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The meaning of the Tragedy of Mark

Wednesday, 22 Feb 2017

Jesus icon on Dr John Dunn. What would have been the meaning of the Tragedy of Mark to a Hellenised audience? The answer is that Jesus would have offered an example to follow.

Jesus’s injunction to follow him is clear enough in Mark.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[ will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8)
The late edition of Q may have picked up influences from Mark, but regardless of this possibility, the same sentiment is to be found in Matthew and Luke via Q.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matthew 16)

Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10)

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.
(Luke 9)

And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
(Luke 14)

What are the implications of following Jesus’s example? Suffering would have been the clearly understood implication to our Hellenised audience.

The implications would have been certainly clear to a Stoic philosopher andfollower of Socrates (who also died for his beliefs) such as Seneca the Younger. In his 24th moral letter to Lucilius, he wrote that he will conduct his addressee to peace of mind and a worry-free state. How? ‘Let your thoughts travel into any era of Roman or foreign history,and there will throng before you notable examples of high achievement or of high endeavour.’ What sort of ‘high achievement’? Enduring suffering and death. ‘Is there a worse fate that any man may fear than being burned or being killed?’ No, and Rutilius, Metellus, Socrates, and Mucius are cited as good examples of how to face the worst nobly. Seneca realises that people may be sick of hearing about these examples of endurance. 'Oh,' say you, 'those stories have been droned to death in all the schools; pretty soon, when you reach the topic "On Despising Death," you will be telling me about Cato.' So, Seneca proceeds to do exactly that. Cato nobly killed himself rather than face ignominious defeat. To achieve his end, he had to rip out his entrails twice, but he finally triumphed. Now, Seneca is not ‘heaping up these illustrations for the purpose of exercising [his] wit,’ but rather for the purpose of bringing his friend to a proper frame of mind - one worthy of Socrates or Cato.

As the reader peruses the summary which Seneca provides of Cato's story, he must imaginatively re-enact the latter's grisly death. That imaginative re-enactment steels the reader's resolve, ideally enabling him, if necessary, to re-enact such a ghastly demise literally. To be constantly prepared to undergo even the most horrible death rather than forsake one's principles and morals means that one has become a true philosopher. One now regards even the body as ‘not one's own.’ This, then, is why the issue of following a model's suffering and even death was so central in first century AD Cynic and Stoic philosophy.

Jesus died a Stoic and a Cynic death as an example to a Hellenised audience which would be at least be familiar with the philosophy, if not consisting wholly of active Stoics and Cynics. The message was that to follow Jesus into the Kingdom of God, rather than remain an outsider, the follower had to be prepared to suffer.

And what did the Kingdom of God mean to a Cynic?

Everything about this Kingdom of God was practical, having to do with things that can be accomplished in contrast to the conventional life.

We may recall that Dante was in this tradition, where crown and mitre were ascribed metaphorically to the pilgrim who had attained the independence of spirit needed to lead a moral life.

Burton L. Mack describes how for the independently-minded Cynics,
the language of rule or kingship came to be used as a metaphor for personal self-control. The term king no longer had to refer to an actual ruler, and kingdom no longer had to refer to a political domain. ‘King’ became a metaphor of a human being at its ‘highest’ imaginable level, whether by endowment, achievement, ethical excellence, or mythical ideal. ‘Kingdom’ became a metaphor for the ‘sovereignty’ manifest in the ‘independent bearing’, ‘freedom’, ‘confidence’, and self-control of the superior person, the person of ethical integrity who thus could ‘rule’ his ‘world’ imperiously.

Stoics internalised the image of the king and idealised the individual who ruled his passions and controlled his attitudes even in circumstances where others governed his existence. Their strategy was to be hopeful about the constructive influence of such individuals on society. A popular Stoic maxim was ‘the only true king is the wise man.’ Cynics were not as sanguine about the philosopher’s chance of influencing social reform, but they also used the royal metaphor to advantage. (Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, Element Books, Shaftesbury, 1993, p.126.)
In this metaphorical usage was the ‘secret of the kingdom of God’.

The issue of kingship would only later come to be phrased as a ‘Jewish’ question, with its challenge of Jewish propriety and the question of belonging to the people of God as the children of Abraham, or Israel.

However, for the Cynics of the time Mark was written, it was the attainment of divine wisdom that merited ‘kingship’. The Jesus thus presented in the Greek tragedy was an ideal model to a Hellenised audience in this respect.

It was the Transfiguration that was the metaphor for the attainment of kingship by Jesus, an Eleusinian transfiguration as capax Dei, the highest mythical ideal, metaphor of metaphors, which had a significance beyond the individual Messiahship of Jesus from the Judaic tradition.

The Transfiguration episode in the Greek tragedy, the dead-centre and high point of the drama, stood for God's capacity to become man, and man's capacity to participate directly in God, as the basis of the liberation,freedom, crown and mitre of the son of man, every man.

The collision of the Greek and Jewish traditions in the figure of Jesus resounds strongly to this day. The dominance of the latter tradition in Christianity has shaped world history, in an apparently secular as well as an obviously religious sense, and continues to do so.


© John Dunn.







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