Archive for February, 2011

Approaching Light

February 28, 2011 2 comments

As the vernal equinox approaches

(and with it the tender light of spring),

I’m going to take a second and thank the passing winter

for its gifts and dreams.

Frost dreams are still dreams!

Image: Rider, John Bauer, 1914. WikiCmns; Public Domain.

The Heart Asks

February 26, 2011 2 comments

Emily Dickinson, inscrutable or not, has been on my mind lately. She is the author of some of my favorite poems, but I’ve been making my way through her work slowly over the years. Maybe it’s time to read a good biography. Anyway, here is one of her best:



The Heart Asks


The heart asks pleasure first
And then, excuse from pain;
And then those little anodynes
That deaden suffering,

And then to go to sleep
And then, if it should be,
The will of its Inquisitor
The liberty to die!

Emily Dickinson

Photo: Week-end Pleasure, Lili Melo, France. WikiCmns, CC2.0.

Spirit & Demon: Sourcing Mark’s Gospel

February 25, 2011 1 comment


Every reconstruction matters. No matter what kind of material we are working with–mythology, history, religious text, or contemporary news report–all the facts cannot be determined. Something of the event remains lost, something hidden. Our imaginations, working with things that are familiar, try to envision something that may be profoundly unfamiliar, unprecedented, even unique. Research, discussions with those who are deeply versed in a subject, letting the matter sit for a while, all can help. But what is motivating us to tell a story is an inner excitement, some memory of the story’s fire. That is what we need to share–the spark and warmth. We draw people into the circle of the story with what we can understand of the truth.

When I have told people about my interest in the Gospels and the voices that lie at their foundations, the most common response is: Why? Gilgamesh, Chinese poetry are one thing, but in the West, the four accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, suffering, and resurrection form the root of the culture’s consciousness. What could possibly be gained by tinkering with them?

My best answer is those voices–and the one, most compelling voice that still makes itself heard, often in unexpected places, in the story. Jesus was a poet, and I think that other poets can add to our understanding of his teachings and life. I am surely not the first person to say this. We can ignore the Gospels, tell ourselves that they are someone else’s business, but if we really believe in beauty and the struggle to understand what has happened in the world, then we must, at some level, make an account of them.


As I explained in my recent post on the origins of Mark’s gospel, I don’t think that the traditional account of the  gospel’s origin–Mark, who was Peter’s disciple, recorded Peter’s recollection of events–is very satisfactory. Too many questions remain unanswered. But if Peter wasn’t Mark’s source for his gospel, who was?

My answer at the moment is that Mark used the Spirit and Demon sources as his foundation, braiding material from each source together to create his text. The principle distinction between the sources is that one uses the term “demon” and the other “unclean spirit.” As far as I can tell, each has a distinct voice and attitude towards Jesus and what he did. My interpretation relies on my reading of The Complete Gospels: The Scholar’s Version (Polebridge Press).


A. The Demon Source (SDem).  Here are the characteristics of SDem: a) a tendency to report disputations; b) an interest in the disciples; and c) the secretiveness or hidden nature and message of Jesus. SDem seems to be the older of the two sources.

Here is a reconstructed passage from the SDem materials:

Four people appeared, carrying a paralytic on a mat. And [when they saw that the door was bolted,] they took the roof off and let down the man on the mat. Jesus said to him, “Son, your sins have been pardoned.” [And the man stood up, completely healed.]

But some of the scholars sitting there asked themselves, “How can he say that? He’s insulting the Most High! Only God can pardon offenses against himself!”

Then Jesus said to them, “Why do you occupy yourselves with such questions? [No healing offends God.]” [Mk 2:3-7&8b]

B. The Spirit Source (SSpir)

Here are the characteristics of the Spirit Source: 1) the public nature of Jesus’ ministry; 2) an emphasis on trust; and 3) the use of the term “right away.”

 And now, the SSpir materials from the passage analyzed above:

Word spread that Jesus was at Simon’s, and so many people gathered at Simon’s door that no one was able to enter. [text out] And Jesus began to speak to them. [text out] And just then four people arrived; they were carrying a paralyzed man on a mat. And when they saw that the crowd had blocked the door, they dug a hole in the roof above Jesus and so were able to lower the man down. Impressed by their trust, Jesus addressed the cripple, “On your feet, take your mat, and leave.”

Without hesitating, and in front of everyone, the man got to his feet, took his mat, and left. The onlookers were overjoyed and celebrated God, shouting out, “Who has ever seen something like that!”

[But after this, Jesus and his disciples had to withdraw,] and they began to travel through Galilee. [Mk 2:2a & 3, 4b, 5a, 10b, 11–13, 1:39a]

C. A Single Gospel?

Mark’s gospel contains several other episodes that can be divided in two, and the text outs in the passage I have analyzed are hardly unique–in many places material (sermons, mostly) seem to have been removed. But what is most compelling about this understanding of Mark’s sources is the implication that SDem and SSpir are closely related, sharing many of the same episodes. Could it be that they evolved from a single, original account?     –RT


copyright, 2011, The Rag Tree


Image: Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ; WikiCmns; Public Domain

What’s Up?

February 24, 2011 1 comment

Microcebus Rufus

This is a mouse lemur, the smallest primate in the world, measuring in at around 27 cm (10.63 in).

Like all lemurs, the mouse lemur is native to Madagascar. Actually, there are 19 species of mouse lemurs, of which Madame Berthe’s is the smallest (on average only 3.6 in long and weighing 30 grams–1.06 oz).

In Malagasy, M. Rufus, the guy checking us out in the picture, is known as anakatsidina; Madame Berthe’s is known as tsidy. Just to extend your Malagasy a bit further, the Grey Mouse-Lemur (Microcebus Murinus) is known as pondiky and the Giant Mouse Lemur (Mirza Coquerli), as setohy.

On a less fun note, most lemurs are endangered by poaching and illegal logging. Ninety percent of Madagascar’s forest has disappeared since the first people arrived somewhere between 200 and 500 A.D.

Misaotra! (Thank you, in Malagasy)

Photo: Photograher, Alex Dunkel; Camera, Freddie Barber; Modifications, WolfmanSF. Source: Wikipedia; License: CC 3.0 Unported.

Guest Star

February 23, 2011 6 comments

SN 1006 Remnant--NASA/Chandra


In 1965, this blast-shell was identified as the remnant of Supernova (SN) 1006, the brightest stellar event in recorded history.

Before going supernova, the remnant’s star had not been visible from earth. But at the end of April 1006, light from the star’s explosion was first seen from Europe all the way to China. Native Americans may also have recorded SN 1006 in petroglyphs. (And by the way, supernovae are sometimes referred to as “guest stars.”)

At its peak in the spring of 1006, the supernova appeared to be half the size of the moon, with an apparent magnitude of -7.5; that is, it cast significantly more light than all other objects–including the moon–in the night sky combined. Some observers said it cast shadows at night, and people could probably have used it to read a manuscript. SN 1006 was certainly visible during the day.

All observers noted that the guest star appeared low on the southern horizon in or near the constellation Lupus. After three months, SN 1006 dimmed, but then regained intensity, and remained visible for another 18 months.

Astronomers now believe that SN 1006’s star was a white dwarf (i.e., a normal star that has reached the end of its life cycle and ceased fusion) with a binary companion. The binary companion fed material into the white dwarf until the WD reignited carbon fusion–which in turn began a runaway reaction that ejected the star’s material in a detonation 5 billion times as bright as the sun. The explosion generated a shockwave that hurled the star’s material outward at about 3% the speed of light.

In A.D. 1006, Earth was 7,200 light years away from the explosion.


Photo: WikiCommons; Public Domain.

Other Strangers

February 21, 2011 2 comments



This post, I hope, will be the first installment in an occasional series of poems by poets I know. West Virginia has attracted some very fine writers and artists over the years; their work deserves to be shared and acknowledged.


Janet Harrison is a remarkable person and an even more remarkable poet; but then, it usually works that way. In addition to be being a fine poet, she makes jewelry and finds time to minister in various ways to family and friends. Right now, she is working to complete a book of her angel poems, Angels and Other Strangers, and is looking for a publisher. Know anyone who might be interested in helping her share her amazing poems? Leave a note in the comment section or send it via e-mail, and I will forward the information to Janet. Now, here is a poem from her draft. Enjoy!

Encumbrances of Angels

With all eternity to ponder

the nature and cost of freedom,

even an angel might prefer

the rasp of sand between the toes

to the ethereal tug of cosmic tides,

choose the angularity of starfish

over the symmetry of stars,

desire—whatever the penalty—

the lash of wind-driven rain

on a back unburdened of wings.

Janet Harrison, © 2011, all rights reserved. Reproduced with the author’s permission.

Image: The Scheme of Things, 1475; WikiCmns; Public Domain

Mark and Peter: Origins of the First Gospel

February 19, 2011 9 comments

page from the Gospel of Peter


In a field as fractious as the history of the Gospels, it is always noteworthy when scholars reach consensus on a question. Such a consensus has emerged concerning the priority of the gospel of Mark: just about everyone agrees that it was the first of the New Testament gospels to be written. This consensus rests mainly on the fact that the gospels of Matthew and Luke each contains almost all of Mark, strongly suggesting that the authors of these gospels used Mark as a source for their texts.

There is also broad agreement about the date that Mark was written: around the year 70 A.D., when the Romans took Jerusalem at the end of the first Roman-Jewish War and destroyed Herod’s Temple. This date is based on Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Mark 13 and the gospel’s sense of impending persecution, which might refer to Nero’s persecution of Christians.

Finally, there is agreement, though not as widespread, that the account handed down by the church fathers concerning the origins of Mark is essentially true: Mark was a disciple of Peter’s in Rome, and he based his gospel on the recollections and teachings of Peter.


But some scholars disagree. They place the author of Mark in Syria in about 70 A.D.; they see Palestinian as well as Roman influences in the gospel. And there are other, more perplexing reasons to question this gospel’s origins:

1) The author of Mark may have been more familiar with the geography of Palestine than is usually supposed. Two often cited geographical errors in Mark’s gospel (and there are others) apparently indicate that the author was unfamiliar with Palestine. One occurs after the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman–Jesus is supposed to have returned from Tyre via Sidon to Galilee. But Sidon lay to the north of Tyre, in the wrong direction. By way of explanation, one can say that Jesus may have had work to do in Sidon before returning to Galilee, and the story of his time in Sidon has been edited out. More mysterious is Mark’s claim that Jesus, on his way from Jericho to Jerusalem, passed through first Bethphage and then Bethany–when he would actually have passed through Bethany and then Bethphage. If Matthew was able to spot the error and correct it in his gospel, why weren’t people other than Mark (and above all, Peter) able to correct the error at the time of the gospel’s composition? Could it be that Mark used sources other than Peter for his gospel?

2) A gospel that claims to be Peter’s own report has been discovered. In the late 19th century, a copy of the lost Gospel of Peter was found in a monk’s grave in Egypt. Though the first half of the gospel is missing, the second half is intact (the ending is also missing) and gives an account of Jesus’ death quite different in certain respects from the one contained in Mark’s gospel. (GPtr is told in the first person, from Peter’s point of view.) Which version of the Passion might have originated with Peter in Rome? Did either?

3) The early church did not accept Mark’s gospel. The clearest indication of this is the incorporation of almost all of Mark in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The intent here seems to have been to remove Mark’s gospel from circulation and replace it with the true version.

Another indication is the fact that the end of the gospel of Mark is missing. Two endings, one long, one short, were subsequently crafted to provide a powerful close, but the original text seems to be lost. Why would the early church reject Peter’s account of the gospel, even to the point of removing the story’s dramatic conclusion?

4) Recently, a letter by the church father Clement, which claims to record “secret” passages from the Gospel of Mark that were removed from the gospel’s “public” version, has been discovered. In 1958, a handwritten copy of this letter was discovered by Morton Smith on the end papers of a 17th century book while Smith was doing research at the Monastery of Mar Saba. The book has not been available for examination for many years and may be lost, raising the possibility of a hoax. But many scholars, basing their opinion on photographs of the letter and handwriting analysis, believe the copy of the letter in the endpapers to be genuine. As if this were not enough, Clement’s letter claims that there was a third version of Mark’s gospel in circulation. Which of these versions originated with Mark? Were there yet other emended copies?


It might look like these questions will never be answered. But the slow, patient, and sometimes courageous work of scholars over decades and even centuries is helping us answer them.


Related RT Posts: 1) Oxyrhynchus–Trash and Treasures.


Photographer: H.B. Swete, 1893. WikiCmns; Public Domain.