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.

2 comments:

  1. I suppose four Jesuses counts as "at least three Jesuses".

    The opening section of this essay was so good that I suspended my reading, went back to the start, and read it out loud to my wife.

    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.

    My canonical example along these lines is that reasonable people can disagree about whether ABBA were better than Motörhead, but it's simply a fact that ABBA were better than The Brotherhood Of Man.

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  2. See, this is why I am blessed in coming from a Jewish background. First, it was indeed possible for me to read the Gospels for the first time, alone in my room, with not a great deal of cultural commentary in my head. And second, to read them as stories, because that's how Reform Jews in America in the 1960s taught their children who didn't necessarily speak Hebrew about Torah and the prophets and the other holy books -- as stories.

    As an aside, I always find it remarkable how the Gospels give glimpses not of a consistent narrative, but of a consistently human/divine personality.

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