Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
Devices in Mark

It's important to remember when one sees huge chunks of Mark's Gospel disappearing (as in Mark 9) that this is often because the author doesn't always "record" things as they actually happened. His main purpose is to teach about Jesus - to bring out what Jesus should mean for the early Christians for whom he was writing. He's not particularly concerned about recording history in the sense that we now understand it. "Truth" about would, for the author of Mark's Gospel, have been conveyed by what we know as "theology" rather than "what really happened".

Most of Chapter 9 is almost certainly not an account of "what really happened" - although some parts may resemble what we today call good history. But they seem to have been distorted either by verbal transmission or by Mark's editing.

In Chapter 8 we should remember that Mark has the disciples declare that Jesus is the Messiah. Although it's hard for us to credit, the fact is that Mark would not have thought it dishonest to confirm their declaration by building up the story of the "transfiguration" of Jesus in Chapter 9 - perhaps loosely based on an account he'd come across in oral tradition.

So we have to separate out the theology from the history, even though some history may be buried in the theology. So, for example, the story of man with the mute spirit (9.14-29) could be based on a story of an exorcism. But Mark (or someone else's material he's using) has so overlaid it with "convincing" detail that we can't be sure about "what really happened".

Similarly, we have to be careful whenever we come across tales which could easily refer to the problems of an early Christian community. Verses 33-50 seem to be vehicles for a series of sayings:

  • 9.35: Christians aren't supposed to feel or act superior to others. Their true role is that of servants. This is a theme in the Gospels - so it could well have been something Jesus himself stressed. But we can't be sure. There are too many Old Testament overtones to be certain that this wasn't early theology.
  •  9.37: We're not sure quite what the word "accepting" a child means. The Greek is obscure and the Aramaic would have meant something like "obey". If so it fits in with the previous verses about Christians not feeling superior to other people, perhaps especially to Jews, the people of the "Old Covenant".
  • 9.39-40: We know from Acts 19.13ff that early Christians were often faced with the problem of pagan exorcists using Jesus' name in their work. It's a little strange that Jesus sounds so tolerant about such people. The early Christians certainly were not - so it's possible that Jesus actually said something like this. But we can't be sure if these were his exact words.
  • 9.41: This is almost certainly an early saying because Mark uses the words "in the name of the Anointed". This was a title for Jesus in the early Church. (Some translators are so convinced this is a late addition that they leave this reference out entirely.)
  • 9.42: This seems to be a traditional saying which has been adapted to apply to the early Church.
  • 9.43-48: Whenever we find sayings which refer to the final judgement and the Messiah returning to earth from heaven again it's quite likely that they were used in the early Church. We know from Paul's letters that this was an important subject in his time and no doubt later. It's possible that Jesus taught something like this, but we can't now sort out the history from the teaching and commentary in this case. But some scholars think that this passage scrapes through the test for historicity.
  • 9.49-50: The first part of verse 50 is also given by another source and some scholars detect echoes of an original in Aramaic (the language Jesus would have spoken at home). So although we can't be absolutely sure that he said these exact words, it's likely he said something very like them. Many scholars think that the second part of the verse was added by Mark to "round off" this section.

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