Monday, March 25, 2019

Chapter 1 vv10-13

And straight-way coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens opened,
And the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
And there came a voice from heaven, saying,
"Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

Mark's Jesus isn't set apart at birth. His arrival isn't announced by angels and stars, but by a semi-naked wild man. Either Mark never knew the more famous versions of the Origin of Jesus, or else he knew them but didn't think they mattered. His story begins with a singular cosmic event. 

A man from the North arrives and is baptised with all the others. And suddenly the universe breaks. A hole opens up in the sky, and a part of God flies down and lands on the newcomer. And then God — who hasn't said anything in five hundred years — breaks his long silence. Not spiritually; not "in a very real sense": an actual voice, from heaven, which we can hear, because the sky has split open. Only the voice is talking, not to us, not to John, not to the people, but to Jesus.

Not "He is my son!" or "This is my son!" or "Look at my son!" but "You are are my son!"

None of us momentarily think of Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando at the North Pole. That would be far too irreverent.

Mark is writing in Greek. "He saw the heavens opened" is Eidan schizomenous tous ouranous. Anyone can see that schizomenous is related to our word "schism". It means "divided" or "torn in two". It is the word used later in the story when the curtain in the temple is "rent in twain". And ouranous is just "the sky." (Uranus was the Greek god of the sky before he was a planet.) So what the King James version renders as "the heavens opened" could just as well have been "the sky split apart".

In Olde Englishe "heaven" simply meant "the sky". Only gradually did it come to mean "the place where God lives". The word now has a much narrower sense; it primarily means "wherever it is that people go when they die". We are told that in the olden days people thought that God lived in the sky. But couldn't we just as well say that in the olden days people thought that the stars were part of the supernatural realm where God lived? People who don't particularly believe in the afterlife still look up at the sky when talking about their dead parents.

(While I have the dictionary open: anabainon, "coming up"; and katabainon, "descending", are antonyms; if Jesus "comes up" the Spirit ought to "come down" but if the Spirit "descends" Jesus ought to "ascend.")

Why a dove?

We all know the story about how a dove brought an olive branch to Noah on his ark, signifying that the great deluge was over. In that story, the point of the olive branch is that the flood is going down and trees are growing again. The crisis is over; God isn't cross any more. But the image of a dove and olive branch has become an icon (I almost typed "emoji") which irreducibly signifies "peace". We talk about hawks and doves and people offering each other olive branches without any particular sense that we are making a Biblical allusion. So if a dove flies down from heaven and sits on Jesus it very probably represents peace and the end of the quarrel between humans and God.

Right at the beginning of the Bible we are told that, before the universe was created, the spirit of God fluttered over the ocean. The ocean is whatever existed before the universe was created; it's what the universe returned to when God got angry and uncreated it. So Noah's dove fluttering over the flood water makes us think of that God is starting Creation all over again; and perhaps this dove fluttering over the Jordan makes us think that God is giving everyone another chance to get things right.

Then again; doves are sacrificial animals. If you were a former leper or had just had a baby or were icky in some other respect, the blood of a dove could be a component of the cleaning up process. 

But I wonder if this is all a little too subtle? John perceives the Breath of God — the Wind from the sky — as a white flappy thing, flying down through the hole in the heavens and landing on Jesus. This isn't a metaphor or an inward change. It's not a flowery way of describing some subjective experience. ("And haven't there been moments for each and every one of us when in a very real sense the heavens have as it were opened for us too?") It's a cosmic, mythological event.

"Ascending from the water he saw the Sky torn in half and the Breath like a dove descending on him. A voice from the Sky said: 'You are my Son, the Beloved. I am pleased with you'." 

The word "dove" could feasibly have been translated as "pigeon".

And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness
And he was there in the wilderness forty days,
tempted of Satan;
And was with the wild beasts;
And the angels ministered unto him.

Naturally, the Hero confronts the Big Bad right at the very beginning of the story. It is a foreshadowing of the decisive battle in the final reel.

It's a great scene. Jesus on the mountain. Good looking guy with a goatee beard who speaks in iambics, challenging him to jump off it. Go on, jump. I am sure someone will catch you. Join with me and together we can rule the universe. Unfortunately, it isn't a scene which appears in Mark's Gospel. 

I remember a preacher, years ago, telling me very definitely that when it said Satan it obviously didn't mean Satan. That would be very silly. All the jumping from pinnacles and ordering rocks to turn into bread rolls were just bad ideas running through Jesus' head which he rejected. Jesus wasn't immune from bad thoughts; he just never acted on them. It was a very vivid sermon.

I have mentioned before that Hiawatha was the first poem I ever loved. Hiawatha also spends forty days and forty nights fasting. I spotted at an early age that this made Hiawatha very much like Jesus. (Longfellow had very probably read St Mark.) Joseph Campbell points out that heroes who fast for forty days and forty nights are rather common in literature and this proves that all stories are the same story. Spoilsports have pointed out to Joseph Campbell that forty days and forty nights is about the maximum time a human being could survive without eating.

But Mark doesn't even say that Jesus fasted. It would be more natural to read it the other way. Jesus was all by himself in the desert, but don't worry, he didn't have to make do with sticky sweet insects like John. The Angels brought him food. Of course they did. There is a hole in the sky, and one of God's own pigeons has landed on Jesus. Obviously there are going to be Angels. In the text we are trying to read, the story of Jesus' first confrontation with the Enemy takes exactly three words: "tempted of Satan".

My eyes slide over the "with wild beasts" part. What does that even mean? Jesus went to the wild places to spend some quality time with the wild animals? Or Jesus went to where the wild things are but it's okay, there were angels protecting him?

I know the story of Jesus and Satan. I don't know any story about Jesus and the Animals. The words "he was with the wild beasts" have no traction.

The story of Jesus temptation can also be found in the book we call Matthew's Gospel, and the book we call Luke's.

Matthew's version begins: 

Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness
to be tempted of the devil
and when he had fasted forty days and forty nights
he was afterwards enhungered.

Which is as close to Mark's text as makes no difference. Matthew also ends in exactly the same place as Mark:

Then the Devil leaveth him
and behold angels came and ministered to him.

But in between come seven verses which contain an elaborate description of Satan trying to trick Jesus into doing a bad thing; and Jesus responding by quoting the Jewish scriptures at him. 

What happened? Did some ancient writer read Mark's short version, decide that "he was tempted" was insufficient, and spin a sophisticated, theological temptation-narrative around those three words? 
Or did the writer we call Mark see that long version, decide that the detailed temptation story was superfluous, and cut it out?

Maybe he thought it was unreliable: how did anyone know what had passed in private between Jesus and the Devil? Or perhaps he thought his version was more dramatic: better for the first big event in Jesus career to happen in secret. Secrecy is going to become more and more important as we read the story. There is nothing so dramatic as a closed door. 

The great Synoptic Question — who copied what from whom — is not the one which is troubling me. The hard question for me is "Given that the Long Version exists, what is the Short Version doing in the Bible? How are we supposed to read it? What is Mark's Gospel for?"

Are we to say that this bare skeleton is the original story, the totality of the facts as Mark knew them? The story, according to one ancient source, as Mark heard it from Peter? In which case do we have to say that the other, longer, more familiar versions are literary embellishments, expansions to the story added after the fact. Stuff that someone made up.

In which case does it follow that we should give most of our attention to Mark, and treat Matthew as simply a commentary on it. A commentary which has been venerated and revered for close to two millennia; but a fictional commentary nevertheless. 

Or do we have to say, more strangely, that the long embellished version came first, and that Mark is a synopsis: a good-parts summary of Matthew. We are told that Thomas Jefferson went through the Bible and deleted all the passages involving miracles. We are told that if Gideon leaves one of his Bibles in Sir Ian McKellen's hotel room, he redacts Leviticus 18:22 with a pair of scissors. But what is the value of a Readers Digest version of Matthew (however ancient and pious and reverently done) when we have the full version in front of us?

Holy cut-and-paste; or holy fan-fic. Neither idea is appealing. And yet for seventeen hundred years (at least) Christian tradition has put both versions, the long and the short, side by side in the text we call the Bible. Perhaps the Church Fathers themselves couldn't decide. 

I tried the mental exercise. I couldn't do it. I tried to concentrate on this version of the story: angels, wild animals, a singular "temptation", fasting not mentioned explicitly. I couldn't do it: Matthew and Luke (and Milton and Passolini) kept smuggling themselves into my head.

This passage was the brick wall that my plan to just read the text collided with.

The story I know: the story, everyone knows. Reading the words on the page is no longer a possibility.

COMING SOON: The Exorcist! Married Popes! Geography!


Gareth Rees said...

Some miscellaneous comments.

It's very difficult to read an original source without being influenced by later versions that added material to it, especially if the added material is especially vivid. (As everyone discovers when re-reading The Lord of the Rings after watching the films.) I was recently looking at the story of King Cnut and the tide, and it's clear that most writers who retold the story had trouble reporting what their sources said, even though the sources are barely a paragraph long. For example, no less of a scholar than David Hume says that he consulted four early Latin versions of the story, but then he explains the king's motive as that of rebuking the flattery of his courtiers, something that appears in none of the sources he says he relied on, and which on the face of it is not very plausible.

I notice that Mark writes that the Spirit "driveth" Jesus into the wilderness (ἐκβάλλει, cast out) but Luke writes "led" (ἤγετο) and Matthew "led up" (ἀνήχθη). This looks like a lectio difficilior — it being more difficult to portray Jesus and the Holy Spirit as antagonists than as allies.

The Jewish Encyclopedia says that "In the Bible, next to the number seven, the number forty occurs most frequently. In Talmudical literature it is often met with, in many instances having been apparently used as a round number or as a concrete and definite expression in place of the abstract and indefinite "many" or "some," and hence becoming a symbolical number." (Similarly to how "myriad" is used to mean "many" rather than "ten thousand".) This seems more plausible than either Campbell's monomyth or the spoilsports' literalism.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Just to be entirely clear: the word for the Holy Spirit making Jesus go into the wilderness is the same as the word for Jesus making the Unclean Spirit go away?

(Tears up next essay and starts again.)

Thanks for the feedback. My Greek runs to one term of evening classes and a concordance...

Gareth Rees said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gareth Rees said...

In the "unclean spirit" passage (Mark 5) Jesus asks the spirit to come out or withdraw (Ἔξελθε).

The ἐκβάλλει in Mark 1:12 is the same ἐκβάλλει as in Matthew 9:34 "He casteth out devils". But the word is also used as in Matthew 9:38 "he will send forth labourers" so the connotations are not always negative. This is the kind of ambiguity that a later writer might be tempted to resolve based on "what everyone knows" about the story: "of course, we know that Mark meant the Spirit inspired Jesus to go, not that it kicked him out."

delagar said...

Re: Jesus being "with the wild beasts."

This makes me think of Gilgamesh, the part when Enkidu lives with the beasts and is one of them. (Later he is made human by the acts of the woman sent out to sleep with him and feed him and cut his hair.)

Mike Taylor said...

The image of a dove and olive branch has become an icon (I almost typed "emoji")

I was drinking tea when I read this. Very nearly spat it out all over my laptop.

Lirazel said...

Sorry I'm coming to these late; Patreon refuses to notify me when items are posted.

I've had a flock of mourning doves in my yard for several years now, and I can confidently state that doves are not peaceful birds -- far from it. They are aggressive towards each other, especially when feeding, and when it's mating season the feathers quite literally fly. They slash at each other with wings, beaks, and claws. Some of it's performative, but a lot of it is quite serious.

So I'm very glad that the descent of the Holy Spirit is only like a dove...