A: We’ve talked a lot on this site and on the Concinnate Christianity blog about the differences between your teachings and Paul’s teachings. Many readers will say there’s not much evidence in the Bible for the differences you and I claim. What would you say to Progressive Christians who want to “have their Jesus and keep their Paul, too,” who want to make you, Jesus, more credible, without actually giving up any of their cherished Pauline doctrines?
J: They make me look like a dweeb, to be honest. An ineffectual, wimpy, turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy.
A: Which you were not.
J: They say they want to save me from the fundamentalist Christian right and the secular humanist left, yet they’re forcing me to sit down at the Tea Party table with Paul, which is the last place I want to be. I’m a middle of the road social democrat, and I believe with all my heart and soul that a society can’t function in a balanced way unless rights and responsibilities are given equal weight in all spheres of life. Paul was a man who taught about rights, rights, rights and not nearly enough about responsibilities. He and I had very different values.
A: Paul talks about punishments.
J: Yes. Paul talks about divine punishment and divine testing. He talks about his freedom — his right — to speak with divine authority. He talks about the need for self-discipline. He talks about divine rewards. But, you know, when you look carefully at what he’s written, he doesn’t speak to the soul of his listeners. He doesn’t challenge them to see each of their neighbours as a separate person worthy of respect. Instead he does the opposite: he encourages them to see themselves as non-distinct members of a vast “body of Christ.” Paul, instead of insisting that people build solid interpersonal boundaries — the foundation of safety and respect and mutuality between individuals — tells people to dissolve those boundaries. It sounds good on paper, but “Oneness” does not work in reality. If you encourage the dissolution of interpersonal boundaries, you’ll see to your horror that the psychopaths in your midst will jump in and seize that “Oneness” for themselves. They won’t hesitate to use it to their advantage.
A: Because they have no conscience.
J: Humans (as well as angels on the Other Side) are all part of One Family. But this isn’t the same as saying humans are all “One.” As anyone who comes from a big family knows, respect for boundaries is the grease that keeps you from killing each other.
A: It can be tricky to manoeuvre all the boundary isses in a big family.
J: Yes. You need all the brain power you can muster to stay on top of the different needs of different family members.
A: Spoken like a man who came from a big family.
J: When you’re the youngest son in a family with three older brothers and two sisters (one older, one younger), you catch on fast to the idea of watching and learning and listening to the family dynamics so you don’t get your butt kicked all the time.
A: It’s real life, that’s for sure.
J: That’s the thing. It’s real life. It’s not about going off into the desert to live as a religious hermit. It’s not about living inside walled compounds or hilltop fortresses. It’s about living with your neighbours and learning to get along with them through communication and compromise and empathy. It’s not fancy, but it works.
A: The Gospel of Mark makes this message very clear.
J: Christians have long assumed that the author of Luke truly believed in my teachings and was trying his best to convey them in a fresh way to a new generation of believers. Luke, of course, had no interest in my teachings, and was instead trying to promote Paul’s package of religio-political doctrines. This is seen most obviously in the so-called Great Omission — the complete absence in Luke of Mark’s most important theological statement. Luke cut and pasted many parts of Mark’s gospel, and thereby changed their meaning. But he didn’t even try to include the dangerous theology found in Mark 6:47 to Mark 8:27a. He ignored it and hoped it would go away.
A: Why? Why did he want it to go away?
J: Mark’s gospel, as we’ve been discussing, was a direct rebuttal of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul wrote first (years before Mark), and in the middle of his letter he included 3 linked chapters on freedom and conscience, authority and obedience, sin and salvation, as these themes revolve around food — idol meat and, more importantly, the blood and bread of Christ (1 Cor 8:1-11:1). We can call this set-piece the “Idol Meat Discourse.” In this set-piece, Paul makes a number of claims about God that Mark, following my example, found particularly galling. Mark countered those claims by writing his own 3-chapter set-piece (Mark 6:30-8:26). I’m going to call Mark’s set-piece “the Parable of the Idol Bread.” This was Mark’s head-on attack on Paul’s Eucharist.
A: Mark didn’t support the sacrament of the Last Supper?
J: Mark knew that Paul’s speech about sharing in the blood and body of Christ (1 Cor 10:14-22) was a thinly veiled Essene ritual, the occult Messianic Banquet that had grown out of earlier, more honest offerings of thanks to God. I rejected the notion of the Messianic Banquet, with its invocation of hierarchy and status addiction. Mark rejected it, too.
A: Right before Mark launches into his Parable of the Idol Bread, he includes an allegorical tale about a banquet held by Herod and the subsequent beheading of John the Baptist (which we know didn’t actually happen).
J: Yes. Mark uses a lot of sophisticated allegory in his gospel. (Plus I think the less-loving aspect of him wanted to see John’s head end up on a platter, which is where he thought it belonged.) Mark leads up to his set-piece — which, of course, is an anti-Messianic-banquet — by tipping off the reader to an upcoming inversion of religious expectations. He’s telling them not to expect Paul’s easy promises and glib words about “Oneness.” He’s telling them to prepare themselves for an alternate version of Jesus’ teachings about relationship with God.
A: What was that alternate version?
J: It was a radical vision of equality before God, of inclusiveness and non-Chosenness. It was a vision of faith without status addiction. Of faith and courage in numbers. Of freedom from the slavery of the Law. The love of a mother for her children (including our Divine Mother’s love for her children!). A relationship with God founded on trust rather than fear. The healing miracles that take place in the presence of love rather than piety. The ability of people to change and let go of their hard-heartedness (ears and eyes being opened). The Garden of Eden that is all around, wherever you look, if you’re willing to see and hear the truth for yourself. The failure of both the Pharisees and the Herodians to feed the starving spiritual hearts of the people. The personal responsibility that individuals bear for the evil things they choose to do. The importance of not idolizing the words of one man. (There’s no lengthy “Sermon on the Mount” in Mark as in Matthew; in fact, there’s no sermon at all, let alone a set of laws carved on stone tablets!).
A: That’s a lot to pack into three short chapters.
J: This is why I refer to Mark’s set-piece as a parable. As with any properly written parable, the message isn’t immediately obvious. You have to use all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength in order to suss out the meaning.
A: I noticed when I was doing my research papers for a New Testament exegesis course that the setting of Mark’s Parable of the Idol Bread is crucial. Not one but two major teaching events with miraculous endings take place out in the middle of nowhere near the Sea of Galilee. There’s no proximity to important sacred sites such as Jerusalem or Jericho or the Dead Sea or the River Jordan. There’s no Greco-Roman temple or Jerusalem Temple. There’s no holy mountain. There’s no sacred stone. There’s no palace or patron’s villa. But there’s a lot of green grass, with enough room for everybody to recline in groups (as in a Roman banquet) and share the event together.
In the middle section, in Chapter 7, Mark shows you leaving Galilee to carry out more healing miracles, but these healings take place in Gentile areas — everywhere but the sacred site of David’s city. You can tell Mark doesn’t think too much of Jerusalem’s elite.
J: Mark had a scathing sense of humour, much like Jon Stewart’s. When he wrote his gospel, he was thinking of it as a parable and a play at the same time. He wanted the actions of the actors to speak to the intent of the teachings.
A: Actions speak more loudly than words.
J: Yes. He wanted people to picture the actions, the geographical movements, that changed constantly in his story but never went close to Jerusalem in the first act of his two-act play. His Jewish audience would have understood the significance of this.
A: Tell me about the Idol Bread.
J: The meaning of the bread in Mark’s parable makes more sense if you look at the Greek. In Mark’s parable, and again later at the scene of the so-called Last Supper in Mark 14, the bread in question is leavened bread — artos in the Greek — not unleavened bread, which is an entirely different word in Greek (azymos). Mark shows me constantly messing with the bread and breaking all the Jewish laws around shewbread and Shavuot bread and Passover bread. At the teaching events beside the Sea of Galilee, the bread is given to the people rather than being received from the people in ritual sacrifice. It’s torn into big hunks. It’s handed out to everyone regardless of gender or rank or clan or purity. It’s handed out with a blessing on a day that isn’t even a holy day. Nobody washes their hands first. Everyone receives a full portion of humble food. Everyone eats together.
A: If the fish in this parable are a metaphor for courage and strength (see Mark’s Themes of Understanding and Strength) then what does the bread represent?
J: Artos — which is very similar to the Greek pronoun autos, which means “self” and, with certain prepositions, “at the same time; together” — is a metaphor for the equality of all people before God. Everybody needs their daily bread regardless of status or bloodline or rank. It’s about as status-free a symbol as you can get.
A: Something tells me that got lost in the Pauline translation.