In Tents #40 He is Risen, and Other Texts That Don’t Behave as Textual Critics Think They Do

First a story, then a question.

He was born David King, Jr., the son of David King in Jerusalem’s Lot, a small town in Maine that had known vampire troubles a century or so earlier in the time of the Romanian vampire troubles, and some said the vampires had come to town after their expulsion from Romania, and others that they were Roma vampires and their descendants had been responsible for an outbreak of thinness, people getting thinner and thinner who hardly wanted to lose the flesh that tied their bones to solid earth.

He wondered what an anorexic vampire would be like. Would they spit back the blood they had sucked? And what if the one they bit were on a blood thinner? Would it deprive the vampires of needed nourishment from thickened blood? And would the thinner blood prove incapable of holding the vampire virus and letting it bond? Did Coumadin have the same salutary effects as garlic?

He had read a story once about a man who had warded off a woman with garlic, and she had said, “I’m sick, I’m starving, haven’t eaten in days and you go waving that strong-smelling garlic at me. Of course I’m nauseated. What did you expect?”

But she really was a vampire.

These were questions he played with and thought about, but only for fun–no emotional attachment. Some local, another King, had written up the legends, and critics were saying it was the most terrifying chronicle since Bram Stoker’s. But he didn’t find horror in the stories. He found comfort—the diversion of familial stories.

It was the randomness of life that gave terror–and the patterns, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and day and night, and summer and winter, and dying and birth.

And they all felt to him like vanity.

And the things that broke up the patterns, the random things, they were also vanity.

Darwin had it wrong. The race didn’t go to the fittest. You could train all year, be fit as a fiddle (whatever that meant beyond the repetition of the fi sounds) and someone else would win. Sometimes the vampires would win.

Eventually the family moved to Portland and there he found the portal to the dreamworld. He entered the dreamworld in Portland, Maine, and left it in Portland, Oregon. In the dreamworld he found his non-vain name—Koheleth.

So the question. What literary influences do you see in this story?

I suspect most readers will see the references to Stephen King and Richard Bachman, some will catch the reference to Richard Matheson, and it would be easy to assume that those are the chief influences on the story, that the author is having some fun with the vampire genre and its relationship to other horror genres.

But there’s a more subtle reference, and some people will catch the quotation from Ecclesiastes 1:1, and wonder why the quotation is there. Which raises a more interesting question (maybe), what’s the most important word in the story? How do you know?

Composition theory would hold that the beginning and end of a piece are places of emphasis, which would make Koheleth the most important word. And, since Koheleth is the Hebrew word the KJV renders Preacher in Ecclesiastes 1:1, “The words of Koheleth, the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” it would be reasonable to see the story as an inclusio, an episode that brings the ending back around to the beginning, based on Ecclesiastes.

But Ecclesiastes isn’t really a source for this story. It’s more a texture. That is, I didn’t set out to retell Ecclesiastes, to cast it as fiction. About a year ago my niece asked me to write a book with her, a novel of sorts based on her encounter with a homeless man in a park in Portland. Ecclesiastes provides imagery and a sort of form for the story.

But there’s a question I haven’t asked yet. What do we mean by source? It’s an important question, but we rarely talk about it. Consider this sentence:

Mark, being the first Gospel, was the main source for Matthew and Luke; the information they share which is lacking in Mark comes from a source scholars designate Q.

As often as I’ve read the information in that sentence no one has bothered to define the term source. I have to play lexicographer and infer its meaning from context. For example, both Stephen Mitchell in Jesus, What He Really Said and Did, and Reza Aslan in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth claim that the legend of the Resurrection (as Mitchell calls it) is a late addition, not part of the original beliefs of those who followed Yeshua ben Yosef’s teachings.

We know this is a late, legendary addition because Mark is the earliest Gospel, the source for Matthew and Luke, and Mark doesn’t contain a resurrection appearance−everything after 16:8 not being in the oldest and best manuscripts we have for Mark.

From the way Mitchell and Aslan use the word source, it seems to me they’re thinking of Mark as a source in the same way Wikipedia is a source for countless people: If you don’t know something look it up, and copy and paste the information into your term paper/sermon/report.

From the way both use the word source it seems like they think of Matthew and Luke as not knowing the story beforehand, as getting the story from Mark then embellishing it with material from Q.

But there’s another way to think about sources, suggested by Neal A. Maxwell’s comment (in Deposition of a Disciple?) that he uses sources like Christopher Brooker’s Trousered Apes, and C. S. Lewis’s writing for their phrasing, not their doctrine. It’s what I call the “I might have rendered a plainer translation but this will suffice” principle, meaning that it’s easier to use words that are already in some order than to compose from scratch.

Here’s how I think it might have worked with the synoptic Gospels. Mark is traditionally thought to have been Peter’s missionary companion, so his Gospel represents the memories of Peter. Matthew may have been a first-hand participant as well, or have learned the story from those who were. That is, he already knew the story when he read Mark’s Gospel, so when he decided to write his own Gospel he said, “I might have said this differently, but this will suffice. I’ll just copy this out and add what I know.”

Luke starts his Gospel by saying he wasn’t an eyewitness, that his Gospel is a research project. So maybe he read Matthew and thought, “I might have said it differently, but this is good enough for a framework. I can flesh it out.”

If Matthew and Luke had knowledge independent of Mark, it weakens the claim that if it wasn’t in Mark it wasn’t part of the earliest traditions. I may expand on that next month. But I need to address something in Mitchell and Aslan’s arguments. The arguments feel like they come from someone who hasn’t actually read the Gospel of Mark. Their implication is clearly that in the original Mark has nothing to say about the Resurrection.

Anyone who has read Mark knows that is not true.

Here’s the original ending of Mark, beginning with 16:1:

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.

While it’s technically true that there’s no Resurrction appearance in these verses, it’s simply false to claim there’s no promise of an appearance. The last words spoken in Mark are, “He is risen, and ye shall see him.”

That promise is what caused Frank Kermode, who had just published his study of literary endings, The Sense of an Ending, to begin his seminar at Hazard Adams’ School of Criticism and Theory (held on the U Cal Irvine campus), Summer 1976, by declaring that the ending of the Gospel of Mark is the most important problem in literary criticism today. (And when my father reported to the BYU English department on his summer in Irvine, he paused to savor going to this very secular institute and studying scripture.)

The thing that makes the ending so problematic for Kermode is that in verses 6 and 7 the angel has told the women not just the good news, but the best possible news, and they run away in fear and trembling. And that has the sense of an ending.

So why would two fine scholars like Mitchell and Aslan open themselves to a charge so easy to make that they’re either lying or don’t know how to read a text. Or as Harold Bloom said of some critics of The Book of J, “What is a Bible scholar but a very bad literary critic?”

I thought a lot about this question when I read Jesus, What He Said and Did. Indeed I wrote an essay about the book. When I heard Reza Aslan’s narration of Zealot I struggled with the question again. Why would he make a claim that is so easy to demonstrate as false? Then I remembered the insight that came to me at the end of my struggle with Mitchell, so I’ll close with that part of my essay, “With Desire Have I Desired to Wrestle This Wrestle,” and leave my other comments about Aslan for next month.

The essay is a dialogue between a man trying to write a review of Mitchell’s book and his elementary school self sitting in the northwest corner of the Wasatch Elementary library reading a book of opera stories so he can find out what that picture of the giant stone statue crashing a dinner party is all about. (Wasatch is shaped like a stick figure dog, so of course Groucho must come by and  observe that “Outside of a dog a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”)

“’He is risen.’ That’s what the young man says.ˮ

“So if you think he’s lying why don’t you just say, ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire?’ˮ

“There’s an old legend that when Moses died Satan came to claim his body as a murderer, since he had killed the Egyptian overseer. Michael the archangel came to save him. He didn’t insult the devil, or rail against him, or get into a shouting argument, he simply said, ‘The Lord rebuke thee, Satan.’ˮ

“So you want the Lord to rebuke Stephen Mitchell?ˮ

“No. The story means it’s not up to us to condemn people. Condemning people is lots of fun, but it’s more interesting to try and understand them.ˮ

“What are you trying to understand?ˮ

“I can wrestle with someone if I understand the rules of the wrestle. But if someone changes the rules it’s hard to keep wrestling. You remember that scene from The Old Man and The Sea where Spencer Tracy is arm wrestling all night? He finally wins, but when he gets out to sea he can’t wrestle with all the fish coming to eat his prize.

“That’s what it feels like when Stephen Mitchell just denies something with a wave of his hand that’s in the oldest text we have for Mark. I feel he’s changed the rules of the wrestle, and I’m trying to understand why. I suppose my choice is to give up the wrestle, wrestle harder, or accept it as the kind of wound Jacob got after he pinned the Lord, where the Lord threw his hip out.

“Hmm, maybe that’s what happened to Stephen Mitchell. He can wrestle with Jesus as long as he can see Jesus as a man who found the kingdom of God within himself, but when the oldest Gospel clearly proclaims a resurrection he can only find himself pinned or try to throw out what’s pinning him.ˮ

The boy who has been reading inside the dog looks up from his book, smiles and says, “All that stuff you’ve just been saying, write it down. Go to. Wrestle the good wrestle and write it all down.ˮ

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4 Responses to In Tents #40 He is Risen, and Other Texts That Don’t Behave as Textual Critics Think They Do

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Interesting stuff. I agree that “source” is a term that’s often used as if it were straightforward, but with a whole boatload (keeping company with Spencer Tracy perhaps?) of assumptions that don’t necessarily follow. We as Mormons, in particular, should be wary of such assumptions, given how much of a syncretist Joseph Smith apparently was: finding truth from heaven in the reflection of pretty much everything around him. It can be a mistake to focus too much on the mirror and not the image it shows.

    And who’s to say that literary critics aren’t simply bad scriptural scholars?

    • Harlow says:

      Thanks, Jonathan, and touche. I grew up reading vigorous criticism, particularly Pauline Kael, who would say things like, “You can always count on Dwight MacDonald to miss the point.” Several years later I came across a comment in a book of essays by Wilfred Sheed, “We all are, or were, friends,” suggesting that friendship doesn’t always survive hectoring each other in print (Kael’s phrase). I try not to hector other people, though I’m not sure that’s how they see it.

      One of the problems with having a boat loaded with assumptions is that if the assumptions get nibbled away we may forget we still have the boat. I suspect we often think of revelation as dictation, not as answers to pondered-out questions, so if someone suggests there’s a relationship between the Masonic temple ceremony and the LDS temple ceremony, we may feel so threatened by the implication that Joseph cadged the ceremony from the Masons that we simply deny the connection. Instead we could ask what questions the Masonic ceremony raised for Joseph that the temple ceremony answered, remembering Joseph’s comment about trying to imagine what question a prophet asked that produced a particular revelation as the answer.

  2. John Brown says:

    Loved this post.

    I just finished reading eight of Bart Ehrman’s books, which I thought were fabulous. I shared my joy over them here

    I also read that Zealot book, which I didn’t think was so fabulous. It’s not that Aslan doesn’t recast the story in an interesting way or share interesting historical context. It’s that, unlike Ehrman, he doesn’t talk about all his assumptions. He doesn’t tell us how he came to his conclusions and the evidence he used. Not the deep workings of the historical method. In many parts, he just tells this story about Jesus.

    Without evidence and assumptions, my reaction is big whoop.

    During all this reading, one of the things I have been wondering about is what evidence these folks use to make the claim that Mark was written first. And written in 70 AD.

    I’m sure you know all this, but if you look here you’ll see that the earliest manuscript we have is P52, four verses of John. It’s dated around 125 AD. So they aren’t using any type of carbon dating. The first we see of any mss of Mark is P45 dated 250 AD, and then it’s just a handful of chapters. We don’t get a full copy of any version of Mark until the 300s. That’s hundreds of year’s after Christ’s death! Hundreds of years after this thing is supposedly written. So scholars are using some kind of logic to assume an authorship of 70 AD. Here’s a summary of that logic.

    Those who argue for a later date say that Mark was able to include the prophecy about the destruction of the Temple because it had already happened. Most say that Mark was written during the war when it was obvious that Rome was going to exact a terrible vengeance on the Jews for their rebellion, even though the details were unknown.

    Their argument is based completely on the assumption that there is no such thing as prophecy, i.e., Mark obviously couldn’t know about these things, so the fact that he mentions them means they must have already occurred . . .

    I understand why they make that assumption, but if we DO believe in prophecy, then although it’s interesting to hear the argument, there’s no good reason to follow where such an assumption leads.

    But even if you discount prophecy, who is to say the mentions weren’t inserted later? We had three hundred years for someone to mess around with the text. Are the later copies we have fourth or fifth or twentieth copies in a line of copies? Are they third in line? Are the copies of the originals? Biblical scholars have no idea.

    We have no idea what the original text of Mark said.

    We have a whopping 42 verses of the 7,956 or so verses in the NT from manuscripts date to the first 150 years after Christ’s death (P52, P90, P104). And we have mostly fragments of various books until 250 AD. Fragments and scraps.

    And these folks then make pronouncements about what was written originally. It’s all big-brained guessing. Which is why I like your idea of exploring other options for the copying. But I also suggest with each scenario that we list those assumptions up front, because it’s so easy to forget that we’re speculating given a certain set of assumptions.

    So if we assume Matt and Luke were written after Mark, then here are some options for how the copying might occur . . .

    I really think such things need a manifest.

    Mark may have been written last. Mark might have been doing the copying of Matthew. Or maybe they were all copying something much earlier just as you suggest.

    Because for the life of me, even if you don’t believe that Christ was resurrected, it’s clear the early disciples did. If Paul’s letters are earliest, then it reveals in part what those followers believed. Are we to assume that nobody thought that it was important to write down the things God did and said when he walked among them?

    Naw, we’ll wait for a few decades until most of us are dead and the rest of us have Alzheimer’s. Resurrection, miracles, commandments, salvation–that can wait.

    That makes a lot of sense.

    Luke starts talking about the many folks who have written down the events. Not the one or two, but many. Surely that shows folks weren’t all working in isolation just as you suggest.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Excellent comment. I lack the knowledge of the field to know that things are the way you’ve said, but I do know that assumptions are endemic in literary scholarship of all kinds. What you say about the need to be up-front about our assumptions makes sense to me.

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