Monday, August 21, 2017

Question Mark, Part 4

Welcome back to the world's slowest Bible study... two years ago I began slowly going through the gospel of Mark and so far I have managed to get to the end of... verse 1 of chapter 1. You can read the first two posts here and here. Hang on, you might be thinking, the title of this post says 'Part 4', what happened to 'Part 3'?

Well, I'm now about to annoyingly jump over ten verses and think about verses 12 and 13 of chapter 1. I'll come back to verses 2 to 11 in 'Part 3', which will follow at a later date. For now let's look at:
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
Hmmm. That's not how you remember this story is it? You remember all the details of the temptation from Matthew's expansion of this story. This version is really short in comparison, and seems fairly pointless.

First we need to talk about the word "πειράζω" or "peirazō", translated in the NIV (above) as 'tempted'. As far as I can tell, the word here translated tempted generally means 'tested'. In this context it is clear that Jesus is being tested to show that he is up to the task that lies before him. Here Satan is fulfilling the divinely appointed role that he has in most of the OT, he is acting on behalf of God to test someone to see if they are truly righteous or not. Satan here is not God's adversary, but rather seems sent by God to test Jesus.

There are four characters in the story here: Jesus, the Spirit, Satan and the angels. God the Father, having popped up in verse 11 has again vanished off the stage and plays no active role here.

Jesus was directed by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he was tested by Satan. We are not told the nature of the tests, we are not even told if Jesus passed the tests! The reader actually has to make up their own mind about what they think happened. I guess this is why Matthew felt the need to be explicit about the nature of the tests and to be explicit in showing that Jesus passed them. Mark feels no such need to explain anything. Once again I am reminded of Robert M. Fowler's book "Let the reader Understand" - Mark doesn't give his audience everything, he expects them to work things out for themselves.

Maybe we should rephrase my comment above about the four characters in the story, there are actually five witnesses to the events - Jesus, the Spirit, the Satan, the angels, and the reader.

But why was the testing necessary? Did God the Father need to do this in order to find out that Jesus was up to the task? Well, that very much depends on your pre-conceptions of the Father. Did Jesus need to know for himself that he could pass the test? I don't think the angels really needed to know. Whether Satan needed to know would depend very much on your pre-conceptions of Satan. But really, I think, the main audience who need to know if Jesus passed the test are Mark's readers themselves. This story is for them. Nobody else in this story needs these events to have happened. That, in itself, should put a very big question mark over the actual historicity of this event, the event itself presupposes an audience, but as presented there was no audience present.

If we take for granted the Trinity, as generally believed in modern Christianity, this story makes no sense. Why would one member of the Trinity need to get another member of the Trinity to direct the third member of the Trinity to the place of testing? In this concept, God the Father must already know that God the Son is up to the task set before him, as they have been in communion together for eternity past. God the Father does not need to test God the Son, and certainly does not need the direction of God the Spirit to assist in this. From a Trinitarian point of view, the only way we can make sense of this passage is if Satan is the devil, and the point of the exercise is to demonstrate to the devil just who Jesus is. This seems to be the way that Matthew understands the story, but it is not at all clear in Mark's version. Various theologies in other parts of the NT rely on the assumption that the devil did not know who Jesus was, so they, at least, are inconsistent with this view of this event.

Put aside the idea of the Trinity for a moment, though, and the story makes a whole lot more sense. If God in heaven had chosen a righteous man, Jesus, to become his Son, and had poured his Spirit into this man (that's something to be discussed in the part of this study that we have temporarily jumped over), then he'd need to be sure that the man he had chosen was up to the task. From a non-Trinitarian (and, indeed, an adoptionist) point of view, this passage makes perfect sense. Here God is simply double checking that he made the right choice. And so from here on in, the reader can be sure that God made the right choice too.

I think this is the lens through which we need to view the rest of the gospel of Mark. Jesus is just a man, chosen and empowered to be the Son of God, but not part of the Trinity and not pre-existent.

Thinking in this way also makes this passage make sense from Jesus's point of view as well. Jesus himself needs to know that he can pass the test. He needs to know the power of the Spirit which is now within him. Having been through this, Jesus himself now knows that he is ready for the rest of the gospel, and so does the reader.

Before we move on, one final comment that, I think, contradicts what Matthew will later do with this passage when he expands it. Nothing in this passage suggests that Jesus is without food. Indeed, the angels 'attending' him would imply that they brought him whatever he needed, including food. For some reason this short passage makes me think of 1 Kings 17 where Elijah is ministered to by ravens, who bring him food. Perhaps it is even closer to 1 Kings 19, where an angel brings Elijah food. Either way, if this inference is correct, then Matthew's story, in which Jesus has no food for 40 days, contradicts this.

So there we have it, I think this short passage is clearly non-historical, and reveals an underlying theology which is at odds with current Christian belief.


Edward T. Babinski said...

Goods points!

I wonder how Christian apologists who view the Gospel as based on "eyewitness" testimony treat this episode? No eyewitnesses but Jesus, and it doesn't say Jesus gathered round his apostles and told them about this tale. It looks more like an omniscient narrator is coming up with this stuff. Also, why can't anyone but Jesus actually see and talk with Satan?

Another interesting thought I had was comparing the synoptics with John. In the synoptics Jesus is casting out demons left and right. In John there's no tale of exorcisms at all. Jesus doesn't speak with demons at all, but in John we read that Jesus declares "the Jews" who oppose his mission, saying, "You belong to your father, the devil," and, "Satan entered into him [Judas]." So it seems that in the fourth Gospel "the Jews" have taken the place of demons that Jesus has to cast out in the synoptics, and at least in the synoptics you feel sorrow for the people who were possessed, but in the fourth Gospel "the Jews" now have Satan as their "father!" And "Satan" himself is possessing one of Jesus's apostles.

Ricky Carvel said...

There's a lot of interesting muddying of the waters regarding the character or characters of 'Satan' (who only occurs once in John), 'the devil' (never occurs in Mark), 'Beelzebul' and 'demons'. Part of me thinks the sole reference to Satan in John could be an early scribal error. Also the confusion between Satan and Beelzebul is incoherent with the rest of the 'Satan' references in Mark, so I wonder if that's a later addition. But I need to look at these passages in much more detail some other time.