Palimpsest: Mimetic Criticism And The Gospel of Mark
Late in life, the 19th century British statesman William Gladstone decided to write a long work demonstrating the ways Homer – described by Gladstone as “good old Homer”, a daily read in the original Greek along with Scripture – influenced the authors of the New Testament. Gladstone’s most recent biographer, Roy Jenkins, offers the idea that Gladstone did this in part to bring together two distinct parts of his life that otherwise seemed incongruous. That he failed miserably is more the fault of the material than any of Gladstone’s prodigious gifts brought to bear.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and we continue to see attempts to relate Scripture to contemporaneous Greco-Roman literature including, as noted by Joel Watts in Mimetic Criticism And The Gospel Of Mark, Homer.
Watts offers a thoughtful, even intriguing alternative. Rather than Homer, what if the author of Mark’s Gospel had another text either in hand or in mind while constructing his narrative? Specifically, he offers up the Roman rhetorician and subversive poet Lucan. While I would not say that the whole of Watts’s presentation hinges on the success of his attempt, it is important to remember that many of the questions he asks and attempts to answer remain, to me, unanswerable. Just as John Gardner attempted to write a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer largely from silence, so to Watts attempts to present a non-traditional view of Mark’s Gospel relying on contemporaneous reading and critical habits, as well as placing the Gospel within the context of Jewish life wracked by the destruction of the Temple and what that meant for their future. Whether or not Lucan’s subversive poetry – he was made to commit suicide by his childhood friend Emperor Nero because of Nero’s horrid tenure – was a source for the Gospel writer, Watts’s work adds much to the literature of Biblical criticism, demonstrates a critical technique that opens up possibilities both for reading and appropriation that should bear much fruit, and handles the multiple sources and complex methods with skill, appreciation, and a deep understanding.
Generally accepted as the earliest Gospel account set in writing, much ink has been spilled over the date of Mark’s Gospel, the original audience, the influence it had on the other Synoptics, along with the text itself. From antiquity through contemporary scholarship, much has been made of the poor koine Greek on display; the lack either of a proper beginning and ending (the opening and closing of the earliest and most authoritative manuscripts are incomplete sentences); geographic errors that are not easily explained away; and much else. Watts takes these cumulative problems and, in an act of reversal, offers the intriguing possibility that all of this, in fact, fits in a larger strategy the author is employing to make clear the centrality of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus for a people who, having lost a war and a Temple, are in need of guidance through an existential crisis. The guide, claims Watts, is Lucan.
A renowned poet, owing much to the great poet of early Imperial Rome, Livy, Lucan subverted Livy’s triumphant praise, offering anti-Imperial (specifically anti-Nero) polemics disguised as poorly-written broadsides. His popularity was such that killing him outright was impossible, so Nero appealed to Lucan’s sense of honor and Lucan committed suicide. The damage to Nero, however, was done. Upon his death followed what historians call “The Year Of Three Emperors” as the succession, already in doubt, became a battleground not least because Nero’s neglect of the city of Rome and its citizens had left the whole Imperial apparatus in disrepute.
Just prior to Nero’s death, the Jews in Galilee and Judea rose up. Nero sent his most trusted and able general, Vespasian, to end the revolt. After some initial victories that removed the threat from the fringes of the Jewish world along the see of Galilee, Nero died and Vespasian halted the campaign as he waited for the political situation in Rome to settle down. He was astute enough to understand that a new Emperor might want him and his legions to move elsewhere. Within a couple years, however, as the situation in Rome didn’t resolve itself. Vespasian succumbed to flattery, sailed to Rome, and after some struggle became Emperor. In the interim, the war against the Jews resumed. The Jews retreated to Jerusalem, closed the gates, and a struggle between factions within the city retreated to the Temple while the city’s inhabitants, pressed on all sides, succumbed to debauchery as death in the shape of the X Legion surrounded the city. The walls were breached, the Temple surrounded, then burned after the contents of theHoly of Holies, including the Gold Menorah celebrating the Maccabean Victory over Antiochus, was confiscated. After the leader of the Revolt, Simon bar Giora, was brought to Rome and executed, Vespasian – who knew something of Jewish life and culture – declared himself the Jewish Messiah (as opposed to the defeated, and dead, Simon).
This background, insists Watts, weighs heavily on the minds and hearts of the community the author of Mark’s Gospel addresses. His commentary focuses on two movements within the text: Jesus against Vespasian, first, in the parts of the Gospel set in Galilee; then Jesus against Simon bar Giora, as the narrative moves to Jerusalem. Just as Lucan used poor writing and grammar, subversive anti-authoritarian reversals, and even humor in an attempt to disparage Nero, so, too, claims Watts, did the author use poor writing and grammar, subversive anti-authoritarian reversals and even humor (that would be lost after so many generations) to discredit the Messianic claims both of the Emperor and the Zealot Simon who brought not only the Revolt but the Temple to an end with such finality. Presenting Jesus as the one in whom and through whom the Jewish hopes were embodied and lived, Watts focuses attention on how Mark not only creates a new understanding of “Messiah” and “apocalyptic”, but perhaps in and through his presentation created a community who would accept the author’s presentation.
I will leave it to the reader to gauge Watts’s success at the specific argument. I will say that there is little doubt Watts’s understands his subject, in all its complexity, fully. He can also explain it clearly and simply. He masters a wealth of source material in the original languages with little fuss or muss. Finally, whether he succeeds or fails, he certainly offers both scholars and faithful readers intriguing possibilities for reading familiar material in new ways.
I will note one thing. I was frustrated by a number of errata in the text. Having recently finished another work from the same publisher, Wipf & Stock, I lay these firmly at their feet rather than the author.