Chapters 4 and 5: A Parable and a Madman
W. ROBERT CONNOR 12/16/12
A new manuscript fragment of Mark has turned up in Egypt with significantly different readings from the received text of that puzzling first parable in 4:13-20. I bought it a few years ago from a used car salesman who doubles as a papyri peddler in the bazaar at Alexandria. It has finally been authenticated and I’m releasing it to the scholarly world today! Here’s a translation:
A farmer went forth to sow his field. Since fertilizer and seed are expensive and in short supply, he plowed very carefully, avoiding the rocky areas where the seed was unlikely to take root. Once the preparation was complete, he scattered the seed and immediately raked it into the ground, covering it lightly before birds could come and eat it up. He watered it, and watched closely for the first sign of weeds, which he promptly pulled out. The result was a good harvest and substantial return on his investment. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
The disciples said to Jesus, “What does this parable mean?” And Jesus said, “To you I will explain it, the others will have to figure it out for themselves. The wise sower, of course, is God, and he is sowing the seeds that have the potential to grow, through strict observance of good practice. He does not scatter them promiscuously, but only in carefully chosen places, where the ground had been prepared by Moses and the prophets. The rocky places are the lands of the hardhearted, especially arrogant gentiles. The birds are false prophets, who arise even in Israel. That is what the kingdom of god is like: careful management of resources, strict discipline and high profits. Go thou and do likewise.”
Surely this is better than the blasphemous received text, which presents the divinity as an incompetent farmer — profligate scattering of seed, Hitchcock birds pecking it out, acanthus bushes choking the sprouts to death. Behold the bounty of wise husbandry, and rejoice.
WILLIAM BERG 12/17/12
Way to go, Mark! Forget the popcorn! Is this invaluable ms from the set discovered at Qumran, cave 7? Could it actually be from “Q”? Disappointingly, the Gospel of Thomas (2nd century) sticks pretty close to the received text for this parable.
RICHARD McKIM 12/18/12
My view of the new text is that it’s an ironic gloss cleverly designed to emphasize what J most certainly does NOT say, rather than to put into his mouth what the author thinks he SHOULD have said.
I fear the received text has recast other parables in the same way, distorting God’s management style into something that defies all rational expectation.
The stakes go up: Mark 4 ends with the calming of the storm — J’s most dramatic stroke yet. Then Mark 5 opens with his most impressive exorcism yet, madman amid the tombstones and pigs over the cliff. Maybe I’m starting to buy into Bill’s master-storyteller theory, Mark building suspense as the works of wonder escalate. When J asks the graveyard demon “What’s your name?”, the reply “I am Legion” can still shiver the spine of this teenage horror movie fan. And, Bill, note that Legion is the second demonic voice to call J the son of God — ἰησοῦ υἱὲ τοῦ θεοῦ ὑψίστου. (5:7)
Yes, the “wild man in the cemetery” episode is a real pinnacle. Had to move the entire film crew across the lake, expensive set there … Thanks for pointing out the “son of God” appellation in 5:7. How come only the demons are “in the know” on this one, while Mark’s Jesus refers to himself consistently only as the “Son of Man”?
“How come only the demons are “in the know …?” I posted an (admittedly tendentious) answer to this a while back. I’ll add now that, if Mark is any kind of craftsman, the demonic address “son of God” that opens 5 is an answer to the question that closes 4: “Who is this whom even the wind & sea obey?” The demons catch on faster than the disciples!
I remember reading your answer and thinking, wow, Jesus seems to know so many other things — past, present, future, and especially what’s going on in other people’s heads, bodies, lives, etc. You’d think he’d know better who he himself is … but maybe not. So now I wonder if the demons, being eternal, have no real part in this passion play, they can live beyond and apart from the roles assumed by others.
Meanwhile, I note that Matthew (8:28-34) reports two madmen in the cemetery, but gives them both short shrift. The poor pigs are drowned again, and the populace turns out, but only to ask Jesus to avoid their town. Shows me what a great cinematographer Mark is here: Focus on a single personality, stay with him after the cure, have him longing at the end to follow Jesus, etc. Matthew, given two madmen, can’t manage more than two demons. Mark, with only a single lunatic, comes up with a legion of demons, one for each pig.
A Christmas digression on love
We went to Christmas morning service. The Book of Common Prayer made us listen to John 1. That gospel takes a very different approach from the traditional Christmas story — no manger, no star, no sheep or camels, no Wise Men with cotton beards glued on. The preacher seemed to know many things that I didn’t about the opening of John: “In the beginning was the logos …” So goes the received text. But she didn’t speak of a logos; she spoke as if the exordium, and Christianity itself, were really all about love. I liked that, but was troubled because the text doesn’t use the word love. Then a light flashed in my normally near-total mental darkness. I knew what was behind her sermon.
Afterward in the vestibule I asked her if she’d ever been to Alexandria. ”Why, yes,” she answered, “my partner and I were there a few years ago.” “Did you go to the bazaar?” “Yes, of course.” “And you met my trusted friend, didn’t you,” I confidently exclaimed, “that used car and papyrus dealer Ahmed!” “How did you know?” she gasped. Feeling prophetic, I gambled on my moment of enlightenment: “May I see the text of the papyrus of John 1 that he sold you?“
Concealing her astonishment, she politely declined. “My partner’s soon to publish it and it’s a bombshell. Dates to the second century, Ahmed assured us. It should guarantee her tenure and she doesn’t want anyone stealing her thunder.” But with true Christian charity she agreed to email me a translation. This was the text of her sermon:
In the beginning was agape [love] and the agape was close to God and God was agape. Agape was in the beginning close to God. All things were created through it and without it there was not even one thing that was created. Agape creates life, that is light for human beings. The light shines [another Berg present!] in the darkness but the darkness did not understand it.
There the papyrus breaks off. But what a find! It makes so much better sense than the received text. So much more palatable than the obscure logos-talk which some transcriber of John garbled it into. “Love” makes the passage appropriate for readings on the birthday of the baby Jesus. We all know how love brightens our lives. And what a relevant message for our time! After all, if everyone loved everyone else we wouldn’t have wars and murders and starvation, would we? We’d all live happily ever after.
Logos-talk, by contrast is quite irrelevant to our day. What we need is love. Keep your eye on the journals of NT studies. The bombshell should go off soon. I suppose there will be skeptics — what do they know? — but at last we have a way of understanding this otherwise opaque and seemingly irrelevant passage.
John’s work is, IMHO, a priceless relic of the viewpoint of the original Jerusalem church, uncorrupted by the Pauline diaspora/Hellenic theology which eventually rendered the Jewish church irrelevant and extinct. (I have no problem, in fact, seeing his gospel as the earliest, pace ecclesiastical tradition, and Mark as essentially a Pauline epiphenomenon.) To John, the logos was something palpably real, not only visibly “pitching his tent among us,” but actually warm and cuddly, as he confirms in the first verse of his first epistle: “It existed from the beginning, we have heard it, we have seen it with our own eyes, we gazed upon it and held it in our arms: we bring you tidings of the logos of life!”
That epistle develops the idea that the logos is in fact the message — or better, the embodiment — of ἀγάπη (love), but it gets there using justice (δικαιοσύνη) as a key intermediary, something Jesus himself harps on when the evangelists give him a chance. Unfortunately translators, from King James’s boys to Dick Lattimore, invariably render δικαιοσύνη as “righteousness,” which to my mind is a horrible betrayal of the intent of that all-too-Greek word. “Righteousness” is a cop-out that lets us look piously upward instead of directing our attention squarely at our fellow human beings, which is where it belongs both in Greek and by Jesus’ rules.
So 1 John 3:10f.: “Here is how the children of God and the children of the devil are clearly distinguished: Anyone not doing what is fair and just (πᾶς ὁ μὴ ποιῶν δικαιοσύνην), and not loving his or her brother or sister, is not from God. Because that’s the message you heard right from the beginning (ἡ ἀγγελία ἣν ἠκούσατε ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς), that we love one another!”
So without justice, there’s no real love — at least that’s what John’s logos seems to say to me.
I want to be the fly in the ointment of this love fest. I much prefer the God of the logos to a God of agape & don’t buy that they’re two words for the same thing. What does it even mean to love everyone? Seems to me a category mistake — “everyone” is not a possible object of that verb — and I’m not ready to concede that John or anyone else in the NT makes it. I can see that we have duties & obligations to each other, even sacred ones, that it feels meet & right to fulfill them, and I love you guys — really I do! But do I love other people just generally?? No, and I don’t see why I should or how I could.
It was either Charlie Brown or Linus in Peanuts who once said “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand!” Charles Schulz was a Christian & lay preacher. I believe his message here is the same as mine, without the cantankerousness: the world would be better off if we felt the reverse.
In any event, I wish you — and all humanity! — a happy new year.
Bill thought I might have some profound truth up my sleeve when I reported on Ahmed’s latest papyrus. I don’t, but I do feel the agape = logos equation is too easy, and leaves something big out. That’s true even if we recognize that the Great Simplification does not require us to love in the universal abstract. It says you’re able to (and hence you should) love the person next door.
New Year, new chapter: Mark 6
Mark 6:14ff tells the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, much like Matthew (14.2-12) and Luke (3.19 f.), but note what Mark adds — who exactly was at the birthday feast, the big guys (μεγιστᾶσιν, an unusual word) and the chiliarchs and the first people of Galilee. He also knows who was sent off to do the bloody deed, (σπεκουλάτορα 6:27 – so the court used Roman-style titles). All this points to a knowledgeable court insider, maybe not there himself but in the loop. Sorry to keep beating the same Herodian horse, but I think there’s a thread here worth following.
To judge from the Jewish Encyclopedia on Herodians, some evangelists evidently wrote “Sadducees” when they meant “Herodians.” Strange, desperate coalition, then, if the anti-Jesus conspiracy involved co-operation of Pharisees with Herodians, no?
The alliance would make sense if momentum were building around the idea that this Jesus was the Messiah, the true king, not the Roman-quisling Herod and his gang. Hence J’s vain requests to tell no one?
I’ve been reading some of Josephus, where Herod is as bizarre as they come. What a scene Judaea must have been — poisonings, parricide, decapitation … Lurid enough for big box-office sales.
In chapter 6, another expensive set: the fate of the grasshopper-eating wild man, followed by the first Loaves and Fishes episode, with a déja vu in chapter 8. I can’t believe the contortions the commentators go through to convince themselves that the same miracle really did occur twice, with the “Duhhh … How are we going to feed them?” reaction the second time around mindlessly attributed to forgetful/inattentive human nature. Why doesn’t it occur to someone that there was a “Q2” somewhere that the evangelists all consulted, whose details (location, number of loaves & fishes, number of diners, leftovers) differed enough from “Q” that they felt obligated to record two miracles instead of one?
Mark is at least alert enough to try to fix things in 8:19ff., where in the midst of discussing the “leaven of the Pharisees and Herodes,” he rather irrelevantly refers to the Loaves and Fishes: “Having eyes, see ye not? And having ears, hear ye not? Don’t you remember when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments you took up? “Twelve,” they answered him. “Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many bushels full of fragments you took up?” “Seven,” they answered him. And he said to them, “You still don’t understand?”
Not sure how that’s supposed to help them understand the “leaven” allegory, but it does seem like Mark’s awkward attempt to authenticate, in retrospect, the doubling of the miracle. Maybe it’s possible to consider Jesus’ “leaven” to be effective in making a single loaf of bread “rise” (=multiply?) so as to feed as many people as necessary. And I suppose, by implication, the Pharisees’ “leaven” might have a lesser, or even opposite, effect on people’s hunger (deprivation, starvation). Still seems a sneaky way of justifying an awkwardly doubled miracle — but anything to save the movie!
The stakes go up again. You thought the calming of the storm at the end of 4 was impressive? At the end of 6, J does the same thing again, but this time while walking on water!
Speaking of doubled miracles, Bill … These two read suspiciously like the same incident, re-imagined the second time with an added flourish. The calming is reported word-for-word the same in both: “And the wind died down” (καὶ ἐκόπασεν ὁ ἄνεμος), amid other echoes. In 6 this episode is linked to the first feeding, soon to be duped itself: the disciples were stunned (ἐξίσταντο) because “they hadn’t understood about the loaves and fishes and so their hearts were hardened.” Man, they’re slow on the uptake!
Oddly, the second feeding, chapter 8, is less impressive than the first — only four thousand instead of five. But J and the disciples set sail immediately after both, setting the stage for the storm. So the feeding & the calming may have been duped as a pair, with the first calming somehow displaced to before the first feeding? Did Mark employ the same sequence-scrambling film editor as Tarantino did in Pulp Fiction?
Something back in Mark 5 stays with me — the woman who touches J’s garment (ἱμάτιον). She does it behind his back — touching just the garment, not his body — but he feels the energy flowing out of him (δύναμιν ἐξελθοῦσαν) and turns to see whose touch it is. She confesses “the whole truth” and he says “Your faith has saved you” and she’s healed.
Does J channel the Qi, the energy that Buddhist meditation and Qi Gong aim to tap into? The Qi is there, all around us, waiting. So also perhaps other forms of δύναμις. If the self is indeed one thing, body and spirit together, then physical means may sometimes be the key in the lock. One touches the ἱμάτιον and the δύναμις flows. The door opens.
Astute observation, Bob. It got me thinking harder about a couple of the miracles in Mark 7 and 8. First the deaf mute in 7:32ff. Jesus takes him out of the crowd and in private put his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spits and takes hold of the man’s tongue and says ἔφφαθα, “Open up!” Jesus is a spitter.
Things get even ickier in 8:22ff, with the blind man: Now they’re coming into Bethsaida. People are bringing him a blind man and begging him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand, led him outside the village, and spat on his eyes. Laying hands on him, he asked him, “Are you seeing anything?” The blind one looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking.” Then he laid hands on his eyes again. The man opened his eyes wide. He was restored! He kept looking and seeing everything clearly.
Actually, Mark is more fastidious than the others. Elsewhere in the gospels, you’ll find the Messiah King spitting on the ground, then picking it up and working it into a nice slurry before laying it on another (?) blind man’s eyes. No remote, sanitized “action at a distance” here. Up close and personal as you can get, Aristotelian-simple, earthy, concrete, nitty-gritty reality.
Saliva. Dirt. I think you’re right, Bob. Matter matters!
It strikes me that if one starts with the incarnation (or the creation of a material world for that matter) you have to take the body (and spittle and slurry) seriously — as potential means of transformation. But what then? Is there no stopping? Do we end up as cannibals eating the body and drinking the blood?
With such a physical understanding of “spirituality”, an immaterial afterlife — fluttering about as a body-less, sexless angel, or absorbed into a cosmic flux — isn’t very satisfactory. Maybe the Islamists have it right — 70 virgins awaiting the Jihadist!
Does Jesus ever promise anyone a resurrection? Eternal life, sure, but when he comes on a corpse, he simply denies it’s a corpse and sets it right back on its feet, instead of mumbling reassurances about life in the world to come, etc. With such actions, plus his preoccupation with food, he seems to go out of his way to affirm and glorify the material world, the only world we know. Set me straight, Rick!
Bill, I’m glad you’ve finally realized that I have the solutions to all life’s mysteries! We’ve got a paradox here, don’t we? Why isn’t death a cause for celebration if the deceased is off to a better world? Why should we care about children getting killed in Newtown if they’re blissful angels now? Why do we cling to our own material lives? Why does earthly life matter at all?
Either (1) because deep down we know that it’s all we’ve got & that happy talk of eternal life is whistling past the graveyard, or (2) because deep down we intuit that this life is part of eternal life, maybe because time is an illusion & every moment of our lives lasts forever, and/or because there’s some kind of accounting & redemption yonder that makes the world of matter matter. (2) is what we eternal-lifers want to believe, but nobody can entirely shake the suspicion that (1) is both the correct & the courageous position to take.
Nietzsche tried for a secular (2) with the doctrine of eternal return. If my life will recur infinitely moment-by-moment in the endless cycle of the material world, then every moment takes on tremendous weight. But this scenario strikes me as conceptually clumsy, not to mention implausible. A more elegant effort to picture how (2) could be true is Purgatory — not a Biblical concept of course, but a brilliant extrapolation by the tradition — and Dantean to boot, which is good enough for me. We pay for our sins, so there’s an accounting, but there’s light at the top of the mountain, so there’s redemption too.
Jesus by tradition is a (2) guy. Matter matters because somehow it’s integral to the big picture of the Kingdom, tho’ the Kingdom also transcends it. To take his valorization of things physical as showing that he’s really a misunderstood (1) guy — not that you go that far, Bill — requires us to jettison so much of what’s been reported & thought about him in the past that there’s nothing left except what makes him inoffensive to us in the present, a run-of-the-mill guru telling us to do & feel what we already think we should do & feel anyway. Self-flattering — Jesus agreed with us! — but not very interesting.
As for Bill’s point that J never promises anyone resurrection, my pet theory that J doesn’t know who he is suggests that this is because he doesn’t fully realize the significance of his own — that he will end up embodying the promise of eternal life for everyone. He foresees that he himself will get resurrected (prophecies soon to come), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he comprehended (in his material life) all that his resurrection would portend.
I find Yin and Yang useful in thinking about the paradox of matter and transcendence. It’s easy to imagine one triumphing over the other, as advocated by many ideologies on the one side and by religious asceticism on the other, but they wrestle with and thereby strengthen each other. I find the more intensely I affirm materiality, physicality, sexuality, the more richly I experience spirituality. I have no clue about what happens after one “tastes death” (Jesus’ phrase in Mark 9), but that’s an interesting metaphor for a guy so deep into feeding people. If in this life materiality feeds spirituality and fellow dinner guests, then why not feel confident this will continue in some form or other? The Tantric says go deeper into physicality if you’re serious about spirituality. Could that be right?
Speaking of J’s predilection for grunge, he goes off the deep end in defense of dirty hands in 7:6-13. The muckety-mucks catch his disciples eating without washing up — I sense exasperation from Mark about all those picky hygiene rules (7:4) — and J responds obliquely to say the least. First he quotes Isaiah about mere lip service to God from those who follow “the commandments of men” (including the hygiene rules, apparently), then veers off to the subject of parents. He says, “You do a fine job [καλῶς — sarcasm, I take it??] rejecting God’s commandment” — via Moses, to respect mom & dad on penalty of death — when you let folks off the hook of their obligations to parents because of some anthropoid tradition that a child can say “What I owe you is korban, i.e. δῶρον” and thereby wash his hands (so to speak) of the whole business.
Here’s a bunch of attempts at translation of that last bit, all resorting to paraphrase —
for example, “But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ ”
I find this whole tirade obscure. What Jewish tradition is he referring to? Is it really so terribly hypocritical to put obligations to God above those to parents? Jesus himself advocates disowning your parents, for heaven’s sake! To make it the moral equivalent of washing your hands after using the toilet or whatever seems indiscriminate at best, dripping with a rather overblown & unappealing contempt for tradition generally. “And you do lots of other things like this” (7:13) — so there! Is this J talking, or the early Christian community projecting its own irritation back onto him?
And if that καλῶς isn’t sarcastic, what is it? I don’t think it can mean “you say it’s all right” — Bill, how do you handle it?
Rick, here’s the definition of korban from the Jewish Encyclopedia, essentially “a gift [already] consecrated to God” such that no mere mortal can now derive benefit from it. “This, of course, led to great abuses,” says the JE. I’d agree that καλῶς is here ironic and you’re right, the passage is difficult to construe. I take the break at the end of 7:11 as an aposiopesis, and translate thus:
“You ignore the command of God but keep the tradition of humans. What’s more,” he said to them, “you’re good at putting aside God’s commandment so as to substitute your own tradition. For example, Moses said, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother,’ and ‘Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death.’ But according to you, people who say to father or mother, ‘The help you’d have gotten from me has been given as korban…’ — you no longer allow those people to do anything for their father or mother! You’ve nullified God’s law for the sake of the tradition you’ve received. You do a lot of things like that.”
Yes, it seems to me that Jesus is chewing quite a bit more than he bit off in this case. (Though I’m sure it’s all richly deserved. Let’s use even the flimsiest pretexts to whack those folks!)
I’m liking the notion that the early Jewish/Christian community was under fire for ignoring traditional Jewish rules & put some of their (rather clumsy) self-justifications retroactively into J’s mouth, “expanding” on a core of genuine anti-Law pronouncements from J himself. At least possible?
Don’t you think “allow” (ἀφίετε) a peculiar verb in 7.12? I’d expect “you no longer require them to do anything for their parents.”
“Allow” may seem odd at first, until you realize how much Mark’s dagger is sharpened against the Pharisees and bible scholars, compared with Matthew’s. Mark emphasizes more, I think, their complicity in the crime of parental abuse by saying what amounts to “It’s you who let them get away with doing nothing further for their parents!” And there I detect a hint that the Pharisees’ and bible scholars’ tie-in with the temple treasury, direct or indirect, may influence that permissiveness.
On the general subject of Jesus’ overreacting to a situation, I’m puzzled by his railing at the crowd in 9:19. “How long do I have to put up with you faithless people?” (Ὦ γενεὰ ἄπιστος, ἕως πότε πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἔσομαι; ἕως πότε ἀνέξομαι ὑμῶν;) What’s the problem? Here’s an awestruck, welcoming crowd who’s brought him another opportunity to manifest his magic and the power of God. In his absence, they’d even put their faith in his disciples — in vain, of course, but still, what did they do to deserve such a rebuke? The language reminds me of what you might overhear during a “domestic disturbance.” Is this a personality quirk? Or was he just tired and irritable after the long trek up & down the mountain (let alone the dialogues with Moses & Elijah)? Or do we think these abrasive remarks are directed exclusively at the bible scholars (γραμματεῖς)? Or at the incompetent disciples? If so, Mark could’ve made it clearer.
I’m just starting 9 but wonder if there isn’t a mode of “Holy Man Speak” — unconventional, unexpected, alternately harsh and compassionate, always throwing the listener off balance. Jesus seems to have perfected it, but I bet it was in the OT and maybe among the Greeks, who had Holy Men of their own.
Holy Man Speak — love the concept, Bob! But J’s brand seems unique. This isn’t the only place where he sighs in exasperation at having to endure all these human beings and their damn problems. At the risk of blowing my theory that he doesn’t know who he is, if you’re the son of God & Dad makes you go & become human to experience what it’s like, it might well turn out to be, among other things, tiresome. They’re all so needy! They’re all so thickheaded! “Heal me, explain it to me” … I can’t get a moment’s peace. I left the life of Riley in the Trinity for this?!
Even if you have just a subliminal sense that you’re special somehow …