Thursday, September 17, 2020

This month I have published approximated 10,000 words of essays on this page. 

57 nice  Patreon supporters have each paid me an average of $1.95 for each essay. 

Patreon supporters have had exclusive (free) previews of three new essays:

There Is Black and There is White — A first look at Steve Ditko’s later work

Not As Funny As He Used To Be — A look any political satire in a wokeocracy

Rough and Rowdy Ways — A song by song review of Bob Dylan’s new album.

In September, we should see the final four essays on the Gospel According to St Mark appear here: the trial; the cross; and, er, the thing which happened afterwards. Rather challenging to write but I am quite pleased with them. A book will follow almost immediately.

(I keep thinking "Oh dear, my book about Jesus has gone a bit religious".) 

Patreon supporters will be getting advanced peaks at at least two extended essays:

Britannia Perdere! — Magic, conspiracy theories, covid, and the Daily Mail (4,000 words)

You’re Not Arguing With Me, You’re Just Contradicting Me: Prof C.S. Lewis and Mr Ezekiel Bulver (10,000 words)

After which we may get back to some popular culture. Tom Baker? The place of small plastic figures in the reception history of Star Wars? 

If you consider any of this is at all worthwhile, please consider joining my Patreons.

Early articles and e-book versions of my writing, the occasional added extra, and the sense of satisfaction which comes with knowing that you are supporting your fifth favourite blogger. If five readers each added $1 to the pot I could — er — afford fish and chips on an eat out to help out day.

Thank you. 

When I Survey....

“I suppose you think I can’t do the electrocution” wrote E.L Doctorow in his novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, written in the persona of their son. “I will show you that I can do the electrocution.” 

Syliva Plath, also writing about the Rosenburgs, remarks “I am silly about executions”, as if there was a way of being sensible about human beings gurgling in electric chairs. The United States has mostly hidden judicial killings away inside big impersonal institutions; and England stopped killing prisoners more than half a century ago. There are some sadists and tabloid leader-writers out there: but most of us see capital punishment as a weird anachronism. We can’t quite believe it used to happen. 

There is a clip somewhere of the great Jake Thackray introducing his translation of the great George Brassens’ song The Gorilla which is, rather indirectly, a satirical attack on capital punishment. (A judge who has just sentenced a man to death gets raped by a gorilla. It’s a very funny song: you should probably stop reading this essay and listen to it.) He sits there, in his painfully 1970s sweater, on colour TV — very possibly the comic relief on that week’s Esther Rantzan show — and remarks “This week, in Le Sante Prison, Paris, two fellas got their heads chopped off…” 

And I’m like…that was still happening? In the era of colour TV? Not in Saudi Arabia, but twenty miles over the channel in France? Actual decapitation? Polite men in suits and uniforms taking a man to the guillotine and then going and having a coffee and croque monsieur afterwards? It so obscene that we can only talk about it frivolously. They had their heads chopped off. They were strung up. They went to the chair. 

They were very bad men. Terrorists, I think. 

What if—as some people wanted—P.G Wodehouse had been convicted of high treason? What if the main thing which loomed over those funny cocktail party farces was “the man who wrote these stories ended up standing on a trap door with a rope round his neck”. What if Winston Churchill had been allowed to go through with his sordid little fantasy of electrocuting Adolf Hitler in Trafalgar Square? Would we remember anything about Hitler apart from the gruesome newsreels of his death? Or the little Swedish-American union leader who put clever, cheeky, funny words to hymn tunes was shot on a trumped up charge, and his death utterly overshadows his songs. I suppose Socrates is mostly a philosopher and only secondarily a man forced to drink poison. 

There is a pat children’s hymn which I assume no-one sings any more. It goes: 

I sometimes think about the Cross 
and shut my eyes and try to see 
the cruel nails and crown of thorns 
and Jesus crucified for me. 

But it clearly isn’t the kind of thing we can think about. We either think of flesh and blood and piercing wounds and feel sick; or else we resort to gallows humour and treat it as if it was slightly, grotesquely funny. Monty Python at one extreme and Mel Gibson at the other. I think Python is better. The rack and the iron maiden mainly exist in newspaper cartoons or Heavy Metal imagery. 

Mostly, it flips and becomes a Religious Image. Jesus-movies have established their own iconography of the crucifixion. We ought to feel that Robert Powell or Willem Dafoe is being horribly and cruelly brutalised: but in fact, the minute the camera arrives at Golgotha, they cease to be characters and become icons; live action representations of the kind of Crucifix you see outside every Catholic Church and round every priestly neck. 

Some atheists think it is ever so clever to point out that the cross is not, in fact, a religious symbol but is, in fact, an instrument of torture, and how very strange it is to use execution hardware as a symbol of your faith. There would be nothing remotely odd about using the symbol of a noose to represent a political martyr or the victim of a miscarriage of justice. But it is quite true that the crucifix is intended to be a shocking image; like a momento mori, and that it has lost its power due to overfamiliarity. Mel Gibson to some extent did us a favour by reminding us that crucifying someone would have made a terrible mess. The Romans did lots of horrible things to criminals, feeding them to wild animals and tying them in sacks of poisonous snakes. But they treated crucifixion as being almost too disgusting to even mention. 

Jesus was crucified. 

Not some allegorical religious figure. The person we’ve been reading about. The person who gives his followers nick-names and deliberately presents his teaching in such a way that no-one will understand it. The one who always answers a different question to the one you asked. The one who wouldn’t go out and talk to his mum. The one who hugged the kids. The one with the bread and the boat. That Jesus. 

The Greek word for cross is stauros which arguably means a stick or a stake. You could take the word Cross-ified to mean bound to a stake. Mark doesn’t mention nails: he just says that Jesus was Stake-ified. Maybe if we tried to say Impaled rather than Crucified some of the shock and horror and incongruity would find it’s way back into the story. 

Let’s see if Mark can do the Crucifixion.

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Saturday, September 12, 2020

Mark 14 53-72

and they led Jesus away to the high priest
and with him were assembled all the chief priests
and the elders and the scribes.

and Peter followed him afar off
even into the palace of the high priest
and he sat with the servants
and warmed himself at the fire

and the chief priests and all the council
sought for witness against Jesus to put him to death and found none
for many bare false witness against him
but their witness agreed not together
and there arose certain
and bare false witness against him, saying,
"we heard him say
I will destroy this temple that is made with hands
and within three days I will build another made without hands: 
but neither so did their witness agree together. 

and the high priest stood up in the midst 
and asked Jesus, saying,  
“answerest thou nothing?  
what is it which these witness against thee?” 
but he held his peace, and answered nothing.  
again the high priest asked him, and said unto him,  
“art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” 
and Jesus said, “I am:  
and ye shall see the son of man sitting on the right hand of power,  
and coming in the clouds of heaven.” 

then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith 
“what need we any further witnesses? 
ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye?”  
and they all condemned him to be guilty of death 
and some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, and to say unto him, “Prophesy” 
and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands 

and as Peter was beneath in the palace, 
there cometh one of the maids of the high priest: 
and when she saw Peter warming himself, 
she looked upon him, and said,  
"and thou also wast with Jesus of Nazareth" 
but he denied, saying, I know not, neither understand I what thou sayest.  
and he went out into the porch; and the cock crew. 
and a maid saw him again,  
and began to say to them that stood by,  
"this is one of them"
and he denied it again.  
and a little after, they that stood by said again to Peter,  
"surely thou art one of them: for thou art a Galilaean, and thy speech agreeth thereto" 
but he began to curse and to swear, saying,  
"I know not this man of whom ye speak"
and the second time the cock crew.  
and Peter called to mind the word that Jesus said unto him,  
before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.  
and when he thought thereon, he wept. 

The final confrontation. Jesus versus the Priesthood. Jesus versus the Temple. 

That is the charge the Priests bring against Jesus: he said he would destroy the temple. 

It’s an oddly specific charge. Jesus has told his disciples in private that the temple is going to be destroyed. He has preached a public parable that very strongly suggests that the Priesthood is going to come to an end. And I suppose that if a terrorist had said “That skyscraper is going to be destroyed” the authorities might well take him to mean “I am going to destroy that skyscraper”. But the comment about pulling down a temple “made with hands” and putting up another “not made with hands” corresponds to nothing that Mark says that Jesus said. 

The thugs take Jesus to the high priest: the high priest assembles the senior clergy and lawyers. The council is the synehedrion: presumably the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. The thugs in the garden could have strung him up on the spot. But the Priests don’t want a murder or an assassination. They need there to be due process; or at least the semblance of due process. 

But they have no reliable evidence to base a conviction on. They need a confession. 

At first Jesus' identity was a secret. But the secret got out. Since he arrived in town, people have been openly calling him Son of David. So the High Priest asks him directly. And it turns out that only the true Messiah affirms his divinity. 

“Are you the One Who Has Been Anointed? Are you the Son of the One Who Is Worthy of Adoration?” 

There are three other versions of this story and they all diverge at this point. But we are trying to read Mark’s version. And Mark’s version is astonishingly simple. 

The Priest asks Jesus if he is the Messiah. 

Jesus replies “Yes, I am”. 

And everyone present says “In that case, let’s kill him.” 

I don’t think that the Priest has asked Jesus if he is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. I think that the Priest takes Son of the Most High as a title that you would expect a Messianic claimant to use. It may be hubristic for Jesus to agree with the Priest’s definition: but I don’t think that would necessarily make the entire council decide to kill him on the spot. 

To be sure, Jesus goes beyond the High Priest’s question. He agrees that he is the Messiah; and he agrees that the Messiah can be called the Son of God: but then he says, unprompted, that the High Priest will live to see the fulfilment of Daniel’s prophesy. Jesus will go into the presence of God and be granted supreme power over the universe. But is even this sufficient to incur a unanimous death sentence? What freaks the High Priest out? Isn’t it obvious? 

“Are you the Anointed and therefore the Son of the Most Worship-able?” 

“I AM”. 

The Priest gets it. By “I am” Jesus doesn’t simply mean “Yes”. He is using the personal name of God. Yahweh, Jehovah, I-AM. 

And so the Priest pounces. Nothing else matters now. Jesus has blasphemously applied the Divine Name to himself. Jesus has directly claimed to be the God of Israel. 

Matthew and Luke soften the passage. They say that when the Priest asked if he was the Son of God, Jesus replied “That is what you say” or “Even if I told you you wouldn't believe me". It is not hard to see why. If Jesus answered the Priest’s questions obliquely and evasively, then the Priest has no grounds to kill him. But if Jesus really spoke the name of God in the presence of the priest then he was — in a sense — guilty as charged. 


Back in the Garden, Jesus said to Peter:  “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Matthew, Luke and John all tell the same story: but they all have Jesus say simply  “Before the cock crows”. I prefer Mark: it’s the very specific detail which gives the prophecy its force. Not “before the night is out” or “by tomorrow morning”. Before second cock-crow. Peter hears the crowing of the cock and remembers what Jesus said. 

Some people see this story as a very strong hint that Peter is the real author of Mark’s Gospel. Who but Peter would know what transpired outside the Priest’s house during Jesus’ trial? And who but Peter would dare to bad-mouth the first bishop of Rome? 

Others say that this story is fairly strong evidence against Peter’s authorship. The story shows Peter in such a bad light that it must have been written by one of his enemies. 

Mark consistently portrays the disciples as point-missing dunderheads. And we know that in the very early church there was a division — geographically if not philosophically — between Paul, who never knew the human Jesus but became pre-eminent in spreading his message, and the original disciples, who knew Jesus in the flesh but drop out of the story with indecent haste. Paul himself says that he and Peter didn’t see eye-to-eye — Paul directly accuses Peter of hypocrisy over the question of the kosher food. So isn’t it plausible that someone writing under the influence of Paul at the end of the first century might have deliberately depicted conflict and misunderstanding between Jesus and the disciples? “Yes, we Paulists don’t agree with you Peterists about everything. But you Peterists didn’t understand much of what Jesus said when he was with you. You ran away from Jesus. Peter disowned him. Naturally the Risen Lord has entrusted his message to some better followers.” 

Yes, but. 

The most consistent single teaching of Jesus in Mark is “good people are bad; bad people are good; rich people are poor; poor people are rich”. Jesus demonstrates that he is Daniel’s Son of Man by being executed like a bad slave: he has the highest status in the universe because he has the lowest. So wouldn’t it be completely plausible for Mark to be saying, in effect “Peter is top apostle. And how do we know that? We know that because he is the one who messed up the most badly.” 

But Andrew — by the same argument, wouldn’t it follow that Judas — if Judas had….? 

Yes. Yes it would. 

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Saturday, September 05, 2020

Mark 14 25-52

and when they had sung an hymn
they went out into the mount of Olives.
and Jesus saith unto them
all ye shall be offended because of me this night
for it is written
I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.
but after that I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee.”

A wise man once said “Whatever I say three times is true”.

This is the fifth time Mark’s Jesus has directly claimed that he will “rise” after he dies. And this time he is very specific and concrete. He isn’t going to heaven. He isn’t going to Jerusalem. He is going to Galilee. “After I die”, he says, almost in so many words, “I’m going home. Meet me there…”

but Peter said unto him,
“although all shall be offended, yet will not I”
and Jesus saith unto him,
“verily I say unto thee,
that this day
even in this night
before the cock crow twice
thou shalt deny me thrice”

but he spake the more vehemently,
“if I should die with thee
I will not deny thee in any wise”
likewise also said they all.

We have heard the word “offended” before. It is better to chop off your own hand or poke out your own eye than be offended. It is better to drown than cause a child to be offended. Jesus is talking to all twelve disciples. You will all stumble; you will all trip up; you will all fall into a trap. All of you. 

So why does Peter take it personally? 

Flashback: to the very beginning of the story. To Galilee. To Peter’s boat. The story of the silly farmer who didn’t care where his seed was going. “My preaching”, said Jesus, “Is like the seeds”. The different kinds of people in the audience are like the different kinds of soil. There is a particular kind of person who is all fired up when they first hear Jesus’ words. But they fall away when things get difficult. Jesus used that same word. They’ll trip up. They’ll be offended. Skandaliso. 

Those people are represented in the story by the seed which falls on stony ground. In petrodes: rocky places. That’s Peter’s name. Petros. The Rocky One.

and they came to a place
which was named Gethsemane
and he saith to his disciples,
“sit ye here, while I shall pray”
and he taketh with him Peter and James and John
and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy
and saith unto them
“my soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death
tarry ye here, and watch”

and he went forward a little
and fell on the ground
and prayed that
if it were possible
the hour might pass from him.
and he said,
“Abba, Father,
all things are possible unto thee
take away this cup from me
nevertheless not what I will
but what thou wilt.”

and he cometh and findeth them sleeping,
and saith unto Peter, “Simon, sleepest thou?
couldest not thou watch one hour?
watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation
the spirit truly is ready
but the flesh is weak.”
and again he went away
and prayed
and spake the same words
and when he returned
he found them asleep again
for their eyes were heavy
neither wist they what to answer him.
and he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, 
“sleep on now
and take your rest:
it is enough
the hour is come
behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.
rise up,
let us go
lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand.

Two days ago, Jesus took Peter and Andrew and James and John to one side, and talked for a whole chapter about the End Times. The long talk ended with a single command: stay awake. And now here he is with those same disciples, literally telling them to stay awake. And they literally fall asleep. 

Jesus reacts in the most pointed and painful way possible. “Are you asleep, Simon?” I thought you were the one who was going to stick by me when everyone else ran away? 

Simon. It isn’t quite clear whether “Peter” is a nick-name or a title. Whether as a member of the club he is known as Simon “The Rock” Johnson, or whether everyone calls him Rocky and has forgotten that he ever had a different name. But either way, Jesus has dropped the special name. Like a mother referring to a child by his full given name: “Andrew Richard Rilstone what do you think you are doing?” Or like an officer tearing the stripes off an N.C.O. 

Oh, Simon. You didn’t turn out to be my Rock after all. 

First, Jesus walks a short distance from his disciples; so they can’t hear him. Then the disciples fall asleep; so they definitely can’t hear him. And then Mark tells us what Jesus said, in private, to his father. 

The words that Mark imagines Jesus speaking are shocking. They are so shocking that Matthew and Luke both soften them: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” says Matthew. “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me” says Luke. 

No, says Mark. Jesus’ actual words were: “Father: You can do everything. Take this cup away from me.”

As everyone knows abba is the normal vernacular word that a child would have used to address his father: it means "daddy" or "papa". 

If Jesus wasn’t afraid of being tortured then the story has no point. If Jesus wasn’t scared of dying then, again, the story has no point. Jesus has said that God will give people anything they pray for in faith. Even the impossible. Especially the impossible. Jesus could have avoided what was going to happen if he wanted to. And he did want to. 

Over-subtle interpretors want “this cup” to mean “the cup of God’s wrath”. This seems unnecessary. Jesus was honestly, humanly, scared. So he prays an honest, human prayer. “You are God. You can do anything. Don’t make me go through with it. I don’t want to die.” 

Only then does he change his mind. “Please don’t answer this prayer. Not what I want, but what you want.” 

But that is hardly less shocking. Not what I will. Jesus died against his will. The will of Jesus and the will of God are in opposition. Otherwise there would be nothing heroic about the rest of the story. 

That is what Mark imagines that Jesus said. But Mark has taken some trouble to make it clear that no-one can possibly know. 

Jesus prayed the same words twice. Having said “Don’t give me what I want” he went back and asked again for the thing he wanted, and asked again for God not to give it to him. 

Then he goes and prays a third time: and even Mark can’t he imagine what he said. 

Finally, he comes back. He speaks in his personal voice: not his public, teaching voice. And as so often he seems to say several things at once. "Sleep on. Wake up. Let’s leave. Let’s stay here."  

There is an accidental beauty in the Authorized Version: as if everything is serene and quiet before the catastrophe. “Sleep on; take your rest.” But I think the sixteenth century prose masks a sense of despair and bitterness. “All right. Fine! Have a snooze if you want! I’ve had enough! It’s over! The time has finally come!”

and immediately
while he yet spake
cometh Judas,
one of the twelve
and with him a great multitude with swords and staves,
from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders
and he that betrayed him had given them a token, saying,
“whomsoever I shall kiss that same is he
take him, and lead him away safely”
and as soon as he was come
he goeth straightway to him, and saith,
“master, master” and kissed him.
and they laid their hands on him, and took him
and one of them that stood by drew a sword
and smote a servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear.
and Jesus answered and said unto them,
“are ye come out, as against a thief,
with swords and with staves to take me?
I was daily with you in the temple teaching
and ye took me not: but the scriptures must be fulfilled”

and they all forsook him and fled

Jesus is arrested by a crowd — a rabble — sent on behalf of the Temple. The Priests haven’t come out themselves; and the Romans, so far as we know, are not interested. They’ve hired a posse; they’ve put Judas in charge of it. Judas leads the mob to Jesus’ safe space. The thugs don’t know who Jesus is: he isn’t that famous or important in Jerusalem. Judas has to point him out to them. 

Perhaps the plan was that Judas would identify Jesus, subtly; that Jesus would go quietly; and that he would be quietly lynched before anyone could raise any legal objections. Perhaps this is why Judas kisses him and calls him Master. “I have led them to you” he says “Which is what you seem to have wanted. But I still love you and you are still my master.” 

Jesus doesn’t answer Judas. His anger is reserved for the Priests. 

“Why didn’t you do it before?” he asks. “I gave you enough chance. I tried to give myself up. But you wouldn’t do it my way. So we have to do it your way.” 

But then it turns nasty. Someone — Mark doesn’t say who — pulls out a sword, and goes for someone’s head. The High Preist’s servant ducks, keeps his head, but loses an ear. The mob start trying to arrest everyone present. One guy only gets away only by leaving his shirt behind. Everyone scatters; and runs away. Just like Jesus said they would.

And now we come to a bit of a puzzle...

and there followed him a certain young man
having a linen cloth cast about his naked body
and the young men laid hold on him:
and he left the linen cloth
and fled from them naked

So here we are at the arrest of Jesus. The most solemn and sad moment in the whole story. Christians call it The Agony. Dagger-Jew hands Jesus over to the Priests. Peter and James and John and Andrew desert him. Everyone knows he is going to get the death penalty. He will be dead in twelve hours. And, whoops, through the garden runs a bare-arsed man. 

What are we supposed to do with a verse like this? 

Matthew and Luke and John very sensibly ignore it. They all take the incident of the servant of the High Priest and run with that. Luke says that Jesus healed his ear right away. Matthew says that Jesus told the armed disciple that anyone who lives by the sword will die by the sword. John says that it was Peter who struck the blow (of course) and that the servant was called Malchus. But none of them mention the naked guy.

Maybe naked-guy is an author-cameo, like Stan Lee and Alfred Hitchcock popping up in the margins of their own films. "Look at me", says Mark, "Stark naked and totally humiliated! I wasn’t a disciple, but I was there at the crucial moment. And I ran away like all the others."

It could be true. But it would be an odd form of authorial insertion. How could anyone, then or now, possibly know who that mysterious figure is supposed to be? 

Maybe he is an allegorical call-back to the Old Testament. When Potipha’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he ran away from her in the nude, leaving his night-shirt in her hands. (It’s all there in chapter thirty nine of Genesis.) So Jesus in Gethsemane is a bit like Joseph in Egypt. The High Priest’s men are a bit like adulterous wives trying to have it away with their husbands slaves. It’s a bit of a stretch. 

Maybe the nudity is the point. Nudity isn’t embarrassing or amusing: it is innocent. Humans only started to cover themselves after the Fall. In, if you recall, a garden. Because the Son of Man has been handed over, the effects of original sin are abolished: and the very first result of this is a man returning to a state of Adamic naturism.

Or try this. In Spain there is a tradition of putting a vulgar figure in Christmas nativity scenes: he is literally referred to as “the man doing a shit”. The Giles Frasers of this world tell us that this is a deep theological truth: it shows us that the incarnation of God exists alongside the most basic and embarrassing bodily functions. But it could also be a bit of harmless anti-clericalism. We are going to keep the holy feasts, but we are going to work a toilet joke in too. So maybe Mark was providing an earthy counterpoint to the high drama of Jesus’ arrest. Tragedy, agony, agony, tragedy….farce. Mr William Shakespeare was not above putting drunken porters and punning grave-diggers at the most serious moments of his plays. 

The incident seems to have troubled the earliest readers of Mark’s Gospel. One ancient book was referred to as the Gospel of the Hebrews. If it was based on Matthew, then it was at two removes from Mark: a reworking of a reworking. A surviving passage begins:

Now the Lord, when he had given the linen cloth unto the servant of the priest, went unto James and appeared to him…

We don’t know the context. But it is very striking that “the linen cloth” and “the servant of the high priest” both turn up in the same sentence. The writer had obviously been thinking about the arrest story. 

We also possess a couple of sentences from a variant version of Mark’s Gospel, usually called Secret Mark although that makes it sound a lot more interesting than it really is. Its authenticity is not beyond reproach: all we have is a twentieth century photograph of a seventeenth century transcript of a third century letter. The extant passage tells us how, in the town of Bethany, Jesus raised a rich man from the dead. This naturally makes of think of John’s story about the resurrection of Lazarus. And it goes on:

“And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.”

Young man; linen cloth; naked body. Why did crypto-Mark feel the need to point this out? 

Maybe linen cloth and no underwear was a distinctly Christian form of dress. Maybe it was something you wore on special occasions: like a baptismal gown. Or maybe special Christians wore it all the time — like a priest’s vestment. It might follow that the young man in the garden was a recent convert; someone to whom Jesus had recently taught the secret, inner knowledge of the Kingdom. Or maybe he was one of the twelve, and all the inner circle of disciples wore linen, to signify that Jesus had shared the mystery of the kingdom with all of them. Mark doesn’t tell us how Peter or James were dressed: but their clothes don’t come into the story. He mentions the young man’s clothes because he is the one who embarrassingly lost them. 

In a few pages, Mark will tell us very specifically that Jesus clothes were taken from him before his execution, and that he was buried in a linen cloth. A linen cloth bought specially for the funeral. Matthew, Luke and John place an inordinate emphasis on the fact that when Jesus' body vanished from the tomb, this linen cloth is left behind. 

We could entertain the conjecture that a naked male form slipping out from a linen cloth, vanishing, and leaving only the cloth behind was a way of visualising the Resurrection.

If this were so, it would follow that the naked fugitive is not in the story because some eye-witness remembers him being there. Nor is he a bit of corroborative detail made up by Mark to help us imagine the chaos of Jesus’ arrest. The naked figure isn’t a person at all. He is in an icon. 

Artists sometimes put symbols or visual cues in their works. Naive readers sometimes take them literally. We could imagine someone looking at Holbein’s famous painting of the ambassadors and wondering why some careless anatomist had dropped some human remains on the carpet. Children sometimes think that halos are a special kind of hat worn by very holy people. If you had never read a comic strip before you might think that Desperate Dan can see the wavy lines emanating from his cow pies when in fact they are the artist’s way of representing a nice smell. Our hero doesn’t actually have lightening bolts coming out of his backside, either: it’s just the artist’s way of telling us that someone has kicked him there. 

So. Has Mark drawn a cartoon of the Resurrection in the margin of his picture of the Agony; and have we naively imagined that one of the disciples showed up dressed in a burial shroud. Or did some even older story-teller put a coded-symbol of the Resurrection into the story, which Mark himself, not understanding the code, assumed was an actual character?

But if that is so, the Gospel of Mark is not at all the kind of book we thought it was. It’s not a story, but a code book. At least some of the physical actors in the story are representations of abstract ideas. If boy-who-ran-away-naked is not a person but a symbol is there any particular reason to think that man-with-a-pitcher-of-water or woman-with-box-of-perfume are people either? Maybe Judas is not a disciple who betrayed Jesus, but a piece of marginalia representing betrayal? Maybe we are naive to suppose Mark thought that Jesus really walked on water or fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread. Maybe Jesus himself is an icon? 

Or perhaps the world is not the kind of world we thought it was? 

Perhaps Mark literally believed that if we had been one of the disciples or one of the thugs in Gethsemane on the fifteenth day of Nisan in AD 33 we would have been embarrassed by the sight of a nude bloke disappearing into the trees. But perhaps he didn’t find that inconsistent with believing that nude-bloke “meant” the Resurrection. The Naked Fugitive is a symbol: but he wasn’t put into the text as a symbol by Mark; he was put into the universe as a symbol by God. The world is more like a book than we ever suspected. We live inside a parable. 

We have said too much about the naked man. We are going to have to talk about him once more before the end. But let’s move on.

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