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Saturday, May 07, 2005

Markan Tastes

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 05/07/05 at 03:24 PM

In the wake of this event, which was actually precipitated by liberal Democratic activists selling plastic figurines of Artemis in the churchyard, I’d like to ask the readership’s opinion of an issue that has long vexed me: isn’t Mark ended at 16:8 aesthetically superior?

Here’s one contrary opinion:

For it is incredible that Mark ended with the “For they were afraid” of 16:8. Such a termination is more than abrupt; it leaves the narrative in mid-air, and relapses into silence at the most interesting and vital point in the whole history; indeed on the threshold of the very climax, already foreshadowed by the record itself. (484)

I draw the opposite position from much the same reasoning. Do you?

Reference
Goodspeed, Edgar J. “The Original Conclusion of the Gospel of St. Mark.” The American Journal of Theology. 9.3 (July 1905): 484-490.


Comments

I agree that the original version is superior.  The additions feel like just that, additions—they do not cohere with the original text.  The Gospel of Mark is just plain weird, in general or compared with the other gospels, and I think it’s time that people face that.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/07/05 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m sure people have faced it, and perhaps you can seminarianate some bibliography while you’re here.

By Jonathan on 05/07/05 at 06:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Insurrection of the Crucified by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. is my recommendation (buy now!).  Most any contemporary commentary would embrace the shorter version of Mark as both more authentic and aesthetically superior, though, unless you’re going to buy your commentary at some tacky “Christian” bookstore, in which case we’re back to Goodspeed.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/07/05 at 07:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aesthetically, yes, I find the ending “And they were afraid” much better.  This is primarily because the resurrection narrative that follows is rather neat and tidy for this Gospel, which is indeed “just plain weird.” Also, the movement of the characters to Galilee makes the Gospel a circular text.  We are brought back to Galilee, the same place the Gospel begins.  Then we are brought to Jerusalem, then to Galilee and so forth.

By Tim Peoples on 05/08/05 at 11:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sure, I find the more abrupt ending more aesthetically pleasing. Having said that, I then go on to remind myself that that text wasn’t produced in order to offer anyone aesthetic pleasure. And in any case, the question of aesthetic excellence is completely unrelated to the question of where “Mark” ended his Gospel.

There’s no doubt that the oldest manuscripts we have end at verse 8. But it is hard to imagine what reason “Mark” would have had for ending the story there, since—as is obvious from the other Gospels and from the whole of Christian tradition—the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead was central to the life of the young Church. Indeed, if that first generation of Christians didn’t believe in the Resurrection, it’s unlikely that they would have lasted more than a few years even as an obscure sect. The Resurrection was the only explanation of events that would not make the first disciples into pathetic, misled losers.

Given all that, *why* would the earliest manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8? Certainly not because the author thought, Hey, to end here would produce a wonderful aesthetic *frisson*. Alas, the most likely explanation is the least interesting one: that those very early manuscripts were copied from incomplete scrolls.

By on 05/09/05 at 11:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ayjay’s final comments leave me w/two further questions: if it is just an incomplete scroll, why does it end on such an aesthetically interesting place? Why wouldn’t it break off somewhere random? & as I mention in my post above, what about the poison & snake stuff? If only for that reason, the (perhaps) added material is strange.

By Lawrence La Riviere White on 05/10/05 at 11:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My response to Lawrence—who is admirably continuing a cpnversation beyond the natural lifespan of a blog thread, since blogs typically accelerate debates about ideas to the pace of daily journalism—as I say, my response to Lawrence is another question: at what point in Western history would verse 8 have become “an aesthetically interesting place” at which to end? Perhaps until fairly recently (in world-historical terms) it would have been been thought of as “somewhere random.” What sort of aesthetic does one have to have in order to perceive verse 8 as a really interesting place to end? and what beliefs and intellectual practices produce such an aesthetic?

By on 05/10/05 at 08:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t see why you think that it would be a recent development.

By Jonathan on 05/10/05 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I also don’t know why you are excluding the possibility that “Mark” took into account something like aesthetic effect.  He is (a) trying to tell a good story, so that (b) people will do particular things.  Rather than hallucinating another “more probable” ending, why not assume that the resurrection would not be news to those to whom “Mark” was writing and that therefore the reaction of his first readers would have been to prove the ending wrong?  It seems to me that Mark is trying to incite people to something like a strategy of martyrdom, and giving them an alternate history in which no one ever heard about this amazing, world-changing event might have been a good way of motivating them.

By Adam Kotsko on 05/10/05 at 09:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, my brain doesn’t work quickly enough to respond in a timely manner. & I think Ayjay response to my question is a good question, as is Jonathan’s response to his (this is obviously a nice thread!) The answer would take some knowledge that I don’t have: what kind of aesthetic effects were in the toolkit at the time? Too bad Erich Auerbach is dead. We could have asked him.

By on 05/10/05 at 10:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, everyone, for the good replies. Adam: I am not “excluding the possibility that ‘Mark’ took into account something like aesthetic effect.” But I don’t think it’s *likely* that anything that we would call artfulness was on his mind. Reynolds Price is great on this in his *Three Gospels*: he points out that Mark had limited command of Greek and seems to have been in a great hurry to get his story told. The resulting simplicity and urgency—both of which lend a certain cryptic character to the narrative, as others in the thread have pointed out—have a great appeal to many late-modern readers. But artistic *taste* is surely socially constructed at least to a considerable degree, and just because *we* have a taste for the cryptic, the ambiguous, the unresolved, there’s no reason to think that that taste is universal—indeed, there’s much reason to think that it isn’t, and that that taste is peculiar to the late-modern situation. (My own inclination, for what it’s worth, is that a preference for such stories is only viable for people who are socially and economically secure, but that’s a long story.) I’m not trying to close off any possibilities, only suggesting that there can be aesthetic *effect* where there was no aesthetic *purpose*. I recommend to everyone who doesn’t know it Frank Kermode’s *The Genesis of Secrecy*, which is very cogent on these matters and the ones raised by Lawrence in his “The Wrong Ones Can’t Get Saved” post. Kermode dedicates his book “To Those Outside”—that is, to those whom Jesus excludes from an understanding of his parables.

By on 05/11/05 at 09:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Reynolds Price is great on this in his *Three Gospels*: he points out that Mark had limited command of Greek and seems to have been in a great hurry to get his story told.

My dear fellow, have you heard the “Clash”? London Calling? Ring any bells? Limited command, great hurry—and more artfulness than a million Queensryches boiled down into syrup. Reynolds P, if quoted correctly, is nonsequituring here.

But I don’t think it’s *likely* that anything that we would call artfulness was on (Mark’s) mind.

I detect in you the fallacy that thinks sensitivity to different aesthetic styles began with modernity. Bzzt. Compare the naturalistic cave paintings of Altamira with the Bronze-age Giocametti-style figurines from the Cyclades. This was not just a question of struggling with materials. These people had different aesthetics.

This being the case, and given the example of the Clash to show that artfulness is something other than mastery of technique, we’d be foolish not to think that Mark, or whatever genius editor redacted the final version of what we know as Mark, knew what was going on.

By pierre on 05/11/05 at 11:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I hate to disagree with any post that seeks to explain features of the Bible by referencing the Clash—but. . . .

1) I said that aesthetic taste is socially constructed and therefore changes over time, so I couldn’t have been saying that aesthetic taste is a solely modern phenomenon. I said that our taste for “the cryptic, the ambiguous, the unresolved” is not universal; I didn’t say that those who don’t share it have no aesthetic at all!

2) From the fact that people can employ simplicity and haste as an artistic strategy it does not follow that everywhere we discern simplicity and haste an artistic strategy is at work producing them. Some effects are the product of contingency and fortuity, not design. Is it really likely that a barely-literate first-century Palestinian follower of a weird sect centered on a guy named Jesus employed an artistic strategy that just happens to correspond with the aesthetic preferences of Western Europeans two centuries later? I tend to think not.

By on 05/11/05 at 01:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Aha!

1) I said that aesthetic taste is socially constructed and therefore changes over time, so I couldn’t have been saying that aesthetic taste is a solely modern phenomenon.

Not necessarily. Social construction could be thought to operate only weakly before the modern period, so that the range of possibilities was comparatively extremely narrow. I don’t think anybody would state this as an explicit part of their theory, but I believe it to be a common unconscious prejudice. It’s the easiest way for me to uncharitably explain your belief that the statement

2) From the fact that people can employ simplicity and haste as an artistic strategy it does not follow that everywhere we discern simplicity and haste an artistic strategy is at work producing them. Some effects are the product of contingency and fortuity, not design.

explains your earlier conclustion that effects by an unknown writer prior to the modern era *must* be the result of contingency and fortuity and *cannot* be the result of design.

Mark could have seen a Roman stage play, for example (either Greek or contemporary-to-him) and not needed much more to take the hint.

Let’s turn things around and ask: why did this particular work have such an enormous impact on history? Given its impact, shouldn’t we start from the assumption that such an explosively influential work was likely to contain some formal innovation? If it was simply the historically conditioned product of an amateur, we are at a loss to understand why it has resonated for ~2000 years.

Go on, prove me wrong. This is a fun one. :-)

By pierre on 05/11/05 at 03:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, one thing I can prove wrong, Pierre, and that’s your claim that I said that “that effects by an unknown writer prior to the modern era *must* be the result of contingency and fortuity and *cannot* be the result of design.” Look again: repeatedly I said that I am not closing off the possibility of self-conscious artistry in Mark, only claiming that that’s an unlikely explanation for the effect his narrative has on us.

I completely agree that the Gospel of Mark is “an explosively influential work” and that it “contain[s] some formal innovation”—in fact, many critics (from C. S. Lewis to Erich Auerbach to Gabriel Josipovici to Reynolds Price) have seen it as one of the most radically innovative of all known narratives. The question is whether the innovation, and its subsequent influence, were the product of design or contingency.

My own inclination is to think that the Markan innovations arose when a limited writer tried to come to terms with the inexplicable, unprecedented life of Jesus of Nazareth. The narrative innovations, on my account, arise from the attempt to represent faithfully a life unlike any previously known life. But hey, that’s just me. . . .

By on 05/11/05 at 07:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

After that explanation, I see I misread you. Sorry! :-)

By pierre on 05/11/05 at 08:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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