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.

1 comment:

Tim said...

There is another option for "son of God" which you've missed - the bene elohim of Hebrew mythology: the sons of god, later interpreted to be angelic beings, but originally the celestial offspring of the Most High.