Sunday, August 09, 2020

Mark 13

Jesus was a nutcase who thought that the world was going to end very soon. 

The world did not end. The central plank of his ministry; the thing which he most strongly believed, was simply not true. His followers have spent two millennia trying to salvage something of his reputation from this wreck. 

For at least the first half of the 20th century, this was the prevailing view of the historical Jesus.

I really didn’t know how to approach this chapter. I seriously considered skipping it altogether. I am eventually going to collect all these essays into a book and “Commentary on the Whole of Mark’s Gospel Except the Difficult Bit About the End Times” might have been a good title.  

and as he went out of the temple
one of his disciples saith unto him
“Master, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!”
and Jesus answering said unto him 
“seest thou these great buildings? 
there shall not be left one stone upon another
that shall not be thrown down”
and as he sat upon the mount of Olives over against the temple
Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately,
“tell us, when shall these things be? 
and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?”

The disciples admire the Temple. Jesus tells them to admire it while they can: the whole thing will soon be razed to the ground, utterly destroyed. Naturally, they want to know when. So Jesus starts to talk: the longest sustained passage of preaching in Mark’s Gospel; a whole chapter of Jesus’ voice. He doesn’t answer their question, of course: he answers a completely different question. That was his way. Here is the whole thing — with one, single, utterly bizzarre interjection by Mark: 

"take heed lest any man deceive you:
for many shall come in my name, 
saying, I am Christ; 
and shall deceive many.
and when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars be ye not troubled
for such things must needs be
but the end shall not be yet.
for nation shall rise against nation
and kingdom against kingdom
and there shall be earthquakes in divers places
and there shall be famines and troubles
these are the beginnings of sorrows.
but take heed to yourselves
for they shall deliver you up to councils
and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten
and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake
for a testimony against them.
and the gospel must first be published among all nations.
but when they shall lead you and deliver you up 
take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak,
neither do ye premeditate
but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye
for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.
now the brother shall betray the brother to death
and the father the son
and children shall rise up against their parents
and shall cause them to be put to death.
and ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake
but he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
but when ye shall see the abomination of desolation
spoken of by Daniel the prophet
standing where it ought not"
let him that readeth understand
"then let them that be in Judaea flee to the mountains:
and let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house
neither enter therein to take any thing out of his house:
and let him that is in the field not turn back again for to take up his garment.
but woe to them that are with child
and to them that give suck in those days!
and pray ye that your flight be not in the winter.
for in those days shall be affliction
such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be.
and except that the Lord had shortened those days, 
no flesh should be saved: 
but for the elect's sake, whom he hath chosen
he hath shortened the days.
and then if any man shall say to you, 
lo, here is Christ; 
or, lo, he is there; 
believe him not:
for false Christs and false prophets shall rise, 
and shall shew signs and wonders, 
to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.
but take ye heed: behold, I have foretold you all things.
but in those days, 
after that tribulation, 
the sun shall be darkened, 
and the moon shall not give her light,
and the stars of heaven shall fall, 
and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken.
and then shall they see the Son of man 
coming in the clouds with great power and glory.
and then shall he send his angels, 
and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, 
from the uttermost part of the earth 
to the uttermost part of heaven.
now learn a parable of the fig tree; 
when her branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, 
ye know that summer is near:
so ye in like manner, 
when ye shall see these things come to pass, 
know that it is nigh, even at the doors.
verily I say unto you,
that this generation shall not pass, 
till all these things be done.
heaven and earth shall pass away: 
but my words shall not pass away.
but of that day and that hour knoweth no man, 
no, not the angels which are in heaven, 
neither the Son, 
but the Father.
take ye heed, watch and pray:
for ye know not when the time is.
for the Son of man is as a man taking a far journey,
who left his house, 
and gave authority to his servants, 
and to every man his work, 
and commanded the porter to watch.
watch ye therefore: 
for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, 
at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning:
lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.
and what I say unto you I say unto all, watch"

This is my best attempt to paraphrase what Jesus has just said: 

“Be careful. Don’t get caught out. Lots of people are going to claim to be me, but they won’t be. All the usual bad stuff is going to happen, and carry on happening: natural disasters and wars and pandemics. That doesn’t mean I’m coming. 

You personally are going to be persecuted for your faith. But that doesn’t mean I’m coming. 

There are going to be civil wars. Families will divide. Some of you will be killed. That doesn’t mean I’m coming. 

But then a very bad thing is going to happen, specifically in Judea. It’s going to feel like the worst thing that has ever happened. It’s going to look like the Stinky One from the book of Daniel has returned. When that happens, get the hell out of town. But even that doesn’t mean I’m coming. 

After that horror, pseudo-prophets and pseudo-messiahs are going to rise up out of their graves. They will perform miracles and I am afraid some of you are going to get fooled by them. 

But then — only then — there are going to be cosmic events: earthquakes and eclipses and meteors. And that — and only that — is the sign I am coming.

It’s like reading the seasons. When the tree has leaves, it means the figs will soon be ready. (You know how good I am at spotting when there are figs on a fig tree.) When the great disaster strikes Judea, that is the sign that I am coming. 

Not yet, but soon. In your lifetime. You’ll remember these words even after the world has ended.

So stay awake! You don’t know when the boss is coming to check up on you, so you stick to your post at all times. You don’t know when I’m coming: so stay awake. 

If you only remember one thing I said, remember that. Stay awake!”

“This generation shall not pass until all these things be done.”

Any attempt to understand Mark collides with this passage. It is near: it’s waiting outside the door. Real soon now. In the lifetime of the disciples. Before all the people now living have died. 

“Truly I say to you that no, not shall-have-passed-away the generation-this until that these things all shall-have-taken-place.”

Peter probably died in the persecution after the fire of Rome in 64 CE. There are extant writings from very early Christian leaders who knew a very old Christian who they believed to be John the brother of James; he was alive as late as 100 CE. The world obstinately refused to end. Peter and James and John and Andrew did not live to see Jesus come back. 

They did, however, live long enough to see the Abomination of Desolation. 

This is sufficiently important that Mark adds an editorial footnote. “Let him that readeth understand.” The one reading, let him understand. Reader: pay attention….

This can’t be Jesus talking to the four. This can’t even be Peter talking to Mark. This can only be Mark talking to us: to the people who will read the story after he has written it down. It is the one time when he stops and points something out in his own voice. Something which wasn’t meaningful to the people who Jesus was talking to, but which is meaningful to the people reading Mark’s text. 

"You need to pay special attention to this bit." 

An abomination is something disgusting, appalling and foul-smelling. Desolation is the word used to refer to deserts and wildernesses: in this context it means "the thing which makes things desolate" the thing which reduces everything to a wilderness. 

Mark particularly wants us to understand who the Stinky Desert Maker is. And he tells us where to look it up: the book of Daniel. 

I guess we have all heard of Daniel. Jewish dude: deported to Babylon but stayed kosher; had an unfortunate run in with some lions. But he also wrote pages and pages of prophecy: golden statues with feet of clay and ten headed unicorns coming up out of the sea. On three different occasions he mentions something called the Abomination of Desolation.

“…his forces will desecrate the temple. They will abolish the daily sacrifice and set up the abomination of desolation…”

“…in the middle of the week he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of the temple will come the abomination of desolation… “

“…and from the time the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination of desolation set up, there will be 1,290 days…”

So the Abomination is specifically a destroyer of temples. The disciples wanted to know when the Temple would be destroyed. This is Jesus’ answer. The Temple is going to be desecrated in their lifetime. They themselves will live to see the Stinky Desert Maker. 

Daniel’s prophecy came true. In 175 BCE, Antiochus IV installed a statue of Zeus in the Holy of Holies and started sacrificing pigs to it. (Some people are cynical enough to think that the prophecy was written after the event.) Jesus thinks that something as bad or worse is going to happen in the next thirty or forty years. 

And of course, he was right. In CE 64 the Jews finally rebelled against the Romans. The Pharisees and the Saducees set up a Judean provisional government, and yes I know how Pythonesque that sounds. The Romans responded with massive military force. In 70 CE they destroyed the Temple. It was never rebuilt: even the most extreme Zionists don’t think it should be. Judaism as Jesus knew it came to an end. It ceased to be a religion of sacrifice and became a religion of the book. 

A young Muslim lad once told me that his family were going to Saudi Arabia. I asked if they had relatives out there. “No”, he replied. “We are going to visit Mecca, which is where Allah lives.” I don’t think that any good Jew at the time of Jesus thought that God literally inhabited the Holy of Holies. But we can underestimate how cataclysmic the destruction of the temple would have seemed. Not like the Vatican being burned to the ground: more like someone nuking the kabaa. 

"You will see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not stand." 

And that came true. They did. 

Jesus says that this will be the very worst time in human history. “The shall be affliction such as was not, from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be.” Fundamentalists and Prof. Richard Dawkins think that every word in the Bible must be taken at its exact face-value. Jesus never used metaphor or hyperbole. That kind of thinking can take us down some unhelpful blind alleys. (“The worst time in human history was the holocaust. Therefore Hitler must be the Abomination.”) But if Jesus was the kind of person who used parables and figures of speech then that kind of interpretation is unnecessary. During the siege of Jerusalem the Romans were crucifying five hundred people a day. They crucified so many people that they ran out of wood. Thousands of naked people nailed up alive for days at a time in hot weather and left there until they rotted. It may not literally have been the worst thing that has ever happened in human history, but it would have seemed pretty bad to the people inside. 

It seems, then, that this passage has a very plain and obvious meaning. Stuff — bad stuff — is going to happen over the next thirty or forty years. But don’t expect Jesus to return yet. Wait until the worst horror you can imagine hits Jerusalem. Wait until the temple is in ruins and the old system comes to an end. That’s when to expect Jesus. In 70 CE  or very soon after.

Jerusalem fell. Jesus never returned. Where do we go from here?


Maybe Mark got it wrong. Maybe Jesus never said it. 

But that only makes the problem more perplexing. If Jesus never said it, why did Mark say that he said it? 

Because he, Mark, sincerely believed that Jesus would return in his own, Mark's, life time? But in that case he was wrong: and we have to explain why the first writer to give an account of Jesus life predicated it on a claim that wasn’t true. 

Because he consciously wanted to depict Jesus’ as a failed prophet, for some obscure theological reason? That’s very hard to square with anything else in the story. Why depict a wonder-working Jesus who can forgive sins and chastise storms and have amicable chats with Moses and then show him making false promises at the climax of his career?

Because this was part of the oral tradition — something which “everyone knew” about Jesus, and which Mark couldn’t leave it out? But in that case why depict it as a secret teaching, something shared only with four out of twelve disciples? 

Well then. Jesus told Peter and Peter told Mark and Mark lived long enough to know that it wasn’t true. And Mark didn’t think that this one failure invalidated the Gospel. Gurus have had much worse failings than this. Maybe Mark thought that the end-times prophecy was peripheral to Jesus teaching. Maybe Peter thought the same. But in that case, why give them such prominence in the Gospel?

Perhaps we have to read the passage as a Kierkegaardian test of faith? In order to be a true Christian you have to believe that the world is going to end in CE 70 even though it clearly didn’t. Philip K. Dick had a theory that the world really did come to an end in the first century and that we are currently living inside a hologram. This theory has not met with widespread acceptance. 

Or perhaps Jesus was talking in more than usually obscure metaphorical language. His disciples asked him when Jerusalem would fall; he answered by talking about personal, spiritual realities as if they were historical events. If we want to understand what Jesus said we have to de-mythologize him. Jesus told the Four that they had to always be prepared because he might come back at any moment. The important thing to take away is that we should live with a sense of urgency and contingency and watchfulness — even though the Second Coming is not an historical event. There is always a cataclysm and a parousia in the near future. The eschatological is always bursting in on the immanent. 

It sounds good on paper. But if you can demythologise the Second Coming then you can demythologise the miracles and the resurrection and the very existence of Jesus. If you take it to its logical conclusion you end up writing Honest To God, flailing around for a form of words which will allow you to be an atheist and a vicar at the same time.

Mark said that Jesus said that the Second Coming would happen during the lifetime of the disciples. 

Either Mark was wrong, or Jesus was wrong.


A lot depends on where we place Mark on a time-line between, say, 30 and 100 CE. Is the fall of Jerusalem still in the future? Is it a contemporary event people are still coming to terms with? Or has it already receded into history by the time Mark starts to tell his story?

If Mark is writing early, say, in CE 50, then we have to read Mark 13 as pure prophecy. “In the fairly near future, a catastrophe is going to hit Jerusalem. That will be the warning sign that Jesus is coming back.”

But if Mark is writing soon after CE 70 then Mark 13 is a last, urgent warning before the final act of the drama. “Last year, a catastrophe hit Jerusalem, just like Jesus said. And that’s the sign he gave us: get out of town and get ready because he is coming back right now.” 

But if Mark is writing much later, say in CE 100, then he is saying “As we all know, a long time ago, a catastrophe hit Jerusalem, just as Jesus predicted. He said he would return very soon after that catastrophe. He never did: but I don’t think that matters.”

If the Gospel is very early then there is a very good chance that Mark is passing on what Jesus actually said. And the sheer awkwardness of this passage makes that pretty plausible: Jesus must have said it, because otherwise, why make it up? 

If the Gospel is very late, then there is more chance that this is folkore or a literary device. Word of mouth has shaped Jesus actual words into a new form, like the mutation of a folk-song. Pious story-tellers put the Christian cult’s beliefs about Jesus into Jesus' own mouth. The very early church — before you could call it a church — believed in some things that the historical church has rejected. We can note that they believed the world would end in their lifetimes as an interesting data-point, and move on. If we can abandon the love-feast or baptism on behalf of the dead we can quietly pass over the imminence of the apocalypse.

Are those our only options? We can believe that Mark was telling us pretty accurately about a real historical person; but only if we accept that that person was hopelessly deluded. Or we can comfort ourself with the idea that Jesus probably didn’t believe that the world was going to end in a few decades; but only by saying that the what we have in the earliest Gospel is a heavily fictionalised Jesus and the real person is lost to us. 

Honestly? I think that the second possibility is most likely to be true. Mark wrote urgently, straight after the horror of the Siege of Jerusalem, desperately reminding people that this horror was not the end of everything and that Jesus would soon be back. That was his message: Jesus is the Messiah. The Messiah is coming back. We started with John, and we’re kind of ending with John. Prepare ye the way of the Lord, again. 

But there is another way through the maze. I would be the first to admit that it is a bit of a stretch. 


The disciples ask Jesus “Tell us when these things will be. And what will be the sign that all these things are going to be finished?”

I think it is overwhelmingly likely that this is another piece of poetic parallelism: saying the same thing twice in different words. But it is just possible that Mark intends us to think that the disciples are asking Jesus two questions. 

Question one: when will these things, the things you just mentioned, that is, the destruction of the Temple, take place? 

And question two: what signal will we get when everything else is going to be finished as well? 

Jesus says that after the destruction of the temple and the Abomination, there will be a series of cosmic events: 

“but in those days, after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And he will send out the angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds. Not you: they. The disciples will see the Abomination: but someone else will see the Son of Man’s actual arrival. 

Jesus is directly referring to another dream-sequence in the book of Daniel. Daniel dreamt that he saw God: white beard, firey throne, river pouring out from under him, thousands and thousands of people worshiping him. He refers to him by a circumlocution: the Ancient of Days. 

“In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

There is no doubt that Jesus' prophecy is alluding to this passage. Mark has already told us to have the book of Daniel open in front of us while we read this chapter. And there is no doubt that for Daniel, “the Coming of the Son of Man” refers to a human going into the presence of God and being given quasi-divine power. It is not entirely unlike the passage that Jesus was riffing on earlier today in which God tells the Messiah to take the chair right next to him. 

So: when Jesus talks about “the coming of the Son of Man” he does not mean “the coming of the Son of Man back to earth”. He means “the coming of the Son of Man into heaven.” So the destruction of the Temple is not the sign that Jesus is about to come back: it is the sign that he has got home safely.

So we can give slightly less alarming answers to the problems posed by this passage. 

What will the destruction of Jerusalem signify? The arrival of the Son of Man.

Where is the Son of Man arriving? Heaven — the literal throne of God. 

Who will witness this? The cosmic forces in the heavens — the sun, the moon, the stars and the powers — who will be shaken by the event.

There will be persecutions and fake Messiahs. There will be an awful horror. The temple will be desecrated and destroyed. They are not the sign of Jesus return. But they are the signs of his posthumous exaltation. His apotheosis. The sign that he has gone up to heaven and is acting as God’s vice-regent. 

So, that is the answer to the disciples’ first question.

When will the Temple end? Not yet, but in your lifetime.

But that still leaves their second question. 

What signal will you give us that everything is over? None. Even I don’t know when that is going to happen. God hasn’t told me. You just have to be ready for it. At any time. 

Jesus says “Concerning that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The word “that” is being used for emphasis. Concerning that day, that fateful day, that big day, that day as opposed to all the days we’ve been talking about up to this point — concerning that day — well, no-one knows.

When will Jerusalem fall? Real soon now. 

How will we know Jesus is in heaven? Because Jerusalem falls. 

When is Jesus coming back? No-one knows, not even Jesus himself. 

I think it’s a stretch. But it’s the best I can manage under the circumstances. 


Pretend you are reading this story for the first time:

We left the temple. Jesus was still thinking about the lady who had put her whole week’s budget in the collection plate. We were thinking about what he’d said. How the owner of the vineyard was going to kick the tenants out; how love counted for more than temple ceremony; how taxes didn’t matter one way or the other. Peter was still obsessing about the fig tree. And so of course, he had to say something. 

“But right now, Lord, it is a very beautiful building.”

“Beautiful, is it?” said Jesus “It is going to be pulled down. All of it. Not one stone will be left on another.”

He looked at Peter in a funny way when he said that. Not one stone. 

So we sat on the hill and watched the sun go down behind the temple, and I went over to Jesus: me and my big brother James and Peter and his little brother Andrew. “When will it all happen Rabbi?” I asked quietly “When will the temple fall? And all those other things you talk about: the kingdom of God, you coming back surrounded by angels — will we get a signal that that is going to happen?”

And Jesus, for almost the first time, opened up. He started to talk and talk. It didn’t feel as if he was talking to us; he was just letting it all out. All the stuff he knew. About the future; about terrible catastrophes; demons out of the Old Testament. Some of it was strange and some of it was baffling. I didn’t understand much of it. Years later, on an island a very long way away, I would understand a little more.

Eventually he stopped talking. “I can’t tell you about the big day” he said “That’s something even I don’t know. God hasn’t told me. It could happen at any moment. So be ready for it. Always.”

We walked the mile or so back to Bethany. We were staying with a leper; of course we were. A woman with a jar was heading out there as well. The next day was a Thursday. Jesus never set foot in the temple again. 

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Saturday, August 01, 2020

Mark 12 18 - 44

then come unto him the Sadducees, 

which say there is no resurrection; 
and they asked him, saying,
“Master, Moses wrote unto us, 
if a man's brother die, 
and leave his wife behind him, 
and leave no children, 
that his brother should take his wife, 
and raise up seed unto his brother.
now there were seven brethren: 
and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed.
and the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: 
and the third likewise.
and the seven had her, and left no seed: 
last of all the woman died also.
in the resurrection therefore, 
when they shall rise, 
whose wife shall she be of them? 
for the seven had her to wife.”
and Jesus answering said unto them, 
“do ye not therefore err, 
because ye know not the scriptures, 
neither the power of God?
for when they shall rise from the dead, 
they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; 
but are as the angels which are in heaven.
and as touching the dead, that they rise: 
have ye not read in the book of Moses, 
how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, 
I am the God of Abraham, 
and the God of Isaac, 
and the God of Jacob?
he is not the God of the dead, 
but the God of the living: 
ye therefore do greatly err.”

The Pharisees go away, and along come the Sadducees with a trick question of their own.

The Sadducees are more textually and theologically conservative than the Pharisees. They don’t believe in life after death, because the Torah doesn’t mention it. That is why they were so sad, you see. (Very Old Joke.)

It goes the way discussions of the afterlife always do. The skeptic raises a practical question about how a purely materialistic afterlife would work. How old will your granny be in heaven? Will there be cricket in heaven? Will there be scones and jam and tea? In that case, will there be toilets? The believer says that these are silly questions and he doesn’t believe in a purely materialistic afterlife either. The skeptic says he’s avoiding the question and everyone goes home equally dissatisfied. Unless the believer is an old-fashioned spiritualist. They really did believe that there is tea and crumpets on the other side.

Granted that remarriage is permitted — and even, in some cases, mandated — and granted that polygamy is forbidden; what happens when a person who has been married several times pops up out of his grave at the end of the world — who are they married to? Ha ha, gotcha!

Jesus, true to form, says that this is a silly question.

Jesus seems to have rejected the idea of a singular Resurrection — a future day on which all the dead will come back to life. But it isn’t very helpful to say that the dead are “like the angels” because we don’t have the faintest idea what angels are like. They are mysterious, frightening and unknowable. But perhaps “the dead are mysterious, frightening and unknowable” is an improvement over “the dead are going to resume their lives and carry on as before.”

How many of us, when we were small, thought it was literally the Christian teaching that angels are the spirits of the virtuous dead? That when you died you became an angel? Unless you were naughty, in which case you turned into a devil? I suppose that happened because someone at some point had misunderstood this passage. Certainly the popular press think that children who die violent deaths literally become angels. Or stars.

The Sadducees thought that only the text of the Torah was authoritative; they rejected the Pharisees’ additional teachings. It is important, therefore, that Jesus demonstrates that life-after-death is taken for granted in the core Jewish scriptures. But his textual proof is not one that most of us find very congenial. God says to Moses “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”; not “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He would not have referred to three historical characters in the present tense if he regarded them as dead and gone. Therefore, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still living when God spoke to Moses; therefore people continue to be alive after their deaths.

Jesus' conclusion is a lot more interesting to us than his textual game-playing. He does not tell the Sadducees that they are wrong because there is additional teaching that they don’t know. He says they are wrong because they haven’t read their own texts carefully enough.

And something else as well. They don’t understand the power of God. The dunamis of God.

"You’d understand what the Bible said if you’d actually read it. But you also need to be fully dosed up with God’s miracle-juice. Studying texts isn’t only an intellectual process."

and one of the scribes came, 
and having heard them reasoning together, 
and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, 
“which is the first commandment of all?”
and Jesus answered him, 
“the first of all the commandments is 
hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord
and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart 
and with all thy soul, 
and with all thy mind, 
and with all thy strength
this is the first commandment.
and the second is like, namely this 
thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself
there is none other commandment greater than these.”
and the scribe said unto him, 
“well, Master, thou hast said the truth
for there is one God
and there is none other but he
and to love him with all the heart
and with all the understanding
and with all the soul
and with all the strength
and to love his neighbour as himself, 
is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”
and when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly
he said unto him
“thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” 
and no man after that durst ask him any question

Next in line is another lawyer. Maybe one of the same lawyers who was trying to catch Jesus out at the beginning. Or maybe a different lawyer. But he is speaking on his own behalf because he’s impressed at the way Jesus has wriggled out of the traps that have been set for him so far today.

He asks Jesus a very straight question, and Jesus gives him a very straight answer.

It's not a hard or a controversial question. I wonder if the Scribe is testing Jesus’s orthodoxy: asking him the one question a good Jew would never get wrong. A bit like asking a witch to recite the Lord’s Prayer. A good Jew recites the shema several times a day and hopes to repeat it on his death bed. Deuteronomy 6:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

Jesus puts this alongside a quote from that horrible book of Leviticus that some people want to rip out of the Bible:

“You must not hate your brother in your heart. You must surely reprove your fellow citizen so that you do not incur sin on account of him. You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you must love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”

The Scribe seems to take this as a perfectly orthodox answer. But still, there is apparently something troubling about it, because it brings the conversation to an end.

Jesus is in the temple. The temple is where sacrifices happen. Sacrifices are good. Moses told everyone to make sacrifices. In three days the biggest sacrifice of the year will happen.

And Jesus and the Scribe are in agreement. The temple is good. Loving your neighbour is better. Loving God is best of all.

Perhaps the lawyer is a bit relieved. Before, when people were trying to catch him out, Jesus was on the defensive. But when he is asked a sincere question about what he believes there is nothing frightening about him at all.

And so of course Jesus pulls the rug out from under him.

— You’ve been talking against the Priests and the Temple. What do you think is the most important law?

— Yes: I agree with the implication of your question. The most important law is the one which tells us to love God. But you forgot to ask me what the second most important law is. And the second most important law is to love everyone else in the whole wide world. Have you ultra-religious people been forgetting that?

— Not at all. As a professional Torah interpreter I fully agree with you. Hold onto Monotheism above all; and then be kind to everyone else in the universe. That is the main thing. The temple is only secondary to that.

— Well done. You have almost understood it.

It is the “almost” which is the sucker punch. Jesus told the rich man who had perfectly kept the ten commandments that he still lacked something. Now he is telling the sincere legal interpretor that he is pretty close to the kingdom of God; but he isn’t in there yet.

Jesus is systematically alienating absolutely everyone; with, I suspect, an infuriating twinkle in his eyes.

and Jesus answered 
and said, while he taught in the temple, 
“How say the scribes that Christ is the Son of David? 
For David himself said by the Holy Ghost,
The Lord said to my Lord
Sit thou on my right hand
till I make thine enemies thy footstool
David therefore himself calleth him Lord 
and whence is he then his son?” 
and the common people heard him gladly. 

Jesus now starts answering questions which no-one has thought to ask him. The text almost literally says this. “After the conversation with the lawyer, no-one dared asked Jesus any more questions. And so he replied….”

Having had what seems to be an amiable and sensible exchange with the Scribe, he proceeds to pick a fight with him over a very obscure bit of textual word-play.

The Old Testament uses two words for God. Jehovah is God’s actual personal name and can only be used in holy contexts. Adonai just means Lord or Boss or Master and can be used more casually. Our Bible, slightly confusingly, represents the divine name as the upper case LORD.

Psalm 113 in English says “The LORD says to my Lord, sit here at my right hand….” — “Jehovah said to Adonai.” Christians would love this to mean “God asked God to sit down next to him” because that would mean that the idea of the Holy Trinity already existed a thousand years before they made it up. But it probably means no more than “God said to the Boss….” The Psalm was originally a coronation hymn, sung by a choir to David or one of his successors. “The LORD (i.e God) said to my Lord (i.e the King): sit down next to me.” But it was often taken as being David himself talking about a King who would arise in the future — the Messiah. Jehovah said to Adonai, take the seat of honour. God said to the Messiah, sit at my right hand.

It’s easy enough to see how Jesus’s word-play works, although it doesn’t go very well into modern English. David is calling the Messiah “my Lord”. Official teaching is that the Messiah is David’s “son”. Son means “descendent” but it could be taken to mean “follower”. How can the Messiah be David’s follower if David calls him Lord? “The Messiah can’t be 'Sir' and also 'Sonny-boy', can he?”

It would be hard to derive a general rule or law from this. There are, after all, lots of examples in scripture of sons who are more impressive than their parents. You wouldn’t say that David can’t literally have been the son of Jesse because Jesse was a nobody and David was King. You might just as well say that Jacob can’t be the founder of Israel because his father Isaac was such a minor figure. But we are told that Jesus’ legal fireworks play well with the crowd.

Why does Jesus make this particular argument at this time? Is Jesus trying to take a step back from the crowds shouting “Son of David!” at him. "Oh, but Son of David doesn’t necessarily mean Messiah — let me demonstrate…" Or is he trying to focus everyone’s mind on the primary source of his authority? "Yes, twenty eight generations back, I do have royal blood in me. But that’s not what gives me the right to overturn the temple."

Matthew and Luke, of course, tell stories in which Jesus is literally descended from David, through his earth-father Joseph. But Mark doesn’t know any stories about Jesus’ ancestry. Or if he does he doesn’t think they are worth retelling. The people of Nazareth are surprised that Jesus is preaching and performing miracles. His family think he has gone crazy. They say “Isn’t this this carpenter’s son?” They don’t say “All that royal blood has gone to his head.”

So it seems to me that Mark is countering a potential objection to his thesis.

“You say that Jesus is the Messiah” says the sceptical reader “But he can’t be, because he doesn’t have the right pedigree.”

“But it doesn’t go by who your Dad was” replies Mark. “Jesus said that himself.”

and he said unto them in his doctrine, 
“beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, 
and love salutations in the marketplaces, 
and the chief seats in the synagogues, 
and the uppermost rooms at feasts 
which devour widows' houses, 
and for a pretence make long prayers 
these shall receive greater damnation”
and Jesus sat over against the treasury, 
and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: 
and many that were rich cast in much. 
and there came a certain poor widow, 
and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. 
and he called unto him his disciples 
and saith unto them 
“verily I say unto you, 
that this poor widow hath cast more in, 
than all they which have cast into the treasury: 
for all they did cast in of their abundance; 
but she of her want did cast in all that she had, 
even all her living”

Everyone knows this story. It is a sweet story. It is a story with a perfectly obvious meaning. It is the mirror-image of the story about the rich man and the camel. The rich man couldn’t get into heaven unless he gave all his possessions to the poor. Well, here is a poor person: and she really has given away everything she has. So she is definitely going to get into the kingdom.

When Eliza Doolittle says that she will pay a shilling for elocution lessons, Prof Higgins says that her offer is the equivalent of hundreds of pounds from one of his millionarie clients.

So, what does this prove? That it’s easier to give stuff away if you haven’t got very much? But if it’s easy for the poor, why is it virtuous for them?

All right then: perhaps it was just as hard for the woman to put all her money in the pot than it would have been for the rich man to put all his millions in? So why does she get the brownie points and he doesn’t?

Okay: so Jesus must be saying that charity is valuable as a spiritual practice. Putting two farthings in the collection tray is good, not because it will enrich the recipient, but because it will impoverish the donor. It would make more economic sense for the widow to hang onto the money and use it to feed her children. And it would have been possible for her to do this precisely because the rich were supporting the temple with money that they could perfectly well afford. The temple didn’t need her quarter of a penny. So the message is that we should not envisage charity as being an economic transaction.

Did Jesus think that it was the duty of the rich to take care of the poor? Then he was a socialist, or worse, a liberal.

Did Jesus think that we needed to change society so there weren’t any more poor people? Then he was a revolutionary socialist.

Did Jesus think that we should imagine no possessions, all things in common, all people one? Then he was a communist

But perhaps Jesus was neither a liberal, nor a socialist, nor a communist. Perhaps he thought that Christians should stay out of politics. The question about whether or not Jesus preached a social message is a core fault line of the culture wars. You can read this passage which ever way you like.

What would happen if we turned our attention away from the poor widow, and looked at the rich people instead? What would happen if Jesus didn’t mean “The widows copper coins are worth much more than the rich people’s silver and gold.” What if he meant “The rich people’s fifty pound notes are even more worthless than the old lady’s loose change?”

A big gift from a rich person is worth much less than a small gift from a rich person. Even Henry Higgins could see that. Jesus is using an everyday example to demonstrate a general principle.

“Remember what I said about small things being big? There is a concrete example that will help you visualize it. Losers are winners. Children are grown ups. Servants are bosses. And small gifts are big ones. The times they are a changin’”


I am just about old enough to remember the older English currency, with shillings, pennies and hapennies, but I never saw a farthing, which was worth one quarter of a penny. It had a picture of a wren on it, because it was the smallest coin. If a mite is worth half a farthing then it is very small change indeed. One eighth of a penny, a bit more than one two-thousandth part of an old pound.

It’s not actually quite as bad as that. The coin the old lady puts in the collection was actually a lepton.

The basic unit of currency is an aes; a denarius was originally ten aes — but was actually worth sixteen. A quadran was a quarter of an aes; a lepton was half a quadran. Thus by a simple arithmetical process you’ll easily discover that there are a hundred and twenty eight leptons in a denarius; and that two leptons is worth one sixty fourth part of a day’s pay.

About a pound in todays money. Which is what I generally put in the collection plate myself.

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Friday, July 24, 2020

Mark 11 27-33 + Mark 12 1-17

and they come again to Jerusalem:
and as he was walking in the temple
there come to him the chief priests,
and the scribes, and the elders,
and say unto him,
“by what authority doest thou these things?
and who gave thee this authority to do these things?”
and Jesus answered and said unto them,
“I will also ask of you one question,
and answer me,
and I will tell you by what authority I do these things
the baptism of John,
was it from heaven, or of men?
answer me.”

and they reasoned with themselves, saying,
"if we shall say,
from heaven; he will say,
why then did ye not believe him?
but if we shall say, of men...”"
they feared the people
for all men counted John,
that he was a prophet indeed.
and they answered and said unto Jesus,
“we cannot tell”
and Jesus answering saith unto them,
“neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things”

It’s Tuesday morning. For the third time since he arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple. Three different sets of religious leaders come and try to trap him. The story is now unambiguously about Jesus versus the Priests — God against Religion — and it is rushing towards its terrible climax.

First come the temple authorities: the chief priests, the scribes and the elders: the interpretors of the law, and the custodians of the temple cult. They challenge Jesus on the question which has been bugging them since that first Saturday in Capernaum. What right does Jesus have to ride into Jerusalem proclaiming himself the true successor to David? What right does he have to suspend the normal running of the temple? Who does he think he is?

They ask him the same question twice in different words “By what authority these things are you doing and who gave you the authority these things you should do?” People don’t talk in poetic parallelism in real life any more than they talk in rhyming couplets. Mark is recounting events that have already taken on the form of a story.

Jesus won’t give them a straight answer. He uses the same kind of “heads I win, tails you lose” trick that the Pharisees played on him last week. The Pharisees tried to put Jesus in a position where he had to either criticise the King or antagonise the people. Jesus invites the Priests to either accept the authority of John the Baptist, or reject it.

But John is still an incendiary figure. Practically everyone in town went and got baptised by him; practically everyone still believes he was a prophet. Lots of people think that Jesus himself is John. Deny John’s baptism, and you insult the whole of Jerusalem. Affirm it, and you are more or less calling the King a murderer.

They won’t give Jesus an answer; he won’t give them an answer. Stalemate.

We know the pattern. Having deftly avoided the first trap, Jesus voluntarily walks into a much bigger one.

“If you won’t answer my question” he says “I won’t answer yours. I will tell you a story instead. Once upon a time, there was a vineyard….”

and he began to speak unto them by parables
“a certain man planted a vineyard
and set an hedge about it
and digged a place for the winefat
and built a tower
and let it out to husbandmen
and went into a far country.
and at the season he sent to the husbandmen a servant,
that he might receive from the husbandmen of the fruit of the vineyard.
and they caught him,
and beat him,
and sent him away empty.
and again he sent unto them another servant;
and at him they cast stones,
and wounded him in the head,
and sent him away shamefully handled.
and again he sent another;
and him they killed,
and many others;
beating some,
and killing some.
having yet therefore one son,
his wellbeloved,
he sent him also last unto them, saying,
they will reverence my son.
but those husbandmen said among themselves,
this is the heir; come, let us kill him,
and the inheritance shall be ours
and they took him,
and killed him,
and cast him out of the vineyard.
what shall therefore the lord of the vineyard do?
he will come and destroy the husbandmen,
and will give the vineyard unto others.
and have ye not read this scripture;
the stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner:
this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?"

and they sought to lay hold on him,
but feared the people:
for they knew that he had spoken the parable against them:
and they left him,
and went their way.

Mark has told us that Jesus’ parables are deliberately cryptic, and that even the disciples often miss the point. But this one is crystal-clear. Most of the parables are analogies which illustrate a single precept. This one (like the parable of the foolish sower) is a full-on allegory. The vineyard is Israel. The owner of the vineyard is God. The tenants are the priests. The messengers are the prophets. The owner’s son is… Well, perhaps you can work that bit out for yourself?

There is an element of plausible deniability in the story. Jesus doesn’t say in so many words that the priesthood is going to be destroyed. He has merely asked what you would expect a landlord to do to tenants who murder the rent collectors.

Some people persist in saying that Mark’s Jesus is simply a reforming Rabbi who wants to encourage the Jews of his day to be a bit better at Jewing. But that removes the whole force of the story. Jesus sets himself against the Priests and against the Temple. He hasn’t been in the temple five minutes before he begins breaking things. When the Priests ask him what he thinks he is doing, he tells them that they only have power because God has leant it to them. He tells them that Prophets are to Priests as messengers from the landlord are to the rent-paying tenants. He tells them that he himself is to the Prophets as the landlord’s son is to the rent-collectors. And he says that the whole system is going to end. The landlord is taking back the vineyard. The fig tree is going to wither. No more temple. No more priests.

“The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all”. This is very similar to what he was telling the disciples about authority in Perea. The last is first, the servant is boss, the children are grown ups, the degraded one is king. The vital part of the building was the bit that was retrieved from the rubbish dump. You don’t think I’m anything very special? That’s proof that I’m the boss.

It is another quote from Psalm 114, the Psalm about the king and the sacrifice coming into the city through the gates and everyone shouting “Hosana” at them. That hymn is still in everyone’s mind.

and they send unto him certain of the Pharisees
and of the Herodians
to catch him in his words.
and when they were come,
they say unto him,
“Master, we know that thou art true,
and carest for no man:
for thou regardest not the person of men,
but teachest the way of God in truth:
is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?
shall we give, or shall we not give?”
but he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them,
“Why tempt ye me?
bring me a penny,
that I may see it.
and they brought it.
and he saith unto them,
whose is this image and superscription?

and they said unto him, Caesar’s.”
and Jesus answering said unto them,
“render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's,
and to God the things that are God’s.”

And they marvelled at him.

Pharisees and Herodians are members of political and religious factions outside the priesthood. Both groups are actively hoping for a Messiah, which they take to mean a restored Jewish monarchy. The Pharisees want a literal descendent of David on the throne; the Herodians more realistically want Big Herod’s descendents in charge of a reunited kingdom. Niether of them think much of the emperor.

Our Bible uses “penny” to mean “coin”: back in chapter 6 we were told that it would take more than two hundred pennies to cater for a crowd of five thousand. A “penny” is actually a Roman denarius. It’s a silver coin worth about a day’s wages and it has a picture of Augustus on it. Very probably this is why there were money changers in the temple to start with: good Jews weren’t supposed to put idolatrous currency in the collection plate.

So the Priest’s messenger boys think they have Jesus trapped. “We know you always give straight answers to straight questions. And here we are in God’s actual house. So tell us straight. What do you think of Ceasar?”

It’s a great trick question. Accept the Emperor’s authority and become an idolator in the eyes of your more pious compatriots. Or reject it and become a rebel in the eyes of Rome.

Everyone remembers Jesus’ answer: “Render unto Ceasar the things which are Ceasar’s; render unto God the things which are God’s.”

The word “render” is apo-didomi, “give back”. Our translators have to add a lot of words to get the saying to fit into English. “Ta Kaisaros” means “the of-Ceasar”. Give back Ceasar’s to Ceasar; give back God’s to God.

People have a lovely time over-interpreting this passage. Jesus is making a very subtle distinction between church and state. He is giving us a template which will allow us to answer hard questions, like whether Christians should be conscientious objectors in a period of conscription, and whether the Church ought to lobby the government to make shopkeepers observe the sabbath.

Well, maybe. But we should be very careful of making “render unto Ceasar” a slogan to justify whichever political stance we were going to take in any case. The point of the story is that Jesus wouldn’t engage in a debate about the emperor’s authority. Who you pay taxes to has nothing to do with the case. It’s Ceasar’s own money anyway.

When the Priests challenge Jesus authority, he lets rip with a parable which insinuates that the Priesthood and the Temple are going to come to an end. When the Heroidans ask him about who should be King, he more or less says “I am not going to answer that. It is a silly question.”

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A Word From Our Sponsor

So; that’s the very long role-playing essay. Come back in six months and maybe we’ll do the second very long roleplaying essay, tentatively entitled Aslan #16: The Return.

Thank you to everyone who said nice things; and thank you to everyone who isn’t interested in RPGs for putting up with it.

So: what next?

I am likely to remain furloughed for at least another month and while there are an awful lot of superhero films on Netfux and an awful lot of Shakespeare plays on YouTube that still gives me quite a lot of time to write. I haz a lovely big new shiny computer and everything. 


Starting this week, there are going to be three different streams of Rilstonian Material for you to enjoy; and (you knew we were coming to this) new ways of supporting them.


I am going to start releasing the final sections of my ridiculously long and frankly rather hubristic walk-through the Gospel According to Saint Mark. We left Jesus shortly after Palm Sunday, so we’re coming to the hardest and most famous section of the story. The End Times. Judas. The Naked Fugitive. Son-of-His-Daddy. Mary "Who'd She?" Magdalene. The False Ending. Maybe even a word or two about the very mysterious lost chapter. There are probably about ten essays to come, of different lengths, and the whole thing should morph into a book almost immediately. I know some people find this kind of thing more interesting than others, so bare with me. 


Once I've finished with the Bible (as it were!) I've got a ton of other material ready to roll out or in progress. So I am going to give my lovely, lovely Patreon followers early access to it. There should be one Patreons-only essay a week for the Foreseeable future: political comedy, Mr A, and Bob Dylan to start with.

To get access to this stuff you just need to sign up to Patreon for less than thirty altarian dollars a day. One English pound a month, actually. (You just have to pledge an amount of your choosing each time I publish an essay. Most people give $1 an essay.)

If you don’t want to join Patreon, then just sit tight; all this stuff will eventually show up on the blog. But if you like what I am doing then Patreon is kind of like standing on your doorstep and giving me a round of applause. Only with less moral pressure and political sub-text. 


I started my Going Out In Bristol Blog at more or less exact moment that Going Out stopped being a thing that people could do. I am keeping it going for ad-hoc, off the top of my head kinds of reviews and comments: the sort of thing where I say “It was a nice movie, I liked it” rather than do a 4,000 word commentary of the opening credits. (Patreons are not charged for this, but people who make use of the tip jar create Happy Bloggers.) 

Ongoing series here; early access to miscellaneous pop culture stuff on Patreon Page; random arty stuff on arts page. Simples. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Thursday, July 09, 2020

I now have to own up to a guilty secret.  I don't like comic books all that much. 

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

We used to go on holiday to Brighton, in the years before the oceans drank the West Pier.

Monday, July 06, 2020

I liked pirates before Pirates of the Caribbean made them briefly fashionable

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

I went to a Games Convention: it may have been Dragonmeet or Games Day. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Andrew: you have just talked for ten pages about rules and mechanics...

Monday, June 29, 2020

Chivalry and Sorcery can go on the pile next to Traveller.  I read it fifty times but I never actually played the thing. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020