Lectio: August 2003 Archives

Continuing the Reading of the Gospel of Mark

The other day I reported that I was up to the third verse of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. In the subsequent days, I have made it up to the fifth verse and I am puzzled. So I will share some of my thoughts with you.

"People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins." (NAB)

" And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins." (KJV)

"The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. " (NIV)

"And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all they of Jerusalem, and were baptized by him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins" (Douay-Rheims-Challoner)

"kai exeporeueto proV auton pasa h ioudaia cwra kai oi ierosolumitai kai ebaptizonto panteV en tw iordanh potamw up autou exomologoumenoi taV amartiaV autwn" (bad transliteration of the Greek New Testament)

"et egrediebatur ad illum omnis Iudaeae regio et Hierosolymitae universi et baptizabantur ab illo in Iordane flumine confitentes peccata sua"(Latin Vulgate)

These verses all suggest that the entire Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John at the Jordan and after confessing (or in the words of the leaden NAB, which may be more literal, but is certainly less Catholic-friendly "acknowledging") their sins they were baptized. [More on acknowledging--I do not pretend to be a Latin scholar, so I will not advance an opinion on the Latin or Greek. But the sense here must be more than acknowledge. Acknowledge means simply to say, "Yeah, I done it, and whattareyagonnadoaboutit?" Another instance of the utter linguistic insensitivity that constantly surfaces in the NAB. Even if the desire is to be absolutely literal, it would seem that this kind of translation would require a gloss to make a point of the word.]

Now the problem. I have a good blog-friend who will recognize himself as he reads this, who insists on reading "inerrancy" in a rather narrow way. For this passage to be inerrant by the way he insists on reading other passages, every single person in Jerusalem, and the entire population of the countryside of Judea would have had to go to the River Jordan. While this is not impossible, it does strike me as improbably. The Roman legions went to John to be Baptized? Herod the Great? The Chief Priests? As I said, not impossible, but highly unlikely.

And yet we know the Bible is without error in any aspect. This is taught clearly throughout the history of the Church, by Leo XIII and by all other popes, up to and including the present. It is part of the dogmatic definitions of the
Second Vatican Council. We are not to read the Bible as teaching only those aspects related to spirituality as being without error, but we are to read it as being without error in every respect.

What then do we make of such a passage which posits so improbable a thing? There are two possibilities. The improbable did indeed take place and thus must be considered the facts of the case. Or the language here is meant to convey something other than a literal counting and recounting and to suggest something to the largely gentile audience Mark was addressing.

It would seem that this is a lot of exercise over a very, very minor issue. On the other hand, can there be any minor issues when it is the authenticity of God's word that is at the core of the question?

Okay, so is the language metaphorical? It does not, on the surface appear to be, and there would be no need for it to be. If Mark and the Holy Spirit had wished for us to understand this to mean a great many people, there are many ways of saying this without the words that are used here.

So I came to wonder if God is not telling us about a truly miraculous messenger in the person of St. John the Baptist. Perhaps he was so filled with the spirit that all of the living AND the dead came out to him to hear the preaching and to confess their sins. The entire countryside of Judea and all of Jerusalem. Perhaps the statement is not so much about the then-current populations of these two places as about the spiritual centers of the places--the zeitgeist as it were, (I know zeitgeist isn't exactly correct, but you get the drift), the genius loci or Guardian Angel, however you wish to term it--the spirit of the land itself. That is, the spirit of the Nation of Israel finally came to see what it had done before and acknowledged that sin, becoming baptized--with but a few holding back in the present to renew that great sin of old and redouble it.

It seems to matter little how one reads it. One gets to the core question--what does it say to me and what am I called to as a result? I am a person of Jerusalem, I am a shepherd of the hills of Judea. I am called by the Spirit through the voice of a powerful preacher to witness the advent of the great Savior. I am called each day, invited each day. To quote the Book of Revelation: "And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely. " (KJV-Rev. 22:17) (And the tone-deaf NAB "The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." Let the hearer say, "Come." Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.") We are called to be baptised and to drink of the water made holy by the Baptism of the One who saved All.

Each person is issued this invitation, this call from the countryside every single day. And we must respond every single day. I prefer to respond by confessing my sins rather than acknowledging them; however, we are all called to this water to this life-giving stream, to this constant immersion in the cleansing tide of Baptism. So, whatever the intricacies of the literal meaning--about which I am little concerned--it is as it is--the meaning of this passage must transcend the merely literal (although the literal must be understood) and seems to say something about the possibility of the person in the world to be called and to respond to grace. The passage speaks of the enormous and overwhelming mercy of God.

But, you can see that I have only crudely defined the contours of the verse, and so perhaps it is a subject for more reading, thought, meditation, and prayer. Thanks for sitting with me through this much. Your thoughts would be welcome.

And many deep thanks to the friend I mentioned above--by his steadfast insistence (with which I still disagree) he has forced my attention in such a way as to be truly concerned about what is being said in every particular. This is a tremendously valuable gift. Thank you.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Lectio category from August 2003.

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