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Re: [XTalk] Geography Error in Mark 11:1

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  • J. Ted Blakley
    While writing this response to Vincent s first email, his second email was posted and so I have decided to combine my responses to his two emails in just one.
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 5, 2004
      While writing this response to Vincent's first email, his second email was posted and so I have decided to combine my responses to his two emails in just one.

      Vincent Wrote (first email):
      >Mark 11:1 reads: 1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage
      >and Bethany at the Mount of Olives.

      >Approaching Jerusalem from Jericho (v. 10:46), Jesus and his
      >entourage would have reached Bethany then Bethphage--the reverse of
      >what Mark has.

      >Many scholars refer to Mark 11:1 as yet another geography error
      >within the Gospel. Some scholars hold out and take a different view.
      >In his massive commentary on Mark, Robet Gundry argues that Mark
      >mentions Jerusalem, the place of fulfillment first and works his way
      >out from there. Mark had a Jerusalem focused mindset which caused
      >him to mention Bethphage first since it was closer to Jerusalem.

      Ted Writes:
      First, I would like to reopen the case on Mark's so-called geographical "errors." At some point in the history of Markan scholarship it became an axiom that Mark's narrative was filled with geographical errors. Consequently, when geographical inconsistencies or oddities were encountered they were added to the stockpile of errors and thereby the axiom reinforced. My studies on Markan geography over this past year suggest to me that it is time to reevaluate this axiom that still prevails in many quarters of Markan scholarship. While I don't doubt the possibility of errors in Mark (geographical or otherwise), I think there are simply better explanations that further our understanding of Mark's gospel than simply positing geographical errors.
      Besides "error" is such a tricky word. I have been reading the Little House on the Prairie books to my little girl. I have found out since that the order of events and where events take place do not always coincide with what "really" happened. Sometimes, two events that took place in two different locations or time periods are narrated one after the other. Now no one would say this is an error, they would simply say that this is not how it actually happened. Why? Because we have letters from Laure Ingals Wilder herself that she in fact chose to do this to make a smoother overall story. Is she writing history? I would say yes. Is she writing fiction? I would say yes. Does this rule out any errors? No. There could be inconsistencies or errors within the story world that Wilder created as a vehicle to tell her real story. For example, she could narrate an event that presupposed another event out of sequence with the other event. My point is we wouldn't call it an error or an inconsistency if what was in her books did not correspond to what happened in the real world in terms of location and chronology, we would only do so if it did not correspond to what happened in the story world she has created. Another way of saying this would be, if we approached her books solely as historical critics seeking information about what actually happened and we had independent evidence for the events in her books that differed then we might indeed think in terms of error but if we approached her books as literary critics then the category of error is much different, it is no longer in terms of referent to the real world. My impression is that we need to approach Mark with literary/narrative critical categories before we start applying historical categories.
      So when the historical critic says that Genesara is not next to the Sea of Galilee, are we to call this a geographical error. It could be especially if Mark's intention was to tell us exactly where this event took place. But literary/narrative critics in looking at the GMark as a whole have noticed that a lot of things happen in Mark alongside the Sea and on the Sea? Could it be that Mark has purposefully narrated events alongside the Sea for some purpose? Or take Mark 7:31. I have read so many commentators talk about how this itinerary simply doesn't work. Different illustrations have been given along the lines of going from Tyre to the Sea of Galilee by going through Sidon and the middle of the Decapolis is like going from Los Angeles to Miami via Alaska. The assumption seems to be that the Sea of Galilee is Jesus' primary destination or goal, which would make one question the route. This is where a translation like that offered by the NRSV/RSV is so misleading, it reads, "Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis." The fact is "returned" is simply not in the Greek text. But what if the Sea of Galilee is where Jesus' ended up but wasn't his destination per se? What if Mark (which more recent commentators seem to be going with) is describing Jesus' itinerary? That is, what if Mark is trying to describe for the reader a journey that keeps Jesus in Gentile territory (which is definitely not what happens in Matthew)? Even those who end up arguing that Mark is describing a Gentile mission in Gentile territory often comment that 7:31 is nevertheless troublesome. But I wonder even if this would be the case if Mark had never got the reputation for being geographically inept.

      Second, Gundry's argument (Lane makes a similar case and Evans agrees) seems to me to assume that Mark is attempting to communicate some sort of order. IMO, Gundry's argument is certainly logical and plausible and would be valuable *if* Mark is attempting to provide in this opening clause of 11:1 some sort of itinerary, which my comments below will suggest that this is not what Mark is doing.

      Vincent Wrote (first email):
      >Gundry also wrote:

      >"The order Jerusalem-Bethphage-Bethany does not betray topographical
      >ignorance, for the succeeding narrative shows knowledge that
      >Jerusalem is Jesus' destination, not an intermediate point on the
      >way to it."

      >I suppose Gundry's view that John Mark actually wrote GMark and
      >lived in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12) could influence his view somewhat. I
      >do not share this assumption. Marcan authorship aside, I'm curious,
      >does this theory have much merit? Are there any other examples in
      >antiquity where this was done?

      >Matthew 21:1 removes the reference to Bethany which removes any
      >potential problem. Luke keeps the Marcan order as it is (did he just
      >miss it?).

      >Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

      Ted Writes:
      Just some thoughts. I haven't studied this in detail but when I look at the Greek of Mark 11:1 my impression of the syntax is similar/identitical to what one finds in a number of English translations. The RSV translates as follows: "And when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples." Cf. also the NAB "When they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples," the only real difference being its lack of a comma before "at the Mount of Olives."
      When I looking at the Greek, I see an EIS before Jerusalem, another EIS before Bethphage, no EIS before Bethany, and a KAI joining/separating Bethphage and Bethany. I have two impressions. First, Bethphage and Bethany are being presented together; they are two locations but in the syntax they are one syntactical unit. Second, combined they are further exlicating Mark's statement that "When they drew near to Jerusalem." So where Gundry sees "the order Jerusalem-Bethphage-Bethany" I don't see an order at all, instead I see further clarification, or further precision.
      As I write this I am reminded of Neirynck's 1972 study *Duality in Mark.* I have only read parts of his study myself but have seen a number of scholars make reference to it. One of the points Neirynck demonstrates is Mark's characteristic trait of dual-expressions. In response to some source critics who interpreted Mark's double-expressions as a sign that Mark was combining sources, Neirynck writes in his conclusion "Two valuable observations may be reassessed: 1. duality is in many instances a much better definition than pleonasm, redundancy and repetition; 2. in some double phrases of Mk, the first is a general statement and the second adds further precision. The survey of temporal and local statements, double questions, antithetic parallelism and the use of *oratio recta* and *oratio obliqua* has shown that the progressive double-step expression is a more genearl Markan characteristic" (70-71). The second point is what I would argue is going on here and let me provide some other examples of such double-step expressions in Mark.
      (1) In Mark 1:32, "And when evening had come, when the sun had set, they brought to him all of those who were sick and were possessed by demons." Here we have a double-step progression that is temporal, where the second expression "when the sun had set" adds further precision to the general statement "And when evening had come." This is a particularly interesting example of the double-step progression because in this example the second step does not simply bring greater precision, it adds an important element to the narrative. In this context, it informs the reader that the people waited until the sabbath was over before they brought the sick to Jesus and so invests this story with Jewish overtones. (2) Another example is in Mark 7:26 where the double-step progression is used to identify the woman who has sought Jesus out, "Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophonecian by race." Here again one sees how the second step provides greater precision. (3) One final example, a geographical one, is in Mark 6:45 where Jesus compels/forces the disciples to embark in the boat and to go on ahead "to the other side, to Bethsaida." Clearly "Bethsaida" is more precise than "to the other side." Without going into details, I think here we have another example where the second step while bringing more precision is attempting to highlight something for the reader. After all notice that in the first episodic sea crossing in 4:35-41, Jesus simply says, "Let us go to the other side." There is no second step in terms of location (there is, however, a temporal double-step in 4:35a). So in 6:45 Bethsaida is highlighted. Why? Because they do not reach their intended destination, they land at Gennesaret instead. This, of course, is one of those notorious Markan errors. But I am not so convinced. I think a better explanation is that Mark wants the hearer/reader to pick up on the fact that the disciples did not make it to where Jesus wanted them to go. Again, without going into details (I will provide them if somebody wants them), I think one of the supporting factors is that Mark uses two double-step progressions: For the intended destination in 6:45, "(1) to the other side, (2) to Bethsaida" and for the actual destination in 6:53 "(1) And when they crossed over to the land, (2) they came to Gennesaret."
      Bringing us back then to our discussion of Mark 11:1, I would say that "to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives" is another instance of a Markan double-step progression. In which case, I think Gundry's (and other's) explanations need to be re-evaluated. Mark is not providing an itinerary, albeit in reverse order, but is providing futher precision. The question that remains that I haven't thought about is, why has Mark chosen to do a double-step at this point? Is there some larger significance to the unit "Bethphage and Bethany" (or perhaps larger significance to the Mount of Olives if this somehow is a second or even third step, see below.)? Of course, Bethany and the Mount of Olives figure prominently into the narrative that follows. [BTW, in looking at Neirynck, he lists 11:1 in his section 10, "Double Statement: Temporal or Local." Interestingly he presents it as follows (in Greek though): EIS Jerusalem / EIS Bethphage and Bethany / PROS the Mount of Olives. I don't know if he sees this as a three-step progression (which Mark does have though not as often as the two-step) or perhaps two two-step progressions. Neirynck also lists 11:1 in his section 11, "Double Statement: General and Special," as follows (again in Greek) "EIS Jerusalem EIS Bethphage and Bethany / PROS the Mount of Olives."
      So, if one takes "EIS Bethphage KAI Bethany" as a second step providing greater precision to the "EIS Jersualem," one might wonder why this second step unit has occurred in the order of Bethphage and Bethany instead of Bethany and Bethphage. This is an issue that is more speculative, and perhaps not ultimately that significant though one never can tell. My thought is that this order simply reflects the convention that people had adopted in reference to these two places. After all, both are in close proximity to one another on the Mount of Olives. Maybe there was some relationship between these two villages that the locals simply referred to Bethphage and Bethany (especially since I don't think there were city limits signs posted). I liken it to Tyre and Sidon. Have you ever heard anyone speak of Sidon and Tyre? Why is it that when reference in the biblical literature is made to these two places that the order is always Tyre and Sidon and not Sidon and Tyre (well Judith 2:28 is the one exception). I expect there was a reason at some point but later on it was simply the conventional way of referring to these cities/regions. That's my guess at what is going on with Bethphage and Bethany in Mark. One could futher speculate what was the original reason why this particular order became the convention (assuming there was a reason; after all there are two names and one has to go first); perhaps in a Jersusalem-centered world one would think in terms of proximaty to Jersualem in which case Gundry might have a valid point. Gundry's explanation may explain the conventional order of "Bethphage and Bethany" but not Mark's use of it. Mark simply followed the convention.

      Vincent's Response to James (second email)
      > Mark has a "chronological" (or psuedo-Chronological) journey of
      > Jesus. He is at Jericho in 10:46. From there the order is reversed
      > with the two villages. Yes, even natives of a land can make
      > mistakes, but there are of course certain mistakes natives do not
      > make. This is not conclusive but on a probability scale it would
      > slightly push me away from its author having lived in or directly
      > around Jerusalem given the author confuses the order of two
      > surrounding villages.

      > Also, contrary to what you write, the passage constitutes evidence
      > that Mark did know the area. It tells us several things. You
      > mentioned several places in your thought example. I have no idea
      > where Bath and Swindon are. I've never heard of them and could never
      > describe them in a journey as Mark has done with his locations. But
      > Mark knows of Jericho, he knew, apparently of the major road leading
      > from their to Jerusalem (on Meier's maps in MJ series), he knew of
      > Jerusalem and several surrounding villages (Bethany, Bethphage, etc).

      > The text shows Mark did know of the land but he reversed the order
      > of two towns. Does a resident (native?) of that area make this
      > mistake? Also it should be noted that this is not the only
      > Palestinian geography error in Mark either. I take it he didn't live
      > near Geresa and wasn't directly familiar with the Decapolis either.

      Ted's Response
      Given everything I have argued to this point, I would question whether Mark's order of Bethphage and Bethsaida indicates anthing about Mark's knowledge or lack of knowledge of the area. Nevertheless, you could be correct that the evidence shows that Mark knows the land (to what extent I don't know), but I don't think that you could make an argument that he "reversed the order of the two towns.Your argument and conclusions assumes that we know that Mark was attempting to provide us with the villages in the order that Jesus would have encountered them on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem, an assumption which I can't imagine how one might be able to argue or defend. So I'm not sure that your question, "Does a resident (native?) of that area make this mistake?" actually works. Again, I'm not sure that speaking in terms of "mistake" or "error" is the most fruitful line of inquiry into these issues.

      Well, this email is long enough, and I would appreciate any responses.


      J. Ted Blakley
      Ph.D. Candidate St. Mary's College, University of St. Andrews
      35 Auldburn Park
      St. Andrews, Fife KY16 8JD


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