Friday, October 14, 2016

Two Odd Locutions in the Gospel of Mark

There are actually other statements in Mark's Gospel that strike me as odd (that is: peculiar, strange, or unexpected), but these two locutions are markedly so. We have come to rely on Mark as the earliest gospel—at least Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels relying on Mark as a source. Luke even noted there were many who had tried their hand at "compiling a narrative" of the doings and sayings of Jesus, so s/he apparently accepted Mark's narrative as the most acceptable of the "many" who wrote (Luke 1:1)—and yet Luke frequently edits out and changes much of Mark's narrative.
FIRST LOCUTION is Mark's obvious exaggeration about John the Baptizer's success with the population of Judea. An exaggeration is a political statement; it is not a historical statement:
And there were going out to him all the region of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the river Jordan confessing their sins (1:5, Hedrick; see also 1:28, 33).
In the time of Jesus the "region/country" of Judea incorporated the area around Jerusalem extending northward to about the valley of Aijalon and southward to Masada, and included eight to ten villages. The population of the city of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus has been estimated at an upper limit of around 25,000 to 30,000.1 If the population of Jerusalem was only half this number, the idea that every single person in the city and all the villages in the region of Judea were going out, and eventually being baptized by John, is simply not credible.  Luke eliminates this verse, but Matthew (3:5) repeats the exaggeration with a slight modification.
            Mark borders on another unfortunate exaggeration when he writes: "And [Jesus] could do no mighty work there"; Mark avoids the exaggeration by adding: "except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them (6:5; see Matthew 13:58 for a more carefully worded statement).
Several translators have completely removed Mark's exaggeration (1:5) in their translations:
From all Judea and Jerusalem crowds of people went to John (TEV)
And they flocked to him from the whole Judean country-side and the city of Jerusalem (NEB)
People from Jerusalem and from all over Judea traveled out into the Judean waste-lands to see and hear John (Living New Testament).
SECOND LOCUTION is found in Mark 4:36. The sentence is ambiguous rendering it difficult to translate. To illustrate the problem here is my literal translation, which follows the Greek word order, with the unclear statement in italics; it is followed by several other translations:
And leaving the crowd they take him as he was in the boat (Hedrick)
And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was (RSV)
So leaving the crowd, they took him (just as he was) in the boat (Moffatt)
Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat (NIV)
So they left the crowd and took him with them in the boat where he had been sitting (NEB)
So they left the crowd and took him away in the boat in which he was sitting (Goodspeed)
And when they had sent away the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was (NKJ)
And sending away the multitude, they take him even as he was in the ship (Douay)
So they left the crowd, and his disciples started across the lake with him in the boat (TEV)
            Translators have taken the odd locution to refer either to Jesus already being in the boat (see Mark 4:2), or to the appearance or condition of Jesus (as he was, NKJ, or just/even as he was: NIV, Moffatt, Douay). Goodspeed and NEB use words other than Mark's in their translation. And TEV simply eliminates the obscure phrase. Both Luke and Matthew, resolve Mark's lack of clarity by having Jesus get into the boat with the disciples when they leave, and thus eliminate the obscure phrase as he was (Luke 8:22; Matthew 8:23).
            The larger issue raised by these two odd locutions is the ethics of Bible translation.2 Does the interpreter/translator allow Mark's problematic locutions to remain, or does the interpreter/translator change Mark's text in order to resolve the ambiguity in the interests of maintaining a text suitable for worship, since public reading of the Bible should not raise questions in the minds of the worshippers?  To put the matter differently, does the interpreter/translator serve the interests of the church, or serve a historical sense that always demands complete transparency?
What are your thoughts?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 84.
2C. W. Hedrick, "Satyrs or Wild Goats. The Politics of Translating the Bible," The Fourth R 24.5 (November –December 2012):21-22, 24.


  1. Hi Charlie,

    Thanks for the stimulating observations. You wrote: "...does the interpreter/translator serve the interests of the church, or serve a historical sense that always demands complete transparency?"

    My position is that the translator should always be literal, i.e., transparent. Sometimes there may be great indecisiveness, so there may be sometimes when alternative(s) should be mentioned in a foot note; e.g. the NRSV offers "faith of" as an alternative to "faith in" for certain passages in Galatians and Romans. Translators should be translators, not interpreters.

    (1) Regarding the response of the people to the Baptist, Mark had a reason for writing it that way; who is the lowly translator to change it. This seems to me to be a straightforward exaggeration by Mark, certainly not an isolated or unknown literary tactic by him. Mark seems to be thinking, 'that's the kind of response the Baptist deserved, and I'm going to give it to him. It fits in with the building excitement of my story.'

    (2)Regarding the mysterious phrase, "just as he was," I refer to Dennis MacDonald's Mythologizing Jesus (2015), 33-36. Mark 4:36 is translated, "They left the crowd and took him--he already was in the boat. Other boats were with him." MacDonald looks to Mark 4:1, where Jesus steps into a boat to begin teaching, to interpret the phrase "just as he was;" in other words he was already in the boat when they decided to sail.

    To be strict to the translation model, perhaps it would be more correct to refer the reader to 4:1 for a possible way to understand "just as he was."

    MacDonald writes, "Mark may have modeled this story after an episode at the beginning of Odyssey 10. It's interesting that no where else in the NT does Jesus sail with a "flotilla." Odysseus had twelve vessels. "Odysseus was helpless against the wind and the sea, but Jesus, by calming both, plays the part of Aeolus."

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Good Morning Gene,
      On your second paragraph: I agree with you but the problem as I see it is that every translation is an interpretation--even if it is a more or less literal translation. The problem for the translator is how best to protect the ambiguity of the text while still providing the reader a responsible and engaging translation. As you can see from the translations I quoted, translators do not always do that. An English only reader will only be aware of ambiguity in the text by reading multiple translations of the same passage.

      Your #2: And Matthew and Luke disagree with Dennis! Both of Mark's earliest interpreters (Matt and Luke) have Jesus "get in the boat" to go with the disciples when they decide to go to the otherside--thus ignoring Mark 4:1.

      Your #1: is a compelling and vivid statement about the flesh and blood author as the creator of the story.

    2. Hi Charlie,

      Your observation that "every translation is an interpretation" is a keeper for sure.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

  2. Good evening Charlie!

    My attitude- and a growing number of people's attitudes- regarding the translators' transparency (whether or not it is literal) in translating Mark is: "So what? What difference does it make?"

    I would love to see a scientific poll that accurately illustrates the percentage of Christians who still believe the Bible is "inerrant" and the literal words of God. As far as I know, the Bible has never been labeled as a history book and great liberties have been taken with Gospels in particular. I've never understood why they were written in the third person? They were obviously NOT eyewitness accounts.

    This passage explains my thoughts on the subject:

    "A penetrating but little-known scholar put it this way at the beginning of the 20th century. Whereas in previous ages

    'all the foundations of culture were complete, we are essentially future-orientated; the world is to be changed, truth is to be guaranteed only by the inner necessity of the human spirit, not by deference to past authorities.' [7]

    If one examines the situation it turns out that Christians
    squabble amongst themselves within a relatively minor tributary of the Great Divide. The main divide is that great river which separates the religious from the a-religious. The Great Divide is not between believers and atheists but between two mutually exclusive modes of perceiving reality.

    The so-called atheist no longer responds with "I don't believe" but with "So what!" The reason is that not only do such people regard traditional Christianity as irrational but, more importantly, they cannot understand it and its presuppositions. Explaining traditional Christianity to a modern a-theist is like trying to explain colour to someone blind from birth. Just as colour is essentially unimportant to a blind person, so are supernaturally-based concepts irrelevant to most moderns. For them the past is a source of information and perhaps an object of nostalgia. It certainly has no intrinsic authority." (Radical Faith- exploring faith in a changed world)

    Bottom line is, I don't see people quibbling or fighting over translations of the Tao Te Ching or the Bhagavad Gita, do you? We understand that those ancient texts are translated into many different volumes and no one seems to mind at all.

    Christians are the exception in this- do you agree?

    Thank you and enjoy this July weather in October!
    Elizabeth in 'Summer-y' St. Louis, MO

    1. Good Morning Elizabeth,
      In Springfield we are waiting for the rain.
      A brief comment on the idea that the Bible is not a "history book." Actually, in the Bible one finds the foundational events of two religions: Israelite and Christian. The documents combine mythological, confessional, and historical elements. In the west since the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason) scholars who think critically have aimed at sorting out the historical elements.

      To your So What? a brief comment: There is a widespread superstition about the Bible in Western civilization by the great majority of "un-churched" who don't even know the meaning of the word "inerrancy," but they nevertheless regard the Bible superstitiously as a religious icon. So anything that can be done to restore to the Biblical texts their status as simple (not special) religious literature is worth doing.

      Likely you are correct that Christian folk are the only ones who squabble over the nature of the Biblical texts. But that is because it is only in Western civilization that critical thinking has been fostered and allowed by governments that are not controlled by their principal indigenous religion. Such countries do not allow scholars to examine critically the religious texts that undergird the society. How Western scholars study the Bible simply is not permitted in countries controlled by Islam, for example. The critical approach to the Biblical texts has even penetrated into the minds of ecclesiastical leaders in Western civilization and that is not generally true of the leaders of Islam.

      Western scholars are in the minority in the world when it comes to critical thinking and its application to religious texts.

      Thanks for raising these issues.

  3. Hi Elizabeth,

    My own view is that quibbling over translations is a very healthy behavior. Yes, it is a sign of valuing history. While Christianity could have gotten lost in Paul's mythology and Christ/cross theology and in the powerful belief that the Christ/Son of Man would soon return to judge and transform the world, there was instead a strong historical push of a shared core memory resulting in the efforts of the gospel authors. To my mind, there has always been a primacy competition between mythology, theology, eschatology and a shared core history memory. Both sides - Paul and the gospel writers - are represented by the educated elite of the time - that the Jesus following so quickly got in the heads of the highly educated on both sides of the matter may be the biggest historical mystery of all.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Good morning Gene,
      I agree and would like to add that for all their faults the synoptic gospels are the first attempts to anchor Jesus in common history as a Judean man. That is not true of John's Gospel.

  4. 1) "Western scholars are in the minority in the world when it comes to critical thinking and its application to religious texts."

    2) "every translation is an interpretation."

    3) "that the Jesus following so quickly got in the heads of the highly educated on both sides of the matter may be the biggest mystery of all."

    All three of these insights are extremely intriguing and invite further questions to you both, Charlie and Gene. Feel free to answer (or not answer) at your leisure.

    In academic circles, western scholars of religious texts are respected and highly regarded. But in theological circles (church denominations), this is not usually the case except in more liberal churches. So most parishioners, such as myself, are not taught religious texts with any critical thinking applied whatsoever. Why do you think this still occurs in the western world where we are much more free to question authority?

    Both 2 & 3 intrigue me because how can you really know which is the right interpretation? In other words, if both "translation" and "interpretation" are subjective in nature... Then what would be the difference between the two? And how do you determine which is the most accurate? Are only the highly educated qualified to make that determination? I don't know what parishioners are supposed to do or believe because we are dependent on other people to tell what the language says.

    One final question: What language were the Gospels written in- Greek or Hebrew?

    Thank you as always, Elizabeth

    1. Good afternoon Elizabeth,
      1. In the final analysis critical thinking tends to undermine religious faith, would be my answer. The church is about protecting the faith and passing it on. Anything that detracts from these activities is not encouraged by ecclesiastical authorities.
      2. Religion is too important in human life to entrust it to the professional practitioners. People must make decisions for themselves. This will require reading, critical thinking and the application of reason. "The most accurate": There always seem to be majority views and minority opinions. Hence one must read and follow one's own reason and logic and learn to live with a great deal of ambiguity.
      3. The gospels were originally composed in Greek, but since then have been written in many languages. There is, however, an early tradition that Matthew was written in Hebrew: Eusebius (3rd / 4th century) in his Ecclesiastical History (III.39.16) reports a tradition from Papias (1st / 2nd century) that "Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language and each interpreted them as best as he could." And there is a 14th century manuscript of Matthew written in Hebrew. It is published in a modern book by George Howard: The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (Mercer University Press).

  5. Hi Charlie,

    What do you think about the "just as he was" phrase as a reference to Jesus' human condition; in other words, he is perfectly human, yet, unlike the Greek larger than life heroes such as Odysseus, he is able to perform the miracles that immediately follow: stilling the storm, curing the demoniac, stopping the woman's blood flow, and raising a girl from a comatose condition.

    1. Good Morning!
      I find the phrase "as he was" inappropriate for its context, and am inclined to think that it refers to Jesus' "creature comfort situation." Hence "as he was," i.e., not prepared to travel (?), inappropriately dressed, or some such thing. I don't think it is referring to him still being in the boat at 4:36, because 4:10 and 4:34 suggest there has been movement on the part of Jesus. In other words the entire scene is patched together rather unskillfully simply to accommodate the sayings in 4:1-35 and the demonstration of power over the elements in 4:35-41. But I don't find evidence for your theological leap; if Jesus is "perfectly human," as you say, then he doesn't "perform miracles."

    2. Sorry Charlie, forgot to put my name on that last post. Your explanation of the make-up of chapter 4 makes good sense to me.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

    3. I thought it might have been you but could not be certain. We need to think more about Mark's situation--that is the problems of coming up with a narrative to house everything that came to him from oral tradition. Sometimes he is rather obvious in his literary solutions and at other times not, and the result is an obvious patching together some kind of literary setting with more or less historical tradition,