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! 

8 comments:

  1. I know it's only an aside, but your description of the Holy Land - the various kingdoms, plus their geography - is great. Like you, I always thought Samaria was somewhere else entirely. And it never occurred to me that a Samaritan might actually come from Samaria.

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  2. Nick MazonowiczSunday, 14 April, 2019

    Enjoying this series as always....but it does seem a shame that you decided to aim a swipe at the Good News Bible. Maybe as an atheist of 20 years or more, I probably shouldn't be 'Christiansplaining' but I always understood the purpose of the Good News Bible was to present the Bible in simple language for young people or people whose first language isn't English rather than to try and supplant the Authorised edition. If your criticism of the Good News Bible is 'the language is a bit simple' then surely its a sign that its doing its job.

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  3. I am putting all my prejudices and gut feelings in, aren't I?

    I think that the language of the Good News Bible always seemed patronizing. I suppose it was a reaction against the New English Bible, which was painfully academic? I think both of them blur the line between exposition and and translation too much?

    "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God" is a very obscure verse; but (someone will help me) it is a pretty literally translation of what St John says. "When all things began, the Word already was" is not a translation but a gloss; "Before the world was created, the Word already existed" seems to almost be creating a new religious poem of its own.

    I think the big problem was that both texts were intended as cribs -- for students in the case of the N.E.B and for schoolkids in the case of the GNB, and they probably do the job quite well. But too many clergymen treated them as substitutes for the A.V; and they are quite unsuitable for being read aloud in a liturgical setting. (Can you imagine being a twelve year old boy, volunteering to read a very well known passage out of the Bible, only to find that it says "But this son of yours wasted all your money on prostitutes..." I was that soldier.)

    I gravitate to the A.V because it is relatively literal; and because the archaic language produces a distancing effect which I find useful (it makes me attend to the words). But for very many people anything with "thee" or "thou" is as much of a turn-off as black and white movies and subtitles. The New International Version has become pretty standard; although that has its own set of problems.

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  4. 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.)

    Not quite: even more confusingly, the kingdom of Judah contained the tribe of Benjamin as well as that of Judah.

    Like John, Jesus says that something important is about to happen but hasn't happened yet.

    Eh? No, he doesn't. He says: "the kingdom of God is at hand".

    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.

    I think that, as well as being right, that's rather lovely.

    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.

    Luckily, Luke both knew and thought it important:

    He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

    “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

    Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

    — Luke 4:16-20.

    (And, yes, I am using the NIV. I have time for quite a a few different translations, but if I had to get it down to one, that would be my favourite. Why? Because it's readable without needing to understand Shakespearean English, it retains some if not all of the poetry of the KJV, and it stays close enough to the literal meaning of the original text that you don't ever feel the translators fell into just making stuff up. Do not get me started on The Unforced Rhythms Of Grace.)

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  5. Mike:

    a: I took "at hand" to mean "imminent, about to happen". Does it actually mean "it is happening now"?

    b: This gets us into the question of how the Gospels are related to each other -- which I intend to speculate wildly about in my next piece.

    c: I don't think that there are many times when the Authorized version uses obscure Shakespearean vocabulary in the way that, say, Shakespeare does ("Who would fardels bare when he could his quietus makes with a bare bodkin.") I have no particular problem with the NIV, and would certainly use it when mugging up my Second Book of Chronicles and my Haggai. But the A.V somehow seemed to suit the style of essays I am trying to write.

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  6. Interesting on "at hand": I guess it's one of those ambiguous phrases that has two rather different meanings. https://biblehub.com/mark/1-15.htm shows how differeny translations render it. The NIV has "The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near." My familiarity with that translation may have influenced me to interpret "at hand" in that way.

    The NASB, which I understand to be pretty literal, has "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand." The English Standard Version, which ditto, has it word-for-word the same: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand." And the "Berean Literal Bible", which I'd not heard of but I guess the clue's in the name, has "The time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near."

    BTW., I'm not trying to argue here that you should have used one translation over another in the present series. The KJV may be a perfectly cromulent choice. But I think it's hard to argue that most people would find it easy to read — and as we've just discovered with "at hand", the meanings of some words and idioms have drited since that translation was made. That can happen in 400 years. So while I agree that it's easier than Shakespeare (presumably because it was deliberately written to be easy reading at that time, like the Good News Bible?), it still presents a barrier that I think make it harder to follow along with the "imagine you're reading this story for the first time" conceit.

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  7. The Greek word is ἤγγικεν meaning "has come close" so the same ambiguity is there in the original — it might imply "it is here now" or it might imply "it is nearby but not yet here".

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  8. Thank you, Unknown, that is really interesting.

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