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

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mark's Data Reconsidered (xxxiii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 33rd 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).

Following on our previous posting in this series (here), and a number of other recent entries, we're still faced with the problem of how Mark collected, collated, and recorded his data. We've noted a number of clues. The constant presence of the disciples, for example, may be a "footnote" telling us something about one of his sources. In Mark 2-3, we have what may be another clue, the progressive growth of the over classes' animosity towards Jesus. In the 31st posting (here), we noted that in Mark 2 the over class went from harboring ill thoughts about Jesus to openly expressing their negative feelings to him directly. By 3:6, they're plotting to kill him. On the one hand, the sequence of events is too neat and doesn't leave room for mixed feelings about Jesus or for those of the over class that may have sympathized with him. Still, as I noted in the 31st posting, Mark does capture what must have been actually happening, that is that the more the over class heard and observed the less it liked Jesus. By whatever research method he may have used, the author of Mark knew that the over class didn't automatically reject Jesus. It took time for their antipathy to form and grow. The author was aware of historical processes and portrayed them in gospel form. It seems possible that his data included a number of incidents in Jesus' life, as remembered by his informants. Some of the stories themselves may have suggested the historical developments that took place, and Mark may have shaped them and re-worked into his own gospel drama.

The point I want to emphasize here that Mark very probably reflects with some accuracy historical processes that took place in the life of Jesus. He even seems to have some degree of sensitivity to a time line, in which a series of events is made to reveal the progressive unfolding of such processes. If the story line has some basis in history, isn't it possible and even likely that the individual stories that compose that line also have some basis in the actual past? And, again, if Mark is sensitive to historical changes that took place in the events of Jesus life, wouldn't that suggest that he was using some historically reliable data to shape his gospel? Let me emphasize, as always, that we're playing here with speculation and probabilities. But, in any event, I don't think we can dismiss lightly the possibility that Mark offers us some clear windows on the empirical Jesus.