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weak women and womanish men like Jesus in Mark

June 7, 2014

In “Cliché, Binary Readings of Jesus in Mark,” I read the mixture of verbs describing Jesus (in two sets of variant manuscripts for Mark’s gospel) against the binary epistemology of Aristotle. In other words, Mark’s gospel has two different – seemingly contradictory – Greek words for the emotions of Jesus. The “either / or” binary makes readers choose either the one Greek word or the other. And to make the choice, readers might find a binary set of categories by which to naturally classify the seemingly opposed Greek words for the emotions of Jesus. There is either the mere human set or there is the definitely divine set. So, given the binaries, readers can decide on the variant texts. Either the one variant is original or the other variant is. There can be no mixing here. Or so goes the binary rule.

This morning in my reading of the next chapter of the gospel of Mark, I come to a verb used for Jesus. It’s a rare verb. In the New Testament, only the gospel of Mark has it and only this once. In the LXX, it is used in Greek Isaiah just once and in the Psalms just once. Outside the NT and the LXX, it is rarely used anywhere else. Aristotle uses it once in his Nicomachean Ethics.

I don’t know if the writer of the gospel of Mark read Aristotle. I do have a little more certainty that Aristotle named this work of ethics of his after either his manly father named Nicomachus or after his own manly son conceived with Aristotle’s concubine, his male offspring whom Aristotle named Nicomachus. (Aristotle was able to have a child with his wife, but she was a female offspring, therefore a botched human; and Aristotle never named any treatise of his in honor of a woman, not either his mother or his daughter. Both his wife and her daughter were named Pythias.) By the time the gospel of Mark is written, Aristotle’s manly student Alexander the Great has conquered the world and has set up his namesake Polis called Alexandria in the Mediterranean seaport of Egypt, where not too long afterwards the lackey king called for the translation of Hebrew Bible into the imperial lingua franca Greek. This is an important event, the translation that becomes known as the Septuagint, because the Jewish translators of their own Scriptures into Greek seems subversive. This is the narrative according to the Talmud, as Naomi Seidman points out. And, as Sylvie Honigman points out, the translators do not follow an Alexandrian paradigm in their work on their text but rather a Homeric paradigm. There seems to be a battle over what sort of Greek language to use. One is politically correct. The other is politically subversive, tricky, sophistic, rhetorical, translational, womanish even. “Avoid ambiguities,” and use “good Greek” is how Aristotle taught Alexander. In Alexandria, the Jews who seemed to know their Greek could choose and did choose. In Jerusalem, Mark using Greek also seems to choose. How conscious is he of this political struggle over Hellene? Surely he was at least aware of the political need to contain good Greek as opposed to ambiguous Greek. Surely this is in view even still:
the Aristotelian view of how “not males” used language and how manly men were better when they practiced the ethics of manliness, including manly language and manly relations with his manly friends.

So let’s now get to Aristotle’s use of the rare Greek word in question. Then let’s look at this single New-Testament use of this same rare Greek word as the gospel of Mark applies it when describing Jesus.

Here’s from the Nichomachean Ethics (at 1171b) translated into English in the early 20th century by one H. Rackham; [I’m interpolating the Greek word / and my transliteration of it / in the context]:

Yet the pleasure that the company of friends affords seems to be of a mixed nature. It is true that the very sight of them is pleasant, especially in time of misfortune, and is a considerable help in assuaging sorrow; for a friend, if tactful, can comfort us with look and word, as he knows our characters and what things give us pleasure and pain. But on the other hand to see another pained by our own misfortunes is painful, as everyone is reluctant to be a cause of pain to his friends. Hence manly natures shrink from making their friends share their pain [συλλυπεῖν /syl-lypein/], and unless a man is excessively insensitive, he cannot bear the pain that his pain gives to them; and he will not suffer others to lament with him, because he is not given to lamentation himself. But weak women and womanish men like those who mourn with them, and love them as true friends and sympathizers. However, it is clear that in everything we ought to copy the example of the man of nobler nature.

And here’s from the gospel of Mark (at Chapter 3) translated into English in the mid 20th century by one J. B. Phillips; [again I’m interpolating the Greek / with a transliteration/ in the context]:

Then he said to them, “Is it right to do good on the Sabbath day, or to do harm? Is it right to save life or to kill?” There was a dead silence. Then Jesus, deeply hurt as he sensed their inhumanity [συλλυπούμενος /syl-lypoumenos], looked round in anger [ὀργῆς /orges/] at the faces surrounding him, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand!” And he stretched it out, and the hand was restored as sound as the other one.

Now, let’s compare.

Aristotle is writing concerning what is ethical for men, and to be very specific he’s writing about what is ethical for manly elite Greek men in the Polis of the coming Greek Empire. He’s writing about the ethics of friendships. He’s saying that it is not natural for manly men to have the sorts of emotions in friendships that not-manly-men have. Manly men do not share their pain with other manly men; they do not like weak women and womanish men do show any grief. Manly men are of a nobler nature. That’s the lesson.

Mark is writing with profound ambiguities concerning what Jesus. In Chapter 2, in one of two different variant readings, he has Jesus showing the emotion of anger. Or, if we must choose the other variant reading, then he has him showing gut-wrenching compassion. Are these really so different? Here in Chapter 3, there’s no mixed up variant texts to sort out. Rather, there are two emotional descriptions for Jesus that may seem to contradict one another. One the one hand, Jesus is sharing pain (like a weak woman would and like womanish men do, according to Aristotle), and he’s treating those men he’s confronting with two rhetorical questions as a false binary choice as friends for whom and/or with whom he grieves. There hearts are hard, Mark goes on to explain after the excerpt given above; and Jesus seems upset and perhaps compassionate towards them about that. And then, on the other hand, there’s the anger again. Could these by synonymous? Ambiguities not avoided in the description of Jesus? A mixed nature unsorted out into convenient categories by a strict binary? A womanish man? A womanish son of Humanity? A wo-man-ish male offspring of God?

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