Cc: GPG (for reorientation purposes)
On: The Issue With Mark
[This is both a codicil to previous postings, and a prolegomenon to the current invitation]
For some time now, I have been trying to interest NT people (or at least those within range, whether electronically or at SBL) in a project in which I have long been engaged: the reconstruction of the earliest, and all subsequent, textual states of Mark, prior to its emergence as a public, and thus manuscript-duplicated, text. In a word, the formation process behind Mark.
This investigation is important. Mark is widely recognized as the earliest text in the Synoptic tradition, and thus, in its earliest strata, it is going to be the closest to the Historical Jesus, a matter in which Paul, for his part, was explicitly uninterested. But the investigation is also perilous. As a matter of necessary candor, I should amend my previous invitation to take part in that project (on Crosstalk, or in another medium; it does not matter to me) by indicating the perils. I have mentioned them before, but here it is 2009, and I mention them again.
Did Christianity exist in its fullness already in the lifetime of Jesus, or did it evolve gradually from that beginning into a recognizable form, after his death? That is the key question. Only those who take, and are comfortable with, the latter view should spend serious analytical time on Mark. The rest should let it severely alone, which indeed is exactly what the established Church has always done with it. This note is therefore meant to limit the previous invitation, to what I will call Type B among the NT people.
The difference is not strictly a matter of faith; there are many faithful among Type B. For one example: The minister of my childhood church, a wonderfully intelligent and serene man, was personally content with the idea that much of the belief he practiced, and preached, had been architected by Paul, not Jesus. It was Paul whose words were most frequently quoted from his pulpit. His personal favorite among the Gospels was John, evidently the furthest removed from Synoptic reality, though to certain temperaments also the most beautiful, as it is in a sense the most complete and consistent, of the Gospels. As a child, listening to the weekly sermon, I not only became aware of the content of his belief, and the nature of his recommendations in the light of that belief, but also that these late elements were the chief textual basis for his belief. It was openly acknowledged that this textual basis was late. His Christianity was explicitly of the evolved type. That, to me, typifies Type B at its most successful.
The earliest strata in Mark, insofar as I (and a few others, past and present) can so far identify them, paint a picture which is indeed quite different from the one that came to be central to later Christianity. As Ed Sanders (and others) warned us a generation ago, Jesus himself was not a Christian. He was a Jew, and he thought, albeit in what eventually proved to be a revolutionary way, within Judaism. The growth to a more universally palatable form of his ideas took place later, in response Jesus's death, and also in response to hostility from orthodox Jewry (not to mention Rome), a hostility which he and his followers had encountered already during his life.
Why the Gospels? The question is often asked. I should think the answer is very simple. It was to register, and to read back into the life of Jesus, the belief system that emerged rather rapidly after Jesus' death: to put the current idea of Jesus into the form of an authority text. Not to record historical memory, but to replace it. That primitive authority text was the original narrative constituting Mark. Later emergencies either ended the Markan community as such, or rendered the whole basis of Mark irrelevant, and new beginnings were undertaken, preserving as much of the already authoritative Mark as possible, but giving the whole account a new spin. Thus Matthew and Luke.
But the challenges to the adequacy of Mark began much earlier. No sooner did Mark exist, than it became necessary to keep it current with continually evolving belief. The atmosphere, as best I can visualize it, was rather like that stated by the introduction to the Epistle of Jude: "I was going to write you about A, the agreed content of our faith, but an urgent matter has come up, and I write you instead about B." I think Mark, by which I mean the proprietor of the probably lower Syrian church which produced the text now conventionally identified by that name, was continually faced with this same dilemma. It was not enough to celebrate the faith as it already was; it was necessary to witness to the faith as it needed to become. The content of the authority text had to stay current with the problems of the faithful, or it would cease to support the faith of the faithful. Among other things, the content of the concept "Jesus" had to be continually adjusted so as to serve as a psychologically tenable source for current belief. To take one familiar example: "Jesus" had to rebuke his disciples, for staying stuck in a view which Mark's parishioners had also held - last week. This "rebuking Jesus," this "Jesus" who insists on a new view of things, was one of the literary devices by which the preacher of that group, and the author and custodian of its authority text, persuaded his flock to move on, to a different and more adequate view of their place, and their duty, in the world with which they were actually confronted. In this way, there gradually came into being the various later strata of material added to the original text of Mark. The accretional nature of Mark was not a whim, or an accident, or (as some feel) an impertinence. It was a necessity, if the text were to be kept valid in its originally intended use: as a guide and a certification document for the most recent and most situationally viable form of Christianity.
When Mark for whatever reason stopped growing, the growth of early Christian doctrine was continued under other textual auspices: the Second Tier Gospels.
In just this way, and for this reason, does the USA at intervals rewrite its Constitution, by adding material to it, including material whose purpose is to negate the effect of an original clause of it. If it were not amended, so as to keep it within relevancy range of current social and political needs, it would quickly become a museum piece. That was not the intention of the Founders, and it is not the way things have turned out. The Constitution is live, precisely because it has the capacity to grow with the society which, in turn, it defines.
Modern preachers do this sort of updating continually, with just one difference. They ask, of some new and seemingly contemporary situation, "What would Jesus have done?" This, if we consider it operationally, is an appeal to reimagine Jesus in a form which can connect more easily with the world outside the church doors. The only difference between this rhetorical question and Mark is that Mark, as the text proprietor, had the authority to amend the authority text itself, by putting his new material into the authority text. He was able to do in real time what modern preachers can do only in the imaginations of the people to whom they speak. (Or in some published sermon of their own, or in a treatise that may make Amazon, without in a literal textual sense affecting the canonical writings).
So, I would suggest, the accretion process which I detect in Mark is not only attested, in one form or another it is universal, in both ancient and modern times. It is a natural textual response to a constantly recurring situation faced by the users of texts. The growth process in early Christianity actually comprises the emergence, and the subsequent modification, of all four Gospels.
My Mark Project (to give it that name for the moment, though that is not what it is officially called) is not focused on the Historical Jesus. Or on any other single point within the evolution witnessed by the accretions in Mark. It is focused on the entire process by which the Historical Jesus was amended, in the minds of his followers, to address the needs and embody the insights of those followers. It was Mark and a few others like him, the writers of the authority documents, who first steered, and presided over, that process. All stages of the process are of historical interest. The point at which Christianity acquired a name for itself (so important a step that Luke records it in Acts, whether at the right date and place is still open to discussion). The point at which it finally broke with Judaism (ditto). Luke, from his vantage point in a later age, sees clearly enough the key moments in Church history. Mark actually gives us contemporary documents from that history.
Or so it seems from where I sit. With that prolegomenon, and with that qualification, which I wanted to be sure was on the official record, I may now with a good conscience again invite others who may be interested to sit down at the same table, and make their different insights and experiences, their skills and their reading acquaintance, no one set of which is likely to duplicate another exactly, available to the ongoing discussion. With a little variety in the conversation, perhaps it may be possible to follow the philological evidence a few steps further than the point so far reached. Or, who can say? to help steer the present effort in a different and more fruitful direction altogether.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
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