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

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

More Evidence - Mark 2:13-17 (xxxix)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 39th 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).

Gerd Theissen's insightful treatment of the calling of Levi and Jesus' eating with sinners in Mark 2:13-17, in The Shadow of the Galilean (p. 127), brings into focus the issues we've been wrestling with concerning Marks' use of evidence. On the one hand, Theissen states, "A story was needed in early Christianity in which Jesus ate together with toll collectors and sinners. This could provide justification for Gentile and Jewish Christians eating together, even if the Gentiles did not observe Jewish food laws. The problem became acute at the end of the forties in Antioch. Did the story come into being in order to solve the problem?" On the other hand, he notes that the story presupposes a frontier toll station by the Sea of Galilee. In Jesus' time the area in question was a border area and there could have been a toll station. That boundary disappeared after 39 CE. There was no boundary again throughout the first century. Theissen writes, "In other words, the story of the toll collector's party presupposes conditions which only existed in the time of Jesus, and no longer held after AD 39. This brings us to a time in which meals shared between Jews and Gentiles in the early Christian communities were still no problem." He concludes, "So could it be that the tradition of the toll collector's party contains a historical reminiscence? There is no doubt that it was used later to solve problems about eating together in the community." Theissen leaves unanswered questions concerning the historicity of the event.

We have, then, an incidental historical fact that came from Jesus' own time, or shortly thereafter, embedded in the story. It's impossible to believe that the author of Mark inserted the fact to fool his readers. There's no reasonable doubt that the story with its embedded fact came together. If this is the case, the story came from Jesus' day. It's at least possible, perhaps even likely, that what we have here is the memories of a witness to the event who told the story as she or he remembered it. The telling including as a matter of course a detail that most people at Mark's time wouldn't have known. None of this precludes the author's having included the story because it addressed the problem of Gentiles and Jews eating together. That problem had arisen, in the first place, because of Jesus' habit of eating with sinners, and the story reflected the way the empirical Jesus acted and quite possibly also recalled an actual event in his life. Theissen's remarks, in any event, lend just a tad more credence to the possibility that the Gospel of Mark is based on oral data collected from people who knew Jesus and the events of his life personally.