Saturday, November 25, 2017

Beggary in the Bible

The Bible has very little specific to say about beggars (prōsaitai; "beggars, panhandlers, mendicants") and the practice of begging (prosaiteō and epaiteō). It has more to say, however, about the poor (ptōchoi), those who are economically disadvantaged and oppressed, or disillusioned. But the poor are likely a social class, corresponding to Lenski's peasant class who lived at or near the bare subsistence level.1 By contrast beggars would likely be in the expendable class, people who live at the very bottom of every agrarian society.2
            Searching begging-specific words in the Septuagint of the Protestant Old Testament (Greek Septuagint manuscripts are older than the Hebrew Bible manuscripts), the following passages use begging-specific words: Psalm 109:10 (being reduced to begging is a curse on a wicked man). In the Old Testament (Catholic) Sirach 40:30 (begging is described as a shameless enterprise); Sirach 40:28 ("it is better to die than to beg").
            In the New Testament begging-specific words are used six times: Mark 10:46-52: the son of Timaeus (bar Timaeus), a blind beggar "sitting by the road," is healed by Jesus.3 The Gospel of John has the story of a blind man (John 9:1-40), whose friends and neighbors had seen him as a beggar who "used to sit and beg" (John 9:8).4
            The parable of Jesus about the steward of a rich man (in my judgment misnamed "the "Dishonest Steward," Luke 16:1-7), who complains when he is fired: "I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg" (Luke 16:3). Note that he was fired on the basis of a rumor and had no prospects for the future. Indeed, taking up begging by necessity would in effect be a death sentence, since it would thrust him into the ranks of the expendables.5
            Luke has another similar story (it is not called a parable) about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). It is not a story about a beggar but rather a story about a poor man (ptōchoi), Lazarus, who lay at the rich man's gate full of sores, desiring to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table (Luke 16:20).
            No doubt many of those in the peasant class (ptōchoi) were often reduced to begging (1 Sam 2:31-36, Psalm 37:25, Exod 23:10) or chose to sell themselves into slavery (Lev 25:39-42, Deut 15:11-14), since they had no other options. The peasant class (ptōchoi) receives more attention than do beggars in the gospels. The gospel writer we have dubbed Luke, for example, writes into the heart of his paper protagonist, Jesus, a special place for the poor (ptōchoi) unmatched by the other three gospel writers (the ptōchoi appear in Mark [5x], Matthew [5x], John [4x], and in Luke [10x]).  And it seems that Luke simply overlooks beggars as the subject of Jesus' care and concern; for example:
Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, which includes captives, the blind, the oppressed (Luke 4:18).
The kingdom of God belongs to the poor (Luke 6:20).
Jesus sent a message to John: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them (Luke 7:22).
The wealthy are told that when they give a banquet they should invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:13).
The rich ruler was told to sell everything he had and give to the poor (Luke 18:22).
Zacchaeus said that he was giving half of everything to the poor, and would repay those he defrauded four times the amount he cheated them (Luke 19:8).
            But Beggars receive no consideration in these litanies about the disadvantaged. On the other hand, the Bible has nothing to say about the modern problem of panhandling as a professional vocation.6 People who stand at major intersections of your city, weather permitting, warmly dressed and carrying handwritten signs each appearing highly similar are a far cry from the expendables of antiquity. But their presence still raises the question of how should one respond to them.
            The same question came up once when working in Egypt. Our Muslim expatriate Palestinian driver was asked by one of our company about a tragic beggar sitting beside the road. She asked, "Saadi, how much should we give him in Egyptian pounds?" Saadi replied: "That's between you and your God!"
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Lenzki, Power and Privilege.
2Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 182-83 for a brief discussion of the social classes.
3In the parallel passage in Luke 18:35 he is called "a blind man sitting by the road begging." Matthew does not have the story of bar Timaeus, the beggar, but has a story of the healing of two blind men (Matt20:29-34; 9:27-31).
4John has turned what was originally a story about the healing of a blind beggar into a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees.
5Hedrick, Wisdom of Jesus, 145-62.
6Millar, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 93-94.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

What about the Loaves? Secrecy and Mystery in the Gospel of Mark

A well-known secrecy motif in Mark features Jesus regularly silencing the demons he exorcises (1:24-25, 34; 3:11-12), people he heals (1:43-45; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26), and his own disciples (8:30; 9:9).The reason he does these things is to keep his identity as the Christ concealed (8:27-30) and his activities from becoming public knowledge. But the secret leaks out anyway (1:44-45; 7:36), and at the end of the gospel Jesus admits his identity (14:61-62). In 1901 a German scholar (William Wrede) argued that the historical figure Jesus was not responsible for these attempts at secrecy, rather it was the historical author of Mark who traced back into the life of Jesus the idea that he was messiah, in the face of a post-resurrection idea that Jesus had become Son of God at the resurrection (Rom 1:3-4).1 The "messianic secret" was the author's attempt to explain why Jesus was not recognized as messiah during his life.
            To these well-known secrecy motifs should be added several other mysterious features in Mark. Taken together with the messianic secret, they create an aura of mystery about a gospel that is supposed to announce "good news" (1:1) about the kingdom of God (1:14-15). Why would Mark represent Jesus as telling enigmatic stories (parables) for the purpose of keeping the masses in the dark about the "secret" of the kingdom (Mark 4:10-12)? The secret was apparently only for insiders, that is, those who were the elect (13:20. 22, 27). So he explained his stories to the disciples privately (4:13-20, 34).

            Another aspect of the mystery is the author's own deliberate attempt to obfuscate the narrative, that is, to conceal information—a kind of dissembling. For example, Mark never tells the reader what the disciples failed to understand about the loaves. Jesus feeds 5000 people with five loaves and two fish (6:35-44); later Mark tells the reader that the disciples "did not understand about the loaves" (6:51-52), but Mark never tells the reader what they should have understood. After a second feeding of 4000 people with seven loaves and a few fish (8:1-10), the disciples discuss that they had forgotten to bring bread, having only one loaf in the boat (8:14-21). Jesus said to them "why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand?" What is it that the disciples failed to understand about the loaves, and Mark does not disclose to the reader?
            On another occasion after the disciples had failed in an attempt to heal a demon-possessed boy, the father asked if Jesus could do anything for the boy (9:14-29): Jesus said to him, "All things are possible to him who believes," to which the father replies "I believe; help my unbelief" (9:22-24; as also appears in 5:36). What was it that the father should believe and how much of it did he believe? But Mark never discloses this information. Following the mention of a "desolating sacrilege" Mark suspends narration to address the reader directly in an aside: "Let the reader understand," he says (13:14). Yet Mark never tells the reader what s/he should have understood about the desolating sacrilege. In all of these instances Mark dissembles in the sense that he obviously has something specific in mind but does not disclose it.
            Mark 10:46 seems to have left a gap in the narrative, with two dangling ends of text before and after some missing event occurring between Jesus entering and leaving Jericho: Mark writes: "And they came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho…"2 What transpired in Jericho? If nothing happened, why show Jesus entering and leaving the village?
            As Jesus takes his last breath (15:37), Mark tells the reader that "The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from the top to bottom" (15:38), but he does not disclose what the tearing of the curtain signified with regard to the death of Jesus. At the end of the gospel some women went to the tomb and found only a young man sitting inside. The youth informed them that Jesus had risen from the dead and they should go and tell the glad tidings to the disciples that they would find him in Galilee (16:5-7). But the women were afraid; they said nothing to no one and fled from the tomb (16:7-8). Who was the youth and why didn't the women spread the word about the risen Christ? Mark did not say. Earlier a young man, wearing nothing but a linen cloth over his naked body, was with Jesus at his arrest. He was seized by members of the arresting crowd, and leaving his linen cloth behind, he ran away naked (14:51-52). Who was he, and what was he doing at Gethsemane naked and wearing only a linen cloth to cover himself?3
            If Jesus did tell the disciples "all things beforehand" (13:23), why should Mark see fit to conceal aspects of the story? These mysterious features in the Gospel of Mark, if not simply careless writing, associate the gospel with the "mystery religions" cults that flourished in the Graeco-Roman period.4 The characteristic feature of a mystery cult was that the mystery remain concealed. Although they conducted public processions and celebrations, their secret ceremonies still today remain largely unknown. The mysteries were closely guarded and revealed only to initiates. One ancient writer, an initiate into the mysteries of the Goddess Isis, described an initiation with such oblique language that after the description he could still say: "See I have told you things which, though you have heard them, you still must know nothing about."5 And apparently that can also be claimed with regard to the Gospel of Mark. Is the Gospel of Mark a deliberately coded text?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Wrede, The Messianic Secret, 228 (225-230).
2See Scott Brown, Mark's Other Gospel, xxii. The Secret Gospel of Mark, or the Mystic Gospel of Mark, adds the missing text supposedly omitted from Mark at 3:14-16.
3See Brown, Mark's Other Gospel, xxii. The Secret Gospel describes him as a youth whom Jesus raised from the dead, who was apparently there for a mystery religions initiation (SGM 3:6-10).
4See Marvin Meyer, "Mystery Religions" Anchor Bible Dictionary, 4:944.
5Apuleius, "Metamorphoses," XI, 1-25; in F. C. Grant, ed., Hellenistic Religions. Age of Syncretism. Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill, 1953. The best source for the original texts of the Mystery Religions in English translation is Marvin Meyer, The Ancient Mysteries. A Sourcebook. Harper and Row, 1987.