What the Gospels Mean

May 27, 2007

Looking for a little light Memorial day reading?  Well… this isn’t so light.  It’s my final exam from my Bible class this past year.  The most important paragraphs are summarized here:

(1) In Mark, the tension for the modern interpreter comes from reading it without being in a powerless, oppressed situation- especially when removed from the first century context.  Such a reading removes the context of the original authorship and audience.  For most white, straight, middle-income, male audiences in the United States, the stories in Mark become metaphors for completely unintended issues because it is difficult to acknowledge that they are the new power-holders.  Perhaps they are not as oppressive as Pilate, the scribes, or the Pharisees, but nonetheless they hold the power in this country and it is difficult to gain acknowledgement of such a power system in our socio-economic system.

(2) Looking at how we interpret the text in our situation today, we also have to make sure that we keep “fresh eyes” to the text.  We have to ensure that “the tradition of the elders” does not become so ingrained that we lose the original message and intent of the Scripture- in this case that it is not so important to have simple rules that one follows as it is important to have deep virtues by which one lives one’s life in relation to one’s neighbor.  That does not mean that we have to discard the tradition of the elders, but it means rather that we use it to help inform our views as we seek to come anew to the text rather than taking it blindly.  If we make the Patristic Fathers, or the founders of the reformation, or anyone else an idol then we will be in exactly the same place as the Pharisees in this passage.  And that would simply put those Fathers, theologians, and reformers, in a position of greatness and power that I do not think is in accordance with Jesus’ teaching in this gospel.  Rather we must take more time to learn first what is going on in the world of and behind the text so that we can try and understand how the text affected the people to whom it is addressed before coming to our own decisions about what the text is doing, and to whom.

     The interpretive key for the Gospel according to Mark can be found at 10:35-45.  In this passage James and John ask Jesus for special positions of power.  Jesus responds by telling them that greatness comes not from being exalted but from lowly servanthood.  For the world of James, John, and the audience, this is a tremendous paradox to the pax romana and its client/patron system of authority, power, and prestige.  The disciples, having been angered by James and John’s political maneuvering to get special positions in the kingdom in v. 41 are instructed by Jesus that the way to greatness is not by maneuvering for special power at all, but “whoever wishes to become great among you must be slave of all” (v. 44).  Jesus has come to give his life as an economic “ransom for many” (v. 45), so that the slavery that his audience can so identify with is part of the way to the freedom that Jesus provides.  From a first century point of view, this is not a metaphor at all, but a statement about daily life and a man who identifies with it, providing hope to those who are oppressed and downtrodden by their current circumstances.  (Note:  the ‘ransom’ has been used to justify warped atonement theories over the centuries but for the first century subject of the Roman empire, the ransom was a real one, meant to buy freedom from the empire, nothing more.)

      Mark is full of such examples.  In 10.17-31, just prior to the above, Mark provides another such example where a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven.  In response, Jesus tells him he must give up his worldly possessions.  Again, this is a marked contrast to the status quo— for the kingdom of earth, in the first century, worldly possessions are a sign of tremendous power and influence.  Jesus says (remarkably) that to gain influence in the kingdom of heaven, these belongings are meaningless:  God takes care even of those who cannot imagine themselves cared for because they have nothing.  After Peter gets worried (“dimness” of disciples is typical in Mark), Jesus reassures them with “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”  (v. 31).

      Another example of the “last is first” theme can be found in 9:33-37, another story about who is the greatest.  This time, the disciples are explicitly arguing about who is the greatest.  Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (v. 35).  To reinforce the message of lowliness instead of exalted greatness, he uses children as an example for his comparison in v. 37:  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  Children were the lowest members of the household (Coogan, p. 75 NT).  By raising up the lowest in the household and again raising up the lowly servants in v.35, Mark again uses Jesus to make a statement about power and the way the coming kingdom will be so very different from the world they live in now.

       I have presented these passages in reverse order.  They appear in the text in the following sequence:  The disciples argue about who is the greatest, and Jesus talks to them about power (9:33-37).  A rich man asks how to gain eternal life, and Peter is also seemingly worried about it (10:17-31).  Jesus continues to insist that the value system of the present mindset just isn’t going to work—that “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31).  Finally, James and John still do not get it, continue to pester Jesus about a powerful position in heaven, and the rest of the disciples find out about it and become angry (10:35-45).  Jesus again asserts the same message—Mark makes the climax of the section with a statement about imperial order in v.42, identifying those whom are known to be “great” and “powerful.”  He then emphasizes yet again that the way to be “great” is to serve, and that Jesus will give his life in order to buy out the indebtedness of the poor and the slaves—the “ransom for many” (v.45).  It is a dramatic narrative and the sequence of events tells us that these displays of power are important to Mark, but it loses much of its meaning in a 21st century context since we cannot easily understand them without also understanding some of the first century way of life.

      Mark is also a distinctly Jewish text, another characteristic easily lost on a 21st century non-Jewish audience.  The prologue (1:1-15) clearly represents a reference to the Jewish heritage and tradition of the author and intended audience—it establishes the narrative as a story of the “New Exodus” of Israel when viewed through a first century Jewish lens.  Verses 2-3 are conflations of several passages in the Old Testament—Isaiah 40:3, Exodus 23:20, and Malachi 3:1.   All of these passages convey the expectation of restoration or deliverance, and establish that this story will be a story about the Messiah—the one to deliver Israel from its current oppressed state under the Roman Empire, just as Moses delivered Israel from the oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh.  The rest of the prologue entrenches the story in Israel’s heritage:  Jesus goes through the water of baptism (v. 9-10) just like Moses went through the water in the Reed Sea, and then he goes into the wilderness for forty days (v. 12-13) just as Moses and the Israelites were in the wilderness for forty years before coming to the promised land.

      Jesus’ main opponents in Mark are the scribes.  Mark’s problem with the scribes is not their theology, however, but rather their authority and their power.  In 12:38-40 Jesus is teaching in the temple.  He explicitly says to beware of the scribes, because they are only concerned with appearances and their policies oppress the poor/widows.  He also confronts them in 2:1-12, when the scribes challenge his authority.  Jesus toys with them, and finally heals the paralytic in order to show the scribes that he does have the authority to forgive sins (since the audience and Jesus himself would have believed that physical infirmity was a result of sin in prior generations).

      In addition to the prologue and challenging the authority of the scribes, Mark shows us the authenticity of his Jewish roots through revealing the mayhem of the war and the destruction of the temple during the era in which he wrote this gospel (around 70 CE).  We can see this in 12:1-12—the parable of the vineyard.  Jesus compares the violence in the world around him to an absentee landlord, who does not treat his tenants well.  Violence leads to more violence, and finally the vineyard is stripped from those who reside in it.  There is neither a father nor a God figure in this allegory, but we do see the scribes and Temple authorities, who were actual absentee landlords (Coogan, p. 80 NT), in the metaphor.  As such, this parable describes a scenario where the temple authorities are unjust to the servants of their patrons, they are unjust to Jesus (the beloved son, v. 6), and they eventually are killed and replaced by their patrons as a result of their disobedience and injustice.
 As Jesus emerges from the temple in 13:1-2, one of the disciples comments on the size of the stones and buildings.  Jesus responds with a prophecy that the temple will fall.  This closes the sequence that began with 11:15, and ended with the dead fig tree on the temple mount in 11:20.  The dead fig tree is also symbolic of the destruction of the temple/Jerusalem with the war in 70 CE.  These passages are Mark’s commentary that the power establishment will/has fallen and Jesus is the new temple authority.

      Even (or especially) in war, Mark is writing a Jewish message for a Jewish people.  When Jesus heals the leper in 1:40-45, for example, Jesus sends him to a priest for ritual cleansing.  There is no indication that he wishes to abrogate Jewish purity law.  But the message is also available for those outside the Covenantal relationship who try:  when the Syrophoenician woman begs for Jesus to exorcise her daughter of demons in 7:24-30, Jesus tells her (in no uncertain terms) that he is for the Jews.  But her response gathers his compassion, and he ultimately does what she asks so that Gentiles may participate in Jesus’ benefits too.

     Ultimately, Mark writes for a Jewish audience.  This is a community which has suffered under domination, identifies with the oppression and hope of the Exodus story, and looks to the hope of the restoration in the kingdom that Mark provides through Jesus.  They want the power system to be turned upside down so that all will be able to benefit in the kingdom.

     The Gospel according to John, however, is very different from Mark and the other synoptics.  In John, Jesus is the one who reveals God by descending from heaven, ascending again, and sending the paraclete.  Conversely, in the synoptics Jesus has been working to bring about the kingdom of God in the age to come, sometimes speaking prophetically, but more often by reinterpreting the existing Covenantal relationship with God.

     John takes on this different quality because it emerged in a different community and time than the synoptics.  Rather than being based in Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism as the synoptics are, John emerged from Apocalyptic/Merkabah/Kabbalah Judaism.  For the Merkabah community, after the destruction of the temple the way to God was through aesthetic ascent—thus the vertical nature of Jesus in John.
Back to Mark, tension of the hermeneutic (interpretive) circle comes from reading it without being in a powerless, oppressed situation- especially when removed from the first century context.  Such a reading removes the context of the original authorship and audience.  For most white, straight, middle-income, male audiences in the United States, the stories in Mark become metaphors for completely unintended issues because it is difficult to acknowledge that they are the new power-holders.  Perhaps they are not as oppressive as Pilate, the scribes, or the Pharisees, but nonetheless they hold the power in this country and it is difficult to gain acknowledgement of such a power system in our socio-economic system.

     A good example for use of historical exegesis from the class is Mark 7:1-23:  the story of Jesus eating with “defiled hands.”  In this story, the Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples do not keep the Pharisaic purity codes for hand washing and general cleanliness for meals—they say Jesus and his friends are “eating with defiled hands” (v. 2).

     Jesus responds with a quote from Isaiah 29.13, and challenges the Pharisaic interpretation of Jewish law as unrighteous.  He does not challenge the Jewish law itself, but rather the Pharisaic interpretation of the law.  He reinterprets the law using a little bathroom humor, saying “things that come out are what defile” (v. 15) and reframes the entire conversation to then become a moral conversation about what comes out of a person’s heart.

     Looking at the text historically, we can see that Jesus is not against purity laws.  As mentioned above, in 1:44 Jesus sends the leper he healed to a priest for ritual cleansing in support of purity laws.  Jesus does not have a problem with purity laws.  Jesus is Jewish and maintains ritual purity and Torah, from what we can tell.  Rather, he challenges the way in which Torah is interpreted – “the tradition of the elders” (v. 3), but not Torah itself.  He challenges them to see Torah in a new way.

     Going then to the front of the text and looking at how we meet the text today, we also have to make sure that we keep “fresh eyes” to the text.  We have to ensure that “the tradition of the elders” does not become so ingrained that we lose the original message and intent of the Scripture- in this case that it is not so important to have simple rules that one follows as it is important to have deep virtues by which one lives one’s life in relation to one’s neighbor.  That does not mean that we have to discard the tradition of the elders, but it means rather that we use it to help inform our views as we seek to come anew to the text rather than taking it blindly.  If we make the Patristic Fathers, or the founders of the reformation, or anyone else an idol then we will be in exactly the same place as the Pharisees in this passage.  And that would simply put those Fathers, theologians, and reformers, in a position of greatness and power that I do not think is in accordance with Jesus’ teaching in this gospel.  Rather we must take more time to learn first what is going on in the world of and behind the text so that we can try and understand how the text affected the people it is addressed to before coming to our own decisions about what the text is doing, and to whom.

Bibliography
Coogan, Michael D.  The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.Author 2.  Work Cited.  City:  Publisher, year.

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