Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"What Power Expels Us" (Part 4)

This is the fourth installment of my five-part series on the Gerasene Demoniac episode in Mark 5:1–20. See also: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Power Over the Religious Establishment
            In our final examination of authority in Mark 5, it can be reasonably ascertained that Jesus’ conflict with the Gerasene demoniac serves as a critique of the religious establishment of first-century Second Temple Judaism. In his book Nonviolent Story, Robert Beck observes that the ritual world of Jesus’ social context involved a sort of “sacred topography”: a series of geographical arenas originating with the Holy of Holies in the temple and radiating outward in descending levels of cleanliness/holiness.[1] These artificial barriers served not only to separate the Jews from the “unclean” gentiles, but also to establish distinctions between various classes of Judeans. According to Beck, the presence of an unclean spirit in Mark 5 “belongs to the wider symbolic realm of Judaic ritual where the unclean is posed as an opposite to holiness, and not simply to cleanliness.”[2] By entering into Gerasa and healing a man with unclean spirits, Jesus transgresses against the clean/unclean socio-religious system in three primary ways:
1) By setting foot in a gentile territory and furthermore fraternizing with said gentiles, Jesus becomes by extension unclean. Curiously, this appears to be the sole
motivation—narratively speaking—for Jesus’ venturing into the region in the first place. It is the only action occurring in Gerasa mentioned in the Gospel. Following the sending forth of the healed demoniac, Jesus immediately returns to the other side of the lake. This suggests that the action was intentional, perhaps symbolic.
2) The proximity of Jesus to the tombs in which the tormented man lived is ritually problematic, and the act of exorcism is itself carried out in a graveyard. Cemeteries in general were considered unclean locales due to their population of corpses; for this reason, according to custom all Jews were buried outside the gates of the city to prevent any regular contact with dead bodies. Not only is Jesus associating with gentiles, he is associating with gentiles in a cemetery.
3) The presence of swine—the most vile creatures imaginable to a Jew concerned with ritual cleanliness—is the third strike against Jesus. As mentioned earlier, the pigs are likely to be metaphorical, perhaps even comical. But their presence in the narrative (along with the two other unclean elements listed above) should be enough to alert the reader that Jesus has managed to walk into a setting that is ritually unclean in almost every capacity and yet still emerge by the end of the narrative as the one powerful enough to “bind the strong man.”
            Beck notes, “Mark presents the Judean establishment’s system of barriers and preventions as ineffectual. The only effective opposition to the unclean power is the holy power invested in the protagonist Jesus…Holiness understood in a system of opposition to the unclean is rejected for its inhumane qualities and therefore rejected as an inadequate attribute or image of the compassionate God.”[3] In other words, Jesus asserts himself as one with greater authority than those who carry on with the outdated holiness system of the temple, and in doing so he exudes a new image of the divine among the impure. In casting Legion from this tortured gentile, Jesus has done what no synagogue or temple authority can do: make clean that which is by nature unclean.

[1] Beck, 66.
[2] Ibid, 71.
[3] Ibid, 68.

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