28 October 2009

this evening's bible class intro

Reflections on Reading John Mark's Gospel

This was my intro to a Bible class I led. I want this evening to be a discussion of two things. First the process of reading Scripture in the way we have and second the experience of reading Mark. I want to briefly tell you a story – a true story(1).
The year is 1439 CE. A tinkerer, inventor, and a bit of a con man; John has a problem. He sold a scheme to a group of investors. His scheme did not work out, and now the investors want a return he promised but cannot pay or else!

John pleads with the investors saying something like, “True my plans did not work out, but(!) I have this new invention and if we do this right we can make a lot of money.” He is convincing, he can sell can our con man! They give him more money. This time he gets it right – the idea works and the world changes forever. John has invented something called movable type printing. He full name is Johanes Gutenberg.

Like all culture changing events, printing had lots of effects – the term of art is penumbra – think of the rings when a rock is tossed into still water. Let's consider one ring.

Before 1439 there were almost no books in Europe. The few that existed were incredibly valuable and only very rich people or very wealthy and powerful institutions like the church could own them. In 1438, a monastery or cathedral with a library did not have a librarian it had an 'archivist' who knew where every book was and what was in that book. If you had a reason to look something up, you asked him. Among the penumbra suddenly libraries got very big very fast. Post 1439 Western society invented the hierarchical index systems we now call 'taxonomies(2)” and librarians. Archivists no longer exist.

A card catalog requires literary taxonomy – categories of literature. One cannot put a book in section 982 unless the boundaries of 982 are established. Implicitly a card catalog means rules.

Writers learn of the categories. What is written and how is changed by the taxonomy expressed in the card catalog. Formal rules of how history, poetry or polemic are written evolved because John had to pay off his investors.

From Gutenberg to taxonomy and from there to form criticism are short, necessary steps.

When reading any ancient book: Scripture or secular, we need to remember there was no contemporary known taxonomy. There existed no contemporary model a 1438 writer needed to observe.

An ancient book might contain history, portrait, prediction, law, poetry, song, hymn and prophecy, all mixed together, without any or with only limited effort to tell the reader what was what. And that I submit describes the synoptic Gospels(3). Today they could not be published: they do not fit our models.

We expect that authors know our common taxonomy even if we do not. I will guess that no one here can tell me what Dewey 982 might be(4). When we want a book about something, we think about what kind of book it is, tell the librarian, book seller or search program. They look in the categories and we get suggested titles.

As we discuss how and what we read, I hope you will keep this fact, that we are seeing into a different paradigm in, focus. We like Mark, live in our time and paradigm, that is our understanding of what is real, possible and obvious. I do not suggest the Gospel is in any way untrue: rather I say: remember we read something written about 70 CE. Remember the birth of form criticism was 1368 years away.

Keeping our age and times in mind, I hope we will consider how the reading experience worked – how this way of reading impacts our understanding. How did John Mark's writing, read as a whole, impact you? How does reading Scripture this way seem to you? That is our discussion this evening.

(1)I am fairly sure I first heard this particular telling of Gutenberg's inventing process in a PBS / BBS presentation of “The Day The Universe Changed” but I cannot for the life of me find a web citation. I am indebted to that show for a some of my view of culture and change in any event. Errors and omissions are of course mine, albeit I doubt Gutenberg will sue.

(2)1.From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxonomy Taxonomy is the practice and science of classification. The word finds its roots in the Greek τάξις, taxis (meaning 'order', 'arrangement') and νόμος, nomos ('law' or 'science'). Taxonomy uses taxonomic units, known as taxa (singular taxon). In addition, the word is also used as a count noun: a taxonomy, or taxonomic scheme, is a particular classification ("the taxonomy of ..."), arranged in a hierarchical structure.

(3)We should be grateful to the Gospel authors for their identification of some things as parables. Hebrew Scripture's authors were not so helpful and the resulting errors made by “fundamentalists” are legion. Consider especially Genesis 1 through 3. And consider that the chapter and verse taxonomy arose after 1438, John Mark did not know about it.

(4)Dewey Decimal 982 is history of Argentina.


Derek the Ænglican said...

Um, Jim, I hate to disagree with you but...

Ancient writers had genres and conventions just like we do--they're just different from our own. To give you just one of many examples, I'd recommend the satirist Lucian's "The Way to Write a History" which not only skewers writers (more) ancient and contemporary but shows that the literary tropes were so common and stable that they could be profitably parodied and mocked.

JimB said...

Hmmmm,,,, I wonder do you know the date for the item you cited? I could not find it on the site. It is interesting.

I suppose I should moderate my initial post were it clear that the Hebrew world had a formal set of literary tropes to say rather that they did not exist that we moderns have the set we derive from the events of the 1430's and that they are very different.

I think I am back to the research process!



Derek the Ænglican said...

Lucian wrote in the mid second century AD. Here's the fairly decent Wikipedia page on him. Some of the conventions that he notes, however, are from the days of Herodotus and Thucydides.

Derek the Ænglican said...

And yes, one of the major problems that modern readers encounter in picking up texts like Jonah, Job, and Daniel is that they miss genre markers that were pretty clear to Hebrew readers, blurry to Greek readers and darn near invisible to us...

JimB said...

Hmm... I suspect that my main point, the disconnect between modern and ancient literary forms survives. And I think that helped my fellow Bible readers a bit (in spite of what one of them referred to as 'the host's ' agenda.' ;-)

I shall consider a revision of the text none-the-less. One of the reasons I write this blog is to learn. Thanks so much for your comments!


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