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

Nowhere and everywhere

The analysis set forth by Malbon proves remarkably useful to grasp the centrality of domestic space in the Gospel of Mark although it falls short of bringing out the destabilising role played by Jesus himself as a “mobile” locus of sacredness as against the Temple as a “fixed” sacred space.

In this sense, it is not just the house that takes up temple functions by becoming a temporary sacred site, but any space coalescing around Jesus' physical presence: the sacred-profane dichotomy may not therefore be restricted to architectural spaces, precisely given the “geographic” centrality ascribed each time to Jesus by the Evangelist as he develops around him his own settings.

As it happens, these settings are often markedly “marginal” by nature, remote, deserted places that they are: Mark's Jesus seeks spaces of this type, away from village life or institutional centres of power, turning them into ideal places for him and his disciples – thus it is at the top of a mountain that he consolidates the group of Twelve (Mk 3: 13-19), it is also to a mountain that he takes the threesome (of Peter, John and James) to make them aware of his true identity (Mk 9: 2-8) and on a mountain again that he teaches three of them (among whom Andrew) about the end of time by developing for them one of the key esoteric doctrines.

From this point of view, in order better to define Jesus and his group's position, it may be worth referring to the model developed by J. Z. Smith to classify the religions of the ancient world. He suggests three great categories: a) the religions of “here”, that is domestic religion, linked to the symbolic spaces of the oikos and burial sites; the religions of “there”, namely the public religions focussed on the temple; c) the religions of “anywhere” that occupy the spaces left in-between these two types of places.

Such a classification helps clarifying diverse aspects of Jesus' religious project as set in Mark's gospel, and which wholly matches the traits of a religion “of anywhere”. According to Smith, the propagation of the religions of anywhere is effected through the « reconfigurations and reinterpretations of elements characteristic of the religions of 'here' and 'there' ». The religions of anywhere do not come about independently from but always in connection with the two other forms. Three factors notably contribute to the emergence of a religion of this type: new politics, new geography and new cosmography. New politics leads to « the old forms of kingship [becoming] idealized objects of nostalgia, as in messianism ». The new geography is shaped by the notion of « (religious) association as a socially constructed replacement for the family ». And the new cosmography comes associated with the devaluation of ritual sacrifices and the emergence of religious experiences leading to new forms of knowledge.

As regards “new politics”, suffice it to note that Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom of God implicitly relies on the “nostalgic” ideal of a sovereign God, regaining mastery over his earth to restore it in its original state of equality and justice. As for the “new geography”, the organisation of Jesus' movement is based on the master/disciple relationship, a social model very much set in-between family and temple (and /or synagogue), going so far as a to “substitute” for the family as a fictitiously related group that may clash with it. Finally, when it comes to a “new cosmography”, we find in Mark data apparently aiming for different outcomes.

On the one hand, there is no evidence of a critique of sacrifices, or of a stance promoting the abolition of temple cult. Indeed Jesus never speaks against sacrifices, to the extent that he seems to accept them explicitly. Admittedly, observance of the two commandments resuming the Law (love of God and love of one's neighbour) is defined in the Gospel as « more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices » (Mk 12: 33). However this sentence is not attributed to Jesus but to a scribe speaking for him. Meanwhile Jesus always attaches great importance to the Temple, defending its dignity and its cultic function.

On the other hand one can find in Mark some portents of the downgrading of temple sacrifices, starting with Jesus' choice of having himself baptised by John. This along with his radical conception of mutual forgiveness stand in clear opposition to the Yom Kippur[1] rituals as a means of atonement for deliberate sins: « And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. » (Mk 11:25). The novelty of this conception (even in regard to John) is signified by the fact that the forgiveness or “remission of sins[2]” can only be achieved through mutual pardon, which does not require the purification of the body by means of baptism or fast. Furthermore, the quest for a direct contact with “God”, via “revelation” experiences, sidesteps the Temple's spatial centrality, as seen in such episodes as the baptism or the “Transfiguration[3]” but also at such times of prayer or prodigious actions as performed by Jesus'.

To conclude, Mark's Jesus enters into a fundamentally dialectical though not fully independent relation with the Temple. He does indeed propose ritual models set in the Temple but at the same time he sets up opportunities and instruments for the remission of sins that come independent of the presence of a defined cult place. Above all, he insists on the necessity of a direct contact with God, which can happen at any time and in any place, that is indeed anywhere.

  1. Yom Kippur

    In Hebrew yom ha-kippourim, that is to say “day of atonement”. One of the holiest days in the Jewish liturgical calendar. Sacrificial rituals (with notably the rite of the Scapegoat) are described in Leviticus Chap 16.

  2. Remission of sins

    That is the release or freeing from sin. The word remission is drawn from the latin remissio and corresponds to the Greek aphesis which means literally to send back or throw away, that is to re-mit, a word used when cancelling a debt, or granting a pardon, thence the forgiveness of a wrong.

  3. Transfiguration

    This term broadly refers to a central episode in Jesus' life which figures in the three synoptic gospels. In this episode Jesus reveals to three of his disciples his “true” identity as his appearance changed before their eyes. The English word “transfiguration” reflects the Latin translation of the Greek word metamorphosis, literally “change of shape”.

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