The Renegades launched their mission in late 2012 by reading Mark together. These pages record the resulting email exchange. We’ve tried to combine the close reading we’d bring to a classical Greek text with the sense of wonder that a first encounter with Mark’s strange narrative might inspire.

Saint Mark, Book of Kells

Saint Mark, Book of Kells

I read the first bit of Mark last night and woke up thinking about it. Strange. I hadn’t awakened thinking about the text when reading Aeschylus recently, or other texts over the years, as best I remember. The questions in my mind came, I guess, from my usual predilection for a reader-response approach to texts, pretty deeply ingrained in me by now. I always want to ask not “What do we know about the author?” bur rather ” Who’s the reader? Who’s the reader the text is creating?”

Those questions took an oddly personal turn when I opened up Mark. I found myself asking “Who do I have to be in order to understand this text?” I don’t mean that in a theological sense — ”Do I already have to be a Christian to understand it?” — but in a more practical one, “What puzzlement do I have to put up with if I’m going to keep reading this work? Will those puzzles ever get resolved?” I was wondering, for example, what this “good news” in verse one was exactly. Was it that the Romans would soon be thrown out? that the royal line of the house of David would be restored? That some other new kingship was about to emerge, that my sins will be forgiven if I get baptized, that I don’t have to get circumcised to be saved? or what? No answer. So far it’s wide open.

There is, however, a prophecy, right off, from Isaiah, whom I’m supposed to know about, but the prophecy wasn’t about this Jesus, as anyone who listens to Handel’s Messiah would expect (“For unto us a son is born…”). Mark pays no attention to all those good Christmas stories in Matthew (did he just not know them or was he deliberately shrugging them off?). The prophecy is about someone named John.

I don’t put much stock in prophecies. They are a good way to lose money. And my literary critical principles don’t let me interpret one text by saying, “Now you see what it really means; it’s about what we see in another, much later text.” Ow! But I guess I have to be patient for a while about prophecies here, even tolerating the idea that they might be an empty gas tank, needing to be “filled up” with meaning from long-after-their-time. It makes me itchy. But I follow the text along. I don’t want to give up on it, at least not just yet. It keeps burrowing into my brain.

Then I meet some people who seem to share something like my moving along in the text. When Jesus meets the first of his fishermen pairs, I don’t get the explanation that I need, anymore, apparently, than they did. Did they know he had been baptized by the charismatic John? That he had gone on his own shaman-like withdrawal into the wild? That someone had heard a voice at that baptism, or seen a dove fluttering around in some special way? Did they know he had authority? Maybe not; certainly not as far as the text lets on. Jesus just plays a word game with them (fishers of men) and they follow him. That’s the grand scale of what I as a reader am playing out on a smaller, much less life-mutating scale –- following along even though I have questions galore, but no answers at this point.

Why would Peter and Andreas do that? Why would I keep reading?

rick pacific crop 3RICHARD McKIM  11/17/12
Your thoughts, Bob, remind me of Keats on negative capability — residing comfortably in mysteries “without any irritable [read: itchy!] reaching after fact and reason.” I think the reader Mark’s “creating” or addressing has that capability — believes in prophecy, and considers Isaiah’s to be (mysteriously) actual evidence for who John was, who he must have been. And I take it that the fishermen don’t know anything about Jesus — that’s the point. They can sense who he is, mysteriously, just as the demon recognizes him in the first exorcism in 1:24. The fishermen follow him just because he tells them to, in a voice they react to in effect the way the demon does: “I know you,” says the demon, “you’re the blessed one of God” (ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ).

I share your surprise at how vague the opening reference to the good news is. What news? There’s the same vagueness about J’s teaching. What teaching? Mark leads with exorcisms & miracles — those are clearly the selling points for him. We’ll hear almost nothing about the content of J’s message till much later, except for the two words in 1:15 — “repent & believe” (shades of Luther!).

I’m struck by how parochial J seems at first — nickel-and-dime miracles in backwater towns. Small potatoes compared to Mohammed marshaling armies, Moses leading the people out of Egypt. But isn’t that exactly how God would go about becoming human, if he did? Flummoxing us all by appearing in this paradoxically humble way.

On a final philological note, it’s somehow characteristic of Christianity that you can’t get through the first sentence of the earliest gospel without running into a maddening textual glitch. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, [son of God].” Did Mark write υἱοῦ θεοῦ or not? My classics training tells me this is a classic interpolation — much easier to explain why someone added it than how anyone could leave it out by accident — though I see scholars have tried to save it. (“There’s a lot of ου’s in a row so a scribe may have skipped over a couple,” etc.) Any takers for “son of God”?

CONNOR  11/18/12
Off and running! I especially like the idea of “negative capability.” I could use some. Will work on that, or maybe see if I can stop blocking it. Which is it, I wonder?

But I do have a lingering fear that if one slides into negative capability too easily (not my problem) one may relax too much in reading what is, I suspect, a very complex and challenging text. (not “the simplest of the gospels”). I am going to be very careful not to try to read this text in a warm shower.

bill berg photo crop 1WILLIAM BERG  11/19/12
Sage advice, Bob, and I’m going to try to skate precariously between my own “negative capability” and my tendency to chew more than I bite off. With Mark, however, I’m definitely spending too much time in that warm NC shower because he’s so entertaining!

What he’s done with this reader is to send me as a child back to the Saturday matinee, wide-eyed, taking everything in, accepting and delighting in all the mystery. Of course Peter & Andrew drop everything to follow him — he’s a Magic Man! Yes, I’m sitting wide-eyed at the feet of this talented old Jewish tale-teller with that Torah-sized (to judge by the length of the chapters) scroll in his lap. Every congregation (not every individual — books were expensive) must have wanted one; what a wonderful tool it must have been for converting the Gentiles, for almost hypnotically fixing their minds on the mystery!

Back to the Saturday matinee: I find Mark’s style extremely cinematic, particularly his use of the present tense. Call it “annalistic” or “historical” all you want, it’s almost completely lacking in the other Gentile gospel (Luke), and I’m convinced Mark uses it judiciously rather than perfunctorily. No sooner has Jesus seen the spirit descending upon him, and heard his father’s voice, than the same spirit is flinging him out into the desert, Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον (1:12). The whole thing, baptism + desert, happens in one fell swoop, almost as a single action. Pretty exciting, pretty cinematic.

Lots of nice pan + zoom shots, as well, using the present. Καὶ εἰσπορεύονται εἰς Καφαρναούμ. καὶ εὐθὺς … «Now they’re coming into Capernaum, and right away …» (1:21). Sometimes, the present really does sound perfunctory, especially in all the instances of λέγει and λέγουσι. But tell me what you think.

Rick, thanks for making me ponder υἱοῦ θεοῦ, which I hadn’t done previously, because the Perseus text, which I find pretty reliable on the whole, brackets it. I think if I’d been Mark, I wouldn’t have written Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ because it sounds (to my ear) so jingle-y — but then I’m not Mark. Elsewhere in Mark, he’s called “son of God” apparently only in 3:11, and that from the mouth of a demon, which could be just a variant, in demon-speak, of our ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ in 1:24.

On the other hand, υἱοῦ θεοῦ in 1:1 could be a genuine and indirect way of dishing Matthew and his interminable genealogy, in harmony with Paul’s whacking of Matthew in 1 Timothy 1:4: “fables and endless genealogies that beg questions rather than presenting what God has organized based on the Faith.” Just say he’s the son of God; that’s enough of a genealogy! (So much for the fables, too, Bob — no more Xmas stories!) Fascinating issue, anyhow, and I still stand with mind akimbo on it.

Thanks, Bill, especially for the alert about the present tense which I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t “felt” & which really makes a difference. The cinematic analogy is spot on. As for υἱοῦ θεοῦ, since the ms evidence is apparently debatable, I go back to Bob’s question as to who Mark’s reader is. Someone for whom the honorific “Jesus Christ” is enough of a hook to keep him reading, or someone who needs “son of God” as an attention-grabber since otherwise he’d say “Who’s that & why should I care?”

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3 thoughts on “READING MARK”

  1. Gary Pence said:

    Either εὐθύς or εὐθέως occurs 84 times in the New Testament, 41 one of them in Mark. In Mark everything is immediate. The author also uses the historical present more than the authors of other gospels. David Rhoads (Mark as Story, 1999, and Reading Mark, 2004), who has committed the entire gospel to memory and makes public recitations of it, argues that the gospel was written for such oral recitation and that its oral character accounts for its compression and immediacy.

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