Unification in the Gospel According to Mark

Across cultures and traditions, across temporal and national epochs, people express a desire for perfect unity, simplicity, and integration. Not everyone, of course — and yet the desire cannot be brushed off as peculiar to a tradition or a time period. The expression is colored by a number of cultural features, and so the metaphors used for this unification and simplification vary from mostly natural imagery (Daoism) to mostly political imagery (Christianity). The predominant metaphors are important, and weight a tradition in a certain way. Traditions can overlap, of course, and the boundaries between them are not always quite as neat as either cultural taxidermists or identity politickers would like; and yet, the desire for unification remains. Nor is it simply a desire: in (neo-)Platonism, Daoism and Christianity (to offer three examples), the ethical drive for unification is connected with both cosmological speculation about the characteristic features of the world as a whole and ontological reflection on the nature of being itself. Specifically within the Christian tradition, the desire for unity, and the accomplishment of unity, is tightly connected to Christology.

The imagery of God as a king at war against the agents of injustice, chaos, and death surrounds all Christology. Because of this, there is an inescapable political element to Christian models of the unification of the person; a sloppy reading of this can lead to some very unethical social, religious and political positions. Here I will trace the twin themes of integration and unification in Mark, which signal the health that is found in redemption (itself a loaded economic, political and military term for liberated captives), and a return from an unnatural slavery under dark powers. I will occasionally ask about the consequences of this political language, sometimes with regard to the pursuit of unification in non-Christian traditions. Does the non-frustrated pursuit of integration in non-Christian traditions indicate that Christology is superfluous to this project? What does Christology assume about the good, about the world, and about reality?

Unification in Fidelity

In Mark, this slavery to dark powers is as real as it is unnatural, and so the backdrop against which this unification of the person occurs is “the apocalyptic war where battles are won by proclaiming good news and thereby shattering demonic structures of evil”[1] – quite a different cosmic backdrop from either the overflow of the One found in Plotinus or the spontaneous emergence of things in Lao Tzu. In Mark, evil is not an illusion, is not something that can always be balanced out by some gentle recalibration, but, in its root, requires a decision, requires a positive stand, requires active resistance against corruption. God is at war against corruption, to free humanity from its alien grip. Yet despite Mark’s difference from the Neoplatonic or Daoist traditions, it is still in some surprising ways comparable on account of the emphasis on unity, harmony, and integration.

To see just how exactly Mark is comparable, Mark 12:28-34 is, perhaps, the clearest passage to begin. It reads as follows in the RSV:

 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

 Jesus answered,

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’

 “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

 “There is no other commandment greater than these.”

 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question.

In the commandment Jesus cites, the unity of the whole person in response to God is paralleled with God’s unity. As God is one, and not many, we ourselves are to be unified, and not divided. The text lists the unification of heart, mind, soul and strength in love: our faculties and activity are to concentrate, in love, around the one God who is love. Likewise, this unifying love is to include our neighbor, with whom we are to be perfectly one in active care. This unity, as care (agapeseis), primordially in God, moves to include the whole person in all of his or her faculties, and then extends to include those with whom one is and becomes involved, and seemingly then the world (here, there is no indicated limit for this extension of unification). This active unity is likened to the ritual act of sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple (itself a suggestive comparison, not least because the temple symbolizes the world in miniature); this active unity is placed above the temple sacrifices.

Otherness may be of signal importance here: we are to love our neighbor as ourselves; the scribe notes that “he [God] is one, and there is no other but he” — there is no other; he is one, unity without otherness. (–and is there here the implication that there is no unity-as-other-from this One, the implication that true and full autonomy is a lie, and in truth merely deathly divisiveness?) Otherness is to be done away with in love, rather than through eliminating real difference through some kind of uniformity (loving our neighbor as ourselves is not the same as loving ourselves through our neighbor, or saying that our neighbor and we are fully the same, and we must let the illusion of any difference fall away, etc.; the love is the unity-in-difference, the only true elimination of a bad sort of otherness and division).

To underscore something else that runs thematically throughout Mark’s Gospel: it is not only that we ourselves become unified in our unitary service. Any lack of unity in us implicitly amounts either to a kind of polytheism that fragments the psyche, or a false unity that is had in the service of something that is not our natural end, which does not unify but swallows us.

A House Divided

In the case of a fractured soul, Mark seems to be claiming an implicit polytheism: the person moves toward multiple ends that do not hold together, and these all enslave the spirit and break the mind — or even a people group. “Possession”, in Mark, is not something to be taken lightly: he is saying that discord and wickedness have an agency of sorts, and that one can be first occupied and then dissipated by them. This theme is typified on both sides of the chiastic hinge of the Transfiguration in chapter 9, in both the scene with the Gerasene[2] demoniac in Mark 5:1-20 and the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Mark 12:1-12.

In the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, a landowner builds and plants a vineyard, then lends it out to tenant farmers until he returns (he “went into another country”); the tenant farmers want to take possession of the vineyard, and to that end, they kill both the servants that the landowner sends to them, and finally his son. Primarily, the vineyard is a figure for the Jerusalem temple, the evil tenant farmers a figure for the temple priests — but this is only primary, as the reference is not so simplistic as that. The medium of parabolic speech, just as the Markan tendency to slide into the genre of Apocalyptic literature, allows for multiple figures to align with one another, so that one might be seen in the light of the other, and figures might ambiguously occupy one role or another. It is through the multiple layers of these effects that Mark seems to be suggesting that the corruption of the temple is paralleled with (if not the concentration of) what occurs in human beings generally, such as in the figure of the Gerasene demoniac.

Earlier in Mark, Jesus travels to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and finds a man who lives in the tombs among the dead, and who cannot be chained. When Jesus asks the man his name, he replies, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” (Mark 5:9). The shift from “my name” to “we are” seems to signal an identity that is almost dissolved into the things that have possessed it, all of which find their natural dwelling among “the tombs” (5:3), and which, when liberated from the possessed man and sent into a herd of swine, voluntarily move into the sea, signaling a kind of desire for death.[3] (Tellingly, the name of the demon –Legion– is the name of a Roman military unit,[4] which Roman forces are themselves also perceived as perversely occupying the land of Judea just as these demons perversely occupy this man.) Since this pacification of the Gerasene demoniac, setting him in his right mind, occurs immediately after Jesus’ cosmic quelling of the chaotic sea into peace and order (Mark wishes for us to hear echoes of the world-making in Genesis), the encounter with the Gerasene can rightly be thought to indicate something cosmic.[5] The fractured identity that the Gerasene demoniac exemplifies runs through the whole world in Mark, and is seated in an infestation of both the human heart and the temple. It is a cosmic problem.

In Judaism, the Jerusalem temple is the cosmos-in-miniature, a microcosm;[6] in the Hebrew Bible, humanity is seen as the only legitimate living image or cult statue[7] of “the living God” as he is called in the Book of Psalms, and cult statues belong in temples. The human person is therefore sometimes likened to the Jerusalem temple in the tradition.[8] The first four centuries of the Christian tradition continued this received tradition, and mapped the three parts of the person –body, soul, intellect/spirit– and the three stages of salvation –purification, illumination, union/deification– onto the three areas of the temple – the court of sacrifice (purification), the holy place (illumination), and the holy of holies (union/deification).

The initial connection, however, is already implicit here. In Mark 3, we hear that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”, and that seems to be the nature of evil for Mark, to be dissonantly divided, and to cause dissonant divisions — to rip things apart that should be whole, and to join together things that should be separated (such as Herod and his brother’s wife). The “house” here in Mark 3, in good parabolic dual-focus, is clearly both the temple and individuals (Jesus in the initial accusation, the scribes and the temple elite in the counter-accusation): Jesus directs this saying against scribal accusers “who came down from Jerusalem” (Mark 3:22), where God’s “house” is (2 Chr 7:1-16; 2 Sam 7:1-13, Isa 66, etc.). The “strong man” (Satan[9]) whose supposedly-divided house (here, a figure for the evil-infested Jerusalem temple) is to be plundered in Mark 3 resembles the very strong Gerasene demoniac, whom no one could chain. The “house divided against itself” passage has a thematic resonance with the prophecy, which Jesus speaks later in Mark 13:1-2, about the Jerusalem temple eventually coming to ruin, not even one stone resting upon another. Thus, in the end, the outside of the temple becomes like the inside (just as Jesus exhorts that it is to be for his hearers in Mark 7, only to opposite effect). The Gerasene demoniac would “cut himself” with stones, likely, for Mark, manifesting outwardly that he is inwardly cut up by his divisions. This is not a Plotinian inwardness, for in Plotinus, the divinity of the intellect by which one sees seems to be perennially undiminished within oneself:

Intellect, veiling itself from other things, and drawing itself together inward in seeing nothing will look, not at one light in another, but at light alone and pure itself in itself suddenly appearing from itself, so that intellect is at a loss how it appeared, from outside or within, and when it has gone away will say “it was within and yet it was not within.” [Enneads V.5.7]

There is no fall that can eradicate this in Plotinus, or prevent one’s ability to withdraw inwardly, whereas in Mark, the fall can be far, indeed – one can fall “off the boat”, as they say, all the way “in[to] the sea” (Mark 5:13), the chaos-waters.

Encased Within the Foulness that Rots Us Out from the Inside

In Mark 7, the imperative for the outside to become like the inside hinges on whether one tills the earth of the heart and keeps it pure. Mark’s Jesus, by his presence, simply draws to the surface the inner truth of things. This is why the demonic elements come out of the woodwork when he is around. There is no guarantee that what is inside of us will not be darkness and death, rather than light and life, and this calls to mind some of the passages from Lao Tzu about life and death and tenderness and hardness that are almost dualistic:

When man is born, he is tender and weak.
At death, he is stiff and hard.
All things, the grass as well as trees, are tender and supple while alive.
When dead, they are withered and dried.
Therefore the stiff and the hard are companions of death.
The tender and the weak are companions of life. (#76)[10]

Mark also uses a child and tenderness as positive examples (Mark 10; Lao Tzu also uses an infant as a regular example of simplicity and liveliness). Lao Tzu, however, does not have a Markan apocalyptic backdrop for these themes of life and death, which figures the metaphors of hardness and tenderness in the foreground quite differently.[11]

After the initial preparatory scenes of Mark’s Gospel, immediately after his cosmic encounter with Satan, Jesus’ first public appearance is in a synagogue, where he encounters a man “in an unclean spirit” (1:23). (English translations usually have it that the man was “with” an unclean spirit, but the word is “in” in the Greek, and Greek does have different prepositions for “in” and “with”.) The man is in an unclean spirit. The thing “inside” of him, which has punctured him and must “come out”, has also eaten him up, encased him. If we are permitted a slight speculation about Mark’s intention, the only “unification” evil can offer is the unity of being digested food for something else that simply consumes us. This is a false unity, the unity of dissolved things, the unity of waste, of excrement. (The poor widow who donates her meager living to the temple at the end of Mark 12 may be commended for offering everything she had to the temple, exemplifying the kind of total concentration of heart, mind, soul and strength in love noted in 12:28; yet virtuous as she is, she is an example of the way that the Romans and the ruling temple elite analogously consume the poor; only verses before the widow donates her few coins, Jesus notes that the Scribes “devour widows’ houses”. The temple, supposed to be a site of unity and “prayer for all nations”, becomes a “den of thieves”, and thieves prey upon the vulnerable, eating the weak.)

This does not seem to be unique to Mark, either. The early Christian movement can equate idolatry with greed (Colossians 3:5) or figure an unruly appetite as a god (Philippians 3:19). We tend to think of such things, when we think of them at all, merely as habits, or appetites, even addictions; we do not tend to think of them as some monster that feeds upon us, and which has eaten us up. Perhaps this figure is closer to the truth of things on some level.[12] If there is a reason why “the world” often has a very negative weight in the biblical text, it is because of this: the world –including the elements, and not merely the human world– in its rapaciousness, is judged, as a ravenous monster might be, as a kind of Leviathan. Goodness and justice are to reign; nature, people, and the gods are not as they should be. This sovereignty of the good extends the critique of the gods found in the Hebrew Bible. In this project of liberation, it should be no surprise that the early Christians, in seeking liberation both from “the elements” (Galatians) and from gods and even custom, was seen as a kind of radical and dangerous atheistic freedom-project by the pagans about them for the first several hundred years. So Psalm 82 in the RSV:

God has taken his place in the divine council;
    in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
    and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
    maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
    they walk about in darkness;
    all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, “You are gods,
    sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like men,
    and fall like any prince.”

Arise, O God, judge the earth;
    for to thee belong all the nations!

In Mark, the critique of Psalm 82 is extended rather dramatically: it is not merely the gods of the nations who are judged for their many injustices; it is the whole world, seen as being in the grip of such unjust powers. This courtroom imagery is not metaphysically developed, and so the metaphor is very mythical and political in its employment. If the language remains solely there in the narrative and the mythical, however, and is not also translated into a more rational metaphysical medium, the metaphors can lean towards the abolition of reason altogether, and an exaltation of what is taken to be the divine will can be placed above reason, fueling a number of belligerent social and political stances. If this occurs, discourse becomes impossible as anything but rhetoric, and an entrenched social relationship is set up between (on the one hand) the rightly-opinioned or right-practicing in-group and (on the other hand) all out-groups. One sees this in certain models of divine revelation. It is not clear whether the political metaphors lead straight into the implication that humanity is incapable of true discourse about ultimate matters without illumination, as may perhaps be implied in the consistent Markan refrain, “they did not yet understand, for their hearts were hardened.” Such language could conceivably lead to the aggressiveness of the alleged “sons of light” against the alleged “sons of darkness”, but any forceful dealings that a Markan in-group had with outsiders would, it seems, be teaching and feeding the poor and healings and exorcisms — all of the things of Psalm 82 and more, and hardly the kind of thing that would be politically destabilizing or morally obscene. That is, of course, unless it cultivated a false moral presentation of the world outside of the Markan Jesus community as morally bankrupt, totally ignorant of the truth of God, and hopelessly incapable of physical, political or psychological development without the Christological goods that the movement had. So Nietzsche’s quote: “A dangerous decision. — The Christian decision to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” (The Gay Science, Book III, 130 [Nauckhoff, p.123].) Nietzsche’s psychology is not what is in play here, but one can see how the kind of psychology he describes would seize upon the political dimensions of Mark’s narrative to perverse effect. Such a play would be merely character assassination, and lead to unnecessary conflict.

Conflict is what Mark gives, though, albeit of a different kind. When the world is taken in such a way as Mark presents it, a showdown is inevitable, in order to free humanity from the tyranny of those dark powers that fragment people and feed upon them, and to set them back in proper order, to release them into freedom (the same themes as are in Paul’s letter to the Galatians). Mark understands Jesus as the divine warrior who is to come to free and liberate. Jesus’ approach toward and entrance into Jerusalem, particularly the prophetic subtexts of the divine warrior coming from the Mount of Olives, makes this clear to those who know the references being made to the Hebrew Bible.[13] The passage where Jesus cleanses the temple, therefore, is likely supposed to be a figure for a liberating event that occurs on several levels, and reverberates throughout several spheres; it is polyvalent; it is something of a fractal. This is especially consistent with Mark’s blending into the apocalyptic genre at so many points.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

So some sort of divine intrusion is demanded by the nature of the cosmic, social and individual problem as Mark has set it up, and the cleansing of the temple might be taken to fit the bill. The act of Jesus whereby a soul is unified and set in order, however, both does and does not seem to be in the cleansing of the temple — which temple, as we noted, is the analog of both the human person and the world, and is spoken of as God’s house. One could easily argue that the political metaphors are dampened or fully inverted there by the voluntary submission to crucifixion as the means of victory. It’s worth noting. Yet while it is true that Mark’s Gospel begins its climax with the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, the structural middle point, the hinge of the whole work, is the Transfiguration in Mark 9, which follows from the question in 8:29, “whom do you say that I am?” The recognition of Jesus as the Christ somehow bestows upon the soul its own native unity, signals its health, and prepares for a theophany on Tabor, which is not political, and is so dreamlike that it has only the most minimal elements of narrative – the elements of narrative that typically appear in the literary reproduction of visionary experiences, such as in Jeremiah and Isaiah (and Enoch, etc.).

Here, at the central point of the Gospel, the political metaphors of liberation are mostly suspended, or at least muted, by an event of vision and recognition. On both sides of the Transfiguration scene, in 8:22 and in 10:46, a blind man’s sight is restored; immediately after both passages, Jesus and his band are in or on “the way”, thematically related to “the way of the Lord” signaled in the opening verses of Mark, the way of God’s enthronement, the way of the establishment of justice, the way of the liberation of the world. When sight is restored, one has vision; these scenes of restored vision do not accidentally flank the Transfiguration, nor do they accidentally abut the passion predictions in 8:31 and 10:32, respectively. The hidden Christ who is to act as the restorer of health and vision does it by victoriously dying.

This would not be a victory by political action, but by a theophany, a divine showing, a disclosure of light. The victory over chaos is certainly something that is an act of divine power, as one sees in the healings and exorcisms throughout Mark (part of the manifestation of God’s rule), but earlier in Mark, there is an aborted transfiguration that goes little noticed. In Mark 6:45-52, there is a passage where the disciples of Jesus are rowing across the sea without him, and the elements are against them. He sees their difficulty, and “was intending to pass by them.” The “intending to pass by them” has stumped interpreters, but it appears that “to pass by” (parelthein) was, in the Septuagint translation of the books of the Hebrew Bible, a common phrase for a theophany: God shows Moses his glory, which “passes by” Moses (Exodus 33:18-34:6); God “passes by” Elijah on Horeb (1 Kings 19:11-12). Horeb and Sinai are assimilated to Tabor, and Jesus to the figure of the divine Glory. Political and even priestly language are subsumed under prophetic and angelic language. As can be seen from the result of the theophany to Moses, he shone; Jesus shone; the agency of God in Jesus transforms people by showing them his glory. Vision transforms and outfits, and seems to be preliminary not only to understanding (removing the “hardened hearts” of the disciples), but to any truly liberating activity.

Consistent with the “house divided” passage noted at the beginning of Mark (ch.3), so in the transfiguration of Mark 9 dwellings are mentioned — in this case, tents or booths. Jesus, Moses and Elijah shine brilliantly; Moses is associated with the tent in which God dwelt, and “he and his followers sojourned in tents, or booths, during their wilderness wanderings” (Marcus, 638). Joel Marcus mentions the associated Feast of Sukkot/Tabernacles, where these Mosaic wanderings are recreated in the construction of tabernacles; there is an eschatological dimension to these tabernacles already in the 2nd temple period, where in texts like 1 Enoch 39 the righteous dead are said to dwell in such radiant abodes and be like the angels (see Marcus, 1108ff., esp. 1115-1117), which is strikingly similar to Jesus’ presentation of the state of the departed righteous in the Resurrection after the end of the world: the righteous will be “like the angels” (12:25). In this tradition, the eschatological booths are not clearly distinguished from the angelic state, angelic bodies, or bodies made of divine glory; these booths are a kind of participation in divine glory. (If we take Golitzin’s work seriously, there was a tradition that angels and souls, in the age to come, will be made of divine glory because they somehow feast on divine glory as their food — which has Eucharistic overtones, of course.) This same tradition seems to be behind the “spiritual bodies” (1 Cor. 15:44ff) that Paul writes about, which are the eschatological inheritance of the holy ones (or “saints”, itself an ambiguity that refers both to God, angels, and the members of the Jesus movement), and which seem to be made of divine glory (Philippians 3:21).

Such dwellings, especially if they are participation in the unitary glory of God, stand in stark contrast to the kind of divided house of Mark 3; the very dwellings of the just are shelters within God in 1 Enoch, and the bodies of the holy ones seem to be the very divine glory in which the just shelter and participate communally. This language may sound arcane, but it is related to the kind of unity-in-difference mentioned at the outset in Mark 12: God is one, and “there is no other”, as divisive otherness is done away with through the arrival and extension of his unity-in-care.[14]

Vision and action are here united in Mark: Jesus, the one who restores vision, is victorious and radiant through following “the way of the Lord” to death, and through this way and this recognition he distributes this radiance and liberation from the mountaintop. There is no permanent home in this world, no house that will be established here; one will apparently get a new divine booth and body, just as one already gets a new family (Mark 10:29-31). Jesus divides, too. Christology may seem to break apart some things which are widely regarded as highly or even ultimately important, such as family, and it does so by claiming family has only subordinate importance to the movement to restore all people to the primordial unity of the Godhead, the cause against injustice (likened to idolatry and polytheism), and the mission to break open the rinds of evil that encase individuals, communities, and the world. The political elements appear again, even if they can be articulated in more universal terms.

Some Brief Reflections

The royal language here is prone to the misidentification of a divinely-sanctioned political goal as the source around which one is unified (even though Mark 12:28ff makes it clear that this cannot be so: perfect care is the politic). Faith is a major theme in Mark’s narrative, but it has a significantly different meaning in Mark from what most modern (mainly Protestant) religious groups advocate for, and it takes a back seat to this apocalyptic divine war against darkness. The war metaphor might be taken to imply a political division — one is either affiliated with the right religious group –Jesus’ faction– or else one is part of this massive cosmic tumor of evil. There are clear statements in Mark that things are not so neat, particularly in the passage mentioned at the outset, which does not say that fidelity to Christ is the measure of one’s own unification, but love; and still, the first part of the commandment is love for God with all the faculties and energy, and only then the “like unto it” command of love, or care, for the neighbor. Yes: Mark 10:42ff does indicate that those who excel in this fidelity to God are servants and slaves to all so as to liberate them by making one’s own sacrifice for them a ransom from evil (at least within the movement); this, rather than character assassinations or anxious inquisitorial inspections of others, is the climax of where this language leads — but the political language of unity through fidelity and service is still there, just as the language of God at war against evil is still there. The only possible excuse for this language is that there is an actual revolutionary movement of people on the ground who are enacting a divine mission to create alternative communities in which God’s sovereign victory over death is manifested, particularly in love for the poor, healing of the sick, freedom for the oppressed and care for their neighbors; otherwise, it can easily become a pretext for contempt and general misanthropy, or else a self-satisfied and self-affirming posture of oneself as part of the in-group. The relative health of the people using these metaphors indicates how they will be used, but so too will the right use of these metaphors likely eventuate in the health of the people using them.

Further, in the apocalyptic narrative, and given the overwhelming use of narrative, there are no metaphysical correctives in play. The transcendence of God is affirmed both by general absence from the narrative, and by the way the vineyard owner “went into another country” in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, yet God still speaks, and sends the Spirit in the form of a dove at the baptism of Jesus in Mark 1, speaking there, and speaks from the cloud in Mark 9 at Tabor. Narrative is not theology or metaphysics, and can lead quickly into superstition and, again, politics-disguised-as-mythology-and-religion — to say nothing about idolatry.

However, a very difficult question still remains: is Christology superfluous to the ethical and spiritual life, given the goal of virtue, simplification? I suppose it depends on two questions: (1) What is Jesus supposed to accomplish? –and, (2) What are the circumstances in which Jesus is supposed to accomplish them?

(2) The circumstances are war. Though there is a battle, it is not merely arbitrary, for the unity that God brings is the natural health that things should have, and the alternative seems to be some sort of chaos and dissolution. The Neoplatonic and Daoist texts are similar here, but the political dimensions are lacking in them. Although unification or simplification in Plotinus and the Daoists  is not fidelity to the One who is one’s own primordial good, neither is it a purely self-reflexive practice that cultivates its own reward (one can be estranged from the Dao and in Plotinus one must look to the principle from which one flows in order to hold together). Still, Lao Tzu and Plotinus have more of this self-reflexive element. Some of that self-reflexive dimension can also be seen in Mark, however, for as in Mark 7, one brings out of one’s heart what one cultivates there, just as good and evil actions “perfume” the consciousness of the practitioner of Consciousness-Only Chinese Buddhist school texts (see Wing-Tsit Chan’s compendium in the footnotes).

Nonetheless, the political dimensions in Mark are so thorough that they resist a full assimilation to a Buddhist or Daoist or Plotinian scheme: even the scene of the calling and commissioning of the disciples in Mark 3 has a strong theme of war: war against the powers of evil through exorcism and teaching and an angelic simplicity – no matter how much ‘teaching’ and ‘simplicity’ are emphasized by the author of Mark in that passage, the teaching and simplicity are set against the backdrop of war: Jesus is assembling his priestly war party, and the language in Mark 3 is that of re-making both the people of God and the world.[15] The author of Mark seems to be aware that his emphasis on fidelity could be taken in the wrong sort of way, and might become factional (such as in the problem that leads to Jesus’ statement in Mark 9:40, “whoever is not against us is for us”), but the emphasis on loving one’s neighbor as oneself would seem to militate against factionalism: the scribe of Mark 12 is never exhorted to join Jesus. Jesus’ family is portrayed in rather poor light in Mark 3, however, so that Markan Christology, like the other Christologies in the other four canonical Gospels, tends to see the unification of the person, and between people, in ways that are politically divisive. Yet it seems to allow, in the case of the scribe of Mark 12, that someone could be on the side of God and not part of Jesus’ movement.

(1) Jesus is supposed to accomplish the liberation of God’s people from captivity to evil in this war against evil, and to set the world to rights, and individuals, as well — this setting to rights is typically called “justification”, though “rectification” would be better. Unification takes place as a kind of liberation. (I am tempted to look for some of the roots of our modern liberalism in the early Protestant retrieval of this early Christian preoccupation with freedom and liberation.) The world, in this telling, is not the site of yin-yang forces, is not the effulgence of a Plotinian monism, but is the site of a political, moral and spiritual battle. The world is not anarchical, but under the dominion of dark powers, and so “the world” so shaped by these powers is judged and engaged. War is the fundamental metaphor. It is important to note that the vision of the world, and of the unity of society and the human person, is not cyclical, as in Lao Tzu[16]: things don’t just get better and then get worse: they are very, very bad. Something must be done. In order for this kind of Christology to make sense, the good and bright world must be seen as in the grip of dissolution and infected with a parasitic darkness. A gentler Christology, of perhaps a more Plotinian sort, an embodied Logos, reflecting one’s own face to oneself to facilitate integration and perfection – there is something like this in the leadup to the Transfiguration scene as it plays out in Matthew (likely the more original form of the pericope if Dale Allison’s reasons are to be trusted[17]), and something like this here in Mark 9, and still more in John, but the apocalyptic war against evil mutes it, and perhaps even blunts it. In the end, the outliers (the scribe who is “not far from the kingdom of God” in Mark 12, those exorcising in Jesus’ name in Mark 9 who are not part of his movement, etc.) offer the best landing pad for those who would wish to find a place for a more pluralist sensibility that would examine all religious, irreligious, and non-religious commitments and practices ethically, and so universally, and not confessionally, and therefore politically. Mark’s Jesus, after all, does not examine the character of others based on whether they have an allegiance to him and his movement (hostility is another story, if it is a willful and self-serving hostility to him that sees Jesus and the Jesus movement as a threat to the reigning elite’s enslaving power — otherwise the Lukan “forgive them, for they know not what they do” seems to be not too far from the principle at work in Mark).

This need for God or a god to sort out the enslavement to evil is analogous to one side of a dispute within Neoplatonism of the 3rd-5th centuries (though the logic of the problem was already well in the water almost a millennium before with Plato). The dispute is between Plotinus on the one hand, who thought that the soul could bootstrap itself into purity and goodness and unity, and Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus on the other, who thought that the soul was so weakened by its entanglement with diffusement and multiplicity –roughly, with evil– that it needed the shining forth of a god to bring it back to health and unity, and that this god-showing needed to be ritually manifested. It is no wonder that Augustine in the Roman West, and Pseudo-Dionysius in the Greek & Syrian East, both respectively fell on the Porphyrean-Iamblichean-Proclean side of things: it is the natural friend of this kind of Christology – to a point. (Most of us have been aware of how certain events or people have pulled us out of either emotional or existential holes, and how both people and events can uniquely prompt us to a kind of health that is impossible without the occasion of the event or person. This is not entirely the same as what Iamblichus –or Mark– were advancing, but neither is it on a different spectrum.)

To return to our initial question and answer it with a statement: early Christian teaching seems to incline toward suggesting that the person of Jesus is essential for accomplishing the unification of a person and unity among people. It does not say this, however. Confessing Jesus as the Christ (for Mark) or the Logos of God (for John) does not seem to need to entail that one believe that others must recognize Jesus as the Christ or the Logos in order to be responding to the good, the Christ, the Logos, to the conscience, or to pursue unification. Not being part of the Jesus movement in Mark does not seem to mean that one is on the side of evil. Without a more robust and sensitive Logos Christology, it is not clear how this tendency will not be a political problem within the modern world, making it look very much like the kinds of problems that Jesus confronts in Mark. Without a more robust Christology than a crass reading of Mark might allow, especially of the sort leading to the attitude that Nietzsche contemns, it is also not clear how  one might properly recognize the value of alternative and ethical religious or irreligious commitments. Yes: given the prevalent backdrop of apocalyptic warfare, the earliest written Gospel’s presentation of Christology’s center-of-gravity is the personified, royal, and political kind that is less-than-ideal for a metaphysically responsible philosophical theology. In his defense, the author of Mark shows an awareness of these limitations, and anticipates the more metaphysically robust theology and Christology found decades later in John, and then among the Cappadocians, then in Pseudo-Dionysius and Maximus Confessor, etc. The possibility for a divisive political reading of Mark is perennially possible, however, making ethical and adept readers a necessity in order to prevent the politically divisive, ethically corrupting, and spiritually deadening consequences of a misreading.


[1] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 269.

[2] Some translations have the Markan passage as “Gerasene”, some as “Gadarene”, and some as “Gergesene”. Marcus notes that “Gerasene” has the better textual witnesses, as well as being a likely choice for the author of Mark for literary purposes, since the root Grs means “to banish” or “to cast out”, and is a common term with regard to exorcisms. See Marcus, Mark 1-8, 341-342.

[3] Although verse 15 begins with “and they came”, which could mean the demons, the townsfolk, or the swine herders of the previous two verses – again, typical of apocalyptic, where figures morph variously.

[4] See Marcus, Mark 1-8, 344-345.

[5] See Marcus, Mark 1-8, 349.

[6] See Jon D. Levenson’s excellent article summarizing this, “The Jerusalem Temple in Devotional and Visionary Experience”, in Jewish Spirituality from the Bible through the Middle Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 32-61.

[7] See nearly any commentary on Genesis 1:26, “tselem”, or more particularly, the work of Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis, “The Cosmology of P and Theological Anthropology in the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira”, available at http://www.marquette.edu/maqom/, last accessed 12/5/2014.

[8] See Levenson, above. See also Christopher R. A. Morray-Jones, “The Temple Within” in PARADISE NOW: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism ed. April D. DeConick (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006), 145-178.

[9] See Marcus, Mark 1-8, 282-283.

[10] See the translation in Wing-Tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), 174.

[11] See the many things Robert Neville writes about harmony in Ultimates: Philosophical Theology I (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013) I.iii, where the components fitted together in a harmony are mutually defining in the synthesis, rather than atomistically self-identical across iterations.

[12] This is so especially if we grant that habits are not merely located in the behavior of organisms, but are frequent repetitions within the world, reiterating themselves with a kind of autonomy. It may be that Peirce is more closely aligned with some features of Mark’s cosmology than some of the Neoplatonic writers who reify the demonic cosmic habit as a substance. Even then, the language of “demonic” must be used with care, and it may be that the label, on a cosmic level, is often merely the refusal to accept scales that are out of tune with human life.

[13] Zech 14:1-5, 9; see Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16 (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 772.

[14] The same themes are on display in the prayers of the 1st century Didache: the Church is made by gathered people from the world, just as the Eucharistic loaf of bread is made by gathering the grain from the field: in both, the many are made one. Still, not all grain is gathered into and unified as each loaf of bread, and not all people are gathered into the Church or unified in love. There is no limit to what can be gathered and integrated, but the implication of the Didache’s metaphor seems to indicate the possibility of a remainder which cannot be unified. The danger, ethically, is that the non-gathered may be figuratively assimilated, in this metaphorical world, to all that has been said about Mark’s presentation of the dominion of evil, and so characterized poisonously.

[15] See Mark 3:14-16, where Jesus goes up to a mountain (cf. Sinai and Horeb, per the appearance of Moses and Elijah in Mark 9), and “appoints” (literally, makes) the twelve, and names Simon “Peter”, from “petros”, “rock”, just as in Isaiah 51:1-2 Abraham is the “petra” from which Israel is hewed.

[16] In chapter 38 of the Tao-te Ching, entire. See Chan, Chinese Philosophy, 158.

[17] See his comments on the heavy amounts of Semiticisms in the Matthean version of the “who do men say that I am” pericope. See W.D. Davies and D.C. Allison, Matthew 8-18 (New York: Continuum, 2004).




6 thoughts on “Unification in the Gospel According to Mark

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