Saturday, October 28, 2006

Mark 3, Layer 2

(To be completed at a later date)

Mark 3, Layer 1

Mark 3 begins with an outstanding miracle. While casting demons out of people might be dismissed as psychological rather than divine, Jesus evidently (for we are not explicitly told) cures a man's crippled hand.

Much more interesting than the miracle is the context. People (we are later told they are Pharisees) who want to accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath watch him closely. So He
performs the miracle of healing without any ceremony at all. He just tells the crippled man to
stand up and stretch out his hand (imagine the Pharisee's difficulty in turning that into a charge that would stick).

Also interesting is how He phrases His question to the spies: How should we observe the Sabbath-- by doing good or by doing evil? By killing or by preserving life? The spies answer
Him not in words, but by going from the synagogue directly to Herod's clique, whose hands will later be stained red with the blood of John the Baptist. There they will plot to kill. Jesus responds with anger to their stubborness.

Mark 3 then describes Jesus's withdrawal from people and their energy in pursuing Him, and Jesus's decision to appoint apostles to handle the increased traffic. The appointing of the apostles is a small point of interest: Jesus went onto a mountainside and called to those He wished to appoint. He didn't ask them to accompany Him or have a public apostleship ceremony. He called and they came.

The final section of the chapter is one of the most powerful chapters of the gospels. It contains three lessons. The first is that Jesus's family, learning that He is teaching so intently that He is not eating, declares Him to be insane. When they show up and send someone to call Him out from the house where He is teaching, He claims the people sitting around Him as his mother and his brothers. There are several ways to take this. The usual interpretation is that He is disowning His family allegiances in favor of the community of believers. But perhaps He is making a metaphysical statement, that human beings are all one, that whoever we stand before have as much claim to kinship with us as our biological kin.

The second lesson of this chapter (a house divided against itself cannot stand) was made famous by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln used it to explain why he could not allow the South to secede. For Jews, the meaning of "a house divided" would be especially poignant, since the decline of Israel and the roots of its enslavement by the Romans began with the civil war between the northern and southern kingdoms.

But Jesus is using it both to justify His own works as divine and also to describe evil as a unity. The teachers of the law accuse Him of being possessed by Beelzebub and so having the power to drive out demons. He makes a small joke by shifting the name of the evil one, "Beelzebub" (the lord of the flies) to "Satan". Since the meaning of "Satan" is obstacle, He is asking how can the obstacle drive out the obstacle.

But He is deadly serious. The teachers of the law have committed the one sin for which there is no forgiveness, namely inverting the meaning of good and evil. To grasp the full meaning of this, one must understand that the ancients had a simpler understanding of "good" and "evil" than moderns do. Moderns conceive of "good" and "evil" as states of mind, reflecting the intention made manifest in deeds. But the ancients saw "good" to be identical to "helping" and "evil" to be identical to "harming."

Healing someone was, by definition, doing good. By saying that Jesus was healing by means of an evil (injurious) spirit, he teachers of the law were calling "aid" "injury." And there is no mystery as to why this sin, as opposed to all others, cannot be forgiven. A person who calls "light" "darkness" and "darkness" "light" cannot be guided to the light. Instead, the more that they are offered light, the farther into darkness they will flee. God would have to overrule free will to save such people and, by so doing, would destroy their humanity.

By Jesus's words, we understand what the Holy Spirit is. Just as gravity is the tendency by which one mass falls toward another, the Holy Spirit is the tendency by which Truth emerges from falsehood. And so calling "darkness" "light" or calling "healing" "injury" denies the Holy Spirit.

Jesus reinforces the meaning of the parable with what would seem to be a weak simile. He says that to rob the house of a strong man, one must first tie up the strong man up. It has been noted by other commentators that He is referring to the work of salvation as stealing from the devil, that by doing evil to evil, one does good.

And so we are left with a number of questions:
1. How exactly does God call us?
2. How does Jesus's anger square with His warning about anger?
3. Is the one unforgivable sin described elsewhere in the Bible or is this original to Jesus?
4. How does this description of the Holy Spirit square with other descriptions of it?
5. Why is the simile of the strong man thrown in? It seems unnecessary and distracting.
6. How is Mark's telling of this event different from the telling of Matthew 12 and Luke 11?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Mark 2, layer 2

(To be completed at a later date)

Mark 2

This chapter describes Jesus's first miracle and several key teachings.

The miracle involves the healing of a paralytic. The paralytic’s friends are so certain that Jesus can heal the man that they climb up on the roof of the house in Capernaum where Jesus is staying and break in through the roof. This would certainly have resulted in severe punishment under any other circumstances, so Jesus rewards their faith by healing the paralytic. But He does so in a very odd way: He forgives the man’s sins. We are told that He then reads the minds of teachers of the law, who think that He is blaspheming by claiming to forgive sins. He therefore converts the spiritual miracle of forgiving sin into the physical miracle of mobility.

Jesus calls Levi, the taxpayer, to His service. Taxpayers were resented, not only because they fed the luxury of the Romans and their Jewish collaborators, but because they were corrupt. He goes to Levi’s house to eat with tax collectors, sinners and, of course, Levi. This time, Pharisees join the teachers of the law in criticizing Jesus’s mingling with the impure. In reply, Jesus gives a very important teaching, that He calls those who are ill from sin; note again the parallelism of physical illness and sin.

Next, Mark presents three teachings. His first lesson is that the disciples do not follow an ascetic life because their Savior is with them in the flesh, as a bridegroom. Afterwards, they will fast. The second appears to be a disconnected teaching presented as a dyad: unshrunk patches are not sewed on clothes that have already shrunk from washing and yeasty wine must be placed in flexible wineskins so that it doesn’t burst the skin.

The third teaching is that Love rules the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made to benefit mankind and not as an arbitrary rule into which mankind must fit itself. On these grounds, he rebukes the Pharisees for trying to forbid Jesus’s disciples from plucking grain. But the biblical example He gives is very odd. He says that David entered the temple to get ceremonial bread in the days of Abiathar the high priest.

In reality, Ahimelech was high priest (1 Sam. 21) and Abiathar was his son. But even more peculiar, Jesus says that David ate the consecrated bread inside the temple and took some to his men to eat. But in 1 Samuel 21, we are not told that David ate the bread inside the temple, but we are also pretty sure he has no men with him.

Points that are raised by this chapter:

1. The action takes place in Capernaum.
2. Note that the paralytic does not get up and walk until Jesus tells him to do so. Does forgiving sin produce physical health?
3. Why did the teachers of the law and the Pharisees criticize Jesus for associating with tax collectors? This would not seem to be a religious or purity issue, but rather an issue of nationalism.
4. Christians have a tendency to feel superior over having seen the truth. But Jesus seems to say that the church is a hospital to heal sin.
5. Why is Jesus’s description of David’s consumption of the show bread seemingly so divergent from the one we know from the 1 Samuel? Is the present canon of the Old Testament wrong? Is Jesus wrong? Did Jesus know a version of the story as told in 1 Samuel that differs from what was enrolled in the canon? Or has translation from Hebrew and Greek into English created seams in the story that do not exist in the original.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Mark 1, layer 2

(To be completed at another time)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Mark 1, layer 1

Mark begins with the story of John the Baptist, designating him as the messenger of God prophesied in Isaiah. This is not quite right, since the quote he provides begins with Malachi 3:1 and segues into Isaiah 40:3. This has an unfortunate literary effect, since Malachi 3:1 refers to The Day of Judgment, and the messenger is therefore a harbinger of distress, whereas Isaiah 40:3 is a chapter of comfort, promising that Jerusalem’s sin has been paid for.

At any rate, John the Baptist is out in the desert regions by the Jordan (traditionally believed to be near Bethany), wearing a camel hair coat and a leather belt, preaching repentance. He lives on locusts and wild honey. John defines two separate baptisms, one by water, and one by the Holy Spirit to be administered by one greater than him.

Jesus is baptized by John and has an enlightenment experience in which he sees Heaven opened to release the Spirit in the form of a dove, and he hears the voice of God naming him as His Son and expressing high satisfaction with Jesus. As phrased, it’s unlikely that anyone else, even John, knew that this experience was going on.

The Spirit directs Jesus into the wilderness to live among the wild animals and be tempted by Satan, while having His needs tended to by angels.

At some indefinite future time, John is imprisoned. So, Jesus takes up preaching John’s message of repentance, but with a new twist: he tells people to rejoice because the Kingdom of God is near. Beginning ca. 60 miles north of the site of His baptism, He recruits Simon, Andrew, and James and John Zebedee from the fishing trade in Galilee.

In Capernaum, He preaches with a confidence and familiarity of material that amazes people, who are used to having the scriptures delivered as rote recitation. A man possessed by an evil spirit identifies Jesus as the Holy One of God. Jesus silences the spirit, and commands it to leave a possessed man. The spirit convulses the man and emerges from him with a shriek.

Jesus then heals Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever and then heals all of the sick and demon-possessed in the town. He repeats this throughout Galilee. His most outstanding miracle is the curing of a case of a skin ailment, generally rendered as “leprosy.” .

He commands the man to speak to no one, but to go to the priests to make the sacrifices prescribed by Moses. This is presumably what is commanded in Leviticus 14: one bird is killed and exsanguinated, and a second bird is dipped into the blood along with cedar, hyssop, and a scarlet thread, then released. Eight days later, he must bring three lambs, flour, and oil, to provide a wave offering, a sin offering, and a guilt offering.

There are many elements of interest. First is the question of why Mark does not tell us that John is Jesus’s cousin. Also, there’s the question of John’s habiliment and diet. A camel’s hair coat would seem to be unpleasant attire for the desert. John has chosen a purely vegetarian diet despite the proximity of the Jordan and its fish. Why does Jesus begin preaching so far from Judea and the site of His baptism? Why does He recruit among fishermen? What is the symbolism of the elements of the cleansing from skin disease?

Throughout the Old Testament, the Spirit has been portrayed as a wind, formless. In this gospel, it takes on a concrete form. Also, interestingly, Jesus repeatedly commands that all who recognize Him as the Son of God to be silent. All of these are worthwhile exploring in layer 2 of analysis.