Hamerton-Kelly on Mark 1:21-45

Excerpt from Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s The Gospel and the Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark, foreword by René Girard, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994, pp. 74-77.


The Two Ways in Conflict: Jesus as
Outsider (1:21-45)

Jesus and his newly constituted band of followers now are a metonymy of the kingdom, a part that stands for the whole. The community of the scapegoat no longer simply endures persecution but uses the experience of it to reveal and so undermine the authority of the scapegoaters. (Note: I am reminded here of the remark of a protester in Prague, who after the November 17, 1989, beating of students by the police, said, “When one sees grown men beating fifteen year-old boys and thirteen-year-old girls with clubs, then one knows that this regime has nothing left.” The legitimacy of sacred violence depends on its being kept under wraps.) The scapegoat community’s real home is in the wilderness, outside of the normal commercial activities, and their authority comes from this transcendent place.

We are back with the question of authority (1:27; cf. 11:27-12:12). Formerly, Jesus was asked directly, “By what authority do you challenge the present order?” Here, the question is raised indirectly through the mouths of the wondering bystanders. If the mob is the ultimate source of authority in the present order, then these wondering bystanders as representatives of the mob question their own sources of legitimation by marveling at the new authority that eclipses the authority of the scribes.

The new teaching with authority is marked by its ability to drive out demons. Indeed, it is presented to us by means of an exorcism story (1:21-28), and so must be interpreted within an apocalyptic frame of reference that dramatizes the conflicts of the soul and society in terms of the imagery of demons and spiritual warfare. Indeed, the whole notion of the two orders, the demonic and the normal, should be classified as apocalyptic. Apocalyptic imagery must, however, be interpreted in terms of sacred violence, and in that case the demons are the mythological representations of mimetic rivalry deflected by the double transference onto a scapegoat (R. Girard, The Scapegoat, 166).

The demoniac in the synagogue at Capernaum is a scapegoat figure. He is unclean and outcast because of his affliction. The forces that make him outcast are the ones that recognize Jesus as their nemesis. The hearers of Jesus’ teaching merely wonder about its new note of authority; the demoniac sees the threat that it poses to the order of mimetic rivalry. The fact that the demoniac appears in the midst of a teaching session in the synagogue shows that the demonic forces are at work within the normal channels and not, as the religious believe, outside them. Religion as usual is the place of the demonic, and Jesus is the enemy of both. The synagogue foreshadows the temple on the one hand and the circle of the embraced child on the other (9:33-37).

The demoniac is a scapegoat figure whose abnormality draws attention to him immediately (euthys, 1:23) and who changes the point of focus of the whole scene. The mob turns in solidarity away from Jesus to the victim who stands alone at the center. The central location of the demoniac indicates that the synagogue needs him. Just like the Gerasene demoniac whom his fellow citizens needed so much they attempted to chain him down, so this demoniac is essential to the functioning of his religious community. The polity lives by its scapegoats.

The demoniac addresses Jesus and cries, “What do you and I have to do with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the holy one of God” (1:24). He misidentifies Jesus as the center of the scapegoating establishment, calling him by the priestly title “holy one of God” (Aaron is called ho hagios kyriou in LXX Ps 105:16; V. Taylor, St Mark, 174) and suggesting that he has nothing in common with the outcasts, but belongs with the teaching establishment of the synagogue. Jesus silences the demon not because he wishes to keep the messianic secret but because the demon has deliberately misidentified him as part of the sacrificial establishment, in a foreshadowing of the accusation that he casts out demons in the power of Beelzebub (3:20-30). If Jesus had accepted the title, he would have been unable to exorcize the demon because he would have been co-opted to the sacrificial order that generates demons, and would have been part of the system in which violence is driven out by violence. The pericope ends with the statement that Jesus’ fame went out from there through all the region of Galilee.

The fact of this fame is underlined by the following account of how the house where he stayed was mobbed by those who needed healing and exorcism (1:29-34). The conclusion of that scene, “He would not allow the demons to speak because they knew who he was,” is to be read not as a direct expression of the messianic secret but in the light of the previous attempt by the demon to co-opt him. The demons try to counteract his power by misrepresenting him as a bearer of priestly authority of the same sacrificial kind as they represent.

But he belongs to those who have “gone out” or “come out” (exalthen, 1:35, 38). After the immersion in the midst of the old order, Jesus goes out to the wilderness again. The normal interpretation of this passage emphasizes the reference to prayer as if Jesus were on a religious retreat, but the emphasis is on the going out, and the prayer is incidental. The whole purpose of the “coming out” is the mission to the synagogues, which means that the coming out is the basis of the message that he teaches in the synagogues. The phrase “for this reason I came out” (eis touto gar exalthon, 1:38) is enigmatic. “Came out from where?” one might ask. Luke (4:43) answers “from God,” which is more reasonable than the matter-of-fact “from Capernaum.” In Mark, however, the phrase describes the whole event of his leaving the sacral structures, narrated as his going out to John for baptism, out into the wilderness to be tempted, and coming again into Galilee to preach the advent of the kingdom. The coming out is for the purpose of preaching the gospel. and the link between the two activities is so close that the one is equivalent to the other. To preach the gospel is to come oat of the sacral structures and vice versa. From now on, we are to read every reference to leaving and entering as symbolizing the movement in and out of sacred space.

He then “comes into the synagogues” preaching and casting out demons (1:39), as if the scapegoat were returning to reveal the violence that maintains the order by driving him out. The demons are the markers by which the myths of violence identify the victims to be driven out. By coming out and going in, Jesus reveals the rhythm of exclusion. The pattern of entry and withdrawal with reference to the synagogue and the temple is a fundamental indication of the operation of the mechanisms (cf. 11:1-11).

The next pericope (1:40-45) of the cleansing of the leper introduces the crowd, which is the ultimate source of the power of the GMSM [Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism], in a story in which the institutional form of the sacral presence is still dominant. As a result of the healing, the crowds make it necessary for Jesus to remain outside. The dominant mode of sacral presence in the pericope is still institutional, however, as is clear from some odd and difficult words that suggest inner stress on the part of Jesus. He is “moved with compassion” (splagchnistheis, 1:41; cf. the interesting textual variant orgistheis in D and the Latin tradition which suggests that anger could also be what moved him); and he is “moved with indignation” (embrimasamenos, 1:43). Furthermore, we are told that he quickly “throws the man out” (exebalen, 1:43), while telling him to go to the priests for certification. How are we to understand this strong note of tension, indignation, and barely controlled anger in the figure of Jesus?

It represents the reaction of Mark’s Jesus to the ritual regulations concerning leprosy. The leper does not ask to be healed but to be cleansed (katharisai, 1:40), using the ritual terminology of clean and unclean. This infuriates Jesus but does not stop him from the act of compassion, which takes place suddenly as the result of the first waves of compassion/ indignation. This response arises out of the situation of sacred violence in which he is enmeshed because leprosy is so closely regulated ritually and so tightly tied to the. sacred notions of clean and unclean.

This reluctant involvement with the cultus has the effect of driving Jesus farther out into the wilderness. The behavior of the cleansed leper arouses the inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness of the mob, and Jesus has to take refuge in the desert. It does not matter if one is execrated or celebrated, the attention of the mob and the sacrificial system make it impossible for the victim to exist within the system.

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