Friday, August 25, 2017

Other boats?

There is a peculiar detail in Mark's gospel that I've never noticed before. It is found as part of the story of the stilling of the storm in Mark 4:
35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” 39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. 40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” 41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
Have you ever noticed that short statement at the end of v36? Jesus and his disciples are in one boat, travelling across the sea of Galilee, but there were other boats travelling with them. These other boats explicitly do not contain members of 'the crowd' as v36 says they left them behind.

These other boats play no further role in the story, and appear to be entirely absent by the time of the storm and the miraculous calming. So why mention them at all? Matthew (ch8) and Luke (ch8) omit this detail of the story in their tellings of it.

This is one of the peculiar details in Mark that may reveal something about the sources Mark used for his gospel. Mark is clearly adapting an earlier story to present here. It looks like the earlier story included multiple boats, and even though Mark's telling of the story does not require the other boats for the narrative to make sense, he keeps the short statement about them anyway. Matthew and Luke, realising the redundancy of this statement, remove it.

So what possible function could the other boats have in the earlier story, the one that Mark adapted? A few options seem reasonable. It could be that these other boats were lost in the storm, and only the boat containing Jesus was saved. That would make narrative sense, and also be a good theological analogy. But that's an analogy that Mark doesn't make, so perhaps that suggests that this is not the original story.

Dennis R. MacDonald makes a compelling case in his book "The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark" (which I am reading at the moment) that this story about Jesus is based on a story about Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey.  I won't detail the parallels here, but suffice it to say there are clear narrative and vocabulary parallels between one specific passage in the Odyssey and this passage in Mark. In Homer, there are other boats, and these do play a minor role in the story. If MacDonald's case is true, then Mark used elements of a story about Odysseus, which which many of his readers would probably be familiar, as the basis for a story about Jesus. I've read elsewhere that this was actually fairly common in ancient literature (written in Greek), writers adapted well known stories so that they could highlight certain features of their hero (in this case Jesus) - that is, showing the ways in which their hero is like the well known hero, and sometimes highlighting the ways in which their hero is even better than the well known hero. Here Jesus is shown to be better than Odysseus, as the latter merely survived the storm, but the former demonstrated power over it.

The question for us, however, is whether or not events told in this way actually happened or not? Was there a real story about Jesus which has been told 'through the lens' of Homer, or is this a story of Homeric origin which has been fictionally recast with gospel characters to demonstrate just how much of a hero Jesus was to a Greek-literate audience?

We actually face this question again and again in Mark, the story as presented reveals details of an older source text, so is the source text the sole origin of the story, or is Mark's telling of the story a fusion between an earlier Jesus story and an older written document? This question becomes most important when we get to the crucifixion narrative. Is that a fusion of an earlier story about Jesus with the framework of Psalm 22, or is it a work of midrash, fictively expanding on Psalm 22? I'll leave that quandary for another time.

For now the question is whether the stilling of the storm story is a fusion of a Jesus story with an Odysseus story, or is it a fictive riff on the Odysseus story to show how Jesus is better than the Greek hero? How could we even tell? If we had access to any pre-Markan Jesus stories set on lakes, then maybe we could parse this story, but as it happens we do not, and therefore cannot.

I'm reasonably won over by MacDonald's thesis that the Sea of Galilee stories of Jesus are fictive attempts to put Mark's Jesus into similar situations as Odysseus. Indeed, it would seem that before Mark wrote his gospel, nobody ever referred to this small lake in the 'Holy Land' as anything other than a small lake. It was never a 'sea' before this. Mark, it would appear, beefed up the designation of this lake to a 'sea' so he could set Odysseus-style stories on it. The 'other boats' are just a little editorial oversight that Mark forgot to remove for his retelling of the story.

Of course, all this could be waaaay off the mark. Maybe the other boats had a completely different origin in Mark's non-Homeric source. I'd love to hear other opinions about what these boats are doing in this story.

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.