Summary Mark Chapter 1; addenda

Re-reading my last  2-3 posts, I realize there are a few things that deserve a bit more attention than they got.

1) John the Baptist

There has been a concerted effort to tie John the Baptist to the Essenes, who were more or less the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. As humans, we like patterns. We like endings to books and movies where all the questions and hanging threads get answered and resolved and nicely & neatly tied into a pretty bow.

Life, unfortunately, is not like that.

More: always, always be suspicious of any historical thesis that ties up all the loose ends*. It’s very likely wrong. Case in point: What caused the Great Depression?  Economists and historians are still arguing over this. That no one has been able to find The Answer is a pretty good indication that there is no Answer, so be suspicious of anyone telling you that it was all…[fill in the blank with pet thesis…]. As for the negative side of this, the main ‘evidence’ that JFK conspiracy theorists provide for additional gunmen, etc, is that the story as we have it, does not tie up all the loose ends, and it seems improbable on its face. It does. But that’s how it works. Just because the guy in the crowd opened an umbrella doesn’t mean this had anything to do with the assassination. Coincidences happen all the time.

Those who would have John be an Essene really have no actual evidence to support this.  At least, I’ve never seen any. If there is any, let me know and I’ll revise my opinion. Akenson did an excellent job in pointing out that “Judaism” at the time of Jesus was a splintered, hydra-headed thing, lacking any real central cohesiveness, and had nothing like the consistency of a truly ‘organized’ religion.  And, as anyone who’s read a history of Christianity will realize, the central beliefs of Christianity were not fixed for 3-400 years, and, in fact, are still in flux. So, to see the Baptist as an Essene is to connect two dots that may not have had a connection. John may have believed similar things, he may have been influenced by the Essenes, he may have been a member of the community for a while. But, given that he was a solitary figure, IMO, indicates that he was not an Essene. Rather, he was sui generis, a lone gunman, if you will. He was more OT prophet, or later Christian hermit than a member of a group.

And, remember, if the gospel writers wanted to hitch themselves onto John’s lingering popularity, why not stress that he, too, belonged to an even older community? Remember: to the Greeks and Romans, antiquity was a very good thing. It granted prestige and seriousness. The further back the Jesus followers could go, the more street cred they gained in the eyes of religious seekers, of whom there were very many at the time. This is why, ultimately, the earliest Christians retained the connection to Judaism: it gave them an ancient pedigree.

And, read Robin Lane Fox’s book Pagan and Christian , and you’ll realize how multi-faceted religious thought was in the pagan world.  It was all over the place. So lots of thinkers and communities shared lots of the same beliefs.

(h/t J W Cole, Prof of Classics; R.I.P)

2) The sacred breath

Seriously, whenever you read ‘holy spirit’ in the NT, substitute ‘sacred breath’. It is every bit as accurate a translation as it’s more common rendering, and it gives you a very different idea of what was going on. The sacred breath came down in the form of a dove. What it does is eliminate the separation implied–linguistically in English–of God and the Spirit. The breath of God is not seen as something separate from God; the thought is borderline nonsensical. But we who are the products of a dualistic culture, in which the soul, or the self, or our spirit, are seen as separate from our physical bodies do see a distinction between Spirit and the Entity. This is a tad more problematic when dealing with a non-corporeal entity like God, but the picture is there. Rather than see the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, think of God acting through its breath. Just as God breathed on the water in Genesis 1:2.

Because, remember, the Third Person, and the Trinity itself, were not really invented–deduced, is probably the most accurate term–until well into the Third Century. As far as that goes, Jesus as the Second Person really was a bit hazy for quite a while, too. This led to the Arian Heresy, in the second and third centuries. The Arians held that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, and that helped solidify the orthodox position that Jesus was somehow indistinguishable from the Father (don’t want to go into the Christology here. Sorry!)

The whole point of ‘sacred breath’ is just to get out of the mindset that there was a Holy Spirit in the mind of the author of Mark.


3) Mark as Intermediate

Having tossed the idea of Mark as an intermediate step between Paul’s conception of The Christ, and Matthew’s idea of Jesus the Christ from birth, I had the opportunity to hear my local priest give a sermon on Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth. This meeting produced that wonderful piece of music called the Magnificat.  Having heard Fr Mike Coburn–a wonderful sermonizer (sic!) with some very keen insights–talk about this episode really drove home what I’m suggesting.

First, let me plainly state that I have never come across this suggestion: that, with time, the idea of Jesus as The Christ sort of crept backwards: starting with after the Resurrection with Paul, to the baptism by John in Mark, then to birth in Matthew, then prior in Luke, then to co-eternal in John. Much of this, I suppose, has to do with the idea that Paul only saw him as The Christ after the Resurrection. I got this as formally set out in Akenson’s book, but I had encountered the concept–if obliquely, and by implication–on a number of occasions. Perhaps this has not moved into consensus opinion yet.

Now, I find it impossible to believe that no one has made this suggestion before: that the becoming of the Christ worked its way backward with time. But, it this is true, then Wow. If someone has suggested it, I will gladly bow to my predecessor and compliment her/him on her/his perception.

Also, it helps to be aware of how this all developed after the point when we can reasonably talk about a Church. As mentioned above, Arianism had a different notion of Jesus as subordinate. Then the additions of  ὅμο-ουσιος, and later, ‘filioque‘ to the Nicene Creed caused big problems. The first, “homo-ousios” is the part about “of one being” with the Father. This is not in the earlier Apostles’ Creed, and its addition was very controversial. I won’t/can’t get into the ontology here, but it basically means that Jesus = God; they cannot be separated in the way the angles of a triangle cannot be separated and remain a triangle. The second was an addition of the Western Church, which is why the term is in Latin, rather than Greek. It simply means, “and the son”. As in, the Holy Spirit proceeds from “the Father and the Son…” This seemed a logical deduction if the Father and the Son were of the same being. But it was a deduction.

So, that all being the case, the idea of The Christ, and what that idea implied, evolved over time. The NT was not a coordinated effort; there are points when it’s contradictory (who was first at the tomb? faith alone <> faith without works is dead; & c). Yes, many of these can be resolved, sort of, but that’s the point. They have to be resolved. It’s not like the various evangelists are simple complementary to each other; they do conflict–Was the Last Supper a Passover Seder  or was it held on the night before the Seder would properly have been celebrated?  Depends on if you consult the Synoptics or John.

And recall: the earliest versions of Mark do not have a resurrection story. Why not?

So the point is, this idea is kind of a Big Deal. It needs to be addressed. Otherwise, we’re just like the ox hooked up to the millstone, endlessly going ’round and ’round in the same circle.

4) A new source

When I started this, my intention was deliberately not to read secondary sources on this. That may sound perverse; it may indeed be perverse. The idea was to avoid being unduly influenced by what these sources say. I wanted to approach the text fresh.

Well, like a lot of good intentions, it has proven much harder to do so than I’d imagined. Akenson’s  work has crept in here repeatedly; I’ve been using Pelikan, and R L Fox, so I haven’t been as staunch as I should have been.  Oh well.

The new source is The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed.  The whole “guide for the perplexed” thing is that this is part of a series of other such books, and I am not at all familiar with either the series or any of the individual works. A quick trip to Amazon would cure that, but, again, oh well.  The author, Dr Helen Bond, is a Senior Lecturer in the New Testament at the University of Edinburgh.

Honestly, the whole Historical Jesus thing is, IMO, rather beside the point for what I’m doing here. However, the book is new, so the bibliography will be up to date, and I may encounter some new ways of looking at this. In particular, a bit of insight and knowledge of First Century Judea would definitely be a good thing. And I’ve already learned that the idea of grace was something kicking around in Jewish thought of the time. So that’s interesting. As time goes on, and I get further into the book, I may have more to say on this.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on December 25, 2012, in Chapter 1, General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I think your analysis is correct and I would go further, that Paul was interested in the Resurrection more than anything else, and only later did he try to fit it into Messianic or apocalyptic contexts to support his ideas by data mining the OT.

  2. You know, I might have to disagree with that assessment–at least temporarily. All opinions expressed by management here are subject to revision, change, and outright recanting.

    Given the early onset of “the Christ” in Paul’s letters–like we saw in 1 Thessalonians, one of his earliest–I would take this to mean that it was pretty much there from the beginning. This is another candidate for the ‘blinding flash’ (of insight) that led to Paul’s conversion. In fact, there may have been several strands of insight that came together to produce the ‘blinding flash’ that the author of Luke/Acts took–or described for literary impact–literally.

    However, given the flash of insight, that’s not to say he then didn’t go back and data-mine the Hebrew Bible for support. This is what later Christian scholars did.

    So, IMHO, Paul understood the resurrection as the proof of Jesus being the Christ. And Jesus did not become the Christ, in Paul’s view, until the resurrection. This is one possible reason why Paul seems so uninterested in Jesus the man.

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