur; since Peter has already said Jesus was the Christ, there is no need for these words. A gloss perhaps, but in any case, otiose, redundant. But, as we have seen, the narrative of Mark is cast in terms of sonship,and its corollary, authority. That thematic begins with the voice from heaven at the baptism and culminates when the Roman centurion in charge of the crucifixion seeing that Jesus had breathed his last said “Surely this guy (ἄνθρωπος, not strictly necessary, may be colloquial or even dismissive) was son of God” (15.39). The structure of this gospel, in other words, puts the theme of sonship at moments crucial to the story. Its presence in 8.29, almost exactly in the middle of the gospel, then is not likely to be an accident or a transcriber’s error. It is a well framed reminder of what for Mark is the central fact about Jesus, that he was son of God.
The section framed by the two stories of the curing of blind people, however, has a further dimension. Peter’s affirmation leads directly to the episode wherein Jesus tries to explain what scripture says about the Messiah. That is not easy for the disciples to comprehend. If a verbal approach is insufficient, sight may be the answer. So (9. 1-13) Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a high mountain where they see him transfigured (μεταμορφώθη 9.2) and his tunics (himatia) turned dazzling white. Soon Jesus returns to scriptural exegesis, using the phrase “son of man” to point to the suffering that the Messiah must undergo (9.12).
These chapters are a complex narrative built around the theme of sonship, surrounded with stories of sight and the lack thereof, of the power of spoken and written words, and healing action, all told with remarkable vividness and succinctness. Reading it attentively we can understand one source of the narrative’s authority, one reason for taking Mark seriously as a writer. Greek rhetoricians and schoolmasters called the technique enargeia ,” vividness”. It was a way of making the reader into an eyewitness. Mark may not be an elegant stylist, but he seems to have mastered this part of his Greek lessons quite well.
Negative Authority”: There is, however, another source of authority in Mark, ostensibly quite opposite to the one we have been investigating. Part of the effect of the work comes from what it avoids saying. A brief episode in chapter 14.51 f. of Mark will clarify what is meant by “negative authority,” and how it interacts with the more familiar technique of enargeia.
A Naked Young Man: Here is the story in a literal translation:
And a certain young man followed him, wrapped round with a linen cloth upon his nakedness. And they seize him. But leaving the linen cloth behind naked he ran away.
In some respects the episode uses techniques that we have already observed in Mark, the variation between present and past tenses, for example. The man has accompanied Jesus. Then, suddenly–“they seize him,” a vivid present, followed once again by past tenses “leaving behind the linen cloth naked he ran away.” Although it was a fleeting episode, probably in the dark of night, and over in a few seconds Mark provides vivid details — it was a young man (a neaniskos), and naked below his one garment. Mark asserts that twice (ἐπὶ γυμνοῦ in verse 51 and γυμνὸς in verse 52). That garment, moreover, was not the familiar tunic, the himation, but an expensive linen cloth, a sindona. The young man is not just wearing this cloth; he has it wound around him (περιβεβλημένος), as if it were a winding sheet.
The passage, in other words, is another illustration of Mark’s vivid, “you are there” writing. But no less striking is what this verb-saturated, fast-streaking passage, does not say. Mark provides no guesses about the youth’s identity, nor any explanation what he might have been doing there, clothed and then unclothed in this way, nor why the authorities tried to seize him rather than other followers of Jesus. Was he a “person of special interest” to them? Many readers, as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, have suspected that the youth was Mark himself. But Mark does not speculate. Mark seems to be telling only what he feels confident about, and letting readers decide for themselves how to interpret the story, or simply to live with the mystery. In that situation some readers may feel troubled that they have been left on their own, but it is hard not to respect Mark’s narrative restraint. One feels that this text will not report anything its author believes to be speculation, that is, that the text has what one might call negative authority.
The Beginning and the Ending: A similar kind of authority, I believe, is evident on a much larger scale when we examine the overall structure of this gospel. The gospel begins not, as we have seen, with genealogy, angelic annunciation to a virgin, a journey to Bethlehem, and the birth of the child. It displays no interest in all the trappings of Matthew’s Christmas pageant — the stable, the manger, the star, the visiting shepherds, and the much-traveled Magi. Not a word, and no account of the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, the precocious childhood of Jesus. Nor does it have the liturgical potential of passages such as Luke 2. 29-32, the so-called Nunc Dimittis. Mark plunges in medias res, with no explanation of why this Nazarene decided to seek baptism from John, nor why the heavens should be split open, nor why a voice from heaven should say, “You are my son, the beloved; in you am I well pleased.” The reader infers readily enough that this can only be the voice of God, but Mark does not say so.
Did Mark not know any of the stories in Matthew and Luke, or the genealogies that link Jesus to the Messianic line of David, or the poetry that celebrated his birth? Or did Mark deliberately choose not to include them? In any event, this gospel has a different focus and a different structure; it begins with the baptism of the mature Jesus, and ends not with post-resurrection appearances, the ascent into heaven, the missionary work of his followers, but at the tomb. Instead of providing evidence of Jesus’ resurrection Mark lets us eavesdrop on three women as they approach the tomb, wondering who will roll away the stone that they know blocked its entrance. We share their surprise when the stone turns out to have been rolled away.
Then Mark makes his readers look intently into the tomb. A young man, a neaniskos, is sitting (16.5 καθήμενον) on the right side; his garment is wrapped around him (περιβεβλημένον), like the about-to-be naked neaniskos in chapter 14, but in this case it’s not a linen sindona but a cloak (stole). Even in the darkness of the tomb we see that it is white. Then, without a word from the women, the young man speaks, hasty yet repetitious sentence fragments in the present tense: “Jesus you seek, the Nazarene, the crucified one. He has arisen (ἠγέρθη 16.6); he’s not here.” Then words turn to vision. “Look, here’s the place where they laid him. (7) Hurry up, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is leading you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
Who is this neaniskos? Matthew 28.2 is sure he is an angel from the Lord, come down from heaven. Mark will not speculate.
So, that’s it. The women ask no questions, demand no explanation. They run out of the tomb, overcome by a rush of conflicting emotions – trembling, fear, ecstasy. Frightened, they fail to follow the young man’s orders; they tell no one. We, the readers, share their secret and perhaps their emotion as well, trembling, ecstasy, fear.
At this point, the manuscript tradition fragments, different texts offering different endings, or no ending at all. The latter possibility seems most likely – Mark ends as it began – abruptly, with a dramatic moment, without explanations. In each case we confront a mystery. Mark will not diminish it.
A Minimalist Christianity? The passages we have examined will, I trust, help readers take Mark seriously as a writer. But, most people do not turn to this gospel for a rich literary experience, but because they are interested in the phenomenon of Christianity, or in their own religious belief and practice. So it would be disingenuous to end this essay without some discussion of what it might mean to take Mark seriously as a guide to Christian belief and practice. While he makes no such claim for himself, Mark points to one possible shape of Christian faith – a minimalist Christianity. .
Little of this is explicit. As we have seen before, much turns on what Mark does not say. He reports Jesus’ multiple healing miracles but not the miracle of Jesus himself. He cures the blind, the lepers, the deaf, but his own miraculous birth is missing. He raises a girl given up for dead (5. 38 -43) but his own resurrection is left shrouded in mystery. As we have seen, there is nothing here about post-resurrection appearances, the ascension into heaven, seating arrangements once there, or his future return to earth to judge the living and the dead.
Mark also passes over, as we have seen, the beginning of the story –the marvelous birth and the process, whatever it was, that brought Jeus to the banks off the River Jordan seeking John and his baptism.
Perhaps one breathes a sigh of relief at the absence of such doctrine, or such superstition. It’s nice to think of a Christianity without all these encumbrances. But what about Christian ethics? Matthew’s powerful report of the Sermon on the Mount has no equivalent in Mark, and the most eloquent parables, such as the Good Samaritan, are not to be found in these pages. Jesus’ teaching, as presented in this gospel, comes largely in response to the criticism and questioning of the religious establishment. That seems to be Mark’s target. It is clear that Jesus has no patience with conventional piety. He has, for example, little patience with the strict observance of the Sabbath. “The Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath,” he asserts (2, 27). Do those words contain the seeds of a radical Christian humanism?
What would that be in terms of practice? There are few injunctions about the religious life his followers should adopt. Matthew and Luke give a version of a prayer that Jesus offered as an example of how his followers should pray. Not a word of it in Mark. Jesus is baptized by John in the river Jordan, but there is no hint that he himself ever baptized his disciples or anyone else. He eats a final Passover meal with the Twelve but there is no injunction to continue that practice. The memorial of his life is not a recurring, eucharistic celebration with bread and wine, but an empty tomb (16.5 μνημεῖον “memorial”). Any humanistic Christianity extrapolated from Mark would, then, be non-sacramental. And non-ecclesiastical as well. In Matthew 16.19 Jesus promises the keys of the kingdom to Peter – on which textual rock Vatican city has been built. In the parallel passage in Mark 8.27-30 (and in Luke 9.18-21 and John 6. 66-69), however, no such language is found; no keys are handed over and no ecclesiastical structure is envisioned.
Proper Christians do not read one gospel in isolation from the other synoptics, the later parts of the New Testament canon, or in some cases from the church fathers and the traditions that grew up over time. While different communities differ in their interpretation, all of them blend the gospels together as part of a comprehensive understanding of the life and teaching of Jesus, In one sense this approach is right and proper. Mark is, after all an evangelion, a dispatch, a report from the field, succinct, informal, provisional. The greatest potential of this new literary form is focus. And focus Mark does. But if we blend this account with all the others, we risk losing Mark’s distinctive voice, and, even more important, Mark’s distinctive focus and message. This gospel pares away everything that does not lead to one central affirmation — that this Jesus was the son of God. Everything else, birth, childhood, post-Resurrection appearances, is secondary. The one crucial thing is the affirmation that the Roman centurion made as Jesus breathed his last, “Truly this man was son of God.” Mark does not deny other parts of the Jesus story, but he trusts his readers, empowers them; once they understand who Jesus is, he does not have to tell them what else to believe or do.
That is what I mean by “minimalist Christianity”. It is a lean, stripped down understanding of what it is to be a Christian, without any unnecessary extensions of belief, without superstition, without most of the miracles. Matthew Arnold called belief of this sort, religion ”ohne Aberglaube”– without all the extras. Many people today, as in Arnold’s day, I believe, would find such an approach to Christianity appealing. But, Arnold saw the difficulty. Is it not precisely Aberglaube, the stories, the myths, the symbols, the bread, the wine, the water, that nourishes spiritual life and growth? As Arnold wrote, “…Aberglaube, extra-belief, belief beyond what is certain and verifiable. Our word ‘superstition’ had by its derivation the same meaning, but it has come to be used in a merely bad sense, and to mean a childish and craven religiosity. With the German word it is not so. Therefore Goethe can say with propriety and truth: ‘Aberglaube is the poetry of life, – der Aberglaube ist die Poesie des Lebens.’” (Matthew Arnold Literature and Dogma (p. 78 in the 1903 edition). Or to put it another way – can one sustain a Christian life on the basis of a minimalist belief. That, I believe, continues to be the biggest question posed by this powerful and original text.