Sunday, December 14, 2003

Mark 14.65 and parallels

At the SBL Annual Meeting Synoptics Section a couple of weeks ago, Loveday Alexander responded to papers given by Richard Burridge, Mark Matson and Margaret Mitchell. In her response she commented that sometimes the exegete can gain some help in interpreting a given passage by looking at the Synoptic parallels. This had been a theme of Mark Matson’s paper on Matthew for readers who already knew Mark. Loveday went on to give an example of a place where, she claimed, none of the Synoptic Gospels made sense on their own. All are in their own way obscure and only become clear when one looks at them together. She attributed the observation to George Caird, I think only in oral material though I’d be interested if anyone happens to know of a place where he made these observations in print. The passage concerned is Mark 14.65 and synoptic parallels. Here is the passage in Synopsis:

Matt. 26.67-8 Mark 14.65 Luke 22.63-4
Τότε ἐνέπτυσαν εἰς τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐκολάφισαν αὐτόν, οἱ δὲ ἐράπισαν λέγοντες, Προφήτευσον ἡμῖν, Χριστέ, τίς ἐστιν ὁ παίσας σε; Καὶ ἤρξαντό τινες ἐμπτύειν αὐτῷ καὶ περικαλύπτειν αὐτοῦ τὸ πρόσωπον καὶ κολαφίζειν αὐτὸν καὶ λέγειν αὐτῷ, Προφήτευσον. Καὶ οἱ ἄνδρες οἱ συνέχοντες αὐτὸν ἐνέπαιζον αὐτῷ δέροντες, καὶ περικαλύψαντες αὐτὸν ἐπηρώτων λέγοντες, Προφήτευσον, τίς ἐστιν ὁ παίσας σε;

The passage is a notorious one for Synoptic students because it features such a blatant example of a Minor Agreement between Matthew and Luke against Mark, something that is straightforwardly explained on the theory that Luke knows Matthew as well as Mark but something that has always been a problem for the Two-Source Theory, so much so that some of the leading proponents of that theory have resorted to conjecturally emending Matthew’s text to remove the agreement with Luke, so that it would, like Mark, lack the clause τίς ἐστιν ὁ παίσας σε; (Who is it who smote you?).

Michael Goulder has argued, rightly in my view, that it is not acceptable to emend the text conjecturally purely to save a particular Synoptic theory. I have written about this Minor Agreement myself, most recently in The Case Against Q, pp. 157-60. But I don’t want to focus any further on the difficulty this Minor Agreement poses for the Two-Source Theory, at least not directly; rather, I would like to challenge Loveday Alexander’s claim that none of the three texts make sense on their own. I think that each text does make good sense in context within the narrative of each of the Synoptic Gospels and I will attempt to explain why.

First, the most difficult of the three, Mark. The difficulty with Mark on first reading is that given our familiarity with Matthew and Luke, we are expecting to see that additional question, τίς ἐστιν ὁ παίσας σε; (Who is it who smote you?). Clearly some scribes felt the same way and added the words in. However, recent narrative criticism has shed some useful light on the way the charge “Prophesy!” works here in Mark. In the end it is Mark’s account that is the richest and most rewarding of the three as a literary piece.

To see this we need to look both at the immediate context and the broader context in Mark. In the immediate context, while Jesus is being tried by the Sanhedrin and subsequently mocked (Mark 14.55-65), Peter is in the vicinity (Mark 14.54 and 14.66-72). In this classic example of Marcan intercalation, Jesus is being mocked with the charge “Prophesy” while Peter is in the very act of fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy of a few hours earlier that on this very night he would deny Jesus three times (14.29-31). The dramatic irony here is clear, profound and typically Marcan. The readers have been given privileged information; they can see what those mocking Jesus cannot see.  The observation that this is what is going on here in Mark has been made in a number of commentaries, including those by Morna Hooker, A Commentary on the Gospel According to St Mark (London: A & C Black, 1991), p. 363, and Donald H. Juel, The Gospel of Mark (Interpreting Biblical Texts; Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), p. 27.

But we might add two more elements here that are not commonly noticed. First, the people (τινες) who are mocking Jesus are themselves, while they taunt Jesus to prophesy, engaged in fulfilling Jesus’ prophecy that he will be mocked and beaten (Mark 10.34). Moreover, only a few lines earlier, Jesus has again been prophesying, that “you will see the Son of Man seated on the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14.62). No doubt Mark feels that his readers will see this fulfilled in their lifetimes, so further adding to the dramatic irony of the “Prophesy!” taunt. In both Matthew and Luke, the addition of the “Who is it who smote you?” question diminishes the dramatic irony of the Marcan scene but it does not in any way make their scenes less coherent than Mark’s. Now the charge is explicitly one about second sight: "Prophesy! [Matthew adds "to us, Christ"] Who is it who smote you?"

There is, however, one oddity in Matthew’s account, and it may be this that is in Loveday Alexander’s mind, and perhaps Caird’s before her, and it is the fact that in Matthew – unlike in Mark and Luke – Jesus’s face is not covered. What sense does it make to taunt Jesus to identify his assailant if he can see them all? There are a couple of ways of reading this text that make good sense of it. One possibility, suggested to me by my former doctoral supervisor John Muddiman, is that those mocking Jesus are taunting him to name the one who struck him and not to point a figure to the one who did it.

A second possibility, defended in Michael Goulder’s recent article in Novum Testamentum, is to notice that it would be absurd to depict the mockers spitting into Jesus’ face if they have just covered it. For the spitting to be as nasty as the narrative requires it to be, they need to be spitting into Jesus’ face and not onto a piece of cloth that covers it. Goulder further suggests, following Jarmo Kiilunen, that they are hitting Jesus from behind while he is being spat upon from in front, so again Jesus would not know who has hit him. What seems clear is that there is little difficulty in making good narrative sense of the Matthean scene.

As far as Luke’s scene is concerned, commentators are united in finding his coherent so there is little need for further comment. It’s worth adding in relation to the above, though, that Luke retains Mark’s covering of Jesus’ face and drops the spitting, so that now there is a blindfold and a straight question asking Jesus to identify his assailant. In short, all three accounts make good sense. In Matthew it is important to take his wording seriously and to use one’s imagination about the scene that is actually being narrated; in Mark it is important to pay attention to both the immediate and the broader narrative context.

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