Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Mark #2 – The Gospel of Jesus 1(1)

The beginning of the good news (Gospel) of Jesus Christ,

the Son of God (Mark 1:1)

 

This week, we return to Mark’s title verse and continue to “unpack” its language. This second commentary looks at the phrase, the good news (i.e. gospel) of Jesus. I plan to work backwards a bit and first start with Jesus.

Jesus

Several years ago, Popular Mechanics published a provocative cover story (December 2002) on the work of British Scientist Richard Neave, a forensic anthropologist and medical artist, who sought to develop an authentic image of Jesus as he might have realistically appeared in Palestine during the first century (CE). The picture that was created captured the results of his reconstructive work using the latest computer modeling technologies. In addition to the now famous reproduction, there is a fascinating set of images included in the article that traces the evolution of pictures of Jesus through time. [Note: Click here for article.]

Albert Schweitzer’s famous critique of various scholarly searches for the “historical” Jesus has now permanently introduced a note of caution to any discussion of these matters, yet the quest goes on. Groups like the controversial Jesus Seminar seek to discern the original words spoken by our Lord. Some would say this was a fruitless task, others have found their faith strengthened by these efforts. Lately, there has been a growing movement to recreate the Jewish setting in which the Jewish Jesus would have lived and preached. Personally, I have found Paula Fredriksen’s work in this regard to be particularly helpful. [See Village discussion on study resources.]

So what did Jesus look like? How tall was Jesus? Neave’s research suggests that the average height in those days was just above five feet. How old was Jesus when he began his ministry? Was he a fiery, rebellious young critic or was he a Rabbinic elder? Alabama Methodist pastor, Bert Gary, who has often led seminarian study groups to the Holy Land, suggests that based on a combination of gospel and known historical evidence, Jesus could have been anywhere between 36 and 45. He leans toward an older Jesus. Or again, Gary points out how in the Galilee wood that could be used for construction purposes was a rarity, so it is more proper to understand that when Jesus is described as techne, we should read this designation as “stone worker” rather than “carpenter.”

So did Jesus have tassels on his clothes (his underwear)? Amy-Jill Levine certainly believes this to be true as she discusses this question and many others in her recent book, The Misunderstood Jew. In her first chapter, she suggests that a more proper interpretation of the story where a woman is said to have touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed, should read that the woman actually touched his tassels. To further clarify, she points out similar rabbinic stories.

It is my hope, we could, at least, place these important questions in our peripheral vision. I believe that even though it is difficult to reach a strong consensus about these matters, we would be well served to keep them alive.

Of…

 

Now for a short grammar lesson! In the Greek language, the equivalent of the English preposition, of (in Greek, an ending usually appended to the noun), can be translated in two ways. It can serve as the beginning of possessive phrases or it can function as part of a designation of an object. Which is to say, that the phrase, the Gospel of Jesus, can be understood to talk about the good news that belongs to Jesus (i.e the good news that Jesus preached) or it can equally be understood to mean the good news about Jesus. I am not finally sure that this ambiguity makes any real difference, but it is important to note that many scholars distinguish between what Jesus supposedly taught as good news (the coming of the kingdom) and what his disciples later taught as good news (Jesus as Resurrected Messiah). Some would say that the disciples got it wrong and we would be well advised to recover Jesus’ original message.  We will return to this question as we proceed through our study.

Gospel

Finally, let me turn to the concept of Gospel. The NRSV rightly translates the term euaggelion (roots: angels reporting well) as “good news.” For many – perhaps most of us, the word gospel represents a literary type primarily referring to biographies of Jesus. We vaguely know that Mark is the earliest of four gospels found in the New Testament and most of us know that beyond these four, there are several other gospels (ones that we have not generally read and ones that we would be hard pressed to identify.) These so called “lost gospels” (to borrow a term from North Carolina Professor Bert D. Erhman) are additional biographies that didn’t make it into the canon.

However, in addition to understanding a gospel to be a literary type (a concept itself that bears more discussion at a later point), there are two additional uses of the term gospel that may focus light on what the author of Mark is trying to do as he writes. In ancient times, a gospel was a royal announcement, often an announcement heralding the birth or subsequent enthronement of a new king or prince. Given the fact that unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark tells no nativity story, we should therefore expect to see any gospel proclamation about Jesus in this text in terms of his pending coronation as Yahweh’s Vice-regent, where Jesus as Son is imaged to be standing at the right hand of God and God’s throne. As we will see, this is exactly the message to which Mark gives witness. Additionally, it is particularly interesting to learn that these royal gospel proclamations historically were accompanied by announcements of a general amnesty.

Additionally, gospel is sometimes used as a military term. It certainly is good news, but not in some vague generic sense. Instead, a gospel is a positive report from the frontlines. It is news of how the war is going – how the troops are faring – perhaps, who has been lost in the battle. In the 52nd chapter of the oracles of Isaiah, the prophet proclaims, How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion (the city of Jerusalem), – Your God reigns (i.e. Jahweh won)!”

I am reminded of scenes from civil war movies (what down here in Atlanta, they call the “War of Northern Aggression!) where townsfolk stand assembled anxiously awaiting the delivery of the latest military dispatch. As the messenger arrives in the town square, we see the crowd pushing and shoving seeking a glimpse of “good news” headlines tacked to the door of the local store or post office. Of course, there is the listing those who have died as well. For Jerusalemites, waiting for news from battles fought throughout greater Palestine must have been very difficult. We should then not be surprised as they greatly rejoiced at seeing in a distance the herald crossing the surrounding mountains from the plains on the other side. We should not be surprised to see that Mark summarizes the essential message of Jesus’ proclamation that the Empire (Reign) of Yahweh is at hand, (and if there is a question of ones recent loyalties) now would be a fine time to rethink them (repent).

In my next post, I will look further at the two key titles that Mark includes in his title verse

Later,

John

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