Taking Mark Seriously

 D R A F T

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Authority and Literary Technique in the Gospel According to Mark


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:[1]

 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.

November 2013

8 thoughts on “Taking Mark Seriously”

  1. Undertaking the task of translating Mark, I encountered what all translators and commentators of this gospel have encountered: the labor of translation had been greatly reduced by Mark himself, since vast stretches of it were simply repetitions, often verbatim, of what I’d already translated in Matthew! In his monumental commentary on the New Testament, for example, the peerless scholar Henry Alford, rather than following his usual practice of painfully detailed and learned comment on each and every verse, simply refers the reader of Mark, time and again, to his commentary on Matthew.
    Indeed, it would be difficult for anyone to object that the plagiarism went the other way, that the fullness of the fabulist and moralist Matthew should have required sporadic peeks at the text of Mark. No, Matthew doesn’t need Mark to “fill in” the panorama of his text. It’s Mark who needs Matthew for the substance of his.
    We can’t avoid the conclusion that Mark is in large measure derivative, that it wasn’t composed in a flood of divine inspiration (as some would aver, to justify the identical composition of so much in both evangelists), but was cobbled together, piece by piece, into a utilitarian whole, a useful compendium of, in part, previous work, and in part “previously unpublished” versions and new accounts. These latter contributions are, of course, what must attract Bob to his view of Mark as an original writer — one to be taken seriously, and not merely to be seen as a “stitcher” and compiler. To appreciate that originality, it’s worth examining some of the details that are easily passed over in describing the broad strokes of Mark’s gospel.
    Take, for example, the first verse in Mark. The blunder of attributing to Isaiah rather than to Malachi the verse Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee shows at least that Mark is no bible scholar — was he even Jewish? — but then neither is Matthew, who gives us in 12:18 a wholly idiosyncratic version of Isaiah 42:1 that follows the Septuagint only badly: Ἰδοὺ ὁ παῖς μου ὃν ᾑρέτισα, ὁ ἀγαπητός μου εἰς ὃν εὐδόκησεν ἡ ψυχή μου· (“Behold my son/servant whom I’ve chosen, my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased”). In his account of Jesus’ baptism (3:17), Matthew had given yet another version, shortened, of that same all-important verse that begins Isaiah’s prophecy on the coming of the redeemer and of the new covenant: Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα (“This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased”). Mark, in turn, repeated those words from Matthew in his account of Jesus’ full manifestation as son of God (9:7), which, as Bob has discovered, is “framed” by two accounts of restoring sight to the blind.
    But Mark had also used the Isaiah verse in his (much abbreviated) account of Jesus’ baptism (1:11), only changing Matthew’s third person to second person: Σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα (“You are my son, the beloved; in you I am well pleased”), a change which had been made necessary by Mark’s unique report that the heavenly vision was private, for Jesus alone (εἶδεν σχιζομένους τοὺς οὐρανοὺς, “he saw the sky torn apart”). Why did Mark change the account, available in Matthew and his sources, and repeated by Luke, that the vision and the voice from heaven were seen and heard by all witnesses to the baptism?
    The answer to that question may tell a great deal about the scope and purpose of Mark’s gospel. Mark is, as Bob points out, a minimalist: to borrow Bob’s words, “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 fact is that Mark knows he has no way of confirming the story of what happened on the banks of the Jordan. Therefore, instead of reporting a miracle as the other synoptics do, he confines the event to Jesus’ personal experience, thus assigning to Jesus himself the responsibility for passing it on to posterity.
    Why does Mark bother to do so? What’s the point of that minimalism that Bob has so clearly delineated? Here we need to speculate on the nature of Mark’s audience. Who were they? Rapturous converts in search of the miraculous, ready to believe the wildest fables that a Matthew or a Luke could spin? Or were the proselytes of Mark’s day more sophisticated, less gullible, more in search of realistic models for a life that would merit heavenly reward? We may guess that Mark’s gospel filled the needs of such people by providing them with a brief (even portable, if you count the comparatively few chapters!) compendium (not a pastiche!) of all that a reasonably educated person, Jew or Gentile, might regard as plausible in the gospel mission of Jesus.
    Back, then, to the first line of Mark, where that mission is proclaimed to be that of “Jesus the Anointed One (or King Jesus, or Jesus the Messiah), son of God.” There is good manuscript evidence for that last phrase, “son of God,” and it stands appropriately at the head of a gospel in which, as Bob has so eloquently pointed out, emphasis on Jesus’ sonship grows and reaches an apogee, as Bob puts it, “almost exactly in the middle of the gospel” with his Father’s affirmation from the clouds in 9:7: This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
    But “son of God” in Mark’s first verse seems to have another function that might fall under the rubric of Bob’s “negative authority.” It seems to be a direct and succinct answer to Matthew’s “endless genealogy,” as Paul had called such things in 1 Timothy 1:4. Genealogies don’t matter to Mark, and he knows his readers (most of whom by now may be Gentiles) aren’t impressed by such tiresome biblical factoids. You want a genealogy of Jesus?, he seems to ask. Here it is in a nutshell: son of God!
    — Which brings me to the Transfiguration (Mark chapter 9), where Jesus’ divine sonship is confirmed once and for all by the voice of God from the cloud. Bob, I keep trying to line this scene up with what you say about Mark’s “minimalist Christianity,” and especially with what you say about the resurrection — or rather, as you put it, “the empty tomb.” And I can’t help wondering how on earth the very same guy who describes the fantastic scene on the mountain-top, with Moses and Elijah conversing with a gleaming-white Jesus, and the talking cloud, and the dazed and crazed apostles (one of whom, John, never reports this event in his own gospel; “Peter” reports it in the second epistle, which is universally declared spurious) — how that same guy could shy away from affirming that vision by letting us see, as do the other evangelists, the risen Messiah at the end.
    The text of Mark does not, on the whole, shy away from the miraculous, especially where it derives the tales from other sources; it can even improve on them — Mark can even create a legion of demons, for example, where there are only two in Matthew — so why not end with the miracle — Jesus’ resurrection — that became the central core, the whole point, of Christian belief?
    So there’s the bone I have to pick with my fellow Renegade — but that’s what the site is all about. Let the sparks fly, right? Bob, though impressed by your excellent arguments to the contrary, I still entertain the very real possibility that Mark was never finished. Let me invoke once more your “negative authority” principle: “this text will not report anything its author believes to be speculation.” And in this case, “speculation” would be taking sides in the controversy over what really happened after the resurrection. Did the apostles hole up in a Jerusalem attic to receive repeated visitations from the crucified Messiah, as in the Pauline (Luke, Acts) tradition? Or did they indeed move on to Galilee and meet him there, as he himself, and the neaniskos, had suggested? The awkward γάρ at the end of the authentic text would indicate that the account was broken off there in mid-sentence, perhaps intentionally. Either someone had taken sides, and someone else objected, or the author simply threw up his hands and let someone else tack on an insipid ending that involved snake handling, and the mutilated manuscript was thus passed on to posterity. By then, it may not have been useful as a compendium. The church fathers were beginning to run their own shows in that regard.
    Where had it been before posterity got its hands on it? It had probably been serving its purpose, traveling from hand to hand, being updated as necessary to suit the changing needs of one congregation after another. As Bob rightly points out, there’s no “signature” in Mark, no attestation of authorship as found in other evangelists. I suspect that that’s because, in the state in which we find the gospel today, there were too many “authors” for anyone to take special responsibility for it.
    Not to say that I don’t think an enduring spirit is present in Mark that survived the mutilations of passing time. I think Bob has illuminated, perhaps even rescued, that spirit, and has probably characterized it better than anyone else I’ve read. There is in Mark what I’ve elsewhere called a consistently “cinematic” quality, an ability to achieve a dramatic effect, that I don’t find elsewhere in the New Testament. His skillful manipulation of tenses, for instance, and abrupt changes of scene often resemble intricate camera-work. His frequent visits to the sensational, the violent, even the hideous (again, an isolated example would be the Final Days speech that Rick has so well analyzed) resemble the attention-riveting devices of not a few Hollywood directors.
    But I have the impression that that’s often as far as it goes. One walks away from Mark’s theater having purged the Aristotelean “fear and pity and other such emotions.” Bob has found the perfect Greek word for this technique: enargeia, “vividness.” For Bob, this means that Mark has made his readers “eyewitnesses” to the events described. Now, an eyewitness is someone who can testify to a fact that (s)he has observed. I’m not sure the power of Mark’s enargeia extends to empowering us readers to testify to the truth of what he relates, any more than what we’ve seen on the stage or screen, no matter how vivid it’s been, causes us to testify to its truth. But vivid he is, and not just in isolated accounts (Salome, the neaniskoi, etc.), but throughout the gospel. Enargeia. Good word for it!

  2. Josiah Hatch said:

    Dear Bob,

    I greatly enjoyed your essay and the commentary of your colleague Bill Berg. Your description of the minimalistic approach, absence of divine paraphernalia and factual presentation of the narrative in Mark suggest to me that perhaps the compiler of Mark was combating Euhemerism. He would be writing with the intent of persuading a skeptical, Greek-speaking peer-group used to rationalizing various myths of deification that his account presents a real apotheosis proven by relatively down-to-earth miracles that could not be rationalized away. Such a motivation would fit with theories that the writer was an adoptionist, believing that Jesus was human until adopted by God through his baptism at John’s hands in the beginning of the story. See, e.g., Ehrman, Bart (1996), The Orthodox Corruption of the Scripture, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 74–75.

    Adoptionism would be consistent with the traditional theology of a Hellenized audience raised on quasi-historical myths of apotheosis. The writer’s intent to distinguish his account from those myths might explain the relative absence of angels, mythical genealogies, immaculate conception, stars in the east, etc. Instead, for his Hellenized audience, he makes a simple, vivid beginning in medias res, with God’s words of adoption interrupting the baptism by John. By detailing events in a simple narrative, often in the present tense, and with realistic bits of detail (noting, for example, as you point out, the general identities of the guests at Herod’s feast), he emphasizes that this is not a contrived tale such as that of Herakles or Asclepius, but of what he believes to be a set of real, contemporary metaphysical events.

    Best, as ever,

    Josiah Hatch

  3. I find it difficult to know how to respond to these postings, given the charter for this website, “classicists,” “trespassers from our home turf,” “approaching these strange texts as if we’ve just discovered them.” On the one hand, the doughty renegades are inviting readers into a frame in which they are Greek savants who have stumbled on some documents out of the blue and are free to speculate about their meaning in a scholarly vacuum. But, of course, in the real world there is no scholarly vacuum, and from time to time they cite other sources, albeit usually they are not ones that either Biblical scholars or classicists would typically cite and which would carry no weight among Biblical scholars. The Catholic Encyclopedia and Henry Alford are two that come to mind.

    The result of this posture is postings that are creative, imaginative, provocative, but also to some degree pointless when based on assumptions that contemporary biblical scholarship has long ago discarded. For example, only a very few mainline biblical scholars would hold today that Mark is a condensed version of Matthew and/or Luke. At least since B.H. Streeter’s The Four Gospels, 1924, most scholars hold to a source theory that places Mark first. Matthew and Luke are understood to have used Mark for its narrative structure and then to have added sayings from a lost document, Q (for Quelle), a collection something like the Gospel of Thomas, each author inserting those sayings according to his own editorial and theological purposes. Each also added other texts to which neither of the others presumably had access.

    In view of this, it’s hard to know how to respond when postings continue to speculate on Mark’s recasting of material from Matthew, since biblical schollarship has pretty much discredited that notion.

    Similarly, when Bob says that Sinaiticus (“our best manuscript”) contains υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ in 8.32, it’s not beside the point to note that this same manuscript omits υἱὸς θεοῦ in 1.1. The NRSV includes the phrase, but its inclusion is dubious. As Bart Ehrman, “The Text of Mark in the Hands of the Orthodox,” in Studies in the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, 2005, 142-155, has argued, the phrase in 8.32 was probably added by a scribe as an argument against adoptionists, establishing Jesus as “son of God” even before his baptism and before the voice from heaven declared him “my beloved son.” The same is true for υἱὸς θεοῦ in 1.1, where the seemingly strong textual evidence is undercut by a more thorough analysis of how the phrase in a work’s title and initial sentence could be missing from so strong a manuscript as Sinaiticus. In my view, the dramatic arc of the narrative demands a withholding of the explicit naming of Jesus as “son of God” till near the end, and it is an aspect of the irony of Mark’s narrative that the confession is placed in the mouth of an outsider (as it was twice earlier in the mouths or demons!), a Gentile, yes, a leader of the Roman occupation troops.

    The summary of Jesus’ “teaching” in 1.15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” could also be the point of the Gospel itself. “The kairos–God’s special time—is happening, it’s upon us; be transformed, trust the story that unfolds in this Gospel.” And, of course, live a life grounded in it. Some scholars have suggested that when the Gospel ends with the women telling nothin’ to nobody, the reaction of the audience is expected to be, “Well, we’ve just been told, and we can’t wait to tell others.”

    Is Mark a serious literary work? I would say yes, although it is popular in form and therefore lacks the sophisticated, self-conscious style of high literature. Does it point to a “minimalist Christianity?”  I think it reflects an early stage of nascent Christianity before Christian intellectuals felt the need to understand the Jesus event more systematically and to correlate it with a broader cultural, philosophical milieu.  So it’s not that Mark set out to be “minimalist.”  It’s rather that his gospel gives evidence of how at least some Christians understood their faith before it was systematized by subsequent generations of theologians. Paul, of course, had already done some of that systematic work and it’s possible the author of Mark was familiar with Paul’s writings.  But Paul himself wrote in response to particular situations and issues local to various churches.  Subsequent generations then over-generalized and over-universalized his remarks and, as Krister Stendahl has written re. Luther, mis-appropriated Paul to make him speak to a radically different cultural situation.  So Mark is, I guess, baby Christianity.  

    We today have grandfathered in centuries of sometimes abstruse conversations and combative councils addressing ever new controversies.  We can’t really go back, as the radical Reformers tried to do (and as the Jesus Seminar still aims to do).  It’s admittedly fun to play with a fledgling gospel like Mark. But just as we can’t really go back centuries to attempt to recreate a first century Christianity today. (Robert Wilcken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings, 1980, shows why we wouldn’t want to. The earliest Christians would horrify us.), neither is it wholly possible to address these texts as though they have just been dug up from some cistern and bear no interpretive history.

    • Does Bob really argue that Mark “set out to be a ‘minimalist'”? Or to put it differently, isn’t he just acknowledging that some Christians might prefer “baby Christianity” — they are adorable, after all, those babies — to a Christianity created out of “abstruse conversations and combative councils”?

      More seriously — though I have no dog in this hunt and am here merely to compliment my fellow Princetonians on so praiseworthy a use of their spare time — I must say that I have learned an immense amount over the years from my students, who know absolutely nothing about the “interpretive history” of Aeschylus or Ovid. It’s precisely what drew me to the discipline of classics 30 years ago. I can’t be sure that I said anything in my Thucydides seminar in 1981 that Bob hadn’t already considered and either accepted or rejected in the course of writing his brilliant study of Thucydides’ history, but the strong message that I got from Bob and Art Hanson and Ted Champlin and Jim Zetzel was that it was entirely possible that I might say something worthwhile. That, in other words, despite (or because of, he wonders, not so parenthetically, recalling now the many, many unoriginal, poorly argued, misconceived scholarly books and articles he has suffered through in the intervening three decades, and not unfamiliar with what conditions make possible originality, inasmuch as he was taken as a child to visit Flannery O’Connor, the novelist and short story writer, whom the classicist and translator Robert Fitzgerald introduced to Sophocles and his brethren, with the happy result that the young woman from rural Georgia, notwithstanding her unfamiliarity with German scholarship on Oedipus Tyrannus, managed a shockingly original reimagining of the tragedy in her novel Wise Blood, and putting aside the many other examples he might offer — Michael Ventris, anyone? — of “amateurs” achieving what academic specialists could not) my complete ignorance of what anyone had said about the Aeneid in the two millennia since its publication, my mind and my willing heart are what matters.

  4. Bob, I like what you have to say about Mark. It’s been so long since I read the New Testament that I am in no position to contribute anything of substance. I can say that you persuaded me that *enargeia*, negative authority (trademark Bob Connor!), and “sonship” are of crucial importance in understanding and appreciating this gospel.

    I especially like the pull between negative authority and minimalist Christianity (another WRC trademark!). I say “pull” because there is a sense in which not saying something is saying (potentially) everything. If I leave something to your imagination, the possibilities are endless, aren’t they? Do away with dogma, then, and rather than paring down Christianity, perhaps you make possible something incredibly rich. Something beyond, something truly “superstitious.”

    I think about Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral.” You know it. Minimalist prose. Story: A blind man visiting our protagonist and his wife. The men stay up late drinking and smoking pot with the TV on. A program about the Middle Ages. The blind man asks his host to describe a cathedral to him. No go, can’t do it. Then he suggests that the man draw it for him, while the blind man follows his friend’s hand over the paper. Here’s the ending:

    “Close your eyes now,” the blind man said to me.

    I did it. I closed them just like he said.

    “Are they closed?” he said. “Don’t fudge.”

    “They’re closed,” I said.

    “Keep them that way,” he said. He said, “Don’t stop now. Draw.”

    So we kept on with it. His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper. It was like nothing else in my life up to now.

    Then he said, “I think that’s it. I think you got it,” he said. “Take a look. What do you think?”

    But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

    Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”

    My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

    “It’s really something,” I said.

  5. To Gary Pence: I know that I speak for both of my fellow Renegades when I tell you what a joy it is to find someone willing to devote the time, as you have, to commenting at length on our venture here. We really appreciate your taking our work seriously enough to criticize as thoughtfully as you do. While we feel that our main contributions, if any, derive from the rigorous academic discipline we all submitted to in graduate school, and continue to pursue into our advanced years as classicists, we all feel we have a great deal to learn, and appreciate the light you help to shed on our project.

    We try to keep up to date on some things, anyway. We’re all very much aware, for instance, of “Q” theory, and have referred to it almost from the beginning of our blog. I don’t recall that either Bob or Rick has claimed chronological priority for any evangelist in particular. My own impression is that both Mark and Matthew have access to Q (and/or Q2, Q3, etc.). Often each translates Q (presumably from the Aramaic) in his own words, and their translations will then differ slightly; but when their texts are identical, as they so often are, I have the impression that it is Mark who copies Matthew, and not the other way around. I gain that impression not from any initial bias, but from the experience of actually working through the original words, in context, of both evangelists during my two years of translating the New Testament in its entirety. I readily admit, however, that this remains only an impression, and I’m certainly open to argument. As a non-believer, I have “no dog in this hunt,” but at the same time find no compelling reason, so far, to disregard the unanimous judgment of the early church fathers (including a classical scholar the likes of Clement of Alexandria) as to Matthew’s priority.

    As far as contemporary biblical scholars are concerned, I’ve perused a great deal of their work over the years since taking the class with Bruce Metzger at Princeton. In general, I admit to being consistently underwhelmed by the quality of their scholarship and the level of training they generally receive in Greek. It grieves me to learn that Henry Alford’s commentaries now “carry no weight.” True, his introductory treatise for each NT book is a mix of nineteenth-century piety and learning without benefit of the finds at Oxyrhynchus and Tebtunis. But his line-by-line commentaries are a different story. For me, Alford’s 1850s English prose, accompanied by abundant testimonia in every other relevant language, is a delight to read; but I suppose that, for modern biblical scholars, with their uneven backgrounds in Greek, English, Latin, and German, it must be as inscrutable as is Shakespeare to the American high school student. Yet I find that, time and again, when I want an answer to a philological or textual question on the New Testament, it’s been Alford alone who can give it.
    Nevertheless, many thanks for the ref. to Streeter’s work. It’s been easy to find on-line. A superficial perusal informs me of his surprising acceptance of the tradition that Mark is the “John Mark” of Acts and the subsequent apprentice of Peter. I intend to read further into the book and will look forward to any insights it may offer.
    In the meantime, many thanks again for your own insights and your positive contributions to our site!
    ~ Bill Berg

  6. To: Bill Berg

    Why am I so exercised about the priority of Mark? It’s because I was introduced to it my first year at seminary by Fred Danker (later the editor of the second and third editions of what has become BDAG, i.e. Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed, U. Chicago, 2001, and who, like all the other New Testament professors at my school, had doctorates in classics, not in New Testament studies), who used Streeter’s, The Four Gospels, as a text. But we also used Huck-Lietzmann, Synopse der drei ersten Evangelien, Mohr-Siebeck, 1950, to test out Streeter’s theories. With the synoptic texts lined up in parallel columns I laboriously underlined with separate colors texts common to all three gospels, texts common to Matthew and Luke but not Mark, and texts unique to Matthew and Luke. The object was to plot the editorial differences and similarities among those texts and hypothesize their cause. The often word-for-word similarities between Matthew and Luke were largely confined to sayings of Jesus, hence, the Q hypothesis. And the fact that these similarities often matched word-for-word showed that Q was in Greek, not Aramaic. Of course, all three gospel writers would have had access to other fragments, stories and logia, from the tradition that they could incorporate into their works.

    The conclusion we drew was what I described in my earlier post. Streeter argues for a four-source theory. Others have argued for a two-source theory. In the years since I engaged in that exercise the discussion of “the synoptic problem” has gotten more complicated like just about everything else in the scholarly world. But the priority of Mark and Matthew and Luke’s dependence on Mark rather than the reverse has remained solid. Willi Marxsen, Der Evangelist Markus, was an early scholar to apply redaction theory to the Gospel, illustrating how the work previously done on source theory could help to define the editorial and hence theological interests of the writer. How each writer used his sources helped to determine the theological thrust of his work. So the relationship of Mark to the other gospels is of more than passing import.

    When I wrote that Alford carried no weight, I didn’t mean to imply that his work is worthless. He was clearly a scholar of no mean talents, and his linguistic comments can still be helpful today. I’ve added his commentary on the gospels to my Google Books. (BTW, in the context of this discussion, look at his comment on Mark 1.11, “I mention these things to shew how improbable it is that Mk. had either Mt. or Lk. before him.”) But he is a mid-19th century writer. HIs work has been superseded by many others. He is no longer cited. He belongs to the history of interpretation, not necessarily in one’s current toolbox.

    I worried that my previous post was too abrasive, not convivial enough, carping rather than congenial. But you guys asked for critique so I took you at your word. All my life I’ve been something of a renegade myself so I’m drawn to an enterprise that so labels itself and, of course, to any exercise to which Bob Connor might lay his hand. You are engaged in a fascinating conversation, it’s fun to watch and an honor to be allowed in. Thank you for your gracious welcome.

  7. And thanks for your gracious comments in return! Sorry I didn’t recognize your name at first (having spent four decades in exile from the groves of academe). Fascinated by your description of the work in Danker’s seminar; hope you find the time to favor us with comments as we move ahead in John. ~ Bill

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