Monday, May 23, 2022

Jesus and His Bible in the Gospel of Mark, Part 1

Preamble: I have spent my lifetime of reading the Gospels without taking special note of the distinction between what the Gospel writers invoke from the Old Testament and what Jesus actually quotes or references. I set out on a project to note what Jesus refers to in the Old Testament and to read those references in their original context and then sit with that information and reread the context in which Jesus uses them. Though it is impossible to read without preconceptions, I was trying to read with the intention of being open to my notions being challenged.

My academic discipline is English, so I used a method of literary criticism. We can look at it simply as investigating the source of literary allusions and influence, or we can invest it with weightier significance by invoking “intertextuality.” In either case, the idea is that we enrich our understanding of the text we are presently reading by recognizing references to other literature and by informing ourselves of that place that allusion or quotation occurs in the context of the original. In the case of ancient texts, we may also need to investigate the historical uses of various words to understand the original more fully.    

My purpose is both intellectual and spiritual. I am devoted to Jesus and to following his historical example and his present teaching in my life. Trying to understand more about his thinking seems to me to be useful in both aspects of my spiritual life.  

I chose the Gospel of Mark, the earliest and most unadorned. I have a warm history with this gospel, having read it all the way through on each of three consecutive weekends several decades ago. I fell in love with Jesus through this reading, finding him to be charismatic, irascible, and tender. 

The results of my study show Jesus aligning himself with the prophets, particularly Isaiah, in the opening and central parts of his ministry, and then, surprisingly to me, the apocalypse of Daniel in the days prior to his trial and crucifixion. I investigate the place of Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures used by Jesus and the specific use Jesus made of it. My investigation makes me think that Jesus himself, as he saw the conflict intensifying between him and the religious leaders, was driven to referencing exile and apocalypse by his disappointment in his reception and his dread of what was to come. This further humanizes him, as I see it, without diminishing his divine nature and vocation to save the world’s people from their sins. 

I hope that as you consider my analysis and inferences you will be encouraged to look at the words of Jesus with new interest and imaginative questions of your own that move you to study the Bible more carefully.

I have chosen (as a non-expert, academically speaking, in Biblical studies) these main sources for information: Robert Alter’s translation and commentary on the Jewish scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament, and the Jewish Study Bible.  I chose these in order to think about the Jewish scriptures more as Jesus might have thought of them—as the only scriptures he knew.  I also used for word study the online lexicon Blue Letter Bible. I looked at the New American Standard Bible with cross-references to help me identify the source of Jesus’s allusions and quotations from his scriptures.  

Chapter 1 Healing a Leper

The first passage to note where Jesus refers to his scriptures is the healing of the leper in Mark 1.  Jesus touches the leper, the leper is healed, and Jesus says to him: “Offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded” (Mark 1:45).

This raised for me the question: What did Moses command? It turns out the process for declaring a leper cleansed/healed is quite complex and invokes a great deal of the culture of ancient Hebrews. 

The procedure is outlined in Leviticus 14, which I summarize as follows:

Event 1

  • The priest meets leper outside the camp;
  • The priest takes two live clean birds, cedar wood, hyssop and a scarlet string;
  • The priest kills one bird over an earthenware vessel (which catches the blood) over running water;
  • The priest dips the live bird, the scarlet string and the hyssop in the first bird’s blood;
  • The priest sprinkles the former leper 7 times with the blood, then lets the second bird go free.
  • The former leper washes his clothes, bathes, then waits for 7 days.

Event 2

  • On the seventh day, he shaves off all his hair, even eyebrows, washes his clothes and bathes;
  • On the eighth day, he takes two perfect male lambs and a yearling ewe lamb, 3/10 of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, and one log (think of a pint or so) of olive oil, and goes to the priest;
  • The priest presents him and his offering before the tent of the meeting [this was prior to the building of the temple, so think tabernacle];
  • The priest presents one lamb and the oil and gives them to God as a guilt and a wave offering;
  • The priest kills the lamb, which then belongs to the priest;
  • The priest takes the lamb’s blood, puts it on the former leper’s right earlobe, right thumb, and right big toe;
  • The priest takes some oil into his left palm, then dips his right finger into the oil and sprinkles it 7 times before the Lord.
  • The priest then puts oil from his palm onto the right earlobe, the right thumb, and the right big toe of the former leper, and the remaining oil from his palm on the former leper’s head;
  • Then the priest offers the sin offering to make atonement;
  • The priest slaughters the burnt offering, offers it and the grain offering on the altar;
  • Then the former leper will be clean.

If the former leper is poor, he can offer one male lamb for a guilt and a wave offering, and 1/10 of an ephah of flour mixed with oil, and a pint of oil, and two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering. The process continues as above.

The reference in Leviticus 14 to the guilt and wave offering required me to read further to find what is said about these. In Leviticus 5, a guilt offering is required for those guilty of the following infractions: 

  • When they do not testify though there is a public appeal for witnesses; 
  • When they touch any unclean thing, whether human or animal or insect; 
  • When they swear thoughtlessly to do something, whether evil or good. 

Further, it seems to have been thought that this skin disease was the consequence of a guilty act of some sort [as Miriam was struck with leprosy after disloyalty to Moses]; thus the guilt offering. A wave offering was waved before the altar and then given to the priests for their use.

The prescribed components of a guilt offering are a lamb, ewe, or kid goat; or, if that is too costly, two turtledoves/pigeons; or if that is too costly, 1/10 of an ephah of flour, unmixed with oil.  Most of the offering goes for the priest’s upkeep, and the rest is burned (one of the birds, one handful of the flour).  This is a part of the cleansing ritual above, which seems generally more expensive.

Many of these actions are clearly symbolic, certifying rather than effecting the cure.  The leper has initiated them as a result of the skin returning to one color. Blood and oil were considered purifying agents (Robert Alter, Moses, 330, n.) The blood on the right earlobe, etc., is a sign of consecration for priests (see Exodus 29) and invokes the organs of hearing, holding, locomotion (Alter, Moses, 330, n.). Oil on the head was also a confirming act of consecration for priests (Alter, Moses, 329, n.). This suggests that the former leprous exile now is an insider, a member of God’s people. 

So, to sum up what is involved in the interaction between the leper and Jesus.  The leper asks Jesus to heal him. Jesus does so with a touch. Jesus makes no comment about the “guilt” aspect of leprosy, though occasionally in other healings he does also forgive the sick person’s sins. He does ask the healed person to keep the healing quiet until the priest has certified it.  Again, the reason is not clarified. Perhaps it is to delay the inevitable confrontation with other Jews about the Law, perhaps it is to prevent being overwhelmed by crowds, perhaps it is because the man himself needs the discipline of the ritual rather than the attention of the crowd.

But here’s the interesting thing about Jesus. While he sends off the healed leper to the priest to accomplish all the tasks of ritual purification, he himself does none of them, despite having touched the leper and incurring uncleanness thereby.

This introduces, without comment, the tension between Jesus and the Law, a tension which is not resolved by Jesus’s comment in Matthew 5 that he came to fulfill the law.  Yes, he did, and also the opposite. Jesus “filled up” the law, like new wine in old wineskins, and burst it wide open.

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