This blog has been working simultaneously with the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, the latter being compteted two weeks ago, and the former this weekend. I shall use a few days in summing up my experience of reading these masterworks in tandem, before moving on to a new project. As always the daily headlines are reminders of the world we live in.
There are a number of characteristics shared by the two books.
1. They are both stories, requiring from their audiences / readers an Interest in the events and characters developed over time. Without that interest the books will be misinterpreted. Anyone for example who tries to use them as illustrations of theological doctrines will miss their truth. Equally anyone who sees them simply as documentary evidence of historical facts, will not appreciate their richness. We have to hear/ read them with the kind of skills derived from our experience of hearing and reading other stories in our own time and place.
2. But they are not products of our own time and place.
The core of Genesis, in my view, dates from the 8th century BCE, from the linked kingdoms of Israel/ Judah, and relies on written and oral sources which are considerably older. It has been edited and re-edited both before and after the exile of Jewish people in Babylon. Especially it has been tailored to fit into the five book structure called Torah or Pentateuch, the Books of Moses. The original core may have continued the story into the Exodus and the settlement of the land, but the material now in Exodus and Joshua is icy judgment by different authors with a different theology. I have taken Genesis, therefore as a work in its own right.
I have assumed that Mark was written around 70 CE, and relies on sources, both oral and written, from the communities of faith in and near Palestine. It is not impossible that it contains material that derives from original witnesses of Jesus’ life, but it seems clear to me that the author exercises a storyteller’s freedom in relation to these sources, because he/she is above all concerned with the ‘good news of Jesus’ that is, with the story of Jesus as the story of God’s victory over the powers of evil. I think ‘ Mark’ may be the inventor of the genre called Gospel.
3. That leads me to another shared characteristic. They are both theological stories, that is, they are concerned in their stories to give content to the word ‘God’: God is YHWH who calls Avraham; God is the One who heals the lepers and contradicts the Pharisees. Neither of them do this in a simple, naive manner. Both are immensely skilled storytellers who are capable of theological argument in the form of stories. Genesis tries out for example the theology of a creator God who rules his world through reward and punishment, but allows his audience to see the inadequacy of this theology in the story of the flood, where God has to learn that no amount of bullying will fix humanity. A systematic theologian would do this by discursive argument; Genesis does it in a story. Mark gives his audience the mistaken theology of a Messiah who will rule by power and shows how it helps to crucify Jesus.
These books do not provide simple statements of true faith but rather allow their readers / audiences to re-imagine their own lives in relation to the God/ Gods they present.
4. Both are cunning storytellers. They ask their audience to be wide awake to the shape of their stories, for example to the special position of Yitzhak as the second father of the people, in between the great active heroes, Avraham and Yaakov, as one who is passive rather than active, suffering rather than successful, in whom the sorrowful mystery of belonging to God is embodied, as the beloved son offered in sacrifice. The ultimately more positive trajectories of Avraham and Yaakov are touched by this sorrow. Or for example the contrast between the story of Herod’s banquet and the feeding of the 5000, that is, between power that consumes and power that feeds a people. Tiny narrative details such as the sun rising on Yaakov as he crosses Penuel limping on his thigh or the rending of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death point to the significance of the narrated events.
5. They are Jewish stories. Probably the Genesis authors and editors were all Jewish, possibly ‘Mark’ was not. But both are stories of events in identifiably Jewish communities, involving mainly Jewish people. Genesis would have been read and probably memorised by Jesus, as it has been by millions of his followers, thus contributing decisively to Christian as well as Jewish faith. Mark’s gospel on the other hand has still not been read by most Jews, and has made no contribution to Judaism. An understanding of historic Israel as a community of faith is necessary for the Christian believer who reads these books.
6. They are both held to be scripture, Genesis by both Jews and Christians, Mark by Christians only. Within the church they are held to be the Word of God, that is, to be essential witness to Jesus Christ who is the living Word of God. In that regard, the church commits itself to interpreting the Old Testament books ‘in the light of Christ’ that is, as possessing only a qualified authority. I accept that qualification in my interpretation of Genesis, but want to preserve the right to use it at times to interpret and amplify the New Testament, as Jesus used it to amplify his own teaching.