A Commentary on Mark - Introduction
Mark was the first gospel I read alongside a commentary. Who knew that underneath the English word baskets1 there were identifiably Jewish or Greek baskets in the Gospel of Mark!? It had never occurred to me that numbers might be symbolic pointers rather than a plain historical record. I was captivated.
Today, I see an urgency about Mark, a call to decide between loyalty to Christ or to Empire. Mark's urgency fits the desperation and the despair of our time. Urgency often translates into human violence, particularly the violence of exclusion and tribalism. How does Mark deal with the violence which so often compromises our attempt to follow Jesus' command to love one another?
What might a "deep dive" into one gospel teach me?
Reading a Gospel
The themes we see in a gospel are unavoidably shaped by the theology we bring to the gospel from outside and from before. All preachers and readers do this, as do all academics. We impose a view upon the gospel, and we never come as a "blank slate" who is not bringing an opinion. One definition of a fundamentalist is that they are the person who doesn't think they have a hermeneutic (Richard Beck) or that they are not following a theme. Our best defence against our bias, and the best way of being open to the gospel changing us, is to be as aware as we can of what theology we bring to the gospel.2 This allows us to ask if the text is really saying what we think it is, or whether we are imposing our own presuppositions. We can't do this if we don't know what our assumptions are!
What I bring with me
I bring to the Gospel three key understandings among many others.
The first understanding is that the Gospel of Mark is symbolic literature. It uses a narrative to teach a theology. It is not seeking to be an historically accurate biography in the way Westerners imagine biography to be. It takes the stories about Jesus which were circulating within the Christian community around Mark, and re-tells them, re-shapes them, and orders them, to build up a picture of Jesus and his message. Our problem is too often, as John Dominic Crossan said,
not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally. 3
My second understanding is that Jesus, and therefore the gospel writers, had a sensibility about the nature of humanity which is still news for most of us, and difficult to live out for all of us. This sensibility sees that all human systems tend to the violent domination of people that was exemplified for Jesus' time by the empire of Rome. It sees that this includes his own religion as it was practised at the time, and that given the chance, his own Jewish religion would become one more empire which ensured its survival by violent force. I refer to this tendency throughout this book as the culture of empire, or simply as empire.
This sensibility also understands what we can now see as historical fact: "all human systems" includes the church—us. The church tends to violent domination of those it designates as other.
I use this word sensibility deliberately. A shared sensibility is where people of different language, culture, or time, nonetheless have some substantial agreement about how to be human, and similar agreements about what damages our humanity. We might imagine Jesus saying, "I never said that 'all human systems tend to the violent domination of people that is exemplified by the empire of Rome,' but that statement does understand what I was trying to say." He might also say, "I know you have used exactly the words I used, but you have drawn conclusions completely different to those I intended." In other words, "We do not share the same sensibility."
In seeking to understand how this sensibility about violence is worked out in the Gospel of Mark, I make a distinction between what our culture calls the sacred and what I have chosen to call the holy. Following René Girard's4 interpreters, I understand that the sacred is actually a system for controlling violence, which is itself violent in its attempt to minimise violence. The culture of the transcendent God who knows no violence at all is what I shall call holy.
Jesus' gospel aimed to call us out of what we now call The Myth of Redemptive Violence5 into a new way of being human—a way of being which is fundamentally different to the way people have lived throughout the history of Homo sapiens.
Violence always threatens, at base, to kill people. Punishment is violent; that is, it always has, in reserve, perhaps out of sight, but still there, the ability and the threat to kill. Violence leverages our fear of death; if we were not afraid of dying, violence would have no hold over us. Jesus offers us a way towards freedom from the fear of death.
Most, if not all of us, were brought up being punished by our parents, and most, if not all of us, who are parents, have punished our children. The controversy caused by the proscription of corporal punishment in some countries, and in some education systems, shows just how novel to us is the idea that punishment is violent and always has death at the back of it. We can barely imagine how to live without violence as our backup option. Even when we talk about non-violence, we are describing something which is ultimately defined and circumscribed6 by violence! I think Jesus offers us a sensibility where we begin to see a way of being which, when the creation is complete, will not be non-violent, but simply not know violence at all.
Jesus' way through our violence is to forgive rather than retaliate, for retaliation seeks to heal the effects of violence through even more violence, which is why any peace after an armed conflict never comes until people stop the violence and begin to talk. Jesus' way of living is forgiveness and compassion which, of course, leaves us at the mercy of violence… which has no mercy. It gifts us with a life "dodging between the powers"7 and always at the risk of death. But the acceptance of this gift, the attempt at living this gift, begins to set us free from the fear of death.
Jesus felt this was so fundamental that today he would say it is not about deciding that the Chinese are wrong, and we should align ourselves with the USA, for example. Rather, all nations are systems underpinned by violence and injustice. He would say it's not that we should be Atheist rather than Hindu, or Christian rather than Jewish, but that all philosophies and religions, including the one of our upbringing, suffer the same fundamental failings and are powers (in the sense of Ephesians 6:12) which tend towards violence because that is where they begin.
He understood at some level that we do not have a philosophical or intellectual problem. We have a problem of being—of how we live, from the very basic underpinnings of what makes us Homo sapiens onwards. I suspect he might say we have not yet become fully human.
The good news (gospel) about this new way of being was that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near (Mark 1:15), and here we immediately see the immense problem he, and we, have in spreading the good news. Even the language we use is founded in violence! Kingdoms are bastions and hierarchies of violence that wield the fear of death as a weapon to ensure their own survival at the cost of those they deem expendable.
So Jesus cannot bring us an intellectual message that makes sense to us. He can only use language and, more especially, action which slowly subverts our accepted ways of violence, and patterns of behaviour. He can only teach us to be compassionate by being compassionate. He can only teach us how to face death by facing dying himself. And we can only learn these lessons by following his actions which, of course, may lead to our own deaths.
The third understanding I bring is that the text of Mark does theology via anthropology.
Anthropology is the study of how we are human. Mark's Gospel is inspired; that is, "God-breathed," but it does its theology, and so speaks to us of God, by helping us understand ourselves. It is not a document imposed from on high, nor is it a "sacred" document for which there is but one true interpretation. Such approaches drift into fundamentalism. Indeed, their impositional nature subverts the gospel into something truly sacred; that is, their impositional nature is a form of violent control. Mark is an invitational document about a human being whose life can lead us into a new culture, or new way of being, which is holy, rather than sacred. It is showing us how to be human, which must be our first concern if we hope to become godly.
Mark's portrayal of Jesus is starkly human. In Mark 14:36, Jesus asks that the cup be taken from him if possible, and this is too much for the author of John’s Gospel who says instead, "And what should I say—'Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour." (John 12:7) In Mark, it is in the anthropology of Jesus, in the way that he is human, that we will ourselves find inspiration.
What follows is an anthropology which I find compatible with Mark's sensibilities, but which is derived from many sources, most notably René Girard, who has provided us with a systematic overview of ourselves.
We die. We are completely afraid of death. We are biologically programmed to survive at any cost. We can observe the dead bodies of others, but we cannot really conceive of ourselves “not-being.” This makes us susceptible to violence. Those who have the means to do violence to us not only hold our life in their hands, our fear of death means they can force us to do almost anything in order to preserve our lives. Richard Beck called this a slavery and quotes John Chrysostom:
The one who fears death is a slave and subjects themself to everything in order to avoid dying... [But] the one who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed “man would give skin for skin and all things for [the sake of] his life” [Job 2:4], and if a person should decide to disregard this, whose slave are they then? They fear no one, are in terror of no one, are higher than everyone, and are freer than everyone. For one who disregards their own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honour? Or exile from one’s country? For these are small things to one “who counteth not even their life dear,” says blessed Paul [Acts 20:24]. Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil? 8
We deny our mortality. A culture is a "mythical hero-system... which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakeable meaning." We hope to create something of "lasting worth and meaning that [will]... outlive or outshine death and decay." 9 All this makes us more determined to survive and more determined to win over others.
We do not know who we are. We learn how to be from other people. Specifically, we learn to desire what they desire. James Alison sums this up with a conciseness which our pretention to be free agents finds brutal: "We always learn to see through the eyes of another. The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen." 10 Other people are our models for how to be a human being. We are a "hyper-imitative" species. 11 Kierkegaard also saw this.
For it seems indeed as if, in order to be themselves, a person must first be expertly informed about what the others are, and thereby learn to know what they themselves are—in order then to be that. However, if they walk into the snare of this optical illusion, they never reach the point of being themselves... For from "the others," naturally, one properly only learns to know what the others are—it is in this way the world would beguile a person from being themselves. "The others" in turn do not know at all what they themselves are, but only what the others are. There is only One who knows what He Himself is, that is God; and God knows also what every person in themself is, for it is precisely by being before God that every person is. The one who is not before God is not themself, for this a person can be only by being before Him who is in and for Himself. If one is oneself by being in Him who is in and for Himself, one can be in others or before others, but one cannot by being merely before others be oneself. (Christian Discourses pp42, quoted by Bellinger. I have modified the original to be gender inclusive.) 12
Charles Bellinger, who quotes the previous lines, says
When human beings are looking to each other as models of being, the pathway of life is a treadmill or squirrel cage rather than an actual road, 13
whereas Mark will talk about following Jesus on the road or on the way. (cf Mark 10:52)
There are two kinds of desire. One is acquisitive desire, where we desire the same object as the person who is our model; that is, the person we are imitating. Metaphysical desire is to desire intangible things like status and fame, and we learn which of these to desire from the person who is our model.
Mediation and Rivalry
Mediation is the process by which someone influences the desires of another. There are two forms of this. External mediation is where the model or mediator is so far removed from a person that there is no real possibility of rivalry. "They belong to different worlds." My church youth group was led by the senior master at the local high school. We all wanted to be like him; indeed, a number of the boys suddenly took up playing guitar, just like him. But there was no rivalry with him; he was, after all, the senior master as well as the group leader. But among the boys, rivalry was a real possibility. We were much closer together. Also modelling ourselves on each other, we become similar to each other in this Internal Mediation, desiring the same things. And because we were on the same plane, so to speak, we could become real and actual rivals. Mediation can be drawn as a triangle, for desire is "triangular."
In External Mediation, the perpendicular of the triangle is much "higher," and as the Subject, I can have no real rivalry with my Model. But with Internal Mediation, the perpendicular is much shorter, and rivalry can occur.
The Object is not something I desire on my own, or even for itself. My model directs me towards it. This is why advertisers associate their products with beautiful people. They know I have no need and no desire for a new computer. But if a new computer implies I will be like that beautiful person, well... This is a current joke in my family, because my wife, whom I so often model myself upon, recently endured the catastrophic failure of her laptop. She has been looking at new laptops, and although I neither need, want, nor can afford a new laptop, there has been a constant desire to look for something new!
A delightful and concise introduction to the mimetic triangle, which a child can understand, is Carly Osborn's The Theory of René Girard, A Very Simple Introduction (Australian Girard Seminar, 2017).
As we live out our rivalry in an internally mediated situation, we tend to forget the object. We become fascinated by each other and yet also angered by each other, much like two kids who've forgotten the toy they are fighting over and fight bitterly with neither of them able to stop. Or the folk who have a deep hatred of someone, but cannot do the obvious thing, and walk away or let go.
Without some external restraint or intervention, this rivalry can lead to serious injury or death. As a species, we seem to have lost the biological mechanisms where submission halts the violence of a rivalrous episode. Dogs roll over and expose their bellies, and the fight quickly subsides. Humans kill their prisoners and commit genocides.
Our propensity for all-out violence raises the question of how, so far, we have failed to wipe ourselves out! Girard imagined a group of early hominids consumed by all-against-all rivalrous violence over some object. He hypothesised that by chance that violence suddenly became focussed on just one individual. This is often referred to as "the founding murder" or "the originary violence" against the first scapegoat. It has a startling effect upon the crowd or mob because, in the act of this murder, all the rivals are suddenly united in cooperation. It leads to what feels like a miraculous peace. Politicians (and others) weaponise this effect today: they foster unity by identifying for us an individual or group to blame for our problems, e.g., refugees or "dole bludgers." They choose a scapegoat.
For the very early humans, it is theorised that this murder had two particular results. It would have seemed obvious that because the trouble had stopped, the murdered victim must have been evil. So, this was not a murder at all; this was the cleansing of something evil! But there must also have something special about the dead person: the victim was also the one who brought peace.
In such an understanding, the victim is good and evil at the same time; that is, sacred, because they both cause and yet restore us from the situation. This is called double transference because the mob projects or transfers the disorder, and whatever has caused it, onto the victim, but it also ascribes or transfers its new-found peace to the victim, understanding that the victim has the power that brought that peace into being. We can see this reflected in texts which are ambivalent towards the gods because they are both angry and beneficent.
The sacred is the systematisation of all this. It is a culture built upon murder and exclusion. Rather than us inventing sacrifice to placate the gods, James Alison says, sacrifice created us!14 We have been able to survive by using systematised and limited violence to channel and partly control the violence which would otherwise destroy us. We have been able to build empires, but they are always built upon victims: the murdered, the enslaved, the poor. Today's neoliberal economy, for example, depends on there being unemployed people.
Eventually, the group is able to move from repeating the violence of the all-against-all where the one is randomly designated in the midst of violence, to a more deliberate choosing of a substitute for that one before the violence becomes too dangerous. It is this second substitution, according to Girard, which marks the beginning of sacrifice: when we have become sufficiently adept at imitating our own imitative resolution of our own imitative violence, we are also able to ritualize it by substituting what we might now call a victim, whether human, or later, animal....
Over time, the three pillars of archaic culture formed us: ritual gave us peaceful space for repetition, learning, and thus technology and development. Prohibitions marked out as dangerous the hyper-imitative behaviours which put the group at risk of another all-against-all. And eventually, as language developed from the ritualized sounds and gestures flowing from the emerging symbol, myths began to tell the story of the group's wonderful beginnings and survival in the midst of the bizarre deaths of trickster gods.15
The three pillars which Alison mentions are clear within our own culture and traditions today.
Prohibition is the group seeking to avoid behaviours which lead to rivalry and violence. "You shall not covet..." is an obvious example.
Ritual is a carefully scripted re-enactment of the original murder. Ritual's deep foundation is sacrifice. Rituals are cooperative acts which reinforce the solidarity of the group. They remind us of the power of the scapegoating event even, in a sense, "taking us back there." Rituals are different to celebration. Rituals, at base, are always about reinforcing the status quo: affirming it. So, a birthday party can be a celebration of what is new—another year of life; a lynching is a reinforcement of white supremacy. But in the entanglement of our whole being with the culture of empire, even a birthday party can be ritualistic, inviting only the white kids on the street.
I am making a distinction here, rather like the one I made between the sacred and the holy. If we celebrate communion, we remember Jesus' death, but we are looking and living to the new freedom promised in Christ. A ritual communion would still be compromised with some kind of violence. (I use this particular example because at 14:1-31 Preparations for Handing Over, Point 13, I mention just such a ritual. Note this text is not yet published.)
Myth is telling the story of our origins, of how our culture and empire began. There are important qualifications to be made about the word Myth. A myth is first of all a story. In much theological discussion, myth is understood to be the pre-scientific way we describe the world through story.16 What Girard adds to this understanding is that myth lies. It is important to understand that he is not saying that myth is superseded by a scientific description of the world. A scientific description is a superior description for the building of a bridge, for example, but can say little about love and beauty. Nor does he mean to say that myth is untrue. Stories always betray a truth about us, for myth is how we carry the meaning of ourselves.
By saying myth lies, Girard is claiming that we create myths to justify "the originary sacrifice" of our tribe or community, "to cover over the victim, to blame the victim so thoroughly that no one is in doubt about the victim’s guilt and deserved punishment. In myth, even the victim goes along with the lie and asserts his guilt (as does, e.g., Oedipus, but not Job!)." In Mark's gospel we see this in the story of the demonised man in Chapter 5:1-20, where he goes along with his exclusion by his community by stoning himself! Girard would say that "this double fiction that the victim is to blame, and the victims even blame themselves, is what makes myth myth."17
An example of myth in the Girardian sense for us Australians is terra nullius18 and the accompanying opinion that the First Nations people were savages. This neatly absolves us of all the massacres and carries on into our present racial discrimination.
To be clear, Mark does not lay out this anthropology in his Gospel. He is not a disciple of René Girard. Rather, bringing Girard and his interpreters to Mark enlivens the Gospel. This anthropology alerts us to, and opens us to, the sensibility within Mark, and sharpens the impact of everything Jesus does. Perhaps though, in the resurrection, Mark and Girard will meet each other, and Mark will say, "Yes, I think you understood the depth of what I saw in Jesus."
For me, Mark S. Heim's book, Saved from Sacrifice, suddenly brought to life the ideas I have sketched out above. But some years later, I still regard myself as a beginner in my understanding, for I have needed to be converted all over again. Everything about life is like Mark's gospel: turned upside down! I see the world with different eyes. I quoted Alison above, saying: "The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen." With respect to the culture of empire, in which all humans must live, we are like fruit fly larvae in an orange. We, and our whole word, are coloured orange. Therefore, we can barely perceive orange, let alone know how not to be orange. Orange is the "just is" of our cultural existence which most of us never question. Revelation is our slowly growing consciousness from Genesis' rewriting of the Babylonian myths of chaotic and dangerous gods through to the realisation that God loves us with unlimited love, and it continues as we learn to live out the implications of that. It is to learn that there is an "orangeness" which enslaves us and to learn that we can find another way of being and become freed.
But if we are such hyper-imitative beings, who will we copy? Who will show us how to be human and not "orange"? Jesus is fully human in Mark, despairing as we do and suffering as we do. Mark implores us to imitate Jesus; that is, to follow him. Jesus is never in rivalry with us; his mediation is external for he models himself on the God who has no rivalry with anyone.
Interrogating the text
The long paragraphs above have been about what I bring to the text, as a way of staying alert to my biases. Another defence against our bias, as well as being a powerful alert to what is in the text, is to deliberately interrogate the text. By asking the text a question, we make conscious some of our underlying concerns.
So I ask of Mark, "In a world where Jerusalem and much of the world as you knew it was coming to an end—or had indeed already come to an end—how did you live? What did Jesus do to enable you to continue to live?"
I ask this as someone who sees the empire of the USA falling apart. I ask it as someone living in the time of COVID-19, and I ask it as someone who is facing the threat of species extinction because of the climate catastrophe we have caused.
I also ask it as someone who no longer has to earn a living within the church, and who has probably lived three quarters of their life.
One last assumption
I understand that Mark is "a text for insiders." He assumes that his readers have "met Jesus" and writes to provoke them to seek a deeper meeting. He is not arguing to convince us of the reality that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. He assumes we know this and are seeking to live according to this knowledge. As such, Mark is a poetry. It is not the flat prose with which our age pretends to be objective. Mark is calling us into places where the scientific method of our age can only confess agnosticism. If we will not recognise metaphor and symbol, if we insist on literalising them, we risk remaining blind and deaf to the text.
Andrea Prior (Dec 2023)
1. Cf. Mark 6:43, Mark 8:8(Back)
2. This comment is an edited excerpt from my article "A Thematic Approach to Matthew." (https://www.onemansweb.org/theology/a-thematic-approach-to-matthew.html) (Back)</p
3. John Dominic Crossan, Who Is Jesus? Answers to Your Questions about the Historical Jesus. pp79 (Back)
4. This is not to say that Jesus and his disciples were "Girardians." Girard and his expositors seek to express in our terms Jesus' sensibility about the violence and exploitation in which he lived. Girard does not claim to have developed something new about us, but to have systematised many human insights, including those of Jesus, which are visible across a wide range of culture, and have slowly become more clear through the influence of the Spirit. A shared sensibility is where Jesus might say to Girard, "Well... I'd never have put it like that, but you have understood what I was seeing."(Back)
5. Walter Wink says, "In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favour those who conquer... The Myth of Redemptive Violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one into which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialised in the process of maturation. Children select this mythic structure because they have already been led, by culturally reinforced cues and role models, to resonate with its simplistic view of reality...." http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml(Back)
6. I mean by circumscribed that when we say non-violence we are still thinking in, and surrounded by, a world view which is defined by violence. To be circumscribed by something is to be at least partly formed by the thing we oppose. (Back)
8. The excerpt is from Homily IV of Chrysostom’s Homilies on Hebrews and is quoted in The Slavery of Death, p14. I have changed the language to be gender inclusive.(Back)
9. Earnest Becker The Denial of Death, pp5(Back)
10. Alison, On Being Liked, pp1(Back)
11. James Alison https://jamesalison.com/we-didnt-invent-sacrifice/ See also “Concilium” 2013(4)(Back)
12. Christian Discourses pp42, quoted by Bellinger. I have modified the original to be gender inclusive. http://www.religion-online.org/article/the-crowd-is-untruth-a-comparison-of-kierkegaard-and-girard/ (Back)
13. Ibid (Back)
14. James Alison https://jamesalison.com/we-didnt-invent-sacrifice/ See also “Concilium” 2013(4) (Back)
15. Ibid (Back)
16. It could be argued that a scientific paper is also, in the end, a myth, for it is also the telling of a story. But the distinction is still useful. Scientific method strives for reproducible results without ambiguity. Myth uses ambiguity to invite us into deeper knowledge where ambiguity cannot be avoided. (Back)
17. Quoted by Caleb Miller in "The Pillars of Culture." https://preachingpeace.org/the-pillars-of-culture-prohibition-ritual-and-myth/(Back)