Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The idiot apostles...

I'm currently reading "Let the Reader Understand" by Robert M. Fowler. Its pretty technical and theological stuff for bed-time reading, but some of it is really fascinating. Its basically an analysis of the gospel of Mark, but keeping its eyes firmly on questions like "what is the author trying to achieve here?" and "what effect does this passage have on the reader?"

The bit I've just read discusses the pairs of miracle stories in the first half of the gospel and points out something I'd never noticed, or even considered, before.

Take, for example, the "feeding of the five thousand" in Mark 6:30-44 and compare it with the "feeding of the four thousand" in Mark 8:1-10. I've heard various theories about why both stories are actually included in fairly short a gospel. The reader knows what Jesus can do after the first story, so why repeat it a couple of chapters later?

The most mundane explanation for including the story twice is because it happened twice. Possibly more than twice. Could be, but in a short gospel, where the author had to have left out some stories, why repeat this? Surely once is enough?

A more compelling explanation for the repetition of the story is that this is not to tell us something about Jesus (one telling of the story could do that), but rather it is to tell us something about the disciples. For the disciples behave in a completely incredible manner here. Or rather, they behave in a totally believable manner in the first telling of the story - stating, quite rightly, that a few small loaves and fish cannot be used to feed thousands of people - but then behave in a totally unbelievable manner the second time, because they do the same thing twice. The point is that they have learned absolutely nothing whatsoever from the first miracle and so can't comprehend the possibility the second time around.

This is the plain explanation here. Mark deliberately sets out to make the disciples look like idiots here. Well, either that, or the disciples really were idiots and this really happened, exactly as described. The problem is that nobody is actually that stupid. If the disciples really had seen Jesus miraculously duplicating food for 5000 people on one occasion, on a second very similar occasion, not long afterwards, it is literally inconceivable that none of them would have said something to Jesus along the lines of "we have a small amount of food, can you do that miracle again and turn it into lots of food?"

The only option we are left with is that the author of this gospel intended to make the disciples look like idiots. That is the only agenda in the repeated story. By itself, this is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that this gospel contains fiction.

But the thing that Robert Fowler points out in his book, which I had never noticed before, is that the two stories have been carefully constructed to emphasise the stupidity of the disciples.

Story 1 (Mark 6:30-44) goes like this:
...many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”
When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
The story is told from the point of view of the disciples. And the disciples are shown here as sensible and practical people; they suggest the people need to go home and find food, and they calculate how much it would cost to feed the multitude, when Jesus instructs them to do something unexpected (get the people to sit down), they go along with this.

So the disciples come out of the first story quite well. However, when we turn to story number 2 (Mark 8:1-10) it goes like this:
During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”
His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”
“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied.
He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand were present. After he had sent them away, he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha.
Note that this story is told from the point of view of Jesus. We get his feelings towards these people in a direct quote from him, not in third person as in the previous story. Here, before the disciples have even suggested that the people be sent away, as in the previous story, Jesus explains why this would be a bad idea. And then the idiot disciples demonstrate that they have no recollection whatsoever of the earlier incident.

This change of point of view is mirrored in other pairs of stories in Mark. Each time showing the disciples favourably the first time, from their own point of view, and as idiots the second time, from the point of view of Jesus.

I'm convinced. Not only is the author of this gospel a much cleverer writer than I had previously thought, he really wants to convey to us that the disciples were idiots.

Were the disciples really idiots? Probably not. If there was a real Jesus, and if he recruited real disciples, and if he actually discipled them, then they must have learned from the master. That is what 'disciples' do. A real disciple cannot be a real idiot. So what we have here is not history but polemic. And not polemic against people outside the church, but polemic against the supposed founding fathers!

The characters in the story are idiots, not real disciples. The real disciples of Jesus (as far as this author is concerned) are the author himself and the implied reader of the text. This work is clearly written by someone from some rival faction of the early church - a faction opposed to the faction which claimed the disciples as its founders.

You certainly don't get taught that in Sunday school!