The Issue With Mark
- To: Crosstalk
Cc: GPG (for reorientation purposes)
On: The Issue With Mark
[This is both a codicil to previous postings, and a prolegomenon to the current invitation]
For some time now, I have been trying to interest NT people (or at least those within range, whether electronically or at SBL) in a project in which I have long been engaged: the reconstruction of the earliest, and all subsequent, textual states of Mark, prior to its emergence as a public, and thus manuscript-duplicated, text. In a word, the formation process behind Mark.
This investigation is important. Mark is widely recognized as the earliest text in the Synoptic tradition, and thus, in its earliest strata, it is going to be the closest to the Historical Jesus, a matter in which Paul, for his part, was explicitly uninterested. But the investigation is also perilous. As a matter of necessary candor, I should amend my previous invitation to take part in that project (on Crosstalk, or in another medium; it does not matter to me) by indicating the perils. I have mentioned them before, but here it is 2009, and I mention them again.
Did Christianity exist in its fullness already in the lifetime of Jesus, or did it evolve gradually from that beginning into a recognizable form, after his death? That is the key question. Only those who take, and are comfortable with, the latter view should spend serious analytical time on Mark. The rest should let it severely alone, which indeed is exactly what the established Church has always done with it. This note is therefore meant to limit the previous invitation, to what I will call Type B among the NT people.
The difference is not strictly a matter of faith; there are many faithful among Type B. For one example: The minister of my childhood church, a wonderfully intelligent and serene man, was personally content with the idea that much of the belief he practiced, and preached, had been architected by Paul, not Jesus. It was Paul whose words were most frequently quoted from his pulpit. His personal favorite among the Gospels was John, evidently the furthest removed from Synoptic reality, though to certain temperaments also the most beautiful, as it is in a sense the most complete and consistent, of the Gospels. As a child, listening to the weekly sermon, I not only became aware of the content of his belief, and the nature of his recommendations in the light of that belief, but also that these late elements were the chief textual basis for his belief. It was openly acknowledged that this textual basis was late. His Christianity was explicitly of the evolved type. That, to me, typifies Type B at its most successful.
The earliest strata in Mark, insofar as I (and a few others, past and present) can so far identify them, paint a picture which is indeed quite different from the one that came to be central to later Christianity. As Ed Sanders (and others) warned us a generation ago, Jesus himself was not a Christian. He was a Jew, and he thought, albeit in what eventually proved to be a revolutionary way, within Judaism. The growth to a more universally palatable form of his ideas took place later, in response Jesus's death, and also in response to hostility from orthodox Jewry (not to mention Rome), a hostility which he and his followers had encountered already during his life.
Why the Gospels? The question is often asked. I should think the answer is very simple. It was to register, and to read back into the life of Jesus, the belief system that emerged rather rapidly after Jesus' death: to put the current idea of Jesus into the form of an authority text. Not to record historical memory, but to replace it. That primitive authority text was the original narrative constituting Mark. Later emergencies either ended the Markan community as such, or rendered the whole basis of Mark irrelevant, and new beginnings were undertaken, preserving as much of the already authoritative Mark as possible, but giving the whole account a new spin. Thus Matthew and Luke.
But the challenges to the adequacy of Mark began much earlier. No sooner did Mark exist, than it became necessary to keep it current with continually evolving belief. The atmosphere, as best I can visualize it, was rather like that stated by the introduction to the Epistle of Jude: "I was going to write you about A, the agreed content of our faith, but an urgent matter has come up, and I write you instead about B." I think Mark, by which I mean the proprietor of the probably lower Syrian church which produced the text now conventionally identified by that name, was continually faced with this same dilemma. It was not enough to celebrate the faith as it already was; it was necessary to witness to the faith as it needed to become. The content of the authority text had to stay current with the problems of the faithful, or it would cease to support the faith of the faithful. Among other things, the content of the concept "Jesus" had to be continually adjusted so as to serve as a psychologically tenable source for current belief. To take one familiar example: "Jesus" had to rebuke his disciples, for staying stuck in a view which Mark's parishioners had also held - last week. This "rebuking Jesus," this "Jesus" who insists on a new view of things, was one of the literary devices by which the preacher of that group, and the author and custodian of its authority text, persuaded his flock to move on, to a different and more adequate view of their place, and their duty, in the world with which they were actually confronted. In this way, there gradually came into being the various later strata of material added to the original text of Mark. The accretional nature of Mark was not a whim, or an accident, or (as some feel) an impertinence. It was a necessity, if the text were to be kept valid in its originally intended use: as a guide and a certification document for the most recent and most situationally viable form of Christianity.
When Mark for whatever reason stopped growing, the growth of early Christian doctrine was continued under other textual auspices: the Second Tier Gospels.
In just this way, and for this reason, does the USA at intervals rewrite its Constitution, by adding material to it, including material whose purpose is to negate the effect of an original clause of it. If it were not amended, so as to keep it within relevancy range of current social and political needs, it would quickly become a museum piece. That was not the intention of the Founders, and it is not the way things have turned out. The Constitution is live, precisely because it has the capacity to grow with the society which, in turn, it defines.
Modern preachers do this sort of updating continually, with just one difference. They ask, of some new and seemingly contemporary situation, "What would Jesus have done?" This, if we consider it operationally, is an appeal to reimagine Jesus in a form which can connect more easily with the world outside the church doors. The only difference between this rhetorical question and Mark is that Mark, as the text proprietor, had the authority to amend the authority text itself, by putting his new material into the authority text. He was able to do in real time what modern preachers can do only in the imaginations of the people to whom they speak. (Or in some published sermon of their own, or in a treatise that may make Amazon, without in a literal textual sense affecting the canonical writings).
So, I would suggest, the accretion process which I detect in Mark is not only attested, in one form or another it is universal, in both ancient and modern times. It is a natural textual response to a constantly recurring situation faced by the users of texts. The growth process in early Christianity actually comprises the emergence, and the subsequent modification, of all four Gospels.
My Mark Project (to give it that name for the moment, though that is not what it is officially called) is not focused on the Historical Jesus. Or on any other single point within the evolution witnessed by the accretions in Mark. It is focused on the entire process by which the Historical Jesus was amended, in the minds of his followers, to address the needs and embody the insights of those followers. It was Mark and a few others like him, the writers of the authority documents, who first steered, and presided over, that process. All stages of the process are of historical interest. The point at which Christianity acquired a name for itself (so important a step that Luke records it in Acts, whether at the right date and place is still open to discussion). The point at which it finally broke with Judaism (ditto). Luke, from his vantage point in a later age, sees clearly enough the key moments in Church history. Mark actually gives us contemporary documents from that history.
Or so it seems from where I sit. With that prolegomenon, and with that qualification, which I wanted to be sure was on the official record, I may now with a good conscience again invite others who may be interested to sit down at the same table, and make their different insights and experiences, their skills and their reading acquaintance, no one set of which is likely to duplicate another exactly, available to the ongoing discussion. With a little variety in the conversation, perhaps it may be possible to follow the philological evidence a few steps further than the point so far reached. Or, who can say? to help steer the present effort in a different and more fruitful direction altogether.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
- To: Crosstalk
In Response To: Private Inquiry
On: The Early Church
I here omit the name of a private correspondent, since privacy should be
respected, but will address the point raised, as being of general interest.
A: First, it has always been my understanding that the Church began on the
day of Pentecost (Feast of the First Fruits seem appropriate). If that is
correct, then there is no way the Church could have existed while Jesus was
on earth...in fact he is quoted as having to go so he could send the Holy
BRUCE: It depends in part on what one means by "Church." Some indeed see the
Church, in the sense of the consciously organized Jesus movement after the
Crucifixion, as established at Pentecost, basing themselves essentially on
Acts. Pentecost, according to Acts, is the point at which the followers of
Jesus, the prototype Church, are so to speak on their own, where as you say
the guiding authority is no longer the present Jesus but the Holy Spirit.
But Acts is a late text, and it is evidently concerned to construct a
satisfactory history of the Jesus movement, and not simply to record the
earliest traditions available to it. The schematism of the design of
Luke/Acts is more or less obvious. So is that of Matthew, who took a
different tack formally, but was equally concerned to have the story of
Jesus be shapely in a literary sense, as well as impressive in a doctrinal
sense. We may enjoy their artistry, but it does detract from their
credibility as mere reporters.
What is the earlier evidence like? In the Mt/Lk view, the Church was really
a Jerusalem thing. But how then does one account for the people who listened
to Jesus in his lifetime, all over Galilee? Mark may exaggerate their
number, but they were surely more than zero. Equally surely they existed in
clusters all over Galilee, and in all probability also in the regions just
to the north of Galilee, the places to which even the earliest layers of
Mark (as I reconstruct them) have Jesus visiting. Were these people blotted
out by a cloud or a thunderclap, at the moment of Jesus's crucifixion? I
venture to doubt it. They, I would suggest, were the "Church" of Jesus's
lifetime. The very idea of a Galilean Church is anathema to Matthew and
Luke, who explicitly pronounce eternal condemnation on Capernaum in
particular. But doesn't their condemnation itself witness to the fact that
there was something there to condemn? Does not even Acts slip up once, in
mentioning that after the conversion of Paul, the Church "throughout all
Judea AND GALILEE and Samaria had peace and was built up, and walking in the
fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit it was multiplied"
There is a good little book, really a pamphlet, by Elliott-Binns, called
Galilean Christianity, which takes a longer look than is usual at these
damned and denied little churches. I warmly recommend it.
A: Second is that my understanding of the churches established by the
Apostle Paul (especially the Gentile churches) were not pattered on the
style and methods of worship of Jerusalem Jews (although Christianity was
originally considered a sect of Judaism).
BRUCE: Again, it seems that most of our information really comes from Acts,
and again, I am reluctant to credit it unreservedly. Acts is based in part
on a constructed polarity between Peter and Paul, each of which it
assimilates to the other (the author of Acts simply loves polarities and
binary schemes, his biggest one being the Jerusalem-Rome Axis, the endpoints
of his entire panorama). That polarity is surely the creation or
exaggeration of the author of Acts. What does seem to come through all the
evidence taken together, at least as I read it, is that the Jesus groups at
first met in synagogue style, indeed in literal synagogues, and slowly
evolved in a different direction. Liturgical history is very hard to dig out
of the existing sources, canonical and otherwise (as reading only half the
tome of Lietzmann on the Lord's Supper will demonstrate), but among the
things that seem to have happened is that the Jesus movement, which as I see
it (and, as I believe, the oldest material in Mark reports it) had
originally split off in a rather radical direction from the John movement,
quite soon after the Crucifixion began to reassimilate itself back in a
Johannine direction. It reintroduced baptism (noted in gJn as a practice not
of Jesus, but of his disciples). It reintroduced personal prayers (noted in
Mt/Lk as requested by the disciples specifically to imitate a Johannine
practice). And first of all, because first attested not in the third tier
Gospel (John), nor yet in the second tier Gospels (Mt/Lk), but in the first
tier Gospel (Mark), it reintroduced fasts. None of this would necessarily
distance the Jesus followers from other Jews. Jesus (according to Mark)
preached in synagogues, and only later in the open, and then only in order
to accommodate the numbers. Even Acts shows Paul as preaching first in
synagogues, and only later in other and more public venues. The documents
apparently representing the earliest counsel of the Jesus leaders to their
flock (the core layers of Didache and James) are cast, not in specifically
Jesus terms, but in terms of received Jewish morality, with explicit
references to OT persons and maxims. This might have been intelligible to
Gentiles long accustomed to take part in synagogue meetings, but probably
less so to Gentile groups per se. Paul himself, when in Jerusalem, was a
member of a synagogue for outlanders (the same one, as I take it, to which
Simon of Cyrene belonged). It would therefore have been his personal model
also. I can only think that the synagogue was the prototype on which other
little house churches were initially based, however much they may later have
diverged from that beginning.
A: Finally, I think your allegory to the U.S. constitution is great. Rather
than point to the amendments (which I consider anomalies), I would point to
the legislation passed by Congress over the last 200+ years and see how much
that has changed WITHOUT looking at amendments. The legislation changes with
the times, but within the bounds of the Constitution.
BRUCE: I am not a deep student of the Constitution (my textbook is Dowling
on Constitutional Law, plus the Dissents of Justice Holmes). But my parallel
would be Constitution : Legislation :: Gospels : Patristics. The later
Church fathers enormously expand doctrine and practice. They legislate, as
it were. But supposedly within the parameters laid down by the canonical
Is there then an Early Church analogue to the Constitutional amendment
process? I should think it is the Deuterocanonical literature: attempts to
extend the authority of the early Apostles by continuing to produce material
under their names. And who votes on these proffered extensions of the
constitutive Gospels (and genuine Pauline Epistles)? Those same Patristic
writers, who comment freely on the credentials of such latecomers as 2 Peter
or Jude, or for that matter James (anterior, as analysis can show, to even 1
Peter). It was the Church Fathers, meeting jointly or writing severally, who
had the say on whether to "amend" the recognized constitutive texts by
admitting to their number these more dubious productions.
The constitutional/legislative process asks, What kind of country is this
anyway, and How does it do what it does? I think there is a very close
parallel with the Gospels (what kind of tradition do we have, anyway?) and
the later tract writers (how shall the life of the Church proceed?). The
whole first few Christian centuries were vigorously and continuously engaged
in working these questions out for themselves, and as late as the major 4c
codices we find some eventually noncanonical texts appended to the
recognizably canonical ones. The conversation was not yet concluded.
What I have suggested in previous postings was that this conversation, the
tension between memory and doctrine, began already within period during
which the Gospel of Mark was slowly put together, and that the process of
its putting together - its accretional growth - was an anticipation in
miniature of the later process of revisionist Gospel composition, and the
Deuterocanonical growths that continued unabated in an even later time.
If you look at it carefully, isn't Church doctrine still fluid enough to be
subject to authoritative pronouncements and clarifications at one end of the
scale, and wild commune and storefront growth at the other? And in the
middle, are there not many in our time who have in effect canonicalized the
so-called Gospel of Thomas? Has the conversation ever really stopped?
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst