Reading Around the Bible, 3: Mark

Some of these comments apply, of course, to Matthew as well.

  • All maladies are due to spirits or demons. It’s been noted by critics that the Bible contains no knowledge that was not known to its writers; that is, though supposedly inspired by God, who is omniscient, nothing he communicated to its writers includes anything that might have benefited or informed humanity beyond their local observations, such as the germ theory of disease or the idea that the sun and planets are celestial bodies, not merely lights in the sky. One ironic exception is, in Mark 7:3, the Pharisees’ complaint that Jesus and his followers were not washing their hands before eating. This is ironic because medical science didn’t actually believe in the efficacy of washing one’s hands before surgery, in order to not pass on infections to patients, until the late 19th century (IIRC). However, Mark (and Matthew too, I think), mention this only so Jesus can make a point about following the Commandments rather than the Pharisees’ Talmudic rules: Jesus thinks following the commandment that children who do not honor their parents should be killed is more important than washing one’s hands.
  • It’s remarkable how many people there are everywhere who are sick or lame.
  • 3:15, the apostles are authorized to cast out demons too!
  • 5:9, ‘My name is Legion’, a turn of phrase that SAB takes too literally (as a demon named Legion) was the title of a 1976 Roger Zelazny collection of three inter-related novellas; just one of *many* phrases in the gospels and the Bible as whole, of course, familiar in contemporary culture and discourse and as literary references, and which I won’t bother to cite.
  • 5:26, Jesus heals a woman who “had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” (!) and had “endured much under many physicians”. The granddaddy of all faith healing narratives? The justification for people who to this day deny their children medical treatment, and pray instead? (Of course, medicine was rather primitive all the way up to 100 years ago or so.)
  • 8:31, Jesus obviously knows the story, or prophecy, he is to play.
  • 9:31, and other places in which Jesus himself prophecies that he will be killed and arise after 3 days: Asimov points out that, given the time of the arrest to the time of the resurrection, it wasn’t actually 3 days; it was 2 nights and one day. Asimov p236
  • 9:42, the commentator in the Oxford NRSV for Mark is different than the one for Matthew, and they say some strikingly different things to parallel passages in the two gospels. The commentator for Mark suggests the lines about cutting off one’s hand and plucking out one’s eye are metaphors and euphemisms for sins of male sexuality! (That two commentators in what is surely one of the most intellectually exhaustive annotations of the Bible currently available differ in their interpretations… speaks volumes, of course.)
  • 10:10, this time Jesus says you can divorce, but remarrying is equivalent to adultery. In any event, more advice that most Christians ignore.
  • 10:15, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it”. Get them while they’re young! (Children will believe anything.) Though again, the commentator thinks it’s not literal, but rather, as with so much Jesus says, a metaphor about the state of Israel under rule of the Romans.
  • Most remarkably, the end of Mark – the first gospel to be written – has none of the later sightings of the resurrected Jesus that we read about in Matthew; those passages, past 16:8, were added in the 2nd century CE (A.D.)!, according to the Oxford NRSV. Those later passages also include “signs” that “will accompany those who believe”, including speaking in tongues and picking up snakes with their hands, and how drinking deadly things will not hurt them. Sound advice for believers to this day who occasionally kill themselves as a result.

It’s been noted that Christianity is, among the general population (i.e. excluding the priests and the scholars), a tradition without much first-hand knowledge of the Bible. The atheists who seek to undermine religious fundamentalism (Sam Harris, Michael Shermer) are more familiar with the Bible than the vast majority of believers. Believers learn the traditions orally, through church sermons and Sunday School classes, and are never troubled by the grotesque, implausible passages of their holy book. So far, I find the Bible a fascinating artifact of primitive humanity, a storybook of discredited cosmologies and beliefs about how the world works, and, considering how long after the events most of its books were written, a prime example of how ‘history’ (of any kind, perhaps) is a result of the motivations of those who won and have an agenda to push.

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