Authorial intention?

What I’ve said about the inclusion of the words of the prophets, about the phrase ‘Son of God’, and about the phrase ‘good news’, all point in a similar direction. They all point away from the idea that interpretation could be a matter of divining the one clear meaning that the author had in mind when he first put these words on parchment. And that’s without either starting on the question of whether it makes sense to think of there being a single author writing this stuff down at a single point, or declaring appeals to the author out of court from the start. Rather my discussions suggest both that the author will not be aware of all the ways in which a particular way of speaking seems to be ‘right’ or to ‘fit’, and that in speaking at all the author has to make use of words that are caught up in complex histories, and that therefore cannot be controlled.

It seems to me, in the light of this, that interpretation of this text can take two fundamental forms – with a deeply hazy border between the two. On the one hand, there is the excavation of the meanings ‘in play’ in the words the author used (and by that I don’t simply mean an analysis of words and phrases, but of larger forms and patterns all the way up to genre). On the other hand, there is the exploration of what the author made possible by putting these words together in this way.

Imagine a map, with time as one axis, on which the results of these two explorations are plotted. To the left, say, all the meanings that have been excavated in the phrase ‘Son of God’; to the right, all the meanings that this phrase goes on to acquire that are shaped by this text. The boundary between the two is hazy: this isn’t the kind of history where we can clearly identify the point at which our text was written. Identifying ‘authorial intention’ would not be a matter of picking the one correct meaning from this map: it would be more like speculatively drawing a rough circle on the map and saying that we guess that the author might have had these existing meanings and meanings-made-possible in mind, and then speculatively drawing a wider circle on the map, to suggest that these further existing meanings and meanings-made-possible might have unconsciously shaped the way the author wrote. Beyond those circles would lie on the left those things that, perhaps entirely unwittingly (at any level), the author brought into play by using words that were not simply his own possession, on thr right those things that, entirely unwittingly, the author made possible by putting his words together in this way.

Any and all of these meanings might be explored by the interpreter.

How much is this picture of interpretation affected if we acknowledge the entirely speculative nature of the circle-drawing involved – of the delimiting of what the author might have had consciously or unconsciously in mind?

And how much is it affected by the recognition that the map will always be drawn by a particular interpreter working from a particular location with particular interests?

Quoting the prophets

How did these texts end up being quoted here, and what purpose do they serve?

Purely speculatively, I imagine something like the following history.

(i) John the Baptist, out preaching in the wilderness, perhaps understands himself, and is perhaps understood, in terms which are partly drawn from texts such as these. Texts such as these provide part of the background which makes the way he goes about his ministry ‘make sense’ – whether he, his followers, or his hearers think about it explicitly or not. (And, of course, behind this there would have to stand patterns of usage of such texts as these in the years running up to John’s ministry that would have allowed them to become part of people’s mental furniture.)

(ii) My guess is that at some point before Jesus comes on the scene, these specific texts may have been used to interpret or represent John’s ministry. And in my speculative reconstruction, I see this as an irreducibly complex process. In part, it might simply have happened because there were some handy (if dubious) verbal hooks – like the ‘voice in the wilderness’ phrase – which could be grabbed hold of and wrapped around John. In part, there might have been a recognition that the message, ‘prepare for the coming of the King’, was actually a good fit for the kind of message John was actually proclaiming. And in part there might simply have been a making explicit of the implicit scriptural background to John’s activity and its reception.

(iii) If something like this process took place, I suspect that it would have begun having two effects. (1) It might have further shaped perceptions (perhaps including John’s own) of what his ministry was – selecting and highlighting from a range of possible interpretations one which made ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ a central slogan. (Think of it as an accidental rebranding exercise.) (2) It might have meant that people’s ideas of the coming day of the Lord, and of the relation in which they stood to it, started taking on colours from John’s ministry – the application of these texts providing a conduit by which the innovations in John’s message can infect the eschatological ideas people already have.

(iv) At some point, Jesus emerges against this background. (He may, of course, have been involved in any or all stages of it; I don’t know what scholarly thinking currently is on the early relationship between John and Jesus.) And so he emerges on a scene where people’s eschatological ideas have begun to be reshaped by John’s ministry, and where John’s ministry is understood in part through texts like these – and perhaps through these specific texts. That background provides some of the parameters by which people try to ‘place’ Jesus – to understand his significance. And perhaps – just perhaps – this set-up allows Jesus’ ministry to be thought of as playing some part in the eschatological coming of God for which John was now seen as the forerunner. Perhaps that becomes part of John’s understanding; perhaps of some of John’s followers; perhaps of Jesus himself; perhaps of Jesus’ followers. These texts, prepared as it were by the existing uses in John’s movement, become part of the internal and external identification of the Jesus movement.

(v) In the process, however, these texts become political: they become caught up in the relationship between John’s movement and Jesus’ movement – and are used by the latter to place John (and his followers) relative to Jesus (and his followers), as well as being used to say something about the role or significance of Jesus himself. And as time goes by, this becomes the primary role of these texts in the Christian movement. And once John and his movement have vanished, it is this role that remains for these texts. They become the leitmotiv by which we identify John the Baptist: they are the summary statements of his identity, his role in the drama. And the eschatological content, and any claims about the role of Jesus, are eventually more or less erased.

Where might Mark’s inclusion of these texts fit in this history? If something like it is true, where does it leave us as readers trying to interpret these verses in Mark?

Follow the meme

Chris, over at Things I’ve Seen, is propagating a meme, and has tagged me as one of its carriers. I’m called upon to answer the following five questions:

Total number of books owned

Between 2300 and 2400, at a quick count. About 900 of those in my office at work; there are probably another 100 at home that count as my work books, 200 that are Hester’s work books; around 70 are Bridget’s books – and a further 150 are children’s books too old for Bridget.

Last book bought

The last book I bought was Grace and Necessity by Rowan Williams. As you’ll know if you came here from Chris’s post, I’ve written about Rowan Williams. I’m not planning on doing very much more of that, but I try to keep up with his more academic writing. I don’t know much about this new book, except that its a tweaked version of some lectures currently still available online: the 2005 Clark Lectures.

Last book read

Well, recreation-wise, I’m in the middle of The Count of Monte Cristo; before that I read John le Carre’s Secret Pilgrim. (I’m also reading some bits of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, which I found online, and which reminds me what it used to be like being a mathematician). Work-wise, I’m in the middle of numerous books, including Peter Ochs, Peirce, Pragmatism and the Logic of Scripture (for the second time), and Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology. Probably the last work book that I read all the way through was Nicholas Lash, Believing Three Ways in One God (again, for the second time). Although, come to think of it, I read various books on Barth for a review I was writing recently.

Five books that mean a lot to you

This is hard. It says ‘mean’ not ‘meant’, so I’m trying to think of books that I think shape who I now am, rather than books which grabbed me massively in the past.
The Bible
Paul Scott, The Raj Quartet. A book (okay, a set of books) that shows what novels can do by way of exploring people, events, culture, and place without flattening.
Tim Jenkins, Religion in English Everyday Life. It’s only a short step from the kind of novel Paul Scott writes to the kind of social anthropology that Tim Jenkins does: intelligent, rich, careful description of social facts.
Hans Frei, The Identity of Jesus Christ. An enigmatic and easily mis-read book, this one – but learning to read it well has been a significant part of my theological education.
Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology. A remarkable collection of essays, which I continue to find deeply thought-provoking.

Tag five people to continue this meme

I don’t think five people read this blog, let alone five people with blogs of their own! However, I’ll tag Hester and Bridget (of course).

The coming King

καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’
(Mark 1:2)

ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐξαποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου καὶ ἐπιβλέψεται ὁδὸν πρὸ προσώπου μου καὶ ἐξαίφνης ἥξει εἰς τὸν ναὸν ἑαυτοῦ κύριος ὃν ὑμεῖς ζητεῖτε καὶ ἄγγελος τῆς διαθήκης ὃν ὑμεῖς θέλετε ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται λέγει κύριος παντοκράτωρ καὶ τίς ὑπομενεῖ ἡμέραν εἰσόδου αὐτοῦ τίς ὑποστήσεται ἐν τῇ ὀπτασίᾳ αὐτοῦ διότι αὐτὸς εἰσπορεύεται ὡς πῦρ χωνευτηρίου καὶ ὡς πόα πλυνόντων καὶ καθιεῖται χωνεύων καὶ καθαρίζων ὡς τὸ ἀργύριον καὶ ὡς τὸ χρυσίον καὶ καθαρίσει τοὺς υἱοὺς Λευι καὶ χεεῖ αὐτοὺς ὡς τὸ χρυσίον καὶ ὡς τὸ ἀργύριον καὶ ἔσονται τῷ κυρίῳ προσάγοντες θυσίαν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
(Malachi 3:1-3)

φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν πᾶσα φάραγξ πληρωθήσεται καὶ πᾶν ὄρος καὶ βουνὸς ταπεινωθήσεται καὶ ἔσται πάντα τὰ σκολιὰ εἰς εὐθεῖαν καὶ τραχεῖα εἰς πεδία καὶ ὀφθήσεται δόξα κυρίου καὶ ὄψεται πᾶσα σὰρξ τὸ σωτήριον τοῦ θεοῦ ὅτι κύριος ἐλάλησεν
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’
(Isaiah 40:3-5)

Malachi pictures an approaching potentate whose retinue precedes and announces him – the LORD of hosts coming to re-establish the covenant, to sit in the temple, to purify the people. Isaiah speaks of the return of the LORD to a broken people, and of the vast efforts to be expended on making ready for him, preparing for him. Both speak of the return of the King in splendour, and the re-establishment of the rule of law: a terror to the transgressors and a comfort to the oppressed.

As it is written

καθὼς γέγραπται
As it is written

Mark, or the Markan community, or the early Christians in general: what are they doing here? Something (someone) strange, radical, unsettling has happened in their midst – something that to some extent jarred against its surroundings – but they have wrapped it in terms drawn from the Scriptures which are so deeply embedded in those surroundings (or, better, have always already seen it in terms of those Scriptures). This has enabled them to make sense of this thing that has happened, certainly – but it has also made new sense of those Scriptures. I don’t think we should underestimate the complexity of the processes by which this dual ‘making sense’ takes place.

In the particular case we see here, however, things get even more complex, because we are also dealing with the appropriation by Mark, the markan community, or early Christians in general, of John the Baptist. He is being ‘made sense of’ as forerunner of Jesus, and Jesus being ‘made sense of’ as the one to whom he points – and this dual making sense is itself made possible by the fact that their relationship is made sense of by drawing on certain Scriptures, and those Scriptures made sense of by being applied to this relationship. And again, I don’t think we should underestimate the complexity of the process by which all these ways of ‘making sense’ take place.

The voice in the wilderness

καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ
ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου
πρὸ προσώπου σου
ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου
φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ
ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ

In the beginning … a voice crying in the widlernes, ‘Make straight…’
In the beginning … the earth was a formless void … then God said, ‘Let there be light…’

Son of God

υἱοῦ θεοῦ

“Son of God” – another of those densely loaded terms. Here’s my initial stab at teasing out what’s going on.

(i) In the early decades of Christianity, all the Christians we know about are (as far as I can make out) united in believing that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mark some kind of decisive transition in God’s dealing with the world. They express that in various ways, mostly using different strands of Old Testament language for describing God’s dealing with the world. But what they’re describing is nearly always what God is up to, and how what has happened in Jesus fits into that – they’re not really addressing the question of what kind of being Jesus has to be or what kind of relationship he has to have to God in order for their claims to be true. And whilst there is plenty about the uniqueness, decisiveness, unprecedentedness of the stage in God’s ways with the world that has been inaugurated in Jesus – and also quite a bit about the unique character of Jesus that enables him to play the relevant part in God’s plan: uniquely obedient, uniquely pure, that sort of thing – that’s not really the same as an attempt to spell out claims about Jesus as a unique kind of being. (To give these different sets of claims names, the first lot are ‘functional’ – what unique function does Jesus play?, the second ‘ontological’ – what unique kind of being is Jesus?)

(ii) ‘Son’ language in the Gospels falls mostly into this kind of area: it is, I think, in large part a way of saying that God’s relationship with Israel, and with the Kings of Israel, has been perfected in the perfect Israelite, the perfect King. I don’t, personally, think that the hellenistic background is the most relevant one, although I’ve no doubt it colours the early reception and propagation of ‘Son’-language.

(iii) However, alongside this, and developing slowly around it, is an increasing fascination with the further question, ‘Well, if Jesus does play this unique role, who is he? What kind of being is he?’ And in the first few decades, we certainly get a bewildering variety of partial answers to this attempted. I think, however, that
the question is only vaguely perceived, is tentatively and speculatively answered (if at all), and that (most of the time) little weight appears to have been attached to the details or consistency of the answers given. And most of the answers offered in biblical literature draw on ideas or models available in the OT, or from intertestamental Judaism; I don’t see much evidence of direct plundering from straight Hellenistic sources. Even discussion of Christ’s pre-existence comes, I suspect, from this Jewish (albeit hellenized Jewish) milieu – from Jewish speculation about the preparation beforehand, in the will of God, of the decisive elements of his plan: the Law and so on. To some extent, ‘Son’ language might get drawn into that ambit, and so have
some connotations (even in the Synoptics) about the special kind of human being Jesus is – but not, I think, as its dominant notes.

(iv) As we move into the second century and beyond, there’s (a) a more direct focus on the ontological question behind the functional question – indeed, the growing realisation that you can’t keep on making functional claims without considering the ontological questions those throw up. There’s also (b) more borrowing from straight Hellenistic sources. So you begin to get descriptions of Jesus which clearly represent him as something other than human: as some kind of divine being who temporarily appears human. And ‘Son’ language sometimes gets transformed in the process, so that it starts to be taken as describing the special kind of being Jesus is – whether one of a class of ‘sons’ of God, or uniquely son of God, in some way which resembles the divine-human heroes of Greek myth.

(Cautionary note: any trading on a supposed Jewish/functional/active v. Hellenistic/ontological/static opposition is a wild and silly simplification. I mean here to refer only to a background of rather different stories featuring characters called ‘son of God’ at some point – stories that make certain ways of explicating the Jesus story seem more obvious than others.)

(v) One way of describing the process of doctrinal developments that runs from the second century through to AD 451 is as the slow, fitful, complex rejection of some of these Hellenistic, or more wildly speculative of Jewish answers to the ontological question: an attempt, that is, to answer the ‘ontological’ question in ways which both allowed Jesus to function as God’s decisive intervention in the world – the climactic action of God’s plan, both inaugurating our salvation and revealing the nature of God – and yet to be fully and entirely human. To be sure, those points were made using an ‘ontological’ language to do with natures and hypostasis, but the answer eventually arrived at is one that converts far more easily than do earlier, more speculative answers to the ontological question, back into functional categories. But those are big claims, and I haven’t justified them here.

So: here in Mark 1:1, the phrase ‘Son of God’ is I think primarily functional, and primarily tied to the Old Testament – but if you listen carefully you’ll hear the faint buzz of approaching ontological concerns, and creaks and pings as the word expands in an increasingly hellenistic context. And yet we only hear any of this by temporarily blanking out the noise of all we know from the fourth and fifth century debates – and yet such blanking will never be perfect, and should in any case only be temporary: what those later debates did with this term remains an entirely legitimate matter for consideration.

All about Jesus

εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ

Here we touch on my deepest reasons for beginning this study. An academic theologian, I say a lot about Jesus, about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, about the centrality of this man. But am I really interested in news about him? Is the Gospel in which I believe anything to do with him, except in the most tenuous of senses? Or am I captivated by a few easy ideas, a number of theological commonplaces, rather than by him? Am I captivated by the internal and self-sufficient dynamism of an academic and ecclesial conversation which trades on his name, but which bears no relationship to the actual traces of his historical particularity?

You see, I have a sneaking suspicion that these questions are the whole of Christian theology: that Christian theology is kept Christian, and kept theological, only by the relentless asking of that question. The whole edifice of Christian doctrine (Christology, Trinity, atonement, creation, providence – all of it) is a way of forcing this question: What will happen if we let Jesus break through?

Or rather, what will happen if we let Jesus Christ break through – Jesus Messiah. The whole edifice of Christian doctrine is a way of forcing the question, What will happen if we let break through Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Israelite?

Apologies for silence

Sorry to anyone who is actually checking here for updates. Work has been bracingly busy over the last couple of weeks – and now I’m off to Cambridge for a Scriptural Reasoning Theory Group conference – plus a trip to Oxford at the end of the week. I’m hoping that things calm down once I’m back..

An interrogative field

With all this in mind – i.e., all I said in the previous post and in some of the posts before that – reading this first line carefully sets up what one might call an ‘interrogative field’: a clutch of questions to keep in mind as we step further into the text. I’ve explained why I don’t think it’s necessarily productive to try and answer these questions if they are seen simply as attempts to divine the one correct meaning of this opening verse; rather, they are proposals about ways of seeing the whole text, to be tested by the way the text goes on.

Beginning? I’ve laboured this enough already. What kind of new beginning is this? How does it relate to the Hebrew Scriptures, and to Judaism? And are these questions constitutive for the text?

Good news? In what sense is this news? If we are about to be led on a journey which is primarily about discovering what we already know – some Socratic process which shows us what is always already presupposed in our thinking and doing, perhaps – then it isn’t really news. News sounds like information: particular data that cannot be deduced from what we already know. To what extent will our good turn out to be dependent upon hearing such information?

‘Gospel from’ or ‘Gospel about’? That question about news segues into a more obviously Christological question. Is the good news about which Mark writes a message of salvation proclaimed by Jesus Christ, or is it the proclamation about Jesus Christ? Is Jesus’ proclaimer or proclaimed – or is this Gospel as ambiguous about that as the genitive in its first line is ambiguous?

News of an imperial birth? And to what extent is this news politically subversive, in Mark? To what extent is it the news of an alternative empire or emperor – a proclamation of regime change?

And, as I begin again in the middle, I note that all these questions connect to questions about my own stance towards this text. Do I read the Gospel as an accidental Marcionite, extracting it from its Jewish soil? Do I read it as news, or as confirmation of what I already know? What is the connection for me between the person of Jesus and his message? And do I either ignore the political dimension of this Gospel, or politicise it too easily?