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Monday, March 4, 2013

Mimetic Criticism and the Gospel of Mark - Part 2 - A Literary Act of War


In the first installment of my review of my friend, Joel Watt’s book Mimetic Criticism and the Gospel of Mark[i] I noted that I am in a bit over my head; specifically in that I don’t speak or read Greek.  So in Part II of the book when Joel quoted from Josephus –and didn't translate the Greek- I floundered a bit.[ii]

My first response was: “to the internets!”  But that wasn't as helpful as I had anticipated.  The copies of Josephus available on the web all seem to use a different numbering system than the one from which Joel was quoting.  No problem.  I’ll just go to the library.  But the small town library here doesn't even have a copy of Josephus.  All right... no problem.  To the bookstore!  While in St Paul, Minnesota over the weekend, I stopped at Barnes and Nobel to pick up a copy – but they didn't have one either; neither could they locate one in any of the Barnes and Nobel locations in the entire Twin Cities area.  Good grief!

Fortunately the end of my quest was at hand.  Near the Barnes and Noble store was a Half Price Books store. And they had a marvelous hardback and illustrated copy of the complete works of Josephus for a mere $7.99.   It even includes a conversion table for the differing number systems as an index at the back.  Huzzah!  Now armed with an English translation and a way to find the appropriate portions of the text, I went once more into the breach.

In chapter 3 (His Kydoimos) Joel sets the stage for slicing open of Mark’s gospel with the tool of Mimetic Criticism – and this requires locating the gospel in an historical setting – the “when” of the gospel (which in turn, helps us to understand the “why” of the gospel.) 

All through the tangle of that desperate fray stalked slaughter and doom.  The incarnate Kydoimos raved through the rolling battle; at her side paced Death the ruthless, and the Fearful Fates, beside them strode, and in red hands bare murder and the groans of dying men.[iii]

Kydoimos, according to the ancient Greek poets and playwrights, was the personification, the incarnation, if you will, of the noise and din and chaos and cacophony of battle.  Mark’s gospel begins, not in silence, but in the shout and clamor of the battles and skirmishes of the Jewish revolt against Rome.  Joel uses the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus to describe the rising volume of that battle noise, beginning softly enough in the early years of the first century and crescendoing through the year 70 CE with the destruction of the Temple and of the city of Jerusalem and the failure of the Jewish revolt.

“The aftermath of a year of civil war, terrible news coming from Judea, the unlikely return of Jesus, and the coming news being marshaled out at the tip of a legionnaire’s sword that Vespasian was now declared the Jewish Messiah caused the leaderless Christian community to contemplate how – or even if they should – move forward…The choice for the proto-Christian community is simple –either a dead brigand or a live victorious general who became the emperor of the entire world in Judea with the proclamation of a new Pax Romana. This is Mark’s social crisis – where is Jesus?” [iv]

Mark’s gospel is not“good news” of a warm and cuddly variety.  It is not marshmallow sunshine and strawberry scented rainbows.  The Gospel of Mark is nothing less than a literary act of war against the messianic claims of Vespasian, a polemical attack on the emperor’s claim to be the Messiah and Savior of the world. 

“Mark does not surrender and proves that resistance is not futile.  He finds his transcript and begins to reconstruct a reality challenging Augustan theology.”[v]

In chapter 4 (His Pedagogue) Joel compares the gospel of Mark to the writings of the Roman poet / historian Marcus Annaeus Lucan (commonly known as Lucan).  Once a prominent and popular poet and childhood friend of Emperor Nero, Lucan fell from the good graces of the Emperor when he began to criticize and challenge the Emperor and the Empire.  His short life came to a rather abrupt end (much like the gospel of Mark) when he joined a conspiracy against Nero.  The group was discovered and Lucan was convicted of treason and “encouraged” to commit suicide. 

Joel finds in Lucan’s writings a pattern and a style and a method that seems to have influenced the writer of the Gospel of Mark.  The poetic abuse of language, the multi-layered meanings, the polemical reversals… these are Lucan’s tricks copied into Mark’s writing.

This chapter was relatively short and I would have liked to have read more about Lucan.  But ultimately this isn't a book about Lucan… so the next several chapters turn to a mimetic reading of Mark’s gospel.



[i] Watts, Joel L. Mimetic Criticism and the Gospel of Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, Wipf & Stock, Eugene Oregon, 2013.
[ii] As before – this is not a criticism of Joel’s work.  The ignorance is mine.
[iii] Quintus Smyrnaeus – The Fall of Troy
[iv] Page 54
[v] Page 71

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