Mark as the action-oriented approach

Whether Mark is the source of Matthew and Luke (the other two synoptic gospels) or is their summary is beside the point in a straight-through reading. The question of why it’s here at all is puzzling.

It’s the most compact of the four gospels and the most action-oriented. It skips the Nativity entirely and opens with John the Baptist in the wilderness. The tone is reportorial, objective, in contrast to Matthew’s voice of a storyteller opining that the crowds were dumbfounded at the teaching or that the priests knew Jesus had spoken against them. Much of the book flatly quotes Jesus as he moves about the countryside.

 

Placed where it is, Mark seems to serve as a buffer between Matthew and the two later gospels. Yes, there are discrepancies among them in many details, as happens with eyewitnesses themselves or those who relate the events later. Mark holds us to the central plot, which the others then embellish.

But having four gospels, rather than one, also allows some of the more troubling evidence to be hidden in plain sight. I, for one, believe much of the vitality in the gospel story arises in its very scandalous nature. Jesus is conceived out of wedlock and is executed as a criminal. Let’s not sugarcoat those realities.

For now, look at the story of Jesus’ being anointed with costly oil. Spread across the four books, it’s easy to think there were actually two different women, with this action happening twice.

Read carefully, though, and connect the lines. I’m using David Bauscher’s translation here.

In Matthew 26, “A woman came near to him [Jesus] who had with her a vase of oil of sweet spices, very expensive, and she poured it on Yeshua’s head as he reclined.” Other versions use alabaster box, jar, flask, or the like. The disciples begin arguing about the waste of money.

In Mark 14, it’s an “alabaster vase of oil of the best spikenard, very expensive, and she opened it and poured it on Yeshua’s head. The disciples put its price at 3oo denarii.” (That’s thirty pieces of silver, or 300 times a laborer’s daily wage, as I find online. In other words, nearly a year’s wages.) Short, to the point, reporting.

Luke 7 places the event much earlier than the days leading up to Palm Sunday. Here “one of the Pharisees came asking him to eat with him and he entered the Pharisee’s house and he reclined. And a sinner woman who was in the city, when she knew that he was staying in the Pharisee’s house, she took an alabaster vase of ointment. And she stood behind him at his feet, and she was weeping and she began washing his feet with her tears and wiping them with the hair of her head. And she was kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment.”

The man hosting Jesus then says, “If this man were a Prophet, he would have known who she is and what her reputation is, for she is a sinner woman who touched him.” The KJV terms it, “what manner of woman she is,” or as the Eastern Orthodox Holy Tuesday service clearly identifies her, a harlot, who then sings the deeply emotional Hymn of Kassiane.

“Sinner woman,” of course, is purely editorial, in contrast to Mark.

John 12 thickens the plot. In Matthew and Mark, the feast happens at the house of Simon (Shimeon the Potter, in Bauscher’s translation) in Bethany, a rather disreputable town, as you’ll find explained elsewhere. In Luke, it’s at the house of a Pharisee, no town named — and Mary Magdalene is one of the women named in the next chapter, perhaps to throw us off scent. In John, however, we’re also in Bethany, and Lazarus, newly resurrected from the dead, is one of the guests. His sister Martha is serving the dinner.

“But Maryam [Mary] took an alabaster vase of ointment of the best Indian spikenard, very expensive, and she anointed the feet of Yeshua and wiped his feet with her hair and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”

In John 11:2, the scene is introduced, “This Maryam was the one who had had anointed the feet of Yeshua with ointment and wiped them with her hair, whose brother Lazar was sick.” John then digresses before retelling the event is greater detail.

Yes, that’s Mary, the sister who elsewhere creates a scandal by being present in the room with the men while Martha alone is preparing the meal (Luke 10 and John 11). Connect the dots. Is this the occasion where Martha is rebuked? Martha would certainly have stronger reasons for objecting to her sister’s presence with the men if they’re fallen women. Remember, in this culture a woman shouldn’t even be in the room with men, except to serve.

John adds one more detail linking this account to that in Mark: “And Yehuda Scariota [Judas Iscariot], one of the disciples who was about to betray him, said: ‘Why was not this oil sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?'” The detail links the story back to Mark, and thus to Matthew as well. One event.

So prostitution as their profession is why Mary and Martha are not married and are apparently living instead with their brother? Why Martha is independent enough to rebuke Jesus just pages earlier, as well? Why Mary/Maryam can afford such costly ointment?

The story of the woman anointing Jesus is an example of one of the challenges to reading the New Testament straight-through. A Concordance — essentially an index of words in their phrases in the Bible, much like an index to their locations — helps in putting the fuller story and its implications together.

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Attributing the source of this gospel to Mark, a companion of Peter, places the book in the Jewish council of Christians, rather than Paul’s gentiles. It lends credence, too, to those who give the date of composition as 66 CE or others who place it as 68-70 CE, in the traumatic days leading up to the fall of Jerusalem.

Matthew as a big turning point in the collection

Encountered from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha of the previous centuries, Matthew comes as a stunning break. Even when the text continues earlier themes of corrupt priests and governing officials or of the persecution of prophets, there’s no precedent for the authority of the revolutionary voice that emerges here. While promising to follow the law of the Covenant to the letter, Jesus nevertheless interprets its intent in ways that challenge the very limitations that are conventionally imposed. Apart from a quick overview of the Nativity and flight to Egypt and then the crucifixion and resurrection, I felt surprisingly little history or biography in this book. Instead, it focuses largely on Jesus’ original, often contrarian, teaching itself, with his exhortations to do the seemingly impossible or impractical as an embodiment of faith, along with the instructions he delivered in his itinerant ministry of preaching and healing.

Indeed, is anyone before Jesus in the Bible so focused on teaching? Or of addressing the people, rather than the governing circle and priesthood? Well, we do have Moses in the desert. And then?

Many of the radical standards of personal conduct Jesus teaches will challenge existing political, economic, and social norms. They still do, in our own time.

Here we are introduced to a concept of the Holy One that differs sharply from those of the earlier scriptures — a Heavenly Father. It’s also a much warmer, more intimate father-son relationship than we previously seen. I’m wondering if any previous father-son bond, in Scripture or in ancient literature, is portrayed having such affection. And, yes, it further conceptualizes the infinite deity in male appearance.

This gospel, as is often noted, was directed at a Jewish audience, as evidenced by the long genealogy in the opening chapter, soon followed by the treachery of the Roman tyrant Herod. We’ve already encountered repeated genealogies in the Hebrew Bible, and from Maccabees, especially, we know of the brutality of the Roman overlords.

What’s the point of naming the thirty-nine generations, by the way, if Jesus isn’t the son of Joseph? (Add to that, if you want, the twenty-six ancestors from Adam to Abraham named in Chronicles.) To me, the passage that follows, “Before they would have a conjugal relation she was found pregnant from The Spirit of Holiness” (1:18), now seems to be a later editorial insertion, one that points the text in an alternative direction.

Something that did connect with me in this reading is the fact that the gospel was likely written at least 30 years after the crucifixion, which suggests that the passages attributed to Jesus about the upcoming events of betrayal, execution, and resurrection at Calvary may have been added to cast the history in a meaningful context. Some give the date of composition as early as 67 CE, during the Great Revolt and contemporaneous with Mark. Others place it as 80-90 CE, or later.

From a storytelling point of view, using the future tense for past actions is brilliant, one I now know was used in earlier Biblical books, including Daniel; it’s especially effective when we’ve assumed it’s a contemporaneous account rather than a posthumous reworking aimed at a Jewish audience.

For me, this takes nothing away from the breathtaking visions of the Beatitudes, parables, and his close teaching of disciples.

His instructions raise the demands of the Covenant in new ways, pressing its core intent rather than the letter of its limitations. It’s easy to sense he’s asking his followers to do the impossible. And it’s both intoxicating and intimidating.

Here we are also introduced to the parables as instruments of instruction. They go beyond riddles, which have definable answers, and instead confound easy interpretation. In that way, they’re more like the koans in Zen Buddhism. They’re to take root somewhere deep in the body and daily action.

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One thing I found in online sampling of other translations from Aramaic is the usage of the word “Allah” rather than its synonym “God.” I wish David Bauscher had stuck with this. Too often we are left feeling that Muslims are worshiping a different deity, an impression some authorities may have been deliberately fostered.

Or is Allah itself a variant of Abba, or Daddy?

If Bauscher wants his readers to get closer to the milieu and language of Jesus, this seems a fitting concession.

The long shadow of Jerome’s Vulgate

One awareness I carried into the reading was that during the first centuries of Christianity, Jesus was not universally defined as God incarnate. That point became a requisite point of faith in the creed adopted at the Nicene Council in 325 CE and led to the excommunication of perhaps half of the worldwide church. The conflict and its consequences are detailed in Richard E. Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome.

Even though the books of the New Testament were written long before that council, none have survived in their original language or earliest translations. Whether they were written in Greek, as is almost universally accepted, or in Aramaic, what we have is by way of the Latin translation by Jerome — the Vulgate Bible, completed in 405 CE.

Jerome was tasked with more than merely translating into Latin. He apparently rewrote, “corrected,” and outright censored passages.

As Robert Eisenman explains in James the Brother of Jesus: “To show that it is not simply the modern reader who might have difficulty with these passages, one has only to look at the extant correspondence between Jerome and Augustine … in the early 400s CE. Augustine, who is a younger teacher, queries the older and respected scholar Jerome, who has spent much of his adult life inspecting and collecting biblical manuscripts in Bethlehem in Palestine. …

“At first Augustine could get not satisfactory response from the older scholar. Finally, Jerome, long-suffering, does answer him, asking him ‘not to challenge an old man … who asks only to remain silent,” and basically counseling him not to trouble himself over problems that were divisive and could not be solved in any case.”

 

Quite simply, to be considered the more authoritative versions, our Greek and Aramaic New Testaments would have crucial points of conflict with the Vulgate. Otherwise, they are back translations from the Latin, a language not known for its philosophical nuance.

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Choosing a New Testament … so I took one translated from Aramaic

In my straight-through reading of the Bible, I desired to encounter the narrative with a sense of hearing the story for the first time, again. That led me to select less familiar translations, beginning with Everett Fox’s Five Books of Moses, and moving on largely through the New Jerusalem Bible rather than those more closely aligned with the King James (Revised Standard, New Revised Standard, New International, especially).

With the New Testament, I was leaning toward The Four Gospels and the Revelation: Newly Translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore, in part for its possibilities free from doctrinal lenses. As a Greek scholar who claimed no religious faith, he was simply surprised to discover how naturally the Gospels flowed when he began translating them. He simply wanted to see how the texts stood on their own.

But then I chanced upon a more controversial choice, a translation drawn from Aramaic, the tongue of Jesus and his contemporaries and, thus, some insist, must have been the language in which the New Testament was written. Aramaic is, by the way, a close relation to Hebrew, unlike Greek.

 

Few Biblical scholars agree, but the advocates of the Aramaic Peshitta New Testament present their cause passionately and that, in turn, makes for some lively reading.

It’s a fascinating argument, even before getting to their contention that the oldest existing Aramaic New Testament is the original text, the source for the earliest Greek versions. A more pressing problem to my eyes is the fact that the oldest surviving complete New Testament comes from the early eighth century CE, and only manuscript fragments survive from before that. We have no way of knowing how much St. Jerome recomposed or censored in creating the officially approved Vulgate translation in Latin in the fourth century.

In other words, the New Testament would have been translated into Latin, edited or revised, and then translated back into Greek and Aramaic. It’s safe to assume much was lost in even the most faithful translation, and that’s before we get to deliberate changes made to support one side of the theological debates over the others. If we ever discover the books in versions before Jerome’s editing, the impact could rock conventional Christianity to the core.

The most readily available translation from Aramaic I located in print is a small-press offering from Australia by Glenn David Bauscher, a pastor in Glens Falls, New York, trained at Bob Jones University, and father of 12 homeschooled children. His theological convictions come through clearly enough in the extensive notes, and while he and I diverge on doctrine, his rugged independence is refreshing, especially after the smoothness of conventional committee-based versions in wide circulation. The faction of Aramaic advocates, for that matter, appears to be small and widely opinionated in their challenges to or in support of Bauscher.

 

How different is this Aramaic approach? Consider that the word “Christ” never appears in Bauscher’s New Testament, fitting with a common understanding of Christ as a Greek word for Messiah. What Bauscher uses instead is Yeshua The Messiah or simply The Messiah. In contrast, when reading translations from Greek, I often stop at a mention of Christ to ask whether this instance must necessarily be viewed as an aspect of the person of Jesus or as something larger — aka, the Logos or the Holy Spirit. In effect, Bauscher backs away from the ancient Greek philosophical body of Logos teaching and its many potential applications to understanding and doctrine. As he repeatedly argues, Jews wanted nothing to do with Greek thought or culture, a stand that leaves me wondering about all those Hellenized Jews we’ve already encountered.

Others see the root of Christ as “anointed,” the way a king is anointed with oil, which gives an alternative understanding of Jesus as a spiritual king of Judea. Does this in some way diverge from the definitions of Messiah? Does it make for a more political interpretation, then and now?

Robert Eisenman (in James the Brother of Jesus) notes yet another possibility when the historian “Josephus employs the adjective in Greek, ‘chrestos,’ to describe Agrippa I’s character” — a word “which means in Greek gentle-tempered, generous, Righteous, or kindly.” This hardly encompasses either of the Messiah or anointed dimensions, as far as I perceive. Such are the consequences of our choices in translation.

One of the fascinating aspects of Bauscher’s publication is the close comparison of alphabetic strokes in Aramaic and often Greek to illustrate ways a misreading in translation could occur or to support his word choice. As one who is relearning Spanish, I am deeply impressed by the diligence required to explore ancient languages in such nuanced detail.

Geneva Bible, the choice of early Calvinists

 

One of the surprises I encountered in this straight-through reading comes in realizing just how compact the New Testament is in comparison to what comes before it. The New Testament comprises less than a fifth of the Bible. It’s shorter than the Psalms combined with the Five Books of Moses!

It should surprise no one that Christian worship typically emphasizes the New Testament, often with a gospel reading which, in some traditions, is accompanied by a selection from one of the epistles. To that may be added an Old Testament passage. The resulting impression is that the New Testament is as big as the earlier Scriptures, which is far from the actual case.