Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Beginning in the middle 5

Mark 1:1:

ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ

Genesis 1:1 (LXX):

ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν

I’d like to be able to make an argument something like this: Mark begins his Gospel with an ἀρχὴ in conscious echo of the beginning of the LXX: a new beginning for new Scriptures… Saying something like this would enable me to ratchet up the tension between this and the καθὼς γέγραπται of the next verse.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I can make so straightforward a move. I’d need, I think, to find more links between Mark 1 and the LXX of Genesis 1 in order to outweigh the difference between ἐν ἀρχῇ and ἀρχὴ. I’d also need, perhaps, to have done some thinking about what it would have meant in the middle of the first century for Mark to be consciously emulating his ‘scriptures’. And, perhaps most problematically, I would need to argue against those who claim that Mark 1:1 is a scribal addition, making up for the loss of an original beginning. Such arguments are not impossible, of course, but I don’t at the moment see my way to making them stick.

So what can I say? Well, think of the following scenario. A politician says something accidentally apt – not because of a Freudian slip, but simply because the context in which we are able to interpret his or her words gives them a meaning the politician never intended, but which happens to be funny or thought-provoking. So, for example, earlier this year George W. Bush was speaking about the Asian tsunami, and (quite rightly) rejecting the views of those who saw it as a direct intervention of God. He stumbled as he constructed his sentence, however, and ended up saying “In no way, shape, or form should a human being play God.” Now imagine a political commentator who picks up this phrase and runs with it, suggesting that Bush had unwittingly stated the principle by which his own conduct (over Iraq, say) should be judged. The commentator would be playing with the phrase, using it as a hook on which to hang some reflections and criticisms. The comments would not stand or fall by whether they were a fair interpretation of this particular statement of Bush in its original context, but by whether they turned out to be insightful and fair comments about his political activity as a whole – a much, much more complex matter.

By analogy, I think I can say that there is, whether Mark recognized it or not, a resemblance between the beginning his Gospel has ended up with, and the beginning of Genesis. And I think I can say that it is an appropriate resemblance, a telling resemblance – even if unintentionally so. And, further (and unlike the political example just given) I think I can say that such a noting of resemblance might be more than just a hook for things we’ve thought already, but might be a stimulus to new thought – something that will send us on an interesting journey of exploration. And, lastly, I think I can say all this despite the fact that it’s quite likely to be an accidental resemblance, but still intend it as a serious way of engaging with this text. I can, that is, say that although I’m playing with this particular fragment of the text, the exploration to which this playfulness leads will stand or fall by whether or not it proves to be an insightful and fair way of thinking about the text as a whole – although judging that will be a very complex matter.

To put this in traditional terms: my playing with the resemblance between the two beginnings has to do with a ‘spiritual sense’; but that doesn’t undercut the primacy of the ‘literal sense’, which alone can ‘prove’ (i.e., test) doctrine….

Beginning in the middle 4

Mark’s fresh start is immediately placed in an existing context, and I find echoes of this in a hermeneutical dilemma I face as I make a fresh start on his text.

I come to the text with a lot of expectations and prior understandings: I have read it before, many times; I’ve heard sermons on it; I’ve read devotional literature which works with it; the first half of it was the set text when I was learning Greek as an undergraduate; I’ve examined portions of it with the help of commentaries; I’ve read about how some of it is used in the various quests for the historical Jesus….

Part of what motivates my return to Mark is a feeling that the Gospel itself has got hidden behind all that I know about it. I approach it with a desire to get behind the veil of inherited opinion and my own too-easy conclusions, and encounter the text itself again. I want to make a fresh start with the text, or let it make a fresh start with me.

Unfortunately, if I remove my brain in order to read without pollution by all that I have read, thought and learnt, I will inevitably read brainlessly. The clutter of opinions and presuppositions I possess are precisely what enable me to read with any kind of discrimination or sensitivity. In other words, a fresh start would be a betrayal, hermeneutically as well as devotionally.

I can only start again in the middle, as the person I have become. But I can (I think) strive to pay attention to the ways in which the text does not match my expectations, the ways in which it resists the analytical tools I bring to it. It may not be possible to come up with an uncontaminated reading-from-nowehere, but I trust it is possible to register the ways in which the text “unsettles my judgment” – and goes on unsettling it.

So, my plan has been to begin by reading the Gospel through carefully without fresh recourse to secondary literature (apart from the odd dip into a lexicon or grammar). This is not because I hope thereby to manage an uncluttered reading of the text, but because I want to concentrate on discovering how the text unsettles my existing convictions about Jesus, about Christology, about the ways the Gospels work. Clearing the decks of fresh secondary literature is simply a device to help me concentrate in relatively controlled conditions on the part of the reading process that currently interests me. Only after that (or at least once it is well underway) do I plan to return to the secondary literature and let it make things even messier.

Beginning in the middle 3

What am I doing?

So far, I’m playing riffs on a chord that I think I hear at the start of Mark’s Gospel; that’s all.

This isn’t, as such, exegesis. But – and this is a claim that is important to me – jamming around like this feeds back into exegesis. Rachel’s comment on the last post (Hello, Rachel!) already suggests one way in which this might happen…

Welcome to KAI EUTHUS

There is only so much time I can spend tinkering with the graphics, fiddling with the display of Greek text, and generally prevaricating. It’s time to get this blog rolling – and, specifically, time to say something about what I think I’m doing here.

Whatever else it ends up containing, I envisage this blog arranged around a constant backbone: an eccentric, rambling, ruminative commentary upon the Gospel of Mark.

Let me explain.

I’m a Christian theologian – I lecture in theology at the University of Exeter in the Southwest of England. I specialise in modern theology, and in the interpretation and history of Christian doctrine; I am not any kind of New Testament specialist. However, a couple of years ago two things came together to push me towards beginning a careful reading of the Gospel of Mark.

On the one hand, I realised that, although I spent a lot of time talking about the centrality of the Gospel witness to Jesus of Nazareth for my theology and for my faith, I did not actually spend much of my intellectual energy on paying serious attention to that Gospel witness. I don’t want to breathe any extra life into that still-quacking canard that doctrinal or systematic theologians don’t read the Bible. That is not true of most of the ones I know – and I know quite a few by now. It was, however, the unfortunate case that I had personally been engaged in various projects which had placed discussion of biblical hermeneutics centre-stage, but had not allowed detailed discussion of actual biblical texts into the limelight. I was working on a book on Hans Frei, and could identify all too easily with these lines in the Preface to his Eclipse of Biblical Narrative:

This essay falls into the almost legendary category of analysis of analyses of the Bible in which not a single text is examined, not a single exegesis undertaken. Faced with certain puzzles that demanded historical, philosophical, and theological explanations, I tried to provide them as best I could; but there is no denying the odd result of a book about the Bible in which the Bible itself is never looked at.

On the other hand, I realised that a dividing wall in my mind had, over time, softly and silently vanished away, and that there was in principle no longer any gap for me between devotional and academic exploration of biblical texts. I found that, without having deliberately set off towards it, I had reached a point where it seemed obvious that a careful reading of a biblical text which was as academically rigorous as I could make it could and should also be deeply ‘self-involving’, personally and communally challenging – and that these two aspects were not in conflict, were not even independent, but could and should feed each other. In other words, I was no longer in a position of thinking that I needed to forge connections between the results of acedmic biblical study and a devotional and ecclesial use of the Bible: I no longer saw a gap that might need connections to be built across it.

That’s a rather abstract claim as it stands, but it will do for now as a signpost. I’ll try and explore some more of what it points to as I go along. That exploration will probably need to involve some explanation of the ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ movement which has ended up providing soil in which these ideas can grow – but I’ll leave that to one side for now.

I said that these things came together ‘a couple of years ago’. I have, since then, kept up slow and fitful jottings in a notebook, which have taken me from Mark 1:1 to 2:12. I’ve also written a couple of more formal pieces – you can find a draft of one of them here. I thought it was about time, however, to expose what I’d been doing to discussion and criticism, and to give myself some impetus to make my work on it less slow and fitful. This blog is the result – and we’ll see how well it does.

Getting this blog off the ground has been made possible by three different people. Zack Hubert provides the xml Greek feed which allows me to include the text of Mark in my posts, and was happy to let my friend Chris Goringe write a wonderful plugin to allow WordPress to display it all. And I have used Patricia Muller’s award-winning ‘Connections’ theme as the basis for the site’s styling – though I have made quite a few cosmetic changes along the way.