Leah Libresco offers a beautiful and quirky reflection…

three days out from her baptism, on Bartimaeus and Stephen Sondheim.

Just because I’m a tiresome pedant, I replied to her:

Two things are also worth noting about this narrative. First, it’s very significant that Bartimaeus is *named* by the evangelist. This is the convention in ancient historiography in identifying the source of the the tradition. In other words, Mark is saying that Bartimaeus, who was known to the early Church as an, ahem, eyewitness is himself the source of this story. Similarly, the evangelists don’t simply say a “synagogue elder” had a sick daughter. They note that it was a man named Jairus. In other words, Jairus is the source of the story and you can ask him (or his daughter, who is an adult by the time the evangelists are writing).

Sometimes, the identity of the witness is kept out of print during his or her lifetime but then mentioned explicitly once the witness is dead and out of harm’s way for persecution. So Mary of Bethany is not named as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in the synoptic gospels, but is explicitly named as The Woman Who Anointed Jesus Feet in John’s. In fact, she is identified by this act *before* John gets around to telling her story a couple of chapters later. This means that there weren’t gaggles of women running around anointing Jesus’ feet. There was just one woman who thought to do it and Jesus was so moved by it that he said she would be remembered for it as long as the gospel was preached. It’s sort of like The Guy Who Walked on the Moon = Neil Armstrong. This is the Thing they are remembered for, so John can identify her by that act before he tells her story, because *everybody* in his community knows that story.

(It’s also intriguing that of all the parables Jesus told, only one includes a character to whom he give a name: Lazarus (Mary’s brother), in a story told about a man returning from the dead. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture this parable being told, rather pointedly, at the celebration that followed the raising of Lazarus, and in a sort of topical humor response to the people whose first reaction to the miracle had been to try to figure out a way to kill both Jesus and Lazarus in order to quell the growing crowd of admirers.)

Once again, the convention of ancient historians is being obeyed in which mentioning the name of the character in the tradition is a way of tipping the hat to the source of the tradition (in this case, Lazarus, Mary and Martha, as well as the apostles who were eyewitnesses.) Also interesting is that, in this case, Thomas seems to have been present, but not Peter. It’s he who is there, largely to provide snark, but also to doggedly stick with the Master even when he thinks the whole thing is a dangerous waste of time.

Second, It’s worth noting that the evangelist includes the detail that Bartimaeus “followed him on the way”. The Way Jesus is on is the way to Jerusalem–and his Passion. Bartimaeus barely has time to get to know Jesus (though he is evidently acquainted with enough of the stories about him that he has become convinced that Jesus is the Messiah. That is what “son of David” means and when Bartimaeus calls him by that title he is already professing faith in Jesus.) But you have to wonder how hard it must have been to go straight from this life-changing moment to the Triumphal Entry (which was Jesus’ own extremely clear affirmation that he was, indeed, the messianic Son of David–Solomon had ridden an ass into Jerusalem a thousand years before in claiming the throne of David and Jesus and his audience were both very acutely aware of this) to the crashing shock of the crucifixion, in which everything seemed to go hideously wrong. I wonder how Bartimaeus negotiated the whiplash. Yet he clearly remained a disciple and was, presumably, among the 500 witnesses to the Risen Christ. Certainly he is, for the evangelist, an important enough figure in the Church that he sees fit to name him to the audience, with the assumption that they all know who he is. I wonder if there are any traditions about him?

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  • NoahLuck

    Regarding that historiography convention, how do we know that was really the convention? Did an ancient historian or a Church Father or someone later explicitly write out that that’s what was going on? Or did archeologists or historians figure it out from a rabbit’s trail of clues? Who and when does this knowledge come from, and do the reasons they gave still hold up?

    To be clear, I’m NOT saying it’s bogus. But I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical community and there were so many “just so” stories about how things were done in the ancient world that really sounded more like clever modern myths. So I try to have a better basis than “a good person told me so” for matters that can affect my understanding of the scriptures.

    • Noah, I’d highly recommend a book that I’m reading right now — Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, by Richard Bauckham, a Scripture scholar with his head screwed on right. He takes the Gospels seriously as history and investigates their relationship to ancient historiographical practices, especially in regard to the use of eyewitness testimony, giving numerous examples from ancient historians. A very encouraging trend in general, especially to me as a historan. I think we are finally getting away from the Jesus seminar mindset. 🙂

      • Mark Shea

        Lori beat me to it. There’s the book you need, right there.

      • NoahLuck

        Thanks Lori. I haven’t read it yet obviously, but there are a variety of favorable and unfavorable reviews scattered around the web, and it looks like it’s a much more general argument about eyewitness testimony of the gospels. It seems that the second part of his thesis is that ancient testimony writers used a chiastic format to indicate the source — that is, he argues that writers mentioned the eyewitness by name at the start and end of the material that is from them, NOT just any old mention of a person. So if Bauckham is to be trusted, then it was probably right to hold off accepting Mark’s description of a simplified “name-dropping = sourcing” convention.

  • Dante Aligheri

    I read Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and it is a fantastic read. I have a minor quibble with his identification of the authorship of John’s Gospel, but – overall – anything by Richard Bauckham (and N.T. Wright, especially on Paul) is worth reading. Bauckham also has done some great work on the relatives of Jesus and their place in building the Church. He also makes a cogent argument for the position Joseph was a widower and father of James by a previous marriage.

  • David

    Can any conclusion be drawn from the fact that Bartimaeus is only identified by what amounted to his last name. He is not identified for who he is, but for who he is the son of Timaeus. Jesus would have been Jesus Barjoseph. The identification of the blind man as the son of Timaeus fits with his identification of Jesus as Son of David, but it seems curious not to name him based on who his father is and not by his given name.