So over the past month or so, in which I have not posted on anything substantial, a lot has happened. First off, there this:
You can listen to it here, but the MPR site has some beautiful pictures of beautiful babies and my favorite people on earth. This happened at the beginning of the month and was somewhat devastating. I was ignoring it.
Second, there’s New Testament:
At first, reading the Epistles, Pauline, Pastoral, Johninne… I was kind of disillusioned with my imagination of the earliest Christian communities. They seemed like the kind of place where you would advise friends not to drink the koolaid. There is a lot of talk of divisions, high-brow kinds of manipulative talk that these days would really disturb me. The past is, of course, a foreign country but that is just as dangerous as it is delightful to the historian: sacred texts exist across time and so they exist both in the foreign country of the past world and in the home country of the present, so they are held accountable to the social reality of both time periods. This is a hard thing to do, but I do defend that being uncomfortable with the texts is essential.
Anyway, I think I’ve done some serious thinking on this, and I’ve gained some nice insight. The key for me is the word “theophany.” The people who followed Jesus, witnessed his death and resurrection, and believed in his teachings literally encountered God in the world: Emmanuel, God with us. A similar thing happens in the Old Testament with Moses. I am too lazy to look up this quote by Heschel, so instead I will paraphrase it: he says that the mountain of God was held over the heads of the people of Israel. Theophany is instigated by God and most definitely out of the control of all humans involved. So, like the thousand years it took to develop the Hebrew texts to construct that encounter, the Christian community scrambled to understand what had happened to them.
What I like about New Testament is that I’m getting a much clearer picture of the humanity of the early Christians. I don’t really enjoy reading Paul or the Epistles of John, but I had no idea how they interact with the gospels. I had no idea that the oldest books in the New Testament were the genuine letters of Paul! I had always assumed that the gospels came first, because Paul refers to “the good news” (same Greek word for gospel, ευαγγελλιον, again too lazy to look up proper spelling and accenting), but what he is referring to in those cases are oral and fragmentary written accounts of the life of Jesus, oral accounts that he likely learned from others and passed on himself. Dorothy Day describes her Catholic Worker movement in much the same way: a whole lot of flawed people imbued with Spirit and trying to figure out how to act.
So scholars basically agree that the first gospel, the gospel that was a major source for Matthew and Luke, is Mark. Now all of the gospels were originally anonymous compositions. So as a proper graduate student and a nutty feminist scholar, I got the wild notion that perhaps the gospel of Mark was written not by some guy with the name Mark, but rather by a woman.
Mark’s gospel originally ends with the empty tomb. There are no appearances of the risen Christ. So, Jesus dies, then is buried in the tomb, and the women come to tend to his body. Then the angel speaks to them, and tells them to spread the news across the world, but, the women run away terrified and say nothing to anyone. So what if this is accurate? What if the historical truth is that the women were terrified, and for a long time they were the keepers of the best knowledge about Jesus? There are hints at this in the Gospel of Mary, in which Peter and the others appear to really consider Mary to know the most about Jesus. This is quite a different example, but the same thing happened to traditions of the Prophet Muhammad with Aisha: she knew him as others didn’t, as his favorite, and thus became a serious source in the oral traditions about him.
Now my professor on Mark talked a lot about Markan motifs, the composition, and the way that Mark invented the genre of Gospel. At the time there were similar books from the Hebrew Bible in development/circulation/canonization stages that were sincerely ironic. What if Mark is composed as a deeply ironic text, poking fun at all modes of authority and anti-authority as inherently failures? Look at the way that Mark treats the disciples. It isn’t pretty. They never get it. I think Mark is saying something with his treatment of the disciples, that the “disciples of a holy man” also had an accepted role in society, preformed an act of “anti-authority” and that it was just as silly and just as much a farce as the Pharisees. Naturally, only on the grounds that I *want* to, but also possibly because of that kind of contemptuous outlook on all modes of authority, I think this could mean that the composer was female, perhaps at a time when the church was becoming more orderly and started to reflect not the more egalitarian house churches, but the kind of church that the Pastoral Epistles exhibit. The ending, with the resurrection of Jesus placed solely in the hands of three terrified women, (and also the desertion of the disciples, only the women being present at the crucifixion), then serves almost as a REMINDER to the early church: Remember that during our theophany, the only people who were truly there for God were the utterly marginalized; Remember to listen to us because we do indeed have the earliest access to the traditions you preach. I can see some sardonic daughter of one of the women who followed Jesus, a student or companion of Paul, frustrated with developments toward hierarchy, combining the traditions of others into this powerful and scathing composition.
Anyway, so just as I’m learning about these things, I formulate theories that are totally ungrounded, but that I would love, love, love to spend years studying. Can you imagine how important it would be to the contemporary theology of gender if we really, truly KNEW that women were instrumental in writing the gospels? Instrumental in the early communities? There are traces of it: Pheobe, Chloe, Priscilla. To me it isn’t a huge step to say that Mark is written by a woman. There is of course the problem that he includes no infancy narratives or any traditions about Mary. The author also attacks family authority structures when Jesus is approached by his mother and brothers and he says that his followers are his mother and brothers, not his blood relatives. This is pretty starkly against what the others say. However, if Mark is composed for a particular purpose, this can also be a jab at the authority of the family structure: note that Jesus’ father does not appear in this section. Women feel the family as a unit of authority exercised OVER them rather than a unit for authority to be exercised ON.
And now I am going to be late for my doctor’s appointment.