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FANTASY AND MYTH IN THE DEATH OF JESUS

By George Aichele

The fantastic elements in the Gospel of Mark open disturbing possibilities as they countervail the Jesus myth that has dominated Christian tradition.

And going into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting in the right-hand part, wearing a white robe. And they were startled into amazement. But he said to them: Do not be thus amazed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples, and Peter: He goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, as he told you. And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and panic had hold of them. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mark 16:5-8).(n1)

A fairy tale is a reasoning image. It tends to associate extraordinary images as though they could be coherent images, imparting the conviction of a primal image to an entire ensemble of derivative images. But the tie is so facile, and the reasoning so fluid, that soon we no longer know where the germ of the tale lies.(n2)

Fantasy and the Gospels

In the creeds and established theologies of the Christian churches, Jesus of Nazareth is identified with the second Person of the Holy Trinity, an historically incarnate divine being, who although innocent of any sin freely gave his life as a sacrifice so that people who believe in his divinity and follow his ways will be granted salvation in this world and the next. For the typical contemporary reader of the Gospels, Jesus and his words and his deeds are "fantastic" only in the sense that they are extraordinary. Where supernatural events or revelations occur in the Gospel stories, they appear as eruptions within the everyday "primary world" of a "secondary world," the world of the marvelous.(n3)

Like J. R. R. Tolkien's fairy-stories, the myth of Jesus at the center of Christian belief concerns a secondary world. The miracles, resurrection, and birth stories represent a narrative realm to which one might want to escape. This secondary world is constructed in the reader's imagination from her experience of the primary world, but she believes it to be even more real than the primary world is. For the believer, the secondary world of heaven is not imaginary or pretended; it is the real, eternal place of God and of those who love God. It is not a fantasy.

Such a reading overlooks fantastical elements which play an important role in the reading of the Gospels. (It reads the Gospel stories as Christian myth--as something to be believed or disbelieved, as the case may be.) An irreducible, opaque remainder of the text is not finally consumed and absorbed along with the rest. A stupid monument, a marker of the limits of meaning, appears at points at which the Gospels resist interpretation and reading becomes difficult. This undigestible remainder, this unexplainable residuum, marks the fantastic.

The reader's belief (or disbelief) seeks to de-fantasize the text. The desire to explain this remainder, either in terms of a history of the text's production (fragility of tradition, editorial sloppiness, problems of translation) or in terms of theology (pre-understandings of terms such as "son of man" or "kingdom of God," of what or whose spirit was "in" Jesus), or in terms of the reader's response (what may be assumed regarding the "naive" or the intended or the implied reader)--all of this is denied satisfaction.

The fantastic lies at points of indeterminability between two narrative genres, the marvelous and the uncanny.(n4) These genres represent two different worlds; each genre points to a mythic reality which grounds the meaning of its literary instances. In the world of the uncanny, very strange events occur, but no matter how strange they are, they can always be given a natural explanation. On the other hand, the world of the marvelous is a supernatural one, in which gods, angels, or demons are quite real. The fantastic occurs when the identity of a character, the explanation of an event, or some other feature of a story is suspended between the marvelous and the uncanny, having no obvious natural or supernatural explanation. The reader is then unable to determine the generic identity of the narrative, as well as the nature of the reality to which it refers. Fantasy foils belief.

Mark's Empty Tomb

The first epigraph to this essay consists of the last four verses of the Gospel of Mark. The longer endings which continue on past Mark 16:8 do not appear in any of the oldest manuscripts, which all end at verse 8. Most scholars now agree that an original, longer ending of Mark was not "lost" or "destroyed," as some once thought; in other words, 16:8 is where the original Mark ended.

Most biblical scholars also agree that Mark is the oldest of the biblical Gospels. Matthew and Luke depend upon Mark--perhaps a somewhat different version of Mark from the biblical one(n5) -- as well as other written or oral sources. Whether John also drew upon Mark is disputed, but in any case, John was very likely written later than Mark. Matthew, Luke, and John all present extended stories of appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples, although there is almost no duplication of the post-resurrection stories. In the stories the disciples speak with Jesus, eat with him, and touch him. Jesus in turn gives them final instructions and assurances that he has triumphed over death and that he is the Lord of history.

In Matthew, Luke, and John, after they discover the empty tomb, the women rush to tell the male disciples, and this leads to post-resurrection appearances. In Mark, the tomb is empty because Jesus "has risen," but that resurrection has led only to Jesus' absence ("he is not here," 16:6), not his presence. Although the mysterious young man announces that "you will see him" in Galilee, that encounter must take place beyond Mark's text, in contrast to the other Gospels.

Mark offers no post-resurrection appearances; instead it has only the amazement and frightened silence of the women disciples who have come to the tomb to anoint Jesus' dead body. They see a young man in a robe, similar to the one who flees when Jesus is arrested, and he announces that the resurrection has occurred. In Mark 9:10, the disciples had questioned "what it might mean to rise from the dead"; Mark provides no further answers to this question here, or anywhere else. None of the titles previously attributed to Jesus in Mark by the narrator and various characters appear; the absent one is merely "Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified." Beyond this, the identity of the resurrected one remains unknown.

What is the significance of the differences between Mark's ending and those of the other Gospels? What is Mark saying about the death and resurrection of Jesus? Two non-canonical gospels that represent very early strata of the Jesus tradition, Q (the non-Markan common source of Matthew and Luke) and the Gospel of Thomas, omit death and resurrection narratives altogether. By the time that the Gospel of Mark was written (ca. 70 C.E. or later), the apostolic preaching of the crucified and risen Christ had already been in circulation in the Christian movement for quite a few years. Perhaps Mark did not need to say more. Yet the fact that Matthew, Luke, and John all do include explicit resurrection endings suggests that more was necessary. These other Gospels go a long way toward providing a literary context which allows the reader to ignore Mark's theological inadequacies. However, the eventual addition of resurrection endings to Mark (16:9ff.) suggests that early Christian readers were unhappy with its abrupt conclusion at 16:8.

Mark has always been the least popular of the biblical gospels. James M. Robinson has argued that Mark would not have been accepted into the biblical canon if it had not been for its great similarity to Matthew and Luke; if these Gospels were accepted, then Mark had to be, too. Helmut Koester notes that development of generally accepted creeds also turned "the gospel into a book containing trustworthy historical information."(n6) If Mark were not sheltered by canon and creeds, it would surely be regarded as unacceptable by the church.

Mark presents only an indirect resurrection appearance, in the ambiguous words that a mysterious young man speaks to amazed women disciples. These women then flee in fear and say "nothing to any one," contrary to the young man's instructions--leaving the reader with the paradox of a story which was never told. Mark leaves the reader at the empty tomb with only a promise that Jesus has risen and has gone ahead to Galilee--hardly an ending to inspire faith. Mark's ending raises far more questions than it answers.

The Passion in Mark

The questions presented by Mark's ending are, however, not unusual in the Gospel of Mark. Among the features of Mark which distinguish it from other canonical gospels and which leave the entire Gospel quite ambiguous are:

a) the lack of a Christmas story;

b) the theological ambiguities of Jesus' baptism (which Matthew, Luke, and John go far toward resolving);

c) the enduring problem of Jesus' identity (which is not resolved in Mark's version of the dialogue with Peter at Caesarea Philippi, Mark 8:27-33);

d) the mystery or "secret" of the kingdom of God, from which "those who are outside" are excluded (Mark 4:11-12);

e) the "amazement" and "astonishment" (Mark uses these words more than any other Gospel) of the crowds and the disciples at everything which Jesus does and says;

f) the undiminished stupidity and failure of the disciples.

All of these features are consistent with Mark's troublesome ending. Indeed, Mark's story is throughout the most "difficult" of the Gospels, and this is no doubt a cause of Mark's unpopularity with believers.

The passion narrative, which sets the stage for the empty tomb scene, further illustrates the nature of the Markan difficulty. Much as in their treatment of earlier episodes of the story, such as Jesus' baptism and transfiguration, Matthew and Luke support the reader's understanding of and belief in the christological significance of the passion narrative. The theological implications of the transformations of Mark's ambiguities by Matthew and Luke consistently reinforce a mythic reading; for these Gospels, the sacrifice of Jesus is essential to the myth of divine incarnation and therefore to Christian preaching. Without that sacrifice, orthodox Christianity would be unthinkable.

Matthew and Luke remove the ambiguities of Mark's passion narrative, and in so doing, become readable, believable stories. For example, Luke omits Jesus' sorrow in Gethsemane (Mark 14:33-34, Matthew 26:37-38) but adds instead an angel who strengthens Jesus, and sweat like "drops of blood" (22:43-44). According to Luke, the disciples fall asleep "after their sorrow" (22:45), instead of merely sleeping (and once again failing Jesus) as in Mark 14:41 and Matthew 26:45. Luke, it would seem, moves the sorrow from Jesus to the disciples. Luke also omits Mark's story of the flight of the disciples, and both Matthew and Luke omit the strange story of the young man with a linen cloth (Mark 14:51-52).

Luke carefully separates Peter's denial from Jesus' interrogation by the council, but Mark interweaves the episodes, using the denial scene as a frame for Jesus' confession to the high priest (14:62). Matthew and John also weave the two scenes together, but both omit the confession. This seems particularly important, as Jesus often speaks in rather clear terms about himself in the other biblical Gospels, but not in Mark. This is the only point in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus appears to identify himself unequivocally, unless the variant, "You say that I am," is correct.

Yet Jesus' answer to the high priest's question is not unambiguous. The juxtaposition of "the Christ, the son of the Blessed One" in the high priest's words, and "the son of man sitting on the right of the power and coming with the clouds of the sky" in Jesus' words does little to clarify his answer, especially if the opposition between "Christ" and "son of man" established at Mark 8:29-31 is to be maintained.(n7) What is it that "I am"--Christ, or the son of man? Christianity would eventually collapse these terms which Mark opposes, and turn "I am" into unequivocal confession (see Mark 13:6), but that is not the case here.

This "I am" stands in contrast to its context of present judgment and impending execution; Jesus identifies himself at the moment that he is sacrificed. Frank Kermode is correct that the simple "I am" of Mark's story is far more unexpected than what appears to be mere evasiveness in Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:67-70.(n8) Against all expectation, Jesus joins Judas and Peter and becomes the third traitor of the passion narrative, betraying himself. This moment, not the crucifixion, is the point in Mark where the narrative becomes "empty";(n9) it is a point of hesitation, the pivot of a reversal of narrative worlds. Rather than establishing an equation (son of God/Christ = son of man), the "I am" binds conflicting identities into paradoxical union. From this point on in Mark, a new title is applied to Jesus (by the Romans), replacing the earlier (Jewish) titles of "Christ," "son of God," and "son of man"--the highly ambiguous and perhaps ironical "King of the Jews." This phrase appears at Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, and 32 ("King of Israel"). "Christ" does appear one more time (15:32), as does "son of God" (15:39).

The de-fantasizing of Mark by Matthew and Luke continues throughout the crucifixion accounts. In Luke, Jesus is composed and forgiving even when nailed to the cross, and in Matthew, when Jesus dies, the dead saints are raised. These moments underscore the supernatural character of the event, as do the placing of a guard at the tomb (Matthew 27:6266; see also the Gospel of Peter 8:29ff.) and the repentance of the people (Luke 23:48). Both Matthew and Luke minimize the responsibility of the Romans for the crucifixion and emphasize instead the guilt of the Jews, through self-accusation (Matthew 27:25) or the warning to the daughters of Jerusalem (Luke 23:28-31).(n10) John also does this (19:6-7, 12-15). Mark is less clear about who is responsible and variously blames Judas, the disciples (especially Peter), Jewish leaders, the Jewish people, and the Romans -- as well as God himself.

Mark's story of unnatural darkness at the moment of Jesus' death and the tearing of the temple curtain might refer to a supernatural event. However, these are ambiguous signs; unlikely yet natural explanations can be conceived for them. Indeed, the characters in the story seem unaware of these events, just as they were unaware of the dove and voice at Jesus' baptism (Mark 1:10-11). Coupled with Jesus' final words, a cry of abandonment from Psalm 22, and the lack of post-resurrection appearances in Mark, these events heighten the fantastic indeterminacy in Mark's story which the other biblical Gospels invariably reduce. Jesus has died and is absent -- even, eventually, from the tomb -- but neither Jesus' confession (14:62) nor the centurion's confession (15:39) is sufficient to give decidable significance to the narrative.

Mark's version of the passion story is consistently more ambiguous and paradoxical than those of the other biblical Gospels. The promise of a future appearance with which Mark closes (16:7) points beyond the limits of the text -- to the "other," encountered only as an absence in Mark. Matthew and Luke seek to include this other in the text in the form of metatextual commentary, as well as actual post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. This reduces the paradox and clarifies the ambiguity, like the longer endings that were eventually added to Mark. John also does this, but the effect in John is not to resolve the paradox but to transform it in a way which parallels John's unique prologue and baptism episode. In John, Jesus calmly completes the task for which he has come and fulfills the Scriptures on the cross (19:36).

The Gospel of Peter and Mark

Mark's empty tomb ending is consistent with its telling of the entire story. However, why Mark would tell such a story remains unclear. The Markan narrative strategy becomes clearer when Mark is compared to the non-biblical Gospel of Peter.

The Gospel of Peter was quite popular in the early centuries of the common era, but was eventually condemned as heretical. John Dominic Crossan has argued that portions of this Gospel, from which only a fragmentary passion/resurrection narrative remains, reflect a tradition which was the sole original source used -- and substantially modified --by Mark (and therefore also Matthew and Luke) and John. A later edition of the Gospel of Peter, in a failed attempt to bring it into conformity with emerging Christian orthodoxy, added to it material derived from the biblical Gospels. Thus Peter is both independent of and dependent upon the biblical texts.(n11) At Peter 6:21, when the nails are removed from the hands of Jesus and his dead body is laid on the ground, "the whole earth shook and there came a great fear." The earthquake appears in the biblical writings only in Matthew 27:51, where it is conjoined with the opening of the tombs. Both Matthew and Peter associate the earthquake with the tearing of the temple curtain, but Peter separates the two events with 6:21a: "And then the Jews drew the nails from the hands of the Lord and laid him on the earth." The quake in Peter is a distinct event, with no clear supernatural overtones, as though the earth had shuddered of itself at the contact with Jesus' dead body. In Matthew, the association of the quake with the more clearly supernatural reference to the risen saints makes both the quake and the torn curtain seem supernatural.

The Gospel of Peter (9:35-11:45) depicts the actual emergence of Jesus from the tomb before a great crowd of witnesses (8:31-9:34). Two shining men come down from heaven, enter the tomb, and carry Jesus from it. The resurrected Jesus is followed from his tomb by "a cross" (10:39). The entire event is observed by a crowd including Roman soldiers and Jewish elders.

And they heard a voice out of the heavens crying, Thou hast preached to them that sleep, and from the cross there was heard the answer, Yea. (10:41-42)

Crossan's explanation of the strange wording of Peter 10:41-42 is that the "cross that spoke" was a cross-shaped group of resurrected Jewish saints which followed Jesus from the tomb. However, this appealing interpretation does not do justice to the bizarre linguistic image. Is the cross itself a living, talking thing in this story? Or is someone still on the cross, even after the resurrection? And if so, who?

Crossan argues that important features of Peter's resurrection episode -- the voice in and from heaven, the "two men come down from there in a great brightness" (Elijah and Moses?), and the extraordinary height of Jesus and of the other two -- were transposed by Mark back into the life of Jesus, to the transfiguration story (Mark 9:2-8). In addition, Mark relocated the centurion's confession of Peter 11:45 from the resurrection scene to the crucifixion scene.

If Crossan is right, the original story of the Gospel of Peter -- itself as old as the Pauline preaching -- presented a tale of vindicated innocence which culminated in the communal resurrection and immediate ascension of all the dead holy ones of Israel along with Jesus. This story was transformed later by the emergence of the Christian canon and of gentile Christian orthodoxy into something quite different, a tale of vicarious suffering leading to an apostolic mandate.

According to this view, Mark elected not to use a remarkable resurrection story -- indeed, Mark deliberately disassembled and relocated elements of the story to other, pre-death scenes. There are no narratives of the very moment of resurrection in the New Testament Gospels, except possibly Matthew 28:2, itself a modified relic of Peter's earlier version, according to Crossan. The biblical Gospels imply by their lack of a story that there were no witnesses to the resurrection itself -- at least none friendly to the Christians.

Mark tells the reader that something has happened to the dead Jesus, but what that something is, is not at all clear. Matthew, Luke, and John remedy this deficiency with stories of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. If Mark, or any of the other Gospels, had access to a story such as Peter's, as Crossan argues, then why didn't they use it as such? Why did they transform the story in order to follow the lead sketched out in Mark's passion narrative? Crossan notes that with only one exception, Matthew, Luke, and John "consider Mark as the primary and dominant source and do not choose the [Gospel of Peter] in places where they are parallel....They elect to add to Mark but never to replace Mark."(n12)

Theological Implications

Like Mark, the Gospel of Peter contains elements of the fantastic. Most interesting is the tension which Peter establishes between the uncanny earthquake and the marvelous resurrection. There are, however, striking differences between Peter's and Mark's use of the fantastic. In Mark, fantastic indeterminacy is sustained with remarkable evenness throughout the entire narrative; even the most marvelous episodes, such as the transfiguration and the walking on the sea (Mark 6:47-51), are internally disrupted by the fantastic.

In Peter, by contrast, there is a shifting of focus, from one episode to the next or even within a single episode, from the marvelous to the uncanny and back again. Peter seems unable to find the balance, the point of indeterminacy between the two. However, although it differs fundamentally from the orthodox myth of Jesus' saving death, the story which appears in the Gospel of Peter is also profoundly mythical. Jesus not only survives death, but does so through supernatural agency, and in so doing saves others. That Matthew and Luke chose to build on and against Mark rather than Peter may indicate that Mark's fantasy was the more powerful, and dangerous of the two.

If Mark's fantastic story of Jesus' death is indeed the oldest one, then it had to be absorbed and "corrected" by the later versions in Matthew, Luke, and John which made it more acceptable to faith. Peter's story would be a different sort of "correction," which was later thought to be heretical. However, if Crossan is right and Peter's story both is older than Mark's and was known to the author of Mark, who deliberately dismembered and relocated it, then the fantastic has transformed the mythic; Mark then becomes a correction to Peter.

In either case, Mark's ending remains ambiguous and difficult, but its role in relation to the developing Gospel tradition is different. Was Mark's the original story, or does it signal an interruption and indeed deviation in the development of the Jesus-myth, perhaps even (as Crossan argues) a rejection of the resurrection as a story of vindicated innocence? Might this deviation then have opened the way for the later, orthodox view of the resurrection as vicarious suffering (as in Mark 10:45)?

Inclusion of Peter's resurrection story as part of the emerging orthodox myth would have conflicted with, or even forestalled, the stories of post-resurrection appearances with which Matthew, Luke, and John conclude. These stories serve as ways in which the marvelous identity of Jesus is reinforced, and in which the indeterminacy of Mark's account is countered. Matthew and Luke are able to justify the dimension of the supernatural, but with a bonus. In his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus provides teachings which will supplement those given prior to his death. Several of the non-canonical Gospels present extensive post-resurrection discourses of Jesus; Matthew and Luke do not go to this extreme, but their post-resurrection episodes do resolve the indeterminacies. John's stories of resurrection appearances do not resolve the paradox of incarnation but maintain it even beyond death; in John, the absent one of Mark has become intensely, physically present.

The orthodox Christian story of Jesus is a myth of a supernatural being sent from a world beyond this one, who visits this world in order to restore its long-lost proper order and then returns at last to his place of origin; it is perhaps best summarized in the prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1-18, especially 11-14). This story of Jesus as the saving incarnation of God belongs to the genre of the marvelous. It is the very story of vicarious suffering which, according to Crossan, eventually required the rejection of the resurrection episode in the Gospel of Peter.

Myth contains and suppresses the reversals and uncertainties of fantasy. That fantasy continues to exist and that readers recognize it as such is due to a partial failure of myth; but at the deepest level, it is due to the fact that myth itself arose as, and in reaction against, fantasy. Fantasy deconstructs myth, revealing the desire for referential truth and existential meaning -- the desire to believe -- which lies beneath every interpretation.

Fantasy presents a radical and violent attack on the myths and beliefs which mediate our encounter with reality. These myths determine what sorts of narrative worlds we might consider "real"; readability and belief -- including the sort of belief which is necessary to realistic fiction- are only possible in relation to a mythic frame. In order for a story to function as a myth, the reader must believe it; she must accept it as a true story. The myth establishes a fundamental structure -- an ideology, a set of models or paradigms -- in terms of which other stories, as well as concepts, arguments, and theories make sense.

The Christian myth of Jesus as the divine savior is confronted and subverted by the elements of the fantastic in Mark's story of the death of Jesus. The narrative is fantastic because it resists mythic identity and believability, and instead it disrupts the illusions of realism. Myth and fantasy are fundamentally opposed; Mark rejects the myth of Jesus.

Notes

(n1.) Translation by Richmond Lattimore, The Four Gospels and the Revelation (New York: Dorsett Press, 1979).

(n2.) Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 163-64.

(n3.) See Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories," in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), for example, 60.

(n4.) In the following, I draw heavily upon the views of Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1973); see 54-57.

(n5.) Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 276-82.

(n6.) James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 239, 201.

(n7.) See G. Aichele, "The Fantastic in the Discourse of Jesus," in Semeia 60 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), and "Jesus's Frankness," in SBL Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), for further discussion of this episode.

(n8.) The Genesis of Secrecy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), 90. This is an example of the "anti-expected," which is for Eric Rabkin an important feature of literary fantasy; see The Fantastic in Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 8-13.

(n9.) Louis Marin, The Semiotics of the Passion Narrative: Topics and Figures (Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Press, 1980), 165.

(n10.) Samuel Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in the New Testament? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 66, 85.

(n11.) An English translation of the Gospel of Peter is in Ron Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982). Crossan's arguments are presented in Four Other Gospels (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1985) and The Cross That Spoke (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988).

(n12.) John Dominic Crossan, The Cross That Spoke, 19; see also 401-3. On Mark's passion narrative as a criticism of vindicated innocence, see Crossan, ibid., 331 and 347-51.

By George Aichele

GEORGE AICHELE, professor and chair of the department of religion and philosophy at Adrian College in Adrian, Mich., is co-author of The Postmodern Bible, forthcoming from Yale University Press.


 

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