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Salt and forgiveness in Mark

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  • David Gentile
    Hello all. I m new on this list but I ve been around for awhile on the Synoptic-L list. I ve been working through some ideas related to salt and forgiveness in
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 9, 2006
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      Hello all. I'm new on this list but I've been around for awhile on the Synoptic-L list. I've been working through some ideas related to salt and forgiveness in Mark. I'm working on a book, only one chapter of which will deal with topics like this. The book will be in dialog form, and is not meant to be an academic thesis. However, I don't want to have anything that is clearly wrong in it either.

      The following is a section of text from my current draft. In contains more explination on certain points than is needed on this list. But I'm interested in feedback on all parts of it, how well it makes it's case, etc.

      Thank you,

      Dave Gentile

      Riverside IL

      I believe that the historical Jesus had a message about the forgiveness of sin. John the Baptist had that message, and so did Paul. It makes sense that Jesus had that message as well. And forgiveness is obviously a main theme in our New Testament sources about Jesus. Our earliest gospel says - (Mark 11:22-25 NIV) (All my biblical quotes are NIV unless otherwise indicated) "Have faith in God," Jesus answered. "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."

      I think the message here, at leasst in Mark, is ask God for forgiveness, believe you are forgiven, and you are forgiven. Then you should do the same for others. Mark's Jesus mentions forgiveness often, and in contrast to the second gospel, Matthew, Jesus is generally not portrayed as a figure of judgment.

      Some scholarship on Mark says that the author was not concerned with what we would call an afterlife or salvation. And I agree that we do have to be careful about taking our modern notions of an afterlife and modern notions of individualism and reading them back into Mark. Jewish thought was mostly concerned with national reconciliation with God. Personally, however, I think Mark may have wanted to say something about individual fates. Mark makes references to both eternal life in the Kingdom, and to Gehenna.

      Mark 10:17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

      Here we have a personal pronoun and reference to eternal life. Actually the Greek word translated as "eternal" is "aeonion" and probably means something more like "time beyond reckoning" which could be infinite, or just a real long time. It is usually but not always translated as eternal. We could also note that Augustine had to argue that it meant eternal. It was not clear that was the case, even in antiquity. Then looking at a different part of the text, a huge amount of scholarly ink has been spilled on the question of what various authors meant by "the Kingdom". Still, in any case, I think we are talking about a good individual fate here.

      In another section Mark references Gehenna -

      Mark 9:42-48 (New Jerusalem and NIV and Greek) "[But anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones that have faith], it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into [Gehenna], where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into [Gehenna]. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into [Gehenna], where "'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"

      First of all, we should probably not understand this to advocate the literal removal of body parts. Rather, it is a metaphor for "cutting off" from the body of the church, those that would cause loss of faith. For example Paul says (Romans 12:4-5) - "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others."

      We can also note that Mark quotes or nearly quotes the last few lines of Isaiah when he refers to Gehenna. The word Gehenna comes from the Hebrew name for a valley near Jerusalem. Human sacrifices by fire had been made there in the past. Also, bodies of criminals were left there to rot above ground, rather than being buried as was the Jewish custom. In Isaiah the worm and the fire refer to indignity and to the ultimate destruction of the body, not torment after death.

      There are about 400 years between the end of the Hebrew canon, and the beginning of the New Testament period. During that time the area became Greek-speaking, and Greek philosophy became well known. Some Jewish writings from the period, the deuterocanonical texts, reflect a belief in a place of torment after death, although this torment seems to be temporary. This led to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.

      But, while Isaiah did not mean anything like what we think of as hell or purgatory, it is quite possible that Mark meant something like that here. We can see, for example, that many first century Christians did hear it that way, because of the way the tradition evolved in the gospel of Matthew. Also Mark 9:49 says "Everyone there will be salted with fire". In Leviticus (2:13), and in the general knowledge of the region, salt is something that is added to sacrifices to purify them, to make them acceptable to God. So this strongly suggests purification by fire, and at least a temporary after-life torment.

      Now, my problem is this - If Mark believes there is a possibility of something like eternal life, and the possibility of something like a purgatory, then shouldn't there be something in his gospel about specifically how to gain one, and avoid the other? Jesus, in connection with his miracles, frequently says "Your faith has saved you". But the object of faith, that is what we should have faith in, is not clear. In the Old Testament, the object of faith would have been God, and that is what Mark's audience might assume. Then the one place Mark does tell us the object of faith, it is God. Mark 11:22-25 "Have faith in God," I think that is Mark's message of forgiveness and salvation. "Trust God, believe you are forgiven and you are. Go and forgive others." Also, I think this idea of forgiveness might help us make sense of a collection of "salt" sayings in Mark.

      Mark 9:47-50 It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into [Gehenna], where "'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.' Everyone will be salted with fire. "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."

      In the middle of the group of "salt" sayings we have - "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?" This is found in different contexts in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

      Matthew 5:13-16 "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

      Luke 14:31 "Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple. "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

      Apparently it was circulating as a free unit of oral tradition, or as part of a list of sayings, and Mark, Matthew, and Luke all picked it up and used it in different ways. Because of that, it is often said that the original context in which the historical Jesus may have used it can not be identified. My hypothesis here would be that the historical Jesus directed this salt saying against the Pharisees. When Jesus says "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?" I think this refers to the Pharisees, and they are missing something good inside them that makes one acceptable to God. We could also compare this to yeast which was something that should not be in sacrifices. Jesus warns of the yeast, that is "what is unacceptable to God", of the Pharisees. (Mark 8:14-15) The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. "Be careful," Jesus warned them. "Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod."

      The "salt" sayings in Mark end with "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other." This could be read - "Have 'acceptableness to God' in yourselves, and be at peace with one another". Paul echoes this in Roman's 12 (New Jerusalem). "I urge you, then, brothers, remembering the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, dedicated and acceptable to God; that is the kind of worship for you, as sensible people. Do not model your behavior on the contemporary world, but let the renewing of your mind transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and mature." And then in Colossians 4:6 Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Paul is saying the "salt" that makes one acceptable to God is in you, not in those other sorts of sacrifices (like those offered by the Pharisees). And as yet another indicator that 'loss of salt' might refer to the Pharisees, we can note that shortly after the "salt" sayings in Matthew 5, Jesus comments that he requires followers to have a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees.
      If this idea is correct and the historical Jesus used the one salt saying to refer to the Pharisees then we could speculate that the other salt sayings found in that section of Mark may also have been directed at the Pharisees by the historical Jesus. "Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?" This could be read as sarcasm. Sort of, "You Pharisees say 'Everyone will be salted with fire' but it is you Pharisees that have lost your salt. You may be the ones salted (purified/made acceptable to God) with fire" I think it's possible that Jesus refers to something like a purgatory here, but I think it is done with sarcasm directed against the Pharisees. I don't have any direct evidence that the Pharisees were preaching afterlife torment, but it is historically plausible, given the developments in Jewish thought by that time and what we know about the Pharisees. We know the idea of purgatory was out there. And we know the Pharisees were threatening God's wrath for failure to follow tradition. If this is correct, then Jesus can be seen as countering their message of traditions and sacrifices being needed to avoid purgatory, with a message of simple forgiveness based on trust in God and forgiving others.
      Even if we can not push as far back as the historical Jesus, we may be able to push back to an earlier version of Mark than the one we currently see. It seems that "salt" is what one needs to make oneself acceptable to God. Also, Mark and Paul both seem to say that salt is needed for living at peace, and without discord. How does a group live at peace? They forgive each other! So we might say here that Mark believes that forgiving each other is what makes one acceptable to God. And again we can note that if "having salt" is "forgiving others" then this could easily apply to the Pharisees who were long on judgment and harsh justice and short on forgiveness.

      Then we can take a new look at Mark 11. Clearly the text underwent some evolution here. In Mark, the entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple happen on two different days. In Matthew these things happen on the same day. Also the withered fig tree in Mark separates the temple cleansing and the discussion of the authority of Jesus. But these incidents are directly connected in John. It seems quite possible that the fig tree is a late addition to Mark. Also the "uprooted and planted in the sea" saying is in a different context in Luke 17:6. So, here we could speculate that Matthew and Luke both got it from "Q" and then Matthew's use of the saying got placed in all surviving copies of Mark.

      If Mark has been edited here to be more in line with Matthew, and we try to subtract Matthew's text, then we can see a text of Mark that reads something like this. Mark 11:10 - Hosanna! (Please save!) In the highest heavens! He entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple and began driving out the men selling and buying there; he upset the tables of the money changers and the seats of the dove sellers. Nor would he allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple. And he taught them and said "Does not scripture say: My house will be called a house of prayer for all people? But you have turned it into a bandits' den.[].Have faith in God and when you stand in prayer forgive whatever you have against anybody, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your failings too"..and they said to him "What authority have you.". Just as "salt" is the forgiveness that allows one to live at peace with others, and makes one acceptable to God, here Mark has said "Trust God. He answers prayers for forgiveness and asks one to forgive others." Forgiveness of others makes one acceptable to God.

      If that is Mark's message, and the object of faith is God in original Mark, then I think we would speculate that the ending of Mark 10:45 was not in original Mark either. ".and to give his life as a ransom for many." is found in Matthew and Mark, but not in Luke, and my hypothesis would be that Luke's copy of Mark did not have this either. The message of the original Mark here then is just a message of humility, "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant", and original Mark's object of faith is not Jesus but God.

      These general themes of possible purgatory, faith and forgiveness cluster together in both Matthew and Luke. Luke 16 - Luke 17 has - afterlife torment, millstone for those who cause loss of faith, forgive others, power of faith. Matthew 18 has - Millstone, after-life torment, forgive others, power of prayer, then a parable about the relation between God's forgiveness, and forgiving others. That cluster, found both in Matthew and Luke, may indicate that these ideas of faith and forgiveness were tied together in the hypothetical "Q" document. We can also look at Matthew 5 where the salt sayings are soon followed by an extensive section on forgiveness, including things like: "Turn the other cheek", "Love your enemy", "Set no bounds on your love, just as your heavenly Father sets no bounds on his" and the Lord's prayer, "forgive as we have forgiven". Also we could note that this isn't just simple forgiveness in Matthew, this is over-the-top forgiveness. Forgive others as if your soul depends on it? But while the general theme of faith and forgiveness is in "Q" and elsewhere, the unique message of Mark is to have faith or trust in God specifically.

      Now, if we look at the second gospel, Matthew, there is an evolution away from pure forgiveness. There is a clear contrast between Matthew and Mark on hellfire and judgment. Matthew has John the Baptist preach judgment. Mark does not. "The son of man" is generally seen as a figure with the power to judge, and is certainly portrayed that way in Matthew and Luke, but this is noticeably absent in Mark. The first reference to the "Son of Man" in Mark (2:10) has him with the power of forgiveness, but not as a judge. Matthew has hell-images in a number of places, and adds "weeping a gnashing of teeth" often. But Mark's only possible reference to hell-like images is in the one section dealing with Gehenna that I've already mentioned (Mark 9:42-49). Mark has one other section that could be seen as an after-life judgment (Mark 3:30). It has this directed against the Pharisees - "Anyone one blasphemes against the Holy Spirit is guilty of eternal sin". In trying to understand this we can look to later authors who tell us that it was forbidden in the early church to question someone speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit. But as discussed previously, this section may have started its life in a margin note in Mark, and not been in the original text of Mark.

      Another contrast between Matthew and Mark is that Matthew mentions sacraments for forgiveness. In the original text of Mark, there is no mention of baptism for followers of Jesus. But, Matthew instructs baptism for followers (28:19). Regarding the Lord's Supper, Matthew 26:29 says "Do this for forgiveness", but Mark 14:22 says "Do this in remembrance of me". Then at the fig tree (Matthew 21:21), Matthew removes any reference to forgiveness. So, here I can see the tradition developing here from "Have faith in God for forgiveness, now forgive others", to "forgive others to be forgiven", to "over-the-top forgiveness" to "sacraments for forgiveness". One possible reason for this last stage of evolution is obvious. If it became widely known that Christians thought their salvation depended on having to forgive everyone for everything, then they might have become easy targets for those that wanted to take advantage of them.

      In short, I think in Mark's gospel the idea of a purgatory-like place and some sort of individual reward are out there, in the background, and the historical Jesus we can glimpse behind the gospel of Mark, is saying something like "Just have faith in God for forgiveness. Now go and forgive others." And the original Mark is saying something like "Have faith in God and forgive others that you may be forgiven" (Mark 11:22-25). And of course Mark also has the related idea Mark 12:28-31 - One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

      Dave Gentile

      Riverside, IL

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