In two previous posts, The Uncertaintist discussed why it appears that Mark may have intended his version of the story of Jairus’s daughter not to be a resurrection miracle (link). In Matthew’s telling, Jesus definitely restores a dead girl to life. Luke seems content to leave Jairus’s daughter ambiguous, but introduces a different and completely clear raising miracle, the widow’s son (link).
Regardless of what each author intended, some educated first century readers would have recognized the young adolescent girl’s condition as a possible case of a malady peculiar to women. According to the medical beliefs of the time, the affliction convincingly imitated death, but was easily and quickly curable. If that was the girl’s problem, then Jesus would have been telling the simple truth when he said in all three synoptic gospels that she wasn’t dead, but asleep
The youngest canonical gospel, John, replaces both Jairus’s daughter and the widow’s son with its own raising story, that of Lazarus of Bethany. The clear storyline of Lazarus’s return to life seems to have evolved organically from Mark and Matthew‘s versions of Jairus’s daughter, with Luke‘s raising of the widow’s son as an “intermediate form.”
In all three synoptic Gospels, Jesus remarks that Jairus’s unconscious daughter is asleep, not dead, in reply to others who insist she has died. As described in the previous post (link), Mark told the story to be consistent with Jesus correcting onlookers’ hasty misdiagnosis of a coma as death. Erroneous death declarations were a recognized hazard in the ancient world. Some of Mark’s contemporaries believed that a death-like but easily and rapidly reversible comatose condition sometimes afflicted women.
Mark set his story within a context that supported a matter-of-fact reading of Jesus’s remark. If Jairus’s daughter was dead, then a boy who seemed dead to onlookers should have been dead, too. Pilate’s skeptical reception of Joseph’s testimony about Jesus’s death in Mark underlines the flimsy foundation for the announcement of the children’s deaths. If disciples had seen Jesus revive a dead girl, then it needs explanation how the disciples utterly fail to understand Jesus’s predictions of his resurrection.
Matthew dissolves Mark‘s ambiguity by having Jesus assert plainly that the dead have been raised, referring to Jairus’s daughter. Luke introduces a different revitalization which Jesus refers to when stating that the dead have been raised. This leaves Luke free later on to tell his own ambiguous version of Jairus’s daughter’s story without diminishing his Jesus’s demonstrated authority over death.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus restores to life the deceased young daughter of a man named Jairus. Versions of the incident appear in the other two synoptic Gospels, Mark and Luke, but not in John.
A peculiar feature of all three tellings is that Jesus says aloud that the girl has not died, but is sleeping. In harmony with Matthew, this statement is often read today the same way in all three versions: not as a statement of fact but rather as a teaching metaphor. That is, Jesus’s supposed meaning is that the girl has died, but that death isn’t a permanent condition. However well that interpretation fits Matthew, it is less clear that it suits Mark.
In the first century, among many ways that unconsciousness might be mistaken for death, some educated people believed that women were at special risk to fall into a state that resembled death. The condition was reversible, and rapidly so. Unlike Matthew, Mark does nothing to dissuade his educated readers from thinking that Jairus’s daughter is an example of this phenomenon. On the contrary, in the story details Mark chooses and in the context of his gospel as a whole, premature diagnosis of death appears to be the interpretation which Mark intends for at least some of his potential ancient audience.
That is to say, Mark portrays Jesus as telling the factual truth of the case. In this portrayal, Jesus’s use of “sleep” is indeed a figure of speech, but not a euphemism for death, rather an apt layman’s descriptive term for a comatose state, one kind of which was believed at the time to endanger women especially.
The only place in the canonical New Testament where you might be told otherwise is Mark 3:21, which the popular New International Version translates: “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.'” Many other English translations of this verse are similar (link).
The popularity of this unflattering glimpse of the holy family is a mystery. Mark‘s original Greek is thoroughly vague. The verb translated as to take charge of (kratesai) covers both welcome and unwelcome touching, whether for healing (as at verse 1:31), or to make an arrest (as in Gethsemane, 14:46). The verb translated as he is out of his mind (exeste) similarly applies equally well to a variety of mental states, from the positive astonishment at Jesus’s teaching and miracles (for example, verse 2:12) to something negative that contrasts with sobriety or calm demeanor (2 Corinthians 5:13).
It’s even vague whether Jesus’s family is involved at all. The Greek phrase is no more specific than something like those who are close to him (hoi par’ autou). In context, Jesus’s family is one reasonable inference about Mark’s meaning, but many English translations follow the 1611 King James Version here and say his friends instead. James McGrath recently offered discussion of still other reasonable views about who might be close to Jesus (link). Regardless, whether they are friends or family or somebody else, some of those who know Jesus well are often portrayed in translated Christian literature as having prepared a physical intervention based on their appraisal that Jesus’s mental state was dodgy.
This posting puzzles out what Mark intended this verse to convey, and why a master craftsman wrote it so opaquely. Something important is at stake. Christians promoting an unflattering “factoid” about Jesus without support from the source text undercuts a widely cited heuristic used for discerning supposed facts about Jesus’s life, including whether or not Jesus was a real person who actually lived.
Previously, the Uncertaintist has explored whether an authentic performance of the Gospel of Mark should end at verse 16:8, as is the current consensus of biblical scholars. Canonical Mark runs another dozen ancient verses, through 16:20. The Uncertaintist finds an admissible candidate for an authentic ending midway between those two proposals, at verse 16:14.
The major thread of the argument in favor of that candidacy held:
that verses 16:9-14 were probably written by a different author than 15-20, and whoever wrote verses 15-20 probably didn’t write the rest of Mark (link);
that 16:7 is a natural stopping place, and 16:8 is an example of a literary device which Mark used twice before to continue his story past a satisfying “curtain line” (link);
that verses 16:8-14 tell a coherent story whose themes and style are similar with the rest of the gospel (link).
That last post included discussion of why, if Mark had once continued past 16:8, would so many ancient manuscripts end at 16:8? If an editor were cutting back, then why not cut back to the rousing verse 16:7, a natural, satisfying ending place, a curtain line?
By keeping verse 16:8, Mark seems to support the exclusion of women from top positions in the Christian church. Verse 16:8 depicts three women who fail to carry out a critical religious mission because of their emotional and physical weakness.
The current post considers the storytelling technique behind verse 16:9’s crisp contradiction and defanging of the immediately preceding verse. The post goes on to examine why verses 16:9-14 would have been particularly vulnerable to removal based on dogma and doctrine.
Paul and Jesus are said to be contemporary figures. Nevertheless, Paul’s surviving writings never say whether he ever met the natural Jesus. In a usual “argument from silence,” scholars generally conclude that Paul probably didn’t meet Jesus, assuming that Paul would have said so if he had. Furthermore, Paul strongly suggests that his first-ever meeting with any reputed disciples of Jesus (although Paul doesn’t identify them as such) occurred years after his conversion (Galatians 1:17-18). The absence of Paul as a character in any of the canonical Gospels reinforces the impression that he never met Jesus.
Mark wrote his Gospel approximately one or two decades after Paul’s letters. A major theme of Mark is the breathtaking variety of human reactions to Jesus’ earthly ministry of wisdom, signs and wonders.
A literary problem arises from the gap between when Mark was writing and when his story is set. Both Paul’s churches and the disciples’ disciples are presumably contending for prominence within the second-generation movement, but Paul has no role in the story Mark is writing. Peter, James, John and the other “inner circle” disciples who traveled with Jesus dominate Mark by default. Mark has no simple way to include both “sides” of the subsequent drama playing out around him.
The principal finding of this post is that Mark found a solution to maintain the timeliness of his story. He represented a hypothetical “Paul’s” reaction to the natural Jesus using the character of an unnamed scribe at verses 12:28-34. This character more readily understands and appreciates Jesus’ message than the probably mostly younger and less educated disciples. However, the scribe declines to join Jesus. If he did join the movement later on, he may well have required some additional sign first, just as Paul himself did.