Over the last decade or so, academic literary criticism has come increasingly under the influence of the French school of structuralism, which applies anthropological and linguistic insights to the study of both myths and fiction. One of the convictions of this school is that there is no single “true” or original version of a myth or story, but that all changes and developments—even including interpretations—are equally authentic. This means that the real object of the critic’s study is the totality of all available versions, of which the latest may well be the richest. Thus Claude Lévi-Strauss, in studying the Oedipus legend, includes Freud’s interpretation as the legend’s latest variant. (Lévi-Strauss’s own interpretation is exempted from this treatment, however, presumably on the grounds that it is an objective and scientific appraisal. And this highlights from the start one of the dilemmas of the structuralist school of criticism: what is the status of criticism itself?)
As applied to the study of the Bible, the new approach, which has been used so far mainly in Old Testament studies, has some distinct advantages. It means that the critic can ignore the laborious business of searching for an “authentic” original version and can concentrate on the text as we have it, applying to it purely literary considerations. The whole question of finding historical truth is bypassed. The critic can take an entirely fresh look at the text, and can deal with obscurities or apparent contradictions just as he would in studying a play by Shakespeare or a novel by Henry James. Subtleties and profundities are no longer ruled out on the ground that the text is “primitive.” This new respect for the text has led to some valuable and refreshing work.
Frank Kermode, a distinguished English literary critic and academic, whose chief interest in recent years has been in discerning the forms and patterns of narrative, has now turned this approach on a New Testament text, namely, the Gospel of Mark, the narrative of which contains some very puzzling problems.1 Just because of its stark brevity and mysterious ruggedness, this Gospel invites literary treatment more than the other Gospels, and has indeed been found to be full of symbolism (particularly in the interesting work of Austin Farrer).
The chief problem is the ending of the Gospel, which has been called “the greatest of all literary mysteries.” Since recent theory of narrative has paid particular attention to ending-forms, and Kermode himself has contributed to this study in his The Sense of an Ending, it is natural that he should be fascinated by this problem. The last twelve verses of Mark, as printed in standard editions, are missing in the earliest manuscripts, and are clearly a later hand’s attempt to give the book a conventional ending (another shorter such attempt is also extant). The original ending was at the eighth verse: “Then they went out and ran away from the tomb, beside themselves with terror: they said nothing to anybody, for they were afraid.” The last word of the book is thus the Greek word, gar, which means “for,” and it is a matter of scholarly debate whether a Greek sentence (never mind a book) can grammatically conclude with this word. Even more surprising is that if the book ends at this point, it contains no record of anyone’s seeing Jesus after his resurrection, and no statement that the disciples continued to spread the Gospel after the death of Jesus. Such an indeterminate, downbeat ending is common enough in modern novels, but can it have been a deliberate artistic effect on the part of Mark or whoever was the author of the Gospel? Or has the original ending been lost?
Before offering his answer to this question, Kermode gives much attention to another difficult passage in Mark, which interests him particularly because he thinks it is concerned with the problem of interpretation itself. This is the episode of the Parable of the Sower, or rather the sequel to the telling of this parable, as recorded by Mark:
When he was alone, the Twelve and others, who were round him, questioned him about the parables. He replied, “To you the secret of the kingdom of God has been given; but to those who are outside, everything comes by way of parables, so that (as Scripture says) they may look and look, but see nothing; they may hear and hear, but understand nothing; otherwise they might turn to God and be forgiven (4:10-12).
The meaning of this passage hinges on the words “so that,” which in Greek is hina, a word expressing purpose. By using this word, Mark presents a dismaying picture of Jesus expressing his message in a deliberately obscure manner in order to prevent the mass of people from achieving salvation. In the Gospel according to Matthew, on the other hand, this picture is softened by the substitution of the word hoti, which means “because,” for the word hina—thus suggesting that it is the people’s refusal to understand that excludes them from salvation, rather than Jesus’ deliberate intention to exclude.
Christian commentators have found Mark’s version most disturbing and have tried to explain it away in various ways, most often by considering Matthew’s version more authentic. Kermode, however, regards such efforts (including Matthew’s innocuous version itself) as arising from a failure to understand Mark’s profundity and difficult originality. Mark, according to Kermode, is telling us something about parables, stories, explanations, and interpretations in general: namely, that all art and all interpretation of art is a process of exclusion, of setting up a barrier between those inside and those outside. Communication contains a tragic “irony,” since the very means by which it is conducted create a mystique. No story, however simple, is transparent, and the need to interpret it only makes the meaning more opaque, for the interpretation too requires interpretation, and indeed only acts as an expansion, or new version, or “midrash,” like the formation of a crystal. Kermode is thus able to relate Mark’s hina to the parable told by the priest in Kafka’s The Trial, about the man who is forever excluded from the Law, but who just before he dies observes a “radiance” coming from the gate as the guardian tells him, “This gate was made just for you. Now I am going to shut it.”
That Mark had any such exquisite meaning in mind is very unlikely. But before discussing Mark’s meaning, it is necessary to say something of Kermode’s use of Jewish terms and of the supposed Jewish background of Mark’s alleged semiotic subtlety. Here Kermode has to lean on secondary sources, which are not always reliable.
The Hebrew word for “parable” (mashal), Kermode tells us, can also mean “riddle,” and he is therefore not impressed by the argument that, in rabbinic practice, parables were used to clarify, not to complicate. Quoting an article by John Drury as his authority, Kermode asserts: “The Jewish parable could certainly be allegorical and deliberately obscure (cf. Ezekiel), and there is no historical reason to believe that the parables of Jesus could not have been riddling or enigmatic from the beginning. Moreover, it was common rabbinical practice to offer private interpretations to favored insiders.” On this last point, he cites an article by David Daube.
Unfortunately, both Drury on mashal and Daube on “private interpretations to favored insiders” are open to criticism. The word mashal can mean “riddle” only in biblical Hebrew, never in rabbinic Hebrew, where it signifies a simple saying, fable, or parable with a clear-cut meaning which is explicitly drawn, usually in exegesis of a biblical text. The interest of it lies in making the riddling text delightfully plain. For example: why does God say, “Return unto Me and I will return unto you” (Malachi 3:7)? Answer:
This is like a king’s son who was a hundred days’ distance from his father. Said his friends to him, “Return to your father.” He said to them, “I cannot. The way is too far.” His father sent to him and said, “Go as far as you are able and I shall come the rest of the way to you.” Thus the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, “Return unto Me and I will return unto you.”
All midrashic parables, without exception, are of this type; there is not one that contains a deliberate obscurity.
As for the “common rabbinical practice” of offering “private interpretations to favored insiders,” this is beside the point. All the instances cited by Daube (who gives a very inadequate analysis of them in his eagerness to equate them with New Testament examples) are of deliberately simplified explanations being offered to people who are unqualified to understand anything more profound, while the deeper explanation is given to those qualified to understand it and profit by it. Daube fails to grasp that this is almost the opposite of the New Testament examples, in which an obscure explanation is given to the multitude and a clear explanation to the inner circle of disciples, showing a deliberate policy of exclusion, not a tenderness for the incapacity of undeveloped intellects.
If Kermode had the slightest acquaintance with rabbinic parables at first hand, he could not say that they contain “deliberate obscurities.” Jesus’ parables, by contrast, which are all in the form of rabbinic parables, do contain curious contradictions and obscurities. C. H. Dodd (whose view Kermode rejects) was thus entirely correct when he ascribed the Gospel presentation of the parables to Hellenistic influence, since “in the Hellenistic world . . . the use of myths, allegorically interpreted, as vehicles of esoteric doctrine was widespread, and something of the kind would be looked for from Christian teachers.”
What we have here, in other words, is an important changeover from one kind of religion to another, from a religion whose main object was to promote understanding throughout society to a religion whose object was to initiate a chosen few into a mystery. In this changeover, the parable played an interesting role; used by Judaism for one purpose, it was adapted by Christianity for another. Kermode, playing games with structuralist concepts, fails to notice what is going on.
But there are even more important things here that Kermode does not notice. Mark is not merely concerned to show that outsiders are excluded from the mystery; he is also concerned to identify the outsiders with the Jewish people as a whole. One of Mark’s main theses is that the Jews have ceased to be the people of God. In the little episode before us, Jesus is shown as deliberately excluding the Jewish masses from salvation. This is why his parables are turned (by Mark and the Christian church) into riddles. Whereas, in historical fact, rabbis (including, no doubt, Jesus himself) used parables for the express purpose of awakening the understanding of the common people, who could not be reached by abstract argument, Mark’s Gospel represents Jesus as using parables to prevent the people from reaching understanding “lest they turn to God and be forgiven.” (The words themselves are taken from Isaiah 6:9, where they are used ironically, as part of God’s charge to Isaiah to waken the Jews to their sins; the implied threat that if the Jews do not repent they will lose God’s favor is here construed as fulfilled fact.)
The difference between Mark’s hina and Matthew’s hoti is thus of the greatest thematic interest. It is not that Matthew regards the Jews as any less damned than Mark (Matthew’s assertions of Jewish damnation in chapters 23 and 27 are more brutal than anything in Mark). It is rather that Mark regards the Jews as destined to be damned, while Matthew attributes their damnation to their sinfulness. Therefore, in Mark’s conception, Jesus must not say anything to the Jews which would interfere with the workings of God’s preconceived plan. He must not preach to them in such a way that they might repent, like the inhabitants of Nineveh in the Book of Jonah. For if that were to happen, the divine sacrifice—the death of Jesus—would be prevented from occurring.
There is a counterpoint throughout the Gospels between two conceptions of the role of Jews in the crucifixion: one stressing their wickedness, the other their destined role as executioners. The matter is summed up in Mark’s verse about Judas (the eponymous representative of the Jewish people):
The Son of Man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Good were it for that man if he had never been born (14:21).
The same twin ideas (logically contradictory, but emotionally mutually reinforcing) are found in the Gospel conception of Satan, who has a role that is both preordained and wicked. Echoing the contradiction is the contrapuntal conception of the necessary sacrifice: the god-murder that is both a crime and a boon. Since it is a crime, there must be a scapegoat to bear the guilt of the murder without which mankind cannot be saved. The executioner, like the victim, is a sacrificial figure, for he too bears the sin of mankind.
It would be too simple to say that Mark sees the Jews as merely figures of destiny, but this aspect is more prominent in his Gospel than in Matthew. It is thus doubtful whether Mark’s hina is morally more shocking than Matthew’s hoti. If Jesus (in Mark’s conception) deliberately excludes the Jews from salvation, this is because they have been chosen by God for the role of deicide. In a sense, this absolves them from blame. Matthew’s hoti, laying the sin squarely on the shoulders of the Jews as a wicked people turning deliberately from the truth, is the more straightforwardly anti-Semitic conception. It is the combination of the two notions, however, that constitutes the distinctiveness of the anti-Semitism of the Gospels in general.
None of this appears in Kermode’s interpretation, which concentrates instead on the pathos of hermeneutic exclusiveness. Where Mark is seeking to exclude a definite, identifiable set of people, Kermode makes him concerned with the general tendency of exegesis to exclude people who do not understand it, or who do not belong to the clique which claims to understand it.
The same sort of consideration applies to Kermode’s discussion of the problem of Mark’s strange ending. Kermode is to be applauded here, as elsewhere, for his refusal to resort to emendation. He accepts the text as it is, and rightly sees a failure of literary perception in the various attempts by scholars to supply a conventional ending. Mark’s ending is indeed deliberately inconclusive, with the disciples demoralized and the Resurrection only hinted at. But Kermode’s explanation of this ending is again too literary.
Kermode relates the ending to a pattern of “intercalation” that he notes as characteristic of Mark’s narrative style—i.e., a tendency to insert passages of narrative within the main story. Kermode suggests that the whole Gospel is such an “intercalation,” since “it stands at the moment of transition between the main body of history and the end of history.” This is an ingenious suggestion, and, within its limits, a good one. But it ignores Mark’s chief preoccupations, which are not literary or philosophical but very much concerned with religious propaganda.
For Mark is telling us that Jesus’ Jewish disciples failed him. They did not understand him, they betrayed, deserted, and denied him. The last words of the Gospel declare that “they were afraid.” In glorious contrast to them, the Roman centurion declares, with perfect faith, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Kermode fails to notice the climactic significance of this speech). Certainly the deliberately inconclusive ending depicts a transition, but it is a transition of a definite historical character, from the authority of the Bishop of Jerusalem to that of the Bishop of Rome, the place where Mark’s Gospel was written.
Here we may consider briefly the relationship between literary and historical considerations in the study of a text such as Mark’s Gospel. First of all, there is the simple point that a text may be appreciated as a literary work even if it is used in quite a different and separate way as a source of historical inquiry. The Gospels can be regarded as finished literary works and assessed as such by literary criteria without regard for the stages by which they reached completion. At the same time, however, it is quite legitimate to use them in order to arrive at conclusions about the historical facts of Jesus’ career and the development of the Christian church.
On the literary level, the Gospels form a seamless robe and embody a powerful dualistic myth that is timeless. As historical documents, they are full of indications of the process of their development from earlier sources, and the discernment of the particular direction in which they developed can lead, by a process of extrapolation, to the historical facts underlying them.
So far so good. But one cannot entirely rule out historical or moral considerations even when coming to a literary assessment. It is relevant to a literary judgment of Shakespeare’s history plays, for example, that they are largely an exercise in political propaganda bolstering the Tudor dynasty. This puts them into a genre that is artistically lower than, say, the tragedies. Similarly, a recognition of the timeless literary nature of the Gospels does not put them beyond moral or historical considerations. We may admire the power with which the Gospels present their myth of sacrificial atonement—with its dramatic contrast of good and evil and its paradoxical picture of evil unwittingly contributing to cosmic good—while at the same time noting (even as a matter of literary importance) what is entailed in this shunting-away of moral responsibility, either to a perfect sacrificial figure or to an evil scapegoat or to both. The critic’s perception that a partisan historical axe is being ground should lead in this case, as in the case of Shakespeare’s history plays, to a revised estimate of the work’s proper genre.
The study of the Gospels as pure literature is certainly an interesting and worthwhile activity. But it should not be forgotten that the Gospels were not written as pure literature. Any work that has an extra-literary aim in view, such as the propagation of a political or religious standpoint, cannot be assessed without asking what the author is trying to prove and what we as readers and moral beings think of the attitude that the author is so passionately trying to persuade us to adopt. (I omit discussion of the question of how far moral considerations enter into the assessment of any work of art.)
Thus, Kermode has a valuable and perceptive discussion of the growth of the Judas Iscariot story, showing how an abstract idea of Treachery, or the Opponent, is gradually fleshed out into a detailed “character” through various versions of the story; it is a case of story generating character, as opposed to the ideal of Turgenev and Henry James that character should generate story. This is excellent; but it is also limited. In discussing the Barabbas story, similarly, Kermode is content to note that a need to blame the Jews for the crucifixion and exonerate the Romans was one of the shaping factors of the story, but the point interests him only as a means to aesthetic understanding—in this instance, to the remark that “realism” and “follow-ability” in a narrative are primarily literary devices, rather than indications of historical factuality.
This is indeed a consideration of some significance, but, even from a literary viewpoint, it is still more important to stress that the Barabbas episode belongs to the genre of propaganda. The episode focuses dramatically all the passionate propaganda purposes of the Gospel: the contrast between the pacifist, quietist, other-worldly Jesus and the politically-minded, this-worldly Barabbas (onto whom all the Jewish and political aspects of the historical Jesus have been displaced); the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people and their demand for his crucifixion, whereby they forfeit their status as the people of God; the whitewashing of Pilate and the Roman occupation; the obliteration of differences among Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians in order to represent them as united in hatred of Jesus. The scene is thus a tract in dramatic form, justifying the Christian church in its bid to take over the Jewish “promises.” To interpret this story in terms of formal narrative structure is to miss the greater part of its intended literary content, as well as to be insensitive to its role in the history of Christian anti-Semitism. (Kermode does permit himself one incidental expression of distaste for Matthew’s verse, “His blood be on us and on our children,” but this is the full extent of his reaction to the main theme.)2
It would seem necessary to enter a warning. The ultra-aestheticism of the structuralist approach may lead to a new kind of fundamentalism, by which the Gospels are put beyond assessment as to their purpose and message. We have experienced the same tendency in theology, where Rudolf Bultmann and his followers, by elevating the Gospel story to the status of myth, have attempted to place it beyond the reach of historical or moral criticism. Kermode’s way of regarding the Gospels as a mysterious unitary text, requiring a purely literary interpretation, is an abdication of the function of judgment.
As for Kermode’s doubts about the very possibility of interpretation, these must be ascribed to a failure of nerve. In recent years a switch has occurred in many academic disciplines—from a narrow empiricism based on irreducible “facts” to a subjectivism in which human language and pattern-making are held to create the whole of so-called reality. Both philosophies are really identical, in that they deny validity and objectivity to the value judgments involved in aesthetic and moral decisions.
Certainly there are great mysteries in the activity of interpretation. How do we know when to interpret and when to stop interpreting? How to switch from aesthetic to moral or to historical interpretation? How to discount our position either as Insider or Outsider? One thing at least we may learn from the great Jewish tradition of interpretation: that we need not be afraid of destroying a text by interpreting it, a fear that seems to underlie a great deal of structuralist thinking. The text is inexhaustible. There may be many levels and dimensions of interpretation, and a person who is excluded from one level—by temperament, intellect, or inclination—may be compensated on another. This is perhaps the meaning of Kafka’s parable: the man who was excluded from all official interpretations of the Law (or who excluded himself from them) was rewarded before his death by a radiance that was invisible to the guardians of the Law.
1 The Genesis of Secrecy, Harvard University Press, 176 pp., $10.00.
2 For my own view of the meaning of the Barabbas episode, see my Revolution in Judea (1973), chapter 15, and “Jesus and Barabbas,” New Testament Studies 16, pp. 55-60.