In preparation for preaching through the Gospel of Mark, I’ve been reading David Rhoads and Donald Michie’s Mark as Story. Some of what they say â€” their discussion of “point of view” in narrative, for instance â€” just strikes me as pretty obvious, the kind of stuff you heard about in high school English classes. But at various points, they do draw attention to some significant features in Mark’s Gospel.
I hadn’t noticed it before, but Mark frequently works with threes. Three times, Jesus has conflict with his disciples in a boat. Three times, Jesus has conflict with his disciples about bread. Three times, on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus predicts his death. Three times, his disciples fall asleep in Gethsemane. Three times, Peter denies Jesus. The events of the crucifixion happen at three stages at three-hour intervals: nine o’clock, noon, and three o’clock (pp. 54-55).
Rhoads and Michie point out the threes as a literary device which helps to build suspense, so that when something has happened twice the reader is keyed up for the third episode which will be the crucial one. That may be part of the literary effect of these threes. But I do wonder whether there isn’t some significance to the threes.
In Numbers 19:19, we learn that if a man touches a dead body, he has to be washed on the third day and then again on the seventh day. On the seventh day, he is clean. So what is the third-day washing all about? It appears to be a preliminary judgment, a first washing which puts you on track to receive the final washing.
That does appear to be how some of the threes in Scripture function. They’re linked to preliminary judgments, times when people are being challenged to make sure that they’re on the right track or warnings to lead people to repentance.
In the Samson story, for instance, threes abound: third day, thirty companions, three hundred foxes, three thousand men of Judah, three thousand Philistines. Perhaps those threes are hints that Samson’s judgment is the preliminary one, with Samuel’s victory (possibly a few weeks later) being a final judgment for the Philistines.
Do the threes in Mark serve such a role? I dunno. But it’s something I’ll try to keep in mind as I study the book in preparation for these sermons.
On Saturday night, I finished reading Gene Wolfe‘s Storeys from the Old Hotel. As with every short story collection, some stories are better than others. With Wolfe, my initial judgments are tentative (unless I really like the story) since there’s often more going on in his stories than appears at first glance.
They say that you’re learning to read Wolfe when his endings feel like endings. Well, some of the stories in this collection clicked for me completely and the endings did feel like endings. Others I’ll need to reread and puzzle over some more.
My favourite stories? I liked several of them, but the two I liked best were “The Death of the Island Doctor” and “Westwind.” I read “Westwind” as something of an allegory, with intentionally Christian themes, though saying that really doesn’t capture the magic of the story very well.
In the January 30 issue of Clarion, Reuben Bredenhof writes about the catch of 153 fish in John 21:11. He begins by discussing people he identifies as “the code-breakers”:
While there are skeptics ready to dismiss this number 153 as an overstatement or invention, there are others who think that there probably were fish caught, sure, and the number is not accurate, certainly not, yet the number is not simply an exaggeration that has slipped in, but is a number that demands interpretation. It is a number that is a code, a count of fish that is profoundly symbolic of something else, something much more meaningful than fried fish for breakfast with the risen Lord. In this view, the number 153 jars the reading experience ï¿½ what an unusual place for a specific number, for a precise tally of fish, of all things! In the drama of the disciples meeting the resurrected Saviour, why would this sum of landed fish be included? And so, many interpreters of Scripture have sought to “rescue” this number from irrelevance, assigning it an important, hidden meaning (p. 58).
Bredenhof then presents a number of ways in which the church fathers attempted to explain the 153 fish. (He doesn’t deal with modern commentators, such as James Jordan, who also see symbolism in the number.) He cautions that “we should not be hasty in rejecting all these interpretations, even though strange in our view ï¿½ alphabetical code and symbolic numbers are not totally foreign to the Scriptures” (p. 59).
In the end, however, Bredenhof rejects the idea that the number itself is significant. Whereas Revelation is full of symbolism, he says, John’s Gospel is “uniquely a historical book” (p. 60). John is writing as an eyewitness. That’s why he includes particular details, such as numbers:
John often gives numbers in his description of the Lord’s ministry: two disciples with John the Baptist, six water pots at Cana, five loaves and two small fish, three and a half miles out on the Sea of Galilee, four soldiers who divided his clothes, 38 years of sickness, 300 denarii, 5 husbands, and … 153 fish” (p. 60).
According to Bredenhof, then, the only point of the 153 fish is that it is
simply yet profoundly another detail by John the eyewitness. This remarkable number only confirms again the account that John has provided for us: John was there, and he can testify that this Jesus is the Christ!” (p. 60).
I’m not convinced.
First, Bredenhof’s explanation of the number leaves me cold. The number itself becomes meaningless and the exegete should just ignore it. It doesn’t matter that it was 153 fish (though that’s what John says); all that matters is that there were a lot of fish (which is what John doesn’t say). And the only point for recording it is to let us know that John was there, so that we have all the more reason to trust the rest of what he says. (I’m not sure how it proves that he was an eyewitness, though.)
Second, the way that Bredenhof describes “the code-breakers” isn’t really fair. He makes it sound as if they do not believe there were 153 fish and that the number is only symbolic. But that isn’t the case at all. Certainly some who take the number as a symbol (a better term here than “code”) also believe that there really were exactly 153 fish caught.
Furthermore, to say that some believe the number needs interpretation, which implies that others do not, is faulty: All exegetes interpret the number; some interpret it as a symbol and others do not.
But even more significantly, Bredenhof’s argument for not seeing symbolism in the numbers in John’s Gospel is weak. He admits that the Bible does use number symbolism, and that John himself is capable of it (witness Revelation). His only argument against seeing number symbolism in John’s Gospel is that John’s Gospel is historical.
But why can’t a historical account use number symbolism? I would submit that many of the historical narratives in the Old Testament do use number symbolism. Frankly, I don’t know what else to do with Elim’s twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. Either you take that to be a tour guide description which is totally irrelevant or you try to figure out the symbolism (which isn’t all that hard, given that there are twelve tribes of Israel and seventy nations of the world).
But what about John’s Gospel itself? Bredenhof refers to several numbers in the Gospel. He mentions the six water pots. Is it a coincidence that Jesus has six disciples at this point? (The pots themselves, connected with the Old Covenant purification rites, are surely also rich with symbolism.) What about the 38 years? That happens to be the number of years Israel was wandering in the wilderness. Significant? I think so.
In John 4, it’s the sixth hour (4:6) and then later Jesus mentions another hour (4:21) ï¿½ six plus one being seven. The woman has had five husbands in the past and has one man right now who is not her husband (4:18), which makes six, and Jesus is there as the seventh man, the bridegroom (3:29). Is there something symbolic going on here? Quite possibly. (Warren Gage would point out that this passage is chiastically related to Revelation 17, where the mountains are seven kings, five fallen, one is, and the other hasn’t yet come. Make of that what you will.)
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the other numbers Bredenhof mentions have symbolic significance.
For that matter, consider John’s Gospel as a whole. John starts, deliberately, by echoing Genesis 1 and then goes on to present seven days.
Then he tells us about Jesus’ first sign and Jesus’ second sign … and stops numbering. But if you keep counting, you end up with the seventh sign being the cross and the eighth the resurrection. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Speculation? I don’t think so. It’s John who told us to count the signs, after all.
And is it just a coincidence that on the sixth day, at the end of the book, Pilate says, “Behold the man,” that Jesus rests the seventh day, that Jesus rises the first (eighth) day?
If John is doing that kind of number symbolism elsewhere in the book ï¿½ let alone the fact that he does it in Revelation and that other writers do it elsewhere in the Bible ï¿½ why can’t he be doing number symbolism here?
John could have said, “We caught lots and lots of fish.” He didn’t. He deliberately recorded the tally. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t claim to understand the symbolism here. But I suspect the number is symbolic. And I’m pretty sure it’s doing more than simply letting us know John was an eyewitness.
Another snippet from Borges‘ “Autobiographical Essay.” He’s been talking about a friend of his, a philosopher and conversationalist of a rather eccentric bent:
Macedonio was fond of composing small oral catalogs of people of genius, and in one of them I was amazed to find the name of a very lovable lady of our acquaintance, Quica Gonzalez Acha de Tomkinson Alvear. I stared at him open-mouthed. I somehow did not think Quica ranked with Hume and Schopenhauer. But Macedonio said, “Philosophers have had to try and explain the universe, while Quica simply feels and understands it.” He would turn to her and ask, “Quica, what is Being?” Quica would answer, “I don’t know what you mean, Macedonio.” “You see,” he would say to me, “she understands so perfectly that she cannot even grasp the fact that we are puzzled.” This was his proof of Quica’s being a woman of genius. When I later told him he might say the same of a child or a cat, Macedonio took it angrily (pp. 229-230).
Mark Horne raises a few questions about the status of his marriage, and indirectly makes some telling points about the efficacy of ceremonies and rituals.
Here’s Borges on his critics:
People have been unaccountably good to me. I have no enemies, and if certain persons have masqueraded as such, they’ve been far too good-natured to have ever pained me. Any time I read something written against me, I not only share the sentiment but feel I could do the job far better myself. Perhaps I should advise would-be enemies to send me their grievances beforehand, with full assurance that they will receive my every aid and support. I have even secretly longed to write, under a pen name, a merciless tirade against myself. Ah, the unvarnished truths I harbor! (p. 259).
Later on in his “Autobiographical Essay,” Borges talks about going blind:
My blindness had been coming on gradually since childhood. It was a slow, summer twilight. There was nothing particularly pathetic or dramatic about it. Beginning in 1927, I had undergone eight eye operations, but since the late 1950’s, when I wrote my “Poem of the Gifts,” for reading and writing purposes I have been blind. Blindness ran in my family; a description of the operation performed on the eyes of my great-grandfather, Edward Young Haslam, appeared in the pages of the London medical journal, the Lancet. Blindness also seems to run among the directors of the National Library. Two of my eminent forerunners, Jose Marmol and Paul Groussac, suffered the same fate. In my poem, I speak of God’s splendid irony in granting me at one time 800,000 books and darkness.One salient consequence of my blindness was my gradual abandonment of free verse in favor of classical metrics. In fact, blindness made me take up the writing of poetry again. Since rough drafts were denied me, I had to fall back on memory. It is obviously easier to remember verse than prose, and to remember regular verse forms rather than free ones. Regular verse is, so to speak, portable. One can walk down the street or be riding the subway while composing and polishing a sonnet, for rhyme and meter have mnemonic virtues (p. 250).
In fact, when in 1953 my present publisher â€” Emece â€” proposed to bring out my “complete writings,” the only reason I accepted was that it would allow me to keep those preposterous volumes suppressed. This reminds me of Mark Twain’s suggestion that a fine library could be started by leaving out the works of Jane Austen, and that even if that library contained no other books it would still be a fine library, since her books were left out (pp. 230-231).
I don’t agree with Twain, and I don’t know that Borges does either, but I found that comment amusing, and all the more so since Borges is applying the comment to his early works.
|“God will not suffer man to have the knowledge of things to come; for if he had prescience
of his prosperity he would be careless; and understanding of his adversity he would be senseless.”
A creation of Henderson
Actually, I kinda like being Augustine (though I have to admit that the questionnaire asks some odd questions and I didn’t like all the options).
Happy Valentine’s Day, Moriah! I love you very much.
(No, I don’t know why the heart is named Conrad. I do know that this gigantic chocolate heart “weighs approximately 2,028 pounds (922 kilograms), and stands 16.4 feet (5 meters) high and 16.4 feet (5 meters) in width.” It’s a bit larger than mine.)
I’m currently preaching through Philippians and I’ve come now to Philippians 3. One of the questions with which scholars struggle is the identity of the people Paul warns against in 3:2. Gordon Fee’s commentary on Philippians is perhaps the best one out there, but he hasn’t succeeded in convincing me of his interpretation of this verse.
Fee argues that Paul is referring here to Jewish Christians who are seeking to persuade Gentile Christians to be circumcised and to become Jews. He takes “the mutilation” as “an ironic reference to Gentile circumcision” (p. 296). That is, when Paul identifies these people as “the mutilation,” he means that by urging Gentiles to be physically circumcised, they are really mutilating them. They are the party that insists on mutilation, the mutilators.
That approach to the phrase “the mutilation,” however, doesn’t satisfy me exegetically. “The mutilation” in 3:2 is parallel to “the circumcision” in 3:3. In fact, Paul is making a play on words here: these people aren’t really the peritome (circumcision); they are the katatome (mutilation) while we â€” all who are in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile â€” are the true peritome, the true “circumcision.”
“The circumcision,” however, doesn’t refer to a group of people who are circumcising; rather, it refers to those who are truly circumcised. If “the mutilation” is parallel â€” and it is â€” then it cannot refer to people who are circumcising others or urging them to be circumcised; rather, it must refer to people who see themselves (wrongly, Paul would say) as circumcised. It’s not that they are mutilating the Gentiles or urging them to be mutilated; rather, they are themselves the mutilated.
So who are the people against whom Paul warns in 3:2? It appears to me that they must be those Jews who pride themselves in being the true covenant people of God, whose status is marked out by their circumcision, and who therefore set themselves against the church of Jesus Christ. The church, Paul says, is a rival claimant to that status. Those who are in Christ â€” whether Jew or Gentile â€” are the true circumcision, the true covenant people of God.
Note well: Paul is not warning the church to watch out for people who are ethnically Jewish, people who are biologically descended from Abraham or who have been grafted into the Jewish people. There isn’t a trace of racial prejudice in what Paul says. His concern is whether we boast in the flesh or in Christ.
It is also emphatically not that God has abandoned the Jews and is now working with the Gentiles. The church is made up of Jew and Gentile, and the true circumcision includes Jews as well as Gentiles.
It is also not the case that Paul regards all circumcision as mutilation. Paul himself had Timothy circumcised. Paul has no objection to circumcision so long as it is not boasted in as if it is the thing that marks one out as belonging to God’s true covenant people, the people whom God declares righteous now and whom he will vindicate and glorify in the final judgment.
It seems to me, then, that Paul is warning the Philippians not to Judaize, that is, not to be circumcised, not to start observing the Torah. He has taken that path as far as it can go (3:4ff.) and it doesn’t lead to glory. “Don’t take the step of becoming Jews, as if that is what is going to lead to justification, vindication, and final glorification,” Paul is saying. “Those who boast in their circumcision, in their Torah-keeping, aren’t really the true circumcision at all. We, who are in Christ, are.”
But at the same time, he’s also subtly teaching the Gentiles in the congregation how to view their own status as Roman citizens â€” and he’s warning us, too, not to put out trust in flesh, in our descent, in all the things that are true of us apart from Christ.
In Christ, we are God’s covenant people. In him, we are declared righteous; we have a righteous status by faith in him and not by anything that we do. And in Christ, we also will be raised from the dead and conformed to the pattern of Christ’s glorious body. In Christ, therefore, we inherit all the promises made to Abraham and to Israel â€” and for the sake of being found in him, we count everything else that’s true of us apart from him to be skubala (rubbish, refuse, dung, if you want a polite translation).