Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Chapter 1 vv 1-9


The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
the Son of God


Pretend you have never heard this story before.

You are sitting in the cinema. The lights go out. A fanfare starts. The title appears. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

"What is christ?" says someone sitting behind you.

"I think it is an old-fashioned word for king".

"What is gospel?"

"Shh. I'm sure that will become clear as we go along."

Some text scrolls across the screen. A messenger is preparing a road. A different messenger is telling everyone else to prepare a road. Or possibly the same messenger preparing the same road twice?

"When it says lord does it mean god or just boss?" says the person sitting behind you.

"Shh. It's starting."

As it is written in the prophets:
"Behold, I send my messenger before thy face,
which shall prepare thy way before thee.
The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."

Who are these prophets? When did they do their propheting, and in what context? Are we supposed to know already? Or are we supposed to go away and look it up?

Perhaps it doesn't matter very much. They certainly lived a long time ago, in a land far, far away, and they are important and holy and religious and mysterious. And perhaps that's all we really need to know. Perhaps "As it is written in the prophets" means no more than  "This is the first line of the kind of story which begins with a quote from some important, holy, religious and mysterious writings." (We have talked before about how "Once upon a time..." means "This is the first line of a fairy tale". "Twas in the merry month of may..." means "This is the first line of a folk song.") 

The anonymous story-teller who is telling the story which has come down to us as Mark's Gospel (both hereafter referred to as "Mark") recites a few holy verses. This story is going to be about a road, and a Lord, and a king. And without more preamble, he throws us in at the deep end. 


John did baptize in the wilderness
And preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, 
And they of Jerusalem, 
And were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins

A clever man once ask how Homer would look if we translated ancient Greek names in the way that we tend to translate native North American names — Laughing-Water and Sitting-Bull and Black-Elk and Dances-With-Wolves rather than Achilles and Hector and Petrocolus. Thus: "Distress-of-the-People was angry and killed Hold-Fast because of the death of his lover, Glory-of-the-Father."

Tony Harrison's translation of Aeschylus left the Homeric names intact, but created ad hoc English composite words to represent concepts that had no direct equivalent in English. He-god and She-god rather than God and Goddess;  God-Space rather than the Heavens; bed-bond and blood-bond for various kinds of familial relationship. And he did it all in a Leeds accent.

Mark's Gospel is full of dusty words that say "church, church, church" to us. "Baptism" and "Sin" and "Repentance" only exist in an ecclesiastical context. "Jordan" pretty much means "a religious river", one particularly popular with the black slaves and Welsh rugby fans. And hands up all those who hear "Judea" and think immediately of Life of Brian? Even "wilderness" mainly means "a place where Israelites wander; a place where prophets cry out". 

I almost wish that Mark's Gospel could be presented in some kind of Tony Harrison pidgin:

God-Is-Gracious dips people in the Desolation. 
God-Is-Gracious heralds dipping to change their minds and undo their near-misses.
Everyone from Praise-Land comes!
Everyone from  Peace-town!
They are all dipped in the Flowing
Acknowledging their near-misses....

Harold Bloom (a clever man) tried something along these lines with the book of Genesis. But I guess that's also misleading. Metanoia and aphesis may not have smelt of candles and cassocks when Mark first spoke the words; but they presumably didn't sound strange and alien either. 

Literalism kills texts dead. It isn't literally true that everyone from Judea or the entire population of Jerusalem walked down to the river. The High Priests didn't go. Mrs Miggins from the pie shop didn't go. Literalism forces you to read poems as instruction books and parables as repositories of factual information. ("Are you saying that a certain man didn't get attacked by bandits on the road from Jerusalem to Jerico? Are you calling God a liar?" "Are you saying the world doesn't have four corners? But it says so in your own holy book. Har-har Christians are silly.")

Some people will tell you that John was part of some religious community in the desert, possibly one near the Dead Sea, with a habit of copying things out onto scrolls. But today I am trying to read Mark's story; not some different story based on what some people think Mark must have meant. Mark isn't talking about a cult or a sect or a few people following a guru. He has chosen to say "all" and "everyone"; not "lots" and "many."

Pretend you have never heard this story before. The curtain rises on a crowd scene. The whole darn country is going to get dipped by this John person. And then, rather oddly, we jump-cut from the crowd to an extreme close up.



And John was clothed with camel's hair,
and with a girdle of a skin about his loins;
and he did eat locusts and wild honey.

Everyone in the whole country is plunging into a river. And the one thing we are asked to pay attention to is John's clothes. Is this merely corroborative detail? "All sounds a bit unlikely? But if you don't believe me, I can tell you exactly what this John fella was wearing..." 

Or is it part of a holy crossword clue?  Are we supposed to say: "Aha: and you know who else was an hairy man, girt with a girdle of leather about his loins? The prophet Elijah, that's who!" One of the Prophets who talks about making straight roads through the wilderness for the Lord to walk down also says that Elijah is going to come back to earth in advance of the Great and Terrible Day of YHWH. It's the very last words of the book we call the Old Testament. So perhaps we are supposed to infer that camels hair and loin-cloths is the standard dress-code for a Forerunner? 

Or is the point simply that John is a wild man from the wilderness, oh-so-different from those coach parties pouring in from Jerusalem?

I personally can't shake off the irreverent idea that Mark is simply saying "Yes, of course, they took their clothes off before getting into the river, but don't worry, they kept enough on to stay with in the bounds of decency." Greeks and Romans didn't have a problem with communal bathing facilities, but I think Jews did.

But maybe the point of the verse is its pointlessness. Maybe the act of describing the clothes matters more than the actual clothes, in the same way that the act of quoting the prophets counts for more than identifying the text.

Everyone is pouring out of the city to be baptized. One very important person is even now making the long journey down from the north. Something big, something cosmic is about to happen. So stop. Pause. Look closely at Wilderness-Man for a few moments. And breathe...



And preached, saying:
"There cometh one mightier than I after me,
the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
I indeed have baptized you with water:
but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost."

In modern English "Ghost" means "a frightening but ludicrous creature dressed in a sheet". In Olde Englishe it still meant "spirit" in the religious sense. If you said someone was your "ghostly teacher" you meant she instructed you on spiritual matters, not that she looked a bit pale this morning. A "ghostly father" was a priest, not Hamlet's dad. (German uses geist in both senses: I suppose zietgiest could be Time Ghost if you wanted it to be.)  

The Greek pneumos, as everyone knows, covers both "ghost" and "spirit" and also "wind" and "breath". Perhaps if you go back far enough the breath that you breathe and the spirit which goes to heaven when you die and the wind which blows through the desert were all one thing. "He gave up the ghost" means both "He stopped breathing" and also "His spirit left his body." 

There was a small fuss in the reactionary press a few years ago because some educational guidelines had suggested that R.E teachers use the word "Holy Spirit" rather than "Holy Ghost" when talking about Christianity. Virtually all Sunday Schools and Bibles have used that form for the last fifty years. 

We have been told from the beginning that this is a story about God. So it is not at all unreasonable for translators to prefer a religious word like Spirit to a mundane word like Breath. But we need to be very careful. "Holy Ghost" and "Holy Spirit" drag in some very sophisticated Christian ideas about the Holy Trinity and Pentecost, which aren't really present in the text, however much we might want them to be. I baptise with Water. He will baptise with Wind. (If someone were to revise this text, might they not be tempted to add "and then with Fire"?)

And what about all those people who were washed by John? What happened to them? Did his baptism do any good? There are scattered hints that people carried on being disciples of John long after John had departed. (There are, in fact, a few hundred people in Iran who say they are his followers even today.) But these verses pretty much exhaust his role in the story. People who stalk the Great Historical Jesus think that this part of the story must be historically true for that very reason: there would be no point in making it up. 

Pretend you are reading this story for the first time. We are in a place called Judea; near a desert. There is a wild-man, dressed in fore-runner appropriate clothes. Everyone is being dipped in the water by him. And his whole message is "Not me. Someone else."


And it came to pass in those days,
that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee,
and was baptized of John in Jordan.

"And it came to pass in those days" is emphatic. Not "and it so happened". More "And sure enough, it came true...at that very time!"

There is lots of dipping and washing in the Jewish religion. There is a word for it: tevilah; and for the special bath you do it in: mikveh. It's a kind of ritual cleaning up after doing something dirty which isn't really your fault. Former lepers need a holy wash; so do men who've had a wet dream; so do menstruating women. (I know. I know.) A proselyte may have to undergo a holy bath as part of the process of becoming Jewish. But the word "baptism" is a Christian coinage, derived from the ordinary word for washing.

Presumably the people listening to John would have understood him to be saying "The whole country — all of us — are like gentiles and need to get washified to become properly Jewish again. The whole country has soiled itself and needs to get spiritually cleaned up." And one of the people who comes to get cleaned up — one of the people who has traveled all the way from the North, a four or five day trip, specially for that purpose — is Jesus. He's introduced here simply as Jesus from Nazareth; but advertised on the cover as King Jesus, God's Son.

If Mark sees this as a problem, he doesn't mention it. Either he thinks that Jesus needs to be washified as much as anyone else does or else he is reciting core facts, like a litany, and doesn't think that it is his job to explain them.

John baptised. Jesus was baptised. Make of it what you will.


Tell me honestly. In your mind, do you see John pushing Jesus down under the water, and then helping him stand up again, dripping wet, shaking the water out of his hair? Or do you see John pouring water over Jesus head, possibly using a little sea-shell as a scoop? Do you see them both standing waist deep in the river? Or are they on the banks of the Jordan, in a little shelter, with a font? For centuries pilgrims went to see that very shelter, or at any rate the place where it had definitely stood. 

You had some kind of picture in your head. And the details of that picture depended on the kind of Sunday School you went to and what kind of illustrations there were in the Big Book of Bible Stories which your godfather gave you at your Christening. (Or your Baptism. Or your Service of Thanksgiving After The Birth of a Child.)

We have known who Jesus is, shepherds and star and angels and sandals and cross and fishing boat for our whole lives. We don't see Mark's Jesus. We see some composite Jesus, some synthetic Jesus, made out of Matthew and Mark and Luke and John and Tim Rice and Graham Chapman and Franco Zeffirelli and Piero della Francesca and Pier Paolo Pasolini and that one the BBC did in claymation a few years back.

The story of the baptism of Jesus is not limited to this text. It exists as part of a ceremony; read out in a solemn voice at particular times of the year; part of the turning of the seasons in which pancakes follow brussels sprouts and bunnies follow pancakes and always have done and always will do. (The story of John the Baptist, confusingly, is part of the build up to Christmas, which marks the birth of Christ; the story of Jesus temptation, which comes next, is part of the build up to Easter, which marks his death.) No-one  ever reads this story for the first time. 




Coming soon: The Ultimate foe! Holy pigeons! Wind from Uranus!

8 comments:

  1. "The High Priests didn't go."

    This illuminates your point about a composite - in at least one of the other Gospels (to prove your point even more, I do not recall which one or ones) John does have a hostile confrontation with Sadducees and/or Pharisees. But here he seems to have universal support.

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  2. Or I should say: "universal support up to the time he is thrown in prison with (at this point in the text) no reason given."

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  3. And the one thing we are asked to pay attention to is John's clothes.

    There might be all kinds of reasons for this. You've pointed out three good ones to be going on with. But another might be that standard expectations for the forerunner of a king would involve trumpets and white stallions and gold thread, and here's this bloke who looks like a rough sleeper. What does this suggest about the kind of king he's announcing?

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  4. God-Is-Gracious dips people in the Desolation.

    But was there a Ghost Monument there?

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  5. English rugby fans. Which, given their overwhelming upper-middle-class whiteness, makes the song even more inappropriate and inexplicable.

    I put off starting to read this series for some reason. Just catching up now. Really interesting.

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  6. Welsh rugby fans sing "Bread of Heaven" which has the verse about "when I tread the verge of Jordan". The English sing "Swing low sweet chariot" for reasons which we'd better not go into.

    Glad you are enjoying it.

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  7. You are of course quite right.

    I will diminish, and go into the West.

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  8. Oh, no, wait! Verse two:

    I looked over Jordan and what did I see
    Coming for to carry he home
    A band of angels coming after me
    Coming for to carry me home

    I return, triumphant, from the West!

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