Monday, December 02, 2019

Mark 6 1-6

and he went out from thence
and came into his own country
and his disciples follow him 

and when the sabbath day was come
he began to teach in the synagogue
and many hearing him were astonished, saying,
"from whence hath this man these things?
and what wisdom is this which is given unto him,
that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands?
is not this the carpenter,
the son of Mary,
the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon?
and are not his sisters here with us?"
and they were offended at him

but Jesus said unto them,
"a prophet is not without honour,
but in his own country,
and among his own kin,
and in his own house" 

and he could there do no mighty work
save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk,
and healed them
and he marveled because of their unbelief 

and he went round about the villages, teaching

This chapter begins a new cycle of Jesus stories. The exorcism, the storm, the bleeding woman and the dead girl are connected together in Mark's narrative. But I don't think "he went out from thence" means that Jesus left the little girl's sick room and headed straight for Nazareth. I think we have to imagine Mark pausing, and then starting again.

"And then there was that time he left Capernaum and headed for the town where he was born..."


So, Jesus goes home. And the home-town crowd is unimpressed. 

And that's pretty much all that happens. In Capernaum, Jesus is wildly popular -- he has to dodge crowds and keeps running away to places where nobody knows him. But back home in Nazareth, he meets with a much cooler reception. We aren't told quite what happens: but the congregation in the synagogue find him offensive, and there aren't even any good miracles to report. 

It isn't clear what follows from this. 

We learn some things. Jesus's mother is called Mary -- the only time Mark names her. Jesus came from a big family: one of at least seven kids. Back home he is known by his old job; he was a carpenter. Mum, four brothers and a couple of sisters are in the synagogue, or at any rate, in town, but glaringly absent is any mention of Jesus's dad. 

Adelphos means "brothers". It could probably include step-brothers or half-brothers if you really wanted it to; but there is no particular reason to think that it does. 

From a narrative point of view, we can say that Jesus's mission is expanding geographically. Capernaum is still base-camp, but Jesus is travelling a little further afield: the Gardarenes last week; Nazareth this week; the coasts of Tyre next week. Nazareth is about ten miles from Capernaum.

Mark doesn't tell us what Jesus said in Nazareth. But the people there react in the same way the people in Capernaum did: they are thundestruck, jaw-dropped, boggled. And they ask the same question that the disciples on the boat did. Who is this guy? 

There are stories outside of Mark's Gospel about Jesus's infancy and his childhood and his adolescence. There was a whole medieval industry creating Kid-Jesus fan-fic. (Remember that time he drowned two Jewish kids for saying his Mum was no better than she ought to be? He got a good slapping for that.) And the Victorians wrote hymns about his wondrous childhood; and there are art galleries full of paintings of Boy Jesus in the carpenter's shop with Daddy Joseph. 

Mark is in a different story world. This Nazareth story is hard to reconcile even with Matthew and Luke's canonical prequels, let alone all the apocryphal ones. No-one says "Aha, I knew you'd grow up to be a Rabbi after that time we went up to Jerusalem when you were a kid" or "Looks like those Magi knew what they were talking about after all." Mark makes it clear that the people in Nazareth think that something has happened to young Jesus; that he has changed since he went off to get baptized by John. As ever, we are in on the secret: but they don't know about the sky opening and the holy bird coming down. "How is that he learned all this stuff? And how can he do miracles all of a sudden?" 

The word for miracles is dunamis again; the same word for the "power" that flowed from Jesus to the sick woman outside Jairus's house. King James says "mighty works"; but "works of power" does the job better.

I really, really wish that Mark didn't say that Jesus could do no miracles at home. It makes it sound too much as if the Nazarenes' lack of belief somehow impeded the flow of Miracle-Juice. And what were they supposed to believe? The mere fact that Jesus is doing works of power? But they do believe that. The truth that he is the Son of God? But that's the big secret that hasn't yet been revealed.

St Matthew was obviously troubled by this too: when he retells Mark's story, he changes "he couldn't do many miracles" to "he didn't do many miracles.

[Unless it was the other way round. Perhaps Matthew's story, in which Jesus didn't do any miracles is the original one. Perhaps Mark heard that story and said "But that gives the impression that Jesus petulantly refused to help the sick folk because the synagogue crowd had been horrid to him. But I don't think it was like that. I think that Jesus would have helped them if he could, but their lack of faith prevented him." The question of who copied who is fantastically complex.] 

The annoying truth seems to be that different Jesus-stories have got different ideas about the nature of Jesus's healing power and how it functioned. Sometimes he has got intrinsic power inside him; sometimes the power depends on the faith of the recipient; and once or twice he seems to be performing a spell or a ceremony like a shaman or medicine man.

Why were the people "offended"? The text says they were eskandalizonto which the Catholic Bible dutifully renders as "scandalized". The concordances tells us that skandalizo literally meant "stumbling block".

I think that the much maligned Eugene Paterson is on the money for rendering it as "and they tripped over what little they knew about him". For the people in Capernaum Jesus is a mysterious preacher, newly come from Jordan, who has shown up in their synagogue, shouting at demons and referring himself as the Son of Man. For the people in Nazareth he is young Josh who used to bathe in the pond and fix the back door and chase his little sisters round the garden. 

And perhaps that is a harder thing to get your head round. The fact that they had known the human Jesus was a stumbling-block. 


When Mark says that Jesus is a carpenter the word he uses is tekton. And the word tekton doesn't necessarily mean wood-worker. It could refer to any maker of dairy produce. 

We've all got a pretty fixed image in our heads of Jesus-the-Carpenter, even though we probably got it from Milias or Mel Gibson or the Ladybird Life of Jesus. It would probably be quite healthy to consider the possibility that he might have been a blacksmith or a stone-mason. But disappointingly the Old Testament tends to treat carpenters as distinct from other kinds of craftsmen. In the second book of Kings, for example, the temple is repaired by "masons and builders and carpenters". By the end of the first century, Christian writers were talking about Jesus as a maker of yokes and ploughs; by the third they were inventing Kid-Jesus fanfic about him helping Dad by magically making pieces of wood grow longer. 

A.N Wilson confidently tells us that at the time of Jesus, the word translated as "carpenter" meant "scholar" or "wise man". What the people in Nazareth really said, he assures us, was "Isn't this the scholar?" or "Isn't this the scholar's son?"

The evidence for "carpenter's son" ever having meant "scholar" seems decidedly flimsy. But even if the idiom did exist, A.N Wilson is offering us a conjectural text; a text which does not exist but which might have done, and asking us to read that instead of the text we have in front of us. 

In the book of Mark, "carpenter" cannot possibly mean "wise man". Imagine that the word tekton was obscure and untranslatable. 

Many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did he get these ideas? And what is this wisdom that has been given to him? What are these miracles that are done through his hands? Isn’t this the [REDACTED] , the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And aren’t his sisters here with us?” And so they took offense at him. 

We might conceivably think that the missing word meant "street sweeper" or " fishmonger" or "candlestick maker"; but we would never suppose that it meant "wise-man" or "scholar". In context it can only mean "the kind of profession that you wouldn't associate with great wisdom". 

And yet A.N Wilson's idea has already gone three times round the world. "Son of a Carpenter means Wise Man" has become one of those factoids which everybody knows.

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

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)


Gareth McCaughan said...

For what little it's worth, this is the first time I've heard of A N Wilson's idea that "tekton" might actually mean something like "scholar" or "wise man". For calibration, I did know that "tekton" can refer to other sorts of artisan besides carpenters, and have a vague recollection of reading that it could also mean more elevated artisan-adjacent things like "architect" -- of course there's an etymological connection there, if nothing else.

So maybe Wilson's unlikely theory (the internet tells me he got it from Geza Vermes) isn't quite so widely spread as you fear? Or maybe I'm just atypical.

Roger Pearse said...

I don't think that I'd rely on Geza Vermes to tell me the time of day, tbh, whatever his reputation as a hebraist.

Good to see that you are still around, Andrew. A long way down the Telegraph Road!