Category Archives: Mark 1:1

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?

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).

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…

Beginning in the middle 2

I said in the last post:

one of my reasons for starting this project was to make some kind of devotional fresh start, to get ‘back to basics’ (if British readers can ignore the nasty resonances of that phrase) – even though any complete ‘fresh start’ is always an illusion.

Let me explain that a bit further.

  1. Every so often as I was growing up I went through religious ‘crisis experiences’, in each of which I was convinced that I had been drawn to a wholly new start: to throw out my lukewarm and half-hearted ways, and embark upon a new life of commitment and authenticity. The religious atmosphere in which I was growing up gave me convenient names for these, at least to begin with. I called the first ‘conversion’ and the second ‘baptism in the Spirit’. Things got a bit more confusing when the third arrived and felt more dramatic than the second, but I didn’t let this worry me too much. What did eventually worry me was the onset of crisis-fatigue. It becomes harder and harder to believe that a new revolution was going to ‘stick’ when you have already been through several, and know that the new regime fairly swiftly comes to resemble the old – and, worse, that the effects of the revolution are only preserved by rather desperate attempts to go on generating a hothouse atmosphere in services or prayergroups, in which the intense feelings of the crisis can be rekindled without too much worry about the content…
  2. Another thing about these crises: I tended to assume that they had to involve a stripping away of all the compromised accretions of my life, and returning to a single-hearted purity. I was always stepping back from complexity into simplicity. All the negotiations, deliberations and calculations of ordinary life would be shown up to be just so many ways of avoiding the clarity and absoluteness of the Gospel’s demands on my life; and I would discover that what I had been lacking was not understanding or subtlety or wisdom but the will to put the simple Gospel into practice…

Fast forward several years, to an academic theologian who has left the religious atmosphere of his youth for chillier climes, but who nevertheless finds himself tempted from time to time with an old vision. When the complexities and doubts of his theological investigations seem to be overwhelming him, so that he no longer knows quite where he stands, and (on bad days) no longer knows quite what he believes, he is tempted to think that what he needs is a revolution – and a revolution that will consist in an act of will, seizing hold of simplicity. The temptation comes in two forms. On the one hand, on the gloomiest days, he is tempted to seize hold of the simplicity of atheism. A voice in his head suggests that it is only vacillation, only compromise and weakness of will that keeps him from cutting through the knots in which he has tied himself and admitting to himself and to the world that he no longer believes. Strip all this away! the voice says; Start again! On brighter days, a similar temptation calls in a different direction: to cut away all this complexity and subtlety in favour of simple faith.

The trouble is, I find I don’t believe in such revolutions. It is partly revolution-fatigue: the knowledge that I have been here before, and the belief that it will only make a temporary difference. It is mostly, however, the belief that the stripping away of complexity, deliberation, calculation and negotiation would be a betrayal. I no longer think things are that simple. Some of the complexity might be weak compromise and self-delusion, but some of it at least emerges from living in a complex world, with a faith whose history, structure, and contemporary reality are themselves ineradicably complex. An heroic act of will, cutting through the dross and returning to simplicity, would be a denial of much of what I think I know: a comforting illusion, a falsehood.

When the last serious bout of such longing for revolution was upon me, a couple of years ago, a new thought struck me. I realised that what I needed was not a revolutionary act of will, but instead the building of a new, ongoing, practice of contemplation. A new attention to the sources of my faith, right in the midst of the persisting complexity and negotiation. Not starting again, but the building in to a life already running of a more constant, more attentive reference to the heart of faith. How about, I thought, a return to the Gospel of Mark: not as a turning away from what I currently am (an academic theologian with all sorts of questions and opinions and involvements and worries), but precisely as what I currently am: an attempt to bring all of what I am to all of this text, and see what (over time, with effort) emerges.

Beginning in the middle 1

ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ. καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah…

Mark’s Gospel begins with a fresh start: ἀρχὴ , the beginning. And in the very next sentence, takes it away: καθὼς γέγραπται , as it has been written: this is the fresh beginning of a new text which had already been written, long ago. Mark’s Gospel starts in the midst of things; it begins in the middle.

My thoughts run in several different directions at this point, and today is a busy day when I shouldn’t really be spending my time posting here, so I’ll simply plant some signposts at this point. I’ll try to find time later in the week to fill in the detail.

  1. I recognise that my own reading of Mark is a ‘beginning in the middle’ – in two respects. On the one hand, I have of course read it before. And I have read various bits of secondary literature. Yet I am trying to make ‘a fresh start’. On the other hand, one of my reasons for starting this project was to make some kind of devotional fresh start, to get ‘back to basics’ (if British readers can ignore the nasty resonances of that phrase) – even though any complete ‘fresh start’ is always an illusion. (No revolution finally succeeds in declaring a year zero.)
  2. This ‘beginning…at it is written’ also opens up one of the themes that most interests me as I re-start reading the Gospel: the relationship between it and the Old Testament / Hebrew Scriptures. What kind of new beginning does Marks Gospel represent with respect to what has been written? To hang this question on a convenient hook: is the ἀρχὴ at the beginning of this Gospel a replacemenet for the one at the beginning of Genesis?
  3. Lastly: some say that this strangely abrupt beginning is evidence of the ‘mutilation’ of the start of Mark’s Gospel. I don’t have the expertise to make a firm judgment about this, but I am interested in asking whether it matters. What if this beginning is not the beginning the text originally had? What if it is a makeshift rebeginning?

As I say, I intend to come back to these points soon. And I hope that, once I’ve got through them all (and anything else that crops up), you’ll begin to see the kind of approaches I am planning on taking … as well as just how slow I’m likely to be.