To: Synoptic (GPG)
In Response To: Jeffrey Gibson
JEFFREY: Could you please articulate what you mean by "spiritual austerity"?
/ BRUCE: Not a new term. But in general: deprivation of the flesh (beginning
with fasting, but not limited to fasting) in the interest of cultivating a
higher consciousness or a closer contact with God. The flesh is the enemy of
the spirit. Common in the East (the ultimate source seems to be India), not
excluding the Near East. Tends to separate out as a more or less distinct
tradition within European Christianity (St John of the Cross, Meister
Eckhart, the practice of the presence of God; that stuff) and visible in the
austerity saints of earlier times (Simeon Stylites).
I had referred to how Jesus prays in the rest of Mark. JEFFREY: He does?
How does this compare with Luke's portrayal of Jesus? / BRUCE: I could get
into that (the word "spirit" becomes useful in this context; notice the
points at which Luke adds it to the beginning of the Markan Jesus story).
But it's not necessarily relevant: both Matthew and Luke drastically
reconceptualize Jesus, and geographically resituate his mission, and a whole
lot of other stuff. If we work with the rule that the Gospels must be saying
the same thing, I doubt we can find a really good reading of any one of
JEFFREY: And where is prayer mentioned in Mk 1:12-13? / BRUCE: Not a lot
even if we take the whole of Mark. But it rather stands out that whenever
Jesus seeks guidance, he goes off by himself to do it (as when deliberating
whether to leave Capernaum; his disciples finally locate him there). And in
the episode of the epileptic boy, the disciples ask why they couldn't cure
him, and Jesus answers (in effect) that some of these cures are high-voltage
matters, and require a lot of spiritual power, which they get by prayer
(Bezae and several other manuscripts add "and fasting," which is probably
textually unwarranted, but substantively in the right direction). Notice the
Woman Healed of a Flow of Blood: in that case, the energy (Chinese chi) or
spiritual power or whatever in Jesus is tapped into without even his being
aware of it: it passes by touch. He notices when it is gone - not that he
feels her touch, but that he is aware of a diminution of his "power to
heal." That power is like a fluid: it is accumulated during solitary contact
with God, and can be discharged in the form of healing.
Matthew, of course, in defiance of public convenience, makes mountains a
place for Jesus to contact humanity in the large, not to cultivate a private
relationship with God. This is part of what I mean by "reconceptualization."
He does not thereby improve on Luke (who is himself improving on Mark), who
has Jesus come down from the height before addressing the masses.
JEFFREY: Have you noticed the links between the Gethsemane scene in Mark and
his "testing" (NOT temptation) story? Would you call the Gethsemane scene
a period of "spiritual austerity?" . . . Is it not presented as a struggle
on Jesus' part to remain obedient to both a mission and that mission's
constraints? / BRUCE: Yes, it is. But this is a heavily rewritten part of
Mark (notice that in this same section we get one of the two clear
references to the Atonement doctrine, of which Mark is otherwhere innocent;
this is a very late concept). The post-Baptism "Testing" episode in Mark,
which is enigmatic as it stands (though perhaps a little less so if one has
been through a course of meditation or other personal preparation, or its
equivalent), is developed in Matthew (and following him, in Luke) as a
challenge to Jesus's commitment to his own death. That is, the original
episode is homogenized, in Matthew, with Mark's Gethsemane scene. But this
is a Jesus who has been rewritten at many points to plan his own death from
the beginning (John goes still further in the same direction, which is why a
lot of people like John: None of these worrisome inconsistencies). If we
want to catch a glimpse of any possible original Jesus, we need to push away
the later strands of the reworked tradition, and see what is left at the
As in any historical enterprise, or so I understand it.
E Bruce Brooks
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Much has been written on austerity in early Christianity, but perhaps we
could use a little more. Personally, I doubt that anyone who does not
understand austerity practices can really get the "spiritual" (meaning,
spirit possession) element in many of the early churches. You empty
yourself, so that something else can fill you. That something can heal, it
can prophesy, it can cosmically attune; it can save. It has powers greater
than the ones you have surrendered in order to acquire it. I somehow doubt
that we can read Luke adequately (to mention only Luke) while sitting down.
People might spend more time on the Apostolic literature than they seem to
do. Take the Acts of John, for instance. It is little more than a string of
miracles (and so, for that matter, is the We part of Acts, Luke's essay in
the Apostolic genre), but the typical miracle is preceded by John praying.
First the power, then its action in the world of men. Accumulation, then
discharge. Law of nature, or at least nature as it is understood by some.