Sunday, March 15, 2015

New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash: Mark Chapter 2

Continuing review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price
New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash: Mark chapter 2
If you have no idea what this article is about - please read THIS.

Robert Price has published his article, New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash on his website.  You can follow along HERE.  

OK, I continue with what Robert Price has to say about the Gospel of Mark chapter 2:

9. Healing the Paralytic -  Mark 2:2-12 ; 2Kings 1:2-17a

Mark chapter 2 is the famous story of Jesus teaching in a house in the town of Capernaum.  At this time in his career, He really drew in the crowds with His teaching.  But a paralytic man who was desperate for His healing touch was not able to get into the house.  Rather than wait for Jesus to finish His teaching and leave the house, the paralytic's friends decided to carry him onto the roof, rip a hole through the thatch large enough to fit the paralytic through, then lower the paralytic down on a pallet.  It remains unclear whether the owner of the house was paid for damages.

Is there anything in the Old Testament where this story may have come from?  Dr. Price reminds us of a story in 2 Kings, where Ahaziah the wicked king, fell through the lattice of his second story palace in Samaria.  Ahaziah was incapacitated from the fall, so he ordered his priests to inquire of the god of Ekron, Baalzebub, whether he would recover.  But the god of Israel, Jehovah, let his jealousy get the better of him, and he wondered why Ahaziah went to the rival god Baalzebub instead of inquiring of his own god.  Jehovah condemns the faithless king.  Blast you Ahaziah!  You shall surely die!  The story ends with the prophet Elijah speaking for his god Jehovah.  No! Jehovah shall not heal King Ahaziah from the injuries he incurred from the fall off the roof because he decided to inquire first of Baalzebub, the god of Ekron.  

Oh yeah, this bookends a long section where King Ahaziah ordered his priests to deliver his arch-nemesis Elijah from his home, which was apparently on a hill.  But their plans were continually foiled when Elijah commanded fire to fall from heaven to devour them.

Could the familiar story from the Gospel of Mark chapter 2 really have come from this story of King Ahaziah falling from his roof, getting Jehovah jealous, and the command of fireballs from the sky, by Elijah, to consume a few hundred of the king’s priests?  I will again highlight the points of similarity between the two stories:

Mark 2:2-12
And again He entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house. 2 Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door. And He preached the word to them. 3 Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. 4 And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying.
5 When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.”
6 And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
8 But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” 12 Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

2Kings 1:2-17
Now Ahaziah fell through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria, and was injured; so he sent messengers and said to them, “Go, inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this injury.” 3 But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’ 4 Now therefore, thus says the Lord: ‘You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.’” So Elijah departed.
5 And when the messengers returned to him, he said to them, “Why have you come back?”
6 So they said to him, “A man came up to meet us, and said to us, ‘Go, return to the king who sent you, and say to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.’”’”
7 Then he said to them, “What kind of man was it who came up to meet you and told you these words?”
8 So they answered him, “A hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist.”
And he said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.”
9 Then the king sent to him a captain of fifty with his fifty men. So he went up to him; and there he was, sitting on the top of a hill. And he spoke to him: “Man of God, the king has said, ‘Come down!’”
10 So Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men.” And fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty. 11 Then he sent to him another captain of fifty with his fifty men.
And he answered and said to him: “Man of God, thus has the king said, ‘Come down quickly!’”
12 So Elijah answered and said to them, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men.” And the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.
13 Again, he sent a third captain of fifty with his fifty men. And the third captain of fifty went up, and came and fell on his knees before Elijah, and pleaded with him, and said to him: “Man of God, please let my life and the life of these fifty servants of yours be precious in your sight. 14 Look, fire has come down from heaven and burned up the first two captains of fifties with their fifties. But let my life now be precious in your sight.”
15 And the angel of the Lord said to Elijah, “Go down with him; do not be afraid of him.” So he arose and went down with him to the king. 16 Then he said to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Because you have sent messengers to inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, is it because there is no God in Israel to inquire of His word? Therefore you shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.’”
17 So Ahaziah died according to the word of the Lord which Elijah had spoken.

I personally do not see much anything in common between the two stories, and I do not see how Mark the Evangelist created the history in his Gospel from the story of King Ahaziah in 2Kings.  The only remotely similar points of comparison is the paralytic being lowered from the roof in the Gospel of Mark, and King Ahaziah falling from a second story lattice and injuring himself.  Dr. Price explains in his analysis that this may be a case of midrashic history that is created by an antithesis of the original story.  King Ahaziah is not healed because of his reliance on the god Baalzebub, and his lack of faith in the god Jehovah.  In contrast, the faith of the paralytic’s friends was enough to have his sins forgiven, and his paralysis cured by Jesus.

I have two problems with this analysis.  I think it is plausible that in some cases, the Evangelists were constructing history based on the analogy they found in the Old Testament Scriptures.  Many Christians have noticed these analogies, and believe them to be divinely inspired ‘types of Christ’ buried like treasure in the Old Testament narratives.  But I have a harder time imaging that Mark the Evangelist found a story in the Old Testament and believed he could create history from its antithesis!  If Ahaziah was condemned for his lack of faith, then could this really mean that the paralytic could be saved because of his friends' strong faith?  I suppose everybody will have to judge that plausibility for themselves, but I personally do not find it convincing.

The second problem is the amount of material that the story in 2Kings contains that was ignored by the Evangelist Mark.  About 10 verses in 2Kings chapter 1 are ignored by the Evangelist.  In the story, Elijah sits atop a hill as wave after wave of messengers sent by King Ahaziah are consumed by fire called from the heavens.  I can imagine that the Evangelist was not enthusiastic about including fireballs from heaven and warnings from God to admonish the paralytic for his sins.  Still, it seems a lot of juicy stuff to skip over, just to build a story with the bare thread of a man falling through a lattice!


This story of Jesus healing the paralytic is the only portion of Mark chapter 2 that Dr. Price finds a possible parallel in the Old Testament.  This leaves three more stories from Mark chapter 2 for which Dr. Price offers no plausible Old Testament parallel.  Let's take a look at what was 'left behind'!! 

1)  Mark 2:13-17.  Jesus sees Levi the tax collector sitting in his booth.  Please note that the text does not say this is Matthew the tax collector.  Anyway, Jesus gives His hypnotic call to the tax collector, and Levi immediately drops everything where he sits to follow his Master.  This calls to mind the similar story in Mark chapter 1, where Jesus did a similar Jedi trick on James and John as they mended their nets.  Dr. Price made a good case that this was reminiscent of the call of Elisha by the prophet Elijah the Tishbite in 1Kings 19:19-21.  I assume that the call of Levi is just following a similar theme that was already done in Mark chapter 1.  But after the call of Levi, Jesus dines with the scandalous friends of Levi the tax collector.  Jesus replies to His critics with the famous aphorism, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”  If this did not come from the Old Testament, where did this come from?  Do we have here something that Jesus may have actually said, and was remembered and passed down through tradition until the Evangelist finally put pen to paper?

2) Mark 2:18-22.  When asked why the disciples of Jesus do not fast when disciples of other religious leaders do fast, He says something about the friends of the bridegroom not being able to fast while they are with the bridegroom.  I am not sure what that means - maybe He means to say that the guests of the bridegroom are not able to fast while in attendance to the wedding.  Anyway, Jesus goes on to say warn His critics that the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away, and then they will fast!  New patches will rip old clothes, and new wine will burst old wineskins.  

Dr. Price cannot find anything in the Old Testament that may have produced this story or these short aphorisms.  But at this point I have to wonder about the context of the answer of Jesus to the question that was asked of Him by His critics.  Jesus does give an answer, but it is not really an answer to the question asked of Him.  Jesus could have easily given an answer about the hypocrisy of fasting and self-denial, and could have easily done it based on a parallel from the Old Testament - say from Isaiah chapter 58.  But no, instead of creating history from midrash, as Dr. Price is suggesting, the Evangelist makes Jesus warn that the time to fast is when He is taken away, for new, unshrunken cloth cannot be sewn onto old garments without tearing them.  If the stories of Jesus are created from Old Testament midrash, why does the Evangelist not consistently use this method to create his history?  Maybe a better question would be, if the stories of Jesus are created from Old Testament midrash, what can we learn from the stories of Jesus that are not created from Old Testament midrash?

3) Mark 2:23-28.  Finally Mark chapter 2 ends with another story for which Dr. Price offers no Old Testament parallel.  This is one that puzzles me.  The story goes that Jesus and His disciples wander the fields on the Sabbath and nibble from the stalks of grain.  The critics of Jesus again charge Him, and He responds with a story taken directly from 1 Samuel chapter 21.  Not only that, it also directly references a law found in Deuteronomy 23:25 regarding plucking grains of your neighbors field with the hands.  Combining these two stories seems a very plausible candidate for the creation of Mark 2:23-28, especially since the Evangelist Mark seems so explicit about referencing these Old Testament stories!  Huh??  Ah well, this methodology is not easy for me to nail down!

OK, that takes care of the Gospel of Mark chapter 2.  Sorry, but it looks like this chapter was a bit of a bust for me.

Can't get enough?  Loads more of this kind of stuff coming soon.


Alice said...

I agree that the paralytic story is quite a stretch.

Dave Mack said...

A stretch for me also.