Monday, July 29, 2019

Mark 3 7-35

but Jesus withdrew himself with his disciples to the sea:
and a great multitude from Galilee followed him
and from Judaea,
and from Jerusalem,
and from Idumaea,
and from beyond Jordan;
and they about Tyre and Sidon,
a great multitude, when they had heard what great things he did, came unto him.

and he spake to his disciples,
that a small ship should wait on him because of the multitude, lest they should throng him.
for he had healed many
insomuch that they pressed upon him for to touch him,
as many as had plagues
and unclean spirits when they saw him, fell down before him, 
and cried, saying,
"Thou art the Son of God."
and he straitly charged them that they should not make him known

Another vignette. Jesus goes down to the beach; crowds follow him; there are healings and exorcisms. Mark is still turning up the volume. This is biggest crowd yet. People are coming not only from Galilee in the North, but from Judea in the south; and from the other Jewish communities round about. 

Mark invariably begins a new section with a simple "and": "and he walked beside the sea..."; "and passing on he saw Levi...."; "and the Pharisees were fasting...". The Authorized Version has changed "and" into "but" in this passage; which suggests a narrative link between the Pharisees decision to seek Jesus's death and the meeting on the beach. "The Pharisees decided to kill him...But Jesus withdraw to the beach." But this link isn't in the original text. 

Jesus is still keeping his true identity under wraps, referring to himself cryptically as "the Son of Man" and "the Bridegroom". It is the supernatural forces which hover around the action that give him the bigger, more dramatic names. Godliterally Godcalled him "my beloved Son" at the outset. The first spirit he exorcised called him "the Holy One of God" and now demons in general are yelling "Thou art the Son of God" at him. 

Jesus does not reply "yes: I am the son of God, and so is every one of us". Neither does he reply "yes, I try to live a good life, and in that sense, I hope I am a son of God." In the 1960s, very many clergymen seemed to think that that is what he ought to have said. We're all sons and daughters of God. Jesus was no more the literal son of God than James and John were the literal sons of thunder." J.A.T Robinson thought that "God" meant "whatever is most fundamentally important" and to be "son of God" meant "to be completely committed to whatever you think is of most fundamental importance." 

But for Mark, "son of God" is a title of great significance; such significance that Jesus regards it is an important secret. It defines Jesus's identity: he wants the demons to keep quiet because they know who he is really is.

It almost sounds as if the true Messiah has to deny his divinity...

and he goeth up into a mountain,
and calleth unto him whom he would:

and they came unto him.
and he ordained twelve that they should be with him,
and that he might send them forth to preach,
and to have power to heal sicknesses,
and to cast out devils

and Simon he surnamed Peter;
and James the son of Zebedee,
and John the brother of James;
and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, the sons of thunder:
and Andrew,
and Philip,
and Bartholomew,
and Matthew,
and Thomas,
and James the son of Alphaeus,
and Thaddeus,
and Simon the Canaanite
and Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him

We have been told that Jesus and his disciples ate with the sinners; that the Pharisees asked Jesus disciples about their master's policy on fasting; and that some of the disciples annoyed the Pharisees by plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath. Most of us, out of habit, assume that these passages refer to the twelve disciples: a special inner circle. But the word "disciple" simply means "student" and Jesus seems to have had a lot of students. This passage shows Jesus choosing twelve particular followers from among those students and giving them the specific job title of Apostles. Apo-stello means "to send away" or to "send forth" so these twelve Apostles are specifically Jesus's ambassadors or envoys. 

Simon we have met: he seems to have lent Jesus his house. James and John we will see a little more of. Andrew will get a couple more mentions, because he has the best name. Judas...well I think we all know about Judas. But the other seven never become more than names on a list. The other Gospel writers will give a few of them speaking parts.

Mark says that Jesus "added the name" Peter to Simon and "added the name" Boanerges to James and John. "Nickname" would sound frivolous; but "surname" doesn't mean now what it did in seventeenth century. "Simon, who he named Peter" probably says all that needs to be said. James and John are never called Thunder Brothers again; but (with one exception) Simon is exclusively Peter from now on. In Matthew he is "Simon called Peter" from the beginning; in the letters attributed to him he calls himself Simon Peter. "Peter" doesn't seem to have existed as a name at this timeCephas or Petros were simply the Aramaic or Greek words for "stone". Probably we should think of it as a title; "Simon the Stone". Under no circumstances should we imagine that anyone ever called him "Rocky."

I don't know whether James the son of Alphaeus was related to Levi/Matthew and neither does anybody else.

and they went into an house.
and the multitude cometh together again,
so that they could not so much as eat bread.

and when his friends heard of it,
they went out to lay hold on him:
for they said, "He is beside himself."
there came then his brethren and his mother,
and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him
and the multitude sat about him,
and they said unto him,
"behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee."

and he answered them, saying,
"who is my mother, or my brethren?"
and he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said,
"behold my mother and my brethren!
for whosoever shall do the will of God,
the same is my brother,
and my sister,
and mother."

Jesus's friends and the Scribes have apparently been studying C.S. Lewis. A mere human being doesn't have the authority to suspend the Sabbath and forgive sins. So either Jesus is more than merely a human being, or else he insane, or something worse.

"Friends" is a euphemism. The Greeks says "ho pe atous", those who belonged to him, which everyone not directly employed by King James agrees meant "his relatives" or "his family". And this is consistent with Jesus disowning his family, including his mother, at the end of the chapter. Jesus's family, Mary and Joseph and all, think that their son has literally gone mad. 

Why has the Jesus family picked this particular moment to challenge Jesus? Is it the "Son of Man" stuff which has made them think he is several matzos short of a Passover? ("You don't have to fast or keep the Sabbath while I am here. If I say your sins have gone away, they have gone away.") Or is it the more recent Sabbath stuff? "He's gone crazy. He's picked a fight with the most important legal experts in the country. If he isn't very careful, they will kill him." It is hard to see how the the mere fact that the house is too crowded for him to have a meal would make anyone think their brother had lost his senses. 

Jesus's family see Jesus wielding supernatural power and acting as if he had divine authority and decide that he has gone insane. It is very hard to see how this could make sense if Mark knew the stories (which we absolutely take for granted) about Jesus's wonderful, supernatural birth. For Mark, a change has come over Jesus since God spoke to him and sent his holy Dove down from heaven; and this change his mother and brothers see (not unreasonably) as an outbreak of insanity.

and the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said,
"he hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils."
and he called them unto him, and said unto them in parables,

"how can Satan cast out Satan?
and if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.
and if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.
and if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end. "

"no man can enter into a strong man's house and spoil his goods,
except he will first bind the strong man;
and then he will spoil his house"

"verily I say unto you,
all sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men,
and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme:
but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness
but is in danger of eternal damnation"

because they said, "he hath an unclean spirit"

The escalation continues. The Scribes want to kill him; his relatives think he is mad; and now a delegation of legal experts sent specially from Jerusalem accuse Jesus of being demon-possessed.

The Scribes have a kind of legal logic on their side. Jesus is, in fact, exorcising unclean spirits. So they can't say that he doesn't have some kind of Authority. All they can logically do is ask where that Authority comes from. 

Why they pick on Beelzebub is not clear. He's mentioned briefly in the Old Testament as a Philistine deity: "Lord Zebub". Milton gives him a bit part in Paradise Lost and William Golding named a whole book after him. Some people think he had wings and is therefore Lord Who Can Fly; some people think he was associated with rotting corpses and was therefore the Lord of the Flies. Perhaps the Scribes don't want to oversell Jesus. They aren't going to accuse him of being in league with the Devil, merely with one of the subordinate Devilettes. Or perhaps "Beelzebub" is a euphemism, like "Old Nick" to avoid using the actual word "Satan". 

The Pharisees accusation is kind of logical; so the first thing which Jesus does is use logic back at them: demonstrating again that he can out-scribe the Scribes. They say that he is using demonic powers to cast out demons. If that were true, it would follow that Satan's power was ended, or nearly ended. But Satan's power has clearly not ended, therefore the devils cannot be fighting among themselves, therefore Jesus cannot possibly be using demonic authority.

Whatever one wishes to say about the translators of the Authorized Version, they had a wonderful turn of phrase. It is now almost impossible to think about the American civil war, the English civil war, or the British Conservative Party without the phrase "a house divided..." coming to mind. 

The second verse is best thought of as a separate "saying", not an amplification or continuation of the first. Certainly, you don't need to posit a demonic civil war to see what Jesus is saying. He is not exorcising demons because he is Satan's friend: the fact that he is an exorcist proves that he is Satan's enemy. He is here to take Satan's stuff. So of course he is going to spend some of his time de-powering demons. 

And then comes the third verse.... 

If we have learned one thing over the last two chapters, it is that Jesus is all about forgiveness. He'd rather tell a disabled man that his sins are forgiven than fix his legs. He calls Levi to join his band even though Levi is one of wicked tax collectors. He says he has come to persuade racketeers like Levi to turn their lives round, not to have dinner with religious experts. And yet suddenly, here he is, telling the Scribes from Jerusalem. "Your lot can't be forgiven. You're going to hell. You've done something unforgivable." 

I was going to type that Jesus was angry at this point. "How dare you say that God's holy dove that came down on me in the Jordan is a dirty ghost. How dare you." But I don't think the text really supports this. It's almost like, having logically and calmly said "Don't be silly. Of course you can't exorcise devils using devilish powers" he makes a general, abstract point. "Oh, and by the way. God does forgive blasphemy; but not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Just saying." This is sufficiently cryptic that Mark's editorial voice needs to chip in with an explanation. Although the Scribes may not realize it, by saying that Jesus is possessed by a dirty ghost, they have in fact called God's spirit unclean. And that's about as bad as it gets. 

A lot of evangelical ink has been spilled over the concept of Unforgivable Sin. Some people say that the only thing which is unforgivable is to think that God is not good enough or great enough to forgive you. If you don't think he can, then he certainly can't. Other people say its about going back and denying your conversion: once you have said "God didn't save me" then you've crossed a line and you can't cross back. In the olden days, school teachers used to tell little boys that the sin against the Holy Ghost was masturbation, which seems like overkill. But the tone of this passage suggests that it is the badness of the sin we should be focused on, not a technical question about soteriology. The message is not "God forgives 99% of all known sins. But not quite all of them." The message is: "Think of the worst thing you can think of. Saying that God's Holy Dove is unclean is even worse."

Relationships between Jesus and the Scribes are about as bad as they could possibly be. They are planning to murder him; he has told them that they are going to hell. And we are only in Chapter 3.

I once saw a production of Hamlet in which the Prince was played by two different actors simultaneously; a pair of identical twins. One represented Mad Hamlet, and the other represented Sane Hamlet. Lines were shared out between them. Sometime Sane Hamlet would be saying something quite reasonable, and Mad Hamlet would push him out of the way and say something crazy. The sane Hamlet was also Laertes and the mad Hamlet was also Hamlet's father and everyone spent a lot of time with no clothes on. It was that kind of show.

I could imagine dramatizing Mark in such a way that Jesus was played by two different actors: one a wise, learned and shrewd teacher; the other the actual literal Son of God. (*) Rabbi Jesus would be learnedly disputing with the Scribes and suddenly Son of God Jesus would butt in and speak the actual Word of God. Maybe he could pronounce the word of God in red, like Jesse Custer. 

You can imagine how it might work: 

"I think you'll find that according to the first book of Samuel the twenty first chapter the sixth verse it is permissible to glean on a Saturday Morning AND THE SON OF MAN IS IN CHARGE OF THE SABBATH." 

"No, that's completely illogical; if Satan is fighting against Satan then Satan has no more power; and clearly, Satan does still have power or I wouldn't be carrying out exorcisms AND ANYONE WHO BLASPHEMES AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT WILL GO TO HELL." 

No, that wouldn't be an orthodox Christian position. No, it isn't how Matthew and Luke depict Jesus, and definitely not how John does. But it's a good description of how these passages in St Mark feel to me.

I'm Andrew. I write about about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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(*) Larry Gonnick's Cartoon History of the Universe jokingly suggests that there were multiple "Yeshuas", including a mystic and a lawyer. Philip Pullman wrote a boring book called "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" in which all the lines which Philip Pullman agrees with are spoken by the "good Jesus" and all the lines he doesn't like are spoken by a "bad Jesus". Dave Sim theorizes that the synoptic Jesus and St John's Jesus are two entirely separate characters and that this is proven by the Beatles.

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