Friday, May 08, 2020

Mark 9 11-33

and they asked him, saying,
"why say the scribes that Elias must first come?"
and he answered and told them,
"Elias verily cometh first,
and restoreth all things
and how it is written of the Son of man,
that he must suffer many things,
and be set at nought
but I say unto you
that Elias is indeed come
and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed
as it is written of him"

Elijah. We just can't get away from him.

Peter and James and John are coming down the mountain. They have just seen Elijah himself, come down to earth, talking to Jesus on equal terms. And then it occurs to one of them. Hang on. "I thought Elijah was meant to come first, and the Messiah afterwards. How can you be the Messiah if Elijah hasn't come yet?"

If Mark's Gospel was written to counter the prevailing notion that Jesus was Elijah the disciples might be expressing an objection that Mark himself was very familiar with. How can Jesus be the Messiah? What happened to the forerunner?

Jesus answer is, once again, rather cryptic. He seems to say three things: that Elijah will come and set everything straight; that the Son of Man is going to be rejected and hurt; and that Elijah has come already and been treated badly.

The most sense I can make of this is to say that Jesus responds to the disciples' question with a question of his own.

"Why do the Scribes say that it is necessary for Elijah to come?"

"Well, why do the Scriptures say that the Son of Man has to suffer?"

He then answers his own question, kind of:

"On the other hand, Elijah has come and suffered already."

But he prefaces his answer with a statement, almost an aside.

"Yes, Elijah does come..."

So it comes out a bit like this:

"Why do the experts say that it is necessary for Elijah to come first?"

"(Hmm...Elijah comes and puts everything back together!) Why do the scriptures say that the Son of Man will come and suffer in the future? Elijah, on the other hand, has come and suffered already!"

I think that some of the painfully free modern translations come near to the sense of the passage: the Message translation says "Elijah does come first and get everything ready for the coming of the Son of Man. They treated this Elijah like dirt, much like they will treat the Son of Man, who will, according to Scripture, suffer terribly and be kicked around contemptibly."

But again, let's admit that this is an obscure saying, and try to hang on to the general theme. There are two figures: Elijah and the Son of Man. They are both due to come any time now, or else they both are already here. They are both going to be treated badly. Move on.

and when he came to his disciples,
he saw a great multitude about them,
and the scribes questioning with them.
and straight way all the people,
when they beheld him
were greatly amazed,
and running to him saluted him.
and he asked the scribes,
"What question ye with them?"
and one of the multitude answered and said,
"Master, I have brought unto thee my son,
which hath a dumb spirit;
and wheresoever he taketh him,
he teareth him: and he foameth,
and gnasheth with his teeth,
and pineth away:
and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out;
and they could not."
he answereth him, and saith,
"O faithless generation,
how long shall I be with you?
how long shall I suffer you?
bring him unto me."
and they brought him unto him:
and when he saw him
straight way the spirit tare him;
and he fell on the ground,
and wallowed foaming.
and he asked his father,
"how long is it ago since this came unto him?"
and he said,
"of a child.
and ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire,
and into the waters
to destroy him:
but if thou canst do any thing,
have compassion on us,
and help us."
Jesus said unto him,
"If thou canst believe,
all things are possible to him that believeth."
and straight way the father of the child cried out,
and said with tears,
"Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief."
when Jesus saw that the people came running together,
he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him,
"thou dumb and deaf spirit,
I charge thee, come out of him,
and enter no more into him."
and the spirit cried,
and rent him sore,
and came out of him:
and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said,
" he is dead."
but Jesus took him by the hand,
and lifted him up;
and he arose.
and when he was come into the house,
his disciples asked him privately,
"why could not we cast him out?"
and he said unto them,
"this kind can come forth by nothing,
but by prayer and fasting."

Mark sure does like his exorcism stories. This one has a vividness and drama which is absent from some of the healings. It is full of detail and confusion. The demon-possessed boy foams and gnashes and shrivels. He wallows in front of Jesus. If there is any passage which you could believe goes back to an eye-witness, it is this one.

Although Jesus is far from home, in the time he has been up the mountain, word has evidently got round. So as usual, there is a mob; there are canon lawyers; and there is someone wanting healing. The disciples and the lawyers are having an argument: we never quite find out about what. When Jesus asks the lawyers what the trouble is, a man from the crowd calls out "Why can't your disciples heal my son?" For some reason, this makes Jesus very angry.

When Jesus comes down the mountain, the people are awestruck, even though he hasn't said or done anything yet. I wonder if he has literally been metamorphosed? I wonder if some actual change has come over him, which the people can perceive? Perhaps he is still wearing those super-white clothes?

Before setting out to Ceaserea Phillipi, Jesus healed a blind man. Up on the mountain, God told the disciples to hear Jesus. So: what is wrong with the man-in-the-crowds son? What does he need healing from? Of course, he is deaf and mute.

Jesus says that the present generation is apistos; without faith. He tells the man that his son can be healed if he is able to be pisteuonti; one who believes. The man famously replies "pisteuo, I believe"; but adds "help me with my apistos" my without-faith-ness. When translators attempt to provide a gloss they tend to lose the force of the text. "I do have faith, but not enough, help me to have more" turns a clear, pithy, poetic phrase into a forgettable mouthful. I believe: help my unbelief.

This brings us to one of those textual cruces we enjoy so much.

What Mark literally writes is that the man said something like:

"If anything you are able, help us, having compassion"

To which Jesus replies:

"If you are able all things are able to the believing one"

"You are able" is dyne, which is the same word as dunamis which as we keep seeing means "power". So the father of the demoniac really needs to say something like "if you have the power" and Jesus needs to reply "the believing one has the power to do anything". This is one of those times when I am rather pleased with what the Good News Bible does:

"Help us if you possibly can"

"If I possibly can? All things are possible for the person who has faith.'"

Jesus's response, "if you are able..." is a fragment of a sentence. The majority of translators think that Jesus is echoing the father's words back at him, repeating the question rhetorically.

"If you have power, help me!"

"If I have the power!"

Several translations supply additional words to make it clear that this is what Jesus meant. The Contemporary English Bible has "Why do you say 'if you can?'" and the Living Bible has "What do you mean 'if I can?'"

A few translators think that Jesus is turning the question round so it applies not to him, but to the father.

"If you have the power, help me"

"If YOU have the power."

King James pretty much stands by himself in filling in the ellipsis for Jesus. 

"If you have the power, help me!"

"If you have the have faith you have the power to do anything."

The first option makes the most sense. Jesus says that he can heal the child because he has faith in God: the man blurts out "I have faith too".

So: the exorcism happens; the boy is healed; secrecy is sworn. Jesus and the disciples go back into the house and the disciples ask the obvious question. Why couldn't we do that?

And Jesus says "Nothing except prayer has the power to drive this kind out". It's that word, dynas, again. You can only do that kind of mighty work through prayer.

Our translation says that the disciples "could not" heal the boy. It would be more accurate to say that they "did not have the strength -- the ischuo -- to do so." To which one is tempted to say: of course they jolly well didn't. Did they really think that they were going to defeat Satan using their strength? Haven't they been listening? Who is deaf, them or the demon-possessed boy?

That's why Jesus is cross. He's only been up the mountain for a few minutes, and when he gets back, nine of the disciples are trying to go up against Satan all by themselves.

Using your own strength rather than God's power could almost be seen as a form of idolatry. And of course, there is another story about a man who came down from a mountain, still glowing from an encounter with God, only to find a crowd trying to set up an idol....

and they departed thence,
and passed through Galilee;
and he would not that any man should know it
for he taught his disciples, and said unto them,
"the Son of man is delivered into the hands of men,
and they shall kill him;
and after that he is killed,
he shall rise the third day"
but they understood not that saying,
and were afraid to ask him.

Mark is still linking the stories together in a very clear narrative sequence: Jesus and the disciples set out to Mount Harmon, passing through Ceasarea Phillipi and having a crucial conversation on the way. Jesus takes the Big Three up the mountain; while the other nine try and fail to heal a deaf mute demon possessed epileptic. Then they come back to Galilee and Jesus continues briefing the disciples in private. Some commentators want the Transfiguration to have happened in Galilee; but "they left that place and went through Galilee" makes little sense if Galilee is where they already were .

What is the subject of this private tutorial? And why do the disciples find it so difficult to understand?

On two previous occasions, Jesus has said that he is going to be rejected, treated appallingly, and killed. This is not a secret teaching. He told it to the multitude, and Mark specifically says that he spoke it openly -- plainly and publicly. It wasn't couched in one of those parables that the disciples always miss the point of. But this time, when Jesus is talking very plainly indeed the disciples can't understand him.

In Ceasarea Phillipi, Jesus said "It is necessary that the Man should suffer..." 

Coming down the mountain, he said "It is written that the Man should suffer." 

But now, back in Galilee for the last time, he says "The Man is being handed over to men, and killed."

Jesus has told them before that he has to die. He has told them that he has to die because the scriptures say so. But this is the first time he has said that he will die as a result of being handed over.

The word Mark uses is paradidómi (beside-give) which could be translated as "delivered" or "handed over" or even "surrendered". But Mark has already used the word, very ominously, back in Capernaum, when Jesus first chose the Twelve. Peter and Andrew and James and John and Levi the Son of Alphaeus....and Judas Iscariot "hos kai paredoken auton". 

This is what the disciples can't understand. Jesus is going to be killed as a result of someone delivering him up. Handing him over. Surrendering him. Turning him in.

Jesus public ministry in Galilee is over. He is having a private talk with the disciples that he doesn't want anyone else to hear.

"The Man is betrayed into the hand of men" he says.

The disciples don't know what he means by betrayed. And they are scared to find out.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, May 04, 2020

Mark 8:34-38, 9 1-10

and when he had called the people unto him
with his disciples also
he said unto them,
"whosoever will come after me,
let him deny himself,
and take up his cross
and follow me
for whosoever will save his life shall lose it;
but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's,
the same shall save it.
for what shall it profit a man,
if he shall gain the whole world,
and lose his own soul?
or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words
in this adulterous and sinful generation
of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed,
when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

We have just heard Jesus speaking to the disciples, and then to Peter alone. But Jesus is now speaking to the multitude -- the crowd. Everyone hears this bit.

The conversation with the disciples about Jesus' identity happened on the road. So isn't it likely that the crowd has also joined them on the road; that Jesus is continuing to walk and talk? In which case, Jesus has turned a concrete situation into a spiritual metaphor. "You are following me down the road. But let me tell you what it would be like to really go down the road I am on...."

First, anyone who wants to walk behind Jesus would have to disown or denounce himself. Expressions like "take up the cross" and "we all have our cross to bear" have worked their way into our language and lost their force. But for Jesus and Mark, stauron only means a grotesque and disgusting implement of torture. "If you want to walk down the road that I am walking down you are going to have to waterboard yourself" might do the trick. This is an entirely new strand of teaching, not obviously following on from anything Jesus has been saying about wheat and farmers. 

The second thing Jesus says seems to contradict the first. He says, "Completely give yourself up. Pretend you don't exist. Be prepared to be killed in the nastiest way possible." But then he says "Hang on to your psyche, your spirit, your essence, who you are. Nothing is more valuable than that. Your person-hood is more valuable than the entire universe."

He then throws in a perplexing "therefore". You need to completely give up on Self; and you need to hang onto Self above all things: it follows from that that you if you are ashamed of Jesus in the here and now, he will be ashamed of you when he comes back "in the glory of his father".

The crowd didn't hear the previous conversation. They don't know that Jesus has accepted the title of King. Talk of him shining with God's glory and being accompanied by God's angels must have taken them aback, slightly.

It is certainly an obscure saying. But we can see a sort of a thread. Completely disown yourself. Hold onto yourself at all costs. These two things are kind of the same. The Son of Man is going to be rejected and killed. The Son of Man is going to be lent the glory of God and command God's armies. These two things are also kind of the same.

and he said unto them,
"verily I say unto you,
that there be some of them that stand here, 
which shall not taste of death, 
till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power." 

Jesus has been preaching about the Kingdom of God from the beginning. It's like the man who threw seeds outside his house, and was surprised when flowers suddenly sprung up. It's like a tiny seed which grows into a huge tree. Peter has called Jesus King: and now King Jesus says to the wider crowd that the Kingdom of God is going to arrive really, really soon. Not today, not tomorrow, but within decades. And when it comes, it is going to come with power. That word again: dunamis. It's going to come with mighty works. With miracles. With an abundance of miracle-juice.

This is probably the hardest saying in the whole canon. Some of the people who heard Jesus speak at Caesarea Philippi that day, sometime around the thirtieth year of the common era, will still be alive when the kingdom of God arrived. Some of those exact people must still have been alive when Mark's book came out. Some of them may even have even read it.

The standard Biblical lifetime of a human being is said to be three score years and ten; so if "some standing here" includes children, the Kingdom is allowed to be delayed for another sixty years -- say until 110 CE. But if Jesus is only talking to the adults in the room, the Kingdom has got to come by CE 70 or 80. If we take the kingdom referred to here to be the same event referred to in the last verse -- the time when the Son of Man will appear in the glory of his father with holy Angels in attendance -- we would have to say that this prophecy was never fulfilled. Jesus never came back. And that, theologically speaking, is a bit awkward.

Logically, there are five options available to us.

1: Jesus was wrong.

2: Jesus never said it. Mark remembered it wrong.

3: Jesus didn't mean that the Kingdom would come very soon. He meant that some of those listening to him preach would live forever.

4: Jesus was using "taste of death" in some esoteric sense -- of course everyone listening would eventually die, but in some deeper sense some of them would not "taste" death.

5: Jesus was using the word "kingdom", not to refer to something which people would still be waiting for two thousand years later, but something which did indeed happen in the lifetime of his audience:. The Resurrection; Pentecost and the destruction of the Temple are three popular candidates.

But let's not get too hung up on this verse. Let's look at the whole chapter. Jesus has accepted the title of King. He has openly referred to God as his Father. He has said that he is going to die, and then "stand up" -- whatever that means. He is going to appear with God's glory and with the angels -- whatever that means. This is going to happen real soon. This is the same Jesus who has, up to now, been trying to keep his miracles secret and ordering demons to keep quiet about him. Something is about to change.

and after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John 
and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves 
and he was transfigured before them.
and his raiment became shining
exceeding white as snow
so as no fuller on earth can white them.
and there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: 
and they were talking with Jesus.
and Peter answered and said to Jesus, 
"master, it is good for us to be here: 
and let us make three tabernacles; 
one for thee, 
and one for Moses, 
and one for Elias."
for he wist not what to say
for they were sore afraid.
and there was a cloud that overshadowed them: 
and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, 
"this is my beloved Son: hear him."
and suddenly, 
when they had looked round about, 
they saw no man any more, 
save Jesus only with themselves.
and as they came down from the mountain, he charged them 
that they should tell no man what things they had seen, 
till the Son of Man were risen from the dead.
and they kept that saying with themselves, 
questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean

Pretend you are reading this story for the first time.

Pretend, perhaps, that you have grown up in Galilee. All the old people claim to have known someone who knew Jesus, in the way that every old Scouser knows someone who was at school with Paul McCartney. Some of them refer to him as the Prophet Jesus. Some think he was the prophesied forerunner and that the Messiah himself will be along any day now.

And then this book comes out. The memoirs of Peter, some people say.

Peter has just said, for the first time "You are the King". Jesus has just said "Some of you lot standing here will live to see God's Miracle Kingdom". Okay, you think. So that is Mark's unique selling point. That is what his mysterious God-spell thing is all about. Jesus wasn't just a prophet who came down from heaven in a fiery chariot. He was the Messiah all the time.

But that's not the big secret. That's only the first part of the secret. Now read on.

There is a mountain about sixty miles north of Capernaum. It is notable today for being Israel's only ski resort. It's the highest mountain in the area: you can see the whole country from the top. You'd have to pass through Caesarea Philippi to get there. A very high mountain is a very good place to go if you are planning to have a special meeting with God. Sinai would be better but Sinai is three hundred miles away. This was the whole purpose of the trip. They passed through Ceasarea and had a very important conversation on the way, but Mount Harmon was always where they were headed.

Jesus takes the Big Three up the hill. (I suppose he left Andrew in charge down below.) And....voom. Divine fanfare. Special effects sequence. Everything you think you know is wrong.

Jesus changes. "Transfigured" is a religious word. We pretty much only use it when talking about this story. Mark's actual Greek word is one that we use in modern English. He says that Jesus metemorpothe: he metamorphosed. Like a very hungry caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly.

Jesus's clothes change. Mark's language is disconcertingly concrete. He literally says that Jesus's clothes became whiter than any known washing powder could wash them. ("Such as a launderer on the earth is not able thus to whiten").

Two force-ghosts join him: not just any two but the two founders of Judaism. Moses, the friend of God who wrote down the Torah, and Elijah, the most famous of all the Prophets. The one who went to heaven without dying first. They are talking with Jesus.

Mark doesn't tell us what they talked about, and I think that is dramatically right. This is grown-up talk: Jesus talking to two titans on equal terms. Why would Peter and James and John be privy to it? Peter is terrified, and offers to put up some tents, as you would. Possibly in order to calm him down, everyone is enveloped in a cloud. Some commentators tell us that "over-shadowed" means "enveloped in brightness" but I can't see anything in the text which requires that reading. Jesus is super-bright; suddenly everything goes dark, so only those people on the mountain hear the next bit. The actual voice of God, actually God, actually says actual words: "This is the son of me, the beloved, listen you to him."

And then everything is back to normal. No prophets, no cloud, and I suppose Jesus's normal clothes, dusty from a six day slog from Capernaum to Ceasarea.

I don't think that the divine voice has gone to all this trouble so it can say to the chief disciples "This is my son, so you should have a good listen to what he has to say: it's really worth hearing." They are all doing that already.

Jesus keeps concluding his teaching sessions by says "If you have ears, you can hear" and the disciples keep entirely failing to hear. God has taken them up the mountain to cure them of their deafness. He is giving them the capacity to understand what Jesus is saying. "Hear him!" means "I give you the power to hear him!" I am taking away the impediment; I am making it possible for you to understand; I am letting you in on the big secret. It makes us think of what Jesus said to the deaf man. "Be opened".

We are pretending that we are reading this story for the first time. But those of us who have read it before may have scratched our heads when we came to Mark's account of Peter's confession. Hasn't Mark left a bit out? Or put another way: haven't Matthew and Luke -- the other Gospel writers, probably more familiar to us than Mark -- put an extra bit in?

Here is Mark, again:

And He was questioning them, “But whom do you pronounce me to be?” 
Peter answering, says to him, 
“You are the Christ.”. 
And he warned them that they should tell no one concerning him. 

But here is Matthew, telling the same story

He says to them, “But whom do you pronounce Me to be?” 
And Simon Peter answering said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 
And Jesus answering, said to him, 
“Blessed are you, Simon Barjona! 
For flesh and blood did not reveal it to you, 
but My Father in the heavens. 
And I also say to you that you are Peter, 
and on this rock I will build My church, 
and the gates of Hades not will prevail against it. 
I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, 
and whatever you might bind on the earth shall have been bound in the heavens, 
and whatever you might loose on the earth shall have been loosed in the heavens.” 
Then He instructed the disciples that they should tell no one that He is the Christ.

I'm not for the moment interested in why Matthew adds a hundred words about what a great guy Peter is before we get to the bit where Jesus denounces him as Satan. (Perhaps Peter was too shy to report that bit to Mark? Or perhaps Matthew felt obliged to add a few word bigging up the head of the Church in Rome?) But I am very interested in Peter's declaration about Jesus. 

Mark says Peter makes one claim: "You're the Messiah". 

But Matthew says he makes two. "You're the Messiah; you're the Son of God."

Matthew's Jesus is quite sure that Peter didn't work that out for himself: God told him. This makes the story of transfiguration rather redundant. Jesus takes Peter all the way up the mountain so that God can tell him what he already knew on the ground. Peter announces that Jesus is the Son of God. And then Peter goes up the mountain, and God tells him that Jesus is the Son of God.

Matthew's Gospel is an expanded retelling of Mark, almost definitely. In general, Matthew adds words and lines and verses to what Mark says. But in a very small number of cases, Matthew leaves stuff out. The story of the two-stage healing of the blind man is one such case. Mattew deleted it. It only appears in Mark.

I think that Matthew understood Mark's story about the blind man very well. I think he recognized that the blind man represented the disciples. I think he saw that the disciples, like the blind man, only gradually had their eyes opened. They partly understood Jesus at first, they understood him more fully later on. At first, the blind man can see nothing. Then he can see vague shapes that could be people but could be trees. Then he can see perfectly. At first, the disciples have no idea who Jesus is. Then Peter reveals that he is the Messiah. Then God reveals that he is the Son of God. 

And Matthew doesn't like that. He thinks Peter's eyes were opened all in one go. So the story of the blind man has to end up on the cutting room floor. 

Perhaps Mark is particularly addressing those people who still think Jesus is the prophet Elijah. That's okay, he is saying. You are part of the way there. You don't necessarily see the whole thing at once. 

Perhaps there is a divergence of theological opinion. Perhaps Mark thinks that the Messiah-ship of Jesus is something that human beings can work out for themselves; but that his divine Son-ship is something which requires a supernatural revelation. Matthew doesn't think you can know any of it unless God tells you. And he thinks that Peter -- more than James and John and even Andrew -- is Top Apostle because he was the one God decided to tell.

I prefer Mark's version. Looking at Jesus and trying to tease out what these cryptic and self-contradictory puzzles mean will take you a long way. They will take you to the point where you can see that Jesus is God's special King. But that won't help you to grasp the idea that God's special King is going to be an apparent failure. 

Like the disciples on the boat, you are probably looking and looking but not seeing. Like Peter, you're probably still saying "oh, no, no, no, God, you've got that bit wrong." You can only see the whole picture when God decides you can.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Mark 8: 22 - 33

and he cometh to Bethsaida; ; 
and they bring a blind man unto him, 

and besought him to touch him
and he took the blind man by the hand, 
and led him out of the town; 
and when he had spit on his eyes, 
and put his hands upon him, 
he asked him if he saw ought.
and he looked up, 
and said, "I see men as trees, walking."
after that he put his hands again upon his eyes, 
and made him look up: 
and he was restored, 
and saw every man clearly.
and he sent him away to his house, saying, 
"Neither go into the town, 
nor tell it to any in the town".

Out on the lake, Jesus pronounced his disciples to be deaf and blind. And the first thing that happens when they get back to the land is that he heals blind man.

But for the first time, Jesus powers appear to be fallible. He tries to heal the man and it doesn't work. So he has another go; and on the second attempt the blind man is healed.

Some people conclude that this is a primitive passage. The historical Jesus must have been something more like a shaman or a wizard -- performing rituals which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. Or, at any rate, that's what the very, very early Christians thought he was like. The later Church cleaned up the stories so that merely touching Jesus clothes produced an instantaneous transfer of miracle-juice. But that only poses a new question. Why did Mark present the raw version of this miracle but clean up the others so they fitted in better with the official, theological idea of Jesus? 

We are trying to read Mark on his own terms. How does the two-stage healing fit into his story?

"Well, in a very real sense, each time Jesus does a healing it is slightly different; and helps us see that God's ways are above our understanding, and that he resists any attempt to systematize him; and that he regards us all as individuals and ministers to us in the way we personally need."

I think we can do better than that. But we will have to get there by an indirect route. 

In the story, the blind man is brought to Jesus by some friends. And in the story the friends of the blind man believe that Jesus's touch will heal him -- in the way that it healed the woman with the bleeding problem, and brought Jairus's daughter back to life. So this isn't a "primitive" story. The people in the story know about the other healings. This particular story is different for some reason. 

We have been told that wherever Jesus goes he is been followed by people who just want to touch his clothes, or be touched by him -- that the roads are now lined with such people. But in this particular case, Jesus takes the blind man away by himself, and performs some kind of medical procedure. He spits in his eyes, and touches him: the man says he can see a little bit, but very imperfectly. Jesus  touches his eyes. This time the man can see perfectly. It's very similar to the story about the deaf man in the previous chapter. Jesus took him away from the crowd; performed a procedure involving saliva; spoke special Aramaic words; and he could hear again. 

The idea of deafness and blindness permeate the first half of Mark's Gospel. On four different occasions Jesus has concluded his teaching with the phrase "If any man hath ears, let him hear". He deliberately frames the parables so that "seeing, they may not see, and not perceive; and hearing they may not hear and not understand". And a moment ago, when the disciples couldn't understand the numerological meaning of the loaves, he told them they were deaf and blind. 

And then, this happens: 

And Jesus went out, and his disciples 
into the towns of Caesarea Philippi
and by the way he asked his disciples 
saying unto them, 
"whom do men say that I am?"
And they answered
"John the Baptist
but some say, Elias 
and others, one of the prophets."
and he saith unto them, 
"but whom say ye that I am?" 
and Peter answereth and saith unto him, 
"thou art the Christ."
and he charged them that they should tell no man of him.

There was an old pulp hero called The Shadow. He probably inspired Batman. In the first novellas he is very mysterious indeed, popping out of the darkness to save his agents from the forces of Crime and disappearing into the night. After about a hundred episodes, there was a special story called The Shadow Unmasks in which we finally learn his secrets. (He is an aviator named Kent Allard who crashed in Tibet and learned the secrets of mesmerism from the mystics there. If you thought he was Lamont Cranston, that's because you have only heard the radio version. I digress.) For several decades more, this was the established backstory: most readers didn't know of a time when the Shadow's identity was mysterious. Something very similar happened to Doctor Who.

Clearly, it would frivolous to the point of sacrilege to suggest that this following passage could be subtitled "Jesus Unmasks." 

Caesarea Philippi is about 40 miles north of Nazareth. It's the furthest Jesus has taken the disciples. The conversation happens "by the way" -- while they are still on the road. But it also seems to have happened "by the way" in a colloquial sense. This isn't a major teaching session. They are talking on the road, and suddenly everything comes to a head. 

Big questions often come up that way. Thank you for dinner. I enjoyed the movie. Oh, and while I think of it, would you like to marry me? 

The disciples' answer is the same as Herod's. The people are saying that Jesus is a prophet. This is no trivial claim. A prophet is someone who God talks to. Prophets wrote the Bible. Moses and Elijah were prophets. Prophets get to tell kings when they mess up. It's just about the biggest thing a human being can be. And the people don't just think Jesus is any old prophet. They think he is a super-prophet. Maybe a recently beheaded prophet come back to life. Maybe an ancient prophet come back to earth. 

All right, says Jesus. That's what the people are saying. But what do you think? 

Peter comes right out and says it. "You are christos". 

We can easily miss the force of this. We are prone to think of "Christ" as a surname. Mark introduced his book as "The Gospel of Jesus Christ"; people who follow Jesus are called Christians. But apart from that opening rubric, the word "Christ" has not been used before in Mark's Gospel. Demons have called Jesus "the son of the Most High" and Jesus has referred to himself as "son of Man". But Peter is the first one to call him Christ. 

Christos comes from chrio, to anoint. It is a direct translation of the Hebrew mashiach: the one who has been anointed. There is no mundane or secular sense in which Peter could be using the word. The only people who get anointed are kings. The mashiach is the king who is going to arise at some point in the future and make Israel Top Nation. We usually render it messiah, but that makes everyone think of Life of Handel. Or possibly Life of Brian.

Mark's Gospel is very old. The idea of it being dictated directly by the historical Peter is a bit romantic, but 60 - 80 CE seems to be the consensus date. 30 - 50 years since Jesus lived and died. The early date puts it as close to Jesus as we are to Bill Clinton's first term"; the late date puts it as close to Jesus as we are to Watergate. It may not be reportage; but it's too ancient to be folklore or legend. There has not been much time for Christian Theology to develop. 

I can't prove this. But it is the conviction I reach as I study the book. That I am reading something old; something primitive; something frighteningly close to the events; so close that awkward bits have not yet been smoothed out. Mark is speaking to a world which remembers Jesus;  a world where "who is Jesus?" remains an unsettled question.

Who do people say that I am? What is the consensus position? If you went out into the street and asked one of Mark's contemporaries what they thought of Jesus, what would they have said? I think that they would have still been saying that Jesus was John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the Prophets. Mark writes to correct what he sees as a popular misconception. His Gospel is not stating an orthodoxy, but throwing down a gauntlet. This is the good spiel that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God.

and he began to teach them, 
that the Son of man must suffer many things, 

and be rejected of the elders, 
and of the chief priests, 
and scribes, 
and be killed, 
and after three days rise again.
and he spake that saying openly. 
and Peter took him, and began to rebuke him
but when he had turned about 
and looked on his disciples, 
he rebuked Peter, saying, 
"get thee behind me, Satan: 
for thou savourest not the things that be of God, 
but the things that be of men."

We have talked about the word anistémi before. It means to "get up" or "stand up" or simply "get out of bed". When Jesus was first staying in Peter's house and we were told that he "woke up" very early to avoid the crowds, this was the word Mark used. It is perhaps understandable that the disciples didn't get this. "Waking up from among the dead" was not a familiar religious idea for them. 

We have also talked about the phrase "Son of Man". Jesus has used it twice before. It might mean "The Man"; it might be an idiomatic way of referring to himself ("this guy"); but it seems mostly to be a royal designation: the title Jesus uses when claiming exceptional authority. The Son of Man can forgive sins. The Son of Man gets to decide what you can and can't do on the sabbath. But now The Son of Man is going to be rejected and killed. 

I suppose that the announcement that Jesus was the Messiah caused some excitement among the disciples. Was there a moment when visions of Jesus on Big Herod's throne, ruling Israel with piety and a simple word-worker's wisdom danced through their heads? (With them, doubtless, as councilors and officers.) If so, the mood doesn't last more than a few seconds. The religious authorities will never accept Jesus as king. They are going to kill him. 

This is not quite news. The Pharisees have been against him from the beginning, and they have been planning to kill him since chapter 3. The announcement that he is King may make us think for a second that Jesus is going to win. But the message comes through loud and clear -- not couched in parables and analogies. He is not going to win. He is going to lose. 

There is some irony in the fact that, immediately after declaring him to be king, Peter starts to tell Jesus what's what -- to rebuke him. It's the same word that was used to describe the calming of the storm. Peter tells Jesus off. We don't hear what he said, but I suppose we can imagine it. He won't accept the idea that the person he has just declared to be Messiah is going to be killed.

So now it is Jesus's turn to tell Peter off. The English word "savour" is a bit of an odd choice here: it means "taste". The Greek word is phreneo: to think, or to have in mind. "You aren't thinking of God's things; you are only thinking of human things." 

If Jesus talks about bread, the disciples think he just means bread. If Jesus talks about kings, Peter assumes he just means kings. He takes everything as literally as possible. He can't see that there could be a different way of looking at things. Of seeing things.  

"Who does everyone else think I am."

"They think you are a prophet. A dead prophet come back to life; a legendary prophet come back to earth, or, well -- just a prophet. 

"Who do you think I am?"

"I think you are King."

"The religious bosses won't accept that. They will turn against This Guy, and kill him. But three days later This Guy he will stand up."

"No, no, no, your majesty. You read that bit wrong. That's not what happens to kings. Kings rule. They establish their thrones in Jerusalem and all the foreigners come and pay homage and..."

"Go away, Satan! That's what kings look like to humans. Not what kings look like to God..."

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Friday, April 24, 2020

Mark 8 1-21

in those days 

the multitude being very great, 

and having nothing to eat, 
Jesus called his disciples unto him, 
and saith unto them,
"I have compassion on the multitude 
because they have now been with me three days 
and have nothing to eat
and if I send them away fasting to their own houses
they will faint by the way
for divers of them came from far."
and his disciples answered him,
"from whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?"
and he asked them, "how many loaves have ye?" 
and they said, "seven".
and he commanded the people to sit down on the ground
and he took the seven loaves 
and gave thanks, 
and brake, 
and gave to his disciples to set before them; 
and they did set them before the people.
and they had a few small fishes 
and he blessed
and commanded to set them also before them.
so they did eat
and were filled
and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets.
and they that had eaten were about four thousand
and he sent them away.

Stop me if you have heard this one before.

There is a big crowd. Jesus is in a "desolate place". The disciples have only a small amount of bread. Jesus blesses the bread; the disciples distribute it; all the people have enough to eat and there is plenty left over.

A few pages ago, we had the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Now, Jesus performs the same miracle again: the Feeding of the Four Thousand. This is not an editorial mistake; Mark has not accidentally included two versions of the same story. It is important part of the narrative that the same miracle happened twice. In a few verses, Jesus will refer to the two miraculous feedings as two different events. Five thousand and four thousand: the numbers are important in some way. 

The last time Jesus asked his disciples how many loaves of bread they had, they shamefacedly admitted "five". This time they rather proudly say "seven". That was another of Alec McGowen's laugh-lines.

and straightway he entered into a ship with his disciples, 
and came into the parts of Dalmanutha.

and the Pharisees came forth, 
and began to question with him, 
seeking of him a sign from heaven, 
tempting him
and he sighed deeply in his spirit, 
and saith, 
"why doth this generation seek after a sign? 
verily I say unto you, 
there shall no sign be given unto this generation"
and he left them, 
and entering into the ship again departed to the other side

No-one knows where Dalmanutha is. In Matthews's version, the incident takes place at Magadan, but no-one knows where that is either. After this encounter, Jesus goes to "the other side" of the lake and ends up in Bethsaida, but since no-one knows where Bethsaida is either, that isn't much help.

The location doesn't matter very much. They are back in Galilee, somewhere near the lake. Jesus feeds another crowd; gets into a boat; travels some distance; and gets out. Some Pharisees ask him a question; he won't answer it. Instead he gets back in the boat and goes away again. Mark is building up a picture of what the Galilean ministry was like. Jesus criss-crosses the lake, doing miracles and arguing with Pharisees.

What do the Pharisees mean by a sign? They know that Jesus can do miracles -- they just object to him doing them Saturday mornings. They know he can cast out demons -- they just aren't sure of who gave him the authority to do so. The want some sort of additional sign; a sign from heaven; a sign which would prove something. 

But what do they need proof of? Up to now, Jesus has avoided making direct claims. He has kept his identity largely a secret. They can hardly be saying "Prove to us that you are the Messiah!" because Jesus hasn't yet claimed to be so. They can't be saying "Prove you are the Son of God!" because only the demons know that he is.

But Jesus has insinuated that he is somehow above the law -- and certainly above the Pharisee's own teachings. He has said in their hearing that he can change the rules about the Sabbath if he wants to; that people don't have to fast as long as he is around; and that he himself has the authority to forgive sins. So perhaps that is all they are after. Prove to us that you have the authority to do all this stuff. Tell us definitively who you are claiming to be.

Why does Jesus refuse? Is he stating a general principle: "I offer no proofs to anyone", or a more specific one "I offer no proofs to Pharisees."

Jesus has consistently tried to keep his miracles quiet, but lots of them -- the healing of the woman with the issue of blood; the healing of the man with a withered hand -- have been done in public. People know that he can do this stuff. 

Jesus says that he is not in the business of giving out signs. Not right now. Not to the present generation. It must follow that the miracles of Jesus are not to be taken as signs. One is tempted to write "they are not significant". If you want to know who Jesus is, you have to look elsewhere. Evangelists who tell us to trust Jesus because he healed cripples and lepers are have evidently not read this passage.

now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, 
neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf.

and he charged them saying 
"take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, 
and of the leaven of Herod"
and they reasoned among themselves, saying, 

"It is because we have no bread."
and when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, 
"Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? 
perceive ye not yet, 
neither understand? 
have ye your heart yet hardened?
having eyes, see ye not? 
and having ears, hear ye not? 
and do ye not remember?
when I brake the five loaves among five thousand, 
how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? 
they say unto him, "twelve."
"and when the seven among four thousand, 
how many baskets full of fragments took ye up?" 
and they said, "seven."
and he said unto them, 
"How is it that ye do not understand?"

"It is because we have no bread" say the disciples, who have messed up on this front twice before. And again the audience laughs.

I think the laugh may give us a way in to this very obscure story. The disciples have witnessed two amazing miracles of feeding -- two reruns of one of the Prophet Elijah's best stunts. And the main thing they have taken away -- the thing they are still fretting about -- is "Silly us! How incredibly embarrassing! We keep misjudging the catering arrangements!" It's like they've spotted the least important thing and made that the whole point of the story. And that's quite funny. How could anyone be that silly?

The Pharisees and (although we have not heard very much from them ) the Herodians are different Jewish sects; both expecting a new Jewish King but disagreeing about who is is going to be. The Pharisees are hoping for a bona fide descendant of David; the Herodians, more realistically, want to see the dynasty of Big Herod restored.

Leaven is yeast. At the feast of Passover the faithful eat matzos, bread made with no yeast. The Torah has a lot of instructions about not allowing yeast to get into places where it isn't meant to be. For a whole week around Passover you aren't allowed to have any of the stuff in your house; and bread made with yeast can't be sacrificed to God under any circumstances ("Go and sin!" says the prophet Amos "And then sin some more! And while you are at it, sacrifice some yeasty bread to God, why don't you?") So Jesus is alluding to the practice of searching and cleaning houses of every trace of yeast before Passover. A small bit of yeast gets into everything. If you let even a speck of yeast get into a cooking pot then the whole stew is unclean. So the message is not very obscure. "Search very carefully for anything related to the Pharisees and the Herodians. Even a tiny amount will make you impure."

The disciples don't understand what Jesus is on about, and say so. Jesus reminds them of the two miracles of the loaves. He particularly draws their attention to the numbers of a loaves involved, and the numbers of fragments which came back. They don't understand. And neither, I have to admit, do I. 

Aha. Laughed at the disciples for missing the point? Not so clever now, are you?

Five loaves shared between five thousand people left twelve baskets of left-overs. Seven loaves shared between four thousand left seven baskets. That's a ratio of 1 basket to 417 people in the first case, and 1 basket to 571 in the second. In the first case, each individual got one one thousandth of a loaf of bread, or approximately 0.8 grams each; in the second each person got about one six hundredth of a loaf, or maybe 1.4 grams.

This doesn't help. 

But maybe there is some general point: the less you have to start with, the more is left over? God prefers to work with limited resources? Bread goes further if you add fish to it?

Perhaps we should be reading the numbers magically. Allegorically. Five loaves represent the five books of Torah; seven loaves represent the seven days of creation. So the first miracle is about the feeding of Jews, and the second is about the feeding of the whole universe. Twelve baskets represent the twelve tribes of Israel; seven baskets represent the Amorites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Hivites, the Perizzites and the Girgashites who Jacob's descendants kicked out of the Promised Land. (Paul talks about the Israelites defeating "the seven nations", as if that is a number we ought to know about.) It is certainly true that in the troubling story of the Cyro-Phoenician woman, Jesus healing power is likened to bread. But the point of that story is that the pagans are going to get to pick up abundant, plentiful scraps -- not that they are going to go somewhere else and have a feast of their own.

And what does any of this have to do with yeast?

It is obviously true that Jesus is speaking spiritually and the disciples are obstinately understanding him materially. You would have to be very clueless indeed to read this passage and think that Jesus is telling us that if a Herodian gives us a matzo it might be ritually unclean. Preachers sometimes talk as if this misunderstanding is the whole message of the passage. "Jesus once spoke to his disciples about spiritual, metaphorical bread; but they misunderstood him and thought that he meant literal bread. And in a very real sense, isn't that often true of each and every one of us...."

But this doesn't explicate the passage one little bit. In what way does "Remember how much there was left over when I multiplied actual physical bread to feed an actual physical crowd?" lead to "In this case, when I say 'yeast' I am not talking about literal yeast"?

"When Jesus fed two huge crowds with hardly any bread, there was plenty left over. Once you have understood this, you will understand what it means to avoid Pharisee yeast." It makes no sense at all.

When faced with very difficult passages like this in Mark, I am tempted to "cheat" and see what Matthew made of them. But that doesn't help very much in this case. Matthew tells Mark's story pretty much in Mark's words, but he adds that the disciples eventually worked out that by "yeast" Jesus meant "teaching". And that's a good enough reading of Jesus remark about the yeast: avoid the teaching of the Pharisees as scrupulously as you would avoid yeast at Passover. But it doesn't bring us any closer to seeing the significance of the numbers of people involved in the miracles of the loaves. "Once the disciples thought about how much food went into doggy bags after the miraculous feedings, they understood that they should scrupulously avoid the teachings of the Pharisees." The allegorical readings are open to the same interpretations. "The two healing miracles contain a cryptic numerology which shows that God will eventually feed both Israel and the Nations: this tells you in what way the Pharisees' teaching is like yeast."

So: according to our normal procedure, let us simply observe that the literary or artistic effect of this passage is to be leave everyone baffled. The important thing to take away is not that Pharisaical teaching is yeast-like. The important thing to take sway is that Jesus keeps saying things that the disciples don't understand. And neither do we. And that makes Jesus angry:

"Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Do you have your heart hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear?"

Do you nor see? Do you not hear? The disciples are blind and deaf. Deaf and blind. And so are we.

And that sets up everything else which happens in this pivotal chapter.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please buy me a "coffee" (by dropping £3 in the tip jar)

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

Thursday, April 23, 2020

12:10 The Timeless Children


The Timeless Children is not so much a story as a cop-out. 

There are fireworks. There are flags and lampshades that warn us that this is a really important story and the season climax. The space-opera gloss from last week is all present and correct. I liked the gun battle in the camp. I liked Ryan throwing the bomb as if it was a basketball. (I like the way he says “oh my days” rather than “oh my god.”) I liked the way Graham takes charge of the party of player characters on the space ship and comes up with scheme that is so crazy it might just work. I liked the huge crashed Chris Foss spaceship on Gallifrey. I liked the melodrama, the machismo, the one last cavalry charge into certain doom. Be swift, be brave, but most of all, be lucky! 

There is a great big hole in the plot. It is called the Boundary and it connects the story about the Cybermen quite arbitrarily with a story about the Master. It is guarded by an old soldier with robes and a staff played by Ian McElhinney. He speaks his lines in that understated thespian way that good stage actors used to have, managing to say minor lines under his breath but still letting us hear them. He puts one in mind of dear, dear Sir Larry playing Zeus. But most of all he puts one in mind of Sir Alec Guiness. If Doctor Who is going to do Star Wars it may as well go the whole way.

I wish we could have stuck with the gritty space opera and left the Master and the Time Lords for another week. I’ve always wanted to see Blakes 7 done with Cybermen in the Doctor Who universe. (Why do we describe a more down-beat version of an established character as “gritty” incidentally? Is there any such thing as a “smooth” reboot?) 

The Master is quite funny, but the whole “I am evil and I know I am evil” routine got old after John Simm. And Michelle Gomez. And Moriarty. And that Dracula thing. He shrinks the Lone Cyberman with his evil shrink ray and five minutes later says he wished he’d said “I’m going to cut you down to size.” He makes a fairly good evil joke at the Doctor, and then asks why she doesn’t crack a smile. He says “Are you sitting uncomfortably?” before expositing the backstory. Evil is performative; the Master is outside the script. But it removes any sense of him being a threat you need to take seriously. 

Having killed the main villain from last week, the Master gets control of the Cybermen’s floaty glowy mercurial artificial intelligence that they normally keep hidden in the brains of romantic poets. There was a decent comparison to be made between the Time Lord Matrix and the Cybermen’s Cyberium but no one makes it. I hope at some point we get a Cybermen / Sea Devil cross over so they can call it the Silurian Cyberium. It turns out that the Shrunken Cyberman had a Plot Device hidden inside of him that, if released, would wipe out all organic life. The humans already know about this Death Particle. Legends speak of it, apparently. You’d really think that Chibnall could come up with a better way of getting his plot coupon to the Doctor.

The Time Lords are all dead, but the Master is going to allow the Cybermen to convert the dead Time Lords into Cybermen. Which is a Bad Thing because Time Lords can’t die. There is, it seems to me, a tiny flaw in this reasoning, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Earlier in the episode the Lone Cyberman was waxing maniacal about how he was going to remove the last bit of organic matter from his people and turn them into pure robotic entities. The Master, speaking again from outside of the script, complains that that would be a cliche because there are already lots of evil robots in the Doctor Who universe. This plot thread gets buried when the Master zaps the Cyberman. A pity. “Emotional Cyberman who wants to be a robot versus Emotionless Cybermen who want to stay a bit human” was a plot that could have gone somewhere. 

The Cybermen and the Rebels come from a serious world we might almost believe in. They speak the same language, literally and metaphorically, as Ryan and Yaz. The Master is a clown; a trickster; a wild card in the deck; he knows he is in a story and loves the fact that he’s got cast as a baddie. So, obviously, when he incorporates the Cybermen into his plan, the Cybermen are going to become ridiculous. The bigger and more apocalyptic the plan, the more risible the Cybermen need to appear. The Master isn’t really going to destroy the universe by releasing the Particles of Death. He is going to destroy it by parodying it and making it ridiculous so no-one can believe in it any more. 

Since Season 2, everyone has been working really hard to make the Cybermen scary; and the last time we saw them they were properly dark. So obviously, when they are turned into unkillable dead Cyber Time Lords they acquire high collars, with a lace-style pattern worked into the metal. And robes. When did Cybermen ever wear clothes before? When the ultimate villains come on stage, the audience titters. The Master’s victory is complete.

Graham tells Yaz that she is amazing, strongly signalling that she is going to get killed. (She isn’t.) The Doctor decides to use the miniaturised body of the Lone Cyberman and a bomb to unleash the Particles of Fatal Death to kill the Master and all the Cyber Time Lords (who are, if you have been following this, unkillable.) 

The Master is delighted with this because it means that the Doctor is (all together now) just as bad as him. The Doctor chickens out at the last moment, reasoning presumably that if someone pointed out a child to her and told her that the child would grow up totally evil she still couldn’t kill the child. So the Jedi Knight shows up and commits hari kari while the Doctor runs away. Everyone goes home in various TARDISes. A mysterious lady in a bridal outfit [check this. Ed.] appears in the TARDIS to set things up for the holiday special and the Doctor is left going “what, what, what” like she always does. 

There is a twenty minute digression in which the Master narrates some guff about the origin of the Time Lords to the Doctor, but you can skip that part because it doesn’t affect the plot in any noticeable way.

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I said I was going to give up thinking about Doctor Who after the desecration of William Hartnell’s corpse in Twice Upon a Time; and nothing in series eleven made me regret the decision. Series twelve was a notable improvement. I found the holiday camp one and the America one perfectly watchable. The one with Lenny Henry, the one with the Romantic poets and the one with the rhinos I thought were positively good. Only the one with the dead birds and the one with the evil aliens who feed of negative emotions were properly unwatchable. The closing two-parter is funnish but is predicated on a cop-out and some not ultimately interesting fanwankery. 

So if anyone cares, on a scale of 1 to 5

Spyfall 1 ***

Spyfall 2 ***

Ocean 55 **

Nicolas Tesla’s Night of Terror **

Fugitive of the Judoon***

Can You hear Me *

Praxeus *

The Haunting of the Villa ***

Ascension of the Cybermen ***

An Untimely Child **