Mk 9:1: From Jesus, the Early Christians, or Mark?

I’ve been pondering the infamously mistaken prophecy:

“I say to you that there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power.” (Mk 9:1)

I believe it’s highly unlikely that Mark created this saying. I see substantial difficulties with the idea that it comes from the historical Jesus (though a fair argument can be made for it). I see a strong case for the theory that it comes from the first-generation church.

Mark is hardly the originator, since it’s artificial to connect “those who won’t die” with either the transfiguration event that occurs only six days after the prophecy (Peter, James, and John in Mk 9:2-13), or the crucifixion which occurs not terribly later than that (the women in Mk 15:39-41). An interval of years is suggested by Mk 9:1. That Mark made one or both of these connections cannot be denied(1), so he must have inherited a difficult saying. But was it from Jesus or the first-generation church?

I used to think the former since it reads like an embarrassing prediction that failed. John Meier, however, makes a strong case for it being the product of an early church that has experienced the death of some of its members and is getting impatient for the kingdom. Mk 9:1 then serves as an “assurance” text, somewhat like I Thess 4:13-18 (“what will happen to Christians who have already died?”) or I Cor 15:51-53 (“what will happen to the bodies of Christians still living?”). “In each case, instruction, assurance, and consolation are given in a prophetic revelation of the eschatological future.”(2) The time between Jesus’ death and return was stretching beyond what was originally promised, raising concerns answered by these texts.

Furthermore, if Jesus had been preaching an imminent kingdom — perhaps even to be inaugurated at the point of his martyrdom, before the parousia; if Mark could believe so, as Stephen Carlson argues, Jesus could have thought something similar — then the case for the authenticity of Mk 9:1 looks even more precarious. He was urging followers to be prepared at every moment for the kingdom’s arrival. What kind of sense does it make to assure that “some” followers would live to see this? The obvious implication is that many others will die beforehand, which, as Meier emphasizes, completely undercuts the urgency of his mission. Again, an interval of years is suggested by Mk 9:1, and an imminent kingdom (whether expected at the point of martyrdom or a parousia following tribulation) doesn’t square naturally with the concern of Mk 9:1. So as much as I’ve cherished the saying as a key text pointing to the apocalyptic character of Jesus, it’s more plausible as coming from early Christians coping with difficult questions. Actually, of course, the text does still point to the apocalyptic character of Jesus — but obliquely, like I Thess 4 and I Cor 15.

In the Markan drama, those who died before seeing the kingdom come in power are the disciples who either missed the transfiguration, or fled the crucifixion, or both. They missed the inauguration of the kingdom and wouldn’t live to see the parousia. In the first generation church, those who died were simply that, and those who remained were frustrated by failed expectations. Even if they couldn’t know the hour, Jesus had likely promised that they would all be seeing the kingdom come in power, and very soon.


(1) The latter is an especially strong option. Stephen Carlson recently delivered a paper at Duke University, “Crucifixion, Coronation, and the Coming of the Kingdom of God in Mark 9.1”, showing that for Mark, Jesus became king at his crucifixion, and indeed the kingdom of God came in power at the cross. I wouldn’t want to sideline the transfiguration too much in favor of the cross, however. Mark placed it right after the prophecy of 9:1 for a good reason (which Luke of course ran with). It seems that Mark is trying to come up with as many disciples as possible who “didn’t taste death” before “seeing” the kingdom in some way — a trio of males on the mountain, a trio of females at Golgotha. (My thanks to Stephen for granting permission to refer to this paper before publication.)

(2) A Marginal Jew, Vol II, p 343.

Restless Ghosts

I’ve been meaning to plug Old Abram Brown’s Restless Ghosts, since the band’s lead singer used to be a library colleague before fleeing to pursue film and music at Emerson. The album was released last October, but I’ve only recently been able to purchase it through iTunes. It has more backbone than the first album, Alive in Winter, and has left enough of an impression to become playlist worthy in my iPod. If indie rock is your pleasure, give it a try.

Restless Ghosts is pretty solid from start to finish. The resonantly slow-paced “Your House on the Hill” (which for whatever reason puts me in mind of another album-opener, Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down”), the arresting melody of “Novelty Prize”, the delightful guitar work on “Little Feet”, the catchy beat (and lyrics) of “Mountain Lions” (a rework from the previous album), the frenetic rhythms of “Silhouette”, the insistent keys behind “My Show”, the soulful end-pieces, “The Good Man’s Way” & “I’m Not Happy”, all add up to a well crafted opus. “Tides” is the song where “restless ghosts” comes from, but has a chorus that sounds a bit too much like “Novelty Prize”. When I hear the refrain, “And the tides are growing…” I’m already singing, “Could you stay the night…” Though I could have this the wrong way around depending on which was written first.

You can listen to segments of three songs on the band’s website before purchasing the album here or downloading it from iTunes. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the name “Old Abram Brown”, it comes from a 19th-century hymn.

Favorite songs: “Your House on the Hill”, “Novelty Prize”, “Little Feet”, “Mountain Lions”.

Piss Against the Wall, Take 2

Three years ago, Pastor Steven Anderson infamously explained why men should urinate standing up, based on the passage of I Kings 14:10 and five other Deuteronomist texts. I’ve only now become aware of a sequel diatribe he delivered last year, Pisseth Against the Wall, Take 2, in which our beloved pastor continues railroading effeminate Germans, modern “sissified” versions of the Bible which censor manly images of those who “piss against the wall”, and — above all — women who micromanage the lives of their husbands in the bathroom. Unbelievable.

This segment comes from the tail end of the sermon, Show Thyself a Man.

For perhaps a more reasonable defense of why men should resist the trend in Germany (and France, and Holland) and continue to urinate standing up, see The Naked Scientists.

The Best Films of 2010

It’s that time of year again, the start of it, that calls for looking back on the best of cinema. So without further ado… True Grit. 5 stars. My favorite Western (aside from Tarantino’s later two) is a remake of the John Wayne classic. The character of Mattie Ross is the film. Hailee Steinfeld’s performance is about the best 14-year old’s I’ve seen (second only to Ellen Page’s Hayley Stark in Hard Candy). I completely fell in love with this girl. She takes the law into her own hands after her father is murdered in 1878, and none of the Arkansas authorities are willing to go after the killer into Indian territory. And Jeff Bridges is far better than John Wayne. The final shoot-out in the open field is orgasmic; and Mattie’s loss of her arm to the rattlesnake bite the perfect ending which could never be happy anyway, given the revenge premise.

2. Stake Land. 4 ½ stars. Not only is this a great post-apocalyptic drama, it’s one of the best vampire films of all time, giving the middle finger to both the aristocratic version (Dracula) and juvenile pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight). These are vamps as they should be, mindless savages. The story centers around a young man whose family is slaughtered; he’s taken under the wing of a hunter who now slays vampires as they can only be killed, by pounding stakes through the bastards’ hearts. The two embark on a Road-like odyssey to find a mythical refuge up in Canada, and run afoul a nasty religious cult along the way. This is the proper way to do an undead pandemic, and blows away the overrated zombiefest 28 Days Later.

Image result for unstoppable 2010 train
3. Unstoppable. 4 ½ stars. My favorite popcorn director Tony Scott is back in top form: this is easily his best work after Crimson Tide and Deja Vu. And it wouldn’t be a Tony Scott film without Denzel Washington (playing Denzel Washington), and even though he’s such a non-actor, I at least like the character he always plays. There’s the usual fast-paced camerawork, raw energy, and frenetic cutting, on top of searing dramatic conflict despite the lack of villains. The runaway freight train carrying explosive cargo is more than enough villain, a missile barreling ahead at 70 miles/hour straight to Stanton PA, as two hostlers engage in a desperate plan to stop it. Based loosely on an actual event in Cleveland, believe it or not.

Debra Granik's WINTER'S BONE4. Winter’s Bone. 4 ½ stars. The odyssey of a teen who is forced to care for a younger brother and sister, not to mention a mentally absent mother, while living in destitution. It’s one of those films carried largely by the lead role, and rest assured that Jennifer Lawrence is a rarely gifted young talent — a lot like Ellen Page and Jennifer Connelly were, and still are. Ree must locate her father who skipped bail, or her family will become homeless, and her rough encounters on the road to a morbid endpoint find her clinging to selfless values in an entirely believable way. More films like this, please.

5. Of Gods and Men. 4 ½ stars. Based on the true account of the French Cistercian monks in Algeria who were taken hostage by Islamic jihadists. They could have easily avoided their fate and returned to France, and some of them wished to do just that, but as a group they elected to stay and minister to the surrounding Muslim villagers who are coming under fire — girls getting killed on buses for refusing to wear the hijab, others getting their throats slit for various violations of sharia law. The film maintains an extraordinary sense of detachment as the monks wrestle with their faith and their conscience. They have no interest in converting anyone to Catholicism, only following Christ’s dictum to help the oppressed even if that means martyrdom, which in the end, of course, it does.

6. Super. 4 stars. Everything Kick Ass should have been, upending superhero conventions through brutal satire, making us laugh as our heroes take pipe wrenches to people who cut in line at the movies and key other peoples’ cars. Their mission is to fight crime, but Ellen Page’s character doesn’t seem to care much about that, as long as she can beat the living be-Jesus out of someone. James Gunn is the flip side to Christopher Nolan, who also redeemed the superhero genre but it a serious way: by destroying our optimism and suggesting heroes as hopeless liberators who escalate terror as they try fighting it. Gunn destroys our seriousness by suggesting heroes as hopeless losers who likewise are barely better than those they go against.

7. Inception. 4 stars. The lack of character development stands out, but hardly counts against a story whose strengths lie entirely elsewhere. Nolan takes us down a tempus fugit which spirals into something more rewarding than mere Matrix imitation. The minimalist feel, the black-greys, and the rigid architectures of the dream world match perfectly with the concept of intentional design, completely unlike the wildly surreal and unpredictable nature of dreams as seen in The Science of Sleep and What Dreams May Come. The synchronized triple climax is flawlessly executed, and the film’s premise — that the “protagonists” are out to destroy a decent man (or at least his financial world) — preserves the amorality of a heist drama as it should. It’s over 2 ½ hours, but over before you know it.

8. Shutter Island. 4 stars. On first viewing it left me nonplussed, but grew on me once I got over being insulted by the narrative rug-jerking and worn out formula of a lead protagonist’s delusional insanity. The fact is that Scorsese does such a great job with the material (from a vastly inferior novel written by Dennis Lehane) that its problematic aspects become invisible in subsequent viewings. It’s a film defined by a haunting atmosphere, Teddy’s intense relationship with the shade of his wife, the gothic mood of the island and its denizens.

9. Black Swan. 4 stars. It says something about how engaging a film is when it takes a subject I’m uninterested in (ballet) and draws me thoroughly into its subculture. Aronofsky seems riveted by the theme of individuals willing to die for sport or athletic art, but where The Wrestler was grounded in mundane reality, The Black Swan revels in hallucinations and Jungian archetypes. Nina’s metamorphosis into the White Swan’s evil twin is patiently realized as her nightmare world gradually tugs her down, and she discovers the impulses of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” mirrored in her own life.

10. Blue Valentine. 4 stars. The most depressing romance I’ve ever seen captures the start and end points of a hopeless relationship begun in puppy love followed by stagnation. As with Black Swan‘s Nina, something was lost along the way for Cindy, but that something is elusive — probably nothing more than a foreordained deterioration into pointless existence. The scene where Cindy tries to enjoy a night out and have sex with Dean, and is revolted by his touch, is the mirror opposite in every way to Nina’s energetic lesbian fantasy over Lily: one grossly real, the other wildly arousing; the first an attempt to heal real-life wounds, the other a retreat from reality, each desperately futile.

(See also: The Best Films of 2006, The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2017, The Best Films of 2018.)