Monday, November 04, 2019

Mark 5 21-43

The opening chapters of Mark's Gospel show an escalation of Jesus' power and popularity. Bigger and bigger crowds follow him. His enemies become more and more hostile. His miracles become more and more impressive. This chapter marks the culmination of that process. Jesus has shown himself to be Boss of the weather. His power over the spirit realm is so absolute that an army of six thousand demons has grovelled and begged for mercy. There really is only one enemy left.

and when Jesus was passed over again by ship unto the other side,
much people gathered unto him:
and he was nigh unto the sea

Yesterday, Jesus left a huge crowd of people on the Capernaum beach. Today, he has come back: and the crowd is still there. Perhaps they had been waiting all night. Maybe some of them had set off on foot to intercept him when his boat reached Garderene country, and had to turn back half way there. 

and, behold,
there cometh one of the rulers of the synagogue,
Jairus by name;
and when he saw him, he fell at his feet,
and besought him greatly, saying,
"My little daughter lieth at the point of death:
I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her,
that she may be healed;
and she shall live."

"My little daughter is at the point of death". What Jairus actually says is something like "she is holding at the end". ("The end" is eschatos, a word sometimes used to talk about the end of the world.) "She is near the end," would be perfectly good colloquial English. The Good News Bible opts for "my daughter is very sick", and I wish it wouldn't.

Jesus seems to have been avoiding crowds, preferring to teach those who will properly listen to him. But today, someone asks him very graciously to do a special favour, and Jesus agrees. Probably "ruler" means something like "director" or "chairman": not necessarily a rabbi or a teacher, but someone whose job it was to keep the synagogue running in an orderly way. Jairus is an important person in the local Jewish community, at any rate. The lawyers from Judea are planning to kill Jesus; but the Galilean synagogue bosses are begging favours from him on their hands and knees.

and Jesus went with him;
and much people followed him
and thronged him.
and a certain woman
which had an issue of blood twelve years,
and had suffered many things of many physicians
and had spent all that she had
and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse,
when she had heard of Jesus
came in the press behind,
and touched his garment.
for she said,
"If I may touch but his clothes,
I shall be whole."
and straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up
and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.
and Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him
turned him about in the press, and said,
"Who touched my clothes?"
And his disciples said unto him,"
"Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou,
Who touched me?"
And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.
But the woman fearing and trembling,
knowing what was done in her,
came and fell down before him,
and told him all the truth.
And he said unto her,
"Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole;
go in peace, and be whole of thy plague."

The people are "thronging" Jesus: crushing or squashing him. We have to picture him forcing his way through the crowd. He is on his way to save a girl's life, but the rubberneckers still won't let him move. Maybe the disciples are in front, trying to make a path for him. And suddenly, while time is apparently of the essence, he stops and says "Who touched my clothes?" You can see why the disciples would be surprised by this. It is just about the least sensible thing anyone could possibly have said under the circumstances.

Someone has touched Jesus' robe, or maybe his cloak. We're not talking about anyone grabbing his sleeve or his collar; just the edge of a loose fitting garment, from the back, as it swishes past.

It's a woman. We aren't told anything about her name or social status. "A certain...." is an English filler word the translators like to add. It doesn't mean "one particular woman" or "a person you may know." She's just someone in the crowd.

The woman suffers from long term bleeding: some translators say "hemorrhaging" and a lot of people assume that she must have had some kind of embarrassing Woman's Problem. But a "flux of blood" could just as well be dysentery. Either way it's a disgusting illness, an illness which makes you unclean and unable to participate in the Jewish rites.

Way, way back many centuries ago I saw the English Thespian -- actor is too short a word -- Sir Alec McCowen performing the entirety of Mark's Gospel as a theatrical piece. It looks a little dated now, all English vowels hurled to the back of dress circle. But one of things I took away from his performances was how much humour there is in Mark's Gospel. This story contains one of Sir Alec's laugh lines. You have to deliver it deadpan, with British intonation. Here is a woman. She has been to lots of doctors. They have humiliated her, and charged her for the privilege of being humiliated and it hasn't done any good.

"She had suffered many things of many physicians…"


"And spent all that she had…."


"But was nothing bettered...."

(Long pause.)

"But grew rather worse...!"

(Audience laughs.)

Jesus feels that "virtue" has gone out of him. Several times, Mark uses the same word -- dynamin, power -- as a synonym for "miracle". So perhaps we should say that Jesus could feel that a miracle had gone out of him; or perhaps we should say that people were always asking Jesus to "do a power" or a "perform a virtue". We are talking about energy; what a player of role-playing games would immediately recognize as mana. My highly inaccurate paraphrase would translate it is a miracle-juice.

It's the miracle-juice that cures the woman. Mark does not say that when Jesus pays attention to the women, other people pay attention to her as well, and feel bad about how they have treated her and say that she can come back to synagogue even though she is bloody and smelly, and that's why we should welcome people who don't really seem to fit in with our church communities. And Mark does not say that Jesus has lived such a holy life that when he asks his God to heal someone, God is specially disposed to do so and if we could aspire to to that special state of grace, then God would answer our prayers as readily as he answered Jesus's. Jesus's unique supernatural nature -- an energy insider him -- has the power to cure. And it's involuntary. Jesus doesn't will it. He heals because the miracle-juice is in him.

Jesus says that the woman has been healed by her own faith. I have heard people say that this is Faith in the Wizard of Oz sense. The power to heal herself was inside her all along. The hem of Jesus garment was only ever a placebo. If you stop believing that you are passing blood then you will find you are not passing blood any more. I have also been told that Faith is a supernatural conductor. Everyone is touching Jesus: the miracle-juice only went into this particular woman. So mere physical contact is not enough: faith is necessary as well. Neither explanation does justice to the story. "Faith" here is simply trust: confidence or cheek or chutzpah

The reason you got healed is that you had the audacity to touch me without my permission. And instead of being cross, I am proud of you.

while he yet spake, 
there came from the ruler of the synagogue's house certain which said,
"thy daughter is dead: why troublest thou the Master any further?"
as soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken,
he saith unto the ruler of the synagogue,
"Be not afraid, only believe."

Things looked pretty hopeless on the boat, when Jesus told his disciples to have faith and not be afraid. But things must look entirely hopeless here. Jesus has been trying  to get to the house in time to save the man's daughter. A dirty smelly woman grabs his cloak. He could have ignored her, but instead he pauses, and singles her out, and listens to the story of her life, and praises her....and someone comes out of the house and says, don't bother, you're too late, she's already dead. Synagogue-guy would have had every right to be angry at this moment. But Jesus says the same thing to him that he said to the disciples when they thought the boat was going down. "No fear. Only faith."

and he suffered no man to follow him,
save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James
and he cometh to the house of the ruler of the synagogue,
and seeth the tumult,
and them that wept and wailed greatly.
and when he was come in, he saith unto them,
"Why make ye this ado, and weep?
the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth"
and they laughed him to scorn
but when he had put them all out,
he taketh the father and the mother of the damsel, and them that were with him,
and entereth in where the damsel was lying.
and he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her,
"Talitha cumi"
which is, being interpreted,
"Damsel, I say unto thee, arise."
and straightway the damsel arose,
and walked;
for she was of the age of twelve years
and they were astonished with a great astonishment.
and he charged them straitly that no man should know it
and commanded that something should be given her to eat.

I have often wondered why Jesus didn't invite Andrew to come into the house with the others. I suppose Andrew had be given some special important task that Jesus couldn't quite trust Peter with.

Jesus touches the dead girl, and she returns to life. Mark has already told us that physical contact with Jesus can allow for this mysterious virtue stuff to go out of him. The girl, being dead, presumably can't have faith in Jesus; he brings her back just by being there, holding her hand. (I suppose you might say that it was her father's faith that facilitated the miracle.) 

When Jesus did his very first exorcism, everyone was stunned. The people who witness this resurrection are "overcome with great ekstasei". They are hysterical; literally in an ecstatic state -- almost going into trances. We have to imagine a crowded noisy house, full of people ostentatiously hollering and singing dirges, while the five in the bedroom are freaking out and Jesus is calmly saying "Won't someone get her some food?"

The little girl is twelve years old. The older woman had suffered from bleeding for twelve years. There is probably some significance to this, but I am darned if I know what it is. 

Mark writes in Greek. So why does he lapse into Aramaic at this moment? Why does he think it is important that we know the exact words that Jesus spoke? Perhaps he thinks that there is a verbal component, as well as a physical one, to Jesus's magic. To call someone back from the dead, he has to utter words of power, so Mark records those words exactly. A bit later on he will tell us the exact Aramaic word that Jesus used to heal a deaf man. When Jesus asked for the demon Gardarene demon's name he was following standard exorcist procedure. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus brings a dead man back to life, a few minutes before his funeral, and he uses the exact same formula: "Young man, I say unto you, arise!"

Perhaps this is such a significant moment -- almost the climax of Jesus's career so far -- that Mark wants to bring us as close to it as we can possibly get. Only three disciples were there: Peter, James, John. Years later, Peter told Mark what happened. Now Mark is telling us. It's part of the great big Secret. The mourners don't see what Jesus did. Neither does Andrew, or the other eight disciples. The multitude certainly don't. But we are hearing Jesus's exact words. We are part of the special inner group.

Or perhaps it is simpler than that. Hebrew was the holy language; and Greek was the international language; but Aramaic was the language Jesus's people spoke among themselves. So maybe Jesus talked Hebrew to the synagogue-leader; maybe he even preached in Greek. The New Testament certainly seems to take the Greek translation of the Old Testament for granted. But here he is doing something normal and kind: shifting from formal public speech to common, intimate speech.

Hey kid. Time to get up.

Seventeenth century English happened to use the same word "suffer" to mean "endure" and "permit". The sick woman has "suffered" at the hands of doctors, and Jesus "will not suffer" anyone to follow him into the little girl's sick-room. But "endure" and "permit" are two quite different words in Greek (pascho and aphiem, respectively). You can apparently be the sub-editor of a national newspaper and still think that "suffer the children.." means "inflict suffering on children".

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

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

Monday, October 28, 2019

Mark 5 1-20

and they came over unto the other side of the sea into the country of the Gadarenes

and when he was come out of the ship, 
immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit,
who had his dwelling among the tombs;

and no man could bind him, no, not with chains:
because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains,
and the chains had been plucked asunder by him,
and the fetters broken in pieces:
neither could any man tame him.

and always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones

but when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him,
and cried with a loud voice,
and said, "what have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God?
I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not."
for he said unto him,
"come out of the man, thou unclean spirit"
and he asked him,
"what is thy name?"
and he answered, saying,
"my name is Legion: for we are many"
and he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country.

mow there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding.
and all the devils besought him, saying,
"send us into the swine, that we may enter into them"
and forthwith Jesus gave them leave.
and the unclean spirits went out,
and entered into the swine:
and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea,
(they were about two thousand;)
and were choked in the sea

and they that fed the swine fled,
and told it in the city, and in the country.
and they went out to see what it was that was done.
and they come to Jesus,
and see him that was possessed with the devil,
and had the legion,
sitting, and clothed,
and in his right mind:
and they were afraid.
and they that saw it told them how it befell to him that was possessed with the devil,
and also concerning the swine
and they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts

and when he was come into the ship,
he that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him.
howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him,
"Go home to thy friends,
and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee,
and hath had compassion on thee."
and he departed,
and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him:
and all men did marvel.

Capernaum is on the west side of Galilee. Anything on the East could be said to be "on the other side", although the lake is only about eight miles across. No-one knows where "the country of the Gardarenes" is: even the various manuscripts of Mark don't agree. Some say "Gadarenes"; some say "Gergesenes", some say "Geresenes". Some people would like it to be "the country of Girgashites" because that might make it a place where some of the original, pagan inhabitants of Israel still lived. Pilgrims have settled on a place called Kursi, which was once near a town called Gergasa.

But for the purposes of the story, it doesn't matter a great deal. The Country of the Gadarenes is foreign; far away; different; a place where no-one has heard of Jesus; a place where they farm disgusting animals. I said that chapter one of Mark felt like the opening of a movie and chapter three more like a cinematic montage. Chapter five feels a little like a dream sequence. We go from Capernaum, where there is a house and a boat and a synagogue, and pass through a storm, and end up in this strange place, full of pigs and demons.

The tone of Mark's story telling changes. We heard how Jesus healed a leper: but we weren't invited to look at his skin or his disease or the rags. We have been told that Jesus healed a man with a withered hand, but we don't actually look at the stump. But this story is full of poetry and description. A strong man; a man who smashes chains; a man who makes a lot of noise and self harms; very probably a naked man; a man who prefers the company of the dead to the company of the living; a man who is by Jewish standards, unclean. Mark really wants us to imagine what he looks like.

The narrative feels like a stream of consciousness: it jumps forwards and backwards. A man came from the tombs who couldn't be tied up. He couldn't be tied up with chains. Because did I mention that people kept on trying to chain him up? But when they tried to chain him up he just broke the chains and ran away. To the graveyard; which is in the hills. Did I mention he lived in a graveyard? Like I said he came down from the tombs and begged Jesus not to punish him. That's because, I forgot to say, that Jesus spoke first and told the demon to come out of the guy. He even asked the demon's name. But it wasn't just a single demon, it was loads and loads...

King James says that the mob of demons worshiped Jesus; but that makes it sound too much as if they were engaging in a rousing chorus of Kum-By-Ya. What they actually did was fall on their knees and beg for mercy. "What do you want with me? Please don't punish me…."

One has to assume that Jesus's disciples are on the boat, and don't hear any of this. They have just witnessed the weather-miracle and are presumably still wondering who Jesus is. The regiment of demons is yelling the solution to the mystery. "Jesus, Son of God in heaven!" But they don't hear or aren't listening.

Legion is very specifically a Latin word, denoting a unit of the Roman Army -- maybe as many as six thousand men. "My name is Legion" is on a level with "My name is Panzer Division" or "My name is S.A.S". The Good News Bible has no excuse whatsoever to make the demon say "My name is Mob, there are so many of us." The American Bible Society produces a document called the Contemporary English Bible which hugely improves "My name is Legion" to "My name is 'Lots'". (If Contemporary Americans don't know what a legion is. couldn't he have said "My name is Army.")

Jesus orders the demons to leave the man, but gives them permission to go into a drove of pigs. Are demons like Nazgul and hate the idea of being disembodied? Or are they going to inhabit the pigs for a few years as an alternative to heading back down to hell and reporting their failure to Beelzebub? Did Jesus trick the demons? Or was he honestly showing them mercy by letting them go into the pigs? Demon-possessed people seem to know they are demon-possessed and to dislike it; I suppose the man was cutting himself with stones to try to get the devils to leave him. The pigs take a more drastic approach, and commit mass porcine suicide, presumably depriving the devils of their host body. The man ran down from the mountains when he saw Jesus, so the beach must have hills and cliffs all round it. I think we often imagine the pigs running off a cliff into the water, like so many curly-tailed lemmings, but the story only requires them to run down a hill into the water.

The news that something amazing has happened on the beach flies round town, and people come to have a look. The reporters have decided that the headline is "Two Thousand Pigs Jump Into Sea For No Reason". But when they arrive, they discover that the real story is "Graveyard Lunatic Totally Cured". Mark mentions that he has put some clothes on. This obviously struck Luke as important, because when he retells the story, he adds the detail that the demon-possessed man was naked. Presumably, Peter or James kept a change of clothes on the boat in case anyone fell in the water on a fishing trip. The reaction of the onlookers is not "Thank goodness! You've cured that poor man." It is "Please go away. We can't afford to lose any more livestock."

It seems a bit hard on the swineherds, I must admit. I suppose Jesus' disciples would have said "If you will raise non-kosher beasts, you can't expect much sympathy from us. "

The local people want Jesus to leave. The demon-free man wants to come with Jesus and be one of his students. But for some reason, Jesus won't have him. (You don't think the boat was already overloaded with disciples, do you?)

Howbeit is a peculiar choice of words. Pretentious people still occasionally say "albeit" when they want to say "even though". (It would never occur to them to say "all be it" but they are happy to lapse into Middle English.) But howbeit is completely obsolete. It isn't clear why King James's men preferred it to "however" or "but" or simply another "and". This is why some people like Contemporary American texts.

In a few pages Jesus will send his special twelve out to extend the reach of his message; but he wants this man to start spreading the good news on this side of the lake right away. (Remember that fact: one of these days it will turn up in a religious themed pub quiz. The first Apostle to the Gentiles was not St Paul, but the Gardarene demoniac.) I don't how much proclaiming he was able to do. He hasn't heard any of the Jesus' preaching. All he knows is that out in Capernaum there is a supremely powerful exorcist.

Maybe we have to see miracles and exorcisms as a kind of theological loss-leader. The man goes round the city saying "Jesus can control demons! Jesus controls demons!" And some of the people who hear will cross over to Capernaum to find out for themselves…..

Pigs can swim.

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

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

Monday, October 21, 2019

Mark 4 21-45

is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed?
and not to be set on a candlestick?
for there is nothing hid,
which shall not be manifested;
neither was any thing kept secret,
but that it should come abroad.

if any man have ears to hear, let him hear.

Annoying people love to point out that popular proverbs sometimes contradict each other. It is undoubtedly true that many hands make light work but it is equally true that too many cooks spoil the broth. So the consensus of homely folk wisdom appears to be that you should have lots of helpers for jobs that need lots of helpers and fewer helpers for jobs that need fewer helpers, or, put another way, the right number of people for the job.

Thanks, homely folk wisdom.

But there can be deeper ways in which things can be contradictory but also true. A teacher may very well assert one truth; and then assert an apparently different truth; and hope that his students will tease out a third truth somewhere in the space between them. Casting the I-Ching involves randomly generating two different pieces of advise and trying to understand how the transition from one to the other describes your present situation.

Jesus has just said that he preaches in parables in order to hide and conceal his true meaning. He now says "Do you think anyone would light a candle or a lamp and then cover it up? And do you think anything can really stay a secret forever?" He says it twice. Everything which is hidden (krypton) will be revealed; and every thing  — every event  — which is secret (apokryphon) will come to light.

So we have two different teachings, placed next to each other either by Jesus himself, or by Mark. "The Gospel is a big secret. Shhh...don't tell anyone." "There is no such thing as a secret. Everything eventually gets out into the open."

and he said unto them,

take heed what ye hear:
with what measure ye mete,
it shall be measured to you:
and unto you that hear shall more be given.

A literal translation of this passage would go something like "With whatever measure you measure shall it be measured unto you, and more will be added to you." With what measure / you measure / it will it be measured are three single words in Greek: metro metreite metrethesatai. "Metron" is literally a "measure" — a measuring device — but it could also be taken to mean "standard". It's where we get our word metric from. So: "The same measuring device you use to measure and weigh with will be used to measure and weigh you — and even more so."

The Good News Bible chooses to render this as: “The same rules you use to judge others will be used by God to judge you — but with even greater severity." This is not a translation, but a commentary, and a tendentious one. Metron is a literal or figurative measuring device, so I suppose they went looking for an English word which could be used in both senses. And they came up with the word "rule" which could refer to either a piece of wood with feet and inches marked on it, or the  regulations of a game or an organisation. (The word "rule" in the first sense has been completely superseded by "ruler". School teachers occasionally refer to "meter rules" because "meter rulers" would have been a bit of a mouthful.) But having said "rule" the first time the word comes up, they decide to say "judge" the second and third time. The Bible never uses metron in the sense of "judgement"; it turns in contexts like "go and measure the walls of the city." And prostithémi doesn't mean "treat with greater severity": it simply means add, or increase. You could just as well gloss the passage as "The same standard you use to decide what gifts to give others will be used by God to decide what gifts to give you — but with even greater generosity." Except there is no need to bring God into it. Mark doesn't. It could be a general piece of advice: "If you are mean you will experience meanness — even more so. If you are generous, you will experience generosity — even more so."

People have asked me why I have a bee in my bonnet about the Good News Bible. This is why. 

Jesus has not, up to this point, been talking about rules or gifts or punishments. He has been talking about listening and understanding. So surely the verse is actually saying: "You will understand in proportion to how carefully you listen — even more so, in fact."

for he that hath,
to him shall be given:
and he that hath not,
from him shall be taken
even that which he hath

It is certainly true that poor people tend to get poorer and end up with nothing, while rich people carry on getting richer. But Jesus is presumably not talking about economics. He is still talking about preaching, and understanding, and listening. You have to understand Jesus' sayings before you can understand Jesus' sayings. If you start out understanding, you'll understand more. If you don't understand to start with, you'll get to the end of a parable understanding less than you did before. Grasp a little bit? That's great. We can work with that. Fail to grasp even the simplest parable? Sorry, but there is nothing that can be done for you.

and he said,

so is the kingdom of God,
as if a man should cast seed into the ground;
and should sleep, and rise night and day,
and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how.

for the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself;
first the blade,
then the ear,
after that the full corn in the ear.
but when the fruit is brought forth
immediately he putteth in the sickle,
because the harvest is come.

For a moment, it sounds as if Jesus is going to tell us the secret. This is the kingdom of God... The kingdom of God is like this... But anyone expecting a Big Reveal will be sorely disappointed. 

"This is the kingdom... a man planted some seeds, and they grew into a plants."

This man is an ever bigger idiot than the sower in the first story. He has some valuable seed corn, but he doesn't realize that that is what he has. Maybe he was going to feed it to his chickens. Maybe it's what was left over after the miller made it into flour. For all I know, he has stupidly swapped his cow for a bag of beans. But for whatever reason, he just throws or drops the seed outside his house and forgets all about it. And then a few weeks later corn or sunflowers or a beanstalk pop up outside his front door — to his complete surprise. It seems to him as if the ground outside his house has suddenly come to life all by itself. Not that he's complaining. He picks the flowers or harvests the corn right away.

The first story was an allegory. The sower was Jesus, or perhaps one of Jesus's envoys; the seed was the Word; the Soil were different types of listener. But it is a cardinal mistake to assume that you can take the key to one story and use it to unlock a different story. This second story is not allegorical in the way the first one was. The seed is not the Kingdom of God; the crop is not the Kingdom of God; the man, his house, and the soil are not the Kingdom of God. What is like the Kingdom of God is the whole situation. The Kingdom of God is — will be — a complete surprise. It will just suddenly appear. And it will look as it it had just popped up out of the ground all by itself.

and he said,

whereunto shall we liken the kingdom of God?
or with what comparison shall we compare it?

it is like a grain of mustard seed,
which, when it is sown in the earth,
is less than all the seeds that be in the earth:
but when it is sown,
it groweth up
and becometh greater than all herbs
and shooteth out great branches
so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it.

It is a mistake, again, to try to find things in parables which are definitely not there. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like mustard seed in one specific respect. We are not entitled to say that the Word of God teaches that the Kingdom is great for flavouring curry or that the Kingdom can be used as an ingredient of massage oil.

Once again, Jesus the carpenter tells his fisherman friends about planting seeds and harvesting crops. Mustard seeds are very small. Not, as certain anti-literalists would want to remind us, the smallest seeds on the planet earth, but very small indeed. And mustard trees are very big shrubs: not necessarily the largest tree in the world; but plenty big enough to provide shade for a passing pigeon. But very probably, we should read the piece as a kind of poetic hyperbole. Imagine if the mighty Canadian Redwood grew out of a tiny powder-like seed. That's what the Kingdom of God is like. A very, very big thing growing up out of a very, very small thing.

and with many such parables spake he the word unto them
as they were able to hear it.
but without a parable spake he not unto them
and when they were alone
he expounded all things to his disciples

Jesus speaks in puzzles. And if we can't see what follows from warnings about men who do not realize that there are seeds growing in their own gardens and huge trees bursting forth from small seeds than we are still outsiders. Without ears; incapable of hearing. 

and the same day
when the even was come,
he saith unto them,
Let us pass over unto the other side.
and when they had sent away the multitude,
they took him even as he was in the ship
and there were also with him other little ships.

I said previously that it was a mistake to treat the second and third chapters of Mark as continuous narrative: they are better thought of as a montage, as a collection of Jesus-stories and Jesus-sayings. But clearly this chapter does have a narrative structure: Jesus goes to beach; teaches his disciples on a boat; sails to the other side of the lake and performs a miracle there. So: is there a thematic or didactic connection between the different sections of the chapter?

Well, of course there is: otherwise I wouldn't have asked the question.

An overwhelmingly huge crowd of people have formed on the West side beach; all wanting miracles and wonders. Jesus gets onto a boat, and teaches his disciples instead. When he has finished teaching, rather than going and ministering to the mob on the beach, he turns the boat around and sails off to a completely different beach, over on the East side. 

and there arose a great storm of wind,
and the waves beat into the ship
so that it was now full.
and he was in the hinder part of the ship,
asleep on a pillow:
and they awake him, and say unto him,
"Master, carest thou not that we perish?
and he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea,
"Peace, be still."
and the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
and he said unto them,
"Why are ye so fearful?
how is it that ye have no faith?"
and they feared exceedingly, and said one to another,
"What manner of man is this,
that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

There is a storm. The disciples are scared. They are fishermen. They know this lake. They know what kind of storm is dangerous and what kind the boat can weather. Jesus isn't worried. He's asleep, at the back of the boat. Maybe he is in a state of spiritual serenity. Or maybe he is a land-carpenter and doesn't realize how much trouble they are in. So the disciples wake him up. And he rebukes the wind. He admonishes it; he talks to it sharply. And to the sea he says something like "Silence! Be muzzled."

Having given the weather a good ticking off, he turns round and chastises his disciples as well. "Why are you fearful? Do you still not have faith?" Don't you trust me yet? You've been my students for a while. Haven't you grasped the basics?

Jesus wants to know why they were afraid of the weather. But his question makes them even more afraid. They "fear with a great fear". But it isn't the sea they are afraid of now: it's Jesus himself.
I think there is a comic note to this scene. The disciples are convinced they are going to drown. A possibly slightly grumpy Jesus gets up from his nap and says "Wind — you are being very, very, naughty! Sea — shut up and put a sock in it right now!" And then, we assume, he goes back downstairs to bed, leaving the dripping wet fishermen in the middle of a dead-calm sea, looking at each other with open mouths.

"Who is this person?"

The Gospel is a secret which not everyone can understand. Jesus teaches in puzzles and cryptograms. The disciples need cheat sheets to solve even the easiest ones. And Jesus's biggest miracle yet raises the biggest question yet. Who is Jesus?

They don't know. They really don't know. 

There is a seed lying in the ground which the daft farmer has forgotten he even planted. The room is pitch dark because someone has put a bucket over the lamp. Someone has a handful of seeds which are so small you can hardly see them. But the tiny seeds are going to turn into massive trees; the daft farmer is going to be surprised, and someone is going to take away the bucket and we'll all be able to see what is going on. 

The big crowd don't know who Jesus is. The disciples don't know who Jesus is. Even Jesus' special twelve don't know who Jesus is.

But we do. We were in on the secret from the first chapter. almost the first verse. We know the mystery of the kingdom. The good soil is us.

Fun Fact:
When someone calls Jesus "Master" they are almost always calling him Didaskolos, teacher—not boss or lord. Until the middle of the 20th century, English school teachers were often referred to as "masters".

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

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

Monday, October 14, 2019

Mark 4 1 - 20

and he began again to teach by the sea side
and there was gathered unto him a great multitude
so that he entered into a ship
and sat in the sea
and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land

The last time Jesus went down to the beach, there were so many people that he asked the disciples to get a boat ready. This time, he actually gets into the boat: the crowd must be even larger. Once he's in the boat, he starts to teach. (That word again: teaching as opposed to proclaiming.)

I don't think we are supposed to imagine that he is shouting at a huge crowd from a boat. How on earth would they hear? (I think some irreverent comedians could probably come up with a clever sketch based on just that question.) I have heard this story many times, and I have always assumed that Jesus preached from the boat, to the people on land: that he was using the ship as a floating pulpit. But I now think this is incorrect. I think that what actually happened is that the multitude who converged on the beach mainly wanted to see miracles and ask for healings and Jesus withdrew onto the boat in order to teach his disciples. A few pages ago, Jesus was inside Peter's house, teaching, while a mob were outside, breaking the ceiling down, because they wanted miracles. In this story a boat has taken the place of Peter's house. For all we know it may have been Peter's boat. 

Jesus has not got into the boat to make it easier for the crowd to hear him: he has got into the boat to make jolly sure that they can't.

and he taught them many things by parables,
and said unto them in his doctrine,

there went out a sower to sow:
and it came to pass, as he sowed,

some fell by the way side,
and the fowls of the air came 
and devoured it up.

and some fell on stony ground
where it had not much earth;
and immediately it sprang up
because it had no depth of earth:
but when the sun was up, 
it was scorched;
and because it had no root, 
it withered away.

and some fell among thorns,
and the thorns grew up,
and choked it,
and it yielded no fruit.

and other fell on good ground,
and did yield fruit that sprang up
and increased
and brought forth, some thirty
and some sixty
and some an hundred

This is the first time we readers have been allowed to listen in on one of Jesus' seminars, so Mark gives it a big build up. He tells us twice that Jesus is about to start teaching. "He taught them lots of things using parables; this is what he taught them in his teaching." Then he hands the floor over to Jesus. Jesus tells everyone to listen, and then he tells everyone to use their imagination and look. And then the seminar starts.

But it is strange sermon; a meta-sermon: preaching about preaching, teaching about teaching. We may get to the end of the Sermon on the Boat more baffled than when we started. And, alarmingly, this may be the whole point of it.

First comes the story of the sower. Unless you are a Martian, or a Hindu, or Prof Richard Dawkins, you know this story. Well, it is hardly a story: it is little more than an image. A farmer throws seed out at random, without regard for where it goes; so naturally, some of it comes up and some of it doesn't. This is called broadcasting, but you would normally only broadcast seed when you want the crops to come up densely over a whole area — sowing a lawn, say. The Sower is being profligate and wasteful with his seed: that's the point of the story. Jesus was an artisan; his disciples are fishermen: perhaps they take it for granted that all farmers are idiots.

"There's this farmer, right — and imagine this — he just chucks his seed everywhere without paying any attention to where it goes. And, do you know, in a funny way, God is a bit like that silly farmer….."

and he said unto them,
he that hath ears to hear, let him hear

We've all got ears. Very nearly all of us, at any rate. And hearing is very much what ears are best at doing. So one's first reaction to this phrase is "Since we all have ears, this story is meant for everyone." But then we stop and think, and realize that it could mean "If you are capable of hearing this, you should. But not all of you can…." So perhaps this story is only meant for a minority. The minority on the boat, perhaps.

and when he was alone,
they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable

So. It's a simple story. A sower plants some seeds. Some of them come up, some of them don't. Maybe because it is so simple, some of Jesus students ask him what it means. His answer pretty much throws the whole of the book of Mark, and everything we think we know about Jesus, into disarray.

Mark seems to refer to two groups: "those who were about him" and "the twelve". Jesus is alone at the center telling the story. Around him are his twelve chosen envoys. Further out is a larger group of students who can still be said to be near to him. And some distance away is a huge undifferentiated beach-bound crowd, who can't hear what is being said.

unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God:
but unto them that are without,
all these things are done in parables:
that seeing they may see,
and not perceive;
and hearing they may hear,
and not understand;
lest at any time they should be converted,
and their sins should be forgiven them.

We are all familiar with the idea of fables. They tend to be vivid concrete examples of self-evident moral precepts; they don't contain any esoteric secrets or mystical revelations. We know that lying is wrong. We know that people doubt the word of habitual liars even when they are telling the truth. The story about the little boy who kept setting off the wolf-alarm when there was no wolf-emergency and as a result got eaten by a wolf doesn't tell us anything that we didn't already know. But it fixes it in our minds; it helps us remember it. I suppose it may scare children by showing that a fairly small offence might have a catastrophic consequence. (And anyway, children like stories in which other people are naughty and cop it.) Platitudes are conveniently expressed in concrete form: it is relatively hard to say "I wonder if it has occurred to you that projects can be overstaffed as well as understaffed". It is easy to say "Well, you know what they say about too many cooks…."

I think that most of us are also familiar with the idea of allegories. They are stories which require some sort of key or explanation. The seem to be about one thing, but they are really about something else. There is a story about a traveler who is captured by a giant in a swamp and imprisoned in a castle, but manages to escape when he finds a key. It is a rousing little story if you like that kind of thing. And I suppose you could read it as a fable: the moral of the story is "Don't give up. However bad things look, there is always a chance they will turn out okay." But it is actually an allegory. In the background, the voice of the author provides a key. The traveler is named Christian, the swamp is named Despond, the giant is called Despair, his castle is called Doubt but the key is called Hope. If you ask me, that is quite a complicated way of telling us that if a Christian has hope he will never despair. (Pilgrim's Progress. Boring book; excellent theme song.)

A parable literally means a juxtapositioning; putting two different things alongside each other, so we can spot the similarities. But according to Mark, Jesus's parables aren't fables, to help us hold onto a truth, or allegories, to make a moral message palatable. According to Mark, Jesus's parables are more like puzzles. Riddles, even. The Kingdom of God is a Mystery.

There were, in the classical world, many "mystery religions" which taught their rituals and doctrines only to initiates. In medieval times, the word "mystery" simply meant "trade secret" or even just "trade". The religious "mystery plays" were plays put on by the different craft guilds, and have nothing to do with mysteries in the religious sense. It isn't exactly clear when "Mystery" took on its present meaning as "puzzle" or in particular "a story about an unsolved crime". The title of the 1794 story which Jane Austen lampoons is The Mysteries of Udolpho. I've always taken that to mean "the puzzles which our intrepid heroine had to solve" but it could still have meant "the experience which was in a funny way like an initiation".

The kingdom of God is a Mystery. There are people on the inside — on the boat? — who know the secret; and people on the outside — on the beach -— who do not. So Jesus preaches in parables to make sure that the people on the beach don't find out the secret.

The "lest" part is particularly troubling. If the people on the shore solve the puzzle, they would turn their lives around and send their sins away. And we wouldn't want that, would we?

and he said unto them,
know ye not this parable?
and how then will ye know all parables?

the sower soweth the word.
and these are they by the way side,
where the word is sown;
but when they have heard,
Satan cometh immediately,
and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts.

and these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground;
who, when they have heard the word,
immediately receive it with gladness;
and have no root in themselves,
and so endure but for a time:
afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended.

and these are they which are sown among thorns;
such as hear the word,
and the cares of this world,
and the deceitfulness of riches,
and the lusts of other things entering in,
choke the word,
and it becometh unfruitful.

and these are they which are sown on good ground;
such as hear the word,
and receive it,
and bring forth fruit,
some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.

If we don't understand this parable, we won't understand any of the other parables either. That could be taken two ways. Is Jesus saying that this is the master parable, and that once you have decoded it you will be able to solve all the others? Or is he merely saying "I am surprised you need my help to solve this: it's actually one of the easier ones."

Jesus is preaching. It's his biggest gig ever: more people than can get onto the beach. But he is withdrawn with a small number of students; more than twelve but less than fifty. And they have questions. Why is it that such a lot of people listen to you, but so few hear you? Is there a problem with the Word? Maybe you need to focus group a New Improved Word? Maybe you could triangulate with the Pharisees and come up with some Word that would have better market penetration?

To which the answer is: "You don't blame the seed because of where it lands. If it lands in bad soil, it doesn't come up. If it lands in good soil, it does."

The key to the allegory isn't that surprising or complicated. Different types of soil equals different types of people. Some people give up following the Word because it gets too hard: when being a follower of Jesus becomes dangerous or unpopular. Some people give up following the Word because it gets too easy: when there is money and fun and lipstick to be had instead. And some people never hear the Word in the first place: one of those Dirty Ghosts can get in between the preacher and the listener.

So: at whom is the story directed? Is Jesus talking to the soil? "Try hard not to be the kind of soil which has weeds growing in it. Try hard not to be the kind of soil which isn't deep enough for wheat to take root? Try hard to be good soil."

Is he talking to the people outside the process? "You may wonder why not all the seeds come up. But don't worry. There is nothing wrong with the seed, although there may be something wrong with the soil."

Or is he talking to other sowers? "Don't worry if not all your seed comes up. That's not your fault. You can't second guess what kind of soil your seed will land in. Carry on sowing."

We can't change what kind of soil we are. The seed is the seed. The message is for the people already with Jesus, on the boat. "Don't worry. You will always be a minority. You are good soil. But the ear-less majority will never hear what I am saying."

It starts to seem terrifyingly possible that Jesus was a Calvinist.

In Greek an "ear" of corn is a stachui, and the things on the side of your head are ota and what you do with them is akou. There is no world play between "ear" of corn, a human "ear" or the act of "hearing".

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

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Monday, October 07, 2019

Annoying Facebook Science Meme Critique Rant

A friend of mine posted one of those annoying memes which go around facebook under the umbrella title "I fucking love science".

This one went as follows.

Frivolously, I said: "Have you got a week."

"Possibly." said my friend. (These may not have been his precise words.)

So I wrote the following.


It is always possible to frame Paradise Lost or the Book of Genesis as "that story about the talking snake", in the same way it is always possible to frame Hamlet as "that story about the sad kid" or Parsifal as "that story about the lost cup".

But if you choose to frame them in that way, I will probably think "Oh, these Science Dudes don't get what art and literature are for".

In fact, I will probably think "If Science Dudes look at the Bible and Milton and can't see anything but a talking snake, I definitely don't want to be a Science Dude."

This doesn't make them wrong, necessarily. You can get science and not get literature, in the same way that you can know everything about sport but nothing at all about cookery. But it does make my fur prickle and my hackles rise. It makes me disinclined to pay attention to the rest of their argument.

Which, I strongly suspect, is the object of the exercise. No-one is trying to persuade anyone of anything. They are just saying "Our side -- hooray! -- Your side -- boo!" If I had flaccid hackles and smooth fur they wouldn't be doing their job.

Indeed, there is a kind of a trap here. If an annoying person is standing on a virtual street corner saying "Science rocks! Religion sucks!" it is very tempting to turn around and say "No, on the contrary, science sucks!" Which means the annoying man can say "See, told you so! Religion is anti-science."

I shall attempt to get to the end of this week without at any time saying "Science! Boo!"

I think that it is entirely possible to fucking love science without fucking hating religion.


Some Christians think that their Bible is the exact word of God. They think that God wrote it, in the same way that the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet. Similarly, Muslims believe that their Koran (which has also got a snake story in it, I think) existed in heaven before it was dictated on earth, and would have existed even if God had never created the universe.

If you went up to one of those Christians or Muslims and asked "What would happen if every single copy of the Bible and/or the Koran were destroyed... and everyone on earth for some reason forgot all about them?" they would reply "I suppose God would dictate them all over again when he thought humans were ready for it." Which is a perfectly reasonable answer.

Now, I don't believe that the Bible is a magic book in that sense, and neither do you, and neither does the Archbishop of Canterbury, and neither does the Pope. But some people do. And if you go up to one of those people and say "If we forgot about the Bible, it couldn't possibly be reconstructed" they would simply retort "Oh yes it could." It's the kind of evidence that only works if you have already decided what verdict you are eventually going to come to.

"I can prove that God doesn't exist" says the science dude. "If God existed, he would exist. But he doesn't exist... so it follows that he doesn't exist!".

"I can prove that God exists" says the Christian. "If God didn't exist, he wouldn't exist. But he does exist! So it follows that he exists."

Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.


I am pretty sure that if human culture was wiped out then the exact combination of words which go to make up Hamlet would never exist again.

This is what makes works of art especially precious. All over the universe there must be aliens who know about evolution by natural selection and Pythagoras's theorem; but none of them know about the death of Ophelia or why Hamlet thought he was a rogue and peasant slave. Gravity is just sitting around waiting to be discovered: only one being in the entire universe could have written "oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt..."

Next time someone asks you what's so special about humans, that's the answer.

If you don't like Hamlet then substitute Les Miserables or Lord of the Rings or Here Comes Noddy! or any book you do like.

But if we entirely wiped out human culture humans would carry on making babies. And I think -- I am not quite sure but I think -- that as long as we go on making babies, we will still have the idea of "fathers" and "sons". And if we've got the idea of "fathers" and "sons" then wouldn't we also have the idea that one of the worst things that could happen to a young man is for his father to be murdered? And that one of the worst possible crimes is for a man to kill his own brother?

And I think that if we entirely wiped out human culture, human beings would soon spot the fact that everyone dies in the end, and some of them would start wondering "where do people go when they die?" And once they've asked that question, the idea of ghosts would occur to some of them.

So sooner or later it would occur to someone to tell the story of a young man who gets a message from his murdered father's ghost...

Maybe this is all a bit Neil Gaiman. But I think that there is a very good chance that if we rebooted human culture, humans would sooner or later come up with a story that was very much like Hamlet.

Sherlock Holmes and Spider-Man I wouldn't hold out as much hope for....


Jung and his disciple Joseph Campbell thought that human brains are wired to tell particular kinds of stories. The story of Luke Skywalker is a bit like the story of Gilgamesh because the journey of those two particular heroes are a bit like everyone's journey through life. Deceitful snakes and wise old men and tricksters pop up in stories all over the world because they represent things which are in every human being's mind.

Archetypes, if you insist.

If they are right, then the Very Big Stories are the ones which humans are most likely to start telling even if culture has been rebooted. So if it is possible that Future Humans would have a story which is a lot like Hamlet, then it is very likely indeed that they would have a story which is a lot like Paradise Lost.

I don't know if this is true. I recanted my faith in Hero With a Thousand Faces a long time ago. A lot depends on what we mean by "culture" and exactly how the reboot scenario works. If snakes have gone extinct then no-one would think to tell a story about the snake in the garden of Eden -- or even about Kaa or Sir Hiss. And maybe, once we have wiped out a million years of human culture and started all over again, the new lot of humans wouldn't understand the idea that, say, kids are innocent and old men are wise, in which case the Journey of the Hero wouldn't have anything to be about.

Maybe the new lot of humans wouldn't even understand that there are things called rules with consequences if you break them or think that it would be odd for two adults to be naked all the time.

But if the New Humans thought so differently, I am not sure I would call them "human". And if they were that different from us, why assume they would come up with that very specific way of investigating the universe called "science"?



1:  God exists, or
2:  God does not exist.

But these are not the only options. (That would be too simple.)

1.1 God exists, and wise and clever humans can work this out for themselves.
1.2 God exists, but humans wouldn't know that he existed unless he told them so himself.

2.1.1 God does not exist, but some wise and clever humans honestly believe that he does.
2.1.2 God does not exist, but some wise and clever humans made up the idea of God because they honestly thought that believing in God would make humans nicer.
2.1.3 God does not exist but some ignorant and stupid humans think that he does because they don't know any better.

2.2 God does not exist, but some wicked humans invented the idea of God for some nefarious reason -- to fool other people into giving them money, or to make everyone respect the king or to give them a pretext for wearing nice red uniforms.

3: God does not exist, and the the fact that some people think he does is a complete historical fluke -- if history had gone differently, the Fish Slapping Society might have taken the place of the Church of England and Henry VIII might have quarreled with Rome over the precise interpretation of the rules of Tiddlywinks.

But in each case, if human beings came up with the idea of God once, they would probably come up with the idea again. If God exists, then some of the New Humans will figure it out eventually. If the existence of God isn't the sort of thing that can be figured out, God will do his "Hey guys, look at me!" routine with the burning bush all over again.

If God does not exist, but was a more or less honest mistake by some more or less well meaning Humans, then it is quite likely that after the Reboot, some more or less well meaning New Human will make the same kinds of mistakes all over again. The New Humans will live in the same universe that the Old Humans did. They will ask the same kinds of question about it. And they will very probably come up with the same sorts of answers. "I reckon that someone must be in overall charge; I reckon he must be good but quite cross with us when we are bad; I reckon he wants us to acknowledge him in some way..."

But supposing the idea of God was a deliberate con-trick? In that case I think that the same sort of Naughty Priests who came up with the idea in the first place will come up with the same kinds of fibs after the Great Cultural Reboot.

I agree that if the idea of God coming into being was an arbitrary and meaningless fluke then the same arbitrary and meaningless fluke is unlikely to happen twice.

So. Destroy all the holy books and wipe everyone's memories. I think that in a few thousand years, human beings will again be building temples, saying prayers, sacrificing goats and trying hard not to covet their neighbor's Oxen. I think they will get to this point a long time before they have worked out the Three Laws of Motion from first principles.

I cannot guarantee that anyone would re-invent the lyrics of Kum-By-Ya.


The Snake Story had probably been around for a long time before it got incorporated into the collection of stories we call Genesis. And the book of Genesis had been around for a very long time before Christians worked out what they thought the story meant.

Christians think the snake story is a partial description of how human beings relate to God. In particular they think it is the answer to one very Big Question.

"If God is nice, why is the world horrid?"

"Because humans keep on breaking God's rules. Let me tell you a story..."

Obviously, the Christian New Testament understands the story in a very particular way. Paul says "in Adam, everyone has sinned", which is probably not what the Genesis-writer had in mind when he wrote the story down. Later Christians have understood Paul in different ways. St Augustine probably didn't understand the story of Adam and Eve in quite the same way that Billy Graham does. I doubt if I could state the difference between, say, Hooker's doctrine and Thomas Aquinas', in any form which would hold water for five minutes. But the basic idea -- "things used to be okay between man and God; then man broke God's rules and they are not okay; someday God is going to do something and they will be okay again" -- is one which millions of people have found makes sense for them.

They might be wrong, but it can't just be written off as "a silly story about a talking snake."


If all the stories in the world were suddenly forgotten, I think it is probable that in a thousand years time, humans would again be telling stories very like Hamlet, Gawain and the Green Knight, Superman, Cinderella, and Adam and Eve, because I think they are the kinds of stories which human beings tell, because I think that part of what makes us human is telling those stories.

If all the stories in the world were suddenly forgotten, I think that it is probable that humans a thousand years later would have come up with the idea that the universe is run by some sort of God, because that's the kind of creatures humans are and that's the kind of universe we live in.

If all the stories in the world were suddenly forgotten, I think that it is probable that some of the humans who believe in God would have come up with the idea of the Fall of Man. Things used to be okay between man and God, and things will be okay again in the future, but right now we are in God's bad-books and everything seems horrible.

I think it is less likely, but not impossible, that the New Humans who have the idea of the Fall of Man will tell a story quite a lot like the story of Adam and Eve. Humans keep on putting the same kinds of things in stories and the images in the story -- fruit, gardens, walls, snakes, nakedness and clothing, knowledge and ignorance -- are pretty fundamental. But I am not sure about that. Maybe it would be a different story and maybe they wouldn't put it in the shape of a story at all.

The trouble with the original meme is that it really says "If the story of the snake is just a silly story with no deeper meaning and significance; and if stories in general are just silly arbitrary things which people make up to pass the time and if the idea of God is just an arbitrary superstition which someone made up then if you wiped all the stories out then nothing at all similar would ever exist again."

And I don't think you can take any of that for granted.


I am off to have a rest.

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

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