December 31, 2003
Blood and soil

I haven't been commenting a lot on other people's Mark posts, but Kynn's take on Mark 5 provoked a number of thoughts.

He starts off with a digression on the virgin birth. I'm inclined to agree with him -- the whole story smells like a legend to me, and I also don't hugely care. Nonetheless, I don't regard the case as being entirely closed. Kynn points out that it's weird that Mark and John don't mention the birth story, which would seem like an awfully big thing to leave out. But he also points out the the Gospels weren't meant as definitive histories, but as teaching tools. So the various stories floating around about Jesus might have been sorted according to what the author was trying to say, and to whom.

Also, whenever I read the Bible I'm reminded of how different a role writing played then to what it plays today. Few people could read, so word-of-mouth was still the primary means of communication -- writing was just an adjunct. It seems nearly certain that almost everything in the Bible was circulated orally, perhaps for centuries, before it was written down. And so the odd fact of the matter is that much of it was probably telling people what they already knew. The expectation of constant novelty in reading matter wasn't there. Stories, whether oral or written, were generally like favorite songs, to be enjoyed over and over. (In fact, many stories were sung, as with Homer's epics.) So if you are retelling people what they already know, you may not feel the urgent need to include everything.

Just a possibility. Like I said, though, I'm more inclined not to believe it.

Anyway, getting back to Mark, Kynn proposes a novel (to me) theory of the pig exorcism that puzzled me so much. He thinks it's a metaphor for Roman occupation. The man is in chains, occupied by a "legion" of demons (get it?) who are mortally afraid of being told to leave the country. Kynn thinks this may all have been watered down to avoid Roman persecution, and so wound up cryptic.

I can see the "legion" point, which is otherwise totally incomprehensible. And, as I mentioned before, the demons, the pigs and the tombs were all unclean in Jewish thinking, so the whole thing could be seen as a big cleansing action.

Still, I stand by my position that there has to be some significance to the fact that this is the first Gentile that Jesus heals. It's such a huge shock to the Jews that their messiah came for the world and not just for them, and such a point of contention later in the New Testament, that it seems hard to believe that this is irrelevant. Moreover, since the Jews were longing for a release from Roman occupation, it seems odd that the symbolic figure Jesus frees is a non-Jew.

The larger problem, though, is one that Kynn mentions himself: Jesus didn't actually lead a rebellion. That was what the Jews expected their messiah to do, but he blew up their expectations. He called them to love their enemies and leave everything up to God, and he was captured and killed.

What, after all, is wrong with occupation? Two objections are usually raised. One is that it is not right for a nation to be ruled by foreigners. This was, I gather, the main reason the Hebrews were so unhappy about being ruled by Rome: they were God's chosen, the House of David, and here they were being ruled by pagans.

One of the early Christianity's most striking features, though, was how it annihilated the whole idea of "foreigner." In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, and all that. As I said earlier, the inclusion of Gentiles in the early church grated mightily on some Jews, but it would seem to be a central part of Jesus' message. I suppose it's possible that he really was a Hebrew nationalist and this was covered up, but I have to say this makes him singularly less appealing to me.

The other objection commonly raised to occupation is that it's an oppressive form of government. Certainly Rome could be oppressive, and they tangled most often with the Jews and Christians when they tried to impose emperor worship on them. But governments were, by our modern standards, nearly all oppressive back then. Before Roman monarchy and Roman state religion, there was Jewish monarchy and Jewish state religion. Jesus criticizes the authorities for hypocrisy, for debasing the temple with salesmen, and for insufficient care for their fellow men, but he did not seem to push political freedom in any form that I recognize, or to propose any system of government at all.

Finally, there's the conspicuous problem that if he was an anti-colonialist rebel, he failed. There was no rebellion, he was captured and killed, and Israel remained under foreign rule until 1948. Why, then, should I believe God was behind him? What makes him different from any other failed messiah of his day? Even his rising from the dead doesn't seem to mean much if his real objective was the earthly liberation of territory.

Kynn was apparently brought up to believe that Jesus came to earth solely to die, and so prefers to see Jesus as wanting to live, and having accomplished his main feats while alive. I don't see why we have to choose between two extremes, though. Somewhere back when she was blogging the Borg/Wright book, Lynn says she sees Jesus' life, death and resurrection as all of a piece, and it isn't necessary to pit one against the others. And while I still don't understand the mechanics of the Great Atonement, I have trouble seeing Jesus as anything special without his overcoming death. Without that, Christianity seems like a cult of the doomed hero, a romantic tragedy, and devoid of hope.

This leads me to one more point I wanted to make about Kynn's post, regarding the bleeding woman. He says he'd always heard it as referring to menstruation, which made a woman ritually unclean. Kynn sees this as barbarous patriarchalism, making a woman "effectively 'sinful' without actually sinning."

I am meandering into Jewish law here, about which I admittedly don't know a whole lot, but my impression from Leviticus is not that "unclean" was the same as being "sinful." Sins were punished with things like stoning, exile and fines, while uncleanliness meant you had to ritually purify yourself (as did anyone who touched you).

I don't have Leviticus handy right now, but my impression was that the Hebrews saw body fluids in general, and everything associated with disease, injury and death, as being unclean. This could be burdensome for men as well as women -- a man became unclean every time he ejaculated, even in his sleep, which in your average hale young man happens more often than once a month. And actually, what with the number of children they had and their long stretches of nursing them, women in premodern societies don't actually have that many periods.

Other cultures, such as Hindus and Japanese, have had similar concepts of cleanliness and ritual purity, and I suspect it ultimately goes back to fear of illness and death. Revulsion at body fluids makes a certain Darwinian sense, since they do carry germs, as does fear of blood. Many people are so phobic that they faint merely at the sight of it. So while these rules were based on inexact science -- there is, after all, nothing especially dangerous about menstrual blood -- the fear it evokes is understable enough without resorting to psychosexual explanations.

But Jesus was not afraid of touching the woman, or any other unclean thing. To me, this signifies that he was not afraid of death. And that may be the most remarkable thing about him, in a world where there is so much to fear.

Posted by Camassia at December 31, 2003 03:16 PM | TrackBack

I'm glad I provoked some comments, even if I did so by giving you stuff to disagree with. :)

One thing to keep in mind is that it's possible -- if you're willing to accept my theory that things which are in the bible may not be historical truths -- that earlier legends and stories were incorporated into the Jesus story. We see this explicitly whenever someone like Mark refers to something happening "to fulfill scripture", but we also see it in the case of John the Baptist.

John was obviously part of the Jesus story from the beginning; Jesus was quite possibly a disciple of John, and many of the first of Jesus' followers (e.g. Peter) were likely also. Notice how through the various tellings of the Jesus story, John becomes more and more aware of who Jesus was, and eventually becomes subservient to him.

The John story was incorporated into the Jesus story, in effect.

It's possible that the story of Legion -- referring to the Roman legions -- could have been originally assigned to someone else. There were a number of revolutionaries in those days, and a number of would-be messiahs and prophets.

Alternately, consider if someone -- unknown to us today -- had a story told about him with an encounter with a demon-possessed person, and the demon was tricked into going into the pig. Now consider that you're an early Christian, and you want to tell a story of how Jesus is superior to the guy with the pig. Suddenly your story isn't about tricking a spirit into a pig, it's about COMMANDING. And it's not just one spirit, but a legion. And the spirits aren't just stuck in a pig, they drown themselves.

Things like that sometimes happen in the bible and in history and in stories -- where we no longer have the context to understand the cultural references which would have been obvious to anyone living then.

Let's say that I write a science fiction story about a planet with a democracy, and the hero is elected president. He is the first person from his particular faith to get elected. But his life is tragically cut short when he's killed by a single shot fired by an assassin as he's riding on a hover-car through a town. His younger brother also goes into politics -- but is himself killed a few years later. The last brother is involved in a space ship crash which kills the person he's with.

To anyone who lived through America of the 1960s and 1970s, this story is obvious. Give it to someone unfamiliar with us -- or say, someone 2000 years from now -- and you don't realize it's a story about the Kennedy family.

Now, about that bleeding woman. :)

If you're unclean, you're not worthy of God. And if you're sinful, you're not worthy of God. The concept of sin and "unclean" are so intertwined together in ancient Hebrew thought that I think it's safe to say that women were, in some way, "punished" for having periods.

Now, mind you, women had a pretty bad lot overall back then and were already second class people. But I think it's really sad that something which is part of a life-giving and life-affirming process like menstruation -- and I freely admit that I steal this attitude from some of my pagan feminist friends -- and turn it into something which is less than good in the sight of God.

Maybe it doesn't fully rise to the level of sin, but it sure isn't considered a blessing.


PS: Perhaps the demonization of various female functions may have been a response to female cults in the area.

Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on December 31, 2003 10:18 PM

Oh, one more thing on further reflection:

Your point about people not reading is spot-on. For starters, they just didn't have copies of the thing to pass around, even if they happened to be literate. Producing copies of the bible was time-consuming and arduous. It's not like the first-century Christians sat around doing "bible study" in the pews, looking up various verses and hopping around the bible to make a point. That all is a modern invention, including verses.

I agree that they were likely sang. But also, they were likely acted out. They were likely told as storytelling. Each time it was read/told, the teller could embellish parts of the story, possibly to suit the audience. Telling it in Bethlehem? Add in some of the street names. Reading about Jesus in Nazareth? Add that this happened "right over there" or that maybe your grandfather met him.

My evidence for this phenomenon is to simply look at what we do with the Christmas and Easter stories, as well as other stories which are described, not read. How many times have you heard details added to a story which aren't literally in the bible? This a natural part of the preacher's repertoire, and the best ones spin tales for which there is no true scriptural basis, but a lot of wisdom and teaching is thus conveyed.

So when you say that there might not be the expectation of constant novelty, I'm not sure I agree fully with that. I think that each person, reading the words written by Mark, told the Jesus story in a different way. And the best of those stories probably made it into the later gospels.


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on December 31, 2003 10:25 PM

I agree that the pig story may have a context that's totally lost to us now. But if I just threw up my hands and said therefore we can't know what the heck it's about, that wouldn't make for much of a discussion. My disagreement with your interpretation of the story was not over Biblical literalism, which I don't subscribe to, but the question of what the story is trying to tell us about Jesus. I didn't like the concept that it told of Jesus as an anti-colonialist agitator, for the reasons I described. But you're right it might possibly refer to another such story, since that was the messianic expectation.

About menstruation, a suppose the concept of 'unclean' is difficult to wrap one's brain around, because it has no modern analog. But, I'm still not sure if it's right to say that becoming unclean necessarily means disapproval of some activity. For instance, having sex made both parties ritually unclean for a day. So did childbirth. But the Hebrews were as pro-natalist as they come, and saw childbearing as God's gift (and infertility as a curse). So uncleanness seemed to be a minor nuisance in an otherwise good and joyous process.

Also, you have to remember that the menstruation-procreation link was not understood very well by premodern cultures. In the Western world ovulation wasn't discovered until around 200 years ago, with the advent of microscopes and such, so before then nobody really knew what was going on with periods. I don't know what the ancient Jewish theory was about it, but I doubt they were taking something that was already understood as 'life-affirming' and making it bad. And speaking for myself, I find menstruation pretty darned uncomfortable and messy, so if I didn't know why it was happening I doubt I'd have a very positive view of it either.

Posted by: Camassia on January 1, 2004 01:37 PM

On the subject of Biblical oral tradition...the passion plays of Europe were teaching devices whose story lines and characters derived from the Bible, but often added their own details (as Kynn mentions) to either spice up the action or drive home a moral point. The non-written sharing and passing of Biblical stories is not confined to performative or strictly oral transmission, either. The stained-glass windows of medieval cathedrals served a similar purpose as the passion plays: to make accessible the "written" words of the Bible and Gospels to the not only illiterate but those who did not possess a copy of the Bible.

Of course, the passion plays and cathedral windows came much later than the the time frame Kynn and Camassia are discussing, but I think it's interesting to trace the evolutions oral and pictorial transmission has gone through. And we still do Christmas pagents, right? (I think I was a shepard once...I always did envy the girl who got to be Mary...) The continuance of non-written transmission is a heavy arguement in favor of Camassia's points re: novel expectation (and the lack thereof) and not reiterating the familiar.

Posted by: andi on January 1, 2004 04:49 PM

I have a question...not being a Biblical, Judaic, or Christian scholar, why did God chose Abram to make His covenant with? I scrounged up a beaten King James Bible in Seoul last time and I've been reading through, and Genesis has grabbed me. I now better understand how literally the Jewish people are chosen--but why?

Posted by: andi on January 2, 2004 08:55 PM

And males could also become unclean by nocturnal emmisions and any other sort of emmision. I wouldn't say they were "demonized" for being male and having emmissions anymore than women were "demonized" for having periods.

Posted by: Dismas on January 3, 2004 07:01 AM

I'm not sure about your point about literacy and the impetus to write down the gospels. Literacy was, in the time of Paul, much more class based, but from the bible scholarship I've read, the dating of texts -- including apocryphal texts that weren't collected into the Bible, such as the Gospel of Thomas -- date pretty close to 100 AD.
Why that date? I'd suggest that writing down a message assumes a lesser importance if you think the world is going to end soon. Certainly Jesus' messages about the second coming indicated that the coming would be in less than a generation's time. The great speech in Matthew 24 about the signs of the end of times was no doubt influenced by a latter author, who inserted into it various references to the revolt of the Jews against the Romans that occured after the death of Jesus. Still, the sense of it -- that a "you," meaning the hearers of it, will experience the end of all things -- was meant literally, as was Jesus's admonition, "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." (24:34) This expectation was, of course, disappointed when the generation started passing away and the heavens weren't rolled up. Which coincides with the beginning of the writing of the gospels. Paul's letters pre-date those gospels, and are filled with a similar apocalyptic expectation, which provides some corroboration for this set of motives. Of course, even then, there might have been some texts circulating -- that's the stance of modern scholarship -- but they merely outlined the teaching and life of the son of man. It is an interesting thought that you or I know more about this son of man than Paul did, when he preached the good news -- since he had available to him only some confusing remembrances of Jesus, plus the opposition of Peter, who did not at all think that the central message of Jesus was meant for non-Jews. The difficult transition from a message meant for one culture to another is bridged by Acts: but Jesus himself is hard to pin down on this point -- see his responses to the Samarian woman, with the implication that non-jews were "dogs."

Posted by: roger on January 3, 2004 09:56 AM

Paul Winter, in his great book "On the Trial of Jesus" (1961), may have been the first to suggest that the pig exorcism was an anti-Roman story. If I remember correctly, his suggestion was that it was not just a metaphor. It may have been based on a real story of some Roman soldiers drowning in a lake. But you could not tell a story like that without being arrested by the Romans for sedition. So they had to disguise it as a story about pigs. I believe (but am not completely sure) that wild pigs were depicted on the banners of the Roman legions.

Posted by: Leon Zitzer on January 3, 2004 08:14 PM

I must also add that inclusion of gentiles did not grate on Jews. This is an anti-Jewish misconception that is still heavily promoted in Christianity. Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism was a very open religion to gentiles. This openness made Christianity possible.

First, Judaism taught that you did not have to be Jewish to get to heaven. Righteous gentiles who obeyed the general laws of civilization (the Noachide laws) would get to heaven. These moral laws are referred to in Acts and in Galatians.

Second, gentiles who had a partial interest in Judaism -- known as God-fearers -- were welcome in Judaism. The synagogues were open to gentiles. The God-fearers are mentioned quite frequently in Acts. They were the first gentile converts to the new belief in Jesus as Messiah and in his resurrection. If Judaism had not been so open to gentiles, Christianity could never have taken off.

A few Christian scholars have recognized this, or at least, that the gentile God-fearers were very important to the early Jesus movement: John Gager, Krister Stendahl, Richard Horsley, and more.

Posted by: Leon Zitzer on January 3, 2004 08:26 PM

andi - if you read Genesis you notice a pattern in the opening chapters. The stories are all selected by the author to make a point. After creation we have stories sin ->judgement->grace. It starts with a broad sweep and increasingly focuses on individuals until the narrative telescopes in on Abraham and his descendants.

When you get to Babel you see people going against God's creation ordinances to spread out, be fruitful,spread God's blessinginstead they were amassing and trying to make a name for themselves(Gen 11.4) - that's the sin part.

Then comes judgment - confusion of tongues (Gen 11:5 - ironic, here's these guys trying to build a tower and God comes "down", like stoops right down to see what these pathetic little creatures are trying to do).....but the mitigation of that judgement is God's promise to Abraham. Compare the Babel builders attempt at self aggrandizement Gen 11:4 to God's gracious promise to Abraham Gen 12:2 "I" will make you a great nation, "I" will make your name great...and you will be a blessing..."I" will bless those who bless you...and all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.

The rest of Genesis then describes how God begins to fulfil this promise. Obviously if Abraham is to be a great nation then he needs descendants hence the focus on stories about heirs and their mothers...and also the stories about the land that is promised...and so on. The narrative continues in the remainder of the Old Testament.
I say God "begins" to fulfil this promise because of course, this promise is fully fulfilled by Jesus.

As to why God chose Abraham. Because He loved him. Did He love him because Abraham was special in some way? No. God just set His love upon Him. Sheer grace. If you read the first five books of the OT (the Pentateuch) carefully you will read time and time again that God chose Abraham and the Israelites not because of any special merit on their part and he repeatedly warns the Israelites about that. It is always God who initates the action, the favour, the covenant.

Sorry this is a rushed reply. Hope it makes sense and hope it helps.

Posted by: saint on January 4, 2004 09:57 AM

This is a better discussion of biblical texts than most of what I was exposed to at either seminary or graduate school. It's a lot of fun to read. Keep it up, Camassia.

Posted by: Allen on January 9, 2004 04:10 PM
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