Monday, December 21, 2015

Mary and Joseph. No, not them, the other ones...

The synoptic problem fascinates me. I'm not sure we'll ever get to a complete resolution to the problem, but as of now I am reasonably convinced that Mark is the earliest gospel we have, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as their primary source when writing their own gospels. Matthew (probably written before Luke) certainly used Mark as the basis and template for his gospel - he includes almost all of Mark and some of it is even word-for-word the same. But in writing his own gospel, Matthew sometimes leaves some bits of Mark out (presumably because he does not like them), modifies some bits of Mark (presumably to make them more coherent with his own beliefs) and then adds in lots of other stuff that Mark doesn't have. Some of this may have come from other sources, some of this may have been the invention of Matthew.

One of Matthew's additions to Mark regards Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary, mother of Jesus only appears in one verse in Mark:
Mark 6v3: "Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him."
There is another character in Mark who is often assumed to be Mary, the mother of Jesus, but this character is never named as such, or even implied to be such in the gospel. This Mary is "Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph" (Mark 15:40), "Mary the mother of Joseph" (Mark 15:47) and "Mary the mother of James" (Mark 16:1).

There are a few possibilities here. One is, of course, that this Mary was actually the mother of Jesus, and that James (the younger) and Joseph were two of Jesus's brothers. The problem here is that Mark, who quite often calls a spade a spade, never says so. Why would Mark place the mother of Jesus at the tomb scene and not say directly who she was? Is this one of those places where Mark is trying to make the reader work things out for themselves? I don't think so. There is no great insight to be gained by working out that Jesus's mother was at the tomb. So I find myself considering another possibility.

What if Mark 6:3 is not original to Mark? We know that the text of the gospels has been modified as it passed through the hands of those who copied it. Sometimes they inserted stuff. What if this verse was one of the insertions? Well, why would anyone do that? Before I get there, think what the implications would be for Mark's gospel if 6:3 was not there - the story of Jesus would never mention named family members, the only place they would show up would be in chapter 3, where they get instantly dismissed as irrelevant, and Jesus doesn't interact with them. If Mark 6:3 was not part of the original, then Mary the mother of James and Joseph would only be described in this manner to distinguish her from Mary Magdalene, there would be no connection to Jesus implied. She was just some follower, who happened to be called Mary. Maybe James and Joseph were important people when the gospel was being written, so that's why she is designated this way? (e.g. "OK, so our guy James wasn't important in the Jesus story as it happened, but look, his mother was right there at the centre of things...")

So why would anyone insert Mark 6:3? Well, to big-up the role of James and the other brothers! (e.g. "OK, so our guy James wasn't important in the Jesus story as it happened, but he was his brother!") By adding in this verse the gospel editor makes James and Mary his mother become major players. So there's a possible agenda here which would add the verse in.

So, for the rest of the post I'm going to assume that Mark 6:3 is not part of the original, and was added early on, before Matthew got his hands on the copy of Mark that he would modify into his own gospel. I can't prove this point, I don't necessarily believe this point, but I'm going to speculate on the assumption anyway. Sometimes that takes you interesting places.

But before we go on with speculation about Mary, we need to do some other speculation about Joseph.

Joseph, husband of Mary and presumed father of Jesus does not feature in the gospel of Mark. He is simply not there, and there is no role for him to play in the story. The only two Josephs in Mark are Joseph, brother of James and son of Mary, who is named in the gospel but doesn't feature as a character, and Joseph of Arimathea, who appears abruptly in Mark 15:43-46 asks for Jesus's body and buries it, he has no other role in the gospel. It is possible that these two Josephs are the same character. Indeed, without Mark 6:3, there really is no need to specify Joseph as the son of Mary unless he has some role to play in the story or in the early church. (NB, James certainly has a role in the early church, but Joseph...?) So it seems possible that Joseph is introduced (in Mark 15:40) as Mary's son, just before he appears in the story to play his part in the story.

I don't think I'm over-stating my case too much to say that the two most important characters at the end of the gospel story, one involved in the burial of Jesus and one (actually two) involved in the discovery of the empty tomb, were Joseph and Mary (two Marys). Let me just say that again. The two named characters at the end of the gospel who oversee the burial and find the empty tomb are called Mary and Joseph. Other sources say these are the names of the parents of Jesus, there at the very beginning of the story: Mary and Joseph at the start and Joseph and Mary at the end, what's the chances of that? Well, pretty slim if this is a real story, but not at all unlikely if there is any literary invention going on.

My conjecture is this: that between the writing of Mark's gospel, and the writing of Matthew's gospel, the Jesus story grew in the telling (possibly in written form as a modified version of Mark, or as a proto-Matthew, now lost), and new characters called Mary and Joseph were invented to 'bookend' the gospel, to match the Joseph and Mary at the end.

Why call them the same names? Well, because the writers of books in bible times (old and new testaments) loved writing in "chiastic structures" (see Wikipedia for an explanation) to give their stories symmetry. That is, the first part of the story is mirrored by the last part, the 2nd part is mirrored by the 2nd last, and so on. Mark's gospel has no birth story to mirror the death story, so someone invented it, and simply used the two names that were already there at the end to mirror in the beginning. Having named Jesus's mother as Mary in this way, it now makes sense to tie up the loose ends by inserting Mark 6:3 and implying that James's mother Mary is the same as Jesus's mother Mary, which only goes to boost the profile of James.

So by the time Matthew and Luke write their gospels, tradition has it that Jesus mother was called Mary and his presumed father was called Joseph.

It is interesting to note that both Matthew and Luke have Mary the mother of James at the empty tomb, but don't join the dots to make her Mary the mother of Jesus. Meanwhile (or possibly much later) John has "the mother of Jesus" at the crucifixion, not the empty tomb, but never calls her Mary.

Make of all that what you will.

Happy Christmas to everyone who has read this far!

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Seekers and the pearl of great price

Matthew 13:45-46
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it."
This parable bothers me. It is a story that has clearly been distilled down to its essence before it ended up in the gospel, but even given that, this is only half a story. What happens next? The merchant has nothing but a pearl. No food, no house, no clothes (other than those he is wearing, I suppose), etc. Nothing but a pearl. The options are basically that either the merchant goes on to sell the pearl (at a profit, this is his job, after all!) or he keeps the pearl but has nothing to live on and so, ultimately, dies. Neither of these options are the point of the parable, as it is preached in many sermons, and probably as it was originally intended. The point, surely, is that the pearl is worth giving everything else up for. But it is actually a pretty poor parable for that. The immediately preceding parable in Matthew is much better as there the man in the story finds treasure in a field, buys the field, and hence becomes rich. This one doesn't really seem like a well thought through parable, not very divinely inspired.

But it leads me on to thinking about 'seeking' and 'finding'. Have you ever been in a 'seeker friendly' church? The word 'seeker' is generally used in a positive sense by Christians to refer to a non-Christian who is looking for spiritual fulfilment. A seeker friendly church is one which avoids anything which might put the 'seeker' off the idea of church, so is welcoming, modern, warm, avoids too much ceremony, generally plays contemporary worship music, etc. Behind the idea is that once the seeker finds Jesus, they will stop seeking, and stay in the church.

In some ways, I think I'm a seeker who has carried on 'seeking' beyond the church. The church can't really cope with that, of course. It assumes that there can't be anything greater or better, but it has never actually looked. Once upon a time I found a pearl of apparent great price. But ultimately I found it to be unsatisfying, and very possibly a fake - although a very attractive and impressive fake. I don't want to sell the pearl on, but I've come to realise that there probably is a greater pearl out there, somewhere else. The merchant in the parable doesn't know if the pearl he has found is the greatest pearl there is, he doesn't look. 

Surely, in the quest for truth, even if you think you have found something of value, you never know if you have found everything, so you have to keep seeking? Anything else is just giving up.

I looked under chairs
I looked under tables
I'm tryin to find the key
To fifty million fables
They call me the seeker
I been searchin low and high
I won't get to get what I'm after
Till the day I die
The Who - The Seeker (1970)