In Tents #26 Ethics and Aesthetics of Jesus and Pilate, Part IV

As I was finishing last month’s post I had one of those sudden strokes of intelligence Joseph Smith talked about, and want to expand on it this month, but first some background.

In summer 1975 my mother went on a genealogy trip to Sweden with her sister-in-law, Josie Soderborg. She surely found Josie’s company preferable to spending the summer alone (my sister and I were working the ancestral dryfarm with cousins) or in Irivine, California while her husband was in school all day. Hazard Adams, author of one of the textbooks Dad used, Critical Theory Since Plato, had inaugurated a summer institute at UC Irvine called The School of Criticism and Theory, and my father was attending.

In the fall when he reported to the BYU English Department he mentioned Frank Kermode’s class. Kermode had just published his study of literary endings, The Sense of an Ending, and announced at the beginning of the class that the single most important problem in literary theory at this time is the ending of The Gospel of Mark. The oldest and best manuscripts end at 16:8, as follows:

1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.

3 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?

4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.

5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.

6 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.

7 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.

8 And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

The problem for literary theorists is that verse 8 has the sense of an ending. It is abrupt (like when the men in skirts swinging the cats around stop their caterwauling suddenly), but feels like the ending. So why would a man writing his testimony of Jesus finish his good news not with the declaration in verses 6 and 7, the best of all possible news, but with the women running off in fear and amazement. Here Herr Doktor Professor Clark paused to say how much he relished the irony of going to this very secular institute and studying scripture–and studying it as the most significant literary problem of the day.

That word irony is important in relation to Mark. Not everyone agrees with Kermode that Mark 16:8 has the sense of an ending, but The Jewish Annotated New Testament does. (See #11 for my review of the book.) In his introduction to Mark, Lawrence Wills calls Mark “a master of irony,” and uses 16:5 as an example. “Mark once again understates the divine significance: the figure is dressed as a vindicated martyr (Dan 11.35, “be made white”). Similarly, Jesus’ clothing in the Transfiguration (9.3,6) is white.”

As a further understatement, the young man proclaims the resurrection, but Mark doesn’t show us the risen Jesus. Wills says that “appearance would have been well known to the audience (cf. I Cor 15.3-5)” (94), and because the audience already knew the triumphant ending to the story “there is an ironic distance between” what the audience knew and the ending Mark presents (57).

Assuming that Mark composed the gospel in Greek (there are hints throughout of an underlying Aramaic original–i.e., Talitha cumi in Mark 4:35, ending the story at 16:8 may represent a profoundly subversive act. Reynolds Price notes in A Palpable God that Mark’s Greek does not suggest a native speaker, and Acts 4:13 suggests the Peter and John were illiterate.

13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.

This may mean that Mark–traditionally thought of as Peter’s missionary companion–was similarly unlearned. One possibility if he was is that he dictated his memoir to someone who was learned, and learned in Greek–someone whose education surely included some reading in the classics, some sense of Greek aesthetics, who would have known the story subverted those aesthetic standards. My high school girlfriend told me Mozart’s children would wake him by playing an unresolved major chord on the piano and he would have to get out of bed and come downstairs and play that last note to resolve the chord. I don’t know her source, but I suspect the ending of Mark would have struck literate Greeks as similarly unresolved.

And it may be a measure of how pervasive Greek aesthetic models were that early Christians found the ending so unsatisfying that they produced not one, but at least two additional endings–that is, at least two different groups amended the ending.

My point here is that how the Evangelists told their good news was not just a matter of relating the facts they knew, but of shaping those facts in accord with (or counter to) the prevailing aesthetic.

And aesthetics have ethical overtones, especially when they define not only what we find beautiful but what we should find beautiful, since should is an ethics word. Scriptural interpretation is also both an ethical and aesthetic pursuit, since it deals both with how we should apply scripture to ourselves, and with creating a pleasing narrative of the application–that is, we want our interpretation to seem natural, not forced.

One of the concepts from Jan Shipps’ Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (probably the only book by a non-LDS author to have a blurb from the Church’s public communications department, I tell my Gospel Doctrine class) that I return to over and over is that a new religious tradition replays the history of the religious tradition it sprang from. (As Aaron Gale notes in his commentary in the Annotated Jewish New Testament, Matthew portrays Jesus as Moses coming down from the mountain, and out of the wilderness, with the new covenant.)

At the same time, as the new tradition breaks from the old, the break leaves the new tradition without a usable history (34-38)–just as America was left without a usable history when it severed ties with Britain (34). The history belongs to the old tradition–which is why writers like Warshington Israel worked so hard to establish an American literary tradition, (See the openings of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow or Rip Van Winkle.

Having a usable past is not simply a matter of having traditions that go along with a past. It is a matter of legitimacy. No past equals no legitimacy. In Lecture 22 of Lost Christianities, “Interpretation of Scripture” Bart Ehrman gives an example of how the proto-orthodox branch of early Christianity, the group that won the theological battles, defended themselves from Jewish charges that they couldn’t rightly claim to follow Israel’s God because they didn’t keep the Law of Moses.

He mentions Iraneaus’ reinterpretation of kosher food laws, for example, the prohibition is Deuteronomy 14:7 against eating animals that chew the cud but divide not the hoof. Iraneus says the laws don’t really refer to food. They’re allegories for the type of people you should not be like. Don’t be like the Jews, who have the word of God in their mouths (chew the cud) but don’t move toward God (don’t have cloven hooves)(see tracks 10-11).

A few lectures earlier, at the end a longer discussion of the same kind of reinterpretation in The Epistle of Barnabas, Ehrman says that the letter’s strong anti-Jewish rhetoric is the work of a minority community trying to establish itself, but when that community becomes the majority and gets the power to enforce the rhetoric it can have disastrous effects, as the twentieth century showed us.

In Sacrament meeting this morning one speaker said, “I was watching a movie about the Holocaust last night and mulling over this talk,” adding that all the horrors of the Holocaust were only a small part of the sins and sorrows Jesus took upon himself in the Atonement.

I have noticed in, say, the last 20 years, an expansion of the way we talk about the Atonement. We talk less about Jesus paying the penalty of our sins, and much more about Jesus taking upon himself all our sorrows and shames and embarrassments, as well as our sins and guilt. (The youth speaker talked on Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s April 2007 address, “Point of Safe Return” I remember how moved and stunned I was to hear Pres. Uchtdorf say there was no point of no return.)

A second change in how we talk about the Atonement is to separate it from the crucifixion, which means we focus our discourse more on Jesus’s act of love and sacrifice and less on the manner of his death. This is significant for a lot of reasons. Let me suggest one.

Joseph Smith’s declaration that he had been told to join none of the churches left him and his followers without a usable Christian past. Part of their quest for a past involved attacking the legitimacy of other Christian churches, apostate Christianity, just as the proto-orthodox attacked the Jews’ legitimacy as God’s chosen people. When I was in Seminary in the mid 70s there was a heavy emphasis on the Great Apostasy, especially the theological disaster that was the conference in Nicea.

In contrast, a few years ago on KBYU FM I heard my old Shakespeare teacher, John Tanner (now BYU Academic VP?) and his sister give a talk called “Forerunners [Precursors?] of the Restoration.” They didn’t just go back to people like Luther and the Protestant Reformers, but way beyond them, to the Council at Nicea, and perhaps before.

As I suggested last month this shift in focus (or partial shift) is not simply an ethical shift in how we talk about non-members, (sorry, those not of our faith, because, as I think it was Elder Oaks who pointed it out, those not of our faith are still members of something very important to them), it’s also an aesthetic shift in the way we tell our story–a reversal of the way early Christians told their story when they were trying to create a usable non-Jewish but still Israelite past, a reversal substituting the aesthetic of sacrifice for the ethic of blame.

Your turn.

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4 Responses to In Tents #26 Ethics and Aesthetics of Jesus and Pilate, Part IV

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Growing up, I thought it was odd that God had (according to orthodox Mormon teaching) directed Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon before establishing the Church (or even, for that matter, restoring the priesthood). Wouldn’t it have made more sense to restore the authority, then the organization, and then bring forth new scripture?

    Your comments about the need for new religions to establish a past puts this in a different perspective — suggesting that rather than critiquing, subverting, or attempting to connect ourselves to the older Christian tradition, what God really wanted was to have us connect ourselves to an entirely new “old tradition.” Something about new wine in old bottles?

    Which puts an interesting light on the tendencies of Mormons to emphasize the Apostasy — not to mention the fact (as historians have pointed out) that for quite a while, missionaries and leaders continued to preach more from the Bible than from the Book of Mormon. It’s a natural human trait to define ourselves in relation to our own past, and thus stay in a sense with what is more familiar, even if we’re doing it by rejecting that past. Adopting (or being adopted into) a new literary/cultural/spiritual/historical past is rather a different thing.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      And yet, Jonathan, Joseph’s new old tradition was premised on an even older tradition, the assembling of a book out of the multiple records of a failed nation, a fallen people — scouring a rotten fruit for seed. We have spent as a people nearly 200 years attempting to make sense of the Bible, when what we should be doing with it is more midrash, more revision, more building in the ruins. We have become more and more literal in our reading of the Bible in ways Joseph Smith would recognize as Protestant, rather than Reformative.

  2. Th. says:


    We need to keep our literary tradition alive and growing. And we can’t have one without the other. Growing defines alive. not growing is dying.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      True, not growing is dying, but dying is necessary to new growth as well. Life feeds on death, and new death brings old things to life — often in the form of seeds. We should never forget to dung about the old and dying, and graft in the master stock to the wild, while we are waiting for inspiration to strike.

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