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.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Mark 1: 29-45

and forthwith, 
when they were come out of the synagogue
they entered into the house of Simon and Andrew
with James and John.
but Simon's wife's mother lay sick of a fever,
and anon they tell him of her
and he came and took her by the hand
and lifted her up
and immediately the fever left her,
and she ministered unto them.

This incident is so brief it barely counts as a story. Simon's mother-in-law is poorly; Jesus arrives; holds her hand; she gets up and makes lunch. He doesn't preach a message or draw any conclusion: it isn't his doctrine which heals her. If anything Jesus makes her better just by being there. 

The slightly awkward word "ministered" reflects a word-play in the original: diakonos, a waiter, is the same word as diakonos, a deacon. 

In a few pages Simon will be given the sobriquet Peter. In a few decades, the Roman Catholic church will claim Peter as their first Pope. And the only way I know of acquiring a mother-in-law is by having a wife. The first Pope was a married man.

I suppose that extended family units consisting of a married couple, one or more of their parents, and any kids were fairly common in Capernaum. But I do wonder why Granny, rather than Mrs Peter cooked lunch for the important visitors. 

The obvious answer being: Peter was a widower.

and at even 
when the sun did set 
they brought unto him all that were diseased 
and them that were possessed with devils
and all the city was gathered together at the door
and he healed many that were sick of divers diseases 
and cast out many devils
and suffered not the devils to speak
because they knew him

Mark's Gospel unfolds at breakneck speed. Immediately after the exorcism, Jesus becomes famous; immediately after leaving the synagogue, they go to stay with Simon; immediately they arrive, they hear that his mother-in-law is sick; immediately Jesus holds her hand, she gets better. Our English translators use different words: straightway, forthwith, anon, immediately, at once. But that disguises the rhythm and the repetition of the original, where the same word is repeated endlessly. Euthys... euthys... euthys..... 

They should probably have picked "straightway" and stuck with it. This is, after all, a story which started with an admonition to built a straight way for the King. 

The fishermen wouldn't have been working on the Sabbath, so the first visit to the Synagogue must have been at least a day or two after the calling of the Four. Even if we take "the region round about Galilee" to mean "the villages near the lake" and not "the whole province" the news about Jesus would have taken days or weeks to get out there. So "immediately the news spread" and "immediately they went to Simon's house" are in two different time frames. 

There is no point in trying to create a chronology out of Mark's breathless narrative. This isn't "a probable outline of Jesus' career", telling you what he did and where he did it and in what order. It's a lot of short Jesus-stories strung together by an editor. The scholars are doubtless correct when they tell us that "As soon as they left the synagogue, they went to the home of Simon and Andrew" is an editorial link, and that in its original form the story started "So, Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever". 

But the construction is not arbitrary. There is a story arc. This second half of the first chapter is clearly presenting us with "Jesus's first day": how he went from obscurity to fame. 

He arrives in town; maybe on Friday, and selects the first four people he sees to be his followers. On Saturday morning he preaches in the synagogue and performs an exorcism. On Saturday lunchtime, he visits Simon's house and heals Simon's mother in law. By Saturday evening, everyone in town is outside his front door. Mark underlines the time of day: "that evening, after sunset". Jesus waits until shabbat is over before starting the mass exorcism. He isn't going to challenge the lawyers on this point. Not just yet. The next morning he absents himself.

And then the narrative does something so strange I am almost embarrassed to draw attention to it. 

and in the morning, 
rising up a great while before day
he went out
and departed into a solitary place
and there prayed 

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. So far so un-surprising. The Greek doesn't actually say "morning": it says something untranslatable like "very early in the night still much" but everyone agrees that that's an idiom for "before the sun had come up". 

So: Jesus gets up before sunrise. Before sunrise on the morning after the Sabbath. Before sunrise on Sunday morning. 

"Got up" is a perfectly reasonable translation: my understanding is that the Greek is actually closer to "he stood up". But "he stood up" -- anastas -- is elsewhere translated as "he rose" or "he arose". 


Very early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Jesus arose. 

He was Simon's guest. Simon must literally have gone to his bedroom and found that he was not there. Because he had risen. (Did he fold up his bedclothes neatly before he went?) And so, after the sun had come up, Simon went looking for him... 

I do not know what is going on. I do not know if Mark worked a credal statement into a passage which is really just giving out a fairly banal piece of information -- Jesus used to get up early to say his prayers. Or, more shockingly, if events we perceive as holy and mysterious were originally talked about in concrete, day-to-day language. 

"Very early on Easter Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up..." 

and Simon
and they that were with him followed after him
and when they had found him 
they said unto him, 
"All men seek for thee"
and he said unto them, 
"Let us go into the next towns, 
that I may preach there also: 
for therefore came I forth." 
and he preached in their synagogues 
throughout all Galilee 
and cast out devils

When the story started, some 50 verses ago, John the Baptist was in the wilderness, and everyone in Judea was coming to him. As the first section of the story draws to a close, Jesus is in the wilderness, and everyone in Galilee is looking for him. We know John as the precursor to Jesus; but if we were reading this story for the first time it would seem that Jesus was being presented as the second John. 

Jesus decides not to return to Capernaum, but to go instead to the nearby towns. I don't think that he is saying "I came to preach in the surrounding towns, not just in Capernaum"; I think that he is saying "Let's go to the towns which haven't heard about the exorcism yet; so that I can announce my good tidings. I came to do that, not to perform miracles." 

and there came a leper to him 
beseeching him
and kneeling down to him
and saying unto him
"If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean"
and Jesus
moved with compassion
put forth his hand
and touched him
and saith unto him
"I will
be thou clean."
and as soon as he had spoken 
immediately the leprosy departed from him
and he was cleansed
and he straitly charged him
and forthwith sent him away
and saith unto him
"See thou say nothing to any man 
but go thy way 
shew thyself to the priest 
and offer for thy cleansing those things which Moses commanded 
for a testimony unto them"
But he went out, 
and began to publish it much
and to blaze abroad the matter 
insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city
but was without in desert places
and they came to him from every quarter 

If you had asked me to guess, I would have assumed that the Bible was divided into chapters and verses in the fourth century, when the text was being translated into Latin. But in fact, the chapter divisions only go back to the thirteenth century. Still, the editors knew what they were doing, and Mark chapter 1 works pretty well as a standalone narrative. Here endeth the first chapter; tune in next week for the further adventures of Jesus and his band. 

This first installment ends with Jesus leaving Capernaum to preach in the other towns; episode two will begin with him returning to base. But in between comes this story. And I think Mark put it here for a reason. Thematically, it represents the climax of this first cycle of stories; and psychologically, it represents a turning point in Jesus' career. 

We've seen Jesus heal a sick lady and expel a dirty ghost; and we're told that hundreds of people came to Simon's house for healing and deliverance. But this is the first time Jesus has healed a leper, and it is obviously of special significance. 

John washed people in the river: the point of washing is to get clean; literally, metaphorically, spiritually. Lepers are dirty. Some translations primly insist on "ceremonially unclean" and "ritually defiled". It is certainly true that the Jewish religion involved a lot of spiritual and ceremonial cleaning up, but it is also true that skin diseases and excrement and blood and mildew and pigs are yucky and icky and repulsive. Things which are physically repulsive and things which are spiritually repulsive are talked about in the same way. 

Lepers are dirty. If you touch a leper, you become dirty. The leper wants to be clean. Jesus can touch dirty things without getting dirty himself. When he touches something dirty, the dirty thing gets cleaned up. John's baptism -- his washing -- didn't actually clean anyone up. Jesus has cleaned up the leper just by being near him. He isn't disgusting any more.

Jesus left Capernaum because he wanted to announce his good message, not get trapped in a house healing sick people. So the leper's question could almost be seen as an accusation. 

"You could clean me up if you wanted to." 

"Oh, I want to...." 

Are we allowed to read psychological conflict into the life of Jesus? Or could we even (shades of Martin Scorcese) see the leper as tempting Jesus; using his human compassion to divert him from his divine mission? Jesus wants to proclaim the good-message. He has run away from Capernaum because the people there are demanding exorcisms and healings. But when confronted with a person who desperately needs cleansing, his compassion kicks in. He can't only be God's herald. He has to be a healer as well. 

And so the first chapter ends. Perhaps with a long, aerial shot of Jesus in the desolation (like John) and crowds of people coming out of the towns and the villages and converging on him. 

The sky has opened up; and this fellow from the North is walking around with a part of God inside him. Some law of spiritual attraction has kicked in. Fishermen leave their nets and fall in step behind him. Sick people get better just because he's there. Dirty ghosts run away. Physically disgusting people become clean. Congregations are panic-stricken by his words. Everyone is looking for him, all the time. But he hides from them. He keeps his identity a secret. He doesn't want to be found. He wants only to proclaim and teach. "That is why I have come forth." 

But what is this proclamation? What is this doctrine which boggles congregations?As the curtain comes down, this is still very mysterious indeed.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Well, I'm intrigued. Are you in intrigued?

I tried the stunt with the TIE Fighter once myself. Used all my Force Points for the session, I did. Otherwise, strictly speaking, doesn't say much: another desert planet, could be Tatooine, could be Jaku; we already knew Lando was coming back.

Interesting that they are definitely hyping it as the end of the saga, though: that's giving them a pretty high bar to reach, and also tying their hands if they change their mind. (How many Last Books Of Earthsea are there?) I grew up with the idea that Star Wars was always going to be a Trilogy of Trilogies, so I am happy about this.

The wrecked Death Star is interesting. It seems to be that has to be either Yavin or Endor. Both forest moons, incidentally. Although there was no suggestion in IV or VI that the native population was showered with wreckage. (Maybe it crashed into Yavin and/or Endor, rather than the moon's thereof.) But let's not over interpret, because it might just be a bit of scenery for the trailer. The big crashed Star Destroyer in Force Awakens wasn't specially important to the metaplot.

Not sure about "rise" in the title. There was a point where every third movie was called the "rise" of something or other. And trailers always say "A hero will rise", "A warrior will rise" "A dancing instructor will rise." But "rise of Skywalker" is very interesting indeed. Luke comes back from the dead? Rey is a member of the Skywalker clan after all?

It could mean "Darth Vader gets resuscitated" which would be a very odd thing to do in the final movie – but isn't Hayden Christensen rumoured to be involved?

So, anyway, I'm intrigued. Are you intrigued?

Friday, April 05, 2019

Mark 1 14-28

Now after that John was put in prison

Jesus came into Galilee....

My heart sinks when anyone starts to talk about Biblical Geography, particularly if it involves Miss Beale's black and white slides of her trip to the Holy Land in the 1950s.

But I have managed to bang the following basic facts into my head.

  1. Israel is the whole land claimed by the descendants of Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament.
  2. When the land became a monarchy, Israel referred to the Northern Kingdom as opposed to the Southern Kingdom which was known as Judah. (Judah was the nice brother who didn't want to sell Joseph to the Ishmalites. A hairy crew. The kingdom of Judah was populated by his descendants. The descendants of the other ten brothers lived in Israel. Making twelve altogether. It's complicated.)
  3. By the time of Mark's Gospel, the land of Israel is split in three. Galilee, at the top of the map; Judea, at the bottom, and Samaria in the middle. (Yes, I too always imagined Samaria as being a far-away land; but a straight path from Nazareth to Jerusalem would take you through it. I also thought of Galilee as a sleepy little sea-side town, but it is in fact the name of the whole province.) 
  4. The Galileans, the Samaritans and the Judeans all claim descent from Jacob and all claim to follow the teachings of Moses; but they understand those laws differently: very differently indeed in the case of the Samaritans. Which is why the Galileans don't like them very much and the Judeans don't like them at all.
  5. People who live in Judea are Judeans (Ioudaios); their religion became known as Judaism. Jesus was in a modern sense Jewish but he wasn't a Judean. This will lead to heaps of confusion later on.
  6. Down in the South is the salty Dead Sea; up in the North is the freshwater Sea of Galilee. They are connected by the River Jordan.
  7. Nazareth is a long day's stroll away from the sea of Galilee; but it would take a week's hike to get from Nazareth to Jerusalem.

Will that do?

....preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 
and saying,
"The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God is at hand:
repent ye,
and believe the gospel."

We have been told that this book is the "gospel of Jesus". Now Jesus finally speaks: he announces something called "the gospel of God" and calls on people to "believe the gospel."

"Gospel" is another dusty church word. At best it means the second reading on Sunday morning; at worst, a form of religiously inspired pop music. The first four books of the New Testament are the "gospels"; any scrap of parchment with Jesus' name in it is immediately heralded as "the fifth gospel".

The English Bible translators couldn't find a straightforward English equivalent of Mark's word euangelion, although once or twice they render it as "glad tidings." Literally it means "good message"; but they made up their own word: godspell. Which, as everyone knows, means Good News although it could be understood as God's News. But Good News is not much of an improvement over Gospel, from our point of view. It is redolent of over-earnest street preachers ("have you heard the good news about Jesus?") and the dreadful Good News Bible.

The meanings of words expand and contract with the centuries. C.S Lewis talks about "the dangerous sense": where the modern meaning of a word is almost, but not exactly, the same as its archaic meaning, so students are in danger of misreading it. The word good once primarily meant "holy and pious" but now it primarily means "excellent". So the godspell may actually be the Holy News. Spell originally meant something like "narrative" or "recitation": we still talk about advertising spiel or political spiel. It doesn't take too much imagination to see how recitation could come to mean "tidings", "message" or "news". Neither does it take too much imagination to see how the same word could evolve along a quite different pathway, so that in modern English spell primarily means "a poem recited by a witch". 

This book, the Glad Tidings According to Mark, contains the glad tidings about Jesus. Jesus proclaimed the glad tidings about God. And what were those glad tidings? Like John, Jesus says that something important is about to happen but hasn't happened yet. Like John, Jesus says that people need to change their minds and get ready for this thing which is about to happen. But unlike John, Jesus says that as well as repenting, you have to believe. Believe what? The glad tidings themselves.

But what, exactly, are these glad tidings? What is the content of God's message? We aren't told. It almost seems that Jesus is announcing the Gospel, but at the same time, keeping it secret. 

Perhaps the good spiel really is God's advertising pitch. Pitches often work like this. You offer a teaser as bait, and then, once people are interested, you reel them in....

Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and Andrew his brother
casting a net into the sea:
for they were fishers.
and Jesus said unto them,
"Come ye after me
and I will make you to become fishers of men."

and straightway they forsook their nets,
and followed him
and when he had gone a little farther thence,
he saw James the son of Zebedee
and John his brother,
who also were in the ship mending their nets.
And straightway he called them:
and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants
and went after him.

Mark's gospel sometimes comes across as a sequence of tiny little folk-memories; a collection of stanzas or proverbs. Most scholars think that the individual narrative units are older than the text; that the book we call Mark is the result of someone taking these fragments and stitching them together.

That is how these lines sound to me. As if someone is repeating an oft-told tale about a thing which a disciple of a disciple remembered happening. There doesn't seem to be any mystery or secret meaning hiding beneath the surface. It feels like we are slipping back a thousand years and seeing events unfold. 

A man walks by the sea; he sees two men. He beckons, says a few words we don't quite catch; and they go with him. He walks along a bit further and sees two more men; they join the group. Where there was one there are now five. 

I suppose they are all leaving footprints in the sand.

The first words we hear Jesus speak are almost a joke.  Not "Come and help me redeem Israel." Not "Come and join in what's going to become literally the biggest story in history." But "I see you haven't caught any fish. Want to have a go at catching people instead?"

Simon and Andrew and James and John do not seem, particularly, to be responding to a message. They don't say "This Good News stuff sounds brilliant, we want to hear more" or "Yeah. we've been hoping for something like this Kingdom thing. Mind if we come along?" They follow Jesus because Jesus tells them to follow him. If you think that Jesus was a social reformer, a revolutionary, a pacifist, or a mystic these passages will not be much help to you. The big deal about Jesus is that he is Jesus.

NOTE: It is generally agreed that Andrew was the best disciple. 

And they went into Capernaum
and straightway on the sabbath day
he entered into the synagogue
and taught
and they were astonished at his doctrine:
for he taught them as one that had authority
and not as the scribes.

When I was a kid we went to Butlins a few times. They still had old-fashioned sea-side variety shows, with conjurers and impressionists and comedians. I remember one comedian more or less dying on the stage, eliciting no more than a polite chuckle from the audience. The following night a different comedian had the same audience almost literally rolling in the aisles with hysterical laughter. Despite the fact that he was telling exactly the same jokes.

One of the oldest surviving Christian texts—some people think it is even older than the New Testament—is known as the didache: The Teaching. or The Doctrine. In the previous passage, Jesus was preaching his glad tidings—announcing or proclaiming them. Here, he is teaching: dispensing didache. .  

Mark says that people were astonished by this Doctrine. But, maddeningly, he doesn't tell us what Jesus actually said. Either he didn't know, or he knew and didn't think it was important. What he wants us to know is that the congregation recognized a quality called Authority behind the words; and that this left them dumbfounded; stunned; boggled.

And there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit
And he cried out, saying,
"Let us alone;
What have we to do with thee
thou Jesus of Nazareth?
art thou come to destroy us?
I know thee who thou art
the Holy One of God."
And Jesus rebuked him, saying,
"Hold thy peace
and come out of him."

and when the unclean spirit had torn him,
and cried with a loud voice,
he came out of him.
and they were all amazed,
insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying,
"What thing is this?
What new doctrine is this?
For with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits,
and they do obey him."
and immediately his fame spread abroad
throughout all the region round about Galilee.

A few lines ago, John the Baptist was saying that his successor would baptize people in the holy ghost; and we were watching the holy ghost flutter down from heaven and land on Jesus. But now Jesus confronts a man who is inhabited by an unclean spirit. A dirty ghost.

Jesus tells the dirty ghost to go away, and away it goes.

Jesus' audience are stunned because he preaches to them with authority; and they are equally stunned because he uses his authority to give orders to the dirty ghost. The two events are somehow the same. The people don't think that Jesus is a preacher and also an exorcist. Somehow, they think that it is his doctrine that has made the dirty ghost go away. Or that the casting out of the ghost sums is part and parcel of the doctrine. 

What they take away from both the sermon and the miracle is that Jesus has exousian, authority.

Ezekiel, in the Old Testament, was told to prophecy—preach—to the dry bones. No-one ever told us what he said: it was the very act of prophesying which brought the bones back to life. (The ankle bone connected to the shin bone; the shin bone connected to the thigh bone...) I think something similar is happening here. It is something in the words, a supernatural quality, which leaves the congregation stunned and the actual forces of evil running away. The words themselves don't matter; they have power because Jesus is speaking them. 

It's not the jokes; it's the way you tell them.

It's not what he preaches; it's the way that he preaches it.

It's a recitation. An incantation.

God's Spell.

Coming soon: Lepers! Married Popes! Cripples! 

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written (2)

"Open up Mark's Gospel, which is the probably the oldest and certainly the shortest, and pretend I am reading it for the first time."

That is always my starting point. What if it was 1977 and you were going to see a new space film you had heard was pretty good? What if it was 1963 and Kennedy had just been shot and you'd turned on some new kids TV show and had no idea why the old guy lived in a phone box?

It isn't the only way of reading a text. It is not necessarily the best way. Star Wars is certainly a film which came out in 1977; but it is also the fourth chapter in an eleven part trilogy, and the big fix-up universe is just as much a thing as the very old art house movie. More so, arguably. You can sit down and watch parts Star Wars Episodes I - VIII this weekend. But it will never be 1977 again.

And, in fact, very few people did see Star Wars for the first time. Most of us saw it in the context of the comics; the toys; the cultural phenomenon. And, in fact, hardly anyone saw Doctor Who for the first time: there were trailers and playground gossip and spoilers in the Radio Times. But it is true, very nearly, that when my grandfather brought me that first Spider-Man comic, I had no idea who Spider-Man was. 

Some years ago, for reasons I do not choose to remember, I was talking about Astrology. I remarked that it was something of a category mistake to ask if Astrology was true. I said that it was more interesting to ask what people do with Astrology. Some people (I argued) like newspaper Astrology because it provides a simple social ritual and conversation starter: they read out each other's star signs in the office over coffee and have a little laugh about how right or wrong they are. Other people (I suggested) like the more complicated casting of horoscopes because it helps them talk to girls at parties: "So, what is your Star Sign?" is a gentle way of saying "You seem nice. Tell me about yourself." Some people sincerely believe that astrology works. Others think it's quite obviously a load of old rubbish. But that's not the point. The point is that it has a social function.

I forget who it was who said that the Bible was like a guitar. If you didn't know what a guitar was, you might think it was a wall decoration; a racket used in some kind of sport; a weapon be used in a martial art; an implement for punishing naughty children. And you could, in fact, use it for any one of those purposes. But you would have missed the point of guitars. Once you have worked out what the guitar is, almost anyone can get some kind of noise out of it; and it only takes a lesson or two to make it play some chords. But to play a guitar well takes a lifetime. And there is more than one kind of music to be got out of it.

Point being: there is a right way and a wrong way of reading a book. But once you have figured out the right way, there are still good readings and bad readings.

What is the Bible for?

The answer is printed on the front page. "Appointed to be read in churches", it says.

The Bible is a collection of texts to be performed in a liturgical setting, six a week, three in the morning, three in the evening. If you go to church every morning and every evening then you will hear the entire text, minus genealogies, read out loud in four years. In particular, the Bible is a collection of short verses for clergymen to base homilies on. ("Now Jacob was an hairy man, but I am a smooth man.")

For nearly all of us, that is the function of the Bible: that is what we do with it. The Bible is the big book they read to us from in Church. Church is where we go to hear people reading to us from the Bible.

For a very small number of exceptionally holy people, the Bible is also a component of a smaller social gathering called The Bible Study Group in which people take it in turns to read verses out loud and try to say what they mean. At the end of the session the leader tells you the correct answer and you all drink coffee. (The Tolkien Society do something very similar with the Lord of the Rings.)

For an even smaller and holier sub-set, the Bible is the focus of a private guided meditation exercise called Personal Devotions or (god help us all) The Quiet Time. This tends to involve reading a very small number of verses and a short homily by an American evangelical clergyman, and then saying very specific prayers for people and causes that are important to you. 

It can be used in other ways as well. St Ignatious thought it was all about imagining yourself in the situation, pretending you were on the river bank seeing Jesus getting baptised; imagining that you are one of the fisherman he called out to. Some people use it like the I-Ching or the poems of Nostradamus: they search it for codes and clues and allegories about the future development of the State of Israel. 

But hardly anyone just reads the thing. Was anyone ever really meant to?

I have a mental image of a very old man with a beard, wearing a toga and sandals, solemnly reading from a scroll to a very earnest group of equally sandal-wearing saints, somewhere dark, and secret, possibly a cave or a catacomb. I also have an image of a much younger man (blonde, curly haired, clean shaven) extemporizing the story with much gesticulation to a band of eager young children, also with sandals.

Mark's Gospel is definitely a text; it definitely exists; so there must have been some particular moment in history when someone read for the first time. But even if my bearded story-teller is something close to the truth, he doesn't bring me any closer to the original meaning of the book. I am not a rosy-cheeked child. I am in no immediate danger of being thrown to the lions. My feet are quite the wrong shape for sandals.

There has been fad for producing editions of the Bible which look like novels. The whole text, translated as colloquially as possible, printed in single columns with no chapter or verse numbering. There is nothing terribly wrong with this. People translate the Iliad and the Odyssey into chatty modern prose so those of us who know no Greek can get the gist of the story. Poetry is lost in translation, but it's probably no more lost in a chatty modern translation than in a ponderous archaic one. Rocketing through your Living Bible in Modern English is a good enough way of distinguishing your Zebulons from your Zephaniahs and knowing what St Paul actually said about marriage. But I am a little unconvinced. If I sat down in Cafe Kino and tried to whip through 100 pages of the Old Testament at the speed of Dickens I would feel irreverent, or pretentiously hyper-spiritual, or both.

Even if we were reading the Bible for the first time, I think the stories would come crashing down with total familiarity; like going to see Hamlet for the first time and discovering that it was full of quotations. I don't think that there has been a single person who, when he first heard the Gospel, thought that the Prodigal Son's dad was going to send him on his way with a flea in his ear and a boot up the backside. We may not sing Tell Me The Stories Of Jesus in infant school assembly any more, but we can hardly avoid The Greatest Story Ever Told and Monty Python's Life of Brian.

If it is hard to remember when I first heard about Sherlock Holmes, it is naturally going to be ten times harder to say when I first heard about Jesus. I wish I could. I wish I could give you one of those full throated evangelical testimonies. "Brother, I was in deep sin, injecting pornography into my artery and chain smoking women of ill repute; I even listened to role-playing games while playing rock and roll. But then someone said did you ever hear of Jee-zuz and I swear I have never smoked a drop since." But I can't even run to "The first time I heard about Jesus was from a book my Granny used to read me." (You could get a country and western song out of that, at least.)

I have a dim, dim memory of a small room, near the top class room of my nursery school. (We say "nursery school" in England, not "kindergarten" although the idea that toddlers are a kind of rare flower is implicit in both names.) There were morning children, afternoon children and all-day children. The top class room was the one inhabited by the all-day children, those strange creatures who brought packed lunches and had a nap around noon. I think that the room may possibly have been the head teacher's office. The office of the head teacher of a pre-school is not as awesome as the office of the head teacher of a Big School, but still, you normally had to be very good or very bad to be asked inside it. I remember putting on some kind of robe, made of fake red velvet, and a cardboard crown; and being given an old shoe box covered in a gold foil. Two other little boys had crowns and boxes of different colours. We walked along the corridor, and onto the stage in the all-day-children's classroom, and gave our shoe-boxes to the baby Jesus.

Before that, before I was a person at all, there was Sunday School. There was a square room with white walls flecked with black; and a framed pictures of lots of little children hovering around a man with a beard, all in silhouette. Each time a new baby was Christened the Minister wrote his name under the picture with a fountain pen. My Daddy showed me where my name was written, an unimaginably long time ago, three years ago, maybe even four.

Mrs Someone who ran the Sunday School sang hymns while an older lady accompanied her on the piano:

Jesus bids us shine first of all for Him
Well, He sees our noses, if our light grows dim
In this World of Darkness we still can shine
You in your small corner, and I in mine.

(Years later the jolly Srilankan clergyman from the Baptist Church said he hated this song because it suggested that religion was a solitary thing and left the church out completely.)

Dropping dropping dropping
From each little hand
Tis our gift to Jesus
From His little band
Now while we are little
Pennies are our store
But when we get older
We will give Him more

Someone who lived in a place called heaven, then. Luminous, like a light or candle or the moon. Likes shiny things, like gold cardboard boxes a new pennies.

A sum bean a sum bean
Jesus wants me for a sum bean
A sum bean a sum bean
I'll be a sum bean for Him.

There was a tiny little strip in one of the smallest children's comics, with a name like Playland, about a family of moonbeams. So Jesus was inexorably connected with the moonbeams in my head. There was also a comic strip about a talking hot water bottle. Perhaps I invented them both. There may have been a weekly bible stories. And koalas. We will come back to the koalas. I am on the very threshold of consciousness.

Jesus. Wandered around in sandals. Chums with fishermen. Particular thing about people with skin conditions. Said how great it would be to be nice to people for a change. The Scribes and the Pharisees wouldn't dance and they wouldn't follow he. Did anyone ever hear this story for the first time?

Monday, March 25, 2019

Chapter 1 vv10-13

And straight-way coming up out of the water,
he saw the heavens opened,
And the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
And there came a voice from heaven, saying,
"Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

Mark's Jesus isn't set apart at birth. His arrival isn't announced by angels and stars, but by a semi-naked wild man. Either Mark never knew the more famous versions of the Origin of Jesus, or else he knew them but didn't think they mattered. His story begins with a singular cosmic event. 

A man from the North arrives and is baptised with all the others. And suddenly the universe breaks. A hole opens up in the sky, and a part of God flies down and lands on the newcomer. And then God — who hasn't said anything in five hundred years — breaks his long silence. Not spiritually; not "in a very real sense": an actual voice, from heaven, which we can hear, because the sky has split open. Only the voice is talking, not to us, not to John, not to the people, but to Jesus.

Not "He is my son!" or "This is my son!" or "Look at my son!" but "You are are my son!"

None of us momentarily think of Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando at the North Pole. That would be far too irreverent.

Mark is writing in Greek. "He saw the heavens opened" is Eidan schizomenous tous ouranous. Anyone can see that schizomenous is related to our word "schism". It means "divided" or "torn in two". It is the word used later in the story when the curtain in the temple is "rent in twain". And ouranous is just "the sky." (Uranus was the Greek god of the sky before he was a planet.) So what the King James version renders as "the heavens opened" could just as well have been "the sky split apart".

In Olde Englishe "heaven" simply meant "the sky". Only gradually did it come to mean "the place where God lives". The word now has a much narrower sense; it primarily means "wherever it is that people go when they die". We are told that in the olden days people thought that God lived in the sky. But couldn't we just as well say that in the olden days people thought that the stars were part of the supernatural realm where God lived? People who don't particularly believe in the afterlife still look up at the sky when talking about their dead parents.

(While I have the dictionary open: anabainon, "coming up"; and katabainon, "descending", are antonyms; if Jesus "comes up" the Spirit ought to "come down" but if the Spirit "descends" Jesus ought to "ascend.")

Why a dove?

We all know the story about how a dove brought an olive branch to Noah on his ark, signifying that the great deluge was over. In that story, the point of the olive branch is that the flood is going down and trees are growing again. The crisis is over; God isn't cross any more. But the image of a dove and olive branch has become an icon (I almost typed "emoji") which irreducibly signifies "peace". We talk about hawks and doves and people offering each other olive branches without any particular sense that we are making a Biblical allusion. So if a dove flies down from heaven and sits on Jesus it very probably represents peace and the end of the quarrel between humans and God.

Right at the beginning of the Bible we are told that, before the universe was created, the spirit of God fluttered over the ocean. The ocean is whatever existed before the universe was created; it's what the universe returned to when God got angry and uncreated it. So Noah's dove fluttering over the flood water makes us think of that God is starting Creation all over again; and perhaps this dove fluttering over the Jordan makes us think that God is giving everyone another chance to get things right.

Then again; doves are sacrificial animals. If you were a former leper or had just had a baby or were icky in some other respect, the blood of a dove could be a component of the cleaning up process. 

But I wonder if this is all a little too subtle? John perceives the Breath of God — the Wind from the sky — as a white flappy thing, flying down through the hole in the heavens and landing on Jesus. This isn't a metaphor or an inward change. It's not a flowery way of describing some subjective experience. ("And haven't there been moments for each and every one of us when in a very real sense the heavens have as it were opened for us too?") It's a cosmic, mythological event.

"Ascending from the water he saw the Sky torn in half and the Breath like a dove descending on him. A voice from the Sky said: 'You are my Son, the Beloved. I am pleased with you'." 

The word "dove" could feasibly have been translated as "pigeon".

And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness
And he was there in the wilderness forty days,
tempted of Satan;
And was with the wild beasts;
And the angels ministered unto him.

Naturally, the Hero confronts the Big Bad right at the very beginning of the story. It is a foreshadowing of the decisive battle in the final reel.

It's a great scene. Jesus on the mountain. Good looking guy with a goatee beard who speaks in iambics, challenging him to jump off it. Go on, jump. I am sure someone will catch you. Join with me and together we can rule the universe. Unfortunately, it isn't a scene which appears in Mark's Gospel. 

I remember a preacher, years ago, telling me very definitely that when it said Satan it obviously didn't mean Satan. That would be very silly. All the jumping from pinnacles and ordering rocks to turn into bread rolls were just bad ideas running through Jesus' head which he rejected. Jesus wasn't immune from bad thoughts; he just never acted on them. It was a very vivid sermon.

I have mentioned before that Hiawatha was the first poem I ever loved. Hiawatha also spends forty days and forty nights fasting. I spotted at an early age that this made Hiawatha very much like Jesus. (Longfellow had very probably read St Mark.) Joseph Campbell points out that heroes who fast for forty days and forty nights are rather common in literature and this proves that all stories are the same story. Spoilsports have pointed out to Joseph Campbell that forty days and forty nights is about the maximum time a human being could survive without eating.

But Mark doesn't even say that Jesus fasted. It would be more natural to read it the other way. Jesus was all by himself in the desert, but don't worry, he didn't have to make do with sticky sweet insects like John. The Angels brought him food. Of course they did. There is a hole in the sky, and one of God's own pigeons has landed on Jesus. Obviously there are going to be Angels. In the text we are trying to read, the story of Jesus' first confrontation with the Enemy takes exactly three words: "tempted of Satan".

My eyes slide over the "with wild beasts" part. What does that even mean? Jesus went to the wild places to spend some quality time with the wild animals? Or Jesus went to where the wild things are but it's okay, there were angels protecting him?

I know the story of Jesus and Satan. I don't know any story about Jesus and the Animals. The words "he was with the wild beasts" have no traction.

The story of Jesus temptation can also be found in the book we call Matthew's Gospel, and the book we call Luke's.

Matthew's version begins: 

Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness
to be tempted of the devil
and when he had fasted forty days and forty nights
he was afterwards enhungered.

Which is as close to Mark's text as makes no difference. Matthew also ends in exactly the same place as Mark:

Then the Devil leaveth him
and behold angels came and ministered to him.

But in between come seven verses which contain an elaborate description of Satan trying to trick Jesus into doing a bad thing; and Jesus responding by quoting the Jewish scriptures at him. 

What happened? Did some ancient writer read Mark's short version, decide that "he was tempted" was insufficient, and spin a sophisticated, theological temptation-narrative around those three words? 
Or did the writer we call Mark see that long version, decide that the detailed temptation story was superfluous, and cut it out?

Maybe he thought it was unreliable: how did anyone know what had passed in private between Jesus and the Devil? Or perhaps he thought his version was more dramatic: better for the first big event in Jesus career to happen in secret. Secrecy is going to become more and more important as we read the story. There is nothing so dramatic as a closed door. 

The great Synoptic Question — who copied what from whom — is not the one which is troubling me. The hard question for me is "Given that the Long Version exists, what is the Short Version doing in the Bible? How are we supposed to read it? What is Mark's Gospel for?"

Are we to say that this bare skeleton is the original story, the totality of the facts as Mark knew them? The story, according to one ancient source, as Mark heard it from Peter? In which case do we have to say that the other, longer, more familiar versions are literary embellishments, expansions to the story added after the fact. Stuff that someone made up.

In which case does it follow that we should give most of our attention to Mark, and treat Matthew as simply a commentary on it. A commentary which has been venerated and revered for close to two millennia; but a fictional commentary nevertheless. 

Or do we have to say, more strangely, that the long embellished version came first, and that Mark is a synopsis: a good-parts summary of Matthew. We are told that Thomas Jefferson went through the Bible and deleted all the passages involving miracles. We are told that if Gideon leaves one of his Bibles in Sir Ian McKellen's hotel room, he redacts Leviticus 18:22 with a pair of scissors. But what is the value of a Readers Digest version of Matthew (however ancient and pious and reverently done) when we have the full version in front of us?

Holy cut-and-paste; or holy fan-fic. Neither idea is appealing. And yet for seventeen hundred years (at least) Christian tradition has put both versions, the long and the short, side by side in the text we call the Bible. Perhaps the Church Fathers themselves couldn't decide. 

I tried the mental exercise. I couldn't do it. I tried to concentrate on this version of the story: angels, wild animals, a singular "temptation", fasting not mentioned explicitly. I couldn't do it: Matthew and Luke (and Milton and Passolini) kept smuggling themselves into my head.

This passage was the brick wall that my plan to just read the text collided with.

The story I know: the story, everyone knows. Reading the words on the page is no longer a possibility.

COMING SOON: The Exorcist! Married Popes! Geography!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written

When my Granny was a little child, most houses in the countryside did not have running water; but there was a pump near her garden gate. From time to time a farmer or traveler would politely knock on the door, and ask if he might have a bucket of water for his horse; a request which was always granted. 

Imagine her surprise when one morning a man knocked at the door and said "Excuse me: could I possibly have a bucket of water for my elephant?"

So far as I know, this story is true. My Grandmother died in her 90s when I was in college; so the story took place, I suppose, 120 years ago. If I tell it to my nephew and he lives to be 80 then at least one person at the beginning of the twenty-second century will know that there were elephants in Cornwall at the end of the nineteenth.

I don't know where my Grandmother was living: I have a mental picture of the house we used to visit when she was a very old lady (which also had a pump, long since dried up) but that was her married home. I have an image of a man walking along a country path with an elephant on a lead: but for all I know there was a fleet of caravans making up a small travelling circus. And naturally I don't really know what he said; or whether Granny or her mother opened the door.

Once upon a time, a man knocked on a country cottage in England and a asked if he could water his elephant....

Events from the past only come down to us if they turn into stories. 

There was a small bookcase at the back of Miss Griffiths classroom, near the gerbils, on the left of the cloak room and the toilets. We were allowed to pick a book to read during quiet periods. Most of the books were much too babyish for me. But there was a creased up paperback edition of Islands in the Sky and a hardback copy of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; one of those library editions in a white dust jacket. I read a Scandal in Bohemia, which I didn't really understand and The Red Headed League, which I liked. I liked the crazy idea of a man being hired to copy out the encyclopedia long-hand; I liked the bit where Watson has to test Holmes' memorization of all the street names in London. I was incredibly proud that I spotted that the encyclopedia was a ruse to get the clerk out of his shop for a few hours before Watson did, though not, of course, before Sherlock Holmes. 

A whole floor of the public library was given over to children's books; with a whole silent reference section for people wanting to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica by hand. Most of the books were very babyish; but there was an Older Readers section which contained stuff that I liked. That was where I found the Tripods and the unbearably boring first volume of Cities in Flight. (I have since read the other four volumes. They are unbearably boring.) If you wanted Tarzan or John Carter, which I did, desperately, you had to go downstairs to Adult Fiction.  

There was a Sherlock Holmes book in the Older Readers section; it was a "best of" anthology with the Speckled Band and the Copper Beaches and an except from Study in Scarlet and some background material about how the Victorians had gone crazy for it when it was first published in the Strand magazine in 1887. (My Granny was alive in 1887. She remembered the fireworks for Queen Victoria's Jubilee. She stayed up way past her bed time and fell asleep in a the back of a cart.) The description of Watson setting up home with his evidently mad flat mate I read over and over. I liked the funny hat and the slippers more than I liked the actual mysteries.

So: the first and only true reading of A Scandal in Bohemia the one which took place in the pre-fab at Church Hill School one rainy lunchtime in 1975. That is the reading I try to hold on to: the reading which informs all the others. That is why "spoilers" are such a terrible sin. They make it impossible to ever read a books for the first time. 

But I am sure I knew who Sherlock Holmes was long before I found Miss Griffiths' book. We all know — from Basil Brush and Sesame Street and the joke about painting the door yellow (*) — that a person trying to solve mysteries would be expected to wear a deerstalker, have a curly pipe, a magnifying glass and say "elementary" a lot. By 1975 Holmes had long since escaped from the printed page; Conan-Doyle's text was preceded by my cultural idea of him. 

(I wonder how long it will be until Holmes is only a man who says "elementary" a lot, in the same way that pirates are only men who say "Arrr!")

So perhaps I came in far too late and the the first and only true reading of A Scandal in Bohemia took place 81 years earlier. To find out who Holmes really is and what the story really means we have to imagine that we are Victorian gentlemen, hunched under the gas lights, reading our new edition of the Strand Magazine. 

It isn't quite true to say that that first reading is unrecoverable. I bet we could find letters and diary entries in which people mention in passing that they have been reading a spiffing new story about a clever chap who catches criminals by the power of induction. Possibly someone is writing a PhD on that very subject as we speak. 

But that would be an exercise of scholarship and imagination, just as much as a clinging to the Church Hill School version is an exercise in memoir and nostalgia. Try to bring the text closer and you end up pushing it much father away. 


Two and half years ago I seriously considered writing a book about the Amazing Spider-Man and Jesus Christ. 

My idea was to alternate chapters about my favorite comic book and with chapters about the four Gospels so Amazing Spider-Man #3, "Spider-Man Meets Doctor Octopus the Strangest Foe Of All Time" might have been juxtaposed with Mark 3, "Christ healeth the withered hand, and many other infirmities and rebuketh the unclean spirit". 

It would have suited my sense of the ridiculous and my liking for what might be called "conceptual blogging". It is quite funny to write about Tom Baker's first Doctor Who story on the night everyone is expecting me to talk about Jodie Whitaker. At least, I think it is. So it would have been quite funny to follow an essay on the central text of western civilization with one the New Testament.  

I had an idea that the proposition that "fans treat comic books like religious texts" was one that was worth exploring; and what better way to do that than by treating a religious text as if it was a comic book. Is theology really just a matter of sorting out continuity errors? Could preaching usefully be regarded as Gospel fan-fic? Is St John basically doing a soft reboot of St Matthew?"

My first clear memories of Sunday School go back to when I was about eight years old: approximately the same time as my earliest memories of reading comic. So I thought that maybe "How did the eight year old Andrew understand comic books?" and "How did the eight year old Andrew understand the Bible?" might turn out to be related questions. 

The experiment is worth trying. 

Pull the Old Book down from the shelf. 

Falling apart copy belonging to my grandfather. 

Pretty much fallen apart copy belonging to my grandmother, with the words of Jesus printed in red. (Someone, presumably my other grandfather, has redacted the word "piss" from Isaiah 36:12.) 

Pocket size N.I.V from my Christian Union phase. 

Huge illustrated Good News Bible inscribed by one D. Wynne of the First New Barnet chapter of the Boys Brigade " from when I was confirmed. 

Tiny little New Testament, also with a Boys Brigade inscription ("for Bible class attendance during the 1976-1977 session" apparently.) 

Another N.I.V with a purple cover and the words "study Bible" rather hopefully penciled on the inside front cover. 

A New English Bible, inscribed by one of my Sunday School teachers "a present for learning the books of the Bible by heart". (Which I can still do, give or take a minor prophet.)

Open up Mark's Gospel, which is the probably the oldest and certainly the shortest, and pretend I am reading it for the first time: