We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Problem of Silence - Mark 1:40-45 (ixx)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the nineteenth in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

Mark 1:40-45 introduces us to a major puzzle (or headache, as the case may be) in Mark's Gospel. Why did Jesus tell the man he'd healed to keep quiet about the matter? This happens fairly frequently in Mark. Why? One can think up any number of reasons why Jesus might enjoin silence on those who proclaimed his name or praised him for his healing powers, but most of them don't make sense. For example, Jesus told people to keep quiet because he didn't want to get in trouble with the authorities. Trouble is, he kept doing highly provocative things in public venues where he knew his enemies were present. Why, then, would he bother to tell others to keep quiet? Or, again, maybe he thought the time wasn't "right" to be spreading word about himself. But, then, why did he start his ministry by proclaiming that the "right time" had come (Mark 1:15)? In this particular case, it's even more difficult to see why Jesus would tell the man to keep silent. Jesus must have cured skin diseases before this. He already had a reputation as a healer. So, why the silence? Some commentaries suggest that Jesus may have been wanting to avoid further crowds, but that seems so obviously futile that one wonders how a man as insightful as Jesus clearly was could have been so obtuse on this point. The commentators' proposed solution doesn't fit the gospel portrait.

The obvious answer to this puzzle is that this is a literary device. Mark's author progressively unveils a Jesus of power and authority, a man puzzling to others. His question is, "Who is this man?" Having Jesus enjoin silence at various points highlights the theme. The empirical Jesus didn't instruct people to be silent. The Marcan church, however, was going through its own process of discovering Jesus so that this literary device captures an important gospel truth. Jesus' identity wasn't obvious. It had to be discovered. The author's approach on this matter of silence, furthermore, would point to an important historical truth as well. The empirical Jesus was obviously a man, but there was also something about him that pointed beyond the human. The reader, if I'm correct, is then being invited on this gospel search for Jesus. This is all speculation, and certainly a case could be made that Jesus did enjoin silence on some people and spirits. The problem is that this forces his private words (to spirits and individuals) and his provocative public actions into contradiction with each other. Perhaps we have to conclude that we don't know if Jesus told people to keep quiet about him, but whether he did or not, it fits the author's purposes to have him do so and to emphasize the point.