perjantai 4. maaliskuuta 2011

Echoes of the tradition of Mark 7:1-23 in Colossians

The discussion of the relationship between the proclamation of the historical Jesus and the message of Paul the Apostle is almost as old as critical biblical scholarship itself. It has been noted that Paul in his epistles hardly ever repeats Jesus' teachings as we have them in the Gospels, and only in few cases bases his argument clearly on something Jesus has said or done prior to his passion. Nevertheless, close reading of Paul reveals a significant amount of more and less obvious echoes of Jesus tradition in his letters. Studies have shown that behind Paul's letters seems to be a common pool of Jesus tradition, which, according to James Dunn, was stuff ”familiar enough to both sides to be a matter of allusion and implicit reference”. Therefore we can spot in the epistles traces of some of the same traditions that ended up in the Synoptic Gospels.

In this paper I intend to argue that traces of the Jesus tradition standing behind the narrative of Mark 7:1–23 are to be found in Paul's epistle to the Colossians. Where some commentators have noticed the possibility of Paul's earlier writing influencing some wordings in Mark, the case for the possibility of the tradition behind Mark influencing Paul seems to be largely neglected.

The historicity of the narrative in Mark 7:1–23
In Mk 7:1-23 the pharisees and scribes question Jesus on why his disciples are not walking according to the tradition of the elders or the Jewish halakah. In this case the argument has to do with the disciples not washing their hands before eating. Jesus responds his questioners by accusing them of neglecting the commandments of God in order to set up their own rules. The main clause of the story is Jesus' words ”there is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile (koinosai) him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (7:15). In the end of the pericope Jesus is interpreted having declared all the foods clean and therefore having nullified the Mosaic tradition of clean and unclean foods (7:19).

Heikki Räisänen has argued that even though Mark's story and especially the verse 7:15 is received as authentic by many scholars, it seems to be invented later in order to justify the habit of the Gentile church ignoring the food laws given in the Torah. Räisänen points out that we do not find the application of the words of Jesus in 7:15 anywhere in the New Testament. This is suprising, since the debates on food-related issues seemed to be the most common in the early church, ever since the door was opened for the Gentiles who did not follow the Jewish law of abstaining from certain foods. Surely if Jesus had said something like this, it would have been referred to instantly by the more ”liberal” party and that would've been end of the debate. Wouldn't Paul had cited Jesus' words for Peter in their conflict in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14)? Why are charismatic experiences referred to instead of a saying by the great Teacher himself in the Jerusalem council (Acts 15)?

Räisänen's argument from silence has been challenged by Matti Kankaanniemi. Kankaanniemi argues that if someone needed to invent a Jesus story in order to justify the Gentile church's disregard of Mosaic food laws, surely it would had been easy to come up with a story which would contribute to this goal more clearly. Why invent an argument about eating with unwashed hands where the case of foods laws are only referred to? It is furthermore doubtful that Jesus' words in 7:15 were understood by all as a declaration of ”all foods clean”. The common interpretation of Jesus' words was therefore not necessarily ”it's ok to eat anything”, but, for example, ”ethical questions are more important than diet code”. Therefore it makes sense why the original story was not used as a weapon in food-related arguments – it wasn't seen to be dealing with that subject.

If the ”all foods clean” interpretation of the story was part of it from the beginning, then I agree with Räisänen: we should expect this teaching to be referred to in the food-related arguments described in the NT. But, in the end of this paper I will argue that this interpretation as we have it in Mark (but not in Matthew) became possible only after certain developments on the food issue. First I will deal with my main argument that deals with the connection of Mark and Colossians.

Walking according to the tradition
The whole scene in Mark 7:1–23 has to do with the right halakah or ”walking”. Walking (hlk) is the term used in the OT to speak about (right) living and behaviour. Mark explains that the Pharisees and scribes were walking after ”the tradition of the elders” (ten paradosin ton presbyteron) (7:3). The Pharisees followed an oral tradition they believed originated from Moses and ultimately from God himself. Strict interpretations of the purity law, which had been originally followed by priests only, had been followed also by the Pharisees ever since the Maccabean period. General populace was probably not bound by such rules as strictly, but since Jesus and his disciples were clearly seen as a religious party of some sort, they were probably expected to be ”more religious” than common folk. The Pharisees question Jesus on why aren't his disciples walking according to this ”tradition of the elders” (7:5). Jesus replies the Pharisees and scribes by quoting the words of Isaiah 29:13 (LXX), labeling the Pharisaic tradition with the words of the prophet as ”doctrines the commandments of men” (didaskalias entalmata anthropon) (7:7). Furthermore, Jesus claims that by following ”tradition of men” (paradosin ton anthropon) (in contrast with ”tradition of the elders”!) they are setting their own commandments against God's statutes (7:8).

This is a radical thing to say about a tradition some considered to be as divine as the Torah itself, and if Jesus said it, the disciples surely remembered it, and most probably Paul and others heard it (I will deal with the question of how Paul probably heard it below). In his epistle to the Colossians, Paul is urging the church to continue ”walking” in Christ (en auto peripateite), as they ”have received (parelabete) Christ Jesus the Lord” (2:6). Here we see an example of the Pharisaic/Rabbinic idea of passing on and receiving an authorative tradition being adopted by the early church. So what was the ”Christ–tradition” received by the Colossians? From his other letters we see that the tradition Paul seemed to be passing on to his churches included at least a summary of the gospel and ethical rules for right behavior, but also words and deeds of Jesus. Possibly the Colossians had heard a Jesus story such as recorded in Mark 7 where Jesus criticizes the Pharisees of following certain kind of interpretation of the law, and Paul is alluding to that piece of tradition when he builds his argument. Furthermore, with the words used in Mark 7:7–8, Paul labels the false teaching as ”tradition of men” (paradosin ton antropon) (2:8) and as ”commandments and doctrines of men” (ta entalmata kai didaskalias ton anthropon) (2:22). Colossians are therefore to ”walk” according to the tradition(s) they had received about Jesus and which they had been taught (edidachete 2:7), not according to the traditions some were trying to feed them.

So the phrases Paul uses to degrade the Colossian heresy are suprisingly close to Mark's wordings. Also the way he reminds the Colossians about the Jesus tradition (which included stories of Jesus) they had received and exhorts them to ”walk” according to it gives us reason enough to suspect possible connections.

The Jewish core of the Colossian heresy
These textual connections alone and the Jewish nature of the are probably not very compelling signs of echoes in Colossians of the specific tradition that stands behind Mark 7. But we need to recognize that both texts deal with similar issues: rules of the Jewish religion that were not seen as biblical and therefore not mandatory by all Jews. In Colossians Paul is addressing the church not to be swayed away by the false teaching they had heard, ”by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (2:8). The nature of the Colossian heresy has been long debated, but it's now becoming increasenly clear that it was Jewish in it's core. Evidence is pointing to forms of Jewish-Christian ascetism and mysticism. For example Raymond Brown concludes that ”many would describe the false teachers at Colossae as Jewish Christian syncretists in whose ”philosophy” were combined (hellenized) Jewish, Christian, and Pagan elements”.

Even still, Merkabah mysticism seems to lead us in the right direction: as a form of ”Jewish Gnosticism”, the Merkabah mystics practiced ascetism and observed the minutiae of the Mosaic Law in order to gain a vision of ascending through the heavenly spheres, populated by angels who had a meditorial role in the ascent. The mystic's goal was to reach God's heavenly throneroom, the fullness (pleroma) of God's light. In our case the jewishness of the Colossian syncretism is important to recognize in order to see why the polemic against certain kind of Jewish legalism in the tradition of Mark 7 would had influenced Paul's exhortation in Colossians.

Food is not the matter
Another important link between the two texts is food. In Mark Jesus explains the disciples that ”whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile” (7:18). The Markan interpretation of the story thus sees Jesus in his final comments declaring all foods clean and thus abolishing the Levitical food laws (7:19). Similarly in Colossians food is part of the problem along with other Jewish rules. ”Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (2:21) seems to be part of the code the Jewish ascetic teachers were setting up for the church in Colossae. But Paul warns them to ”not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink” (2:16), since these kind of rules are part of stoicheia, the ”elemental spirits of the universe”, and through union with Christ by faith the Colossians had ”died” in relation to these forces (2:20). Seeking spiritual things by being enslaved by them was part of their previous lives, but not any longer.

Therefore in both Mark and Colossians food is referred to as something irrelevant and ethically neutral. It has absolutely nothing to do with person's right spiritual conduct. Since the Mosaic food laws were so central for the Jews, we need to recognize the crucial importance of Mark 7:15: if Jesus really said something that could be understood as a neutralization of the food laws, shoudn't we see this tradition also behind Paul's argumentation in Romans 14:14: ”I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean (koinon) in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean”? But this brings us back to Räisänen's main point: if the tradition is authentic, why wasn't it employed more often as one should expect? My claim is that even though the tradition is early and authentic, the interpretation ”thus he declared all foods clean” (7:19b) of Jesus' words in 7:15 was accepted or developed only later. But this was also the interpretation that reached Paul.

How did the tradition reach Paul?
The theology of the early church was not static and we can sometimes trace its developments in the NT. As Christology found its formulations, so also interpretations of Jesus' sayings and deeds developed. The questions whether a Jewish believer in Christ could eat from the same table with a Gentile believer or should the Gentiles follow the Mosaic food laws were discussed and hotly debated, as we can see from the pages of NT. Which developments ultimately brought home the view that food laws were of secondary importance? Most probably for Jesus they were not important, but most probably he didn't speak against them. My suggestion is that the key to the development of the ”foodology” of the early church is to be found with Peter.

Now, let's suppose the Papias tradition about Mark being Peter's ”interpreter” is reliable and Peter is the source of at least many Jesus traditions in Mark. Therefore this story in question and it's interpretation as relating to Mosaic law of clean and unclean foods (7:19) could be stemming from Peter. This fits well together with the other information we find about Peter's standing on the food-related debates. The clear implication of Gal. 2:12 is that Paul had witnessed earlier Peter being in favor of the ”liberal” view, even though he adopted the ”conservative” view once the ”men from James” arrived to Antioch. Also the story in Acts 10:9–16 tells that Peter had seen a vision of a large sheet full of unclean creatures being lowered down from heaven, and that he heard a voice saying: ”Get up, Peter; kill and eat”. When Peter resists explaining that he has never eaten anything unclean, the voice addresses him a second time: ”What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The fact that Peter is attributed with this kind of experience testifies to his liberal viewpoint on the food issue. It might well be the case that it was a charismatic experience such as this that helped him to develop his view on the matter. Therefore it looks like Peter was the one who supported flexibility on food laws, however, he seems to have been more diplomatic in promoting the flexibility than Paul was, as we can conclude from Gal. 2:11–14.

Now, if we accept the Papias tradition reliable, it becomes very likely that it was Peter who gave the story of Mark 7:1–23 it's radical interpretation of ”all foods clean”. Also we might conclude that his liberal view could have developed in some relation to this story, but the story and Jesus' words (7:15) alone were not clear enough to justify the liberal view. Originally the story had been heard to be about purity issues and Pharisaic tradition – not about unclean foods. But after certain experiences that were seen as inspired by God's Spirit, Peter probably reflected on the story in the light of his new understanding. Since Paul also mentions spending two weeks with Peter (Gal. 1:18), and it is obvious that Jesus was the topic of their discussions, the Petrine version of the tradition reached Paul as well. This was a story important for Peter, and he passed it on to Mark and Paul, and certainly to many others. Maybe this was the teaching Paul had in mind when he rebuked Peter in Antioch!

The Jesus tradition in Mark 7:1–23 (especially the saying in 7:15) was probably not at first heard as referring to the Mosaic law of clean and unclean foods. This is why we don't see the story being employed clearly in the NT food debates. The interpretation became possible only after or during the establishment of the liberal view, which Luke sees as being affirmed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:9–16, 15:28). Through Peter the tradition and it's ”all foods clean” interpretation reached both Mark and Paul. Without too many retellings between the storyteller and the texts, certain expressions remained their formulation. When Paul was fighting against a false doctrine in Colossae that was Jewish in it's core and had to do with legal minutiae and food laws, he had a Jesus story in mind which inspired him to use the language he had been told Jesus himself had used when faced with ”traditions of men”.

Brown, R. (1994). An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday.

Bruce, F. F. (1984). The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans.

Bruce, F. F. (1984b). The Colossian heresy. Bibliotecha Sacra. July–September 1984, 195–208.

Dunn, J. D. G. (1998). The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Volume 3. (1993). Balz, H. & Schneider, G. (ed.). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). 3rd edition. (2000). Danker, F. W. (ed.). The University of Chicago Press.

Kankaanniemi, M. (2009). Markus 7:1–23. Keuruu: Iso Kirja.

O'Brien, P. T. (1982). Colossians, Philemon. Word Biblical Commentary. Texas: Word.

Räisänen, H. (1984). Jeesus ja varhaiskristillinen raamattukritiikki. Raamattunäkemystä etsimässä. Helsinki: Yliopistopaino, 40–52.

4 kommenttia:

Timo Koivisto kirjoitti...

Mielenkiintoinen teksti, varsinkin kun nykyään törmää yllättävän usein kristilliseen judaismiin esim. juutalaisten juhlien ja sapatin vietossa, ruokavalioissa yms. Tämä antaa hyviä eväitä työstää em. problematiikkaa paikallissrk-tasolla keskustelussa näiden judaisti-intoilijoiden kanssa.

DrMark kirjoitti...

A nice little piece. What is its Sitz im Leben?

Lars Leevi kirjoitti...

Mark: English Language Exemption Test. It included a short essay on a chosen topic :)

DrMark kirjoitti...

Ok... I consider it a "pass" :)