Who Wrote Mark, part II
Words matter, in part because of their purpose: when selected carefully, they convey what we mean with precision. They can also mask our meaning—or at least cushion your meaning. Why would one would do this varies, of course.
For example, how do you define “crazy”? According to Google: “mentally deranged, esp. as manifested in a wild or aggressive way.” This matches my definition, and I never thought of a different way to understand this concept. That is until someone pointed out to me that crazy is usually only reserved for poor people. Middle-class people get to be “neurotic,” whose synonym is “mentally ill.” Rich, upper-class people get to be “eccentric.” The synonyms for this fun word carry a significantly less negative connotation, such as aberrant or simply odd. But the odder a person acts, the more eccentric a person appears: i.e., crazy.
I’ve always wondered: if you mean crazy, call it crazy. But, of course, if you call a person crazy, aren’t you compelled to do something about it, such as get that person help?
I had this idea in my mind as I began Helms’ second chapter devoted to Mark. First, I wondered why his ideas—which, to be honest, could have been covered just as well in the previous chapter—needed a second pass. Second, I wondered why his main argument in this chapter—that Mark’s author suffered from an “apocalyptic” point of view, which, as Helms points out, means he’s delusional (i.e., crazy)—doesn’t come right out and label Mark’s author crazy.
If you think someone’s crazy, that means they’re not worth listening to, right? Helms avoids this explicit argument, choosing instead to support just how apocalyptically minded Mark’s author was. In fact, Helms sees Mark’s author as an ancient Debbie Downer, a person who was utterly convinced that the end was near. This mindset affected how Mark worked with his main source—The Book of Daniel, which, according to Helms, is also the product of an apocalyptic mind, and even one littered with errors.
The first error Helms identifies is the supposed era in which that book was written: not the 6th century BCE, but more like the 2nd century. How does Helms support this? Daniel’s handling of the events mentioned concerning 6th Century BC are inaccurate (20-21). For example, in the opening of Daniel, the author declares “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it.” According to Helms, the siege happened in the first year of Jehoiachin, Jehoiakim’s successor. Chapter 5 mentions a Darius the Mede who took the kingdom of Babylon. Helms points out that no such person existed; Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon (21).
Due to these details (and many others he mentions), Helms calls Daniel “vague and inaccurate” (20); its handling of information about the second century BCE is right on point, however (20). From this, Helms concludes that Daniel was actually written then, not in the sixth century (as that book claims). So can and should you trust a text that lies to you right off the bat? And if you believe the person handling these details is so delusional, why bother making this case in the first place?
One reason: Mark is not the only person to reinterpret Daniel. First Maccabees did as well, which suggests that delusional issue was overlooked often. This is important, for as Helms deepens his point about being delusional, he mentions that these people possess a skewed view of the world (that the end is approaching) and that all but he and his peer group will perish (23). This is why Helms believes that Mark reinterpreted Daniel’s false apocalyptic prophecy: the time predicted by Daniel came and went, he needs to adjust when Jesus will return (24). Mark could have noticed the mistake in Daniel, and instead of leaving it alone, he felt compelled to update it-his apocalyptic mind would not let him accept that maybe the end of the world is, in fact, not happening.
It’s a bit strange for someone to take issue with this mindset, given how often these type of ideas surface in the Bible—I imagine he then has similar issues with Revelations, for example. But perhaps it’s important for Helms to emphasize this point in order to distance his beliefs from the ones that perhaps weaken Christianity by coming across as unsound. Since he doesn’t outright denounce Mark for being crafted by a delusional mind, he must see something positive elsewhere in this Gospel.
So what’s Helms’ final impression of Mark? Basically, he sees it as a sloppy draft in places due to its weak source selection. And rather than assert what we should really do with the solid case he makes about the Gospel of Mark, he preps the reader for his discussions of Matthew, Luke, and John, which he sees as responses to Mark.
So I don’t think this information changes my impression of any part of the Bible—to me it is just interesting, like looking at a film that fails on several technical levels, and although this likely would cause me to not perceive such a film as “good,” that doesn’t mean I don’t applaud the effort or at least get some enjoyment out of it, flaws and all. I appreciate the parts that would inspire a person to be a better individual without worrying about how much of what is written is “true.”
Although people like Helms choose to pick apart Mark, perhaps it’s more interesting to consider that Mark lacked the luxury of time or enough feedback to produce something more “accurate.” Was he really delusional—as we know it—or so inspired by his faith that he couldn’t understand his world any other way? Is there a difference?
Next up: Who Wrote Matthew?