Monday, December 16, 2019

Mark 7

"This 'Jesus': the one who controls the weather and raises the dead and can out-Elijah Elijah. The one the King thinks is a beheaded man come back to life and the People think is a Celestial Prophet come back to earth. What did he do next? The whole 'walking on the water' thing must have been a hard act to follow."

"Oh: pretty much what you would expect. He met up with some religious lawyers and had a pedantic argument about dietary restrictions and the canonical status of oral tradition."

"Oh... right."

When you find something odd or troubling in a text, the best thing to do is focus on it. The oddness or troublesomeness is probably the point. Some people might look at this passage and say "Aha. So here we see the True Historical Jesus -- the reforming Rabbi who had some controversial ideas about ritual ablutions. The miracle stuff in the other chapters is just silly folklore we can ignore." And other people might look at it and say "Aha. For some reason, and way after the fact, someone has looked at a lot of stories about a cosmic world-saviour and rather clumsily added some Jewish stuff to make it look a bit more historical." 

But Mark was a human being and a story teller. If there are contradictions and clashes of register in the text, they didn't get there by magic: Mark put them there. If something seems odd, it is highly likely that he meant it to seem odd.

So let's keep both sides of the story in our heads. Jesus is accumulating titles like "Son of Man" and "Holy One of God". God (literally God) called him "my one-and-only Son." How does Mark want us to picture this One And Only Son of God?

Apparently, as a religious expert, having a pedantic argument with other religious experts.

then came together unto him the Pharisees 
and certain of the scribes 

which came from Jerusalem. 
and when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, 
that is to say, with unwashen, hands, 
they found fault. 
for the Pharisees, 
and all the Jews, 
except they wash their hands oft, eat not, 
holding the tradition of the elders. 
and when they come from the market, 
except they wash, they eat not 
and many other things there be, 
which they have received to hold, 
as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables. 

then the Pharisees and scribes asked him 
"why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders 
but eat bread with unwashen hands?" 
he answered and said unto them 
"well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, 
as it is written 
'this people honoureth me with their lips, 
but their heart is far from me. 
howbeit in vain do they worship me 
teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.' 
for laying aside the commandment of God 
ye hold the tradition of men 
as the washing of pots and cups 
and many other such like things ye do" 
and he said unto them, 
"full well ye reject the commandment of God, 
that ye may keep your own tradition. 
for Moses said, 'honour thy father and thy mother' 
and, 'whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death' 
but ye say, 
'if a man shall say to his father or mother, 
"it is Corban (that is to say, a gift)
by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me" he shall be free' 
and ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; 
making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, 
which ye have delivered
and many such like things do ye."

So. We have a debate between two approaches to religious law. In this corner, the pedantic, literalist approach which says that you achieve a state of holiness by rigorously following the Word as it is laid down in the holy texts. And in this corner, the more dynamic approach, which says that the law is a living thing and you must perpetually adapt it to the real life circumstances you find yourself in.

No surprise there. The awkward thing is that Jesus appears to be taking the rigorous, literalist approach; the Pharisees the more lenient, interpretative one.

The story has three different components. There is what Jesus said to the Pharisees; what Jesus said to the Multitude; and what Jesus said to his own Disciples. And then, cunningly concealed by the King James translators, there is Mark's comment about what Jesus meant, which, when we get to it, will make our jaws drop to the floor and our minds boggle in amazement.

We have to keep reminding ourselves that there is a regional conflict going on. Jesus is from Galilee in the North; he has not so far gone more than half a days ride from the lake. The Pharisees come from Judea in the South. The last time we heard from them they were conspiring with Herod's faction to have Jesus killed.

If we keep this in mind we can avoid a massive textual heffalump trap. Mark says that the Jews insist on all kinds of ceremonial ablutions. This suggests to some readers that he must be directing his Gospel at pagans, who may not know about Jewish beliefs. Some would take the as evidence that there is a racist element creeping into Christianity even at this early stage: "the Jews" are already seen as an alien tribe. But this leaves us with a text that makes no sense: a text which says that the Jesus who attends synagogue and talks about Moses is not a Jew; that Jesus at some level considered the prophet Isaiah to be not a Jew. If, on the other hand, when Mark talks about "the Jews" he means not "the Jews as opposed to the Christians" but "the Judeans as opposed to the Galileans" then everything falls into place. The Scribes have come up specially from Jerusalem to complain that Jesus's students don't wash up before meals. Mark points out that the Pharisees -- and indeed, all the Judeans -- have got a lot of cleanliness rules we Galileans in the North don't bother with.

The Pharisees, as we have seen, believe in an oral Torah which can modify and interpret the written Torah. Jesus treats "what Moses said" and "what God said" as synonymous. The Ten Commandments and Leviticus are "the word of God" and "the commandments of God"; the Pharisee's teachings are merely "the commandments of men" "the traditions of men" and "your own traditions". 

Christians have tended to see this passage as making a distinction between a purely internal, spiritual orientation towards God and a preoccupation with external cleanliness. But Jesus accepts the authority of the law of Moses. His complaint against the Pharisees is that they are operating a double-standard. They use their supplementary traditions to add obligations to the law when they want to find fault with Jesus's students; but they use those same traditions to subtract obligations from the law when they find them inconvenient.

It's a very lawyerly argument; and Jesus's language, at least in translation; has the whiff of the courtroom about it. "Thus do you make the law of null effect by your teaching..."

"Your disciples do not follow our Traditions, thus excusing themselves from certain onerous tasks!"

"Yeah! Well look at the way your lot use the same Traditions to excuse yourselves from onerous tasks when it suits you!"

The word for hypocrite is "hypocrite" which in English generally means hypocrite. But it literally means a person who wears a mask: an actor. The accusation is not "you don't practice what you preach" but "you are only playing at religion". ("You are nothing but show offs!" says the Contemporary English Bible.")

and when he had called all the people unto him, 

he said unto them, 

"Hearken unto me every one of you, and understand: 
there is nothing from without a man, 
that entering into him can defile him 
but the things which come out of him, 
those are they that defile the man. 
if any man have ears to hear, let him hear." 

and when he was entered into the house from the people 

his disciples asked him concerning the parable. 

and he saith unto them, 
"are ye so without understanding also? 
do ye not perceive, 
that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, 
it cannot defile him; 
because it entereth not into his heart 
but into the belly, 
and goeth out into the draught, 
purging all meats?" 

and he said, 

"that which cometh out of the man, 

that defileth the man. 
for from within, 
out of the heart of men, 
proceed evil thoughts, 
an evil eye 
all these evil things come from within 
and defile the man"

"You don't put anything disgusting into your body; the disgusting stuff is what comes out." We would probably not regard this saying as a parable; but the disciples do. Jesus has stated an obvious fact about the world: if anything, earthy and a little bit vulgar. Food is nice; puke is disgusting. Smells good going in but bad coming out. The disciples are not being willfully stupid. They are saying "That much is obvious, Lord: but we do not see the application."

Jesus's explanation does not quite follow from the parable. Jesus says, in effect "When I was talking about yukky stuff which comes out of you, I wasn't talking about excrement. I was talking about what comes out of you: yucky behaviour." 

And now we come to a rather fascinating textual crux.

King James says that Jesus said that what you put in your body can't pollute you "because it entereth not into the heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats." The King writes "draught" or "drain" to protect our embarrassment, but aphedrona definitely means "toilet" (literally "the place where you go to sit by yourself"). Now, the English Bible runs the sentences together: "out into the sewer, purging all meats". That makes it sound like the sewer is doing the purging; which makes fairly good sense. "Food just goes through your body and down the toilet where we get rid of all the yucky stuff." At least one modern paraphrase takes "purged" to mean "flushed".

But katharizon panta ta bromata means "purifying all the food." When Jesus healed the leper a few chapters ago he said katharistheti. English Bibles render that as "be cleansed!" or "be purified!". Maybe we should imagine the Leper saying "If you will, you can flush and disinfect me." Maybe the world is a great big smelly latrine and Jesus has come to pull the chain.

Most translators now agree that "purging all meat" is an authorial interjection: Mark's words, not Jesus's. I am sure they are correct: but they have to use an awful lot of words to convey this in English. The Good News Bible has "In saying this Jesus declared that all foods are fit to be eaten". The New English Bible goes with "This means all foods are clean." And the Message, as ever, just makes something up: "That put an end to dietary quibbling." But a literal translation would have to run along the lines of " '...It goes into your tummy and then down the drain' (purifying all food)".

Mark wasn't a disciple. He didn't hear Jesus say any of this. But since the third century at least, Christians have said that Mark got his material from Peter. We know that Peter gave up the Jewish cleanliness laws only with great reluctance; he and Paul have a stand-up row over the issue. Is it possible that we should imagine Peter chiming in with the "purging all the food" comment?  In these confused and confusing passages, it is very easy to imagine the rambling voice of the old, old fisherman who perhaps still has problems with this aspect of his Master's teaching. "There was that time he walked on water. And then he had a big debate with the lawyers. Food makes no difference, he said. It just goes down the loo. (So everything's clean.) It's what we're like on the inside he cares about..."

When the Pharisees asked why Jesus' disciples weren't fasting, he said "they don't have to fast as long as I am here." When they asked why his disciples were breaking the Sabbath, Jesus said, in effect, "The Sabbath is whatever I say it is." Here again, the Pharisees think they have caught Jesus out. Jesus points up their hypocrisy and inconsistency; and then, in a parenthesis, wipes out the entire kosher system. Mark doesn't say that Jesus revealed that the idea of ritual purity was based on a terrible error which he could no fix. He certainly doesn't say that God has changed his mind. It's just "Jesus made all the food pure." 

Yesterday pig-meat was dirty: today it isn't. Because I said so. The godsplainers have been trying to quibble about the Law with the person who wrote the book. Jesus has indeed just done something more god-like than walking on the sea.

and from thence he arose,
and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon,
and entered into an house,
and would have no man know it:
but he could not be hid
for a certain woman,
whose young daughter had an unclean spirit,
heard of him,
and came and fell at his feet:
the woman was a Greek, a Syrophenician by nation
and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.
but Jesus said unto her,
"let the children first be filled:
for it is not meet to take the children's bread,
and to cast it unto the dogs"
and she answered and said unto him,
"Yes, Lord:
yet the dogs under the table eat of the children's crumbs"
and he said unto her,
"for this saying go thy way;
the devil is gone out of thy daughter"
and when she was come to her house,
she found the devil gone out,
and her daughter laid upon the bed.

You know what I said above, about odd and troubling passages? Well, here is one of the oddest and most troubling of all.

Tyre is about 30 miles from Capernaum; in what we would now call Lebanon. Sidon is about a further 20 miles up the coast. This is the furthest Jesus has traveled from home-base. A Syro-Phoenician means a Syrian who was born in Phoenicia. Greek probably just means foreigner: Greek as opposed to Jewish. Probably we don't need to worry too much about the lady's triple nationality. For Mark's purposes, what matters is that she is foreign and we are a long way from home.

A foreigner asks Jesus for healing. Jesus doesn't want to heal her because she isn't Jewish. Instead of calling him a racist and challenging the whole idea of Jewish exceptionalism, she repeats her request, humbly and with wit. Jesus relents because of the way the question was asked. 

Moral: Little girls with clever mummies get healed. The rest of them carry on suffering.

We can soften the passage in a couple of ways. "Cast it to the dogs!" may have sounded milder to Mark's listeners than it does to us. Kunarion is "little dog" or even "puppy". He isn't saying "doing miracles for non-Jews is like throwing good food on the rubbish tip." It's more like "We aren't going to feed the puppies until we are sure the kids have had enough." And he doesn't say that the gentiles won't be fed, only that they won't be fed yet.

The Jews are God's People. This isn't in question. God has a special relationship with Jewish people; and the Nations don't know the Law. The God of Israel, in the person of Jesus, has walked into gentile country. One of them comes and asks him a favour. His first answer is the one you would expect. The Jews are the special ones; God's children's. Everyone else -- well they can wait. They have lessor status. Not filthy hounds, but little doggies: less important than the kids. 

Very well: says the woman -- but little doggies do in fact get the kids' leftovers.

So she gets a little bit. A little crumb. Whatever the kids didn't want. Specifically a crumb of bread. Which pulls us right back to the crucial and unexplained story of the Loaves and the Fishes. The disciples gathered up the crumbs which were left; and what did they get? Loads and loads. Tons. Basketfulls. More than they could possibly want.

The foreign lady gets her crumb: and that crumb was precisely the very thing she most wanted; her daughter healed of an incurable affliction.

So the message is clear. We modern readers are universalists. We are surprised that there would even be a question about whether Jesus would refuse to help someone on the basis of their ethnicity. But Mark and Peter were Jews. They belonged to the chosen people. God's special favourites. They expected Jesus to say "no; definitely not". Not "okay; just this once."

We say "Only the crumbs? That's a bit mean." 

They say "The crumbs! That's incredibly generous"

God has plenty. Even his leftovers are more than you could possibly want. 

That is what I think this passage means. I think that my reading is superior to Mrs Govey's, who thought that Jesus said "let the children first be fed" with a "twinkle in his eye", a twinkle which the Greek woman immediately understood and played along with.

But it is still a very troubling passage.

and again, 
departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, 
he came unto the sea of Galilee, 
through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis.
and they bring unto him one that was deaf
and had an impediment in his speech
and they beseech him to put his hand upon him
and he took him aside from the multitude
and put his fingers into his ears
and he spit
and touched his tongue;
and looking up to heaven, he sighed
and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened.
and straightway his ears were opened
and the string of his tongue was loosed
and he spake plain.
and he charged them that they should tell no man
but the more he charged them, 
so much the more a great deal they published it
and were beyond measure astonished, 
"He hath done all things well: 
he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak."

There is near-universal agreement that this passage demonstrates that Mark can't have been Jewish, and certainly can't have been a Galilean, since going from Tyre to Galilee via Decapolis makes about as much sense as going from London to Edinburgh via Truro. 

To which my response is "Yes: he didn't go the obvious way, but took an indirect route. That is why Mark bothered to mention it." 

Similarly everyone tells me that this story is called "The Healing of the Deaf Mute in the Decapolis" even though the text says that Jesus went through Decapolis and ended up back at home in Galilee. I sometimes wonder if I am over-subtle, or a complete block-head.

This passage puzzles me. There is no twist or moral message and nothing unusual about the healing. Jesus has been curing hundreds of people every day -- they are literally lining the roads with them. What gives this fellow a story in his own right? 

"Because, in a very real sense, many thousands of people were healed but one of them is described in the Bible; because in a very real sense we are not just a crowd; we all matter to God and Jesus would have cured this one man of his stammer even if he had in a very real sense been the only stammerer in the world." 

That might make a good sermon. But it is not very good literary criticism. We are going to have to wait until the end of the next chapter to work out what is really going on. 

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Tom R said...

Andrew, any day now you are due to write a post that covers both Corbyn and corban. (and perhaps corbamite too).

Tom R said...

(last comment was me, Tom R)

Andrew Rilstone said...

That did occur to me...

(Did I ever write an article called The Corbynite Maneuver? It sounds like the sort of thing I would have done.)