Poverty in Mk [M4]
- To: GPG
On: Poverty in Mk [M4]
In this series of [M] notes so far, I have reached a twofold division of
material in Mk, roughly early vs late. The late material was identified by
philological signs (evidences of interpolation) or by being addressed to the
later community, or both. The timespan of the material seemed to reach as
far as the mid-40s, or to the early career of Paul, but not demonstrably
beyond. As for the early and late material in Mk, respectively Mk 1 and Mk
2, I had previously summed up by saying "Paul rejects the narrative Mark 1
but credits, as having authority relevant to him, the advisory Mark 2." That
is, he knew at least elements of both.
From this point, one might proceed to distinguish different degrees of
lateness in both the early and the late material, thus arriving at a more
refined picture of an accretional Mark. I have already done that, in another
series of arguments, and shared the results with all comers at SBL/2008.
Instead, I here go back to the beginning and take an independent tack,
looking at correlations, or the lack of them, with the two-phase Mk (or any
subsequent refinement) and any relevant other texts.
Poverty is a big issue in the early community, both as reported in Acts (to
be read with many grains of salt) and as mirrored in other texts, such as
the two layers of the Epistle of James. In the Lazarus parable invented or
first introduced by Luke, we have an extreme position, in which mere wealth
as such, apart from any ethical qualities at all, is enough to merit eternal
damnation, and poverty, without other virtues, is enough to merit eternal
bliss. In the Infancy material added later to Lk (and overriding the
original beginning of Lk at Lk 3:1), we have in the Magnificat an equally
strident polarity, where the future Messiah will invert the social order,
putting all the highs low, and all the lows high. Virtue thus equates with
poverty or humble status, and vice versa. So we might reasonably ask, how
does the question of poverty work out in Mk?
I exclude some monetary passages (eg the question of the Roman Tax), the
disciples' angry question about 200 denarii (6:37) and also the austerity of
John (since Jesus is so often shown as not observing it; indeed, both Mk and
the later Gospels make an explicit point of this difference). The
anti-commercial note in the Cleansing of the Temple I will also omit.
Otherwise, at least on one read-through of Mk, we have the following (an
asterisked passage is an aside, or for other reasons possibly an
(1) THE BELIEF COMMUNITY
3:34 "my mother and my brothers." This defines a community of belief which
replaces family relationships. Its economic nature is not apparent. It is
not necessarily incompatible with the next.
(2) THE DUAL COMMUNITY
*6:7-13. The Twelve are to depend on local hospitality, and not on their own
resources. There is no disapproval of those who make their resources
(3) THE COMBINED COMMUNITY
*10:30. "there is no one . . . who will not receive a hundredfold now in
this time, houses and brothers or sisters or mother or father or lands, . .
. and in the age to come, eternal life." Renunciation is part of the
salvation scenario. A community of shared wealth is implied, not a community
of shared poverty.
*12:42f. The poor widow's two mites are more than the gift of the rich,
because greater in proportion to her livelihood. This does not praise
poverty, but reckons it in assigning merit to contributions to common
property. The contributions of the rich are not despised.
(4) WEALTH AS INIMICAL TO SALVATION
*4:25 "to him who has, more will be given." I paraphrase, "To him who has
the Truth, salvation will be given, and from him who has only wealth, his
wealth will be taken away by death." Separation from wealth is necessary for
salvation, and by implication, the wealthy are not part of the believer
*8:36 "for what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit
his life?" Same.
*10:25 "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. . ."
(5) WEALTH AND ENMITY
*12:38-39. The scribes . . . "who devour widows' houses." The rich as
preying on the poor; these particular rich are outside the believer
community, and hostile to it. This of course is a standard theme in earlier
Jewish tradition, and its appearance here may be conditioned by that
tradition. It is thus safer not to insist on it as a further development in
Mk, and in the analysis below I refrain from doing so. I will thus summarize
below in terms of Mark 1-4 only.
Interpretation is required, but it seems possible to read this material as
(1) The only presumptively noninterpolated material envisions a belief
community, whose economic arrangements are simply not specified.
(2) Other passages from the presently assumed earlier material in Mk (not
quoted above) show Jesus and his followers receiving hospitality from
supporters who are themselves not of the traveling party; that is, as
renunciatory travelers parasitic on the means of fixed residence. This is
exactly the condition of the early Buddhist mendicants.
(3) The milder of the presumptively later materials show an economically
collaborative community, where poor and rich pool their resources, and where
the resulting community is not notably poor, but if anything well provided
(4) The harsher of those materials show a certain polarization between
wealth and salvation: only the renunciators will be saved, and wealth
itself, or at any rate attachment to it, is therefore bad.
(5) We have decided not to push this passage as documenting, within the
ambitus of Mk, a phase in which wealthy outsiders oppress the Jesus
movement. I mention it only to put the type on record; see further below.
I note briefly (so as not to recapitulate entire my James paper of 2007)
that the two layers of James closely match the implied economics of the
above categories (3) and (4-5). James A envisions a community including both
rich and poor, and merely enjoins respect for the poorer brethren as well as
for the rich. James B is highly polarized, and sees the rich as external to
the group, and indeed (here is the point at which it has no certain parallel
in Mk) as the economic and legal oppressors of the group.
The James B position is obviously close in turn to the Mk/Lk Beatitudes,
which praise the poor, without reference to any moral qualities they may
additionally possess, as the inheritors of Heaven, see also the
abovementioned Lazarus parable in Lk. In other ways also, James B has been
shown to be close at many points to Mt.
Acts, which is not to be trusted around a corner, but for what it is worth,
portrays the Christian community in two phases: (a) under Peter's direction,
as a community of both rich and poor, which slays the rich who do not donate
all their wealth to the common good [5:1f], but which still has both rich
and poor among its numbers, and seems to exist unproblematically on the
resulting shared wealth. This is like Mk 3 or James A. (b) Later [6:1]
tensions developed between rich and poor in the movement, and under James'
direction, it became entirely impoverished. Hatred of the rich as an
external and oppressive group does not appear (as also not unambiguously in
Mk), and this may be due to a geographical difference between what is
reflected in Acts [and Mk] and in James. The situation of poverty as such,
specifically in the Jerusalem church or churches, is abundantly confirmed in
the letters of Paul.
The material is delicate and difficult, and some problems of relative
sequence in Mk remain to be resolved, but it may still be worth noting, as a
tentative result, that all the above are compatible with the following four
conjectured phases of early Jesus movement history, in one or more areas:
Phase 1. Mendicancy of the core members and apostles, supported by a network
of resident believers who provide material support. The one is parasitic on
the other. [Mark 2]
Phase 2. The resident community is now united, and has its wealth in common.
Rich and poor exist together in reasonably harmonious fellowship, though
with some looking down (see the milder reproofs of James A) on their
economic inferiors. [Mark 3, James A, Acts a]
Phase 3. The community is impoverished, and tends to see poverty and
salvation as linked [Mk 4, Mt beatitudes, Lk Lazarus parable, Acts b].
Phase 4. The resident community not only has no rich members, but at least
in one instance is oppressed by rich outsiders. [James B, not explicit in
Mt/Lk, with which however James B has other points of contact]
As noted, the series seems to vary with geography. But taking Phase 4 as a
possible local variant of Phase 3, we might see the main sequence as (1)
cooperation of mendicant poor and resident rich; (2) combination of local
rich and poor into one resident community; (3) gradual impoverishment of
that community, and concomitant tendency to see the rich as lacking the
virtue necessary to salvation.
As far as it goes, that sequence is not intrinsically implausible; on the
contrary, it seems to this correspondent to be somewhat more likely a
priori, as a real world development, than any other arrangement of the three
It is sometimes thought that "the early Church" was poor from the beginning.
I offer the above as a possible amendment to that thought.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst