Sunday, May 24, 2015

Question Mark, Part 2

The Gospel of Mark starts with a verse that contains so much it needs its own blog post:
"The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God"
Mark 1v1; NIV
As far as Mark (or whoever the anonymous author was, for simplicity I'll just keep calling him Mark) is concerned, the "good news" about Jesus starts here. Mark gives no birth stories for Jesus, he tells us nothing here about Jesus's mother. So, on the assumption that this book was written before Matthew and Luke, who added birth stories when they rewrote Mark later in their own gospels, we have two options. Either Mark did not know the birth stories of Jesus or he did not think they were important. Either way, they are not part of his 'good news'. Furthermore, Mark does not trace the 'beginning' of his story back to the creation of the world, like John does. John's story starts with a pre-existent Christ, Matthew and Luke start with the immaculate conception of Jesus, Mark starts here, with a fully grown man, called Jesus. What happened before this point seems to be irrelevant to Mark. It sounds like the 'good news' is about what Jesus did, not where he came from.

Next, we have to consider what the "good news" (εὐαγγέλιον; euaggelion) actually is. This is a word that is actually used less frequently in the gospels than you might expect. Neither Luke or John actually use the word. Matthew uses it only four times, and each of them is in content he borrowed from Mark. Mark uses the word seven times (there is an eighth in the non-Markan bit at the end of Chapter 16, but we'll ignore that for now), and in most of them the word refers to the message that Jesus himself actually taught. In other words, the message spoken by Jesus, not the message about Jesus. Here, in verse one, the word cannot refer to Jesus's teaching as he hasn't said anything yet.

I think Mark is being quite clever here (and this thought is not original to me, I get it from Robert Fowler's book "Let the reader understand" which I have recently read, and which will get several future mentions in this series of posts), what he is doing is intentionally muddying the waters so that the reader - from the outset - comes to consider this written 'good news' as being synonymous with the preached 'good news' of Jesus. So when we read later on that "The good news must first be preached to all the nations" (Mark 13:10), we subconsciously think that it is this book, this message, which is the thing that must be preached all around the world. Mark is covertly claiming ownership over the gospel message.

Up until Mark writes, in the early history of the church, as far as we can tell, the "good news" was the message preached by Paul. The epistles use the phrase 'good news' far more frequently than the gospels actually do. Here Mark is attempting to co-opt the gospel. To make it his own. I think he managed it. We hardly ever refer to the writings of Paul as 'gospels' we always refer to the four story books of Jesus by that name. Right from the word go, Mark has taken the gospel away from Paul, even to some extent away from Jesus, and made it his own.

I think that might be important. Is Mark a rival to Paul? We know there were many factions in the early church, much more separate in doctrine and ethos than contemporary divisions in the church, who were in competition with each other. Is Mark writing to a different one than Paul was?

But who is this Jesus that Mark tells us about? From the outset, Mark makes the claim that Jesus is both 'Messiah' and 'Son of God'. But what did he mean by those phrases?

He never actually explains what he means when he uses these words. He either expects the reader to know what he means, or he expects the reader to work it out as they read. What he does not do, at all, in this gospel, is explain things.

I'm going to start with "Son of God" and come back to "Messiah".

Did Mark even originally write 'Son of God' here? This wording is not in some of the many manuscripts we have - was it removed from them by someone who objected to this phrase, or was it added to the others by a later redactor with a point to make? I don't know. We'll keep both possibilities in mind here.

A few characters in the gospel of Mark say that Jesus is the "Son of God", but not the ones you might expect. In 3:11 and 5:7 evil spirits say this of Jesus, and both times he rebukes and silences them. In 15:39, just after he has died on the cross, a Roman says "Surely this man was (the) Son of God" (the Greek contains no definite article, so the reader does not know if the Roman thought Jesus was 'the' son of God or merely 'a' son of (a) god). On two occasions (1:11 and 9:7) a voice out of thin air says "this is my son" but the speaker is never explicitly identified as God. Finally, during his trial (14:61), he is asked if he is the son of "the Blessed", which implies God, to which Jesus responds "I am". That's it for this gospel. Aside from the opening verse, the narrator never calls Jesus 'Son of God' and aside from the answer in his trial, Jesus never says this of himself. Also of interest is that the disciples never, at any point, say that Jesus is the Son of God, not even at the Caesarea Philippi confession by Peter (he does in Matthew, but not here in Mark).

So the title "Son of God" features in the first verse, which implies it is important, but then doesn't feature much in the rest of the gospel, which suggests otherwise. And it must be noted that this gospel is written such that all the important material comes from the mouth of Jesus or the voice of the narrator, and secondary characters in the story usually get things wrong and make wrong statements. So when "Son of God" is mostly to be found on the lips of the demonic enemies, we have to wonder whether "Jesus is the Son of God" is actually a message the author is trying to convey. (Especially if he didn't originally have it in verse 1.)

What did the early readers of this gospel understand by the phrase "Son of God"? The challenge here is to not read too much later belief into the earliest days of the Church. What is clear is that Mark doesn't mean "second person of the Trinity" here. As far as I can tell, the Trinity concept wouldn't come along until after John was written. Here we are most likely dealing with the belief that God is the only one monotheistic God, and Jesus is, in some sense, his son.

As far as I can tell, ancient readers of this phrase would have understood this in one of two ways: either he was the son of God in the same manner as King David was in the OT - God's chosen, appointed and beloved agent, or it was understood in the same manner as Hercules was the son of God - literally the offspring of a sexual liaison between a god and a human woman, a semi-divine demi-god. I can see no third option in ancient thinking. Once again, the problem the reader of Mark has is knowing what exactly Mark means. He doesn't say. I suspect the lack of interest in Jesus's mother in Mark might suggest that the demi-god option is less likely, but we  can't be sure.

Finally we get to the word "Messiah" and again we need to avoid two thousand years of Christian thinking clouding our thoughts about this word. Insofar as there was messianic expectation in the time that this was written (and some have claimed that there wasn't half as much messianic expectation as Christian theologians would have you believe), the expectation was for a conquering king to arise and throw the oppressors out of Judea and restore 'true' religion to the temple in Jerusalem. There was no expectation of a 'messiah' who could be killed, who wouldn't throw out the Romans and, furthermore, who would allow the Romans to utterly destroy the temple. None of that was part of messianic expectation. So when Mark says Jesus is the Messiah, his readers can only understand that this is the guy who has come to smash the Romans. So  when the Romans smash him, the reader should be shocked. This defies all expectation. But in some ways I think that is the intention of Mark - he sets the reader up with some expectations and then pulls the rug out from underneath.

One of the main things I've taken away from Robert Fowler's book is that Mark doesn't tell the reader things directly, he wants the reader to make up their own mind, but sometimes he provides contrary statements and allows the reader to choose. Is Jesus the messiah? The Son of God? Is  this message even good news? Mark actually doesn't tell us.

But let's dive in and see some of the things he does tell us... next time.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Why are (young) people leaving the church?

A recent Unbelievable show discussed the 'problem' of young people leaving the church. It followed the pattern of other similar discussions I have heard in the past, whereby it turned out that the 'ex-christian' made a lifestyle choice or had a sexual orientation which was seen as incompatible with the teaching of the church they attended, and so they felt alienated and had to leave. In this case, the guy was gay and believed he had to make the choice between being part of a church or having a meaningful sexual relationship with another man. His natural urges for sex and companionship won, as you might expect. So he left the church and lost his faith in God, more or less in that order. It wasn't the lack-of-faith issue that was the reason he left, it was kind of the other way about.

I've heard interviews with other ex-christians, like John Loftus for example, where the pattern was broadly similar. In Loftus's case (as I recall), he had an affair with a woman in his church, then was surprised to discover that the church rejected him rather than accepting him as the sinner he was and trying to bring him back into the fold. He left the church, somewhat disgruntled, and it was this that ultimately pushed him towards rejecting Christian belief.

This pattern of people leaving the church is broadly what the church wants to hear. People leave because of their own moral shortcomings. In other words, its not the church who is at fault, is is the unrepentant sinner. The initial sin (nothing to do with belief) is followed by other bad choices and further sins that so cloud the former believer's way of thinking that they eventually become deluded and ultimately reject the God they used to believe in.

For many Christians, this is the only deconversion sequence that really makes sense. Indeed, I once heard a minister, when he heard of someone in his congregation losing faith, whose immediate reaction was "I wonder what he's been up to...?"

I suppose, within the Christian mindset, this is the only option that makes sense. Someone who truly believes in God, and furthermore has a real personal relationship with him, cannot, simply cannot come to believe that the God they know does not exist. Well, they cannot, unless they are deceived and deluded, and that will only happen if they are a habitual and unrepentant sinner...

The thing is, there are others, who haven't 'fallen' into sin, who haven't had affairs and who haven't made lifestyle choices that are incompatible with the teachings of the church, who still lose faith. The church doesn't really know what to do with them.

If they truly seek to fix this problem, the church inevitably starts looking for the faults within the church that are the reason the people leave. Of course, the faults must be within the church, for there is no way that it could be the God concept that is flawed. The church can't really ever face the possibility that the leavers could be right and those who stay are in the wrong. As soon as they admit that possibility, the collapse is inevitable. Or at least it was in my case.

With hindsight, the greatest single factor that contributed to my eventual lack of faith was simply considering the possibility that I could have been wrong about God. As soon as I questioned God himself, things began to unravel.

Why are (young) people leaving the church? Maybe they've honestly considered the central beliefs of the church and found them lacking. Maybe they're right to leave. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Question Mark, Part 1

It is a long time since I read an entire book of the bible, beginning to end. It is even longer since I studied an entire book of the bible, beginning to end. Last time I did either of these two things, I read and studied the various books of the bible under the assumption that I was reading the Word of God. 

Over the last five years I have slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, come to the understanding that the bible is not the Word of God. The bible was written by human people with human motives, and while some of them might have felt inspired to write these words, there is no strong evidence that any divine being had any part in the composition and compilation of this book. (Note: the question of whether or not there is a divine being is an entirely separate one - the lack of divine inspiration of the bible does not entail that there is no God.)

Sloughing off the assumption of divine inspiration or authorship leaves me with a different set of assumptions when I read the text of the bible. It means I come away from reading the book with different questions and different conclusions. Its almost like reading a different book.

So I want to return to a few books of the bible and read/study them again, through different eyes. Before I would read the bible to learn something new about God or to find guidance in its pages, now when I read the bible I have a whole load of new questions to ask: Who wrote this? What was their purpose in writing it? Who were the intended audience? Did the author intend these words to be taken literally? Was the source material reliable? Is any of this true? Has anyone edited or rewritten these words since the original author wrote them? And so on. Previously the answers would always have been: God; To instruct me; Me; Yes; Yes; No; etc.

So I am returning to the Gospel of Mark, to read it through new eyes. My intention is to post my thoughts and questions here as I go along. Maybe I'll come to some conclusions along the way, maybe not. We'll see.

Why Mark? Well, because it is generally held to be the earliest of all the gospels we have, and the others are somewhat derivative of it. Some hold that Mark is actually the very first gospel. So its a good starting point. Also, it is quite short. So let's begin.

I'm going to begin by not assuming anything, insofar as I can. We don't know who Mark was. We don't know if he was called Mark. Mark was the most common name in the ancient Roman world, so this name could have been added to make it the gospel of everyman. The gospel according to Joe Bloggs. There is no particular reason to suppose that Mark (for simplicity, I'll continue to use the traditional name) is the same as the character of John Mark who makes a brief appearance in Acts. There is no particular reason to suppose that Mark was an eyewitness of the events presented, or even knew eyewitnesses. 

Another thing we don't really know is when the gospel was written. Some hold that it must have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. Some hold that it must have been written after that event. I've even heard some claim that the work was written in the early 2nd century, not the late 1st century. And some, who see Marcionite content in the gospel, say that it is Marcionite in origin, which forces it a decade or two into the 2nd century, at the earliest. But let's just start by saying we don't know when it was written and go from there.

We also don't really know where it was written or who it was written to, although various theories have been proposed over the years. It is written in Greek, but was it originally in Greek or is the earliest version we have a translation of an earlier version? These are all questions we will address as we go.

So let's start with something I am reasonably sure of. I am reasonably convinced that the version of Mark we are able to read nowadays is pretty much unchanged since the mid 2nd century, which is when the NT documents began to be duplicated on mass, and widely distributed. The transmission chain may go back much earlier than that, but we can't be totally sure what happened earlier than the mid 2nd century.

I am reasonably convinced that the version of Mark we now have is basically a copy of a copy of a copy (etc.) of the gospel that was 'published' and distributed in the mid 2nd century. Prof David Trobisch says Polycarp was probably responsible for the compilation, duplication and publication of the NT canon, and who am I to argue with him? I find his case compelling.

What happened before this 'publication'? Well there are various theories. If we put all the possibilities together, we get a chain of events that could be as long as this:
  1. Events occurred. 
  2. Stories about these events were transmitted orally, perhaps for several decades.
  3. Some of those stories may have been embellished in transmission.
  4. Some of the stories may have been lost.
  5. Other stories were made up.
  6. The fictional stories were transmitted orally, perhaps for several decades.
  7. Some of those stories may have been embellished in transmission.
  8. Someone (lets call him Mark) collected some of these stories and wrote a gospel of Jesus out of them.
  9. He may have invented some scenes in the gospel to provide a bridge/narrative framework between stories he got from his sources.
  10. He may have also invented some stories that fitted his agenda and added them to his gospel to flesh it out. We now have what some scholars refer to as "Ur-Marcus".
  11. This gospel was used by a community of people somewhere.
  12. As the needs of the community changed, stories could have been dropped, edited or added to the gospel.
  13. This could have happened several times.
  14. It may have been picked up by other communities, with different agendas to the first, who may have modified it to fit their own purposes.
  15. Eventually the gospel came into the hands of the final editor, who may have modified the gospel to make it consistent with the other books in his collection.
Some claim there may even be more steps in the chain than that.

I'm not saying that I believe all these steps happened. This is a compilation of all the theories that I've heard. I think it is highly unlikely that all these steps occurred, but probably some of them did. The most conservative evangelical view is probably that 1, 2, 8, 11 and part of 15 occurred, while 3, 5, 8, 10, 12, etc. didn't. The most radical critical view is that 1-4 did not happen and everything started with the made up stories at point 5 or 10. I expect the truth is somewhere between those two extremes.

Occam's razor would have us shave away all the 'unnecessary' items on that list. So as we go through the book of Mark I'll highlight things that might suggest that some of those items are 'necessary', or at least possible, and should not therefore be discounted out of hand.

So having said all that, let's begin with Mark, chapter 1, verse 1... (in a future post)