Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Mysteries of the Kingdom

I had a student who raised a question when studying the Gospel of Judas—whether or not Judas had any relation to Secret Mark.  The reason is that they both turn a distinctive phrase:  “mystery/mysteries of the kingdom.” 

I appreciated the thought, and I had no answer at the moment, except that most scholars shy away from using Secret Mark in their reconstructions these days, given all of the speculation about it possibly being a modern forgery perpetrated by its discoverer, Morton Smith. 

I, nonetheless, had an itch in the back of my head to look back into the synoptic Gospels—if for no other reason than Secret Mark’s vocabulary and phrasing is rarely, if ever, distinctive (indeed, one of the arguments for it being forged is that it overuses typical vocabulary of Mark). 

So, I turned to the synoptics, and, interestingly, they rarely use the phrase.  “Mystery” and “Mysteries” may show up, and “kingdom” is all over the place, but the entire phrase “mysteries of the kingdom” is rarer; nonetheless, it appears in a conspicuous place:  the meditation on the nature of parables after the parable of the sower.

Mark 4:11:  “When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret/mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.’” (4:10-11)

Matt 13:11:  “Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’  He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets/mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’” (13:10-11)

Luke 8:10:  “Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant.  He said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets/mysteries of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables.”

Secret Mark:  “And when it was evening the young man came to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body.  He stayed with him that night, for Jesus was teaching him the mystery of the Kingdom of God.” (Secret Mark; Trans. Bart Ehrman, Lost Scriptures, 88)

Judas:  Jesus says to Judas:  “Separate from them.  I shall tell you the mysteries of the Kingdom.” (35.24-25; Trans. April DeConick) 

If I am missing other places, please forward them to me.  I have not double-checked, for example, the Gospel of Thomas, etc., for this phrasing. 

A couple things of note:  Mark and Secret Mark prefer the singular “mystery” (also translated as “secret”).  Matthew, Luke, and Judas all prefer the plural.  Matthew has the characteristic shift to “kingdom of heaven.”

The phrasing and framing of the rest of the passage has been most significantly reworked in Matthew, while Luke stays relatively close to mark. 

In all of the texts, it seems, this rare, conspicuous phrase works to define insiders from outsiders, who understands the mysteries and who doesn’t.  I don’t think this is a revelation to anyone, but it might be instructional to trace this delineation throughout different works to see what it means, or how this line may shift or even get lost.

The irony of Mark’s version is that just as Jesus defines the difference between insider and outsider—insiders are given the mystery/mysteries of the kingdom; outsiders get parables—is that immediately the difference is effaced.  With the key of understanding the mystery, they still do not understand the parable of the sower and Jesus has to explain it to them:

“And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable?  Then how will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13)

The point is that they don’t understand all the parables, prompting Jesus’ explanation to them.  They are no better than the outsiders, until, for whatever reasons, the line that Jesus “explained everything in private to his disciples” (4:34), finally alleviates some of this effacement of the division of insider and outsider caused by the disciples’ failure of comprehension.

This is immediately alleviated in Matthew, however.  In the parallel to Mark 4:13, Matthew makes quite a shift:

“But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.  Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Matt. 13:16-17)

Gone is the whiff of the disciples’ lack of understanding; Matthew turns it into its complete opposite:  they actually DO get it.  He then explains the parable not because of their lack of understanding, but their greater ability to apprehend.

Luke, also perhaps uncomfortable with Mark, drops the verse altogether instead of turning it into a positive affirmation as in Matthew, moving directly into the explanation of the parable. 

If in the synoptics, the “mystery/mysteries of the kingdom” delineates insiders from outsiders in understanding, Secret Mark is not far off from this meaning (whether you think it is an ancient texts—or how ancient—or a modern forgery).  There it still delineates insiders from outsiders in what appears to be an initiation, a very private audience with Jesus.  Is it an explanation of parables?  Perhaps it is impossible to tell.  Is it related to the fact that the figure has been resurrected, encoding, foreshadowing Jesus’ own resurrection (much like Lazarus does in John)?  Is it sexual?  We may not know the nature of the mystery, but its function is quite clear.

Finally, in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus relates this phrase just after Judas himself demonstrates his greater perspicacity than the other disciples through a confessional scene.

Judas [said] to him, “I know who you are and from what place you have come.  You came from the immortal Aeon of Barbelo, and the one who sent you is he whose name I am not worthy to speak.” (35.14-20; Deconick Translation)           

This, I think, is a brilliant repurposing of two traditions:  the mysteries of the kingdom tradition and the confession of Jesus’ identity tradition.  Firstly, how does the scene of revelation of mysteries work here?  I think it has a similar function as in the Gospels, but the line has moved.  Firstly, it separates Judas from the other disciples:  he gets it and they don’t.  On the one hand, the line still separates those who understand from those who don’t, but one the other hand instead of separating the inner core of disciples from everyone else, it is only one disciple who gets it and the most infamous one. 

Secondly, this is a scene clearly reminiscent of Peter’s confession in the synoptics and Thomas’s in the Gospel of Thomas.  In the synoptics, while others speculation who Jesus may be, Peter is the only one who grasps that Jesus is the “Messiah” (Mark 8:27-30; Matt 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-20).  In both Mark and Luke, this is passed over without comment; in Matthew, Peter is greatly praised, is given the “keys to the kingdom of heaven,” and we learn that Peter did not learn this from humans, but from the Father—it is a revelation.  In the Gospel of Thomas, Thomas confesses that “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like” (13; Marvin, Nag Hammadi Scriptures: International Edition).  Jesus responds, “I am not your teacher.”  The point is likely that Jesus is divine, either because he is ineffable, or more likely that it would be blasphemy to say who Jesus is as the rest of the passage indicates.  Moreover, the point that “I am not your teacher,” again illustrates the Thomas received his knowledge and understanding from a higher source, like Peter in Matthew.

Likewise, in Judas, Judas shows greater understanding than the other disciples before Jesus reveals anything to him.  He receives it from a different source.  But, likely, it is his “star.”  The lines have shifted in potentially two ways:  firstly, the “mysteries of the kingdom” tradition that used to separate the disciples from everyone else now keeps the disciples themselves as outsiders, and Judas does this through the “super-perceptive disciple’s confessional” tradition.  Secondly, if one follows April DeConick’s interpretation (The Thirteenth Apostle), perception, understanding for Judas is not salvation.  His fate is tragic, full of pathos as who fully comprehends his own terrible fate, dictated by his star.  Here the line of knowing and ignorance does not indicate fully insider and outsider, since, if one follows the DeConick interpretation, Judas is a knowing outsider.  Mark may have jump-roped the boundary of insider and outsider, Matthew and Luke solidified it more clearly, but Judas resituates it to the point that there is no surrogate for the reader in the text itself; everyone is outside.

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