Sunday, July 26, 2015

Storybook Wedding: Michal and David

Sometimes people dismiss the Bible as being nothing more than a “collection of fairy-tales,” a judgment which to my mind shows a superficial appreciation of fairy-tales as well as of the Bible. If you define a fairy-tale as a ridiculous fantasy fit only for children and the feeble-minded, Professor Tolkien would like to have a few words with you out behind the Bird and Baby.

I can think of one Bible story, though, that does have certain fairy-tale elements in it. It’s the story of a Princess, and of the Brave Peasant Lad who saves the kingdom and is given her hand in marriage. It’s the kind of story that ought to have a Fairy-Tale Ending, in which the two of them Live Happily Ever After.

Except that in the Bible story, things don’t work out that way.

Most people have probably heard the story of David, the humble shepherd boy, and how, armed only with his faith in the Lord and five smooth stones, he sleweth Goliath who lay down and die-eth. King Saul, the ruler of Israel at that time, was pleased with David's defeat of the giant and the subsequent victory over the Philistine army. He gave David a high rank in the army of Israel. And that's when the trouble began.

David proved himself a capable officer. He was successful in battle and led his men wisely. He was popular with the other officers and with the people as well. He became best buds with Saul's son, Jonathan, which is another story we'll be getting to.

Once, when Saul and David were returning after another successful campaign against the Philistines, they were met by a group of women who had come from “all the towns of Israel” to welcome them home. As they played music of celebration and danced, they sang a little song in honor of the heroes:

Saul has slain his thousands,and David his tens of thousands.(1 Samuel 18:7 NIV)

Now, Hebrew poetry has a literary convention of stating an idea in one line, and then restating it, slightly re-phrased, in the next. It's the reason why the Psalms work so well as responsive readings in worship services. So it's very likely that all the women meant to say was that the armies of Saul and David have killed many thousands of enemies.

But that's not how Saul took it.

Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David. (1 Samuel 18:8-9)

There's an old saying that you should always keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Saul seems to have had a similar thought, because his first idea was to offer David his eldest daughter, Merab in marriage. Well, to be honest, Saul had previously promised his daughter to anyone who would kill Goliath, so he was making good on his earlier promise; but he made a condition of marriage that David continue his brave service in the army and continuing to “fight the battles of the LORD.” Sooner or later, Saul figures, David will get killed in combat, and then he won't be a problem any more, will he.

Which, come to think of it, is similar to the plan David later used against Uriah the Hittite. I wonder if that's where he got the idea.

A more ambitious man, or perhaps a less prudent one, would have jumped at the offer. David turns Saul down. “Who am I, and what is my family or my father's clan in Israel, that I should become the king's son-in-law?” (v. 18)

The plan wasn't a total wash, though. David is still in the army, and accidents can still happen. Saul marries Merab off to a guy named Adriel and the two of them fall out of the narrative. Much later the Second Book of Samuel makes mention of five sons of Adriel (2 Samuel 21:8). Many of the oldest Hebrew manuscripts refer to them as the sons of Adriel and Michal, Merab's sister; but that doesn't make a lot of sense and many translators and commentators – regard this as a goof and say that Merab was the mother. One explanation, which makes about as much sense as anything, suggests that Merab had died by this time and that Auntie Michal raised the five boys. Maybe.

But what about Auntie Michal? We're getting to her.

Michal is Saul's younger daughter, and she has fallen in love with David. This pleases Saul because it gives him another chance to sucker David into doing something rash. He has some of his flunkies go to David privately and butter him up. “Look, the king is pleased with you, and his attendants all like you; now become his son-in-law.”

Dave still plays it cagey; or perhaps he really is that humble. “Do you think it is a small matter to become the king's son-in-law? I'm only a poor man and little known.” (v.23)

It was customary at the time for a bridegroom to pay a “bride-price” to the father of the bride. To our sensibilities, this sound awfully like the girl is being sold like a prize heifer; and to a certain respect it is. The reasoning behind it was that the bride-price was compensation to the bride's family for the loss of a daughter; and also insurance to support the bride, should she become widowed; which, given David's line of work, was a distinct possibility.

This time, Saul is ready for David's demurral, and passes on the message that the only bride-price he wants from David is one hundred Philistine foreskins. Presumably from dead Philistines, although I suppose they could have been taken from prisoners; but yes, foreskins.

Perhaps you might ask yourselves at this point, “What is it with these ancient Hebrews and their thing about foreskins?” Well, Circumcision, the excision of the male foreskin, was the sign of the covenant God established with Abraham way back in Genesis chapter 17. It became a symbol of Jewish identity; a physical sign that they were a people different from other nations. Not only were the men required to be circumcised, but also their servants and the other male members of their household.

One Bible study program that my Dad used back in the '70s used Circumcision to represent a whole class of Mosaic laws and Scriptural narratives which emphasized the separation of God's People from the Gentiles; but I wonder if the reverse wasn't true as well. By requiring the servants and even the slaves to also be circumcised, the Law was including them in the Covenant community as well.

Looking at it from this point of view, Saul's request becomes rather perverse. Besides the the inherent squickiness of the the body part he requested, I mean. A ritual intended to be a sign of inclusion in a group, is being used as a mark of humiliation inflicted on an enemy.

On a less theological level, Saul is also following the venerable fairy-tale tradition of demanding that a suitor perform an impossible task before granting him the hand of his daughter, in the hopes that the guy will fail or die in the attempt.

In the fairy-tales, this never works. The Poor but Honest Peasant Lad succeeds in his impossible task; and in this story, so does David. He goes off to fight the Philistines and comes back with twice the number of trophies Saul demanded.

This ought to be the point where they all live happily ever after; except that Saul still hates and fears David. He sees David's success as a sign that God favors him, and the jealousy Saul feels is eating him up. Everything David does is a success; he has more victories than any of Saul's other generals. Saul's daughter is in love with David and even his son, Jonathan, who ought to regard David as a rival, speaks up for him.

Saul's jealousy deepens into an obsession and on a few occasions, he impulsively tries to kill David.

On one of these, Saul sends minions to David's house with orders to watch it and to kill David in the morning. Michal becomes aware of this and warns her husband that he needs to flee for his life. She helps him escape through a window, and then hides the escape by sticking a dummy in his bed and covering it up with blankets and a goat-hair pillow at the head to make it look like David is still sleeping. Saul's minions obviously haven't seen enough movies and so they are fooled.

The text doesn't call it a dummy of course; the Hebrew calls it a “terephim”. The word is believed to refer to an idol, and is used in the story from Genesis where Rachel steals her family's household gods and winds up embarrassing her husband. Why would the daughter of the king of Israel have a heathen idol in her house? Well, the obvious answer is that King Saul wasn't all that righteous. Another possibility is that the people of David's time weren't nearly as doctrinally pure as the later priestly writers of Scriptures would like us to think, and that sometimes made graven images. Maybe it was simply an object d'art, or a piece of plunder from a neighboring kingdom.

Whatever it was, when Saul arrives the next day desiring to kill David and finds how his myrmidons were bamboozled, he is furious with his daughter. Michal pleads that she had to help David escape because he threatened to kill her if she didn't. Which was a lie, but one which probably saved her life, considering her father's rage.

David flees Saul's court, and for the next several years sort of knocks about with a small group of loyal followers. Let's not be cute about it; the were essentially mercenaries, like Jephthah's band of “worthless men”. Sometimes they were pursed by Saul and his men, but even when they weren't, David kept his distance. There were times when David even wound up working for the Philistines, although he tried to finesse this conflict of interest by raiding third parties who were enemies of both the Philistines and the Israelites.

And what of Michal? As far as Saul is concerned, David is dead to him; or at least Saul wishes he was dead. He marries Michal off to a guy named Paltiel. I don't imagine he asked Michal's input on the matter; even if such a thing were customary at that time, Saul wasn't that kind of a guy.

The on-again/off-again wars between the Israelites and the Philistines continue. In one climactic battle, most of Saul's sons are killed, and Saul commits suicide on the battlefield rather than be captured by the enemy. His remaining son, Ish-Bosheth, is a weak leader who holds only a tenuous grasp over the tribes of Israel.

David returns to his native Judah, to the city of Hebron; where the tribe of Judah elect him king. There follows a period of tension between David and Ish-Bosheth over which one would rule over the whole of Israel.

David sends messengers to Ish-Bosheth, demanding that he return his sister Michal to David. After all, David did pay for her. Perhaps it was tacky of him to mention the hundred foreskins, but at least he didn't bring up the fact that he had supplied double the price.

Perhaps if Ish-Bosheth had been in a stronger position, or if he regarded his sister better, he would have told David where to stick his hundred foreskins. As it was, he complies, and orders Michal to be taken from Paltiel and delivered to David. Paltiel is heartbroken to be separated from her and follows her weeping, until Abner, the general charged with escorting Michal, tells him to get lost.

It would be nice to think that David demanded Michal's return because he still deeply loved her. Maybe he did. But during the intervening years, he had picked up two other wives, Aninoam of Jezreel, and Abigail the widow of Nabal. Some readers have darkly observed that if David really loved Michal that much he could have taken her with him or tried to recover her earlier.

It could be that this was simply a matter of pride: Saul had taken David's wife away from him, and now he wanted her back. Or it could have been a matter of politics: by claiming the Daughter of Saul as his wife, David was trying to bolster his claim as the rightful successor to Saul.

Or it might have been something even more subtle. At this time, Abner, one of Saul's most able generals, is getting pretty fed up with Ish-Bosheth and decides to defect to David's side. His escorting of Michal might have been an excuse for him to go to Hebron where he could negotiate with David.

Or it may have been a combination of any of these factors. We aren't told how Michal felt about being yanked from one husband to another. The narrative simply notes that David regained possession of her and then goes on to other things.

Eventually, David does gain recognition by all the tribes as King of Israel. He conquers the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and makes it his political capitol.

At first he wants to bring the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem too, so that Israel's religious center and its political center will be in the same place. This doesn't work out so well. In his first attempt to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, he fails to follow the SOP, and one of the men transporting it accidentally touches the Ark and gets fried by its Divine Power. (2 Samuel 6:1-7) This frightens David, so he waits a few years before trying it again.

The second time, David was more careful and had his people follow the protocols established in the Law of Moses for transporting the Ark. Everything goes without a hitch, and David led the procession into the city, dancing before the Ark all the way. And why not? It was certainly an occasion for celebration. This moment, for David, is probably the peak of his career; more momentous than slaying Goliath, more important than being crowned king, even more significant than claiming the city of Jerusalem for his own.

Maybe, but Michal doesn't see it that way.

As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16)

After the Ark has been placed in its new home, a special tent erected within the city walls, and offerings have been sacrificed to sanctify the occasion and David had given out bread and dates and raisins to the crowd in celebration, David returns to his palace, where Michal has words for him.

When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (v.20)

He was making a spectacle of himself and cavorting in a manner beneath the dignity of a king. Her phrasing has led many readers to assume that David was dancing naked, or perhaps in his underwear, but I'm not sure if this is necessarily true.

Verse 12 states, “David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might.” The ephod was a sleeveless garment worn by those who served in the holy sanctuary. A special type of ephod was worn by the High Priest and had a special breastplate attached to it, but this was probably the bog-standard work smock worn by the entry-level staff. The text does not give us a detailed description of what the ephod looked like, probably because at the time those passages were written, it was in use and so everybody knew. The Jewish Encyclopedia tells us this:

All that can be gleaned from the text is the following: The ephod was held together by a girdle ... of similar workmanship sewed on to it (Ex. xxviii. 8); it had two shoulder-pieces, which, as the name implies, crossed the shoulders, and were apparently fastened or sewed to the ephod in front (Ex. xxviii. 7, 27). In dressing, the shoulder-pieces were joined in the back to the two ends of the ephod. Nothing is said of the length of the garment. At the point where the shoulder-pieces were joined together in the front "above the girdle," two golden rings were sewed on, to which the breast-plate was attached.

If the ephod was fairly short, coming down, say, to mid-thigh, and if David was wearing nothing underneath it, is is quite possible that in his enthusiastic dancing he gave the crowds on the street some entertaining glimpses of his royal dangly bits.

Or it could be that Michal was peeved that he cast off his kingly robes to prance about in a humble tunic like a peon. It was a rude reminder to the princess that the man she married was at heart still a peasant shepherd.

So was Michal's rebuke prudish, or snobbish, or justified anger? It was certainly a buzzkill, and David replies icily:

David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD's people Israel – I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” (v. 21-22)

The chapter ends with a sad commentary:

And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death. (v. 23)

Many commentators see this as Divine Punishment for her catty remarks about her husband's dance moves. I think it's something deeper and sadder.

At one time, Michal loved David. There aren't a lot of relationships in the Bible where the text says anything about how the woman felt; this might be the only one. Then David was absent for so many years, and Michal married off to some other guy. By they were reunited, they must have become strangers to each other; she was no longer David's first love, but rather an addition to his existing collection of wives.

I think the incident of David's dancing brought home to both of them that their relationship was over. He put her aside, with the other trophies of his old victories, but never again loved her.

A bitter ending to what started out as a storybook romance.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Woman Who Bled

One thing I find striking about the miracles recorded in the Gospel accounts is how much variety we find in them. Some instances are dramatic: Jesus commands the storm on the sea to be still; he tells the cripple to arise and walk; he calls out to Lazarus, four days dead in the tomb, to come forth. In others, he doesn’t seem to do anything at all, as in the case of the Centurion’s servant or the Canaanite woman’s daughter: he just tells the person requesting help that their loved one has been healed. In yet other cases, Jesus tells someone to do something completely mundane and seemingly irrelevant, and in the course of doing it the miracle just seems to happen, as in the Wedding at Cana, or the various miracles involving St. Peter and fish.

Then there’s the story of the Woman Who Bled, which might be the most peculiar one of all.

The story occurs as a kind of interruption in the middle of a completely different miracle. A man named Jairus, one of the administrators of the local synagogue, comes to Jesus with an urgent request. His daughter is dying and he pleads with Jesus to come lay his hands on her and heal her. (Mark 5:21-23). Luke’s telling of the story adds the details that the girl is only twelve years old and is Jairus’ only daughter. (Luke 8:40-42) Matthew’s version does not name the father and says that the girl has already died, but I think Matthew is anticipating things here. (Matthew 9:18).

Jesus arrives too late; the girl has already died and the Professional Mourners have already arrived, weeping and wailing fit to wake the… well … the dead. When Jesus says that the girl is not dead but merely sleeping, the mourners laugh at him, perhaps mistakenly believing him to be quoting a Monty Python skit.

Jesus elbows his way into the house to the child’s bedside, just him, the girl’s family and a couple of his closest disciples. He takes the girl’s hand and says, “Little girl, arise,” (Mark gives it to us in Aramaic: “Talitha koum.” ) And the girl gets up and begins to walk around.

That, briefly, is the story of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:35-43); but as I mentioned, there’s another miracle inserted in the middle of the story; one that sometimes gets omitted in the telling, but which appears in each of the three versions from the Gospels. It seems irrelevant to the story of Jairus, except maybe to build some suspense, and one could look at it as a minor miracle compared to Jesus’ demonstration of power over Death. Yet to me this other, digressive story carries a sense of mystery, possibly even greater than the other.

So, backing up a bit. A crowd had gathered around Jesus when Jairus got to him -- heck, just his disciples alone were already a crowd – and the crowd grew into a veritable parade as they followed Jesus to Jairus’ house. In that crowd was a woman who was suffering from a terrible condition causing excessive bleeding.

When I was a kid, I assumed this must be something like hemophilia, because back then people really didn’t talk openly about menstruation; at least not to pre-adolescent boys. The text doesn’t give us much specific information, but we can guess that it was The Menstrual Period From Hell, except that it had lasted for twelve years. Mark tells us, “She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better, she grew worse.” (Mark 5:26)

(Some commentators have noted that this woman had been suffering for twelve years, and that Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old. A coincidence? Or was the number chosen symbolically to link the two stories together? I couldn’t say.)

I suspect that a lot of guys don’t really understand menstruation. As I said, it’s not something that’s really talked about openly. It’s mysterious to us, maybe a little bit freaky, and it makes women crabby once a month. Yeah, guys tend to only understand the aspects of it that directly affect us. But I understand from the people I know who do experience it, that a menstrual period is at best, agonizing, and at worst can be incapacitating. In Jesus’ day, it was even worse for women because of the Jewish Laws regarding blood.

A goodly chunk of the Law of Moses deals with cleanliness issues. Certain things were considered Unclean and contact with them would render a person contaminated and they would be required to undergo ritual purification These things included pork, dead bodies, “discharges” of various kinds, and semen, but a biggie was blood. Several verses in the Book of Leviticus are devoted to avoiding contact with blood and purification should you, by necessity become contaminated by it. When I first tried slogging through reading Leviticus, I thought all these cleanliness regulations were rather excessive, until years later when I had to sit through OSHA training seminars on Blood-Borne Pathogens.

So was Moses trying to establish principles of hygiene and sanitation couched in religious terms for a culture that didn’t understand the germ theory of disease? Or were these rules simply based on the idea that there was something sacred or mystical about blood? Or was it a little of both? I couldn’t say.

This principle that contact with blood rendered one ritually unclean necessitated special rules for those subject to menstruation:

“’When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. “’Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Whoever touches her bed must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whoever touches anything she sits on must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, he will be unclean till evening.’” (Leviticus 15:19-23 NIV)

A large section of the Mishnah, one of the foundations of the Jewish Talmud, is devoted to elaborating on the Levitical laws regarding menstruation, considering various contingencies, and even case studies of rulings made by rabbis based on the evidence of stained article of clothing.

Things were even more complicated for a person like the woman in Mark chapter 5, whose period lasts longer than usual. In such a case, the woman was required to remain quarantined for seven days past the last day of menstruation, and also to bring two doves or young pigeons to be offered as a sacrifice in addition to the standard ritual washing; something not required after a normal period.

So what with the unending bleeding, (no doubt accompanied by cramps that felt like her uterus was trying to eat her from the inside); the isolation from the rest of the community; the worthless doctors who didn’t know squat about women’s health but nevertheless charged her up the hoo-hah; not to mention the expense of having to buy two young pigeons each time it looked like the bleeding had finally ceased… well, this woman was pretty desperate. But she’d heard about this teacher who could heal people…

She makes her way through the crowd around Jesus and comes up behind him. If she can just touch his cloak, she thinks – the hem of his garment, Luke’s telling of the story says in the King James Version – she’s certain she’ll be healed. And so she does.

Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. (Mark 5:29)

When I was little, I wondered how she would know; but if her uterus had been tying itself in knots, and then suddenly the pain ceased, that’s something she certainly would notice.

Jesus notices too:

At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (v.30)

Let’s stop here and take a look at this. I usually think of Jesus’ miracles as him doing something: rebuking the winds, and they obey him, commanding demons and driving them out; laying on his hands, and curing the illness; even just saying that something will be so and it is so. Like a Fifth Level Wizard saying “I cast Magic Missile.”

But in this case, the miracle just sort of happens, without his active participation at all.

There’s an old doctrine in Christian theology which states that Christ was both True God and True Man, but even Christians who hold this doctrine don’t really think about it a whole lot, nor dwell on what this might mean. It means possessing both limitless Divine Power, yet also human limitations. How can this be? I have trouble wrapping my mind around it. This is truly hot ice and wond’rous strange snow.

And yet perhaps it’s what we’re seeing here, where Jesus seems unaware of the miracle he’s just performed; or rather, that the miracle performed itself without his conscious participation, as if he were merely the conduit of Divine Power and not its wielder.

The only active party in this miracle is the woman herself, who takes the initiative to grasp his garment and draws the healing power into herself. It’s a mystery.

As far as the Disciples are concerned, though, the only mystery is what Jesus means. After all, he’s in the middle of a crowd of people, all jostling and bumping into each other, trying to get close to him; and he asks who touched him?

No doubt Jairus was annoyed by the interruption too. His daughter was dying, and Jesus stops to ask such a stupid question?

But no, the question was an important one. Jesus wants to see and to talk to the person he had healed. 

he woman is scared. Was she going to get in trouble? After all, she was considered “unclean” and wasn’t supposed to go around touching other people. Would Jesus be mad at her for stealing a miracle from him? The woman falls at his feet and admits what she has done.

Jesus isn’t mad at her at all. He commends her for her faith: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (v.34)

We don’t hear what happened to the woman after this. Jesus has this brief moment with her to reassure her and affirm her healing; then he gets yanked back to the other crisis at Jairus’ house. We don’t even learn the woman’s name. Then again, the text doesn’t say if Jesus had to take a bath to purify himself afterwards either. Healing the two women who needed help was a higher priority for him.

But although I called this an atypical miracle for Jesus, in one way it’s not unusual at all. Jesus often showed the most warmth and affection for those who took the initiative: the guys who opened a hole in the roof of the house Jesus was staying in so they could bring their crippled friend in for Jesus to heal; the Canaanite woman who, when challenged by Jesus on her right to ask for help, refused to be intimidated and gave a ready answer; the leper who, finding that he and his nine comrades had been healed of their disease while going to see the priest as Jesus commanded, took the time to return to Jesus and thank him.

And then this woman, denied contact with the rest of the community, who just wanted to touch him.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Sundered Garment: Jeroboam's Tax Revolt

King Solomon is chiefly known for two things:  possessing enormous wealth, possessing deep wisdom, and possessing enough wives to fill a good chunk of a football stadium.  That’s three; but the last is really a subset of the first.  He used his wealth to build the Temple in Jerusalem, an opulent palace, and to impress foreign dignitaries like the Queen of Sheba.

Some of it was wealth his father had saved up for him. The Book of 1 Kings describes his reign as a period of prosperity where people lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree, (1 Kings 4:25) and that prosperity undoubtedly trickled up, as wealth tends to do. Although the Bible doesn’t exactly come out and say it, my guess is that Solomon got his riches in the usual way:  through taxation.

And nobody likes taxes.

During the reign of Solomon’s son, Rheoboam, discontent over taxes blew up into a full-fledged revolt that resulted in five-sixths of the country seceding and forever split the nation in two.

But first let’s talk about Jeroboam.

Jeroboam was an able young man whom Solomon placed in charge of the labor force of the House of Joseph.  In addition to the Temple, Solomon built numerous other public works including completing the walls around the city and building terraces to support the city’s expansion.  The labor force for these projects was conscripted from each of the tribes of Israel.  The House of Joseph refers to the two tribes of Ephraim, (Jeroboam’s tribe), and Manasseh, which descended from the sons of Joseph.

One day when Jeroboam was traveling from Jerusalem, he was met on the road by a prophet named Ahijah, who happened to be wearing a spiffy new cloak.  When the two of them were alone on the road, out in the country, Ahijah removed his outer cloak and tore it into twelve pieces.

Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten pieces for yourself, for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel says:  ‘See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes.  But for the sake of my servant David and the city of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, he will have one tribe.  (1 Kings 11:31 NIV)

The reason he gives is that Solomon has forsaken the Lord and has been worshipping the gods of the Canaanites:  Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh, the god of the Moabites, and Molech, god of the Ammnoites.  I mentioned all of those wives, didn’t I?  well, many of them came from foreign lands, diplomatic marriages to seal treaties with other kings.  He built temples to accommodate his wives, and under their influence, worshiped with them there.

In our day and age, the establishment of places of worship for differing religions is protected by law.  That’s because our Constitution is a Covenant between the People and the Government, not between the People and God. Some people might think it should be, but contrary to their opinions, the Constitution was not received by George Washington on Tablets of Stone. America is not Ancient Israel.

One of the underlying themes of the Law of Moses is, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.”  (Leviticus 26:12)  Repeatedly the Books of Moses repeat the admonition that God is giving the people of Israel their own land with the understanding that they will obey his commandments.  If they stray from this understanding, all bets are off.

And much of the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures can be seen as a recurring cycle of the people turning away from God, and then bad things happen, and when they return to him for help he delivers them.  Ahijah’s prophecy can be seen as one more iteration of this cycle.  Ahijah makes this clear by reiterating the deal:

“However, as for you, I will take you, and you will rule over all that your heart desired; you will be king over Israel.  If you do whatever I command you and walk in  my ways and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statures and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you.  I will build you a dynasty as enduring as the one I built for David and will give Israel to you.”  (1 Kings 11:37-38)

What has this to do with taxes?  We’re getting there.

Solomon must have heard about Ahijah’s coat and his prophecy; or maybe he had other reasons to suspect Jeroboam of subversive tendencies.  The text tells us he tried to kill Jeroboam, but Jerry fled to Egypt, where he was protected by Shisak, the King of Egypt.

Shisak is the first Egyptian king mentioned by name in the Old Testament.  Many scholars have identified him with Sheshonk I, founder of the 22th Dynasty, who lived about that period and who waged a campaign in Canaan as Shisak is said to have done.

Eventually, Solomon died, and was buried in the City of David.  His son, Rehoboam, succeeded him as king.  In an interesting aside, the text tells us that Rehoboam went to Shechem to be made king.  Why not in Jerusalem, the capital of his father and his grandfather?  Shechem was an important city in the tribe of Ephraim, Jeroboam’s tribe, in the hill country north of Jerusalem.  One possibility is that the House of David came from the tribe of Judah, but that his kingship over the rest of Israel had to be ratified by the elders of the other tribes as well.  Or perhaps it was just a ceremony and nobody really expected the son of Solomon and the grandson of David to be vetoed.

Jeroboam had heard about Solomon’s death and returned to Israel.  He was asked to lead a delegation  consisting of “the whole assembly of Israel”; (well, probably a bunch of representatives, but nevertheless speaking for a good segment of the population), bringing a petition to the new king:

“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”  (1 Kings 12:4)

That conscripted labor thing was really unpopular.

Rehoboam asks the delegation to give him a few days to think things over, and then he consults some of his father’s old advisers.  They recommend that he comply with the people’s request.  “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.” (1 Kings 12:7)

There’s a venerable tradition in politics that when your advisers tell you something you don’t want to hear, you find a new set of advisers.  This is precisely what Rehoboam did.  He went to some of the younger men of the court, guys he’d grown up with and who were probably drinking buddies, and asked them the same question.

“Hell, no!”  You can’t let the peons push you around.  If you want respect, you gotta put them in their place.

The young men who had grown up with him replied, “Tell these people who have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter’ – tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist.  My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’”  (1 Kings 12:10-11)

The scorpions were probably whips with nasty metal bits attached to the ends, but you know, using real scorpions would be pretty hard-core too.  Rehoboam gladly embraced the advice of his buddies and gave that response to the men of Israel.  And he probably ordered someone to set about trying to tie live scorpions to whips.  Rehoboam does not seem to have inherited his father’s wisdom.

If Rehoboam thought the men of Israel would meekly submit to his show of machismo, he was badly mistaken. They began to wonder why they really needed a king from a different tribe:

When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king: “What share do we have in David,  What part in Jesse’s son?To your tents, O Israel!  Look after your own house, O David!”(1 Kings 12:16)

When Rehoboam sent out, Adoniram, his official in charge of forced labor, the men of Israel took hold of the guy and stoned him.  This was when it finally dawned on the king that he was not going to be as popular as his dad; and that he was right in the middle of a bunch of people who hated his guts.  Rehoboam hopped into his chariot and high-tailed it out of Shechem and back to Jerusalem.

The leaders of the tribe of Ephraim and the other northern tribes who had gathered at Shechem, elected Jeroboam to be their new king.  He was one of them; he understood their issues, and he had lobbied on their behalf.  Now he was their king.  The torn pieces of Ahijah’s cloak had become a kingdom.

Two of the tribes remained loyal to the House of David:  Judah, the tribe from which David came, and Simeon, which lay south of Judah and was cut off from the northern tribes.  The tribe of Benjamin, on the northern border of Judah’s territory was for a time under Rehoboam’s control also, and the king mustered the armies of Benjamin along with those of Judah to reclaim the rebel northern tribes.  The war never came about, though, because another prophet named Shemaiah intervened and warned Judah and Benjamin not to fight against their brothers. (1 Kings 12:22-24)

Although a full-scale civil war had been averted, the situation between the North and the South remained tense, and minor battles and skirmishes between the two sides occurred frequently over the next few decades.

Even Jeroboam’s old benefactor, King  Shisak of Egypt got into the act, raiding Judah all the way to Jerusalem.  He carried off the treasures of the royal palace, including all the gold shields that Solomon had made.  (1 Kings 14:25-28) The text does not specify whether his armies actually looted the city or if the treasure was given to them as danegeld.  Since the text doesn’t say anything about Shisak carting off stuff from the Temple, (as the Babylonians did later), I’m inclined to think that Rehoboam just paid him off.

But whose side was God on in all this?  It’s tempting to sympathize with Jeroboam and his revolt against tyranny; I’m sure modern-day Tea Partyists would.  After all, nobody likes a tyrant, and Rehoboam was a real jerk.  And Ahijah’s prophecy would seem to put God’s blessing on the whole secession thing.

But the author of Kings dances around this issue.  Although the Books of Kings deal with the histories of both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms, they are definitely written from the Judean point of view, and have little or nothing good to say about the rulers of the North.  Rehoboam might have been a jerk, but as far as the text is concerned, he was the heir to David’s line and therefore the Rightful Ruler.  Ahijah’s prophecy was a prediction, but not necessarily an endorsement.  And the prediction came with some important caveats:  that because of God’s covenant with David, the Line of David would retain Jerusalem and a portion of the Twelve Tribes, and that David’s descendents would not remain humbled forever.

And the form of the prophecy carried some heavy symbolism too.  Ahijah could have broken a jar and given Jeroboam ten pieces; he could have torn up a piece of paper and done the same.  Instead, he rent his garment. The rending of one’s garment was a traditional expression of grief, as when Jacob heard about the supposed death of his son, Joseph in Genesis 37:29, or when King Hezekiah was surrounded by the besieging army of Sennacherib in 2 Kings 18:37.  I think the prophet’s use of this particular imagery, the torn garment, is meant to underscore that this sundering of the kingdom is a tragedy and would bring grief to come..


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Know Your Herods III: Herod Agrippa, Superstar

In the middle of his novel, Claudius the God, the sequel to I, Claudius, writer Robert Graves interrupts his narrative about the Roman Emperor to tell the story of a friend of Claudius’, the son of a Jewish royal family whose career had more ups and downs than an epileptic yo-yo.  He is mentioned very briefly in the Book of Acts, but like the rest of his dysfunctional family, there is so much more to his life than that.  He was the rock star of the House of Herod:  Herod Agrippa I.

Agrippa was the son of Aristobulus IV, one of the children of Herod the Great, and one of the sons Herod had executed.  Little Agrippa was only three at the time, and therefore incapable of plotting against Grandpa Herod, so the family sent him to Rome.  Agrippa grew up at the Roman Imperial Court and became good friends with Claudius and with the Emperor Tiberius’ son, Drusus.

After his mother’s death, he came into some money, but quickly spent it all and dug himself deep into debt.  When his friend Drusus died, he had to flee Rome to escape his debts and he stayed for a while in Idumaea, where his grandfather’s family originally came from.

His uncle, Herod Antipas, gave him a minor administrative post in the city of Tiberius in Galilee, but that didn’t last very long.  He bounced around a bit after that, ending up in Alexandria in Egypt, where with the help of his wife, he was able to secure a loan to pay off his debts, enabling him to return to Rome.

Once again in Rome, he became close friends with Caligula, Tiberius’ designated heir.  For a while, these were good times for Agrippa; but on one occasion a servant heard him joking that he wished Tiberius would hurry up and die so that Caligula could ascend to the throne.

Word of Agrippa’s injudicious remark got back to Tiberius.  The Emperor did not find the joke terribly funny.  Not that many years before, Tiberius had discovered that his best friend, Sejanus, had practically taken over ruling the Empire and was using him as a figurehead.  Tiberius regained control of the situation, but the betrayal had left him justifiably paranoid about that sort of thing.  Herod Agrippa was sent to prison, and there was nothing Caligula could do to help.  If he had tried, Uncle Tiberius would have seen it as proof that Caligula really was plotting against him.  Which Caligula probably was.

So there Agrippa sat, until the old hedonist finally did croak, and Caligula took over.  Caligula did not forget his old pal.  He freed Agrippa and by way of restitution gave him a chain made of gold as heavy as the iron chain Agrippa had worn in prison.  Caligula also appointed him king of the province of Syria and the regions previously ruled by Agrippa’s late Uncle Philip, (the brother of Herod Antipas).  This rankled Antipas, who for years had coveted the title of king, but had to be content with being called a tetrarch.

On his way to Syria, Agrippa revisited Alexandria.  According to Philo, a First Century Jewish historian living in the city at that time, the honors the Emperor had bestowed upon Agrippa stirred up jealousy and resentment against the Jewish community amongst the populace.  Philo describes public insults to Agrippa made by rabble-rousers, and acts of violence against the Alexandrian Jews.  The provincial governor, a guy with the embarrassing name of Flaccus, was either too incompetent to curb the violence or, as Philo insists, complicit in it.  None of this seems to have been Agrippa’s fault, though, and Philo seems to have had a high opinion of him.

Philo wasn’t the only one who liked Agrippa.  Unlike the rest of the rulers in the House of Herod, Agrippa actually got along with his Jewish subjects.  Maybe enough generations had passed that Grandpa Herod’s Idumenan blood wasn’t that important anymore; maybe Agrippa was more observant than his hedonistic Uncle Antipas; maybe years of Roman rule had made people nostalgic for the glory days of Herod the Great.  Personally, I suspect that Herod Agrippa had a talent for schmoozing which his other family members lacked; but we don’t read much about that aspect of Agrippa’s personality from Josephus.

His Uncle Antipas didn’t like him, though.  You may remember that Herod Antipas was only a tetrarch, the ruler of one quarter of a province; but the Emperor appointed Herod Agrippa to be a basileus, (king).  Antipas tried lobbying the Emperor for an upgrade in his job title; and while he was at it, hint that Agrippa was doing a crappy job; (the same sort of rumors Antipas used to pass on about his rival Pontius Pilate).

Agrippa anticipated him, and sent Caligula accusations of his own against Uncle Antipas.  Guess  which one Caligula believed.  Antipas found himself exiled to Gaul and his former tetrarchy got added to Agrippa’s territories.  Agrippa now ruled over all of the Jewish territories in Palestine, except for the core provinces of Judea and Samaria, which remained for the time under Roman administrators.

Agrippa remained close buds with Caligula, which in itself was no small accomplishment.  He accompanied the Emperor on a military campaign to the Rhine Valley, not because he had any great military skill, but I think because Caligula wanted a drinking buddy on the trip to pal around with.

This relationship helped Agrippa in what was probably the biggest crisis of his career.  As Caligula slid further and further into the teacup, he issued a decree that statues of himself be placed in every temple in the empire.  This would not have gone down well in Jerusalem.

Some years earlier, Pontius Pilate had faced riots because he brought soldiers into the city whose regimental standard bore the Emperor’s likeness.  More importantly, the Maccabean wars of a century or two earlier when the Jews revolted against the Selucid Greeks and briefly established their independence, was triggered when the Selucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ordered sacrifices to Zeus in the Temple.

Agrippa was descended on his grandmother’s side from the Hasomean Dynasty of priestly kings who ruled Judea during this period of independence.  He could see how this would go:  the Jews would resist the edict, as they did in the days of Judah “the Hammer” Maccabeus; only this time, the Romans would be the ones doing the hammering.

With his considerable powers of flattery and diplomacy, Agrippa was able to intercede with Caligula – very likely at the risk of his own life – and persuade him to rescind the edict.  Jerusalem and the Temple were spared revolt and the crushing Roman retaliation for a generation.

Before Caligula could change his mind again, he was assassinated.  As luck would have it, Agrippa was once again in Rome when it happened.  Always one to know who his friends were, Agrippa glommed onto Claudius, his old school chum and Caligula’s uncle.

Claudius had always been considered too feeble-minded and bookish by his family to get involved in their Imperial power struggles; but with the death of Caligula, he was about the last male member of the House of Caesar available as a successor.  The Praetorian Guard, the Emperor’s elite bodyguards, declared their support for Claudius to be the new Emperor.  In Josephus’s book The Antiquities of the Jews, he describes Agrippa as being instrumental in persuading Claudius to seize the throne and challenge the Roman Senate.  His earlier book, The Jewish Wars, simply depict Agrippa as a messenger to Claudius.

When the dust cleared and all the blood mopped from the floor, Claudius was Emperor, and he granted his buddy the remaining Jewish provinces of Judea and Samaria.  Now Herod Agrippa truly was King of the Jews.

And, from the accounts of Philo, Josephus, and some of the rabbinical commentators on that period, he did pretty well as king.  His ringside seat in Rome witnessing the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula gave him an exemplary education in what not to do when you’re an absolute monarch and he seems to have taken those lessons to heart.

But you know he wouldn’t be a Herod if he didn’t execute someone somewhere along the line.  And that’s where he comes into the New Testament.

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.  He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.  When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.  (Acts 12:1-3 NIV)

James the son of Zebedee, along with his brother, John and with Simon Peter, are described by the Gospels as the closest of Jesus’ disciples.  He took the three of them with him up on the mountain to witness his Transfiguration; and later on, he also took them along when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. At one point, the mother of James and John lobbied Jesus to have him place her boys at his Right and Left Hand; an idea Jesus quashed, but which caused a bit of resentment among the other Disciples.  The Gospels say little of James actually doing much, and I’ve always gotten the impression that John was the one who was really close to Jesus and that James came along because the two brothers were inseparable.  I also have to wonder how much of the hostility in the Gospel of John towards “The Jews” stems from the execution of his brother.  I may be reading too much into this, though.

The James mentioned here, the brother of John, is a different guy from the James who appears later in Acts as an important leader in the Christian Community, and who is called “James the brother of Jesus.”  Unless the author of Acts did some major messing with the sequence of events, which is also a possibility.  But no, I think if the two Jameses had been the same man, the writer would have made this more clear.

Why did Agrippa have James arrested and executed?  He probably considered James’ wacko religious splinter group as disturbers of the peace.  Or perhaps, as the text darkly suggests, he did it solely to suck up to the Jewish religious authorities, who regarded them as blasphemers.  Or, most likely, I think, a little of both.

He had James executed by the sword, and not by crucifixion.  It seems to me that this is a telling point, but I’m not sure what it tells me.  Crucifixion was a Roman punishment for crimes against the Empire of Rome; Agrippa, I think, wanted to be seen acting on behalf of his own kingdom and not on behalf of the Emperor.  Or maybe he figured that since the Messiah these people followed had been crucified, that doing it to James too would just encourage them.

The poll numbers from his action were encouraging.  After all, no politician ever misses a chance to appear Tough on Crime, and being Tough on Heresy is even better.  So Agrippa also had Peter brought in during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, intending to put him to public trial once Passover ended.  The Book of Acts tells of how Peter miraculously escaped from prison in a jailbreak that was simultaneously awesome and a little bit creepy.  (And capped off with a bit of comedy, when Peter showed up at the house of some friends and they refused to believe it was him).  Presumably Peter laid low after that, because we get no mention of Agrippa trying to arrest him again.

He might not have had the chance; because after the Passover festival of AD 44, Agrippa returned to the city of Caesarea to preside over a series of games in honor of Claudius.  According to Acts, he had been quarreling with the people of the nearby provinces of Tyre and Sidon, and they had sent envoys to Agrippa to sue for peace.  Josephus, describing the occasion, makes no mention of the envoys and only says that Agrippa was presiding over a public festival.  The Book of Acts describes it this way:

On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people.  They shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man.”   (Acts 12:21-22)

If this doesn’t sound like the kind of thing a crowd of Jewish subjects would say, you’re right.  But Caesarea was a predominantly Gentile city.  The author of Acts strongly hints that the envoys from Tyre and Sidon were the ones doing the flattery.  Josephus’ account says that the occasion was a a series of public games held in honor of the Emperor, which would likely draw a mostly Romanized crowd anyway.  And I suspect that after a couple of generations of Roman Emperors being declared gods after death, and of Caligula claiming godhood for himself while alive, the idea of granting divine attributes to a king had pretty much come to be considered one of the perks of the job.

Josephus gives a little more detail:

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea [...] There he exhibited shows in honor of the emperor [...] On the second day of the festival, Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment was illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun's rays upon it. It shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him. At that moment, his flatterers cried out [...] that he was a god; and they added, 'Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.'

Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and he fell into the deepest sorrow.  [Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities Book 19 ch.8]

The owl was a reference to the earlier occasion when Agrippa had been imprisoned by Tiberius.  He saw an owl perched above him while in prison and took it to be an omen of good fortune.  When he saw the owl again, he interpreted it as a sign that his luck was about to change.

A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, 'I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.'  After he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king's recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.  (Josephus,  Jewish Antiquities Book 19.ch. 8)

The Author of Acts has little positive to say about the killer of James, and is much briefer: 

Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.  (Acts 12:23)

What was this malady that took away the resplendent Agrippa in the vigor of his life?  Some have speculated that it might have been the same ailment that took his grandfather, Herod the Great; but since we don’t know what that ailment was, it doesn’t really help that much.  If it was the same cause of death, Agrippa was lucky he only suffered for five days instead of the years it took Grandpa Herod to die.

In his novel Claudius the God, Robert Graves has the Emperor, hearing about his friend’s death, muse that the Hebrew god must be pretty arbitrary and petty to strike Agrippa down like that for such a trifling offense.  And perhaps it was.  But in Josephus’ telling at least, Agrippa seems to have taken his fate philosophically.  He might well have said, with Job:  “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”


He left behind a son, Agrippa II who was only 17 and considered too young to take over the throne; and so the restored Kingdom of the Herods once again fell to the rule of Roman administrators.  In the meantime, the fringe group following the crucified Messiah that Agrippa tried to crush grew.  And so did the tensions between the Jewish population of Judea and their Roman rulers.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Clothes Encounter

If, like me, you are a child of the ‘70s, you might recall an athletic form of exhibitionism from that era called Streaking.  It was one of that decade’s contributions to Western Civilization, like Disco, Pet Rocks, “Whip Inflation Now!” Buttons and the Bicentennial Minute; and it involved young male college students dashing across a public space while buck naked.  I’m not exactly sure what the point of this was, unless maybe to encourage young female college students to do the same

One might not expect the Bible to have anything to say about this type of behavior, but there is a venerable tradition among Bible pedagogues like myself of trying to make Holy Writ seem hip and relevant by seizing on some popular trend and purporting to find mention of it Scriptures.  This doesn’t always work, but sometimes it’s interesting.  At least to other pedagogues.

Now, granted Streaking has not been trendy since the Ford administration; but being out-of-date has never stopped me before.  With that in mind, let’s take a look at the story of the Bible’s Streaker.

The story comes in the account of the Passion Narrative found in the Gospel of St. Mark.  It tells how Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane by group of thugs, “a crowd armed with swords and clubs”, sent by the chief priests and guided by Judas, who identified Jesus to them.  The disciples  who were with Jesus ran off in fear.  The guards escorted Jesus to the high priest, and it is on the way there that Mark inserts this peculiar little incident:

A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus.  When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.  (Mark 14:51-52 NIV)

Evidently, this young man was a follower of Jesus, but not one of the Twelve Disciples.  Perhaps he heard about the arrest while he was taking a bath and threw something one to run and see.  Or perhaps he had just heard that Jesus would be in the Garden and only wanted to see him, but arrived as Jesus was being taken away.  He showed more courage than most of the other disciples, following the armed escort; but when the guards spotted him and tried to lay hold of him, he too ran away.

Who was this impetuous young man?  The text doesn’t really give us much about him.  It’s been suggested he might have come from an affluent family because he wore linen, instead of the more common wool outer garment.  That’s not really much to go on.  But Tradition offers an interesting supposition:  that the young man was Mark himself.

John Mark, traditionally considered the author of the Second Gospel, was a young man mentioned on a few occasions in the Book of Acts.  His mother, who was named Mary, but probably unrelated to any of the other Marys of the New Testament, had a house in Jerusalem which served as a meeting place for believers in the early Church, (Acts 12:12).

John Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their First Missionary Journey, but he bailed out about the time they got to Pamphylia.  Perhaps he was homesick.  Possibly he just felt like he was in over his head.  Maybe he just wasn’t working out. The text gives no details; it just says he left Paul and returned to Jerusalem.  (Acts 13:13)  When Paul was organizing a second journey to visit the communities he’d started in Asia Minor, Barnabas asked Paul to give the kid a second chance.  Paul refused and the disagreement broke up their partnership.

Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them. But Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia, and had not continued with them in the work.  They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.   (Acts 15:37-40)

Eventually, though, Paul got over his bad impression of Mark, and mentions him favorably in a couple of his letters.

The Early Church Father Papias, writing around 140 AD, quotes an earlier source saying that Mark became a close associate of Peter,  Scholars believe that Peter had an assistant, because his first Epistle is better written than his second, and it is believed that he had someone with a better grasp of Greek polish up his writing.  That someone might have been Mark.

Papias’s source goes on to say that Mark compiled Paul’s teachings and stories about Jesus into the Gospel which was ascribed to him.  That would certainly explain where Mark got his material, and also why the other Synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke, follow Mark’s outline and often repeat him verbatim.

Modern scholars have cast doubt on this traditional view, though, noting that Papias wrote a good century after the fact and that we know nothing about the source he quotes.  And there are some goofs in geography in Mark which no Galilean like Peter would make.  Then again, many scholars date the Gospel to about the time of the Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, around AD 70.  This would have been after Peter’s death, when he wouldn’t be around to correct the galley proofs.

The incident of the Young Man and his Towel is a peculiar one that seems pointless and irrelevant.  It seems to have nothing to do with the Great and Portentous events of the Passion Narrative; which may be why Matthew and Luke, who otherwise follow Mark’s outline pretty closely, make no mention of it.  I suspect that the reason why the author of Mark includes it must be that it had some personal meaning for him.  That’s why I think Tradition is right and Mark was that young man.  John Mark, the callow and inexperienced would-be-missionary of Acts chapter 13, could have been an adolescent at the time of Jesus’ trial, too young to participate, and only able to view it from a distance.  And he was living in Jerusalem at the time


Or perhaps not.  Perhaps the writer was someone else, and had some other reason for inserting the incident.  We can’t really know for sure.  But I like to think that this was Mark’s Brush With Greatness, the one moment when his own life intersected with that of Jesus, however peripherally.  And that, as embarrassing as it was, when he set down the stories he had heard about the ministry of Jesus, he included his own brief encounter.