At the same time this “credible” Jesus was no mere pipedream of a young scholar in tweed. I remembered how, as we debated and discussed during the years of the Jesus Seminar, it became quite clear that Marcus had not discovered the mirror image of himself. The Jesus Marcus had begun to tease out from the data was a difficult figure. His prophetic and visionary presence, evidenced in his words and deeds, flew in the face of the dominating political regime. This Jesus had dimensions that erased the cardboard caricatures of the Christian tradition. And, because of what he was finding, Marcus could honestly reimagine his religious heritage. He did not have to become a spin-doctor when he considered the question of Jesus.
And still the questions for Marcus remained quite personal. Indeed, he often wondered aloud about his success as a best-selling author. He was a bit embarrassed by it all. But the reason for his success was precisely that his honest recounting of his search mirrored the concerns and journeys of countless others. In his own trek, Marcus had provided an occasion and the words for others to break away from a moribund past, to face their traditions honestly and with renewed imagination. In fact, in his later writings, Marcus was still blazing trails for countless others to rethink what a Christian community can and should be.
Indeed, as Marcus’ writing career morphed into endless speaking engagements, another talent of his became quite clear. Not only could Marcus calmly and meticulously detect what was in a text but he could do it in conversation with others who did not share his viewpoint. It is difficult to present a detailed argument; it is far more difficult to listen to another’s complex presentation and, even more so, to respond crisply and without rancor. Marcus did all this on numerous occasions. He provided an invaluable model of what an engaged scholar can be. He did not treat scholarly debate as a game of “gotcha,” as we see so often today. Rather, he embodied the possibility of genuine discourse, of being able to disagree without pique, of listening with imagination and wit. Again, Eliot echoes what Marcus offered:
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight …
(Four Quartets, Little Gidding)
As I remembered Marcus, I thought of a custom that I learned from my colleagues at Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. About a month after a scholar dies, colleagues gather and give addresses. They try to remember their deceased colleague by continuing the conversation he had furthered in his life and in scholarship. I can think of no finer remembrance for a dedicated scholar, for such a gathering testifies that this scholar’s life and work are not ended in death. Rather, they testify to the vitality of what he lived to think about.
So, as I rode back from the meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, I wondered if this meeting was a fitting tribute to Marcus. I know he would be pleased with the critical conversation of Westar’s working seminars. But I also know that Marcus’ effort did not stop at the door of the seminar room. He had helped to feed and deepen the public conversation. In fact, Marcus has left his colleagues and the public much work to do.
But Marcus does not leave us mute. His life and work have given us a clue to how to carry on. Let us begin, as he did, with our questions and dead ends, with our obsessions and dreams, with our fears and hopes. Let us listen, as he did, to the deepest drives within and the critical voices of our world. Let us refuse, as he did, to give up on the complexity of our traditions and our life together on this planet. Let us resolve to be as resolute and gentle as he was.
And when we do, we shall meet him again for the first time.