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7th Sunday after Trinity

05 July 2024

14 July, Proper 10: Amos 7.7-15; Psalm 85.8-end; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29

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THIS Gospel makes no sense unless we recall last Sunday’s sending out of the Twelve “apostles”; for that is the event that King Herod has heard of (referred to as “it”, in verse 14). Even so, the tale of John the Baptist’s execution sticks out of Mark’s narrative like Uluru (Ayers Rock) bulging out of the Australian plain. It has no connection with what precedes and follows it, and could be cut from the Gospel without leaving a trace.

The telling of John’s death seems to have been prompted by the idea that Jesus may be another Baptist, another Elijah-figure. If we had Mark’s Gospel only, we would not know that the two men were related (Luke 1.36), and the link between them would be spiritual rather than genetic. Either way, John is first and elder, while, at this early stage, Jesus appeared to be an imitator.

What follows reads like a folk tale. Describing it in this way is not meant to diminish its value. On the contrary, it reminds us of the wisdom to be found in pre-literate and non-literate cultural material, as well as in written records. The American folklorist Stith Thompson (1885-1976) compiled a monumental six-volume catalogue of such motifs and types, categorising them across a multitude of societies, times, and contexts, including those found in scripture. According to him, this story is an example of the “rash promise” motif, which he classifies as M223.

M223 is found elsewhere, even in the Bible (in the story of Jephthah, for example, Judges 11-12), as well as in other European literature. The story of Esther and Ahasuerus is more important still; for Mark — or, more precisely, his source — clearly has it in mind. For one thing, Herod is called “king” (he was actually a tetrarch, Matthew 14.1), to strengthen the Esther parallel with King Ahasuerus: only a king can have a kingdom to give away. For another, Mark 6.23 is quoted word for word from the Greek version of Esther 5.3.

Why Mark or his source? Because there are features of the Greek which indicate that Mark is reproducing the story (rather than reshaping and retelling it) from one of the source-documents he used to compile his Gospel. One indicator is the fact that Mark 6.17-29 does not follow the Evangelist’s liking for the historic present tense: instead, the story is told in the imperfect and aorist tenses.

How blest we modern Bible-readers are to have commentaries to inform our study! They reveal to us aspects of the text which we might not notice for ourselves. Because I dislike reading novels written in the historic present, I think that I would probably notice if, for a single short section, a text written in English switched for no apparent reason to a different verb tense. But, when grappling with ancient Greek, plus various translations (some of which obscure Mark’s historic present by making it an English past tense), this oddity about Mark 6.14-29 had escaped my notice.

Like pre-Pauline formulae (which are always exciting), passages like this carry us back from the composition of Mark’s Gospel (in the mid-’60s AD) to an earlier stage in the formation of Christianity, one that we can now only hypothesise, as we reconstruct the earliest beginnings of our faith.

One further intriguing element to this story, pointing towards its being reproduced by Mark rather than rewritten in his own idiom, is that his version is — unusually — longer than either Matthew’s or Luke’s.

John’s death at the hands of Herod, through the malice of vengeful persons affronted by having their failings thrown into sharp relief, comes with rumours of a resurrection. Those rumours were to prove unfounded — which ought, incidentally, to reassure us that people in Bible days could tell fact from fiction when it came to rumours of miracles. Some commentators point to affinities with Christ’s death. But I think of John more as a pre-protomartyr, before Stephen (Acts 7).

Ancient folklore teaches wisdom in a way that is different from the teachings about salvation, grace, and righteousness which come to us through the New Testament writers. But this Gospel gives us even more by recording the last of the old covenant’s prophetic martyrdoms, which is also the first in the catalogue of the Kingdom. That martyr list still goes on being added to, and always will, until this earthly realm is no more.

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