Daily Archives: July 18, 2005

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Quoting the prophets 2

Time to return to Mark 1:2-3. In an earlier post, I gave a speculative reconstruction of the process by which these quotes from the prophets might have been included here. I now want to take that further, moving away from the game of speculative reconstruction, and towards the use of this text by a believing community.

(1) As should be clear from my speculative reconstruction, and my comments on authorial intention, I’m not sure there’s any way we can clearly establish quite how much Mark meant by the inclusion of these texts. Of course, I’m not denying that the process which led to this inclusion involved connections being made between the nature of Jesus’ mission and interpretations of these (and other) OT texts. But quite what connections, and quite what interpretations, is very much more difficult to say – and the answer might be considerably more limited than we would like.

(2) If, however, we ask what this inclusion makes possible, things look rather different. The inclusion of these texts allows for the continuation of (and marks the existence of) a process of ongoing interpretation: exploring OT prophecy and other texts to do with the coming of God, and asking whether and to what extent they enable us to make sense of Jesus? The inclusion of these texts here is one of the ways in which Christians are provided with a canon.

(3) We need to be wary here of too simplistic a fact-interpretation disjunction. Jesus emerges against a background of such texts as this, a background of uses of such texts; who he is and what he does is in part constituted by his relation to such texts and uses – by what he does with this background, how it is reshaped in him. The difference he makes is similarly in part constituted by these texts and their uses. In asking what is ‘made possible’ for a believing community, we are asking about how a community forms around the impact of this text-ridden Jesus, how a community struggles to find ways of living appropriately in the text-wrapped space he has opened up. The community so struggling is given these prophetic texts, given the already running process of interpretation, of sense-making, right from the start.

(4) I suppose it is possible to imagine a community being formed in such a way as to regard this interpretive question as closed. One could imagine a Saviour, perhaps, who attempted to bequeathe a fixed and final interpertation of the prophetic texts. “This is that, this means that; end of story.” This does not seem to be the case with the Jesus movement, which seems to be from the beginning involved in a fluid, unfinished, exploratory reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. (And my earlier speculative reconstruction was intended to suggest concrete ways in which the interpretation of these particular texts might have been ‘in progress’ at the time of the writing of Mark.)

(5) Christian identity (the identity of the community struggling to make appropriate sense of Jesus) is therefore in part constituted by the attempt to make sense of Jesus in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures, and vice versa. Christians are, as I have already said, hereby given a canon. Yet being given a canon like this means being given worries about the misappropriation of this canon (and note the misattribution, and the misquotation, already involved in these brief quotations) . Accepting this canon is a dangerous strategy, because it means accepting a source that to some extent stands over against one – a source of potential challenge to one’s interpretation. And that means that Christian identity is marked in two ways:
(i) As I’ve stressed already, this means that Christian identity is going to be inherently dialogical and argumentative – simply because there is (and can be) no single, univocal way of making sense like this.
(ii) This also means that Christian identity is inherently bound up with dialogue/argument with Judaism (if by ‘Judaism’ we mean those strands of first-Century Judaism who make sense of themselves by making sense of the same Hebrew Scriptures, but who do not feel captivated by the possibility of making this sense in the light of Jesus of Nazareth).

(6) And all this means that I could not possibly hope to set down anything like a complete interpretation of these two verses in this blog. I can’t step in and say, “Here is what is meant by the inclusion of these prophetic texts.” I can only hope to dip into the ongoing stream of interpretation – give one particular view of how to make sense of Jesus by making sense of these texts.

I know I’m labouring this like crazy. I’m simply trying to get my thoughts clear, and can only do that by trying to set them out in some kind of ordered way. Apologies to anyone who is still reading…