March 18, 2004

Narrative Space and Mythic Meaning in Mark

Category: Bible - NT - Mark :: Permalink

The other week, I read through Elizabeth Struthers Malbon’s Narrative Space and Mythic Meaning in Mark. On the whole, I found Malbon’s work much more helpful than either Smith‘s or Rhoads and Michie‘s.

Malbon’s treatment, however, seems to be valuable, not because of but rather in spite of the theory which undergirds it. Malbon is following in the footsteps of Claude Levi-Strauss, whose theory about myths is that “myth operates to mediate irreconcilable opposites by successively replacing them by opposites that do permit mediation. In other words, myth is a way of thinking that involves the progressive mediation of a fundamental opposition” (pp. 2-3).

In yet other words, a myth always seeks to mediate two things that are really complete opposites. To do that, the myth talks about two other things which represent the irreconcilable opposites. Those two other things are slightly closer together. As the story progresses, however, those two not-so-irreconcilable opposites get replaced by two more things which are even closer together and even less radically opposed. And eventually, toward the end of the story, there is a sort of mediation, bringing together two things which aren’t that far apart but which represent the previous set of opposites which represent the previous set, and so forth, all the way back to the two irreconcilable opposites which the story was created to mediate.

Clear as mud? Well, I can’t say that Malbon’s opening chapter, in which she set forth this approach, was all that clear to me either. But as she went along, applying this approach to Mark’s Gospel, what she meant became clearer. I should point out, as Malbon herself does, that she isn’t claiming Mark’s Gospel is myth; rather, she thinks the structure of the gospel may be similar to that of the myths Levi-Strauss examines.

Here’s how it works in practice. As you read through Mark, you notice that the first part of Mark involves the sea and the land. The land itself is either foreign land or Jewish homeland. And the Jewish homeland is either Galilee or Judea.

Malbon posits that the basic contrast, which is outside the story and which itself is irreconcilable, is between order and chaos. In the story, which seeks to mediate these opposites, order is represented by the land and chaos by the sea. That fairly radical contrast is replaced in turn by the contrast between the Jewish homeland (order, land) and the foreign lands (chaos, sea). Finally, that not-so-radical contrast is replaced by a contrast which is much more easily mediated, namely the contrast between Galilee (order, land, Jewish homeland) and Judea (chaos, sea, foreign lands). Now the fascinating thing, as Malbon points out, is that we’d expect Judea to be on the side of order and Galilee (“Galilee of the Gentiles”) to be lined up with chaos, but in Mark’s Gospel it’s the other way around and that means that Mark is standing some of our expectations on the head (as Jesus did).

Well, fascinating as it may be, I don’t buy it. For one thing, I don’t know how we get from these opposites in the story to the contrast between order and chaos outside the story. Why pick that particular contrast? To be fair, some of the extra-textual contrasts which Malbon posits make more sense, but the positing of extra-textual contrasts in general seems suspect.

For another thing, the whole approach seems to be a matter of imposing a scheme on the text. Malbon wants to see everything in the text, it seems, in terms of contrasts (with occasional intermediaries, such as mountains which mediate between earth and heaven). I can’t say that I’m even all that clear as to how the supposed mediation is taking place in her approach or, for that matter (and it’s no small matter) exactly how Jesus fits into all of this.

Nevertheless, in spite of Malbon’s questionable theory, I did find the book quite helpful. Malbon focuses closely, as her title suggests, on narrative space. She spends a chapter on geopolitical space in Mark (e.g., Galilee, Judea, foreign lands), another chapter on topography (e.g., mountains, sea, land), and a third on architectural space (e.g., synagogues, houses, tombs, temple). It’s interesting to think about the role space and the different kinds of space play in the Gospel of Mark.

For instance, much of the Gospel works with a contrast between Galilee and Judea. At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus goes from Galilee to Judea to be baptized by John and then returns to Galilee again, where He begins His work. That Galilee-Judea-Galilee pattern at the beginning of the Gospel appears later. As Malbon explains:

In addition to establishing a link with John, Jesus’ initial journey from Nazareth of Galilee to Judea, near Jerusalem, serves another function: it foreshadows Jesus’ final journey to Judea, to Jerusalem. In the beginning Jesus journeys to Judea to be baptized by John into a ministry that leads, in the end, to a journey to Jerusalem to be crucified. The Markan Jesus would appear to interpret the first journey as a metaphor for the second in asking James and John, “‘Are you able to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?'” (10:38). But Jesus’ initial return to Galilee from Judea also foreshadows Jesus’ final return to Galilee from the tomb in Judea (16:7). The crucial importance of 1:14 as the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry is generally recognized, but it must be noted that his ministry opens with a return to Galilee from Judea. In the opening of Mark, Jesus’ return to Galilee is reported; in the closing of Mark, Jesus’ return to Galilee is anticipated. At the initial return to Galilee, Jesus comes “preaching the gospel of God” (1:14). At the final return to Galilee, it would appear, Mark comes preaching “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). The preaching of Mark follows the preaching of Jesus, which follows the preaching of John (pp. 24-25).

Cool stuff. I’ve often wondered about that rather mysterious return to Galilee at the end of Mark’s Gospel, and Malbon’s explanation is helpful. Jesus’ first return led to preaching and mission (including mission to foreign lands) and opposition. Jesus’ second return will lead to the disciples’ preaching and mission (including mission to the Gentiles) and opposition. They also will have to take up their crosses and they may die. But the mission will continue.

Malbon also points out a parallel between the healing of the Gerasene demoniac and Jesus’ later work:

Among tombs lived the Gerasene demoniac, though his life was more death than life; his possession by a legion of unclean spirits had exiled him beyond society, beyond the realm of the living. As the tombs among which he lived (5:2, 3, 5) foreshadow the tombs of John (6:29) and Jesus (15:46a, 46b; 16:2, 3, 5, 8 ), so his departure from the tombs, his renewal of life through Jesus, his return to the realm of the living to preach, foreshadow Jesus’ response to the tomb (p. 115).

One of the oppositions which Malbon sees in Mark is the one between the synagogue and the house. She posits that the synagogue represents sacred space and the house profane space. Well, maybe. But the interesting thing is that in the early part of Mark’s Gospel, the house seems to parallel the synagogue and then, at a certain point (6:4ff.) to replace it:

Initially in the Gospel of Mark, the actions enclosed by a house parallel those enclosed by a synagogue. Jesus enters a house and heals “immediately” after having left the synagogue where he has healed (1:29). “At home” (2:1) Jesus preaches and heals. So many come to Jesus that the house cannot contain them; they spill out the door (1:33; 2:2). Jesus’ table fellowship with “tax collectors and sinners” in his home (2:15) disturbs the scribes, and later his family “at home” (3:20; RSV 319) joins the scribes in being disturbed at Jesus’ activity. Following that controversy, Jesus is no longer reported to be in his own home, but he continues to heal in the houses of those who call out to him (5:38). After healing persons, Jesus frequently sends them to their homes (2:11; 5:19), but the healer himself, like a prophet, is rejected “in his own house” (6:4).Jesus has declared his family to be “‘whoever does the will of God'” (3:35), and he appears to have that family in mind in sending his disciples out among houses not their own (6:10). Wherever Jesus goes now, the house replaces the synagogue as the architectural setting for teaching; the questioning disciples replace the accusing scribes as listeners (7:17; 9:28, 33; 10:10); the new community has a new “gathering place” (p. 118).

Later on, the disciples will follow that same pattern: controversy in synagogues will lead to being outside the synagogues (13:9) and eventually they will also need to flee their houses (13:15).

A bit later in that chapter, Malbon spends some time on the significance of Jesus’ leaving the Temple to sit on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple (ch. 13), which makes clear the contrast between the Temple (which will be destroyed and the band of disciples around Jesus (pp. 123-124). Malbon, rightly I think, sees a parallel between Jesus’ departure from the Temple to sit on the Mount of Olives and the departure of the LORD’s glory-cloud from the Temple to the Mount of Olives in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek. 11:23) (p. 161).

Those are just a few of the neat things Malbon points out. One doesn’t need to buy into her scheme or into Levi-Strauss’s approach to appreciate Malbon’s invitation to meditate on space in Mark’s Gospel. There’s a lot worth thinking about here!

Posted by John Barach @ 4:14 pm | Discuss (0)

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