Monthly Archives: May 2005

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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?

Good news

εὐαγγελίου: good news, glad tidings, ‘gospel’.

Words are slippery little beasts. The Greek word “euangelion” seems to have started out referring to a gift you give to a person who brought you good news – the opposite of “shooting the messenger”. Later on, first the plural and then the singular come to mean the good news itself. The word seems to have become a bit of a buzz word a decade or so before the time of Christ, when it gets used by the spin-doctors working on Augustus’ public image. There is a famous inscription in Priene, from 9 B.C.:

The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere… ; the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him…

I’m reasonably firmly convinced that the word was still revolving with this theologico-political spin when it first got taken up by the early Christian movement, and that there was at least a hint of subversion involved in using it to describe the news of a different Lord – a different kingdom.
The word then slips slowly but surely into Christian normality – becoming, it seems, first simply one of the normal words Christians use to speak both about the message they spread about Jesus, and the message that Jesus spread (as far as I can make out, with very limited investigation, there seems at least initially to be some ambiguity about which of these is meant), before becoming as it were the official name for a written account of Jesus’ life.

The use of the word here in Mark 1:1 is caught up in that history, and a lot of the debates about how it should be read are attempts to position it more accurately in one episode or another. Is ‘good news of Jesus Christ’ a subjective or an objective genitive? Is there still a consciously subversive political spin? Is this a title for the book, or a description of the content, or simply a description of the message about Jesus of John the Baptist, which Mark is about to describe?

Now, I don’t want to say that we can’t make decisions about this. I’m pretty happy to say, for instance, that (if you’ll permit me switching to English) “Gospel” here does not refer to a style of music associated predominantly with black American church choirs (which is not to say that there’s no chance that some accidentally illuminating fun couldn’t be had by running with that meaning for a moment). Nevertheless, I suspect that there is no way of answering all the questions just posed firmly, and not just because our information is not good enough, but because precisely because it is caught up in a complex history, the word is bound to be somewhat unstable, dragging with it associations over which the author has little control (in this case trailing politics whether Mark wanted it or not), and acquiring new connotations by being used in this particular context (in this case beginning its journey towards becoming a book title precisely by being used in this incipit).

Inventing New Testaments

I’ve just read through David Parker’s inaugural lecture as Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism and Palaeography in Birmingham. Very interesting stuff:

It would seem obvious … that what I am trying to do is to demonstrate that  there is not and never has been a New Testament, and that copyists and users have been inventing New Testaments at a frightening rate.  I hope that I have sketched ways in which I might make this demonstration.  But I am not going to do so.  Instead, I would like to explore the reasons for the emergence of New Testaments and for their variety, avoiding the usual theological and textual explanations.  Instead I shall present evidence that the most significant contributions to developments in the understanding and character of New Testaments have been technological innovations in production methods and in physical form.  After all, “inventing” is associated most strongly in the modern mind not with artistic creativity but with scientific or technological discovery.  I leave open the question whether we invent particular technologies because we need them at that particular point.  My argument is that it has been developments in the format of books that have been most significant in shaping the ways in which those books have been used.

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.