Friday, July 22, 2005

A further look at Mark 7:1-23:

There's been some discussion on a number of blogs about Mark 7:15, kicked off by my glance at The Five Gospels. Mark Goodacre has some measured comments, as always. Steve Carlson navigates in difficult waters with his usual ease here, while Loren Rosson answers the thread with a tapestry here.

I thought more discussion of Mark 7:1-23 is in order to show why Loren Rosson's comment on Mark is probably wrong. Rosson echoes many exegetes when he writes:
"Of course, one could argue that this is "all Mark", as I'm sure Turton would, but this gives too much weight to the writer as an independent literary agent, and also misunderstands the gospel documents as (indeed) primarily literary documents, instead of oral-based catechismal texts aimed at specific communities; communities which in turn informed and influenced the texts themselves."
I disagree with each of these. The writer is not only an "independent literary agent" but a highly sophisticated one for whom each word, each phrase, is carefully placed. The original structure of Mark must have been powerfully elegant (see below). Second, as the below discussion shows, Mark is primarily, indeed, solely, a literary text intended for public reading. It is not based on oral traditions, none of which the writer knew, or the writer's pervasive use of midrash/epitomization, along with his incorporations of many conventions from Hellenistic fiction, would not have been necessary.

Mark is certainly not aimed at any specific community. The prescriptions that Jesus gives are taken from Paul and are intended to re-assure new recruits about the key aspects of this religion, which presented itself as an updated version of Judaism. For most people outside Judaism food laws and divorce must have presented real anguish. Would I have to divorce my spouse if I joined the new religion? and Who can I eat with? are questions that would worry new recruits, not old community members, whose answers they would already know (see Paul, writing from years before Mark on the conventional chronology). There is nothing about a particular community in Mark -- Jesus does not address his remarks to specific geographic locations. He is not used to legitimate particular community leadership styles or structures or particular leaders, community structures, or community practices. There is nothing on community finances, community social structures, or relations with other communities. The Gospel of Mark is a text that looks out at the world, not in toward other Christians. It is a narrative intended for baptismal or recruiting applications. Nothing would surprise me less than to discover that its writer was a hired gun; a professional brought in specifically for the task of creating this document, someone familiar with the conventions of Hellenistic novels, and well able to manupulate and transform them in the service of the new religion.

In Mark the reader is constantly confronted with the inside-outside dilemma. As the reader-response criticism of Mark has observed, sometimes the reader is inside, and sometimes he is outside. Why would any community text place the reader outside? The constant inside-outside shifting invites the reader to identify with Jesus. Fowler (1) writes:

As we continue with Mark's rhetoric, we shall see further evidence that the author is so eager to secure the reader's adherence to the Jesus of his story that he is willing to sacrifice the disciples of his story. Lest we become nervous about what Mark may be thereby asserting about the twelve apostles, the historical pillars of the early Christian church, let us recall that this narrative does not claim to be history. It is not even referentially oriented. Rather, it is pragmatically or rhetorically oriented. It is not "about" its characters; it is "about" its reader."(p80)

Mark is not aimed at a community, nor does a community lie behind it. Rather, Mark is a text that invites the reader to identify with Jesus and join the community. The key to understanding Mark, I believe, lies in how you answer the question of whether, in Mark, baptism should be regarded as a metaphor for death, or death as a metaphor for baptism.

I've ranged far afield here. Let's return to Mark 7:1-23 and use it to show that indeed, the writer was an independent literary agent of great brilliance and creativity.

The Basic Structure of the Pericope
Mark 7:1-23 lies in disputed territory, the string of pericopes known as the Bethsaida section, which many exegetes consider interpolated while others consider it Markan. Both sides are right; Bethsaida consists of material extant elsewhere in Mark and moved into that section wholesale, with some alterations, as well as material created de novo and inserted. This spring I recovered the original verse-by-verse structure of the Gospel (go here for early, annotated version). Next week I'll discuss Bethsaida in light of that. Meanwhile, on to Mark 7.

The pericope is indisputably Markan, having the writer's signature complex interior. In Mark location changes are always A brackets, and the A' bracket of the previous pericope is almost always the A bracket of the next. This pericope opens with the usual Markan location change (Mark text from RSV)

A..Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes,
....who had come from Jerusalem, they saw ..that some of his disciples ate
....with hands defiled, that is, unwashed.

........B..(For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands,
.............observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many
.............other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and
.............vessels of bronze.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do
.............your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders,
.............but eat with hands defiled?"

...............C..A And he said to them,"Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, it is written,

........................B.. `This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far
...............................from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines
...............................the precepts of men.'

...................................C..You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast
........................................the tradition of men."

...............C..A..And he said to them, "You have a fine way of rejecting the
........................commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!

........................B..For Moses said, `Honor your father and your mother';
.............................and, `He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him
.............................surely die';

...................................C..but you say, `If a man tells his father or his
........................................mother, What you would have gained from me is
........................................Corban' (that is, given to God) -- then you no longer
........................................permit him to do anything for his father or mother,
........................................thus making void the word of God through your
........................................tradition which you hand on. And many such things do."

........B..And he called the people to him again, and said to them, "Hear me,
.............all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by
.............going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man
.............are what defile him."

A..And when he had entered the house, and left the people, his disciples
....asked him about the parable.

The center has a paired triplet structure seen elsewhere in Mark (the Calling of Peter, James and John, for example). If you unpack it, it looks like this


This kind of complex center is the fingerprint of the true writer of Mark and is thoroughly and wholly literary. In the view of some exegetes such chiastic structures had mnemonic applications, but the complex centers of Markan chiasms is a strike against the idea that the writer accepted them from a tradition. To me they read as art for art's sake (though chiasms also functioned as text divisions in a culture without punctuation or paragraphing).

But note also how the brackets "talk to each other." The C and C' brackets are mirrors, of course, but the B and B' brackets answer each other:

B......And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?"

B'....."Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him."
The wonderful thing about Mark is that when you use the proper structural rules for determining its structure, the brackets turn out to be thematically related. Previous exponents of Markan chiasms erred when they focused on thematic connections.

In any case, it is my view that this pericope has been moved in from somewhere else in the Gospel. My own guess is the famous "Jericho" hiatus in Mark 10:46.

10:46: And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great multitude, Bartimae'us, a blind beggar, the son of Timae'us, was sitting by the roadside.(RSV)

Two geographic references back-to-back is totally unMarkan and thus I side with those who say something went AWOL here (I do not believe the writer of Mark produced Mark 10:46-52 either). Mark 7:1-23 is a very likely candidate for the missing material. Note that in 7:1 the Bad Guys have come from Jerusalem to see Jesus, something very troublesome as Jesus is currently in Galilee, but far easier if they need only make an overnight trip to much closer Jericho.

There are some larger structural features that (speculatively) argue for an inclusion here as well. Ched Myers has seen Mark 10:35-7, where James and John ask whether they can sit at Jesus' right hand, as an allusion to Psalm 110. If that is true, then there is an elegant chiastic structure that flows through Mark 11 and 12. This would be a citation of Psalm 110 (Mk 10:35), Psalm 118 (Mark 11:9), Psalm 118 (12:10), and then Psalm 110 again (Mk 12:35). I can't prove it, but I suspect the scholarly analysis that puts the Gospel's center in Mark 8 is wrong, thanks to the extensive tampering. The writer's original intention was for the great backbone chiasm to anchor around the Psalm citations, and turn on the entrance to Jerusalem, which is also the natural turn in the narrative. Mark is a narrative, not a theological tract, and the story takes its fateful turn when Jesus trashes the Temple, not when Jesus is discovered to be the Messiah, something the audience in any case has known from the beginning (see Mark 1:1). Note further that not only do we get the sequence of Psalm citations, but that would flank the Temple sequence with Pauline material on both sides, in Mark 10 (divorce and food laws) and Mark 12 (render unto Casaer and command to love). This explains why none of the major chiastic structurings of Mark have gained a wide following -- the original structure of Mark has been broken up and redistributed.

Another Literary Feature
But there's another aspect of this I'd like to draw the reader's attention to (if there are any readers left!). The discussion early on focuses on eating and being defiled:

7:5: And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?"(RSV)

Most English translations avoid pointing out that what the disciples are eating is the magic bread Jesus had created in the earlier feeding miracle in Mark 6, as Gundry (2) points out. We thus bump up squarely against the problem of figurative language that I had raised in my earlier discussion of the Jesus Seminar, and which Rosson's discussion of Jesus' challenges also raise.

Many exegetes see the challenges over food -- fasting, plucking grain, eating with unwashed hands -- as reflecting history, if not as history outright. But in the Gospel of Mark food-related vocabulary is overwhelmingly figurative. It always functions on two levels. When, in Mark 7:1-5, the Pharisees accuse Jesus' disciples of eating with unwashed hands, the disciples are eating bread that Jesus has created, bread that figuratively stands for Jesus' message of the kingdom of God. The presence of supernatural items indicates that this never occurred as history and is an invention of the author; it also indicates that we are in the midst of literary complexity. On one level we have what looks like a debate over food laws, with Jesus citing Paul that it was OK to eat anything. But on another we have Jesus making a robust defense of his message (signaled by the magic bread) -- how can it be bad to hear another message? It's our behavior that counts! The debates over "fasting" have a similar thrust. The disciples of John and the Pharisees must "fast" because they have no message to listen to. But why should Jesus' disciples not hear the message, since Jesus is still on earth? Similarly, when Jesus is "plucking grain" on level perhaps he is violating the Sabbath laws, but on another, I suspect that "plucking grain" is a reference to converting Jews, a practice the Pharisees would have objected to. None of this should be interpreted as history, save as references to the history of the writer's own day, probably some time in the first half of the second century. The richness of the food references in Mark are another indicator of the writer's skill.

The foregoing discussion has attempted to show that the writer of Mark was a literary agent of the first water who in principle was fully capable of creating the Gospel of Mark de novo. It is my belief that the writer used the OT and Paul to create his story, and Mark 7:1-23 is another excellent example of this. Here in Mk 7:15 the writer has Jesus establish a rule similar to Paul's in Romans 14. Then, by way of explanation of what Mk 7:15 means, in Mk 7:20-23 he cites a list of sinful behaviors that echoes not one, but three Pauline texts, 1 Cor 6:9-10, Rom 1:29-31, and Gal 5:19-21.

Mark is a Pauline gospel, and its writer is a literary genius of the first rank.

1. Fowler, Robert. 1996. Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International

2. p348. Gundry, Robert. 1993. Mark: A Commentary on His Gospel. Grand Rapids: Erdmans.


Anonymous said...

Mark may well be a Pauline gospel, but if it is, then why is it so important for Mark that Jesus be the one to establish his gospel, apparently absent Paul altogether?

(For that matter, I see no inherent reason--outside of specific textual evidence--why Mark could not be referring to the situation in the late 1st century. Furthermore, I think it's obvious that Mark's Christians connect themselves with late-Second Temple Judaism in an important way; otherwise, Mark wouldn't have set his gospel during that time!)

Michael Turton said...

I don't see any reason why Mark couldn't be late first century either, judging from the story. But from various clues I've assembled, I think a second century date makes more sense.

Mark set his Gospel at that time because he set Jesus' death 40 years before the destruction of the Temple. I seem to recall some calculations based on Daniel too, but I am too lazy to go hunt them down. Of course Christianity is an outgrowth of trends in second temple judaism....

Is Paul absent? I thought he was very present, by citations of him everywhere. Didn't Volkmar argue that Jesus was Paul? Mark's gospel may function on many levels....

Anonymous said...

Aha, well, now things are getting interesting ;)

The 40-year timeline is certainly intriguing, but I seem to have a hard time believing that Mark just cooked up the notion via Paul and the OT the rather complicated theory that Jesus walked on the earth, interacted with the disciples, and was killed by the Temple. Why would anyone take this idea seriously, if they didn't think it meant something real and important had happened? If Jesus had been suffering a timeless death in heaven for several decades now, and all of a sudden Christians are asked to believe that it had something to do with actual events which took place among a people they feel nothing in common with (a hundred years earlier, by your estimation), well...that just seems very unlikely to me. Or maybe I'm missing some point you've made in your commentary somewhere. What I'm saying is, the story must have had some sort of important resonance with its readers (or listeners.) Mark's audience must have felt that it was plausible that the Temple had rejected Jesus in some important way during that time--which means they must have identified in some important way with the Jews of Pilate's time.

Jim said...

Interesting enough but I am left with a nagging doubt: the Gospels were written to be read aloud. It seems unlikely that a hearer would have noticed the structure you suggest, which implies, at least to me, that the occurance of "chiasm" in Mark is more a modern overlay than an ancient memory device or the like. I am, I think, rightly suspicious of the current trend of finding "chiasms" everywhere in the biblical text. To put it plainly, I think modern critics are being just a bit too clever- far more clever than the authors of those materials.

Best as always,


Michael Turton said...

Interesting enough but I am left with a nagging doubt: the Gospels were written to be read aloud. It seems unlikely that a hearer would have noticed the structure you suggest, which implies, at least to me, that the occurance of "chiasm" in Mark is more a modern overlay than an ancient memory device or the like. I am, I think, rightly suspicious of the current trend of finding "chiasms" everywhere in the biblical text. To put it plainly, I think modern critics are being just a bit too clever- far more clever than the authors of those materials.

Hmmm....well, thanks Jim. I'll keep plugging away. I suspect you will come around eventually.