Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written (3)

At least four Jesuses stand between us and the text of Mark's Gospel. 

There is Sunday School Jesus the luminous man who lives in the sky and is a friend to little children. 

There is Composite Jesus, stitched together out of the four contradictory Gospels. 

There is Folklore Jesus, who was born in a stable, liked cherries and hurt his little hand while his step-dad was teaching him woodwork. 

And there is Theological Jesus, of one being with the father, begotten not created, with two natures in hypostatic union. 

These Jesuses are not necessarily wrong or bad. But we know them so well that we see them before, or instead of, the Jesus that Mark writes about. We read a passage in which Jesus is firey or even bad-tempered; and we see a gentle Jesus of pure compassion. We read a story whose whole structure depends on a single journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and say "They really went back and forwards between Judea and Jerusalem three times". We read a clear story in which God's spirit comes down on the man Jesus, and immediately start talking about Trinitarian formulas which weren't going to be codified for another three hundred years.

Here is a commentary I found online, talking about the Baptism of Jesus:

The earliest heretics took advantage of this statement to represent this event as the descent of the eternal Christ upon the man Jesus for personal indwelling. Later critics have adopted this view. But it need hardly be said here that such an opinion is altogether inconsistent with all that we read elsewhere of the circumstances of the Incarnation, and of the intimate and indissoluble union of the Divine and human natures in the person of the one Christ, from the time of the "overshadowing of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Highest." 

The first thing to know about the baptism story is how it can be forced to fit in with orthodox theological idea, and how people who assume that it says what it means are heretics. The second thing to know is how it can be harmonized with the other Gospels. The idea that we might read the story as a story hardly even occurs to us. 

By all means let's talk about the Jesus of the hymns and the legends; let's listen to the theologians explaining the hard bits in technical language; by all means let's think up some continuity hacks so that all the Gospels tell exactly the same story. We've been at it for seventeen hundred years; we are hardly likely to stop now.

But Mark's Gospel exists. And it is very old: older than any of the hymns or the creeds. Someone chose to write these exact words in this exact order, as opposed to some different words in a different order. Someone thought that these stories about Jesus, told in these forms, were the ones people needed to hear. And the Very Ancient Christians chose to preserve his text, and the Slightly Less Ancient Christians put them into the Bible, and the Early Modern Christians translated it into English and the Wycliffe Bible Translators are still working very hard to translate it into Ngbugu. 

So shouldn't we be at least a bit interested in what actually Mark said? 

Folk Lore Jesus, Synthetic Jesus and Theological Jesus are all defensible; even necessary. But there are also Indefensible Jesuses; Jesuses who don't so much overshadow the text as replace it. 

There is Political Jesus, the one who preached a very definite programme and who calls on us to bring about a thing called The Kingdom in our own age. The Political Jesus who agrees with my politics—the one for whom the Kingdom primarily meant the post 1945 socialist welfare state—is a lot more dangerous than the Political Jesus who preached Victorian Values and the Political Jesus who preached American exceptionalism. 

Very nearly as bad is Moral Jesus, Jesus the Good Example. If you are ever faced with a dilemma—if it ever becomes hard to see what is right and what is wrong—then whistle a merry tune, ask "What Would Jesus Do?" and everything will be okay. 

And of course, the History departments still produce Historical Jesuses by the sackful. Mark got Jesus wrong; the church fathers got Mark wrong; the modern church got the fathers wrong, but don't worry an academic in an American university can infallibly takes us back to what the True and Original Jesus really said.

Enoch Powell was quite right. (*) You can't possibly go from "Jesus supernaturally created food for 5,000 of his followers" to "Jesus would have supported my food bank policy but opposed your universal income idea." You can't get from "Jesus supernaturally healed sick people" to "Jesus would have supported the National Health Service but opposed mandatory private insurance schemes". And when faced with a hard choice—"Should I tell the truth, which will hurt a number of people unnecessarily; or tell a lie, which will trap me a series of deceptions for years to come?—then "Jesus was compassionate" is no help at all. Followers of Moral and Political Jesus general have the same morals and political beliefs as everyone else of their age and class. They are just a bit more insufferable about them.

Historical Jesus is more of a problem. I have heard too many Christians saying "Oh, you historians! You just make up whatever version of Jesus you like! The Historical Jesus industry is just a matter of looking into a mirror!" This is unfair and anti-intellectual. Your actual historian isn't in the business of making stuff up. She has a very large amount of actual historical data at her fingertips. She can't tell us if Jesus was the Messiah of Judaism. That isn't an historical question. But she can tell us a very great deal about what Jews at the time of Jesus understood the word "Messiah" to mean. (SPOILER: Lots of different things.) 

The Historians Jesus, so long as we are talking about actual Historians, I have no problem with. The bigger menace is the Historical Novelist's Jesus. 

I am not thinking mainly of Dan Brown. Dan Brown made up a lot of silly tosh in order to spin a good yarn. Spinning a good yarn is his job. I am not even thinking of things like The Last Temptation of Christ, Stand Up For Judas, or Jesus Christ Superstar all of which made selective use of the Gospel stories to create deliberately provocative works of art. Heck, I even defended Jerry Springer the Opera, up to a point. 

I am thinking much more of people like the Rev. Giles Fraser, who tells us that the Last Supper was "really" a provocative act of resistance against the Roman Empire. People like Simcha Jacobovici who asserts that the Gospels plainly state that Jesus was married to someone he calls "Mary of Magdela." The legions of well-meaning 1960s clergymen who said that Resurrection meant nothing more than "the disciples carried on trying to follow Jesus' teaching after he had died." I am thinking of Miss Govey who, who wouldn't have known what the words "radical" and "modernist" meant, but who quire happily told her class of ten-year-olds that everyone was so moved when that little boy shared his packed lunch to Jesus that all five thousand of them shared their packed lunches as well, so everybody got some. So we should share our packed lunches as well: that is the point of the story. People, in short, who have replaced the stories in the Gospels with different stories of their own. 

Maybe Jesus was a revolutionary. He might have been. Maybe the great Signs were just conjuring tricks with moral messages behind them. They could have been. Maybe the whole thing about Jesus having supernatural powers was a terrible misunderstanding and he was really just a goody-goody who wanted everyone to share their stuff. Maybe so. But that is not what Mark believed. Or, at any rate, that is not what Mark put in his Gospel. The Historical Novelist's Jesus produces a weird kind of cognitive dissonance. Intelligent people read about exorcisms and resurrections and the sky splitting open and then they say "Jesus lived such an exemplary life that after he died his followers started to use words like 'son of god' to describe him." It's a bit like watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail and coming away convinced that you've seen a fairly accurate recreation of the life of a sixth century Romano-British war-band. 


My mother loved to tell a story about a Labour Party meeting in the 1980s. It was the time when a far-left cadre, led by an activist named John Lansman, was trying to take over party machinery, much to the dismay of the moderate old guard, who regarded them as Trotskyites. (It could never happen today.) 

On one occasion, after a particularly acrimonious session, an elderly invited speaker stood up to recount some of his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. 

"We have heard much tonight about what Trotsky said" he began. "I will now tell you what Trotsky said to me." 

That's what we would love to have: not what Jesus said, but what Jesus said to me.

Some time in the middle of the second century, a Christian named Papias wrote that he didn't hold with this new-fangled idea of writing the story of Jesus down. In his day, you would find some very old person who remembered someone who remembered what one of the original disciples had told them about Jesus and get them to repeat the story. "The living and abiding voice" he called it. We'd call it oral tradition.  

Eusebius (the fourth century historian) says that Papias said that some of those very old people said that Peter had told Mark what he remembered of Jesus, and that Mark had written it down. (I make that five links in the chain: from Peter to Mark to the very old people to Papias to Eusebius.) Some people have seized on this idea and said that Mark's Gospel is the memoirs of Peter, pure and simple, an old fisherman spewing out fifty-year-old memories, as close to the Original Jesus as it is possible to get. "Mark" is merely an amanuensis, scribbling down the Elder's memories with a quill and a parchment. But I find it hard to imagine that a first-person eye-witness account could ever have been presented in such a simple, colourless form. It doesn't read like a memoir; it doesn't read like a folk tale. It reads more like a liturgy or a creedal statement. A recitation. 

I have an idea.

Almost certainly it is a silly idea. Very likely someone who has done a thesis on Aramaic story telling is laughing at me right now. But it describes something of how reading the New Testament feels. To me: 

Here is my idea.

Mark is a crib sheet. 

Mark is summary of the basic stories which a story teller needs in his repertoire. 

Mark is a skeleton which subsequent evangelists are intended to flesh out. 

Mark is a structure for future reciters of the story to follow. 

When Mark, toga and sandals and all, performed his gospel to an eager audience of Christian children, sometime in the eighth decade of the first millennium, he didn't speak the exact words of "Mark's Gospel". He tried to paint a picture. He tried to make it vivid in the audience's mind. And he tried to explain what some of the harder passages meant. How did the Adversary tempt Jesus? How did Jesus respond? What was the doctrine which so amazed the people of Capernaum? How could John possibly have been so presumptuous as to try and wash away the sins of the actual Son of God? Some of the elaboration would have come from a store of folk memories and oral traditions. Some of them he would have made up on the spot. That's how story telling works.

And the compilers of the Bible knew this. And they wanted us to know it as well. So they provided us with the text of Mark—his notes, his outline. But they also provided us with a transcript of two performances based on Mark's outline.

The first performance weaves pages and pages of the most beautiful preaching into Mark's story. Everyone on earth knows about the lilies of the field and turning the other cheek. The other gives us a glimpse of Jesus' childhood, and works in the most amazing parable-stories. Everyone on earth knows the story of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. 

Could it be any clearer? "Here is Matthew's recitation. Read that first. Now, here is the script he was working from. Read that next. Now see what Luke did with the same material. And if you want to see just how way-out some performances can be, get a load of what John did to it. Now take it and run with and tell it your own way. That's what it's for. A living story, not a dead text." 

That's my idea. Ridiculous. 

My starting point for this essay was "What would happen if I pretended to read Mark's Gospel for the first time?" 

I assumed that I would say "Some of the stories are not as we remember them; in some cases Jesus does things which are not the kinds of things which we imagine Jesus doing. And there are some more obscure tales that we have forgotten altogether." 

Before I got to the end of the first page, I realized that my conclusion would have to be "It is not possible to read Mark's Gospel for the first time. My religious and theological and cultural assumptions about Jesus have crowded Mark's character out of the text." 

But it was always a silly question. We say that we "read" Mark; and we also say that we "read" Edgar Rice Burroughs and George Eliot and A.A Milne. But we are not really talking about the same process. Middlemarch and Jungle Tales of Tarzan are both books. A good book and a bad book perhaps, but the same kind of thing. The long novel has depth and complexity and seriousness and importance, while the short adventure story is a short adventure story. But I read Tarzan to find out what happens next; to get to know the characters; to be excited, surprised, amused and moved; to feel happy and sad; to pretend that some made up people are real people. And I read Middlemarch for pretty much the same reasons.

But the idea of "reading" Mark in the same way that I "read" Tarzan is absurd, as absurd as the man who tried to use his guitar in unarmed combat. You might have an opinion about whether disco dancing is better than ballet; but "Which is better, ballet, marmite, or nuclear physics?" doesn't even qualify as a question.

I called this introductory essay "The Book That Refused To Be Written" as a nod to Frank Morrison. I should have called it "The Book That Refused To Be Read". 

And yet, Mark exists. It is a text, made of language. I have it in front of me. I can read it. 

15,000 words. Twenty pages. 

Chapter 1, verse 1, page 963. 

"This is the Good News about Jesus Christ the Son of God..."

(*) Kindly do not take this out of context.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mark 1: 29-45

and forthwith, 
when they were come out of the synagogue
they entered into the house of Simon and Andrew
with James and John.
but Simon's wife's mother lay sick of a fever,
and anon they tell him of her
and he came and took her by the hand
and lifted her up
and immediately the fever left her,
and she ministered unto them.

This incident is so brief it barely counts as a story. Simon's mother-in-law is poorly; Jesus arrives; holds her hand; she gets up and makes lunch. He doesn't preach a message or draw any conclusion: it isn't his doctrine which heals her. If anything Jesus makes her better just by being there. 

The slightly awkward word "ministered" reflects a word-play in the original: diakonos, a waiter, is the same word as diakonos, a deacon. 

In a few pages Simon will be given the sobriquet Peter. In a few decades, the Roman Catholic church will claim Peter as their first Pope. And the only way I know of acquiring a mother-in-law is by having a wife. The first Pope was a married man.

I suppose that extended family units consisting of a married couple, one or more of their parents, and any kids were fairly common in Capernaum. But I do wonder why Granny, rather than Mrs Peter cooked lunch for the important visitors. 

The obvious answer being: Peter was a widower.

and at even 
when the sun did set 
they brought unto him all that were diseased 
and them that were possessed with devils
and all the city was gathered together at the door
and he healed many that were sick of divers diseases 
and cast out many devils
and suffered not the devils to speak
because they knew him

Mark's Gospel unfolds at breakneck speed. Immediately after the exorcism, Jesus becomes famous; immediately after leaving the synagogue, they go to stay with Simon; immediately they arrive, they hear that his mother-in-law is sick; immediately Jesus holds her hand, she gets better. Our English translators use different words: straightway, forthwith, anon, immediately, at once. But that disguises the rhythm and the repetition of the original, where the same word is repeated endlessly. Euthys... euthys... euthys..... 

They should probably have picked "straightway" and stuck with it. This is, after all, a story which started with an admonition to built a straight way for the King. 

The fishermen wouldn't have been working on the Sabbath, so the first visit to the Synagogue must have been at least a day or two after the calling of the Four. Even if we take "the region round about Galilee" to mean "the villages near the lake" and not "the whole province" the news about Jesus would have taken days or weeks to get out there. So "immediately the news spread" and "immediately they went to Simon's house" are in two different time frames. 

There is no point in trying to create a chronology out of Mark's breathless narrative. This isn't "a probable outline of Jesus' career", telling you what he did and where he did it and in what order. It's a lot of short Jesus-stories strung together by an editor. The scholars are doubtless correct when they tell us that "As soon as they left the synagogue, they went to the home of Simon and Andrew" is an editorial link, and that in its original form the story started "So, Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever". 

But the construction is not arbitrary. There is a story arc. This second half of the first chapter is clearly presenting us with "Jesus's first day": how he went from obscurity to fame. 

He arrives in town; maybe on Friday, and selects the first four people he sees to be his followers. On Saturday morning he preaches in the synagogue and performs an exorcism. On Saturday lunchtime, he visits Simon's house and heals Simon's mother in law. By Saturday evening, everyone in town is outside his front door. Mark underlines the time of day: "that evening, after sunset". Jesus waits until shabbat is over before starting the mass exorcism. He isn't going to challenge the lawyers on this point. Not just yet. The next morning he absents himself.

And then the narrative does something so strange I am almost embarrassed to draw attention to it. 

and in the morning, 
rising up a great while before day
he went out
and departed into a solitary place
and there prayed 

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. So far so un-surprising. The Greek doesn't actually say "morning": it says something untranslatable like "very early in the night still much" but everyone agrees that that's an idiom for "before the sun had come up". 

So: Jesus gets up before sunrise. Before sunrise on the morning after the Sabbath. Before sunrise on Sunday morning. 

"Got up" is a perfectly reasonable translation: my understanding is that the Greek is actually closer to "he stood up". But "he stood up" -- anastas -- is elsewhere translated as "he rose" or "he arose". 


Very early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Jesus arose. 

He was Simon's guest. Simon must literally have gone to his bedroom and found that he was not there. Because he had risen. (Did he fold up his bedclothes neatly before he went?) And so, after the sun had come up, Simon went looking for him... 

I do not know what is going on. I do not know if Mark worked a credal statement into a passage which is really just giving out a fairly banal piece of information -- Jesus used to get up early to say his prayers. Or, more shockingly, if events we perceive as holy and mysterious were originally talked about in concrete, day-to-day language. 

"Very early on Easter Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up..." 

and Simon
and they that were with him followed after him
and when they had found him 
they said unto him, 
"All men seek for thee"
and he said unto them, 
"Let us go into the next towns, 
that I may preach there also: 
for therefore came I forth." 
and he preached in their synagogues 
throughout all Galilee 
and cast out devils

When the story started, some 50 verses ago, John the Baptist was in the wilderness, and everyone in Judea was coming to him. As the first section of the story draws to a close, Jesus is in the wilderness, and everyone in Galilee is looking for him. We know John as the precursor to Jesus; but if we were reading this story for the first time it would seem that Jesus was being presented as the second John. 

Jesus decides not to return to Capernaum, but to go instead to the nearby towns. I don't think that he is saying "I came to preach in the surrounding towns, not just in Capernaum"; I think that he is saying "Let's go to the towns which haven't heard about the exorcism yet; so that I can announce my good tidings. I came to do that, not to perform miracles." 

and there came a leper to him 
beseeching him
and kneeling down to him
and saying unto him
"If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean"
and Jesus
moved with compassion
put forth his hand
and touched him
and saith unto him
"I will
be thou clean."
and as soon as he had spoken 
immediately the leprosy departed from him
and he was cleansed
and he straitly charged him
and forthwith sent him away
and saith unto him
"See thou say nothing to any man 
but go thy way 
shew thyself to the priest 
and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded 
for a testimony unto them"
But he went out, 
and began to publish it much
and to blaze abroad the matter 
insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city
but was without in desert places
and they came to him from every quarter 

If you had asked me to guess, I would have assumed that the Bible was divided into chapters and verses in the fourth century, when the text was being translated into Latin. But in fact, the chapter divisions only go back to the thirteenth century. Still, the editors knew what they were doing, and Mark chapter 1 works pretty well as a standalone narrative. Here endeth the first chapter; tune in next week for the further adventures of Jesus and his band. 

This first installment ends with Jesus leaving Capernaum to preach in the other towns; episode two will begin with him returning to base. But in between comes this story. And I think Mark put it here for a reason. Thematically, it represents the climax of this first cycle of stories; and psychologically, it represents a turning point in Jesus' career. 

We've seen Jesus heal a sick lady and expel a dirty ghost; and we're told that hundreds of people came to Simon's house for healing and deliverance. But this is the first time Jesus has healed a leper, and it is obviously of special significance. 

John washed people in the river: the point of washing is to get clean; literally, metaphorically, spiritually. Lepers are dirty. Some translations primly insist on "ceremonially unclean" and "ritually defiled". It is certainly true that the Jewish religion involved a lot of spiritual and ceremonial cleaning up, but it is also true that skin diseases and excrement and blood and mildew and pigs are yucky and icky and repulsive. Things which are physically repulsive and things which are spiritually repulsive are talked about in the same way. 

Lepers are dirty. If you touch a leper, you become dirty. The leper wants to be clean. Jesus can touch dirty things without getting dirty himself. When he touches something dirty, the dirty thing gets cleaned up. John's baptism -- his washing -- didn't actually clean anyone up. Jesus has cleaned up the leper just by being near him. He isn't disgusting any more.

Jesus left Capernaum because he wanted to announce his good message, not get trapped in a house healing sick people. So the leper's question could almost be seen as an accusation. 

"You could clean me up if you wanted to." 

"Oh, I want to...." 

Are we allowed to read psychological conflict into the life of Jesus? Or could we even (shades of Martin Scorcese) see the leper as tempting Jesus; using his human compassion to divert him from his divine mission? Jesus wants to proclaim the good-message. He has run away from Capernaum because the people there are demanding exorcisms and healings. But when confronted with a person who desperately needs cleansing, his compassion kicks in. He can't only be God's herald. He has to be a healer as well. 

And so the first chapter ends. Perhaps with a long, aerial shot of Jesus in the desolation (like John) and crowds of people coming out of the towns and the villages and converging on him. 

The sky has opened up; and this fellow from the North is walking around with a part of God inside him. Some law of spiritual attraction has kicked in. Fishermen leave their nets and fall in step behind him. Sick people get better just because he's there. Dirty ghosts run away. Physically disgusting people become clean. Congregations are panic-stricken by his words. Everyone is looking for him, all the time. But he hides from them. He keeps his identity a secret. He doesn't want to be found. He wants only to proclaim and teach. "That is why I have come forth." 

But what is this proclamation? What is this doctrine which boggles congregations?As the curtain comes down, this is still very mysterious indeed.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Well, I'm intrigued. Are you in intrigued?

I tried the stunt with the TIE Fighter once myself. Used all my Force Points for the session, I did. Otherwise, strictly speaking, doesn't say much: another desert planet, could be Tatooine, could be Jaku; we already knew Lando was coming back.

Interesting that they are definitely hyping it as the end of the saga, though: that's giving them a pretty high bar to reach, and also tying their hands if they change their mind. (How many Last Books Of Earthsea are there?) I grew up with the idea that Star Wars was always going to be a Trilogy of Trilogies, so I am happy about this.

The wrecked Death Star is interesting. It seems to be that has to be either Yavin or Endor. Both forest moons, incidentally. Although there was no suggestion in IV or VI that the native population was showered with wreckage. (Maybe it crashed into Yavin and/or Endor, rather than the moon's thereof.) But let's not over interpret, because it might just be a bit of scenery for the trailer. The big crashed Star Destroyer in Force Awakens wasn't specially important to the metaplot.

Not sure about "rise" in the title. There was a point where every third movie was called the "rise" of something or other. And trailers always say "A hero will rise", "A warrior will rise" "A dancing instructor will rise." But "rise of Skywalker" is very interesting indeed. Luke comes back from the dead? Rey is a member of the Skywalker clan after all?

It could mean "Darth Vader gets resuscitated" which would be a very odd thing to do in the final movie – but isn't Hayden Christensen rumoured to be involved?

So, anyway, I'm intrigued. Are you intrigued?

Friday, April 05, 2019

Mark 1 14-28

Now after that John was put in prison

Jesus came into Galilee....

My heart sinks when anyone starts to talk about Biblical Geography, particularly if it involves Miss Beale's black and white slides of her trip to the Holy Land in the 1950s.

But I have managed to bang the following basic facts into my head.

  1. Israel is the whole land claimed by the descendants of Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament.
  2. When the land became a monarchy, Israel referred to the Northern Kingdom as opposed to the Southern Kingdom which was known as Judah. (Judah was the nice brother who didn't want to sell Joseph to the Ishmalites. A hairy crew. The kingdom of Judah was populated by his descendants. The descendants of the other ten brothers lived in Israel. Making twelve altogether. It's complicated.)
  3. By the time of Mark's Gospel, the land of Israel is split in three. Galilee, at the top of the map; Judea, at the bottom, and Samaria in the middle. (Yes, I too always imagined Samaria as being a far-away land; but a straight path from Nazareth to Jerusalem would take you through it. I also thought of Galilee as a sleepy little sea-side town, but it is in fact the name of the whole province.) 
  4. The Galileans, the Samaritans and the Judeans all claim descent from Jacob and all claim to follow the teachings of Moses; but they understand those laws differently: very differently indeed in the case of the Samaritans. Which is why the Galileans don't like them very much and the Judeans don't like them at all.
  5. People who live in Judea are Judeans (Ioudaios); their religion became known as Judaism. Jesus was in a modern sense Jewish but he wasn't a Judean. This will lead to heaps of confusion later on.
  6. Down in the South is the salty Dead Sea; up in the North is the freshwater Sea of Galilee. They are connected by the River Jordan.
  7. Nazareth is a long day's stroll away from the sea of Galilee; but it would take a week's hike to get from Nazareth to Jerusalem.

Will that do?

....preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 
and saying,
"The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God is at hand:
repent ye,
and believe the gospel."

We have been told that this book is the "gospel of Jesus". Now Jesus finally speaks: he announces something called "the gospel of God" and calls on people to "believe the gospel."

"Gospel" is another dusty church word. At best it means the second reading on Sunday morning; at worst, a form of religiously inspired pop music. The first four books of the New Testament are the "gospels"; any scrap of parchment with Jesus' name in it is immediately heralded as "the fifth gospel".

The English Bible translators couldn't find a straightforward English equivalent of Mark's word euangelion, although once or twice they render it as "glad tidings." Literally it means "good message"; but they made up their own word: godspell. Which, as everyone knows, means Good News although it could be understood as God's News. But Good News is not much of an improvement over Gospel, from our point of view. It is redolent of over-earnest street preachers ("have you heard the good news about Jesus?") and the dreadful Good News Bible.

The meanings of words expand and contract with the centuries. C.S Lewis talks about "the dangerous sense": where the modern meaning of a word is almost, but not exactly, the same as its archaic meaning, so students are in danger of misreading it. The word good once primarily meant "holy and pious" but now it primarily means "excellent". So the godspell may actually be the Holy News. Spell originally meant something like "narrative" or "recitation": we still talk about advertising spiel or political spiel. It doesn't take too much imagination to see how recitation could come to mean "tidings", "message" or "news". Neither does it take too much imagination to see how the same word could evolve along a quite different pathway, so that in modern English spell primarily means "a poem recited by a witch". 

This book, the Glad Tidings According to Mark, contains the glad tidings about Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the glad tidings about God. And what were those glad tidings? Like John, Jesus says that something important is about to happen but hasn't happened yet. Like John, Jesus says that people need to change their minds and get ready for this thing which is about to happen. But unlike John, Jesus says that as well as repenting, you have to believe. Believe what? The glad tidings themselves.

But what, exactly, are these glad tidings? What is the content of God's message? We aren't told. It almost seems that Jesus is announcing the Gospel, but at the same time, keeping it secret. 

Perhaps the good spiel really is God's advertising pitch. Pitches often work like this. You offer a teaser as bait, and then, once people are interested, you reel them in....

Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and Andrew his brother
casting a net into the sea:
for they were fishers.
and Jesus said unto them,
"Come ye after me
and I will make you to become fishers of men."

and straightway they forsook their nets,
and followed him
and when he had gone a little farther thence,
he saw James the son of Zebedee
and John his brother,
who also were in the ship mending their nets.
And straightway he called them:
and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants
and went after him.

Mark's gospel sometimes comes across as a sequence of tiny little folk-memories; a collection of stanzas or proverbs. Most scholars think that the individual narrative units are older than the text; that the book we call Mark is the result of someone taking these fragments and stitching them together.

That is how these lines sound to me. As if someone is repeating an oft-told tale about a thing which a disciple of a disciple remembered happening. There doesn't seem to be any mystery or secret meaning hiding beneath the surface. It feels like we are slipping back a thousand years and seeing events unfold. 

A man walks by the sea; he sees two men. He beckons, says a few words we don't quite catch; and they go with him. He walks along a bit further and sees two more men; they join the group. Where there was one there are now five. 

I suppose they are all leaving footprints in the sand.

The first words we hear Jesus speak are almost a joke.  Not "Come and help me redeem Israel." Not "Come and join in what's going to become literally the biggest story in history." But "I see you haven't caught any fish. Want to have a go at catching people instead?"

Simon and Andrew and James and John do not seem, particularly, to be responding to a message. They don't say "This Good News stuff sounds brilliant, we want to hear more" or "Yeah. we've been hoping for something like this Kingdom thing. Mind if we come along?" They follow Jesus because Jesus tells them to follow him. If you think that Jesus was a social reformer, a revolutionary, a pacifist, or a mystic these passages will not be much help to you. The big deal about Jesus is that he is Jesus.

NOTE: It is generally agreed that Andrew was the best disciple. 

And they went into Capernaum
and straightway on the sabbath day
he entered into the synagogue
and taught
and they were astonished at his doctrine:
for he taught them as one that had authority
and not as the scribes.

When I was a kid we went to Butlins a few times. They still had old-fashioned sea-side variety shows, with conjurers and impressionists and comedians. I remember one comedian more or less dying on the stage, eliciting no more than a polite chuckle from the audience. The following night a different comedian had the same audience almost literally rolling in the aisles with hysterical laughter. Despite the fact that he was telling exactly the same jokes.

One of the oldest surviving Christian texts—some people think it is even older than the New Testament—is known as the didache: The Teaching. or The Doctrine. In the previous passage, Jesus was preaching his glad tidings—announcing or proclaiming them. Here, he is teaching: dispensing didache. .  

Mark says that people were astonished by this Doctrine. But, maddeningly, he doesn't tell us what Jesus actually said. Either he didn't know, or he knew and didn't think it was important. What he wants us to know is that the congregation recognized a quality called Authority behind the words; and that this left them dumbfounded; stunned; boggled.

And there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit
And he cried out, saying,
"Let us alone;
What have we to do with thee
thou Jesus of Nazareth?
art thou come to destroy us?
I know thee who thou art
the Holy One of God."
And Jesus rebuked him, saying,
"Hold thy peace
and come out of him."

and when the unclean spirit had torn him,
and cried with a loud voice,
he came out of him.
and they were all amazed,
insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying,
"What thing is this?
What new doctrine is this?
For with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits,
and they do obey him."
and immediately his fame spread abroad
throughout all the region round about Galilee.

A few lines ago, John the Baptist was saying that his successor would baptize people in the holy ghost; and we were watching the holy ghost flutter down from heaven and land on Jesus. But now Jesus confronts a man who is inhabited by an unclean spirit. A dirty ghost.

Jesus tells the dirty ghost to go away, and away it goes.

Jesus' audience are stunned because he preaches to them with authority; and they are equally stunned because he uses his authority to give orders to the dirty ghost. The two events are somehow the same. The people don't think that Jesus is a preacher and also an exorcist. Somehow, they think that it is his doctrine that has made the dirty ghost go away. Or that the casting out of the ghost sums is part and parcel of the doctrine. 

What they take away from both the sermon and the miracle is that Jesus has exousian, authority.

Ezekiel, in the Old Testament, was told to prophecy—preach—to the dry bones. No-one ever told us what he said: it was the very act of prophesying which brought the bones back to life. (The ankle bone connected to the shin bone; the shin bone connected to the thigh bone...) I think something similar is happening here. It is something in the words, a supernatural quality, which leaves the congregation stunned and the actual forces of evil running away. The words themselves don't matter; they have power because Jesus is speaking them. 

It's not the jokes; it's the way you tell them.

It's not what he preaches; it's the way that he preaches it.

It's a recitation. An incantation.

God's Spell.

Coming soon: Lepers! Married Popes! Cripples!