Wednesday, January 27, 2010

placing Jesus' baptism in (literary) context

In her comments on Mark 1.9–11, Adela Yarbro Collins appeals to biographies of Greek poets to provide a literary parallel to Mark's account of Jesus' baptism and the declaration of Jesus as God's well-pleasing son. Here's a rather extended passage from Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 147:
Ancient biographies of poets contain similar accounts near the beginning of the narrative about their main subjects. In the popular biography of Aesop, he is portrayed as a slave, extraordinarily ugly, and unable to speak because of a severe speech impediment. This low status is somewhat mollified by divine power. near the beginning of the narrative, Aesop assists a priestess of Isis. As a reward Isis grants him the power of speech, and the nine Muses bestow upon him the power to devise stories and the ability to conceive and elaborate tales, as well as other gifts of excellent speech. A story was told about the archaic lyric poet Archilochus involving an extraordinary experience which revealed that he would be a poet. When he was leading a cow to market at night while the moon was shining, he met a crowd of women who offered to buy his cow. When he had agreed and they had promised to give him a good price, both the women and the cow disappeared, and before his feet he saw a lyre. He was overcome and realized that they were the Muses. Like Archilochus, the Jesus of Mark has an experience near the beginning of the narrative that transforms him and prepares him for his life's work. Archilochus experienced an epiphany or vision of the Muses, who enabled him to be a poet; Jesus sees the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and hears the divine voice address him as beloved son. The allusions to scripture in the words of the divine voice suggest that Jesus is being appointed as messiah or prophet or to an eschatological role that combines both offices. As Aesop was given gifts of wise speech by Isis and the Muses, Jesus is endowed with the divine Spirit on this occasion, the power that enables him to teach with authority, to heal, and to cast out demons.

It pains me to criticize Collins here, especially because (i) I'm really impressed with her commentary so far, and (ii) I think she's exactly right that we need to contextualize Mark in its larger traditional world. But the stories of Greek poets hardly provide the appropriate traditional world for understanding Mark. Notice the phrase, about halfway through the quote, "Like Archilochus, the Jesus of Mark has an experience near the beginning of the narrative that transforms him and prepares him for his life's work." Like Archilochus?! None of the story Collins has relayed sounds remotely like Mark's account of Jesus, which suggests that very little—if any—of Mark's story of Jesus is "like Archilochus."

The differences simply too great to draw any meaningful parallels between Archilochus and Aesop, on the one hand, and Jesus of Nazareth. Aesop is awarded for assisting a priestess of Isis; Jesus comes to John in the Judean wilderness, which is world's away from the Temple hierarchy in Jerusalem. Archilochus encounters the Muses without knowing it; nothing in Mark 1 suggests Jesus encounters either God or one of his agents unawares. The stories of Aesop and Archilochus simply belong to a completely different world from the stories of Jesus, and only the fact that both are ancient from our point of view hides that fact. It would be just as appropriate to draw links between Mark 1 and stories of John Henry or Emiliano Zapata.

Why does any of this matter? I can think of two reasons. First, notice that these parallels actually affect Collins's interpretation of Mark 1.9–11. She reads the divine voice in 1.11 (and its allusions to Hebrew biblical traditions) as a suggestion that "Jesus is being appointed as messiah or prophet or to an eschatological role that combines both offices." But I don't see any such implication in the text. For one thing, the voice's declaration that Jesus is God's son is not very prominent in the rest of Mark's gospel. Mark uses phrase υἱὸς θεοῦ only at 1.1 (if we accept the textual variant); at 3.11 and 5.7 demons acknowledge Jesus as υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ; at 15.39 a centurion calls the recently deceased Jesus υἱὸς θεοῦ. In Mark 9.7 the heavenly voice again declares Jesus God's "beloved son." Perhaps Mark 13.32 is also relevant. If Mark 1.9–11 narrates when Jesus is appointed to the status of God's son, I would expect the rest of the narrative to have more to do with Jesus as God's son. I think Collins would have done better to read this passage as the account of Jesus being declared (not appointed) the son of God (= royal messianic figure). The rest of the gospel makes good sense as the account of Jesus as the chosen king of God's people; notice that as early as 1.14–15 Jesus is announcing the nearness of God's (= his) kingdom.

Second, and even more importantly, Collins's appeal to biographies of Greek poets actually facilitates the trend among NT scholars to read early Christian literature outside of (and even in opposition to) the Jewish cultural context in which the texts were written and apprehended. The parallels between Jesus and Israel's patriarchs, monarchs, prophets, etc. are much more compelling than any similarities with Aesop and/or Archilochus. Perhaps we could make the case that stories of the Greek pantheon and biographies of poets and heroes help us understand the context in which Mark was (later) read and understood. But at this point I am utterly unconvinced that these stories provide any purchase on how the earliest memories of Jesus (say, the first century at least) were expressed, understood, and passed on.

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