The “Rending of the Heavens:” The Markan Critique of Modernity as a Basis for Hope

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The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”(Mark 1:1-15 ESV)


One does not have to be a prophet to reach the conclusion that Western Civilization is in crisis.  Whatever consensus we presumed existed in the past has fractured along a bewildering number of lines that no longer can be organized in an honest fashion by utilizing terms such as “liberal” or “conservative” or “progressive” or “reactionary.”  Voices from nearly every corner of the spectrum of debate have lodged charges of “moral failure,” “economic failure,” “political failure,” “too much religion,” “not enough religion,” “the loss of values,” the “application of the wrong values,”  “the advocacy of rights,” “the loss of rights,” and throughout, the cries charging intolerance, disrespect, prejudice, and hate abound.

Even the most strident of voices in this clamor of arguments raise questions about the nature and authority of the Bible.  For those who assert some kind of allegiance to the claims of the Bible and the central role the Bible has occupied in Western Culture, the current crisis is understood as the direct result of the cultural rejection of the message of this important text.   For those who have repudiated the role of the Bible, affirming the rise of modern science and the development of a critical historiography in its place, the various challenges to the authority of the Bible that have been debated for nearly four hundred years in the West have provided conclusive proof that the future of the West depends upon the dismantling of all religion.  Yet, or maybe because of the nature of this debate, the crisis of modernity demands a reexamination of the way in which the Bible is interpreted and the possible ways it can speak to our contemporary situation.

Classical Hermeneutics

James L. Kugel, Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University and the Professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel recently challenged academic Biblical study by clearly drawing the differences between classical and modern hermeneutical understandings.  He argues that four principles tie together both Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Scriptures from the classical period until the beginning of the Renaissance.[i]

The first assumption is that the Bible is a “fundamentally cryptic document.”[ii]  The “cryptic” nature of the text requires the process of interpretation to uncover multiple dimensions of meaning within a particular text and assert that the meaning so uncovered is related, in some way, to the meaning of other passages found in different books arising in dissimilar historical contexts and composed by a variety of authors.

Second, the Bible is profoundly “relevant” to life.  It is “one great Book of Instruction.”[iii]   The entire canon, not just portions within the canon, is intended to provide guidance or wisdom for life.  One who studies the Bible learns the wisdom of God.

The interpretation of scripture was guided further by the third assumption.  Scripture is “perfect and perfectly harmonious.”[iv]  Creative effort was expended by the interpreter to insure that the appearance of conflict was resolved in such a way that the essential harmony of the text was preserved.  Patristic interpreters utilized a variety of methods to accomplish this task including references to the historical, moral, and spiritual meaning of a particular text.[v]

The last principle presented by Kugel is the most important.  Scripture was understood to be “divinely sanctioned, of divine provenance, or divinely inspired.”[vi] Kugel argues that the first three assumptions did not develop out of the fourth[vii] but that the history of interpretation points to the fourth one.  It is certainly the case in the history of the Church’s interpretation of the Bible. The belief that the Bible is divinely inspired and that such an understanding is supported by the Bible itself continues to be profoundly significant for the interpretation of scripture and is one of the central issues in the numerous battles concerning its interpretation.

The fact that these assumptions seem “odd” or “old fashion” to the vast majority of contemporary exegetes serves only to confirm Kugel’s basic thesis. It points out the radical “break” that has ruptured the connections between modernity and the classical tradition.  This break or rupture extends to every discipline – not just Biblical studies – and has contributed many of the peculiar features of our current social setting.  For example, most academic disciplines practice the prejudice of the “contemporary” by assuming the most recent is always the best. Accordingly, most of us “moderns” question the value or relevance of anything arising during the classical era.  This even includes the wisdom and insight one could find in ancient documents such as the Bible.

Profound and troubling questions concerning the nature of authority, the existence of “truth,” the contours of the social relationships of human existence, the nature of the self, the dimensions of meaning, and the role of virtue are either ignored or recognized as more challenging and difficult because of the “break” between modernity and the classical tradition.

The central point that I am making at this juncture is this: the broad contours of contemporary thought both within and without the academy suggest strongly that “real knowledge” (if we can speak of this at all) is limited to a very narrow range of assertions. If we can speak with certainty of “truth” it can refer only to scientifically verifiable statements.  Many thinkers even challenge the meaningfulness of scientifically informed language about the world. They argue that we can know with certainty very little because we are trapped in a closed system of mutually referent claims and, so, for many, the very notion of truth has dropped out of any meaningful dialogue.

In its most radical forms, contemporary thought is ruthlessly relativistic concerning values (that is, there are no universal values of any kind), individualistic and nominalistic in its assessment of the dimensions of reality (that is, only the concrete individual entity is real and there are no universals), physicalist and materialistic in its assertions of what is real (that is, reality is material in nature and all phenomenon can be reduced to its most basic physical components), and hedonistic in its understanding of what is good (that is, personal pleasure is above all).  These value-laden convictions shape what contemporary people are able to “see” and “hear” in and through their encounter with “reality” and, thus, make it very difficult to see and hear a different message that would open up a deeper understanding of reality and re-assert the reality of truth – a truth that changes lives and alters our experience of the world.

The Biblical Lens

The Biblical focus of this brief paper will be the heart or center of the opening section of Mark’s gospel.  In visual art the frame, the matting, and the skill of the artist draw our vision to the center of the painting and its message.  In this case, verses 1-3 and verses 14-15 provide the outer frame.  Verses 4-8 and 12-13 accent the vivid colors of the center or heart of the passage found in verses 9-11.

The opening sentence of the Gospel of Mark makes a bold proclamation:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” These words confront contemporary readers with jarring ambiguity.  The Gospel of Mark opens with a “titular sentence”[viii] that lacks a predicate.[ix]  It has been understood as a title, the first line of the prologue, as the first sentence of the whole gospel, or as part of a longer sentence.[x]   The challenge of the opening sentence is highlighted by the ambiguity of the words utilized.

The first word of the Gospel of Mark is “arche.”  This term has a wide range of meanings.[xi]  It can simply mean “beginning,” as the initiation of a temporal sequence, and this is how it is usually translated.  But it can also mean:  the “original material” out of which all material reality emerges; or as the unchanging “principles” that govern reality; or as the “norm” of all things; or as the “beginning and the end” of all reality identified with “logos.”  As such, the term “arche” refers also to that which has primary “power” or “dominion.”  This understanding of the term is used in Daniel 7 (LXX) and in Ephesians and Colossians, and many other passages,[xii] to name spiritual realities whose power is expressed in and through economic, social, and political structures and individual embodiments of that power.  In Mark 13 the term is used two times to indicate the radical nature of the changes that the apocalyptic context will bring.  Ultimately, Paul asserts that Jesus Christ is the “arche,” the preeminent power in whom “the fullness (pleroma) of God was pleased to dwell.”[xiii]  As Boring argues, no single English word conveys these meanings.[xiv]

“Evanggelion” is translated as good news.  This term had a particular place in the ideology of Roman rule.  It was used to announce Roman military victories and the birthday celebrations for the Emperor who was seen as savior.[xv]  The employment of this term by Mark is significant.  It points to a new savior whose rule will subvert the rule of Rome.  It is the witness of and about Jesus Christ that is “good news.”

The term “Jesus Christ” is used in Mark only here.  The text asserts that Jesus is the Christ, the “anointed one.”   It is important to note that Mark reinterprets the “traditional understanding of the royal messiah”[xvi] through his understanding of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.