In Response To: Joseph Codsi
On: Markan Secrets
The point to get clear is that Mark does not tell one story of Jesus. Mark
as it stands tells two stories of Jesus, and the two stories are
incompatible with each other. I should think it is obvious that whoever (or
whatever series of early Christian thinkers) wrote that book first put down
Jesus as they then saw him, and later went back and overlaid that story with
new material, both neutralizing the old story and insisting on the new one.
So which one is the old one and which is the new one?
The old story (if I may here venture on an interpretation) takes place in
the open, in public space. Jesus preaches to admiring crowds in Galilee, he
is welcomed into Jerusalem as a liberator from Roman oppression, in
fulfilment of God's promise to David, and he is also crucified publicly. Now
it is possible that this Davidic Jesus actually did bring an end to Roman
rule in the East, but if so, the Romans in their time, and the Roman
historians in our time, are doing the niftiest job of coverup that you ever
saw. I have no firsthand impression of Romans, but considering the Roman
historians I have personally met, I doubt that they are, individually or
collectively, capable of such a feat. The only alternative is that what Mark
reports as taking place in public space actually did (with perhaps some
overestimating of crowd size, and stuff like that) take place in public
space and in real time.
To the followers of the recently dead Jesus, his death will have been a
shock. How did this happen? And to this very natural question, the majority
of Mark is arranged to give an answer: the doctrine of salvation taught by
Jesus (individual salvation being the necessary prerequisite for state
salvation) involved a simplified code of laws, and this deeply offended the
Pharisees, who were deeply invested in a highly complicated set of laws
partly of their devising (they OWNED the concept of salvation), and who
accordingly connived with the High Priests to destroy Jesus. Herod, for his
part, the puppet King of the area, saw any Davidic movement, whether or not
successful, as threatening his own privileged status, and so he too had
targeted Jesus. It was this gang of Roman sympathizers and Quislings and rat
finks who were able to discover Jesus's whereabouts in Jerusalem and bring
about his arrest, from which his execution for sedition by the Romans
followed as a matter of course. But for those evil Jews, the Jesus party
could have driven out the evil Romans and their lackeys, or anyway that had
been the feeling among the Jesus party.
That is the aetiology which much of Mark sets up. The plan to bring about
the Return of God to Israel had to be kept under cover, and even Jesus's
preaching had to be circumspect, precisely because it was highly illegal.
Hence the indirect expression of the Parables in Mark 4, all of which look
to the eventual revealing of something which is now small and secret. One of
these Parables, the Seed Growing Secretly, makes perfect sense as an image
of the underground Jesus movement. No later Synoptist could think how to
rehabilitate the thing, and none of them ventures to touch it; they all
leave it out.
For that matter, apart from adrmiring the scenery, what is really the
meaning of the Parable of the Mustard Seed?
Doesn't anyone remember the French Underground? Secret passwords, spurious
identities, safe houses, clandestine meetings, public print with coded
meanings. The penalty for a misstep was that you got arrested, tortured, and
eventually machinegunned by the occupation police. Doesn't anyone remember
historian Marc Bloch, who died this way, not through his own misstep but
because of a traitor in the group? Doesn't anyone remember Sinologist Henri
Maspero, who himself did nothing against the Nazis, but who died in
Auschwitz because one of his sons had been caught in an indiscreet bit of
small sabotage. (The other son lived to dynamite bridges in support of the
Allied invasion, when it finally came, and at last report he is living
Anyway, the First Jesus Followers went to a revised version of their
previous expectation. Jesus would not bring on an immediate Restoration of
Israel, but he would soon return from the skies (where the Transfiguration
scene had placed him) to judge the world, and then everyone would get what
was coming to them. The triumph of Jesus was deferred and upgraded, but
otherwise recognizably maintained. The theory was, as it had been since John
the Baptist, that people are saved by doing good (not evil), and that God
forgives even evil if the doer truly repents.
That was how the First Jesus Followers repaired their expectations, and
rested in them, content that they knew what had gone wrong (that rat fink
Judas), and assured that something essentially comparable would soon come
right. God, and God's righteous judgement, would after all soon come to
THE NEW STORY
But as the idea of Jesus in Heaven gained acceptance, and as the image of
Jesus increasingly acquired divine qualities, his death seemed increasingly
inexplicable. There must be a reason for it, it must be for good and not
some mere circumstantial accident. That would be a nobler and more
consistent picture. So the Scriptures were ransacked, and ancient ideas of
sacrifice were scrutinized, and presently the theory emerged that Jesus's
death was NECESSARY to salvation; it was in fact the mechanism of salvation,
the sacrifice that purges everyone, past and present, from sin. In place of
repentance and forgiveness (requiring initiative on the part of the one
seeking forgiveness), we have a single act of sacrifice which discharges all
that debt of inherited sin (the Old Adam theory). Individuals then (or so it
seemed as the new theory gained ground) did nothing to merit salvation, the
merit was all on Jesus's side, and no initiative was left to the
individual - even the impulse to believe in the sacrifice of Jesus was a
gift of God, an act of grace.
Now, how do we fix up Mark so as to make this drastically new point? (1) We
insert several passages where Jesus predicts his own death, which being
foreseen is also necessary in the scheme of things. (2) We show the
resistance of those who held the old idea, and have Jesus himself rebuke it
as an error ("Get thee behind me, Satan"). (3) We have Jesus himself deny
the content and the meaning of his former public preaching, again with an
Isaiah quote (he is being obscure IN ORDER THAT they may misunderstand;
easily the hardest passage in the NT). So Jesus changes his tune, the
disciples (who do not understand) are rebuked, and the crowds (who perfectly
understood the earlier message) are said to be mistaken and confused.
The passages in Mark which accomplish this second task are not many, but
they are highly visible, and as history has by now shown, they do their job
But not so well that a better solution could not be imagined, and every
Gospel written after Mark seeks, in its own way, to do the job better, to
have the Second Theory be not a sort of afterthought and textual overlay,
but a consistent and even thing. The climax of the series is John, in which
Jesus is made to do the seemingly impossible thing, to preach Himself
Crucified from the very outset.
WHICH STORY IS OLD AND WHICH IS NEW?
That the Jesus Crucified story is the later one seems obvious from the fact
that it became the dominant one, already by the end of the 1st century. It
is also obvious in a technical way from Mark, since many of the key passages
argue explicitly with passages which present what I have called the Old
story. The directionality of those arguments always runs in that direction.
Never the other way. The Old Story is presented both as a doctrine and as a
wrong doctrine. The New Story is always presented as an update or refutation
of the Old Story. Never vice versa.
That is perhaps a little longer statement than before. I hope it will at
least show what I meant by the previous shorter statement. The First Secret
in Mark is the public but coded preaching of a teacher and Messianic
candidate. It is the part of Mark that von Soden pointed to as unproblematic
and open (von Soden's layer theory does not entirely succeed, but he was on
the scent of it). The Second Secret in Mark is the imposed secret, the
secret that Jesus (it was claimed) knew, but which, as Mark still shows,
neither his crowds nor his circle of intimates understood.
They didn't understand it because it had in fact never been preached to
them. What was preached to them, that Jesus was the promised Messiah, they
or the most trusted of them did understand (and Simon was commended for just
this understanding, in a part of the original layer of Mark). The
Death-based Theology, the Second Christianity, was written into that
primitive record at a later time.
E Bruce Brooks
Warring States Project
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
Not to take anything away from the above, but Reimarus saw the whole thing
very clearly in the, let's see, 18th century. It was with that challenge, as
Schweitzer correctly points out, that the modern study of NT began. How far
have we gotten in the several centuries since?