Friday, August 25, 2017

Other boats?

There is a peculiar detail in Mark's gospel that I've never noticed before. It is found as part of the story of the stilling of the storm in Mark 4:
35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” 39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. 40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Have you ever noticed that short statement at the end of v36? Jesus and his disciples are in one boat, travelling across the sea of Galilee, but there were other boats travelling with them. These other boats explicitly do not contain members of 'the crowd' as v36 says they left them behind.

These other boats play no further role in the story, and appear to be entirely absent by the time of the storm and the miraculous calming. So why mention them at all? Matthew (ch8) and Luke (ch8) omit this detail of the story in their tellings of it.

This is one of the peculiar details in Mark that may reveal something about the sources Mark used for his gospel. Mark is clearly adapting an earlier story to present here. It looks like the earlier story included multiple boats, and even though Mark's telling of the story does not require the other boats for the narrative to make sense, he keeps the short statement about them anyway. Matthew and Luke, realising the redundancy of this statement, remove it.

So what possible function could the other boats have in the earlier story, the one that Mark adapted? A few options seem reasonable. It could be that these other boats were lost in the storm, and only the boat containing Jesus was saved. That would make narrative sense, and also be a good theological analogy. But that's an analogy that Mark doesn't make, so perhaps that suggests that this is not the original story.

Dennis R. MacDonald makes a compelling case in his book "The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark" (which I am reading at the moment) that this story about Jesus is based on a story about Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey.  I won't detail the parallels here, but suffice it to say there are clear narrative and vocabulary parallels between one specific passage in the Odyssey and this passage in Mark. In Homer, there are other boats, and these do play a minor role in the story. If MacDonald's case is true, then Mark used elements of a story about Odysseus, which which many of his readers would probably be familiar, as the basis for a story about Jesus. I've read elsewhere that this was actually fairly common in ancient literature (written in Greek), writers adapted well known stories so that they could highlight certain features of their hero (in this case Jesus) - that is, showing the ways in which their hero is like the well known hero, and sometimes highlighting the ways in which their hero is even better than the well known hero. Here Jesus is shown to be better than Odysseus, as the latter merely survived the storm, but the former demonstrated power over it.

The question for us, however, is whether or not events told in this way actually happened or not? Was there a real story about Jesus which has been told 'through the lens' of Homer, or is this a story of Homeric origin which has been fictionally recast with gospel characters to demonstrate just how much of a hero Jesus was to a Greek-literate audience?

We actually face this question again and again in Mark, the story as presented reveals details of an older source text, so is the source text the sole origin of the story, or is Mark's telling of the story a fusion between an earlier Jesus story and an older written document? This question becomes most important when we get to the crucifixion narrative. Is that a fusion of an earlier story about Jesus with the framework of Psalm 22, or is it a work of midrash, fictively expanding on Psalm 22? I'll leave that quandary for another time.

For now the question is whether the stilling of the storm story is a fusion of a Jesus story with an Odysseus story, or is it a fictive riff on the Odysseus story to show how Jesus is better than the Greek hero? How could we even tell? If we had access to any pre-Markan Jesus stories set on lakes, then maybe we could parse this story, but as it happens we do not, and therefore cannot.

I'm reasonably won over by MacDonald's thesis that the Sea of Galilee stories of Jesus are fictive attempts to put Mark's Jesus into similar situations as Odysseus. Indeed, it would seem that before Mark wrote his gospel, nobody ever referred to this small lake in the 'Holy Land' as anything other than a small lake. It was never a 'sea' before this. Mark, it would appear, beefed up the designation of this lake to a 'sea' so he could set Odysseus-style stories on it. The 'other boats' are just a little editorial oversight that Mark forgot to remove for his retelling of the story.

Of course, all this could be waaaay off the mark. Maybe the other boats had a completely different origin in Mark's non-Homeric source. I'd love to hear other opinions about what these boats are doing in this story.

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