Monday, October 19, 2020

Comparing Two Productions: Mark and Lincoln

Several nights before beginning this essay I watched the 2012 television production “Lincoln.” The film was well received in the media world and numerous awards were given to the film and to Daniel Day Lewis, who played Lincoln. Available to the writers, production staff, and actors were many artifacts, histories, photographs, and other video productions from which data could be drawn to develop the production. In fact, the historical events themselves are so well known that the sheer amount of data available no doubt frustrated the creative process of producing the film. The known facts of Mr. Lincoln’s presidency limited what the writers might have included in the script. It is nevertheless a work of creative fiction that is historically accurate—but not in every detail.1

            Mark’s essay, on the other hand, is also a creative work, whose overall historical accuracy is dubious, but which, in part, is surely historically accurate. Very little was available to Mark from which to develop the narrative that he entitled: “Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (1:1). Mark’s story about Jesus narrates how the gospel (euaggellion, euaggelizomai) of the Markan community in the latter half of the first century began. Paul succinctly described the content of the gospel (“good news”) of the apostolic age in First Corinthians 15:1, 3-5. The natural context of “gospel” in Mark seems to be this later apostolic preaching of the church rather than the public career of Jesus.2 Its appearance in Mark’s story about the itinerant Galilean, Jesus the Anointed, strikes me as an anachronism. What Mark wishes to echo in the reader’s mind when he places “gospel” on the lips of Jesus is the apostolic message preached by his own community of faith.3

            The anonymous author we call Mark wrote shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE) and he had at his disposal very little historical data about the public career of Jesus the Galilean, who was crucified by the Romans around 30CE, some forty years earlier. Mark lived in a world of Greek language and culture while the subject of his essay lived in Galilee of Judea, as the Romans called it, a world of Aramaic language and culture. Mark had neither material artifacts nor written sources4 available to him to inform his narrative. What was available to him were anonymous oral reports, church tradition and beliefs, and liturgy.5

            Mark’s literary product, therefore, is a narrative of his own creative imagination and fashioning. Perhaps it is better to say Mark’s Gospel is “fiction” (from the Latin fictio, a making or fashioning). Mark was responsible for imagining the whole and for weaving into his narrative what little information was available to him. He had no known curriculum vitae (course of life) of Jesus that had to be followed. Hence, he had to decide the sequence of things. He strung together independent episodes that he composed and other sub-groupings of material into an overall geographical frame6 through the use of summary statements, which were intended to expand the activities of Jesus well beyond the few typical episodic incidents described more fully in the narrative. These statements “summarize new activities over broad general geographic areas and indefinite periods of time.”7 It was a technique Mark hoped would overcome the impression of how little information he actually did know.

            As an author, Mark was a child of his day. If one judges by the criterion of literary realism, Mark’s narrative is more akin to modern romance than to historical narrative.8 That is, “it is an idealistic tale with supernatural and marvelous features,” more like legends of King Arthur and Harry Potter than Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War.9

Mark employs certain techniques of modern narrative fiction. As an author he is omniscient and knows everything that happens even to the extent of knowing what the characters are thinking. Throughout the narrative he provides the reader interior views of characters. That is, he reveals to readers what characters are thinking. “This shift in a reader’s point of view from seeing events from the narrator’s perspective to seeing the situation from within a paper-character’s mind is a primary feature of the rhetoric of fiction by which a flesh-and-blood author develops characters and furthers the plot of a novel.”10

            What I take away from Mark’s essay is a vague image, a silhouette of a life devoted to the welfare of the faceless multitudes of his people, a life that ended in tragedy. Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed; also from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from about Tyre and Sidon a great multitude hearing all that he did came to him (Mark 1:7-8). According to Mark, Jesus told his disciples: Whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43-45).

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


2The word “Gospel” appears in every NT book except John, Jude, James, 1-3 John, and 2 Peter.

3See Hedrick, “Parable and Kingdom. A Survey of the Evidence in Mark,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 27.2 (2000), 182.

4Dominick Crossan argued that Mark developed his story in part by reliance on the Gospel of Peter. See the brief reference in Paul Mirecki, “Peter Gospel of” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 5:279-81. From my reading of the evidence it appeared that Crossan’s evidence could cut either way. In other words, the author of the Gospel of Peter could also have borrowed from Mark.

5For example, with respect to the Passover meal, compare Mark 14:22-24, 1 Cor 11:23-25, and Didache 9:1-5 for the similar format.

6Hedrick, “What is a Gospel? Geography, Time, and Narrative Structure,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 10.3 (1983), 255-68.

7Hedrick, “The Role of ‘Summary Statements’ in the composition of the Gospel of Mark: A Dialogue with Karl Schmidt and Norman Perrin,” Novum Testamentum 26 (1984), 289-311.

8Hedrick, “Realism in Western Narrative and the Gospel of Mark: A Prolegomenon,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126.2 (2007), 345-59.

9Hedrick, “Realism,” 353; for a description of the supernatural and marvelous features see 358.

10Hedrick, “The Problem of History in Mark,” pp. 140-42 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Humanizing the Lesser Human

On June 5, 2017 I published a blog entitled: "On Becoming and Being Human."1 The essay closed with this statement, "Being human is not an accident of birth, but a matter of behavior." We modern humans are called Homo sapiens (intelligent man). There was a time when Homo sapiens existed at the same time as others of its genus. They are now extinct. Our nearest "relatives" in the genus Homo were: heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis, erectus, and floresiensis. If I am correct, there is a spectrum, or range, to human behavior, ranging from what is less human to more human. Since archaic Homo sapiens was inferior as a species when compared to modern Homo sapiens, the obvious conclusion is that there is always room for improvement in the humanity of the species. I will describe the lesser human as reflecting the archaic traits of the primitive still surviving in our species. The spectrum raises the question, how do we fully humanize the lesser human? The question seems reasonable, since there are those living among us who have behaved less human than humanity at its ideal best.

            Modern society has developed institutional "treatments" for lesser human behavior in our species. For example, the penal system supposedly aims at the rehabilitation of inmates, those whose criminal behavior has necessitated their incarceration away from Homo sapiens' society at large. The goal of incarceration is to return them to society fully capable of following society's rules—in other words to "humanize" them, since their behavior previously was less than what we think of as ideally human. Society also recognizes that children need to be educated; that is, they should learn how to function and behave in human society. The public-school system in America is dedicated to the purpose of producing well-rounded human beings who will assume their places in society as responsible citizens. Both these institutions in modern society have the full support of Christian Churches as being necessary to society's wellbeing. In other words, the modern Christian Church, as a societal institution, has a vested interest in the humanization of society in the sense I have described it above. What the institutional church does in its religious educational programs is as much for the purpose of humanizing its members as it is for the purpose of religionizing them, since the ideal church member is also expected to be a responsible member of human society.

            It might be surprising to learn that the idea of humanizing society had not occurred to Christians before the fourth century. The early Christians thought of themselves as already belonging to the "household of God" (Eph 2:12) rather than belonging to the present world, for that world was passing away (1 Cor 7:31). The time remaining to them had grown very short (1 Cor 7:29). They stood, they believed, at the very end of time, and hence the usual conventions of first-century society were no longer applicable (1 Cor 7:1-38). The end of the world was coming in their own lifetime (1 Thess 4:13-18; 1 Cor 10:11). Hence, they were not concerned with the betterment of human society. In fact, the Apostle Paul thought that even the created universe would need to be transformed to "be freed from its shackles of mortality" in order to "enter upon the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8:19-25, Revised English Bible).

The New Testament writers used a collective adjective to describe aspects of being human. A human being (a person) was an anthrōpos, and the adjective used to describe our species was anthrōpinos, "human" (1 Cor 2:13, 4:3, 10:13, Rom 6:19, James 3:7, Acts 17:25, 1 Pet 2:13). They never wrote, however, about humanizing an anthropos. In fact, their ancient texts do not even contain a word for "humanizing." The ancient Greeks, however, did have such a word. The word "to humanize" (exanthrōpizō) is used, for example, by Plutarch in a slightly different way than I have used it above. Plutarch described a humanizing of the divine: that is "degrading things divine to a human level."2 On the other hand, I am describing degrees in the quality of human behavior and am arguing for the need to humanize the lesser human as revealed by their negative behavior.

The earliest Christians, on the other hand, were primarily interested in divinizing the human. Here is how the author of 2 Peter puts it:

[God's] divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature (2 Pet 1:3-4 NRSV).

The Revised English Bible translates the italicized phrase above this way "and may come to share in the very being of God."

Only the most conservative of religious groups have retained the intense end-time expectation. The more moderate have adjusted to life in this world and explain the delay in the end as the author of Second Peter does: the end is delayed because of the "forbearance of the Lord, not wishing that any should perish" (2 Pet 3:3-10). Folks, this little blue and white planet so far as anyone knows is the only place in the universe that can sustain life, we had better get serious in caring for it and helping the lesser humans among us to achieve their full potential as human beings. This planet is all we have. And in my view a planet in the hand is worth two heavens in the mind.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Hedrick, "From the Jesus Tradition: On Becoming and Being Human," Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith (Cascade: Eugene, OR, 2019), 57-58; see also, "On Being Human in the Contemporary World," ibid., 55-56.

2"Isis and Osiris" in F. C. Babbit, Plutarch's Moralia (Loeb Classical Library, 1962), 5.55-56 (360). Plutarch (AD 46 to after 119) was a philosopher and priest of Apollo at the God's cult center in Delphi, Greece.