RE: [Synoptic-L] Mark as a Pauline gospel (Motive and Method)
- To: Synoptic
In Response To: Mark Matson
On: Motive and Method in Mark
MARK: If the purpose of the first gospel . . .
BRUCE: Suggested convention: "first Gospel" is ambiguous. In NT usage,
that phrase normally means "first canonical Gospel = Matthew," but for
many who have examined the Synoptic question it all too readily
suggests "Mark." I suggest using the specific names "Matthew" and
"Mark," for maximum comfort and minimum confusion, and foregoing
MARK: . . . was mostly evangelistic, as opposed to didactic or
dogmatic, would the rhetorical thrust really be focused around or
against some "other thought" that existed?
BRUCE: That question assumes a purpose which we do not begin by
knowing, as a way to decide questions whose answers we also don't
know. I think the logic of such an approach is faulty. I would urge
instead that we can best detect the purpose or purposes of a text, not
by assuming anything at all, but by examining the text. And we have
some bases for doing so, as well as some precedents for recognizing
the dominant purpose of a such texts as have a dominant purpose. For
instance, the two halves of the Didache, the minor letters such as 1
Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Acts of Philip, are all useful
contrastive specimens. They show us somewhat purer samples of what
might have been going on in any less obvious or less simple text. From
them, we can begin to acquaint ourselves with at least some of the
possibilities, including polemical, parenetic, and so on. The doctor
who can recognize tuberculosis and pneumonia has a better chance of
sizing up the situation of a patient who, in fact, has both.
As for "mostly," well, that is a quantitative judgement, which I
should think must follow on previous qualitative judgements: what
purposes can we detect in this text? And then comes, Which (if any)
was the main one?
So much for texts which we may call primary. There are also secondary
texts, like the Pastorals in their present form (I here follow
Harrison). They were evidently written chiefly in order to insert into
the already accepted and authoritative pronouncements of Paul some
strictures against earlier Pauline practices, such as women talking in
church. I think that Winsome Munro goes too far to posit a similar
insertion in 1 Peter, but be that as it may, the purpose of the texts
that do this is to alter an existing canon of communal behavior.
There's another category, albeit a subversive one. But we need not be
too hard on the Pastoral fakers; most texts that have a purpose at all
could probably be said to intend to subvert existing opinion, or lack
Presumably all the possible purposes of texts have been worked out,
and provided with examples, and all I have to do to unconfuse myself
on this point is to consult that list. Could someone give me a
reference to it?
MARK: . . . not sure the first gospel would have been entered into
writing with a host of specific issues to oppose.
BRUCE: Nobody with any sense is "sure" of anything, in the cloudy year
2010, but meanwhile, one does one's best. My own hunch, based on some
experience with texts in one place or another, is that texts are
mostly written for reasons. What the issue or issues may have been in
the case of, say, Matthew (we need not call them a "host" until we
know more about the text) needs work. I don't think we can say a
priori that there will be one, or two, or seven (see the Letters to
Seven Churches in Revelation). Or none. Or anything. We need to look
at the text, which, if anything, will contain the answer. Expectations
about the answer don't have any weight at all. They just get in the
way; they darken counsel, they inhibit technique, they polarize in
advance of anything to get polarized about. Not recommended.
MARK: Are we to think that every item which seems important to Mark
has a corresponding social reality that it is constructed to oppose?
BRUCE: To my eye at least, lots of things seem to be important to
Mark. He doesn't oppose all of them. He is positive toward quite a
few. For instance, he is concerned, at some points, to demonstrate the
power of Jesus (what other purpose can readily be seen behind the
Stilling of the Waves?). Probably he thought it was important that
people know that. That's not oppositional, except in the universal
sense that all teaching is opposed to ignorance. As for the things he
DOES oppose, presumably he thought they were both real and current, or
why would he bother?
I don't know how to distinguish "social" reality from any other kind,
but real enough to be concerned about. The Epistle of Jacob would
presumably not bother to chide its recipients about snobbing the poor
man among them, unless this was really happening, no?
MARK: I see where you go with Jesus's family... there is certainly an
issue here. Does this mean, though, by the miracle of mirror-reading,
. . .
BRUCE: I, for one, can do without these snide passing
characterizations. Let's start over, if we may, and I will rephrase
the question in less distracting terms:
MARK: I see where you go with Jesus's family. There is certainly an
issue here. Does this mean, though, that Jesus's family (and so read
James) had a power structure in the church that needed to be opposed?
BRUCE: Tilt. It is not given that "Jesus's family" in Mark must be
decoded to mean "Jacob." Is that reading indicated? That is the
question, and we can only go to the text to find out. To put that
question in a form in which philology can answer it, I propound it
thus: How does one naturally read that sentence? I don't know about
modern exegesis, but I am tempted to invoke the aid of an earlier
commentator, namely Jesus in the next line. What he does is this: He
proceeds to define who his "family" are. He would seem to me making
the point that his real family are not his blood kin, but his fellow
doers of God's will. I will venture to quote Jesus here:
"[And looking around him, at those who sat about him, he said] Here
are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my
brother, and sister, and mother." [Mk 3:24-25]
Here, it would seem (subject to correction), is a validation of the
new family, the righteous believers in God's promise, those who have
accepted the Good News. (There are other passages in Mark, if
confirmation were needed, that confirm this sense of the community).
Of course these cannot be believers in Jesus's Resurrection, since
that has not happened yet. I should say that they are one of our few
firsthand glimpses of a Galilean believer community, with Jesus (by
his own account) one of its members, all of them knit together by a
common belief about God. Exactly what that was, we might wish we know.
But that it was about God and not about Jesus himself, Jesus is here
telling us. I don't know how much higher or more inward eyewitness
authority we can expect on this point.
If so, then the reading of the passage as an attack on the Jerusalem
splinter group will not stand. The "new family" reading has used up
the material. Nothing is left over to interpret another way.
And if we WERE to single out one of the named persons in this passage
against whom to imagine the whole comment of Jesus to be directed, it
would probably not be any of his brothers, let alone his sisters, but
his mother. Does this justify an interpretation that Mark is here
opposing an early growth of the Marian cult? Nope. For the reason
above stated: Jesus is not opposing one family member; he is
redefining "family." And when we have said that, we have said all that
the passage entitles us to say. Done.
MARK: What then do we do with all the disciples who are treated as
having "no faith" "lacking understanding" and "hard hearted?" Are we
to assume then that the gospel is written in opposition to all of
them? [I guess that is the tone of much of this conversation, but it
kind of baffles me]
BRUCE: Well, bafflement is a fair enough response to Mark or to any
serious conversation about it; Mark can be a baffling Gospel. Until we
come to realize that it opposes at some points what it praises or
accepts at other points. It not only has a lot of enemies, it has them
at different places.
That is, Mark as we meet it on the page is simply gibberish, unless we
do one of two things (or more, but at this moment I can only think of
two): (1) Ignore some of the data, and so get a consistent Mark, and
that Mark can be anything one likes, as long as one ignores the right
sets of contrary data; or (2) Collate the points at which Mark seems
to take the SAME view of things, and then separately collate the
points as which he seems to take a DIFFERENT view of those things, and
see what kind of sense those two defined data sets may make. I can't
speak for anybody else, but (2) is more or less what I am trying to
do. Naturally I recommend the same to others.
And how does one do that? Well, take the poor disciples. At some
points in Mark, three of them are treated as privileged intimates;
they are chosen (and others are specifically left behind) to be
present at the healing of Jairus' daughter, and the same three are
similarly chosen to witness the scene at which Jesus (with Moses and
Elijah) is transfigured, and at a few other places. There is no
suggestion that they interfere with the healing by raising objections
in the one case, or spoil the vision by refusing to credit it in the
other; quite the contrary. They have, on any reasonable reading of the
respective passages, full acceptance by Jesus and full understanding
of what they witness in his company, on both those occasions.
So far so good? OK, now we proceed.
There are other passages where we DO find the disciples berated as
being "hard of heart" (sometimes by Jesus, sometimes by the narrative
voice) and as lacking understanding; even as being afraid to ask
questions that might clear up their lack of understanding.
So does Mark celebrate or oppose the disciples? Evidently both, but
(and here is where it gets interesting) at different places. The next
thing to do is to examine the respective places, and see just what it
is the disciples are privy to when they are treated favorably, and
what it is they cannot understand when they are said not to understand.
We have a weekend coming up, ideal for such an investigation, and we
have a lot of lead time left before the weekend starts, ideal for
emptying the mind of prior ideas, so as to be open to what the text of
Mark is actually doing, when we finally pick it up on the weekend.
I will stop here in order to close with that action proposal, which is
warmly recommended for anybody interested in finding out what, or what
things, Mark, or conceivably a succession of persons who had their
hand in the formation of the text of Mark, is (or are) up to.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst