Thursday, September 17, 2020

When I Survey....

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

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

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

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

They were very bad men. Terrorists, I think. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus was crucified. 

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

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

Let’s see if Mark can do the Crucifixion.

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Saturday, September 12, 2020

Mark 14 53-72

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Priest asks Jesus if he is the Messiah. 

Jesus replies “Yes, I am”. 

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

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

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

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

“I AM”. 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Yes, but. 

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

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

Yes. Yes it would. 

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Saturday, September 05, 2020

Mark 14 25-52

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why does Peter take it personally? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and they all forsook him and fled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, August 28, 2020


Bulverism is a silly word. It was made up by C.S. Lewis in order to make fun of a silly mistake sometimes made by silly people. He mentions it only once, in a light-hearted introduction to a serious religious lecture. He doesn’t use it consistently. Sometimes Bulverism is a rather dishonest rhetorical trick; sometimes it is a logical fallacy; and sometimes it is a very serious metaphysical error.

But Lewis’s silly word is frequently used seriously by conservative Christians. If you ever dare utter the phrase “you only think that because...” then someone from the American Internet will pop up and accuse you of Bulverism....

A very long (10,000 words) commentary on C.S Lewis's very succinct essay: available to Patreon Backers right now. 

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Sunday, August 23, 2020

Mark 14 12 - 24

    and the first day of unleavened bread
when they killed the passover
his disciples said unto him
“where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?”
and he sendeth forth two of his disciples
and saith unto them, 
“go ye into the city
and there shall meet you a man bearing a pitcher of water: follow him.
and wheresoever he shall go in
say ye to the goodman of the house, the Master saith, 
where is the guest chamber, 
where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?
and he will shew you a large upper room furnished and prepared
there make ready for us”
and his disciples went forth
and came into the city
and found as he had said unto them
and they made ready the passover.

Jesus preached in Galilee; but he dies in Jerusalem. Three times he tells his disciples that he expects — nay, intends — to die. He doesn’t say that the Son of Man came despite the fact that he was in danger of being killed: he says that he came in order to sacrifice his life. 

But we look in vain in Mark for a theology of the death of Jesus. The Son of Man is to give his life as a ransom — but there is not the slighest hint as to who the ransom is to be paid to, or what it achieves. The evangelical view — that Jesus is like Carton in Tale of Two Cities, volunteering to have his head chopped off so the guilty man can go free — is just not here. There is no harrowing of hell. And there is certainly no sign of Jesus cunningly tricking Satan into exceeding his authority, even though that was the Church’s understanding for a millennium and a half. 

If there is a clue to what Mark thinks the crucifixion of Jesus means; and why it is central to his story, we have to look for it here, in this passage and in the Jewish ceremonial calendar. 

As the story rattles on, it becomes more and more enigmatic. Characters come on stage; they perform a brief role in the story; and they disappear. We never find out who they are. The woman with the jar. Simon the leper. Judas himself. And now, a man with a pitcher of water, who leads the disciples to a large room, set up for a special meal. 

Does Jesus have an arrangement with this man, in the way he had an arrangement with the donkey wranglers in Bethsaida? Has he made a reconnaissance trip to Jerusalem to lay the groundwork for this final week? Does he have a network of agents who use “the master needs it” as their call sign? 

We are told that it was unusual to see a man carrying a pitcher. But how did Jesus know that the man doing the woman’s work would bump into the disciples at exactly the right moment? Did he just happen to know that old Levi the bachelor inn-keeper always went to the well around lunch time on a Thursday? Or had he given him prior instructions to walk up and down outside his house with a bucket until the disciples showed up? Or did a particular male employee spend all day walking to and from the house with jars of water, so the disciples were bound to spot him sooner or later? 

The eleventh sign of the Zodiac is the Water Carrier. By telling the disciples to follow the man with the pitcher, perhaps Jesus is signifying that the inauguration of the Eucharist signifies the beginning of the Age of Aquarius. Or perhaps he isn’t.

and in the evening he cometh with the twelve.
and as they sat and did eat, 
Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, 
One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.”
and they began to be sorrowful, 
and to say unto him one by one, 
“Is it I?” and another said, “Is it I?”
And he answered and said unto them, 
“It is one of the twelve, 
that dippeth with me in the dish”

By tradition, the youngest person present at a Passover meal asks “Why is this day different from all others?” and notes four things which set this meal apart: why do we recline at the table instead of sitting up straight? why do we dip our vegetables in salt water? why do we only eat matzos? and why do we eat bitter herbs? King James says that Jesus and the disciples are sitting down to dinner: but the Greek is clear that they are reclining. Jesus refers to dipping food in a communal dish. There can be no question that Mark understands this meal to be a seder.

King James again used the word “betrayed”; but as we have seen, Jesus consistently talks of being handed over. The Son of Man will be handed over to the priests and the lawyers and they will hand him over to the gentiles.

And now it comes. One of you says Jesus — one of you twelve — is going to hand me over. The disciples are sad — grieved — and they say to him one at a time “Is it I?”

Look carefully. When Jesus says, a few paragraphs later, that all the disciples are going to run away and desert him, they deny that this is so. “No, boss” they all say “Definitely not. How could you think that? We would never do such a thing.” But when he says that one of the twelve is going to hand him over, they simply ask “Do you mean me?”

They are not talking among themselves: they are talking to Jesus. And they are not crying out in shock. Mark is quite clear. They take it in turns to ask him: “Is it me?” “Is it me?” “Is it me?”

It’s a solemn ritual. Jesus isn’t making a prophecy. He isn’t saying “I know what transpired between Judas and the Priests.” He is laying the task on someone’s head. “I tried to give myself up. I gave them every chance to arrest me. But they wouldn’t take me. So one of you is going to have to surrender me to them.” And the question goes round the table, one by one. “Not me.” “Please, not me.” “You surely don’t want me to do it?”

“the Son of man indeed goeth
as it is written of him
but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! 
good were it for that man if he had never been born”

Is Jesus threatening Judas: warning him that if he does a bad thing he’ll get a comeuppance? “One of you goons is planning to shop me to the cops. I warn you, he’ll live to regret it!” 

Maybe. I think that’s how Matthew understood it. But if I am right, Jesus has said “One of you has got to do this”; and all the disciples have said “Do you mean me?” Jesus seems to see Prophecy as a set of instructions; a script. The Prophets have provided a to-do list for the Son of Man. He intends to follow it to the letter. "I have to decided to die in the way that the prophets say that I have to die; and that means that someone will have to hand me over. And I know what I am asking. I am laying a terrible task on someone. That person is going to wish that they had never been born." 

If I am right, Jesus is not making a threat. He is expressing sympathy. 

If Judas stands for the Jews, that is absolutely crucial.

and as they did eat, 
Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, 
and said, “take, eat: this is my body”
and he took the cup
and when he had given thanks
he gave it to them: 
and they all drank of it.
and he said unto them, 
“this is my blood of the new testament
which is shed for many.
verily I say unto you
I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine
until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God”

Sometime around the year 50 of the common era, a Christian named Paul wrote a letter to a group of Christians in a town called Corinth. “I told you what I’d been told,” he writes “That the Lord Jesus, on the same night when he was handed over, took bread, and broke it…” Our best guess is that Mark is writing in the year 70 or 80. But we can be pretty confident that thirty years earlier — within a decade of the crucifixion — “Christians” were telling each other more or less this story in more or less these words. 

Jesus says that the bread they are eating is his soma, his flesh. The word can certainly be used to mean a dead body: Jesus said that the woman with the jar had prepared his soma for burial. But it could equally just mean the body. The woman who touched Jesus’ clothes felt in her soma that she was healed. 

Broken, klao seems specifically to be something you would do to bread. We are used to hearing that Jesus body was broken, like the bread: but neither Mark nor any of the other Gospel say that he used that word. (Idiomatically, we would have to sy “This is my body, sliced up for you”.) 

Jesus “spoke a blessing” over the bread: eulgesas. He “gave thanks” for the wine eucharist─ôsas. When he fed the five thousand we are told that Jesus “blessed” the bread: when he fed the four thousand we are told that he “gave thanks”, so we can probably treat the two words as roughly synonymous. The Christian re-enactment of this event is called Eucharist. A certain kind of clergyman will tell you that celebrating Eucharist is like sending a thank-you note to Jesus, but I wish they wouldn’t. 

The word diatheke is translated either as “covenant” or as “testament”. I think we understand both words to mean “a very solemn legally binding statement”. Some of us remember our parents signing “covenants” to help pay for our upkeep while we were in college; a set of instructions to be carried out after we die is our “last will and testament”. The word diatheke is very commonly found on ancient legal documents. Due to the sterling efforts of Dr Henry Walton Jones, everyone knows that the Jews’ most sacred artefact was called the Ark of the Covenant. 

Jesus hands round the wine. According to King James, he says “this is my blood which is shed for many”. But you don’t shed wine: you pour it out. You might metaphorically say that blood is pouring out of an injured person. When the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel rants against the Pharisees, he blames them for the blood of all the holy people which has been poured out over the years. 

So there is a kind of triple meaning. This wine, that Jesus is pouring out, from a bottle, into a cup, is his blood. A few hours from now his blood is literally going to be pouring out of his body. What he is doing now represents what is going to happen in a few hours. And they both represent a solemn promise which God is making: which is going to replace the solemn promise which God made to the disciples’ ancestors; and which is celebrated, on this day every year, by the killing of a sacred lamb. 

Jesus doesn’t say that the wine represents his blood: he just says “this is my blood”. Wars have literally been fought over this point. 

And then he makes one more comment: one which doesn’t usually appear in Christian re-enactments and which it is therefore easy to overlook. “This is the last glass of wine I will ever drink”, he says “Until I drink the new wine in God’s kingdom.” It’s a cryptic, intrusive remark. 

If this were a story…  If we didn’t know the ending; if we didn’t already know what Mark “must have” meant… Then I think we would expect this story to end with a coronation. The return of the king. King Jesus sitting in the newly rebuilt temple, sharing a glass of passover wine. That is where the story is pointing: and that is where the story entirely fails to go. 

“I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine”, says Jesus. Remember that line. There is a kind of a pay-off coming.


In the Jewish calendar a day is deemed to end when the sun goes down. The festival of Passover begins at twilight on the 14th day of the first month. The 15th is a Sabbath: the first of seven holy days on which yeast can’t be eaten. The 21st is also a day of rest. The lambs are slaughtered on Passover Eve, the 14th; the seder, the Passover meal, is eaten after dark on that day.

Mark is very clear that the Last Supper is a seder. It follows that Jesus’s trial and execution takes place on Passover itself. But nothing in the story is remotely consistent with Jesus dying on a Sabbath. The Sanhedrin is convened on a day of rest; Simon comes in from the fields on a day of rest; people go to the market to buy cloth and spices on a day of rest; a crowd assembles outside the governor’s palace on a day of rest. 

Yes, the Priests are the baddies and Jesus’s trial is a travesty: so it is possible that they tried him in secret when no trial was meant to take place. But why does Mark not draw our attention to this? One of the sources of conflict between Jesus and the authorities is that he is insufficiently strict at keeping the Sabbath: why does no-one say “But the Pharisees themselves broke the Sabbath in a much more blatant way when it suited them?” 

Yes, Jesus could have decided to hold the seder a day early. I have heard of Jews holding “mock seders” so they can celebrate with their college friends before going home and spending the actual holy day with their family; or so that they can have fellowship with their non-Jewish friends who it wouldn’t be appropriate to invite to the real thing. But wouldn’t you expect this to be mentioned by someone in the story? (“In case you are wondering, we were eating turkey and mince pies on the 22nd because Dad was a fireman and had to be on duty on Christmas day that year.”) 

There is no way of persuading Mark’s Gospel to make chronological sense. And indeed, John’s Gospel works according to a different time-table. His Last Supper is not a seder: it takes place on the 13th. Jesus is arrested and killed on the 14th, and has to be buried in a hurry so his body isn’t still hanging on the cross on the holy day. 

What we should take away from this is that Mark is relatively uninterested in history and chronology, but intensely interested in ritual and liturgy. The meaning of the story is more important than narrative logic: and the meaning of the story depends on the Last Supper having been a Passover meal. Theologically — mythically — magically — the Last Supper was a Passover. So that is how he told the story. 

Joseph Campbell, who is wrong about most things most of the time, makes a very good point about the nature of ritual. Think, he says, of the American flag. There are many thousands of iterations of the flag: anyone can sew some cloth together and create a Stars and Stripes. But each individual piece of cloth is The Flag. You can salute the flag which hangs on Granny’s lawn just as much as the one on the roof of the White House; if you burn or tread on the cheap bit of nylon you bought at Wallmark you are nevertheless insulting The Flag. 

Rituals, says Campbell, are like that. The sacred story has been reenacted many thousands of times: but when the Priest takes on the role of Zeus or Mondarin he isn’t copying or reenacting or pretending: he actually is Mondarin or Zeus. Every time. A mythical story isn’t one that took place a long time ago and then gets reenacted: it’s a story that takes place for the first and only time whenever the priests perform their sacred role-play. 

"Why did Jesus die?" 

Well, you see, the Last Supper. It was Passover. 

"That’s not an answer." 

It’s the only answer.

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Sunday, August 16, 2020

Mark 14 1-11

after two days was the feast of the passover and of unleavened bread
and the chief priests and the scribes 
sought how they might take him by craft and put him to death.
but they said, not on the feast day, 
lest there be an uproar of the people

and being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper as he sat at meat, 
there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard
very precious
and she brake the box and poured it on his head.
and there were some that had indignation within themselves
and said, “Why was this waste of the ointment made?
for it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence
and have been given to the poor”
and they murmured against her.
and Jesus said, 
“let her alone; why trouble ye her? 
she hath wrought a good work on me.
for ye have the poor with you always
and whensoever ye will ye may do them good
but me ye have not always.
she hath done what she could
she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.
verily I say unto you, 
wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world
this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.”

and Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, 
went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.
and when they heard it, they were glad, 
and promised to give him money
and he sought how he might conveniently betray him

Two stories, wrapped around each other: the culmination of Jesus' conflict with the Priests; and a woman with a jar of perfume. Mark wants us to think of the two stories together. 

The anointing of Jesus is of pivotal importance. The Messiah is the One Who Has Been Anointed: that is what the word — mashiach — means. We readers have known that Jesus is the Messiah from the very first verse of Mark’s book: but that information was concealed from everyone inside the story. But a few pages ago Peter let the holy cat out of the holy bag. Jesus is not just a prophet; and he is not even Top Prophet. He is the One Who Has Been Anointed. People are openly calling him “Son of David” and quoting Messianic hymns when he arrives in town.  But this is the moment when Jesus literally becomes Jesus Christ. 

Would it have been better if the woman had sold her ointment and given the money to the poor? Jesus’ answer is double-edged. Today no; but in the future, yes. On any other day in human history, help the poor. Today, do what you are supposed to do for me. Many very good sermons about faith and works and worship and charity have been preached on this. It either proves that Jesus was definitely a socialist; or it proves that he definitely wasn't. But I don't think that this is the point of the story. 

We are listening to Mark telling a story about Jesus. And, for the first time, Jesus, inside the story, looks forward to the time when the story will be told. This woman’s deed will always form a central part of that story: of course it will. You can hardly tell the story of the Anointed One without telling the story of the person who did the actual anointing. Jesus doesn’t say that the story of Peter or James or John or even Andrew will be told all round the world. Mark, by including the story in his text, shows that Jesus' words were true. The story of this woman is part of God’s spell. 

But Mark remembers where Jesus was staying. At the house of someone called Simon the Leper. But he doesn’t remember the woman’s name.  

Many good sermons could be preached on this point, too. It may prove that Mark was definitely a feminist or it may prove that he definitely wasn’t. 

But I don’t think this is the point of the story, either.

Jesus has been anointed. Literally anointed. And no-one present seems to understand the importance of what has just happened. They don’t say “He is literally the Christ”. They say “Gosh. That anointing oil was awfully expensive.” They have missed the point. 

One might even say that, when we miss the point of the story, we get it. 

At the exact moment that Jesus becomes literally the Anointed One, people are plotting to kill him. 

It is the Priests who want to kill Jesus. No-one else. Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem, made straight for the Temple, and announced that the Priesthood and the temple itself is going to come to an end. Obviously the Priests would want him dead. 

The story is focussing down. Jesus versus the priests. The bearer of the holy dove against the temple. God against religion.

And therefore, of course, Christians against Jews. 

Remember the mountain in Galilee: Jesus choosing twelve men from among his disciples, giving them new names and declaring them his envoys. The Rock and the Thunder-Brothers and Andrew “and Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him.”

So we come to Judas' part of the story.

Mark tells us three things about Judas: his first name, his last name, and the fact that he handed Jesus over to the Priests. 

His last name doesn’t tell us very much. There might have been a town called Kerioth, so he might have been Judas of Kerioth, so he might not have been a Galilean. 

On the other hand, there was a group of Jewish Ninja who carried daggers called sica so he might have been Judas the Sicarri. This is pretty desperate stuff. 

But unfortunately, his first name tells us a very great deal. 

Judah was the brother who dissented from the plan to sell Joseph into slavery. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, he gave Judah twice as much corn as the others. Father Jacob called Judah a lion; that’s why we talk about the lion’s share. He predicted that Judah’s descendents would be kings. That’s why we talk about the Lion of Judah. And King David did indeed come from the tribe of Judah. Most of Jacob’s descendents disappeared after the Babylonian exile, but the tribe of Judah came home. The action of Mark’s story has shifted from Galilee to Judea: the land of Judah. The religion of the temple is known as Judah-ism. After Daniel’s Abomination of Desolation, the temple was freed by a hero named Judah. 

Yehuda. Judah. Judas. 

Jesus is handed over to the Jewish Priests by a man whose actual name means Jew. There is no way out of it. 

We can only ascribe human motivation to Judas by adding to Mark’s text; by referring to things which are not there. Maybe Judas went to the Priests because the woman wasted so much money. Maybe Judas went to the Priests because he saw that Jesus was claiming to be Messiah and feared the repercussions. Maybe Judas went to the priests because he understood that Jesus wanted to die and needed someone to facilitate it. Maybe Judas went to the priests because he was a greedy old shylock who saw the chance to make a fast buck. None of this is in the text. 

We will have to get used to this. As Mark’s story builds towards its climax, there are more and more silences. More and more characters who we know nothing about. More and more places where we have to imagine or guess or make up what is going on.

The Priest’s decide to kill Jesus. A woman anoints Jesus. Judas hands Jesus over to the Priests. That is Mark’s story. 

So let me make something up. 

At the end of Act I of Tristan and Isolde, a member of the supporting cast inadvertently switches the cups containing “deadly poison” and the cups containing “magical and incurable love-potion”. The hero and the heroine enter into a suicide pact: they believe they are ending their lives, but they are actually binding their hearts together for eternity. Symbolically, within the story, being in love and being dead are the same; and the music manages to convince us that this is so. Devotees talk about the liebstod, the lovedeath. 

I think that something slightly similar is going on here. Making Jesus king and making Jesus dead are the same thing. He’s the victimking; the sacrificemessiah. 

Kings get anointed. “Jesus Christ” means no more and no less than “King Jesus”. But corpses get anointed as well. 

The woman Christifies Jesus: she pours oil on him. Everything has been building up to this moment. But in that same moment Jesus redefines what Christification means. 

Jesus is turned officially into King Jesus. The audience start to obsess about the cost of anointing oil. Jesus says “you haven’t prepared me for my coronation; you have prepared me for my funeral”. And Dagger-Wielding-Foreign-Jew is in the same moment become the betrayer: the one-who-hands-him-over. 

Jesus is to all intents and purposes a dead man. And tomorrow is the most important sacrifice of the Jewish year. 

Fun Facts: Things which Mark does not say

1: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus was called Mary.

2: He does not say that Jesus’ hosts in Bethany were named Mary and Martha.

3: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus was a prostitute.

4: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus had narrowly avoided being stoned to death for adultery. 

5: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus was sinful in any respect.

6: He does not say that she poured oil over his feet or mention her hair in any context.  

7: He does not say that she cried over Jesus. 

8: He does not say that it was Judas who objected to the waste of money. 

9: He does not even say that it was the generality of disciples who objected. 

10: He does not say that the Priests agreed to pay Judas thirty silver pieces.

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