MARK page 8

MARK Chapter 10: Who is the Rich Man?

W. ROBERT CONNOR   1/25/13
A while ago we jumped ahead to thrash out the significance of the rich man episode in Mark 10, but now that we’ve actually arrived at his cameo in the text I’m curious as to who he was. All three synoptic gospels know the story of a wealthy person who asks Jesus about obtaining eternal life, but they all tell us different things about him. In Luke 18:18 he is τις … ἄρχων, “some ruler.” When he assures Jesus that he has kept the commandments ἐκ νεότητος, “from my youth”, we infer that he is a person of some age. But in Matthew 19:20 he’s identified as a νεανίσκος, “youngster”. Isn’t he also called νομικός, “doctor of the Jewish law”, somewhere?

Mark merely refers to him as εἶς, (“a particular individual” — not τις, the vaguer “someone or other”) But while Mark does not further specify his identity, he’s cinematic about details and emotions. The man comes running up to Jesus, and bends his knee before addressing him. And although he sounds priggish about his observance of the  commandments, Jesus feels love for him —  ἠγάπησεν αὐτόν (10:21), unparalleled in Mark — and even invites him to become a follower (the thirteenth disciple?). But when J stipulates “one more thing” — that, to earn treasure in heaven, Mr Rich must first sell all he has and give the proceeds to the homeless — the love is not reciprocated. Mr Rich goes away not just “grieving” as in the other gospels, but also στυγνάσας — “gloomy”, from στυγνάζω, but maybe with overtones of στυγέω, “to show hatred”. The RSV translation “his countenance fell” gets some but not all of the feeling of revulsion on his face.  We need a good actor for this part. Was Mark there to see the man’s face? Or did he feel that emotion himself?

bill berg photo crop 1WILLIAM BERG
“Isn’t he called νομικός, “doctor of the Jewish law,” somewhere?” You must be thinking of Luke 10:25, and, yes, I think it’s the same guy, though greatly transmogrified and stripped of Mark’s embellishments:

Suddenly an expert in Torah [νομικός] got up and tested him by saying, “Rabbi, what do I have to do to inherit life in the eon to come?” To him Jesus replied, “Well, what’s written in the Torah? How do you read it?” His answer: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.” “You’ve given the right answer,” said Jesus to him. “Do this, and you will live.”  Still wanting to justify himself, the expert asked Jesus, “And just who is my neighbor?”

There follows in Luke the wonderful tale of the Good Samaritan, ending with Jesus’ question, “Which of those three do you think was a neighbor to the fellow who had run into the bandits?” “The one who took pity on him,” said the expert. “Go then and do the same yourself,” Jesus told him. End of story. No skulking off, no baleful grimaces, no lost opportunities.

rick pacific crop 3RICHARD McKIM   1/26/13
Doesn’t his shifting identity suggest a lot of oral transmission prior to writing things down? One talebearer makes him a ruler, another makes him a doctor of Torah, others (rightly, I think) see that it doesn’t matter in this story so long as he’s some rich guy. These variants lead to duplicate stories like the ones in Luke, as the writer-down (wrongly) figures that two different people had basically the same exchange with J.

Let’s not end our revisit to this episode without noting that J extends his give-up-everything demand to cover everyone, not just the rich (10:24-31). No money to give up? Well, how about your family? Brothers, sisters, parents, children, the lot, not to mention your land. Abandon them all “for my sake and the gospel’s.” You’ll get them all back a hundredfold “in the coming time” — plus eternal life! — but somehow this doesn’t make the demand any easier to meet. Worse, even if you do meet it, you’re only saved by God’s grace anyway, not by all that human effort. When J first draws the moral that it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom, the disciples are thunderstruck (περισσῶς ἐξεπλήσσοντο). “Who then can be saved?!” they ask. By human effort, nobody, J says — only God can save you (παρὰ ἀνθρώποις ἀδύνατον ἀλλ‘ οὐ παρὰ θεῷ).

I’ve had my Lutherish say on this passage earlier. Interesting now, though, to see in 10:35-45 how it draws Mark back to the disciples’ quarrel over who among them is greatest. After a brief interlude for J’s third (!) forecast of his death & resurrection, James and John take him aside to ask that he let them be the ones who sit right next to him in his glory days. Now J adds another impossible demand on top of “give up everything”: you must also be prepared to suffer what I will suffer. They claim (fatuously?) that they’re ready to do that, but Jesus replies that, even so, who sits where is not his decision to make. When the other disciples grouse about James’ & John’s effrontery, Jesus reprises the “first shall be last” motif from his response to the earlier quarrel: the greatest of all will be servant of all (διάκονος again), the first among all will be the slave of all — δοῦλος for slave, not παιδίον. Apparently, when J means slave, he says “slave”!

Chapter 11: A Prayer and a Curse

Jesus enters Jerusalem, Andrei Rublev, Russia 15thC

Jesus enters Jerusalem, Andrei Rublev, Russia 15thC

CONNOR   1/27/13
At this point in the narrative we want/expect some more compassionate response to those who for wealth or divorce reasons seem to be excluded by his razor-wire pronouncements. I thought that, as in Luke, we’d get the Prodigal Son as an antidote to ashen-faced Mr. Rich. Instead things race forward. There’s no stopping.

They’re on the road again, Jesus hurrying, the rest dragging their feet it seems. Jesus way out ahead, literally and metaphorically. His followers are amazed and scared. Why? They know that the big-time confrontation is coming up. He’s heading for Jerusalem, power base of the religious establishment. But they don’t know all that is involved, so Jesus prophesies his destiny to the inner circle before his tumultuous entry to Jerusalem in Mark 11.

Jesus enters Jerusalem, Norman mosaic, Sicily 12thC

Jesus enters Jerusalem, Norman mosaic, Sicily 12thC

11.11 Jesus the tourist takes it all in (περιβλεψάμενος) — including, surely, the bedazzlement of Herod’s great temple. Could this have been the first time he saw it?  And the money changers within. He’ll deal with them on the morrow. But first some sightseeing, and perhaps some cogitation?  The temple is after all one powerful form of religiosity, like Chartres, the Parthenon … the building bespeaks the grandeur of God. Does he really want to destroy it as he seems to threaten? Only if one could substitute something better for it. A different kind of temple? Only Mark seems to allow Jesus time for sightseeing. Did he know something the others didn’t? Or did it seem important to him for some special reason?

But Mark says nothing about the Pharisees’ appeal to J to rebuke his cheering followers, as reported by Luke 19:39, nor about the similar objection in Matthew 21:15-16, lodged by archiereis and grammateis offended by the crowd’s cries of “Hosanna to the son of David.” The latter may be part of Matthew’s effort to find as many echoes as possible from the OT. Mark is very cautious about stories that seem to fulfill scripture unless they are directly tied to crucial aspects of his story. But why does Mark overlook the Pharisees’ complaint in Luke? Because he did not witness it himself (or hear it reported by an eyewitness)? Or is he just hurrying us on to the big scenes, leaving peripheral distractions on that cutting-room floor?

Mark also seems not to have heard the whole Lord’s Prayer. Instead he has J expand on his strange cursing of a fig tree with assurances that his believers can move mountains. One might expect him to assure them instead that they, too, can effectively curse their enemies. Instead, Mark picks up phraseology from the Lord’s Prayer and says “If you have something against someone, let it go (ἀφίετε), so that your father in heaven lets go your own missteps (παραπτώματα).” (11.25 — some mss go on to make it more threatening in 26 “And if you don’t, your father in heaven won’t forgive your missteps either.”)

McKIM    1/28/13
Why is it conventional wisdom to omit 11:26, the threat that if you fail to forgive others then God won’t forgive you? They say it’s “borrowed” from Matthew 6:14, where it’s Jesus’ gloss on the Lord’s Prayer that he’s just dictated. But Mark’s version is not word-for-word, and the omission of 26 from some mss seems eminently explicable as an example of haplography — both 25 and 26 end with the phrase “your missteps/offenses” (τὰ παραπτώματα ὑμῶν), so a scribe’s eye skips from the first to the second and he fails to transcribe the intervening words. Seems to me the general agreement to omit is another case of the bad-cop J being swept under the rug by a tradition that wants him to be “nice”.

Yes, Bob, Mark hurries the story along, but before rushing J off to Jerusalem he pauses long enough to record the incidental healing of Bartimaeus. I’m puzzled by his habit of stalling the narrative line with healings that get in the way of the flow, and by his geographical & temporal specificity. Each healing takes place in a particular town, at a particular, often artlessly interruptive time. Seems more like journalism than movie-making. Did somebody keep a log? Or are the specific times & locations invented to anchor free-floating anecdotes so that they seem more undeniably to have actually happened? Mark’s use of the device is remarkably consistent.

Cursing the fig tree, late Byzantine style, no  attribution available

Cursing the fig tree, late Byzantine style, no attribution available

And what’s with the fig trees? First thing J does after sightseeing (11:12) is curse one for having no fruit — when figs aren’t even in season! And the poor tree obligingly withers.

An odd coincidence in John 1:43-51, where a fig tree also gets the short end of the stick. J calls Philip to be a disciple, P runs to Nathaniel to tell him the news, J sees N coming & says “Truly an Israelite, in whom there is no guile (δόλος).” N says how did you know me? J says I saw you under a fig tree, before P called you. N says, “Rabbi, you are the son of God.” J answers, in effect, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. “I recognized you (εἶδόν σε) under a fig tree and you believe?! Amen Amen [two of them!] you’re going to see greater things than that. Heaven opening up, and the angels of God scaling ladders for (ἐπί) the son of man!” What has this fig tree to do with the accursed one (which I don’t think appears in John)? Nothing I guess, and yet the incidents are equally bizarre, and …

When J “explains” the withering of the tree to Peter in Mark 11, he says in effect, “That was nothing. Amen, you can move mountains if you have faith in God!” This seems roughly the same lesson he draws for Nathaniel in John — the tree is small potatoes compared to the greater things faith can do. Could there have been some vague communal memory of J drawing a lesson about faith from a fig tree as a kind of fall guy, the two stories bifurcating like branches from that? Like the multiple rich men, products of years of pre-gospel oral transmission?

That pesky fig tree in John has had countless generations scratching their heads.  This, for instance, in Gill’s Commentary on the Entire Bible: “It is said of Nathanael, in the Syriac dictionary, that his mother laid him under a fig tree, when the infants were slain, i.e. at Bethlehem; which, if it could be depended upon, must be to Nathanael a surprising and undeniable proof of the deity of Christ, and of his being the true Messiah; since, at that time, he was an infant of days himself, and was the person Herod was seeking to destroy, as the Messiah, and king of the Jews.” 

In any case, the vision Jesus presents at the end of the exchange with Nathaniel (John 1:51) — with angels ascending and descending — seems to make him the personification of Jacob’s ladder to heaven:  the angels are actually moving on him (ἐπί) rather than “for” him.  Intriguing image, juxtaposing two verticals, tree and Jesus as ladder! 

Chapter 12: Quarrels and Commandments

CONNOR   1/29/13
I find Mark frustrating. Is it just me — modern, enlightenment or post-enlightenment pseudo-intellectual who wants to know what Jesus really thought and  stood for, and whether I can live the rest of my life on that basis. What was he teaching? Through much of this gospel answers to such questions seem few and far between. Teaching is  eclipsed by  faith-healing – not particularly interesting to anyone who has read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience or visited Asclepius’ shrine at Epidaurus.

We see Jesus’ teaching mostly when someone, typically from the religious establishment, “makes trial” of him (peirazein). They try to trip him up (or “hunt” him, agreuein) with a trick question about the Torah or traditional Jewish practice. The aim is to discredit him. Jesus does them one better, usually citing (but rarely explicating in any detail) passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, often Isaiah.

I may take some pleasure in watching him put down his adversaries, but his victories in these skirmishes come at a terrible price. His teaching is expressed not in comprehensive form, as in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, but seriatim, in piece-meal responses to ad hoc (and ad hominem) questions. The exchanges with his adversaries push him, moreover, to the extreme. I add up these extreme pronouncements as I read and say to myself, “If that’s it — no divorce, utter poverty, self-mutilation — if that’s Christianity, no thanks.” (And don’t tell me it’s my hand that is the offender. The hand is not the problem. This is the verse that led some ascetics to castration. Again, no thanks.)

Hell, illumination from the Hortus Deliciarum by Harrad of Landsberg, Alsace, 12thC

Hell, illumination from the Hortus Deliciarum by Harrad of Landsberg, Alsace, 12thC

This kind of thing stifles the moral imagination. I can’t live my life that way. Nor do I want to torture myself with a standard of moral perfection that no one could possibly meet. There are hints, to be sure, that these bits and pieces of Jesus’ teaching are part of a more humane story, that the Law was made for man, that salvation depends not on moral perfection but on God’s grace. But these parts of his teaching are never front and center in Mark’s gospel. They sneak in through side entrances. We don’t hear much about grace; instead, it’s hard to escape the fear that nothing one can do could possibly measure up.

The scribes and Pharisees have, in a sense, won. They force Jesus into answers that make me ask myself whether I really want to keep reading this gospel.

Later on, however, things take a different turn. In Mark 12 an unnamed grammateus asks Jesus yet another scriptural question. We have heard so many of them that we expect that this too to be intended to trip him up, more peirasmos, provoking more hard-edged doctrine. But instead he asks an apparently simple question: “What sort of thing (poia) is the first commandment?” Not “what is it?” (ti) — he knows that — but “what quality does it have?”, what are its implications? (12:28) At first Jesus merely quotes the first commandment from Deuteronomy 6, but goes on to recite the second as well (“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”). Then he slips in a surprise, asserting that it is really the same as the first (αὕτη — not “like unto it” as in the KJV, but identical to it). If that’s the case then all the commandments, all the law and the prophets are part of this great simplification.

The grammateus now (12:32) says: “Well (καλῶς) have you spoken, teacher, taking your stand on the truth.” In Matthew, Jesus’ interlocutor asks a question in the mode of jesting Pilate, “Who is my neighbor?” But Mark will have none of that. Instead his grammateus repeats in paraphrase what Jesus has said, as if he were meditating upon it, then boldly takes a further step, declaring ritual sacrifice therefore superfluous. Wow! He gets it. All that counts is love of God and of neighbor.

At this point Mark imagines what Jesus was thinking, expressing it with a rare and surprising word — this man is “possessed of intellect” (νουνεχῶς). Then he has Jesus assure him “You are on track for God’s kingdom.”

Yes! We have been waiting for this, a Great Simplification of religiosity and a road to be followed, not a virtue to be claimed. The moral imagination lights up and with it affirmation. I can imagine living my life that way. That way I’d be ready, maybe, for thinking afresh about sacrifice, worship, the temple, the incarnation, and acting in newness of life as well. Maybe I’ll be wrong in my ideas about these matters; certainly I will fail to love as fully as I want. But, yes, that is the road I want to follow.

And as a reader I’m back with Mark. I’m ready for the home stretch.

BERG   1/30/13
“αὕτη — not “like unto it” as in the KJV, but identical to it. If that’s the case then all the  commandments, all the law and the prophets are part of this great simplification.” Yes, that’s what I’d desperately like αὕτη to mean, Bob. Translating Matthew’s ὅμοια as a Euclidean identity is good enough for me (as I indicated much earlier in pushing the Great Simplification), but this αὕτη would really cinch it, and, as far as I’m concerned, would let not only Mark but all of Christianity, its entire inglorious history, off the hook. All is forgiven, folks — all these centuries, you’ve simply misunderstood/mistranslated the central tenet!

But wait — what’s happened to my Greek? “The same” = ἡ αὐτή, and so the text would have to read αὑτή if it’s to say that the two commandments are identical. Instead it reads αὕτη, which means merely “The second commandment is this.” What a difference an accent makes! Can we fix everything, the universe, with a simple emendation?  Then we’d have a match for the identity set forth in Matthew 7:12: Therefore as many things as you would like people to do for you, do also the same for them: that IS the Torah and the prophets! Otherwise we go once again slipping and sliding through history, piety and altruism constantly at odds, leaving a bloody trail as each tries to outweigh the other.

After all, what’s in an accent? Here, I’ve got a good eraser …  Anything to prevent us both from landing back in outer darkness, weeping and gnashing our teeth. Tell me I’m wrong!

Sorry to be a wet blanket, but even Bill’s accent emendation isn’t enough. if Jesus meant that the two commandments are one & the same, it would muddy the water of a major pronouncement intolerably to say right away, as he does, “There’s no greater commandment than these” (τούτων). I think we have to conclude that J means merely “The second is this … ” and thought of the two commandments as distinct.

That said, Bob’s meditation is a beautiful thing about which there’s much more to reflect on.

CONNOR   1/31/13
I don’t want to make the history of Christianity depend on an accent mark, particularly when, learned colleagues, you point out reasons for thinking it just means “this”. More important to me is the approach Jesus takes to that anonymous grammateus, intuiting the depth of his questioning and pointing him on the way. This version of the story has AUTHENTICITY stamped all over it. Matthew and Luke mix it up with other exchanges (including Mr Rich) and reduce it to a narrative formula.  I think Mark caught something important. The other two salvage some of it with “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.”  “Hang” is not identity, to be sure, but for living a life it’s on the right track.

Wholehearted agreement on your last sentiment, Rick. Bob, you’ve highlighted a jewel that Mark has set off in a sea of negativity. Immediately beforehand, the inane and hypocritical question from the Sadducees (who don’t believe in resurrection anyway) about postmortem marital responsibilities.  But immediately after, Jesus lays his own forensic trap for all the bible scholars, followed by a wholesale condemnation of them as poseurs and freeloaders off widows — when suddenly a real widow walks in and tosses her whole livelihood into the collection box! Still good cinema …

Jesus accuses the scribes of consuming the households of widows, offering up grandiose prayers as an excuse (οἱ κατεσθίοντες τὰς οἰκίας τῶν χηρῶν καὶ προφάσει μακρὰ προσευχόμενοι 12:40, virtually identical with Matthew 23:14 and Luke 20:47). The vast majority of commentators seem to think this refers to shady real estate transactions that amounted to confiscations in exchange for prayers. I wonder if the γραμματεῖς really had the juice to do that sort of thing, or if κατεσθίοντες doesn’t just mean literally “eating up,” like the priests I used to see when I was a kid, frequenting the houses of doting parishioners, enjoying their fill of food and drink (they didn’t call them “whiskey priests” for nothing!). The parishioners, of course, were confident of a special mention at the altar next day, to which I, the altar boy, was witness. Well, at least those lonely old guys were leaving the kids alone. (Jesus doesn’t bring that one up.)

Bill, as a non-scholar, I simply assumed your reading of κατεσθίοντες τὰς οἰκίας — “eating them out of house and home” — especially in light of the “as an excuse” part, piety a cover for gluttony. I had a good friend in grad school who later became a Dominican. He used to regale me (as we drank) with how much priests (& friars) like whiskey as a compensation for other things. This passage brought him to mind.

Chapter 12: From Psalm to Parable

David & musicians, Vespasian Psalter, Canterbury, circa 800

David & musicians, Vespasian Psalter, Canterbury, circa 800

CONNOR   2/1/13
As I wait for more and clearer descriptions of Jesus’ teaching what I find in Mark consists of two greatly overlapping things. (1) Replies that aim at beating the grammateis at their own game and up the ante at the same time — “You think you’re so pious, well here’s what real piety would be.” (2) Anti-clerical vitriol and razor slashes — “Priests go home! Take the philologists and Pharisees with you!” It mystifies me how this could turn into organized (i.e., ass-protecting bureaucratic) religion.

But I keep realizing that I am missing things. For example, starting 12:36, just before the rant about victimizing widows, Jesus quotes Psalm 110, in all senses quite obscure to me. But “The big crowd heard him with pleasure.” What am I missing? They liked obscure texts? There was some exegesis Mark leaves out? The crowd was so fed up with the grammateis that anything sounding hostile to them was a joy to hear? HELP!

Not much help, maybe, but best I can do: Jesus quotes David in the psalm saying “The Lord [God] said to my lord [the Messiah], Sit at my right hand …” and argues that, because David calls the Messiah his lord, the Messiah cannot be his son. Thus Jesus contradicts the tradition that the Messiah must be a descendant of David. He also contradicts Matthew, of course, whose scintillating opening verses track Jesus’ genealogy back through David to Abraham. So, while Matthew’s at pains to authenticate J as a son of David, Mark has Jesus himself argue that the Messiah cannot be a son of David. Why?

It’s hard not to see Jesus’ logic-chopping in Mark as a projection backward from a time when early Christians were trying to justify their belief in Jesus as the Messiah despite the fact that he failed the traditional tests. Matthew tries the opposite tack, arguing that Jesus is in fact a descendant of David after all. (If Mark depicts J as arguing that he’s not  and doesn’t have to be, this may explain why, as Bob noted about the entry to Jerusalem, Mark omits Matthew’s reference to the crowd’s cries of “Hosanna to the son of David.”)

But suppose J did in fact make Mark’s argument “while teaching in the temple” (12:35). Why would the crowd delight in this, Bob asks. Maybe (1) because they wanted to believe he was the Messiah and were pleased to get rid of this roadblock. (2) More likely, I suspect, they took delight in the logic-chopping itself — for the same reason that our classical Greeks delighted in hearing the sophists “make the weaker argument the stronger”. People gathered in the temple to hear such stuff not just to get enlightened but to be entertained by the sophistical wit of clever debaters.

Was Psalm 110 obscure? I guess I never thought about that, because it’s become such a mighty lyric in the Christian tradition and sounds so magnificent sung in Gregorian chant (Dixit Dominus Domino meo, sede ad dexteram meam etc.). Being prophetic of the Messiah, it would have been warmly received by the crowd, among whom there are sure to be many, maybe a majority, who “look forward to the consolation of Israel,” as Luke 2:25 puts it. I suppose they interpreted it the way Jesus does, namely that David calls his own future son “my Lord” instead of “my descendant,” which might appear to be a contradiction.

Parable of the Tenants, Codex aureus Eptemacensis, Luxembourg, 11thC

CONNOR   2/2/13
The parable of the vineyard tenants that opens Mark 12 reminds me of Rick’s recent thoughts on J’s sense of himself. Who am I?, he might ask. Mark seems confident that J knows he is in some sense or other the son of God, maybe the Messiah, but there are hints that J is not entirely clear right off about the extent of his mission. With the Syro-Phoenician (infidel dog) woman it sounds at first as if the mission is purely for the Jews, but the idea seems gradually to shape that the Jews have always rejected their prophets and are now about to reject him.

So the parable: the tenant farmers reject and even kill those sent to them (apostello is the verb), so the Big Guy sends his beloved only son and they kill him, too, throwing his body out (for the dogs to gnaw on, I suppose). “What then will the lord of the vineyard  do?” Rhetorical question. We know the answer: Kill the s.o.b.s and find some new tenants. You don’t even need to pass Parables 101 to translate this one. Those who kill the son will be destroyed (hence all the gloomy prophecies that follow) and the grape-growing (symbol of release from mortal bounds?) will be  given to Gentiles.

I think this is mission creep — from skeptical Galileans to the religious establishment in Jerusalem, to us Greeks.

You guys have managed to convince me of at one thing, at least: there is “mission creep” in Mark — intentional, I might suggest, on the part of the author, not of any of his characters. The mission to the Gentiles is a Pauline dogma that is subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, introduced, e.g., the abrupt and intrusive verse 10 of Mark’s ch. 13, amid Jesus’ prediction of the fall: But first it is necessary for the gospel to be preached to all the Gentiles. No such intimations in John, unless you want to count the very ambiguous John 10:16: I have other sheep that are not from this sheepfold. I have to bring them as well; they’ll heed my voice, and there will be one herd and one shepherd.

We’re now preparing for the final big events in Mark (Last Supper, trial, crucifixion). I’m not saying that Mark proceeds in lock-step with the other synoptic gospels, but still they’re pretty close in general outlines. So maybe the most fruitful comparisons we can make from here on out are not with Matthew and/or Luke, but with the one non-synoptic gospel. Mark is still a good cinematographer, but John may have — already, unbeknownst to the others — made his own documentary in his own rough, traditional Jewish storytelling style.

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