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….

2 Thoughts on “Beginning in the middle 5

  1. Rachel on May 10, 2005 at 8:59 am said:

    An aside occurs here about “accidental” links and authorial intention. I was reading Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” with students last week, and (once we got past the “why are we reading a kids’ fairy tale?” stage and onto the theology) they asked the reasonable question: “But did she really _mean_ to put in all the eucharistic imagery, references to the Song of Songs, etc? Aren’t we just reading this in?” My suggestion: well no, she probably didn’t mean it in the sense of planning it all; but then yes, no word or image in this poem got in by accident, she worked on it until it was “right”; and since (a particular form of) Christian theology and piety, including contemplative reading of the Bible, was a formative influence on her thought, it was also part of what shaped what she thought sounded “right”. So finding the theology in the poem isn’t like cracking a code, but it also isn’t simply imposing external and “accidentally” appropriate categories on the text. (By way of contrast, I suppose one could read “Goblin Market” for reflections on the dangers of genetic engineering; that might be illuminating, but would definitely be “accidental”…) And presumably one could say something similar about Mark’s relationship to the Septuagint? Maybe Mark [the author] _didn’t know_ all the reasons why it was “right” to start with “arche”; but presumably Mark [the author] had the LXX “en arche” deeply engrained in his mind, and affecting more levels than that of the conscious formulation of argument. Something here about how people as well as texts are more than they “know” they are – “give more than they have”, to quote some friends of mine quoting (I think) Rowan Williams…


  2. Thanks for that, Rachel. I think we’d still need to make a case for the LXX ‘en arche’ being, as it were, one of the determinants of Mark’s arche – a case that goes beyond simply noting the resemblance. So, someone might show that the Mark’s grammar and vocabulary had been shaped by deep immersion in the LXX of Genesis, and that a blank ‘arche’ was not a commonplace way to begin texts in the 1st Century. In other words, I think there are some properly historical-critical canons of plausibility and evidence involved in making your kind of case. (In the case of “Goblin Market”, I’m guessing that the density and complexity of the theological references you can unearth makes pretty good prima facie evidence.) I suppose I’m wondering what happens when we can’t make the case, but still find a connection or echo that seems too much fun to ignore.

    There’s a deeper question here, which I’m conscious of having put on one side for now. Any unearthing of determinants upon a text, or any proposal for ‘play’ with a text, as well as having whatever canons of evidence and plausibility are relevant in the sense we’ve been discussing, is also a proposal for future action within the particular social context in which we interpreters are sitting. And one subtext of the “Aren’t we just reading this in?” question is, I think, a “So what?” question. What have we succeeded in doing if we’ve identified eucharistic imagery in “Goblin Market”? What have we succeeded in doing if we’ve noted a resemblance between Mk 1:1 and Gen 1:1? What have we made possible? To answer those sorts of questions, we’ll have to be more explicit about why we’re reading these texts in the first place.

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