Cc: GPG; WSW
In Response To: John Staton
On: Mark (3)
I had reported that Mark feels to me more like an explanation than a
JOHN: Ancient bioi existed *primarily* to explain, and even to propagandise
for their subject. They were commonly selective of the data they recorded,
narrating those details/events that best suited the purpose of the author.
We should not reject the possibility that Mark wrote his gospel as a bios
merely because the work does not feel like a modern biography.
BRUCE: No indeed. But it still seems to me that Mark bears, and is there to
bear, the burden of explaining things about Jesus that go beyond the usual
celebratory motive for ancient biography. Jesus failed; what does it mean?
What is the ongoing significance of Jesus for his followers? It seems to me
that these are the sort of concern aMk has for his subject. Not just what
happened. The text also deals with the question "Now what?"
JOHN: As to the accretional theory, it would appear to me to be the mark of
an inept author to insert material that is wholly at odds with the ideas of
the text surrounding it.
BRUCE: So it might seem, but interpolators do it all the time. In fact, they
do it much more typically than authors mess up their own work even as they
write it. The person adding a segment to an existing text is concerned, not
primarily for the beauty and balance of the preceding text, but rather for
the message contained in the piece he wants it to carry, a message for which
he seeks the certifying power of the prior, established text.
The world in which we (and perhaps also aMk) live and work has been shown to
be somewhat less than idea. Stuff changes, leaves fall, interpolations
occur. How many former bank buildings now carry rather garish signs
identifying the gallery or boutique that now occupies that once dignified
and dedicated space? It's awful, but it does happen. Regularly.
JOHN: Are we not in danger here of creating a false dichotomy: where we see
contradiction. maybe Mark would have seen creative tension, each idea
modifying the other.
BRUCE: That there is tension in Mark, I think few will venture to deny. The
question is whether it is "creative," or shall we say "intentional."
I can give an example of a text where seemingly blatant contradictions are
in fact intentional; where it is not the text but the tension that in fact
carries the message. Perhaps I might introduce it, just by way of
orientation to the possibilities.
The text in question is the Analects of Confucius (see my study, The
Original Analects, Columbia 1998; many theological libraries seem to have
it). (Confucius lived 0549-0479; the book was begun in the year of his death
and continued to be extended until 0249; it was the house text of the
Confucian school in his home state of Lu). This text consists of 20
chapters, most of them composed of brief, mostly contexted, sayings or
pronouncements of Confucius. It is very common for adjacent sayings to be
related in some way (paired), and it not seldom happens that two paired
sayings will express what seem like opposite views of the same thing or
person (a famous example is the conflicting evaluations of Gwan Jung,
minister of Chi in former times, in Analects 14:16-17). For this opposition,
there are essentially two possibilities: (a) a discordant later saying about
Gwan Jung was intruded next to an earlier saying taking a different view of
him; this intrusion has created the pairing pattern. (2) the two paired
sayings are original, and some sort of resolution of the contradiction must
be made; the conflict cannot be solved by eliminating one saying as scribal
Which is the better guess? Survey of the whole text shows that the pairing
pattern is pervasive, not local or adventitious, and that when it is
interrupted, the saying which interrupts the pattern can frequently be shown
to be later than the chapter whose pattern it interrupts. Then there are
indeed interpolations in the text (and they do, as so often happens,
interfere with the original design of the text when they occur, as they
could hardly help doing), but the pairing pattern as such is original, in
grain, not subject to doubt as an artifact of intrusion. This is as far as
philology per se takes us, and a very great help it is, but we are not yet
We must still solve the problem of determining what was meant by the
original, but nevertheless discordant, pair of sayings about Gwan Jung. One
possibility is that one saying states a general rule, and the other gives a
qualifying rule, or states an exception, the two together leading to a more
adequate rule than either one alone could provide. Each formulation is
appropriately gnomic and memorable, but the two together give a more
reasonable and thus applicable teaching.
This way of resolving contrasting pairs will also work with several other
obviously discordant places, and it also clarifies some that are less
obviously discordant, but which turn out to repay more thought than the
casual reader might be inclined to bestow. There are even places (try
Chapter 9) where the combined meaning of one pair (in effect, an unwritten
but nevertheless communicated maxim) and that of the adjacent pair (ditto)
themselves combine to be resolved in a still higher-level lesson.
Fine, one might say, but how do we know we are not making this up? Or to put
the question in a form in which philology can deal with it: What warrant do
we have for thinking that those for whom these sayings were written, the
pupils of the Confucian school, approached them in this way? Answer: We
find, in the anecdotal contexts of these sayings (and I have in mind
especially the 05th century part of the text, Analects 4-9 inclusive), that
students are frequently commended for meditating on the sayings not for
minutes at a time, but for months at a time. Students who spend the time but
get less out of the sayings are not ranked as high as those who get more
(the prize student, Yen Hwei, could "hear one thing and come back with ten,"
so adept was he at getting the unexpressed lesson out of the expressed
lesson). There is thus every reason to see these sayings as food for
thought, and not just as grist for memory. Further, there is a whole
technical vocabulary of thought in the 05c and 04c layers of the text,
things like "deciding doubtful cases" (when two values seem to conflict,
another instance of conflict resolution). The text itself thus explicitly
countenances the kind of extended consideration and contradiction solution
that we have posited for these seemingly inconsistent pairings. The task,
very often in the Analects, is set by the pairing ("Go figure out why these
sayings have been juxtaposed"), and defined by the contrast itself ("How can
Gwan Jung be both commendable and reprehensible?").
Those familiar with the Zen kôan (typically a *single* paradoxical
saying)may recognize it as a sort of maverick grand-nephew of the Analects
provocative juxtaposition teaching device.
I would call that a case of "creative" [or as I would prefer to say,
"constructive"] tension. Can we find traces of a similar intent in the
seemingly conflicting passages of Mark?
My own impression is, No, we can't. One member of the conflicting group is
usually textually insecure in Mark, so that the conflict in those cases
seems indeed to be an artifact of interpolation; the text in the act of
updating something which it does not obliterate, but instead leaves
standing, either because it was too familiar to be eliminated, or in order
to serve as the ground for the update or refutation.
Texts which argue with themselves in this way are more common than one might
have thought. For examples in Biblical Greek, Homeric Greek, and classical
Chinese, see my short paper, "The Rhetoric of Anticipated Objection," still
available in PDF form at http://www.umass.edu/wsp/biblica/quest/index.html.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst