Archive for August, 2013

Allegoresis: A Reader I probably won’t compile, though it is tempting

Sometimes – usually when I’m procrastinating on an overdue project – I like to dream up other ideas for things to work on. Recently I’ve been thinking about the practice of allegorical interpretation – as distinct from allegorical composition, in which someone composes a story with intended latent significance – and I’ve dreamed up a list of readings that I’d think about using for a graduate seminar, or even an edited book of readings on the theme. I probably won’t have the chance to do either of those things, but I thought I’d share my hit list in case others want to make use of it. So often one reads about a topic without engaging the signal works in the history of the topic directly, so I’ve tried to think about some key representative or justly famous primary sources from antiquity to the high medieval period.


Readings in the Theory and Practice of Allegorical Interpretation from Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Part I: Classical Antiquity

1. Derveni papyrus (4th c. BCE, Orphic texts with allegorical commentary, esp. col. VII and following, for this see, Richard Janko, “The Derveni Papyrus (Diagoras of Melos, Apopyrgizontes logoi?): A New Translation,” Classical Philology 96 (2001): 1-32).

2. Heraclitus, selections from Homeric Problems, ed. D. A. Russell and David Konstan, 2005 [‘the first translation into English of the most extended example of pagan allegorical criticism to survive from classical antiquity’, xxv].

3. Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, selections from the Compendium of Greek Theology. See Robert Stephen Hays, “Lucius Annaeus Cornutus’ Epidromē (Introduction to the Traditions of Greek Theology): Introduction, Translation, and Notes,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Universtiy of Texas at Austin, 1983. Esp. the translation on 56-121.

4. Ps.-Plutarch, selections from Essay on the Life and Poetry of Homer (1996 ed by J J Keaney and Robert Lamberton).

Part II: Late Antiquity

5. Porphyry, On the Cave of the Nymphs, Robert Lamberton, trans. (Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1983).

6. Selections from the edited and translated collection, Jan Ziolkowski and Michael C. J. Putnam,The Virgilian Tradition (YUP, 2008).

7. Macrobius, selections from Commentary on the Dream of Scipio. Cf. W H Stahl, Commentary on the ‘Dream of Scipio’ by Macrobius (Records of Western Civilization; Columbia University Press, 1990, orig. 1952 or 1955). Book I?

8. Proclus, selections from On the Republic. [5th. c.]; See Robert Lamberton, Proclus the Successor on Poetics and the Homeric Poems: Essays 5 and 6 of His Commentary on the Republic of Plato (WGRW; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012).

III. Jewish Traditions

9. Aristobulus. Cf. C. R. Holladay, Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish Authors, volume 3: Aristobulus (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1995).

10. Philo, either Allegorical Interpretation of the Laws book 1, or The Migration of Abraham in the Loeb Classical Library translation .

11. Selections from the Midrash Rabbah on Genesis and Song of Songs (Soncino edition)

12. Saadia Gaon, selection from The Book of Beliefs and Opinions (Yale Judaica Series; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948)

13. Maimonides, Introduction to The Guide of the Perplexed; Shlomo Pines, trans., Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

14. Zohar (e.g., 3.202a or 3.152, etc.; either Pritzker edition or some of the selections Gershom Scholem published in his Zohar: The Book of Splendor [New York: Schocken Books, 1963])

IV. Christian Traditions

15. Paul, Gal 4, 1 Cor 10, 2 Cor 3

16. Origen, Peri Archon, book 4 (Butterworth translation)

17. Augustine, De Doctrina, book 3 (Edmund Hill’s translation in the New City Press edition)

18. Ps-Dionysius, Mystical Theology, ch. 1. Cf. J. Jones, tr., Pseudo-Dionysius: The Divine Names and Mystical Theology (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1980).

19. John Cassian, selections from the Conferences (e.g., 14).

20. Gregory the Great, Dedicatory Letter to the Moralia in Job.

21. (Ps.-)Bernardus Silvestris. Selections. See E. G. Schreiber and T. E. Maresca, trans.,Commentary on The First Six Books of Virgil’s Aeneid by Bernardus Silvestris (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1979).

22. Later Christian commentator on Scripture, possibly taken from Denys Turner, Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs (Cistercian Studies 156; Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1995).

V. Muslim Traditions

23. An Early Ta’wil Commentator on the Qur’an; cf. Michael A. Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism(Classics of Western Spirituality; New York: Paulist, 1996).

24. The Book of the Prophet Muhammad’s Ascent to Heaven (Mi’râj Nâma), translated by P. Heath in Allegory and Philosophy in Avicenna (Ibn Sînâ: With a Translation of the Book of the Prophet Muhammad’s Ascent to Heaven (The Middle Ages Series; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), 111-43.

25. Al Ghazali, in W. H. T. Gairdner, Al-Ghazzali’s Miskat al-Anwar (The Niche of Lights)(Royal Asiatic Society Monographs 19; London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1924), 43-98.


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An apocryphal Socratic saying

The phrase, “the hottest love has the coldest end” has been around the block. It’s even featured in a Drake song. I just saw it on Facebook attributed, as it is most often elsewhere, to Socrates, but never with a specific source.

This seems suspiciously un-Socratic to me, so I started googling. In the 19th century a bunch of anthologies of quotations attribute it to Socrates (starting with an 1825 anthology by John Anliss), but again, never with a reference to an ancient source. The earliest I’ve been able to trace the quote (via this article) is to a 1587 novel by George Pettie, Petite Pallace of Pettie His Pleasure (apparently plagiarised by a contemporary, Robert Greene). Pettie writes, ‘the greatest flowe hath the soonest ebbe: the sorest tempest hath the most sodaine calm: the hottest love hath the coldest end: and of the deepest desire oftentimes ensueth the deadliest hate.’

I might be wrong, and someone who knows the Socratic traditions better than I can set me straight, but I would wager that this eventually got ascribed to Socrates because it sounds like something a wise person would say, and who could be wiser than Socrates? In the same way, we see today a myriad of apocryphal quotations  ascribed to Lincoln or MLK. This is at least in part because attributing a quote to ‘George Pettie’ (who?) doesn’t carry the same gravitas.

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Citation indices in Biblical Studies

In many fields – especially in the sciences – it’s not uncommon to judge the success of an argument on, in part, the number of citations it receives. The most highly cited scientific paper has something close to 300,000 citations, which is amazing. Certain rankings of universities also use citation frequency indicators to rank schools on the basis of the academic output and significance of its faculty’s research.

One can see how this would make a lot of sense, particularly within an agreed discipline, but it becomes immediately problematic as soon as one compares across disciplines, not least because the number of people working in each discipline varies wildly.

Biblical studies is a small field, so I started to wonder, what range might one expect for the number of citations in, say, New Testament studies? There are different ways in which one can calculate citations, including subscription-based databases like Thomson Reuters’ Web of Knowledge, but this can also be done via Google Scholar. For determining the relative frequency of citation, it’s probably fine to use any single database, even if the ‘absolute’ figures might not be spot on.

So I decided to look for some hugely influential works in Pauline studies and see what number of citations they had:

Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989): 462 times.

E P Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977): 796 times.

JDG Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul” (1983): 111 times.

K. Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” (1963): 221 times, with another 310 citations of the book in which it was reprinted, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles.

J. Barclay, “Mirror-Reading a Polemical Letter,” (1987): 84 times.

L. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ (2005): 200 times.

M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (ET 1974): 352 (plus a couple hundred in other editions, including the German)

So taking all this into consideration, we can see that even the most profoundly influential, field-altering works in New Testament do not break 1,000 citations on the Google Scholar index. This also means that if a book or article were to best, say, 50 citations, it is probably very influential, with those breaking 100 immensely so.



Review of Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery

Further to my last post on pseudepigraphy, my review of Bart Ehrman’s Forgery and Counterforgery is now up over at The Marginalia Review of Books.


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Evangelicals, Pseudonymity and the New Testament Today

There have been some interesting developments in the study of pseudepigraphy in evangelical circles over the past couple of decades. I’m speaking mostly as a sympathetic observer, since I confess I haven’t been keeping up with lots of evangelical scholarship – much of which is increasingly excellent – in the same way I once did. What one means, of course, by ‘evangelical’ is a tricky subject and one on which I won’t here embark. I intend the term in a sociological and theological sense, thinking particularly of conservative Protestant North American scholarship, with some connection to analogous though not identical movements in the UK.

For a long time in evangelical circles, to hold to pseudonymous authorship – particularly in the NT – was anathema. J. I. Packer, in discussing the possible pseudonymity of the Pastoral Epistles, wrote in 1958 in a way that many of his evangelical contemporaries would have endorsed:

if the Pastorals did not come from within the original apostolic circle, then they are no part of the authoritative exposition of the faith which Christ inspired His apostles to give for the guidance of the universal Church, and so they are not canonical….if the Pastorals are Scripture, then their claim to authorship, like all their other assertions, should be received as truth from God; and one who rejects this claim ought also to deny that they are Scripture, for what he is saying is that they have not the nature of Scripture, since they make false statements.[i]

Many since have taken up the cause of shoring up convictions about orthonymous authorship of the NT. One need only browse the NT Introductions (that of D. Guthrie above all, who made this a special interest) or virtually any evangelical commentary on the disputed books to see these arguments in action.

But then, convinced, presumably, by the arguments of critical scholars about the pseudonymous authorship of some NT texts, certain evangelicals – particularly of British extraction or training – began to argue for models of pseudepigraphy that were non-deceptive. Most influentially, J. D. G. Dunn’s student, David Meade, suggested that pseudepigraphy was a sort of accepted literary convention, known in Jewish circles from the prophetic schools, wisdom and apocalyptic traditions, and was, in a von Rad-ian style, a means of updating or actualizing (Vergegenwärtigung) the author’s voice for a new day with new concerns.[ii] Other prominent broadly evangelical scholars who endorsed some form of pseudepigraphy in the Bible (though varying in the precise ways in which they see it functioning) include Richard Bauckham, I. Howard Marshall, Andrew Lincoln and John Goldingay – once more, a notably British list.[iii]

Others, however, and perhaps the majority of North American evangelical scholars (though of course not exclusively North American), rejected these attempts to see pseudepigraphy enshrined in the canon. These arguments were multi-faceted and wide-ranging, but one finds a recurrent appeal to the dubious valuation of forgery in the ancient world – scoring a point against Meade’s suggestion that the notion of ‘intellectual property’ was sufficiently hazy in antiquity to preclude the idea that pseudonymity would be deceptive.

Some, like Conrad Gempf, countenanced the theological legitimacy of a position like Meade’s, but demurred on historical grounds.[iv] Others, like E. Earle Ellis, were more pronounced in their rejection of the very possibility of canonical pseudepigraphy. Ellis writes:

apostolic pseudepigrapha were a tainted enterprise from the start.  At no point in the church’s early history could they avoid the odor of forgery. Only when the deception was successful were they accepted for reading in church, and when they were found out, they were excluded, for example 2 Peter, by the minority who regarded it as pseudonymous. In the light of these factors scholars cannot have it both ways. They cannot identify apostolic letters as pseudepigrapha and at the same time declare them to be innocent products with a right to a place in the canon.[v]

In the claim that pseudepigraphy was not an ‘accepted literary device’ or an open secret between author and audience, but rather involved the author’s attempt to deceive the audience, Ellis’s view has been supported by the work of a number of other evangelical scholars, including most notably Jeremy Duff, A. D. Baum, and T. L. Wilder. In this, these scholars also agree with much work by non-evangelical scholars on the moral valence of forgery in antiquity – including Wolfgang Speyer, Norbert Brox and Bart Ehrman. In a 2004 essay, Annette Merz could breezily speak of this as ‘the majority scholarly position’.

This conflict was writ small in an exchange between Stanley Porter and Robert Wall in the Bulletin for Biblical Research in 1995. Wall opted for a canonical approach and suggested that the modern questions about authorship should be side-lined in order to focus on the constructive message of the letters themselves within the corpus Paulinum. In contrast, Porter contended that

If the church (and the scholars within it) is no longer willing to accept the Pastoral Epistles as written by Paul, perhaps it should, rather than creating strained theological justifications for their continued canonical presence, eliminate them as forgeries that once deceived the church but will do so no more.[vi]

Arguably in all this we see two sets of convictions in operation, both of which draw their conclusions from judicious assessment of the evidence. On the one hand, there are those who have become convinced by the standard arguments for the pseudonymity of certain books in the NT, and so have attempted to find some historical rationale for pseudepigraphy that would not threaten the canon. On the other hand, we have scholars who have taken seriously the virtually unanimous testimony of ancient authors that forgery is considered morally dubious and to be rejected, and so have attempted to argue that it must not therefore exist within the NT. Both parties seem to agree that it would be theologically problematic to hold that a) there are pseudonymous books in the NT and b) deception is a component part of pseudonymity.

But what happens to those who are convinced by half of each group’s argument, and so believe both a) and b)? My prediction is that more and more evangelical scholars will find themselves in this dilemma. Quite possibly, many of them  already do, but keep quiet because of institutional pressures, choosing not to publish on such topics that would cause controversy in their circles. But this is a question that will not go away, because the historical data does not easily resolve in favour of one party’s conviction against another.

Those who believe, as I do, that pseudonymity is a deceptive practice and is found within the canon need not collapse into a histrionic fit of canon rejection, threatened though this is by historical foundationalists like Ellis and Porter. There are probably a variety of theological strategies by which one can cope with this potential cognitive dissonance. I have my own thoughts, but will leave those for another time. The main point I wish to make here is that evangelical scholars (and others, of course) will need to face up to both sets of arguments and the historical data upon which they rest, and come up with a constructive way forward.

[i] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 184.

[ii] See notably David C. Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon (WUNT 39; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1986; repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), taken up by J.D.G. Dunn, The Living Word (2nd. ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009 [orig. 1987]), 53-69.

[iii] There are certainly others who could be mentioned. For example, Arthur G. Patzia, “The Deutero-Pauline Hypothesis: An Attempt at Clarification,” Evangelical Quarterly 52.1 (1980): 27-42; cf. idem, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (NIBC; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1990), 8-10, 121-44. Patzia holds that Colossians is probably genuine, Eph depends on Col and is deutero-Pauline.  He concludes, “Rather than looking at the problem as a case of right or wrong, one needs to appreciate that though both sides are sincere in their approach, everybody possesses certain theological presuppositions that affect the approach to an understanding of God’s Word and, in this case, the Epistle to the Ephesians. Above all, one should avoid concluding that deutero-Pauline authorship of Ephesians makes this a false document that, consequently, has no inspiration, validity, or authority for the church today. Once the motives of a deutero-Paulinist are properly understood and appreciated, Ephesians can speak to the church with the same authority as Paul himself” (Ephesians, 127-28).

[iv] C. Gempf, “Pseudonymity and the New Testament,” Themelios 17.2 (1992): 8-10: “Although inspiration by the Holy Spirit and false claims of authorship do not seem to us to be compatible, we cannot, I think, exclude the possibility that God would work through such literary conventions. Pseudonymity need be only as deceitful as a parable, if the audience knows what’s coming.” (10). But he then stresses that he thinks this is unlikely given the negative judgments on pseudonymity in antiquity. “But, and this is important, I do not think that pseudonymity can be ruled out as a serious possibility. The cases against the traditional authorship of 2 Peter and the Pastorals in particular are strong and not easily dismissed. In the end, though, the books’ place in the canon was secured not by their authentic authorship claims but by their being inspired by the Holy Spirit. And we must always remember that his ways need not be our ways. In the light of the practice of ancient cultures, therefore, we must not take the point of view that anyone who thinks there are pseudonymous books in the NT necessarily has something wrong with their view of biblical authority.” (10).

[v] E. E. Ellis, “Pseudonymity and Canonicity of New Testament Documents,” in Worship, Theology, and Ministry in the Early Church (ed. M. J. Wilkins and T. Paige; JSNTSS 87; Sheffield: JSOT, 1992), 212- 24, here 224.

[vi] S. E. Porter, ‘Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: Implications for Canon’, Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995) 105-124; R. W. Wall, ‘Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: A Response to S.E. Porter’, BBR 5 (1995) 125-128; Porter, ‘Pauline Authorship and the Pastoral Epistles: A Response to R. W. Wall’s Response,” BBR 6 (1996): 133-38. For another statement of a Porter-like position, see E. Schnabel, “History, Theology and the Biblical Canon: An Introduction to Basic Issues,” Themelios 20.2 (1995): 16-24. Note also Wall’s later developments of his ideas: Robert W. Wall, ‘The Function of the Pastoral Letters within the Pauline Canon of the New Testament: A Canonical Approach,’ in S. E. Porter, ed., The Pauline Canon (ed. S. E. Porter; Pauline Studies 1; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004), 27-44, and presumably in his commentary on the Pastorals in the Two Horizons Series (2012) which I have yet to read.

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Ἀντιπᾶς as symbolic name in Rev. 2.13?

I should preface this post – and probably lots of my others – by clarifying that I sometimes use this space to jot down thoughts that are wildly speculative, unlikely to be correct, and just a bit of fun. I’d hate for someone to form a picture of my work based simply on the bizarre musings here. But it’s fun now and then to ponder ideas that are too unformed or improbable to make it into print.

So here’s one such wildly speculative thought: might Antipas be a symbolic name in Rev. 2.13? Three points to consider:

1. The name Ἀντιπᾶς is grammatically odd in the context of Rev 2.12-13, apparently genitive in function but nominative in form. G. Mussies (‘Antipas’, Novum Testamentum 7 (1964): 242-44), in a learned note, had suggested that the name was being treated as indeclinable, but others have pointed out that the name is declined elsewhere. Moulton, Howard & Turner merely call it a Semitism, though this isn’t terribly enlightening. Greg Beale once made a study of ‘Solecisms in the Apocalypse as Signals for the Presence of Old Testament Allusions’, in which he suggested that solecisms in Revelation (and there are several) are authorial devices that arise from a desire not to obscure an important OT reference. In his commentary on Rev 2:13, Beale in fact suggests that this solecism is intended to point back to 1:4-5 (note v. 5 in particular: ἀπὸ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὁ μάρτυς, ὁ πιστός, ὁ πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν καὶ ὁ ἄρχων τῶν βασιλέων τῆς γῆς, where one would expect genitives following ἀπὸ). Beale writes, ‘Rather, like the solecisms in 1:4 and 5, where grammar also demands the genitive, the phrase here is kept in the nominative because it is part of the same OT allusion as 1:5….Again, the awkward nominative is a device directing attention to the OT allusion in order to make clear the identification of Antipas’s witness with that of Jesus’ (247).  Whether one wants to go all the way with Beale here or not, it does at least raise the question of whether there might be a rhetorical reason for the solecism of the name.

2. The name Antipas is of course a genuine name in Jewish antiquity (recall Herod Antipas, most obviously), though judging from the Duke Database of Documentary Papyri at least, Ἀντίπατρος was much more popular (and note the change of name from Antipas to Antipater noted in Josephus, Ant. 14.10, repeated later in Photius). The vast majority (though not all) of the literary references to an ‘Antipas’ are those in Josephus or later Christian authors referring to Rev 2:13. There is, however, enough inscriptional evidence to suggest the name was in common usage more broadly (e.g., IG II.2 2130; MAMA 9.57; 9.409; SEG 48:1260bis, etc.). So this could simply be the name of someone who lived and died in Pergamum in the first century. But it’s at least worth noting that all the other proper names in Rev 2-3 are chosen for their symbolic resonances: Satan, Balaam, Balak, Jezebel, David (though should one count the Nicolaitans in 2:6, 15?). These are names that connote larger stories, rather than specific historic individuals in the first century – even if they might stand for individuals. In this sense, it might be a bit odd, though not unimaginable, if Antipas is the only proper name  of a historical individual in these letters.

3. This leads me to the suggestion that Antipas might be a symbolic name, indicating in some sense the vicarious nature of the martyr’s death. In this understanding, it would be constructed as Ἀντι + πᾶς, that is, ‘on behalf of or in place of all’. It could then be analogous to the formation of the title, ἀντίχριστος (known at least in Johannine circles: 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7, as well as in other apocalyptic contexts, e.g., Apocalypse of Elijah, Apoc. Esdr., etc. ). That martyrdom can be seen as in some sense vicarious is well known from Jewish sources (2 and 4 Macc., T. Mos. 9-10, etc.) and above all from some of the earliest interpretations of the death of Jesus. But the idea of vicarious suffering doesn’t end in Christian circles after the death of Jesus. Rather, it continues on in various forms for some time. So, for example, Col 1:24 envisages a beneficial role for the sufferings of Paul toward the Colossians. And Ignatius – also from Asia Minor –  several times describes his suffering in vicarious terms (esp. his repeated use of the term ἀντίψυχον). So it’s entirely within the realm of theological possibility that this is a reference to vicarious martyrdom (though the word had probably μάρτυς not yet become a terminus technicus). That this suffering is already connected with that of Jesus is made obvious by the author from his use of the similar title (‘my faithful witness’).

So this may be a longshot, but putting this all together, one might suggest that John cast the death of a member of the community in Pergamum as a vicarious martyrdom by using a symbolic name (as all the names in these chapters are symbolic) and decided to preserve the nominal form in a solecism in order to call attention to the symbolism.


Trees Like People Walking Around: King-making in Judges and Mark

One of the most puzzling stories in Mark’s Gospel is the two-stage healing of a blind man at Bethsaida in 8:22-26. Jesus first tries to heal man with his saliva, but when asked if he can now see, the man replies, ‘I see people; they look like trees walking around’ (βλέπω τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ὅτι ὡς δένδρα ὁρῶ περιπατοῦντας). Jesus tries again, and this time the man can see clearly. The story, with the apparent misfire of Jesus’s healing mechanism, clearly puzzled early interpreters, and neither Matthew or Luke included the partial healing in their otherwise substantial appropriation of Mark.

Exegetes have long since noted the way in which this text forms a so-called Markan sandwich with 10:46-52, an episode in which Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus in one stroke.  So Mark places these healings as an inclusio around the teaching of discipleship in 8:27-10:45, and apparently intends to suggest that the partial sight that the disciples presently have of Jesus will be corrected through the teaching that follows. This interpretation, in turn, makes most sense of the following scene, widely seen to be pivotal to Mark’s presentation of Jesus. In 8.27-30, Jesus poses to his disciples a question that has been building, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ The answers given are insufficient, and he asks them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answers him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ At last, the reader thinks, Peter has grasped, after perpetual misunderstanding, something that the audience has known since 1.1: Jesus is the Messiah. But immediately following this, Jesus offers the first of three so-called ‘passion predictions’ in 8.31 (the others follow in 9.31 and 10.33-34): ‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again’.  But as Mark portrays it, Jesus here, speaking to his disciples, says all this ‘quite openly’ – i.e., not in parables as so often. But in response to this clarity, Peter thinks Jesus mistaken and began to rebuke him. But Jesus turns and famously accuses Peter: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’, with the further clarification that Peter is thinking of things humanly instead of divinely. Given the prominence that the title, ‘Messiah’ has in Mark – it is sufficient to point to its presence in 1.1 – it is unlikely that Mark intends Jesus’ rebuke of Peter to indicate that ‘Messiah’ is an incorrect title. Rather, it is an objection to Peter’s apparently unreflective view that Messiahship should exclude a life of suffering. Which is to say: Peter and the other disciples are seeing things partially, their vision yet uncorrected. This coheres with the way in which Mark plays on Isaianic sense-perception malfunction language throughout his gospel (eyes that don’t see, ears that don’t hear, etc.).

All this is more or less uncontroversial, even if it would be impossible to say all exegetes agree on these points. But why does Mark use the language of ‘people like trees walking around’ to describe the blind man’s partial sight? Is this simply the metaphor that sprang unprompted to mind? Quite possibly. But in reading the LXX of Judges the other day, I was struck with the parable in 9:8-20, in which trees go out to anoint a king for themselves (πορευόμενα ἐπορεύθησαν τὰ ξύλα τοῦ χρῖσαι ἑαυτοῖς βασιλέα). Is it possible that this image suggested itself to Mark? The verbal parallels are not precise (πορευόμενα ἐπορεύθησαν vs. περιπατοῦντας; ξύλα vs. δένδρα), but these are precisely the kinds of substitutions one would expect in a reference mediated through the phenomena of secondary orality and memory recall. What is particularly striking is the fact that the trees in Judges are attempting to ‘anoint’ (χρῖσαι) a king for themselves, while immediately following this episode in Mark, Peter declares that Jesus is the χριστός. Arguably the content bracketed by Mark’s blindness inclusio functions to preclude a traditional, royal understanding of the Jesus’s messianic identity, and so can appropriately be described as offering a form of corrective Christology (without invoking the spectre of Weeden and his overblown corrective theories).

But if the Judges text is in view, then does the blind man actually see better than commentators have often thought? Has he, in his partial vision, had a true apprehension of what the disciples were concerned about? And does Mark subtly signal that this attempt at king-making must be exchanged for clearer sight through the prism of suffering?

The case is difficult to ‘prove’ but seems at least worthy of consideration.

UPDATE: Jim Aitken kindly points out that this insight was previously observed, and I’ve now tracked down the reference: R. S. Sugirtharajah, ‘Men, Trees and Walking: A Conjectural Solution to Mk 8:24,’ Expository Times 103 (1992): 172-74. It’s always nice to claim the testimony of two or three witnesses!

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