Whenever I have talked about the story of Jesus and the leper in Mark 1:40-44 on the blog — most recently a week or so ago — I have gotten a number of comments from readers that made me realize that I wasn’t being at all clear about what I was talking about.
These comments came from people who appear to have thought I was talking about a historical event that really happened, one way or the other, and that I was trying to figure out which it was. Did Jesus really get angry or did he really feel compassion? In response to my view that Mark 1:41 originally indicated that Jesus got angry, some comments stressed that what really mattered was not his emotion but the fact that he did what he did. Others wanted me to know that it didn’t matter to them which emotion was ascribed to Jesus, because in their opinion the whole thing never actually happened at all.
Both of these views (they’re obviously at the opposite ends of the spectrum) thought I was discussing historical realities. But that’s not what I was talking about. I too don’t believe the episode “actually” happened (i.e., that it’s a historical episode from the life of the man Jesus himself). It’s a story found in one of the Gospels. And I was studying it as a story.
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that my students often have trouble differentiating between literature and history when studying the NT – that is, differentiating between the question of what an author (say, of a Gospel) was trying to communicate and what really took place in the past. But these are not the same thing. And so I stress with my students that some ways of studying the Gospels are concerned with knowing what the author wanted to communicate, and other ways are concerned with knowing what Jesus really said and did.
Some people aren’t interested in that distinction, because for them the ONLY thing that matters is what actually happened. If Jesus didn’t heal this guy at all, what’s the point of even talking about it?!? Other people (fewer, I think) aren’t interested in the distinction because for them the ONLY thing that matters is the text in front of us. For them: we don’t have the past, all we have are texts, and so we should focus on the text, not on some supposed history that lies behind it. I know a number of theologians, preachers, and biblical interpreters who have that view (but not too many layfolk).
Others of us are interested in BOTH things. But it is of utmost importance that, if that’s the case, we make the distinctions crystal clear. Understanding what Mark (or any other ancient author) said about Jesus is not the same thing as asking about what Jesus really said and did.
But – to take on the first set of people not interested in the distinction – why in the world would it matter how Mark portrayed an incident in Jesus’ life if it didn’t happen? Who cares about the story if it’s just a story with no bearing on historical reality?
I suppose I used to ask the same question when I was a conservative evangelical Christian, but I have to admit that now I wonder how I could even ask such a thing. I read fiction all the time. I *love* fiction. And I love it even if the fictional characters never lived. And I learn a lot from it. The “historical truth” of the plot and characters has nothing to do with what I can get from it. No one needs to think that King Lear, or David Copperfield, or Owen Meany (to pick three of my all time favorite characters from the 17th, 19th, and 20th centuries!) actually lived in order to read, re-read, think about, and study the books that tell of their “lives.” In each case, the details of the portrayal are very important (was Jesus compassionate or ticked off? It really matters for Mark’s portrayal).
Someone may object (many have!) that with the stories of Jesus it’s different, because there we are dealing with a historical figure, not a fictional creation, and so what matters in stories about historical figures is what really happened. That too is not true, I think. My wife right now is writing a book on Shakespeare’s tragedies. It’s true that Macbeth never lived. But Julius Caesar did. Juliet never lived. But Cleopatra did. The way a Shakespeare scholar studies Macbeth (or Romeo and Juliet) is not essentially different from the way she studies the play Julius Caesar (or Antony and Cleopatra). She studies it as a literary text, even if it is based on a historical figure.
Now, for those who think that the ONLY way to study a text – whether Shakespeare or the Bible – is to treat it as a literary creation, and that, as a consequence the history behind the text doesn’t matter, I would say this. Some of us (not all of us) are interested not only in literary texts but also in history. We want to know what happened in the past. Especially with important figures (Julius Caesar, Jesus, and Joan of Arc). And our literary sources for these figures (not Shakespeare so much, but the sources that *he* used – e.g., Plutarch) can provide us information on what actually happened in their lives.
But what if the sources we want to use were not *written* in order to give us disinterested “historical accounts” of what “really” happened? Can we use them to know what happened in the past? Yes we can, but to do so we need to use these sources gingerly and critically, with solid historical criteria to get behind what they “say” to the historical events themselves. It’s not easy, but it’s what historians DO. And why do they do it? Because some of us are interested not only in literature but also in history. And why shouldn’t we be? There’s no law saying what a person should be interested in. And texts like the Gospels can provide us information, not only about what each Gospel writer (and his sources) wanted to say about Jesus – i.e., their own theologically-religiously construed understanding about Jesus – but also about the man himself as an actual person who lived in first century Palestine. Since these are two different interests (literary and historical), asking two different sets of questions, they will require two different sets of methods – for studying one and the same text.
So to repeat: as a historian, I have reason to think that Jesus didn’t actually heal the leper, so that he didn’t actually feel either compassion or anger at the event. But as a literary scholar I am interested in how Mark portrayed the event. And that’s what I was trying to get at in my posts on the topic.
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