Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

On Jordan's Bank

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Dec 05, 2005

Vision Book Cover Prints

A Monday visit to Andrew Greeley's weekly homily site always helps me appreciate the sermon I heard the day earlier, much as dropping an engine block on your foot (in P.J. O'Rourke's image) helps you appreciate your toothache. Here's Greeley on yesterday's Gospel:

The early Christians had a problem with the Baptist. He had preached the nearness of the kingdom of God before Jesus had. And Jesus had been baptized by him. Thus the Baptist's disciples could claim that their master was prior to and therefore superior to the master of the Christians. So they rearranged history a little bit [for] pedagogical purposes. The Baptist was not so much about an apocalyptic intervention of God which would punish all sinners as he was preaching about the coming of Jesus who would embody the kingdom of God.

These text-behind-the-text sermons always rankle. On pastoral grounds, even if the proposed genesis of the biblical text were true, why is it important to the lives of the faithful that they know it? How is Aunt Doris meant to become a better Christian by learning that the Gospel of Mark was not written by St. Mark to describe what actually happened, but produced by first century polemic to show what the Marcan community very much wished to have happened?

But there's also a logical objection to this method of criticism -- at least in the self-confident and pedantic way it comes to us from the pulpit -- that I've never heard adequately addressed: how would the Gospels read differently if the events they purport to describe really happened, as opposed to occurring in the manner suggested by the homilist? There's a line in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers that sets out the problem deftly:

Meeting a friend in a corridor, Wittgenstein said: "Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for men to assume that the sun went round the earth, rather than that the earth was rotating?" His friend said, "Well, obviously, because it looks as if the sun is going round the earth." To which the philosopher replied, "Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?"

In the context of Greeley's example: he says John the Baptist didn't really herald the coming of Jesus, but Jesus' disciples "rearranged history a little bit" for reasons of their own. So my question is, what would the Gospel look like if John the Baptist had, in reality, heralded the coming of Jesus? What would we expect St. Mark to have written instead?

It's probably captious and in bad taste to put these questions to the good doctor (check out the edifying story with which he illustrates the message of the Scriptures). But I do wonder, it being the Second Sunday of Advent, what he would have chosen for the entrance hymn ...

On Jordan's bank the Baptist's call
Conflicted with the text of Paul;
And so the früh-katholisch claque
Conspired to roll the Baptist back.

Committees fudged the Gospel scripts
To downplay the apocalypse,
Inspiring Luke and Matthew too
To by-pass Mark and join the Q.

O Christians! put your hearts at ease:
This cloud of recent PhDs
Hath saved your Saviour from His Church
By AAR-approved research.

Then cleansed be ev'ry breast from sin
And Quellenforschung dwell within:
That faith the more enkindled be
In sound historiography.

All praise to Thee, eternal Son,
By whom is our redemption won;
'Tis pity (as our priests insist)
Thou savest, but canst not exist.
Amen.

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