Tuesday, March 01, 2011

thinking poorly about Mark's audience

As part of my senior-level undergraduate course on Mark's gospel I've assigned James Edwards's commentary in Eerdman's Pillar New Testament Commentary series (The Gospel according to Mark [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002]). Edwards argues that Mark was written for gentile Christians in or near Rome. While I don't have a problem with this position (though neither do I subscribe to it), I do have a problem with Edwards's favorite argument in its favor.

Whenever Mark translates an Aramaic phrase or a Jewish custom (e.g., Mark 5.41–42; 7.2–5), Edwards makes a comment regarding Mark's gentile Roman audience. And whenever he does so, I make a point to explain to my students how unnecessary such comments are. But now Edwards has crossed the line from claiming more than the data demands (a common and, in my view, acceptable practice) to making claims that simply aren't true. Let me explain.

In his comments on Mark 7.34 ["Jesus looked up into heaven and sighed, and he said to him, 'Ephphatha' (which means, 'Be opened')."], Edwards drops a footnote in which he claims, "The need to translate an Aramaic saying into Greek again indicates that Mark is writing for non-Jews" (2002:225, n. 28). But this simply isn't true! At the very least, such a view assumes that every Jew in Mark's world understood Aramaic.

Instead, we need to recognize at least two basic facts, both of which require explanation. First, Mark includes Jesus command in an Aramaic form. Second, Mark translates the Aramaic command into Greek. Edwards focuses on this second datum and infers, therefore, that Mark must be writing for non-Jews. But, as I've already said, this goes too far. The most we can say with confidence is that Mark is writing for people who know Greek but do not know Aramaic.

The really interesting question, I think, is: Why did Mark include the command in Aramaic in the first place? Answers will be speculative, of course. But I can think of two: First, there was a power associated with Jesus' actual spoken words, and so Mark included those words even though he wrote for a Greek-speaking audience. We have remains of hundreds of magical papyri, mostly from Egypt, that attest the perceived power of foreign words (somewhat like the pseudo-Latin of Harry Potter). But second—and here's where Edwards goes astray—the presence of both the Aramaic command and its Greek translation may suggest that Mark is writing for a multi-ethnic (and multi-lingual?) audience. If so, then Mark may preserve the Aramaic/Judaic form of much of his tradition because many among his audience were well positioned to appreciate its preservation, but he explains the Aramaisms/Judaisms because others (many?) among his audience would not have understood them.

At any rate, if you're convinced, along with Edwards, that Mark writes for gentile Christians in/near Rome, then you need to provide some explanation why Mark includes words like, Ephphatha, or Talitha koum, or Elōi, Elōi lema sabachthani. Certainly the gospel story is intelligible without them, so why does Mark bother to include them at all?


David said...

Can I say "because" and use that as a valid answer. My sons do all the time and I actually answered a question to them with that response this morning. :D

Anonymous said...

Your second idea is interesting, although I don't think I can agree. If the text of mark is in greek, but that word, and perhaps a few others are dually translated into aramaic, I don't think the argument that it was for a multilingual audience, since what that would mean is that "ok so 99.9% of this text is in greek, so why do I need to dually translate this particular word". I mean, if they understand enough greek to read the work itself, they understand enough greek to understand the phrase he dually translates.

To me, it seems more likely that the aramaic was used for dramatic effect. Since it is some special event. Like when a magician says "abracadabra!" just as he performs some trick. The special word add a extra bit of dramatics to the story.

Since you are on GMark, and I have found you an intelligent person in the past. Let me ask you this. Can you give me any definitive reasons why the pauline writings have to have been written before GMark (or the other gospels, I use GMark cause it is often put forward as the earliest).

I am trying to weigh out "things I can declare with absolute certainty" in early Christianity from "things that I have always just taken for granted". And while you were dreaming Bart and his kid, I was dreaming the question... "hey... is it possible that the Pauline writings could be later than one or more of the gospels?"

What info can you give me.

Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

Rafael said...


Certainly Mark's audience was Greek-speaking. All of it. But why include any Aramaic words at all? I suspect Mark thought at least some of those in whose hands his gospel would fall would appreciate the Aramaicisms. For them, as they listened to the text in Greek, the Aramaic phrases and Judaic overtones connected with their Aramaic-Jewish heritage.

As an analogy, my wife likes the new show, Off the Map, about a medical clinic in South America. The show is thoroughly for English speakers, and any English speakers who don't know any Spanish at all (such as my wife) can enjoy the show without feeling like they're missing anything. But even so, there's just enough Spanish in the dialog to (i) give the show an air of authenticity, and (ii) to draw those of us with enough Spanish to follow the show's basic bilinguism even further into the narrative. I think those two factors were likely at work in the reception of Mark's narrative as well.

Good question on Mark and Paul. I'm not certain of all the reasons that nearly every Markan scholar dates Mark to just before or just after the Judean-Roman War (c. 65–75 CE). However, a good friend of mine, James Crossley, argued in his PhD that Mark should be dated much earlier, perhaps as early as 39–41 CE. He published his dissertation as The Date of Mark's Gospel (T&T Clark International, 2004). I haven't seen anyone who accepts James's dating for Mark, although I find very much of his reading of Mark persuasive. The main result of his argument, however, is to caution us against being too confident in dating Mark nearer the end of (or soon after) the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul.

I should say, however, that 99.9% of NT scholars would say without hesitation that absolutely without question Mark was written after every genuinely Pauline epistle. You can see such confidence, for example, when Robert Stein dismisses Crossley's entire argument in a single footnote (see Stein's commentary on Mark in the BECNT series, p. 14, n. 21; an excerpt is available on Baker's website).

Anonymous said...

Dear Rafael,

Re the first of your questons, I thought I explained, the purpose of including the aramaic word is similar to the magician using 'abracadrabra' in magic tricks, to add a element of the dramatic to the story.

Regard my question re paul gospel I should be clear. I am not interested in the consensus or conclusions of religon industry professions, so saying something like "90% of religion professionals think..." is meaningless to me. In fact, it is actually signifigant. It generally means that someone cannot find any actual reasons to list, and wants to say something so they think 'well... it's what everyone thinks'

What I am looking for is any arguments that are used to demonstrate that paul MUST be written before any gospel. It sounds like what you are saying is that you are not aware of any actual reason that it must be?

It could very well be that the religion industry, as with many things, just began with one of the assumptions from prior Church dogma.

This is a topic that interests me at the moment. IF you could think again if there is any actual reason that the paul writings MUST be written before any gospel, I would really like to learn about the specific arguments and start examining them.

Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

Rafael said...

Sorry, Rich. I'm not saying that they're aren't reasons for dating Mark to after Paul's death (and so necessarily to after everything Paul ever wrote). I'm just saying that's not my field, and so I don't know them off the top of my head. Crossley's book (which I mentioned) discusses the relevant data at length; any NT introduction and/or technical commentary on Mark (e.g., Adela Yarbrough Collins's Hermeneia volume) will also be helpful.

If the scholarly dating of Mark's gospel were a matter of received ecclesiastical dogma, Markan scholars would date Mark to the mid- to late-60s in light of the widespread connection among the Church Fathers of Mark's gospel with Peter's preaching. While some scholars do accept this connection (see James Edwards's commentary in the Pillar series), the connection with Peter is certainly not universally accepted.

Hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

Dear Rafael,

I understand that you were not saying that there was none, and again my question was simply if you knew of any argument that would indicate that the writings of the legendary pauline character MUST have occurred before the canonical gospels.

It sounds like you are saying that you are simply not aware of any of argument or hypothesis on the issue.

If you or anyone else comes accross any, I would appreciate it if you would send along the basics of the argument to me.

Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com

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