Tag Archives: hermeneutics

The Christmas Stories: Mark

From Rome, 20 years or so after the ascension of Christ, Mark set ink to paper and began to write down the stories of Jesus’ life, as told and retold by the apostles and evangelists. Relying on the conversations that he had with Peter, as well as on some already existing written and oral records of Christ’s years of ministry, Mark’s gospel holds the distinction of being the first written (… probably).

Mark leaves things out of his gospel that we would expect to see in there. It’s the shortest of the canonical gospels, and reading it leaves you with the sense that it’s more like a companion book than an exhaustive biography.p52 For example, in the most reliable manuscripts, the resurrection account in Mark gets 8 verses, and we see only the angel announcing his resurrection to three of the women among Jesus’ disciples. Huge portions of what we would think of as essential teaching material get left out.

The church that Mark is writing to is a story-telling group. Most of the local gatherings in cities throughout the empire have direct connections to one of the apostles, and would have received their knowledge of the life and teaching of Jesus directly from the stories told by the men and women who walked with him. Mark seems to be writing his gospel as a supplement to this tradition of story-telling, as if to say, “You know the stories about Jesus and what he taught us, but here are some of the details that you may not have heard.” In particular, Mark seems to be interested in providing some of the political context for Jesus’ crucifixion.

In keeping with the character of the rest of his book, Mark’s Christmas story is brief. He doesn’t talk about the virgin birth, or Bethlehem, shepherds, or wise men. For Mark, the Advent is a much older story. His gospel is simply this, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came as the Messianic heir of the God’s covenant with Israel”. Here’s how he writes it:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

‘Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight.”’”

Setting aside the theological weight of the gospels for just a second, I am frequently struck by how good these guy were as authors, as word-smiths. Mark does two things in the opening of his gospel that are just plain good writing.

First, Mark uses a very cool turn of phrase in the first line. The closest parallel might be the famous JFK line, “Ask not what your country can do for you.” In JFK’s speech, the word “not” hangs in our ear, because it’s a swinging modifier. It might belong to “ask”, or it might belong to “what”.


In Mark’s opening, the phrase “gospel of Jesus Christ” places both the words “gospel” and “Jesus Christ” in genitive, a case in Greek that is kind of like our possessive apostrophe “s”, but not quite. So, the result is a phrase where both “gospel” and “Jesus Christ” are swinging modifiers, and the reader isn’t sure if the phrase is “This is the gospel that Jesus brings”, or “This is the gospel about Jesus.” Mark probably intends both (called a plenary genitive), something we don’t have good tools to do in English. We might read it as something like this, “This is the good news that Jesus told us about himself.”

It’s clunky in English, but in the Greek it’s elegant, it’s poetic, and it’s deeply theological. For Mark, Jesus is both the source, and the demonstration, of the new truth of God’s covenant with his people.

The second literary technique that Mark uses is this: he sets up a massive historical parallel. The angel of God prepares the way for the nation of Israel to come out of Egypt, travel under the waters of the Red Sea, through the desert, into the covenant kingdom (the Old Testament quotes). John the Baptist prepares the way for the people of Israel to, again, leave their old country behind, be baptized in the Jordan, brought through the desert, and into … and then Mark introduces Jesus. All of the weight of the Old Testament covenant language, that Mark is dredging up with his quotes, comes to rest on the appearance of Jesus in the story.

Mark’s Christmas story, his Advent, is the coming of the hero into the old, old story.

Why I am (still) an Evangelical

First, let’s clear some brush. Evangelical is not a political movement, it’s not a formula for church growth, and it’s not a hairstyle. It’s not a publishing slogan, a conference circuit, a musical genre, or a brand of SUV.

I am (still) an Evangelical, even though I have to parry and dodge assumptions whenever I use that term. I am (still) an Evangelical, because of the great hope to which the movement aspired at it’s founding. I am (still) an Evangelical, because, at it’s root, Evangelicalism is an ecumenical movement: an attempt to erect a large tent in the ground between the cultural withdrawal of fundamentalism, and the withering incredulity of theological liberalism.

Evangelicalism is a way of reading and understanding the bible, and I (still) believe that it is as close as we can come to a neutral hermeneutic, one that allows the text to breathe out its stories without being unduly constrained by our expectations of it. The evangelical hermeneutic rests on this assumption – that if God is omnipotent, present, and interested in revealing things about himself, we can expect His revelation to have certain basic characteristics. Things like:

1) Inspiration – God was involved in the production of the texts.

2) Infallibility – the texts do not err in their purposes.

3) Historicity – the texts were written at a place and time in history, by people situated in history, and as such, they are products of their historical/cultural perspective.

4) Textuality – text as text: the normal tools for interpreting meaning in any text are the appropriate tools for interpreting meaning in biblical texts. In other words, when we read “Joseph was lowered into the well”, the meaning is conveyed by the content of the words “Joseph”, “lowered” and “well”, just as it would be if those words were written in personal letter, a historical footnote, or any other work outside of the biblical canon. Attempts to use “secret codes” or numerological sequences to unlock the “true” meaning of the text are therefore inappropriate to interpretation (think Kabbala, or “The Bible Code“).

5) Data – the text is an robotic engineer on an ‘NC‘ class star cruiser with a positronic brain incapable of human emotion. Just checking to see if you were still with me.

The second and third stakes in the Evangelical tent are, to me, the most interesting. It is the 2nd stake, infallibility, that marks out the left most boundary of the evangelical hermeneutic – it is the essential difference between Marcus Borg (the Jesus Seminar) and Ben Witherington or Scot McKnight.

Likewise, the third stake marks out the right boundary. It’s the third stake in the Evangelical tent that we have a tendency to to forget, to our detriment, because it is the third stake that separates Evangelicalism from Fundamentalism.

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, was the subject of a public scorning a few months ago for daring to assert that the moon does not, actually, produce it’s own light. He dared to suggest that the moon’s light was merely a reflection of the light of the sun.

This is a problem for Fundamentalists. Because, you see, Genesis clearly states that God created two lights, one for the day, and one for the night, and fundamentalism requires a literalist reading of that text. There is no room for taking into account the historical or cultural situation of the author, and reading the text from within that perspective. A fundamentalist is fundamentally commited (get it?) to reading Genesis with the same kind of literalism with which one would read a newspaper article or, say, a science textbook. And so, Bill Nye’s assertion that the moon does not produce light becomes a contest of authority, between the literalism of Genesis and the literalism of Bill’s scientific data. And hey, look, if that’s really the fight, I’ll gladly put $20 down on God. $30 if my jury duty check has come and I have the extra cash.

But that’s not really the fight, is it? Evangelicalism isn’t bound in the same way that Fundamentalism is when it reads Genesis, because it recognizes that the author wrote from a certain cultural and historical perspective, and from his perspective, there was a bright light in the day, and a second light at night. A historical hermeneutic of Genesis also recognizes that the authorial intent matters to the interpretation – the point of the passage isn’t a scientific assertion about the origination of the light coming from the moon, it was that God made provision for human existence in the ordering of creation. We need light to see, so God instituted a means of light for day and for night. To agitate for a literal reading obscures the significant point of the passage.

Here’s why this matters – in the rush to defend the left flank against a diminishing view of scriptural accuracy, we have left undone the hard work driving in the right-hand peg, of teaching the people in our care how to read The Book with an eye toward the historicity of the authors. We’ve told them to believe it’s true, thundered that from pulpit and screen and print, but we haven’t taught them how to understand the thing about it that is true. A belief in the infallibility of scripture is a crippling kind of intellectual deprivation when coupled with the sort of literalism that fundamentalism espouses.

So, I am (still) an Evangelical, and not a critical deconstructionist, because I have to believe that an omnipotent God is capable of speaking an infallible truth into human experience, and I have to believe that a compassionate God would. But also, I am (still) an Evangelical, and not a fundamental literalist, because I have to believe that God’s dialog with humanity took place in time, in space, in history, and in the midst of the very real cultural features of our human existence. It is an unfolding story, whispered in human ears, etched on human hearts, and relayed through their hands.

This is the great strength of the Evangelical tent, and how it holds up so wide a canopy.