Sunday, 4 April 2010

Bible narrative, Mark's Gospel - Frank Kermode

Just finished reading Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative, the Charles Eliot Norton lectures for 1977-8, published by Harvard University Press. Kermode is writing as an expert in literature and an outsider in theology. His task is to read the Gospels, and Mark in particular, as literature, freeing our minds from the baggage that the word 'scripture' implies.It is most exciting, although it could be upsetting for an incurious believer.

Mark is important to study because it is commonly agreed to be the first Gospel to be written, and used as a source by Matthew and Luke. (The author names are traditional but we need to be cautious about their accuracy). Kermode is as interested in what Matthew and Luke do with Mark's text, as in the intention of Mark itself. He distances himself from naive assumptions that the authors reproduced what actually happened (no historian does that). By 65CE, Mark's message tells us that no one remained as an authentic eye witness of events - indeed, at the point of the crucifixion three decades earlier, there were no witnesses. People denied knowledge of Jesus, kept his mysteries secret, and bluntly kept their heads down. Whatever is said to have happened later is a fiction. Before readers get agitated, most of this comes from Mark himself. Jesus is presented as Son of God (verse 1). He talks in parables/riddles/mysteries to hide the nature of what he is saying (hence the secrecy in the title). He gets annoyed when his disciples do not understand. When Peter identifies him with the messiah, he commands silence (he does not say whether he agrees or not, but he does argue on exegetical grounds that the Messiah could not be the son of David). He offers a bleak future (Mark 13) and in the trial sequence reports that Peter denies him, a young man runs away, and generally everyone goes to ground. A Roman centurion honours him: Surely this man is a son of God but his own followers do not. He is laid in a tomb by a stranger, Joseph of Arimathea (in dexplicit contrast to John the Baptist who was buried by his disciples) and the women who come to anoint the body (already day 3) are met by a young man (the same one who ran away?) but contrary to their instuctions, tell no one "for they were afraid". So the book ends, Mark 16:8. So Jesus's death was met with denial, fear and silence, although demons recognised him for what he was. Full stop. End of story. Mark here finishes. Forget lost endings, and ignore the babblings of the current additional ending. They were afraid and silent. The story ends. This story is uncomfortable. Matthew, nor Luke, liked it and changed it. At least one alternative version of Mark existed which softened it. A church could not be founded from where Mark leaves the story.

Mark's was however a foundational story. Whatever we think of the later Gospels, and how they changed the story, we cannot forget Mark. They added birth narratives, genealogies, teaching such as the sermon on the mount, and a resurrection sequence, even an ascension.Above all they made Jesus fulfil scripture - the first clue, says Kermode, to spotting a made up story. Was Mark telling the truth? Of course not, he was writing a meaningful story emphasising things he felt strongly about. He emphasises cleanness and uncleanness, the demoniac living among the dead, the woman with the menstrual hemorrhage, Jairus's dead daughter, the death pollution gone from the tomb. Jesus represented cleanness, and pulled the world towards it.

So far we have simply read and understood the text of Mark as plainly written. Why Mark wrote the book is harder to interpret. This was a misunderstood and bad tempered Jesus. "Get thee behind me, Satan", he said to Peter. He could undertake acts of power, but faced with unbelief, "he could do no miracles (acts of power, dunameis) there. "Could not". Too much for Matthew and Luke. Acts of power, miracles, were dependent on belief. Demons recognized him, so perhaps he was a demon too? The synagogue rejected him because of his reformist tendencies - if resurrecting (second) Isaiah can be said to be reformist. He closed the book, before getting to the reference to the day of judgement. That is future. The now is about the blind, lame and captive. Real life, equity, justice and openness.

How did Mark construct his text? Kermode speaks of the powerful use of testimonium, Old Testament texts interpreted as Messianic. It seems to me that the over-riding text for Mark was Isaiah 52:13 to 53:12, generally described as the Suffering Servant passage. This contrasts the servant as an eventual exalted figure, who has reached that point by suffering. In (Second) Isaiah it may be a personification of the Jewish nation. In Mark, the story opens with a Servant quotation referring to John the Baptist, a messenger preparing the way. The Servant is despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and grief whom people hid their faces from. In the end, Jesus' followers leave him, run away, deny him, and let a stranger bury his body. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, unarguing. He took upon himself the sins of the world to heal others. He died with the wicked, hence the cross as a criminal's death; but also with the rich (in Isaiah this is the parallelism of equivalents), so Jesus had a rich man's tomb. He will have no descendants, yet world powers will take him seriously. In Mark, Jesus predicted his death immediately Peter identified him as the Messiah. He taught that the Messiah could not be the son of David, the popular warrior figure (Mark 12:35-37). People will see without being told, understand without hearing: in Mark, being told in parables prevented understanding; being told was not the answer. So the whole structure of the book revolves around the Suffering Servant. There are other proof texts too, the humble Son of Man from Ezekiel (and maybe Daniel), the cry from the cross quoting Psalm 22, "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?" - for "It was Yahweh's will to crush him" (Isaiah 53.10). My view, in line with Kermode's general thesis that the Gospels were fictions, is that these Old Testament texts form the skeleton around which Mark's story was generated. Real information about the Jesus of history was sketchy, episodic because it was preserved in worship, and of uncertain historical authenticity. Some of the sketches about healings and teachings slotted into Mark's wider framework, their origins now uncertain. But the overall meaning given to Jesus' life and death is Mark's own creation. In it, Jesus keeps his own estimate of his mission secret, requiring silence and secrecy from his followers. This at a stroke undermines church claims attributed to Jesus himself. He is what he does - whoever has eyes to see let him see; "For what they are not told they shall see; and what they have not heard they will understand" (Isaiah 52:15). In Mark's Gospel, the disciples unfortunately never did understand.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Slave and captive wives

There is legislation about slave wives in Exodus 21:7-11. It is confused, because one word could either be l'o, 'not' (Masoretic Text [MT] and NEB) or lo, 'to him' (Qere reading and NIV). A man has sold his daughter as an amah, slave woman. If he (the owner) has not 'selected her', he has treated her unfairly and she can be redeemed. This suggests that the purpose of the arrangement was marriage. A husband would normally pay a bride-price (mohar) to the father, so one wonders how this amah arrangement differed from regular marriage, since money still changed hands. On the alternative reading, he had selected her for himself (i.e. taken her sexually), and then she displeased him. If she is married [the word used is 'designated'] to a son, she is treated as a daughter (i.e. as an equal). She cannot be sold to a foreigner. If he marries another woman, he must continue to provide her with food, shelter and (probably) oil. Although this has been taken as an example of sexual freedom and polygyny, this is not inevitable. The rights of this woman as wife are protected. According to the MT, he has not consummated the union sexually and has been unfair.

Marriage to a captured woman is dealt with humanely in Deuteronomy 21:10-14. She is allowed time to mourn. The marriage is given dignity, and rights are given in case of dismissal (sending away). She cannot be sold as a slave because of the sexual relationship which existed.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Marriage: Polygyny

I notice my last blog was at Christmas, and now its almost Good Friday. Sorry readers. I have been writing, but not here. You can find other stuff on

Richard M Davidson of Andrews University, Michigan has written a very long book on the topic of my PhD: Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament. He quotes one article I wrote in 1979, but not my 1974 PhD, Ancient Hebrew Marriage and Family in the Old Testament Period in spite of having 200 pages of references, including MA dissertations, and in spite of my having referred to my PhD in the article he quotes. This PhD is one of the few treatments which directly covers all of his subject. My long-lost PhD has turned up - a Manchester University PhD which Manchester University library declared no longer available some time ago. It is catalogued as in Columbia University, New York. I have my own copy anyway, and bits will appear on the web alongside essays which update this now old text. The PhD was written in my early 2os before feminist criticism had developed, and before scholars were interrogating biblical texts in the light of anthropology; my PhD is an early example of both, but not developed as much as I would today. The book I designed and edited in 1989, Creating the Old Testament, is a bridge between the PhD and today.

Davidson styles himself as an evangelical Christian, and also declares his intention of writing a Biblical Theology of sexuality. Andrews University is a Seventh-day Adventist foundation. So we are already miles apart. He assumes that the Old Testament contains coherent teaching which is also coherent with the New Testament, and therefore makes sure that details which are troublesome to this thesis are interpreted so as to maintain this coherence. I find this approach doctrinaire and wrong-headed. He assumes a final text that means we can ignore its prehistory. He assumes that ancient Hebrew teaching must be illuminating in the 21st century CE. He refers throughout to 'scripture'. So he has decided his outcomes before he begins his exegesis. The volume is devotional rather than historical. The biblical books we call Old Testament were the Hebrew Bible and are now the Jewish Bible. Their relationship to the Christian New Testament has to be open for debate and not closed by Christian appropriation of them. They were and are scripture, by which I only mean accepted as spiritually canonical by the people who used them in worship. Like all writings, scriptures can be false and wrong-headed.

I am starting by discussing polygyny simply because I am preparing a conference paper on this at the moment. Writers commenting on Hebrew marriage fall into two camps - those who theologically declare that the Bible is a guide to life and therefore monogamy is the ideal, polygyny the human weakness; and those who declare polygyny to be earliest, and monogamy a development towards civilisation. The social historian examines the texts as a spotlight into the time of the writers and distinguishes between preaching and description. For this, neither generalisation works. (W)holistic Christian (or Jewish) assumptions influence the first, and false social evolutionism influences the second (the post-Darwinian view that society has evolved). My view is to start with the unencumbered texts.

Davidson declares that Genesis 1-3 (Eden) declares monogamy to be the ideal and the whole OT supports this throughout, with examples of polygyny being implicitly condemnatory. My first thoughts will be not unfamiliar to readers of this blog: that there were a number of final texts seems clear to me. Someone sat down to write the material, and it answered a particular need at that time. Corpuses of final text will on occasion be longer than a particular book, and there has been debate on whether there was an original tetrateuch, pentateuch or hexateuch. The so-called deuteronomic corpus is another. These had writers who had their own attitudes, knowledge and interests: one task of scholarship is to uncover these. That writers promoted monogamy (if true) says no more than this writer promoted monogamy. The social reality may have been entirely different. This (probably) sixth or fifth century BCE writer may have known very little of the actual history and sociology of the previous 5 to 10 centuries. The stories are folklore or fiction and not history.

Polygyny remained technically allowable in Judaism until the 13th century CE so there is clearly some ambiguity in the texts of the Hebrew Bible. Examples of polygyny in story are ways of defining national ancestry - which tribes are family, and which are hostile. Theyse have nothing to do with real marriages, except that the story might be expected to simulate real life. Tribes associated with Esau and Jacob for example use this supposed ancestry to declare them distantly related but potentially hostile. Far from commenting about ancient history, the information was to inform tribal relationships at the time of the writer, a time when the 'returning' Hebrews were becoming established in Palestine. Of course, no one who left actually returned - two or three generations separated exile from return. That 'returners' were in any way related to 'leavers' is an open question. The twelve tribes are neatly related back to a single ancestral family and ancestral patriarch Jacob (who is also referred to as Israel, the nation's name). This establishes an exclusive 'us' as opposed to 'them': the tensions between fictional ancestors probably resembled tensions between the contemporary tribes, with boundary disputes and power struggles.

A common feature of the stories are concubines. The term in Hebrew, pilagesh, is a loan-word from the Greek speaking world, palakis with a male form pallax. The pallax and palakis has some sort of sexual function, whether as slaves or free. The translation of palakis as concubine is common. Trade between the Greek speaking world and the Phoenician coast would be growing around the middle of the millenium and there may have been a trade in women. The pilegesh was not a slave, but also not a main wife. The writers of the stories of olden days are likely to have known of them, and placed them in their stories as anachronisms. There are no laws relating to pilegesh, although there are for slave women/wives. We should not therefore read the social custom of pilegesh concubines back into early history. They are purely fiction. Jacob's slave wives are called pilegesh, and Abraham's later wife in late texts (Chronicles). Judges have pilegesh, but it is the kings who really boast of many wives and concubines, aping the Persian harems they recently remembered. Solomon was of course viewed as being as powerful as Persian rulers like Cyrus (and we should not forget that Cyrus is called Messiah in Isaiah 45.1).

Davidson argues that monogamy is the ideal throughout, so I will follow the evidence trail. Genesis 1-3, creation, certainly talks of a man and his wife; it also advocates vegan eating. The question is whether these was any more than a pipedream. The patriarchs generally show men with a main wife, but other sexual child-bearing liaisons which are tolerated. After the fall, social life is depicted as anything but ideal. Sometimes, with name switches such as in Moses family (father-in-law Jethro/Reuel and wife Zipporah/Cushite) it is hard to penetrate the information. Of course, the stories we have in no way illustrate what actually happened socially before the exile.

Davidson sets the family tree of God (God, Adam, Abel, Seth etc) as opposed to other lines tracing ancestry to Cain and is mostly concerned to find monogamy in this divinely oriented family. Where it happens elsewhere, it is not the ideal state. Lamech is said to have had two wives simultaneously, Adah and Zillah and walks with vengeance, where his distant cousins walked with God. This is clearly the intention of the writer whom scholars usually describe as Priestly, although with many parts of the old documentary hypothesis uncertain, we best think of him/her as the writer of Genesis. The ideal of monogamy may track through Genesis and beyond, but the reality within the stories do not. Rachel may be described as Jacob's wife whilst others simply bore him children (Genesis 46:15-25) but they were four women bearing Jacob children together. With Abraham, not only did Hagar bear him a son whilst he was married to Sarah, but she was not treated well; and Sarah herself slept with (or even was wedded to) two kings (Abimelech and Pharaoh, Genesis 12 and 20) whilst married to Abraham. This is all clearly not the ideal in practice. Indeed, the storyteller links supernatural disasters to Sarah's suitors, as if it was their fault, to show divine disapproval.

Remembering that we are dealing with stories and not with history, we can interpret the stories in many ways. As tribal history, they define the relationships between neighbouring people. As social comment, they critique men's treatment of women. For the first of these, tribal history, we need to consider when the stories originated. Whilst the final writer (I am avoiding words like editor and redactor at this stage) with the Greek influences of the pilagesh concubines, appears to be well after the return from exile, the less than ideal tribal origins cycle presupposes a situation when the twelve tribes occupied land and needed explanation. After the Assyrian attack and depopulation in 722 BCE, the northern tribes were not part of the equation. However, this is falling into the trap of assuming that the historical construction given in the book of  Joshua and beyond is history and not story. What if within living memory of the writer no one remembered who had lived where in this new land where they had been deposited? They they had to construct an account of history which satisfied current requirements. Did the territorial mapping given in Joshua apply to the 10th century BCE or the 5th century when it was written? At this point after the return from exile, who were these people, and why did they decide to cooperate and thereby require a myth of alliance?

Davidson interprets Leviticus 8:18, forbidding sex between a woman and her sister as rival wives, as a prohibitionof polygyny amongst Hebrews, sister being viewed as 'fellow Hebrew' rather than biological blood. Against this, the verse occurs in a list of sexual prohibitions with family members. The earlier law in the sequence, prohibiting marriage to a mother and her daughter at the same time, only makes sense if polygyny was allowed in principle - it provides limits to who can become 'rival wives'.

For writers of the Hebrew Bible, there could not be a free-for all in sexual relations. Marriage was part of the economic structure through the bride-price (mohar) and there was a concern for the purity of the race, so clear paternity was important. Sex therefore was managerially managed by men. The law provided a safety-net, for the slave-wife for example, and to cover rape (the punishment compensated for the loss of bride-price). In the stories, marriages were arranged, payments demanded in cash or kind, and polygyny is a mark of high status, so kings have their harems carefully numbered. Monogamy may have been a reformist romantic ideal, but it had to buck a firmly entrenched social and economic trend. Marriage was mostly not romantic, but a show of status for men, and of economic survival for women. The stories themselves show that for women, sex and marriage could be challenging, and like the experience of the Levite's concubine in Gibeah (Judges 19) her life could be in danger. Some things don't change.