Honouring the gods in the classical Mediterranean realm and on its fringes

The symbolic function of the house

What is, all told, the role of house and home space in Mark's narrative strategy? First, from a purely terminological point of view, it must be pointed out that the term “house” may be used to translate two different Greek words: oikos and oika, the meaning of which is not quite equivalent. However, the diverse semantic nuances notwithstanding, Mark seems to use the two words indiscriminately, we shall therefore choose to consider them synonymous. This said, when considering the 28 Markian references to the “house” (as a tangible dwelling place, as against metaphorically), what is immediately striking is the tight link the evangelist creates between domestic spaces and Jesus' multi-faceted activity. For the house is indeed the setting in which Jesus teaches, heals and holds open table with the disciples as well as with the publicans[1] and the “sinners[2]” . Home is also where to return after being healed, it is the place left behind to become Jesus' disciple and it is finally, and at the same time, a major element of the reward Jesus promises his disciples.

Meanwhile, Jesus' presence seems to blot out, nay to destroy, the normal link binding the house and the family within. Let us consider as an example the passage in Mark 3: 20-35 where we witness the clash between Jesus and his relatives probably staged in the house where he used to stay at. Contrary to their expectations, his mother and brothers are not invited in and are forced to stay outside. Their place has been taken over by the disciples and the crowd, who make up an “alternative” family, the master's new family. The traditional condition for admission to the house – family ties and bonds – is no longer valid in Jesus' eyes. There is now a new condition: that of “doing the will of God”.

This re-signification of the house has been highlighted by Elisabeth Malbon who has shown how in the evangelist's spatial mindscape, the house symbolically operates by contrast with the Temple[3], this with a view to signify the overturning and transformation of an old order into a new order represented by Jesus. Drawing on Claude Lévi-Strauss' analyses, Malbon scrutinises all Mark's references to places within their observable relational system in order to re-examine them in the light of an underlying mythological system. She focuses her attention on three main fields: the geopolitical code[4], the topographic code[5] and the architectural code[6]. We are particularly interested in the latter code which addresses in particular the opposition between “house”, “synagogue” and “temple”.

Theodotus Inscription © ShanksInformationsInformations[7]

Theodotus Inscription © Shanks

[i : Shanks. Theodotus Inscription. 1979 available at http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/greek/theodotus.htm]

Model of the Second Temple of JerusalemInformationsInformations[8]

Following Malbon's analysis, it is even possible to elicit from Mark's account a narrative progression in three stages: a) from the synagogue to the house (Mk 1: 21 – 6:6); b) in the house (Mk 6:7 – 10:52); c) against the Temple (Mk 11:1 – 14: 72). The breakdown into these phases helps underscoring how the sequence of architectural spaces outlines from the outset a clear and progressive movement undertaken by Jesus – along with his story – from the synagogue to the house. This movement amounts to a pointed subversion of the sacred-profane dichotomy: whereas the synagogue, in its capacity as spatial extension of the temple, operates primarily as a religious and thereby sacred space, the house is a living space and thus profane. In other words, the sacred realm – first in the form of the synagogue then even more so of the temple – is proving unequal to the task of accommodating Jesus' “new doctrine” and he, as a result, has to fall back on the profane realm, namely the house.

However the house, from this angle, stands as a temporary space. Whereas the synagogue and the temple are both official architectural spaces built for the Jewish religious establishment, houses are but a facility “borrowed” temporarily by Jesus. In last analysis, what appears to characterise Mark's Jesus is not a particular location but rather the fact that he never permanently dwells in a place.

  1. Publican

    Term drawn directly from the Latin publicanus (from publicum = treasury). Technical term referring to high-ranking public servants in the Roman treasury dealing with taxation. That is why, stricto sensu, the word is not best suited to refer to the small local tax collectors the gospels talk about (in Greek tel┼Źnai; from telos = impôt + the verb verb ┼Źneisthai = buy)

  2. Sinner

    He who has breached God's law or opposed his will, that is who has sinned. Jesus' association with sinners (in Greek hamartoloi) has always raised question, specifically regarding the nature of the subjects falling in this category in the gospels. Nowadays, however, New Testament specialists seem more and more disposed to range them among actual transgressors, not to be confused with the poor or ordinary people (referred to in Hebrew as Am haaretz).

  3. Temple

    Here the temple of Jerusalem, built in 516 BC, after the return from the Babylonian captivity: also known as the second temple as it replaces the “First Temple” (the “Temple of Solomon”) destroyed in 586 BC by king Nebuchadnezzar II. To the Jews of Jesus' days, it represented the ultimate sacred place.

  4. Geopolitical code

    It includes references to specific places: towns, villages, regions, etc.), and relies on the opposition between “familiar” and “foreign” with polarisations such as “the land of Israel” versus “foreign lands” “Galilee” versus “Judea” and so on.

  5. Topographic code

    It includes all references to physical places (seas, mountains, rivers, roads, etc.) and rests on the opposition between “promise” and “threat”, with polarisations such as “sky” versus “earth” versus “sea”, “deserted areas” versus “populated areas”.

  6. Architectural code

    It includes all human constructions (houses, synagogues, temple, etc.) and rests on the irreconcilable opposition between “sacred” and “profane” with such polarisations as “house versus “synagogue” and “temple” or “chamber” versus “courtyard”.

  7. Shanks. Theodotus Inscription. 1979 available at http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/greek/theodotus.htm

  8. Model of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Available at: http://antikforever.com/Syrie-Palestine/main_palest.htm

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