a mystical möbius — curating facts, ideas, text, and media to create a contemplative space.
“Grace is the consummate threat to all self-hatred” ~ friar Richard Rohr
I’m wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and the Happiest of New Years!
A Christmas riddle?
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.—10.46
That is the (nrsv) text we find at Mark 10.46. There’s no sign of Mary, the baby Jesus, a stable, barn animals, a manger, shepherds, magi, or any of the familiar images we are accustomed to finding in our favorite “Christmas” stories from the Bible.
I’ll explain further in a moment; however, what I’m suggesting is that with only seven words, “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar,” the evangelist known as Mark tells a brief Christmas story aimed directly at Greek readers/hearers. Additionally, in so doing, Mark launches a sharp polemic against the ascendant, dominant dualistic cosmology of Jesus’ (and our?) time. So, what makes Mark 10.46—or any narrative—a Christmas story?
What makes for a ‘Christmas story?’
The essence, meaning or point of any Christmas story is that G-d is ‘Immanuel.’ G-d is not some infinitely distant abstraction, e.g., deism. G-d is not of some entirely different and separate order. G-d is with us. Matthew and Luke narrate this doctrine in mythic terms through the very human motif of child birth. What had sometimes been portrayed as distant, or separate, was now being seen in a new way. Christmas transforms our way of seeing the Divine in relation to existence. The Christmas story — in any form, iteration — is a mythic narration of G-d’s Presence in existence/reality (G-d’s Immanence). “Acts” declares it in even more stark, emphatic terms: “in G-d we live and move and have our being” [see Acts 17.28]. Sounds pretty intimate. No wonder that Saint Augustine said you are closer to G-d than you are to yourself.
The task of any Christmas story is to proclaim G-d’s Immanence. Presence. In Paul’s proto-theological terms:
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”—Ephesians 4.4-6
So, a Pauline Christmas story? Of course. The Christ Mystery.
“Through all and in all,” writes Saint Paul. To be clear, the apostle is saying that G-d [Spirit, the Divine] is through all and in all. Any bifurcation of spirit and matter is categorically denied here. Christmas integrates ‘the profane’ and ‘the sacred,’ ‘the material’ and ‘the spiritual.’ Like Jesus’ cloak, matter and spirit are seamless, Reality is One. The Christmas story (in any form) narrates the overcoming of any dualistic cosmological structure, Platonic or otherwise.
A Christmas revelation from an extra-canonical source; here, Jesus fully identifies himself with the Christ Mystery:
The history of the Jewish people had been one of seeking to be in close relation to G-d — seeking to understand, even locate G-d in relation to the people of Israel. Early on they made provision for G-d to travel along with the people and be present in the Tabernacle, secure within the curtains delineating the ‘holy of holies.’ Later, after Solomon’s Temple was constructed, the people believed G-d’s Presence moved to reside with the people in the ‘holy of holies’ within the Temple. The legacy of the people of Israel had always been to nurture the intuition that G-d was in some way proximate to creation/humanity and not distant or disconnected from it.
Mysticism… another word for experiential
As mystics, Jesus, and later Paul, related what they had experienced [re Jesus see John 3.11, Matthew 7.29, Mark 1.22]. They made what must have seemed to tradition like a wildly creative move. They located G-d’s Presence where they themselves had experienced it, within the human heart. G-d‘s Incarnation. G-d is not just present in Jesus, G-d is present in you, and in everything.
I’m suggesting the author (“Mark”) knew exactly what they were doing when they offered the name of the blind beggar (“Bartimaeus”) that Jesus encountered “by the roadside” — stranded ‘on the way,’ i.e., a stranded beggar in relation to Truth, Life.
Mark is throwing shade
So, Plato’s philosophy sought Truth — i.e., Reality. He found viewing/describing express existence could not be reduced beneath three frames: the good, the true, and the beautiful. However, Plato’s paradigm bifurcated Reality. He laid out his dualistic cosmology in what was, even then, a very famous dialog: Timaeus. Plato’s conception of Reality needs no Christmas because spirit and matter are intrinsically separate from each other. For Plato, Reality is forever divided into two realms — matter [express existence] versus spirit [ideal forms].
In Plato’s Timaeus, Reality is dualistic, that is, two spheres: matter and spirit. To me, the 10.46 image is stark/plain. The evangelist is severely ranking Plato’s notion of the structure of reality as, “blind.”
In 10.46 ‘Mark’ asserts that the ‘son’ — i.e., offspring, result, product, fruit — of Plato’s manner of seeing (as proclaimed in Timaeus) is found blind there “by the roadside” (‘the way’). Timaeus is found (and identified) seriously wanting by the evangelist — critique through biting humor, perhaps? To the dominant Mediterranean culture (Greek), Mark’s text throws shade on the Platonic paradigm of a bifurcated Reality.
Enlightenment Westerners still tend to divide Reality into matter vs spirit, splitting existence into sacred and profane. A mystical Christmas still makes a fine correction to that.
Finally, a couple of disclosures.
The books on the bottom shelf above are all commentaries on The Gospel According to Mark. I have twenty-six of them — including the two forward-facing editions on the top shelf. Only the two on top suggest even the hint of a possibility of traveling the hermenuetic path I’m on here. The other twenty-four make no attempt to recognize this Platonic connection whatsoever, so, the following quotes are exhaustive of my resources regarding Mark 10.46.
In the notes concerning verse 46, John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington discount and all but out-rightly dismiss the germ of my mystical take when in Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark they write:
“The Aramaic word for ‘son’ is bar, and so, ‘the son of Timaeus’ is the explanation of the name. The name ‘Timaeus’ is harder to explain; a connection with the figure in the Platonic dialogue seems unlikely, yet it is difficult to find a Semitic name that might have generated the name Timaeus.” (page 317)
In, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark, James R. Edwards writes:
“On the way out of Jericho a blind beggar calls to Jesus. His Aramaic name, Bartimaeus, means ‘son of Timaeus,’ a translation that Mark may have added for the benefit of his Gentile readers.” [cf. note 70]
(n. 70) “B.M.F. van Iersel and J. Nuchelmans, … advance the intriguing though speculative thesis that the ‘son of Timaeus’ recalls the name of the principle speaker in the then best known dialogue of Plato — Timaeus; and that Mark’s use of the term symbolizes the conversion and discipleship of the Greco-Roman world to Jesus.” (page 329)
Christmas in Mark …
So, it could be as simple as Edwards, van Iersal and Nuchelmans make it, i.e., “added for the benefit of his Gentile readers.”
While I agree, in part, my take on Mark 10.46 goes a bit further. I suggest that it’s a shade-throwing polemic in the guise of an unconventional Christmas story. While my mystical explanation for the puzzle the evangelist presents in their naming of a blind beggar seems to be largely overlooked by orthodox tradition and the commentaries, I’m still convinced, at least for now.
—Note: This post is a lightly revised version of a piece that I first published in early January, 2019.
Holiday Bonus Video
Our personal and collective need for what this 2004 The Wailin’ Jennys song embodies is as fresh, urgent and great as ever:
We’ll pick up with Edward de Bono’s ideas again next time. [this post ~1,400 words (6-min. read)]
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