Monthly Archives: August 2007

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On and on and on

So here’s the story so far on the ‘abduction’ strand of my thinking. (And, yes, I know I am belabouring this to death and back, but the whole point of this kind of exploration is to see attend to the little niggles of irritation that suggest to me that I’m talking rubbish, and see whether I can make them go away.)

Really, this is all part of an exploration of the first two Greek words after the superscript in Mark: ‘As it is written’. I am interested, roughly speaking, in what kind of relationship to the Hebrew Bible, and to the Judaism of Jesus’ day and before, we are talking about if we take those words seriously. But in order to approach that hoary old topic at an angle, with the faint hope that it might help me think about it differently, I have been investigating a proxy issue that Mark immediately presents to us: the nature of Mark’s (the Markan community’s, early Christians’) reading of John the Baptist: the way in which the historical figure in the desert (I’m assuming there was one) became the textual John, written entirely as forerunner to Jesus.

After much footling, I came to a provisional and partial answer, based on thinking about what it meant for a Christian to claim that John’s identity was truly ‘hid with Christ in God’, and the difference between saying that and saying that Christians therefore knew John’s true identity in a way that John did not: a difference that has a lot to do with the fact that Christians are not God. And yet persisting in wanting to say that Christians do, through Christ, have ways of speaking truly about God – and so ways of talking about what it means for identities to be ‘hid with Christ in God’. I talked about a dialectic between Christ-focused reading (e.g., of John, starting our description of his identity with talking about how he related to Jesus) and registering the resistance, the excess of John relative to our Christ-centred description. And this whole dialectic making sense only as practised by people, a community, that is pursuing holiness (the purification of its love), so as to purify its descriptions from selfishness.

When we take this rather abstract idea back to Mark, however, we are forced to say that Mark displays only one side of the dialectic clearly: the Christ-focused description of John. The other side is present only in glimpses: the way the unassimilated John appears between the cracks in Mark’s description. (That’s a deeply problematic way of putting it, but let it stand for now.) This dialectic is not something I have derived from Mark, in other words – but is about asking what I, as a Christian reader of Mark who has a whole lot of other bits of Christian theology bubbling around in his head, have to say in order to be able to follow Mark, at least in part.

Then, I back-pedalled slightly, by noting that there might be ways in which we could describe John such that the tension between what we could glimpse of his unassimilated, pre-abducted identity through Mark’s Christ-focused description, and that Christ-focused description itself, was lessened. And that’s what I was talking about in the last post. But, as I noted in that post, my way of raising that possibility seemed to have comitted me to a kind of investigation for which I have neither the aptitude nor the appetite; I seemed to be back-pedalling for the sake of unconvincing, speculative apologetics – which isn’t what I had set out to do at all.

However, what that back-pedal does reveal which is more directly appropriate to my project is that speculating about John suggests that my dialectical hermeneutical proposal may rest on too dichotomous, too discontinuous, a picture of the unassimilated/assimilated distinction: that it may simply be assuming that John’s unassimilated distinction is utterly distinct from the use that Mark has made of him. Or at least that it tends in that direction. And whether or not that is unfair to John (I leave the detailed investigation to those who have the stomach for it), if we broaden our perspective back out to the wider question I started with, that overly dichotomous picture is more obviously a pretty dodgy one: it itself smacks of supersessionism.

So my neat, pious, ‘dialectic of description and registering resistance, within a life in pursuit of holiness’ might need to be rethought a bit.

Okay. If this is really all exegesis of the first two words of Mark, how long is the rest of it going to take me?

Back to John’s Abduction

In an earlier post, I suggested that Mark’s application to John of the prophetic texts from the Hebrew Bible may have been sparked by playful verbal connections between those texts and John, but that the fuel set alight by those sparks might be a somewhat deeper connection:

John’s ministry of repentance was, I suspect, a ministry that self-consciously performed a preparation for the coming of YHWH as already understood in ways shaped by verses like these from Isaiah. John prepares for the coming of the Lord – and when the Lord comes in ways unexpected even by John, John’s ministry of repentance does not cease to be a preparation for it.

This is an inviting line of argument, or so it seemed to me at the time. It promises to give me a way of saying that to read John as preparing for Jesus is a reading with the grain of his lived specificity, even if John did not see himself as a forerunner of Jesus. And so it promises me a way out of worries about the violent abduction of John.

It is too easy, however – and not only because it involves a kind of speculation about John’s message and motivation which takes us way beyond any historical warrant we have. It either involves reading John’s obedience to YHWH purely formally, as if John will proclaim the Lord’s coming with no content, refusing to say anything about what that arrival will involve (a move which tends towards reading obedience as a purely negative submission, not as participation, and tends towards a reading of YHWH as arbitrary power), or it reads back into John a kind of apophatic theology which, while theologically much more attractive, seems to me to be historically implausible.

I could claim that this problem arises simply because I am seeking answers at too abstract a level of inquiry. Only if we ask more closely about what obedience to YHWH, preparation for YHWH, could mean in John’s time, and what we can tell of John’s take on such obedience, and what it means to claim Jesus as the fulfilment of such obedience, could we hope to make this line of argument stick… or so I might argue. Only that looks like turning into the kind of full-blown historical-critical investigation for which I have neither time nor competence.

And, in any case, this kind of discussion seems to show that (even when I have not acknowledged it) ‘saving’ Mark from accusations of violence has been my agenda – indeed, showing that Mark’s descriptions are (in some deep way) faithful to historical reality. I turn out to be wanting to out-historical-criticise the historical critics! And that’s not what I had originally set out to do: I think my rather different concerns have got dragged off path by the gravitational pull of some heavy apologetic questions lying off to one side. Time for a bit of a rethink.


It is (finally) sunny, the birds are singing, and I’ve just finished work on my half of the the Modern Theologians Reader. Picture a very large pile of photocopies, all carefully marked up, and sheets and sheets of endnotes packed with the fruits of days hunting for bibliographical and biographical details: all tidied up and ready to send to my co-editor. Joy.


Well, after a long gap, I’m back. A small part of the gap was caused by an update to WordPress that broke Chris Goringe’s handy ‘Greekify’ plugin that I use to display the Greek text in posts – which in turn broke the display of the whole blog. Chris has now sorted that out (though you’ll notice that at present you can’t get lexical/grammatical info by hovering your mouse over Greek words). Chris deserves a medal, but instead will get a plug for his new blog: Playful Reading. In his own words:

I hope you will find here a series of short ‘playful readings’ of the Bible. You might think of them as interpretations, or retellings, or as an abuse of the text; whatever. I present them in the spirit of play, not believing them to be The Truth, but believing that the inspiration of scripture goes deeper than any of our hermeneutics, that the Breath of God is deeply enough embedded in the Biblical narrative that something of God can emerge from whatever angle you read, and that the complexity of the narrative is more true than any single reading.

I’ve also finished off a couple of projects that have been hanging over me, and absorbing all the attention that might otherwise have gone on blogging. I finished the SCM Core Text in Christian Doctrine – rather belatedly (and with a very different arrangement from that described in the old blurb on the Amazon page). It should be out in December. And I’m nearly done on the reader for The Modern Theologians that I’ve been editing with David Ford – although I don’t imagine it will see the light until late next year.

With all that out of the way, I have an itch to get back to my stalled thinking on Mark, as well as anything else that crops up. I give it, say, five weeks before I stop posting again.