But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

-Matthew 11:16-17


Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

-Luke 6:21

I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'

- Walt Whitman


Friday, July 16, 2010

Mark's Recursive Gospel

It has been noted by many that ideas in Mark’s narration have a strange quality to them. Paula Fredriksen, for example, believes the oddities of Mark’s expression are due to his lack of couth and education. Richard Carrier notes the gospeller’s bend on thwarting the expectations, both of the reader and the characters in his story. Ben Wetherington points to the inherent veiledness and indirectness in the Markan Jesus metaphorical speech. A related, interesting take on the strange feel of Mark’s logic and his testimony of Jesus, has been posted on CrossCurrents website. It comes from a Michigan professor George Aichele who sees in the gospel classical mythical elements that are processed by the reader’s belief or disbelief. But there is also something else in the earliest gospel, the professor says, an “inexplicable residuum…an irreducible, opaque remainder of the text [is] not finally consumed and absorbed along with the rest.” Mark seems to be as free of grammatical, propositional and story-telling rules as his Jesus was of gravity on the Sea of Galilee. Could the two liberties be related ?

The gospel stories self-validate and self-propagate athwart logic and meaning, and at times seem to veer off the deep end. I think professor Aichele’s is right: within the paradigm of the story, Jesus has unlimited authority and potential for doing good. Those attributes have certainly nothing unusual about them. When Jesus parries against the Pharisees who accuse him of effecting cures on behalf of the prince of devils this is strictly mythical business. The ‘house divided cannot stand’ is a clever riposte and one entirely predicated by Jesus being able to effect real, lasting cures, and not just hopes for them. The proposition that Jesus cannot –despite appearances – be an agent of a malicious entity, is sustained by belief in Jesus’ skills as a healer. Mind you, in real life, many gifted healers can perform remarkably well even though they are observed to be mentally ill. Wilhelm Reich, one of Freud’s star pupils, struggled with his manic-depressive demons since his twenties, but was successfully treating his patients even as his diary recorded the molesting of his dog by aliens. But that is not really important since Mark's story should be strictly believe-it-or-not. The same is true also about the occasional minor slip in logic. In one of them, 9:40, Jesus declares a rule of ‘who is not against us is for us’, in overruling his disciples and allowing someone who does not follow his group to cast out demons in his name. Unfortunately one cannot use the example given to formulate such a principle, as transparently the ‘not against us’ attitude in the incident is one ‘for us’ except that it was not authorized. But again, this minor glitch would fall within the explainable dimension and the belief/unbelief filtering process. This would not be an exhibit of opacity in Mark, if I understand professor Aichele correctly.

Jesus going into Jericho and coming out of there without incident in the same verse (10:46) would be. Morton Smith had an explanation for that one – a fragment of Secret Mark which records some action that took place there; alas, the letter of Clement to Theodore looks like a modern forgery to many experts. Luckily for my own theory, nothing is remembered also of Jesus’ visit to Bethany (11:11-12), ergo the question remains. If Mark was recording actual events which took place and were remembered what would be the purpose naming the locale of events without memories attaching to them ? Those are obscure intents. And there is more: people around Jesus can’t eat and it is taken as a clue by his family that it is Jesus who must be out of his mind and needs to be restrained. Clearly not an absorbable idea. To make things even more bizzare the canard that people around Jesus are so busy they can’t to feed themselves is advertised also in 6:31 and 8:1. When Jairus’ daughter rises from her death, Jesus orders casually that she be fed. Why would she not feed herself, if we dare to presume her happy to be alive again ? Further, the mourners in her house burst out laughing when Jesus minutes before offers that she is not dead but only sleeping. What’s with that ? And what’s with the throngs of people who physically converge on, and oppress, Jesus in the most unseemly fashion (2:4, 5:31), even threatening to crush him (3:9) ? Jesus tells his disciples in private to go by themselves to a secluded place to rest, but people from all over the place run there ahead of the party. The storyteller says there is one loaf of bread in the boat but the disciples (in the story he wrote) deny there is bread in the vessel – after arguing around it. Mark says Jesus said ‘what’s there to discuss ?’ Yeah, I suppose both have a point. Bartimaeus throws away his cloak when he is invited to join Jesus’ entourage. Obviously, that would be an important act to record for posterity. Jesus, after passing through Bethany of which he or Mark can't remember anything, curses a fig tree because it did not yield fruit to him a few weeks ahead of market. The mocking guards slap around Jesus cupping his eyes asking him to prophesy. What does that mean ? Well, Matthew explains that mystery, does he not ? He says the guards told Jesus to prophecy who hit him, i.e. to entertain them with a little vaticinium ex eventu. He even removes the captor’s hands from Jesus’ eyes to make it plain he sees no occult designs in Mark at all. Neither do I. These events or non-events, I will argue elsewhere were actually attempts by Mark to describe the uncanny inside of the spirit, that most of those to whom he wrote were as intimately familiar with as he was. But for now let us stick to the formal issues of all this strange stuff.

In the briefest of terms: Mark has raised a set of mythical props within his storyboard and then allowed the characters in it, including Jesus, to challenge them in order to defeat their rebellion and thus re-enforce his hypnotic narration of a mystery. Not certain you follow what I am saying ? Ok, let us play it out: imagine the family of Vivian, Lady of the Lake, appearing on the scene at the moment of her imprisoning Merlin in the tower she conjured up around him. They wave their hands and scream over one another: “Hello, please excuse us, …no, please, no tower, no way Vivian can do that sort of thing,…please excuse her;....you are right,... she is not an architect, not an engineer ...no, she cannot be ... not yet the twentieth century...…yes, quite right,... she is out of her mind”. That sort of intervention would surely look ‘veiled’ if Merlin at the same time was struggling to break into the tower’s armory. See what I mean ? This would not be the same kind of challenge offered by an antagonist to Harry Potter flying a broom in aerial combats around Hogwarth. This is not a challenge to a hero within the myth, but a challenge to the myth itself baked right into the myth.

Ok, let me then, before passing on to the gospel’s circular design, get back to the hypnotic suggestion of Jesus walking on the sea. It is my favourite example of Mark’s application of the re-referencing technique, seen in many places of the narrative: the disciples in an unsteady boat see Jesus passing by and think it is a ghost. Mark, a staunch Paulinist, mocks here the Jesus idolatry of the original Petrine tradition which refused to accept the cross, and venerated Jesus as a man of flesh and blood who was sent to them as the prophet of the coming messianic kingdom. So when the disciples scream in fear at the sight of Jesus as the Spirit strolling on water, “Jesus” changes his mind and levitates towards the distressed crew to reassure them that he is no Pauline ghost, and announces : “It is I; have no fear”. I can imagine Mark’s friends convulsing in laughter when reading this elaborate lampooning of Petrine miracle-mongering and their disdain for Pauline pneumaticism. Mark’s Jesus confirms Paul (1 Cr 1:23, Mk 8:12) in saying ‘no sign’ will be given, and he is not contradicting himself if one reads the story the way it is proposed here. There are no miracles in Mark - the paradoxical events are the allegorically rendered artifacts of altered consciousness and cognitive gaps brough about as the effect of pneuma. Even Matthew was evidently impressed by Mark’s cleverness if he returned it by ridiculing Pauline church’s high horse of being Christ’s imitators in showing that Peter ('flesh and blood' as they are) tried it on the sea and it did not work.

The core purpose of Mark’s gospel

Mark’s Pauline mantle would be doubted in most exegetical circles and a number of reasons would be given for it. For example a number of Markan scholars believe that Mark, unlike Paul, was an adoptionist. I don’t think it was as clear-cut as that. Paul saw himself if not quite pre-existent, then definitely pre-destined for his mission, which was activated in medias res (Gal 1:15) as he gave up on material things and pleasures of this world. So, if the disciples of Paul were to be his imitators, as he was of Christ, then the prefiguring of the role of God’s servant and receiving a commission on it in mid-life would not be a contradiction to a Pauline.

But there are other elements of Mark that do not quite square with Paul’s outlook. The son of man does not figure in Paul’s writing, and undoubtedly originates in the Palestinian traditions which Paul purposely ignored. Neither is the central message of Mark’s Jesus, as I perceive it: repentance. Again, in my view of Paul and his saints, they repented by swearing to a puritanical orgiastic fantasy of themselves individually nailed to a piece of wood, which was not how the Palestinian tradents understood metanoia. Paul did not like to baptize because he was not into making people feel clean by rituals; he was sent to preach the gospel. He preached his gospel to a select audience of those who were mature and wise. The ideas and social graces of Mark’s Jesus are sometimes clearly estranged from Paul’s agenda. Mark's idea of the risen Lord socializing with publicans and sinners would have probably made Paul go glossolalic.

This is what I think happened in a nutshell. The war of 66-70 added Nazarene (Nazorean) exiles to the Jewish communities in the near Diaspora. Bitter squabbles and finger-pointing arose among Jewish factions and their Pauline Gentile auxiliaries, over the catastrophe of the loss of the Temple as the central symbol of Jewish identity. It was a three-way struggle between the Phariseic-dominated mainstream, the Nazarene sectaries and Paul’s churches. The Paulines had the advantage of independence from the Temple as the religious hub, as Paul tried but failed to gain access to it through James’ poor saints in Jerusalem. By all indications, he went alone, and his following built, and prided itself in, a separate, self-sustained base. In contrast, the Nazarenes – assumed a minority in the Jewish communities – were the ones worst off by far. They found themselves cut off from the rabbinical Jews who blamed their messianic obsessions for the mayhem, and from the Pauline swarms, which held them in contempt as the deniers of the cross and the perverters of Christ’s gospel, who received their comeuppance. Doubtless, they found it hard to proselytize in the proximity of either of their rivals. In this situation many were re-considering the proposition the Jesus himself was the Proclaimed as Paul taught and not just a proclaimer as Jesus saw himself.

In the other camp, after Paul was gone, his taboo on the ‘historical Jesus’ (1 Cr 2:2, 2 Cr 5:16) rapidly lost its lure. Yes, naturally some of the things that would have irked and offended Paul, the lore of letting the dead bury their dead, or the son of man who has nowhere to lay his head, or the birds in the air whom our heavenly Father feeds with no effort required, the yoke that was light, or kids who hate their parents, would still remain beyond pale with Paul’s followers . But the natural human curiosity about the earthly career of the man who Paul taught visited them as the ineffable heavenly Spirit in their ecstasies, would have come sooner or later. And, they too had something to gain from uniting into a single church. Paul considered the followers his workmanship in the Lord, and the proof of seeing him. So an extended believer base meant Paul was right again and confirmed they did not just see things.

I believe this is how Mark came to be written. Behind his gospel was an original idea of uniting the two views of Jesus : the Nazarenes’ proclaimer of the coming son of man (not himself) and Paul’s Christ, which remained separated by the antagonism of Paul and the Nazarenes. It was masterfully conceived as a story of Jesus empowered by Pauline spirit, from its appearance at the Jordan to its extinguishment on the cross, in the death of Jesus the Nazarene. Throughout the gospel Jesus has a dual identity, which is at once advertised and at once hidden to those who do not understand what the presence of the spirit means or feels like. He speaks of the heavenly kingdom; they think it is coming to earth. Peter idolizes him as the Messiah but Jesus does not want anyone to know until he is dead.

This is again a hugely misapprehended smart-alecking of Mark: Jesus doesn’t want it known publicly that he is Messiah for a very simple reason: it has to be Paul (and his gospel allegorized by Mark) who will be first to proclaim Jesus as the Christ ! That is why an obscure entity called many censures Bartimaeus who calls Jesus 'Son of David' and not the disciples, who of course rebel against the gospel. Mark's irony here is in that the appellation comes from someone who is blind, spiritually blind to be sure. Mark rejects the Davidic descent of Jesus. First, the idea is lampooned in the story of a blind beggar, and then Jesus himself rejects Christ's Davidic line in a clever use of Psalm 110:1 in 12:36-37. His target would not be just the "scribes" but those Jewish Petrine exiles, who competing with Paul for converts, claim the Davidic descent the Nazarene Jesus. (I believe the idea of Jesus as a Davidic king 'kata sarka' is un-Pauline, and Rom 1:3, a later insert).

The reason many Markan scholars since Wrede have struggled to get a handle on the messianic secret is that they allow themselves be hypnotized by two suggestions. One is the Markan mystery mongering . Two, they have allowed themselves to be talked by the patristics into the dogma that "crucified/resurrected Christ" was the lingua franca of the church since Jerusalem. But Mark mischievously lets Jesus talk to the exterior of the story, re-referencing himself from the distance of forty years later (as in the example of Vivian I gave above) building the passion plot around the pig-headed refusal of the Nazarenes to accept the cross of Christ. To the disciples inside the story, Mark's Jesus says the son of man must die and be resurrected and Peter is upset because he wants him to be a different Messiah - the king on the throne of Israel. The future “pillars” don’t get the transfiguration on the mountain as the glory of the risen Lord (2 Cr 3:18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed (μεταμορφούμεθα) into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.). They reject Paul’s Jerusalem above, resisting the idea when it comes from the mouth of Jesus they know, and do not recognize his metamorphosis as the post-mortem spiritual transformation. It scares them, as it scared them on the lake and as the missing corpse will scare the women at the loop of the gospel. Leaving the mountain, the three can’t figure out what the resurrection from the dead is about (cf. 1 Cr 15:12-19) even though it was just demonstrated to them. They cling on to the hope of a messianic kingdom on earth which so enraged Jesus who evidently read the whole chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians, if you get my meaning. The Zebedees could not be talked out of that idea: they wanted some of that Herod’s palace seating for private use after Jesus’ coup d’etat.

Mark’s gospel terms are harsh: he offers to the Petrine Nazarenes, in the proverbial wilderness, three propositions. One: you will repent and accept the cross of Christ as taught by Paul; two, you will accept the spiritual nature of Christ as taught by Paul and his resurrection (!!); and three, you will accept that there is but a single gospel (as per Gal 1:7-8) lest you be damned. In the three core verses 4:10-12, the gospel purpose and structure is laid out (KJV):

And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.

On the principles shown, this is how the koan reads: When Jesus was alone, those who had access to him through the Spirit (from outside of the local time and place), i.e. not the Twelve (!), asked him about the sower parable.

And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all [these] things are done in parables:

It is to you, the true faith of the sower ( 2Cr 9:9-10, 1 Cr 3:6), that the mysteries of the kingdom are revealed, to those on the outside, ἐν παραβολαῖς τὰ πάντα γίνεται - everything, i.e. the entire gospel, is made up out of (undecipherable) parables. In other words, the entire gospel is an allegory.

That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time (μήποτε) they should be converted, and [their] sins should be forgiven them.

Repent ! Paraphrasing Isaiah 6:9, Mark demands through Jesus that the Petrines accept the gospel of the cross, and become faithful, as the pre-condition of their entering the kingdom !

The story unfolds to its inevitable conclusion and culminates in Jesus’ passion, as he predicts it (vaticinium ex eventu). Peter and the disciples run away as prophecied, and hush up the cross so as not to be persecuted for it (Gal 6:12). Jesus is captured by men, tried and condemned twice to be crucified: first, by the Sanhedrin offended by Jesus’ paradoxal self-proclamation and then by a bemused Gentile governor who thinks it is folly to crucify a harmless furiosus, but gives in to the mob to fulfill both ends of 1 Cr 1:23.

The Function of the Empty Tomb in Mark

Even though the view is growing within the NT scholarly community that the abrupt ending at 16:8 is indeed what Mark intended, the meaning of the scene eludes the traditional exegesis. This would be the final example of obscurity in the gospel of Mark. I have outlined a reading of Mark here in which the gospel is open-ended . In the malleable design of the narrative and its recursive structure, this ending has the function of the loop’s end. As one of the humourous definitions of recursion says:

If you still don’t get it, see ‘Recursion’.

In this intuitive paralogic, the meaning of the process is not spelled out but suggested by circumlocution. To get ‘Recursion’ you have to loop a few times through the definition, until you gain the insight that recursion itself is looping through the definition.

In an analogy with Mark’s gospel, the Markan insider would have grasped the scene’s import at once, as it stands as the second milestone in the prophecy of Isaiah [sic] which is fulfilled in a two-stage baptismal process. The scripture (of Paul’s Romans !) would explain what the neaniskos was doing in the empty tomb prior to the arrival of the women: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:3-4). The community would understand the spiritual pun of the missing body of the Nazarene Jesus. A reference to the “scripture” would yield Paul’s 1 Cr 12:27: Now you are the body of Christ (σωμα Χριστου) and individually members of it. Paul’s church was in the mythical Galilee where Jesus was to meet his disciples. The empty tomb fully supports Mark’s narrative design. It is the third instance of Jesus resurrectional transfiguration (the previous ones being on the lake, and on the mount).

I believe the bizzare ending of verse 16:8 in the majority of the manuscript was fully intended. The conjunction γαρ (for) which strangely ends the whole gospel was likely to be "shared" as a connector to verse 1:2. (which likely was the first verse of Urmark) . In this manner, on the second pass, the messenger of "Isaiah" refers to both, John the Baptist and the young man in the tomb, who as I said is most likely self-referencing Mark.

The scene is cleverly set up by the request by Joseph of Arimathea to Pilate to give him the body of Jesus. This would be the again one of the exhilarating misunderstandings in the story: the noble Sanhedrin member who himself expected the coming of the kingdom of God (ος… αυτος ην προσδεχομενος την βασιλειαν του θεου), desired the body of Jesus (το σωμα του Ιησου) . This formula suggests that Joseph really wanted the ecstatic ‘body’ of Jesus which for the Nazarenes signified the imminent coming of God’s kingdom to Israel (alluded to in Acts 2:2-4). But Pilate (15:44) figures the request to mean that Joseph (Αριμαθαια, I am persuaded by professor Paul Nadim Tarazi, stands for Har-rimmat(h)aim , Hebrew for 'mount of decay') wants Jesus’ corpse ( πτωμα). The empty tomb mystery is then predicated by the punning of σωμα and πτωμα, i.e. that which Joseph wanted (and did not get) is now in Galilee.

Plausibly, the young man in the tomb discovered by the women is Mark himself, indicating that he too ran in the terror on the night of the Spirit's capture(likely alluding to Amos 2:15) .

He later repented and received his vision. The women running away from the Pauline baptist and messenger and not telling anything to anyone, assure that it is through Mark’s text that the gospel gets out. This, I believe was the idea behind the Messianic Secret. The disciples (or their followers) may not proclaim the gospel of Jesus passion, his death and his rising. It will be Paul and then Mark through his allegory.

The gospel of Mark then is a cycle between the two baptisms - that into the life of the Spirit (i.e. John the Baptist) and that into its death (i.e. Paul/Mark's) in the tomb. The reader gets out of cycle when he or she captured the full allegorical meaning of Mark's gospel. The newness of life that Jesus experienced at baptism, will have been fulfilled by those initiated into his death.

Unlike the Pauline spiritualists, someone reading Mark in search for meaning without understanding the community, its ways and spirit nomenclature, would be left bewildered by the ending. The Petrine sages who were sent the script were no doubt intrigued. Mark’s narrative gnosticism* looked formidable. After some early fumbling (the interpolated 1 Cr 15:3-11 ?) they found a way to deal with Mark’s offer. The cross of Messiah, yes, but Davidic Messiah; the gnostic supremacy of Paul – no way; single gospel ? you are dreaming, if you think it is going to be yours: the magic circle of gnosis between the baptism of John and the baptism of Paul in Mark’s allegory will have to be broken. The genius who found a solution to the challenge of Mark became known to us as Matthew.

*/ The term is used by Jan Wojcik in the Road to Emmaus to describe Luke's gospel

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