Ghosts in the New Testament? Looking for Phantoms in the Gospel of Mark

christ_walking_on_the_water

INTRO

With a name like ParanormalChrist, perhaps some biblical discussion on the Paranormal is in order, if nothing but to quell and satiate our fetish for paranormal activity.

As has been argued in other posts, Christianity is a paranormal faith. It’s a faith that not only embodies paranormal elements in the general sense of that word, but also narrates a salvific reality alongside the normal that is seeking to redefine and re-narrate creation into something other. Christianity is not a history of stories about historical events that were “normal” for biblical times and are not “normal” now; Christianity is a counter-witness to the norm of supposed creation and is the arrival of a rethinking of the normal “alongside/Para” the normal.

Christianity emanates the paranormal: God incarnate in a human being, paranormal activity in the heavens at his birth, paranormal healings and miracles, the paranormal taming of natural elements…and my favorite paranormal constitution-The Resurrection of Jesus from the very dead! And let’s not forget the opening of Tombs in Matthew coalescing around that said apocalyptic manifestation of the paranormal arrival of the end of time at the very dissolution of the grave of Jesus. So, if you are looking for paranormal, just open the New Testament and read. See my previous post, “I see Dead People: Zombie Apocalypse or Resurrection of Jesus” for a fuller explication.

A HISTORY OF PHANTOM IN THE GREEK LANGUAGE

I will keep this discussion on the actual New Testament word that is used for “ghost” or “apparition,” focus on its meaning, its etymology, the texts in which it occurs, and perhaps give a few deductions from its contextual usage.

The specific language of “phantom” is part of an extensive etymological family that starts with the Greek word fain0, meaning in the transitive sense “to manifest or show” and in the intransitive sense “to shine or gleam”…the point being an emanation of sorts. Interestingly, in the NT the word faino only occurs in the intransitive sense of “to shine” and such can be found in multiple places such as John’s Gospel, Revelation and parts of the Pauline corpus.

The NT makes extensive use of the derivatives of faino via the terms faneros/fanerow. Similarly these derivatives mean “to make visible to perception,” “ to show” in the sense of both disclosing to the mind and the eyes. The reference is not just to a simple “revealing” but to a revealing that also involves some sort of understanding. A disclosure of the gospel and its meaning is usually the direct object of this language.

Like many of our English words, our word “phantom” comes directly from its Greek descendent “phantasmos…fantasma.” This is the nominal form of the verb fantazo and it means “to bring to manifestation” and it is often used in the Greek to denote an appearance. We have evidence of this sort of usage not only from the New Testament, but specifically from classical Greek authors such as Herodotus and Apollonius.

The word, however, is not limited to the manifestation of what appears to be a unique kind of physicality. In the Old Testament Apocryphal books, such as Wisdom and Sirach, we see a spiritualizing of the term, so that in Wisdom it refers to the appearance of Wisdom to those that are following the path of righteousness…while in Sirach (and perhaps to the dismay of some reading this blog) this very language means to “invent, imagine” and is almost synonymous with the verb “fantasiokopew,” which means to “see phantoms.” The implication being that this language of phantom has been consistent in ancient times, as today, with those that fabricate reality; that see things that aren’t really there.

fantasma (our English phantom) is a member of these family of meanings. One might ask how this might be so? How can these words that mean some sort of appearance and revealing have anything to do with what we today think of as modern day apparitions, or for that matter, ancient apparitions?

First, as a derivative, their connection seems pretty clear that even if one is talking about making something appear, whether it be related to the paranormal or not, the idea of appearing is still there. This is also usually followed by some form of light or shining.

But a second level is equally important.

If this language is used as a means of disclosing a truth, or bringing something to light, the places where this language occurs in the Gospel can take on a double meaning. It can mean to denote the typical vernacular of “ghost” but also can mean an appearing in the form of revelation that leads to understanding, particularly because this language is only used to describe a scene in which Jesus coming to his disciples.

Let’s look at that passage(s).

MARK 6.49 & MATTHEW 14.26

The ONLY place in primitive Christian literature where the word “phantom/fantasma” occurs is in The Gospel of Mark 6.49 and its parallel passage The Gospel of Matthew 14.26.

These verses read, “Beholding him [Jesus] walking upon the sea they thought he was a phantom and they screamed” [my translation].

Our Bibles like to domesticate this scene and many translations just have at the end “they cried out” but if what they are witnessing is a perceived ancient paranormal encounter with sea ghosts as were believed to exist, screaming would be the order of the day…not a wimpy crying out for help.

Matthew reads the same way, without any deviation in form, so the parts of speech operative here are also identical. We should not interpret this as two different occurrences, but the remainder of a singular tradition that found its way into Mark and then incorporated by Matthew. There is nothing in the Greek to convince us otherwise.

The idea being expressed here is that the disciples are in a boat on the sea. Their lives are already riding upon the hands of chaos and they are at the whim of nature and the forces of darkness that lurk beneath and above them. They find themselves caught in a storm, and if we read this text rightly from its etymological level, perhaps a light of some kind is shining in the darkness of the scene. The disciples are not sure what it is but they know it’s not normal for things to be coming toward them across the water. The implication is that a ghost, a phantom, a sea ghost, is coming to them to finish what the storm has begun to do. This is a scene of panic and it touches the very core of ancient sensibilities regarding evil and the forces of nature. Their reaction is one of fear for their lives…they are tossed about on the sea and now they are about to encounter something they have only heard in the stories of others.

Into this scene, Jesus is the one that is really “revealed” in the light of this perceived phantom. Only he’s not revealed, or appeared, or shown to be a phantom, he is shown to be one that is so much more…one that is so much more paranormal I might add. Christ is the one that comes into this unstable situation filled with fear, anxiety and screaming disciples and does what no one else can do. He calms their surroundings, he tames nature, he does what sea ghosts can’t even do and he calms the disciples.

But the disciples’ exaggeration and mistaking Jesus for a ghost should not surprise us. This reaction simply follows the Markan motif of disciples that fail to understand what is really happening. This narrative, while it is unique in the language that it uses, is incorporated into the Gospel as an appropriate narrative archetype we see over and over in Mark…and the whole point is for the audience to see more clearly what the disciples were barely seeing at all. Thus, in this story of Jesus walking on water and disciples thinking him to a be a ghost, the gospel writer is using this ancient Greek language of fainw/fantasma to really shine and illumine the person of Jesus into a situation in which his arrival is continually misunderstood.

Other than these passages in Mark and Matthew, which are most likely originally Markan following the Synoptic theory of Markan dependence, Jesus is nowhere referred to as a ghost or a phantom in the New Testament, including the post-resurrection accounts. The New Testament is very careful to not use this language of the risen Christ and we should also be very wary of a similar designation even if this is the only way we know to make sense of the constitution of the body of a risen Jesus. The narratives of his post-resurrection appearances don’t even insinuate that the disciples saw him and thought him to be a ghost…even in the John 20 narrative when Jesus appears in the room with closed doors the text says that the disciples were “surprised,” not “surprised” that Jesus had taken on the form of a phantom or ghost. They were surprised that Jesus, whom they recognized and did not confuse as a ghost, was suddenly in their midst after once hanging on a cross.

WAS JESUS A GHOST? HOW TO NOT THINK DEATH

The language that the NT uses for the post-resurrection body of Jesus is just that: Jesus. There is not a lot of qualification as to the substance of his body or its components. It really seems to be a non-issue because of the firmly held belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. There was no need to describe him as other than himself, as other than Jesus. So no attempt is made to call him a spirit, a ghost, or an “angel” or messenger from the grave.

Likewise, we should not take this occurrence of this language in Matthew and Mark as occasion to interpret this along with Pauline concepts of spirit/pneuma

Unlike the popular theorizing of death today that confuses the words spirit/ghost/phantom/apparition, etc., the NT never confuses these terms. The Spirit that is talked about in Paul is not anywhere near the ancient meanings of phantom we see in the Gospels or other classical Greek literature. Spirit refers commonly to the spirit of God, or God’s presence. It also refers to the enlivening portion of a person…their inner workings, but it never refers to an alternative form of existence that floats around disembodied. That idea comes from the Greek notion of soul/psueche and even here we do not see the NT going out of its way to contrive a weird theology of after- life existence combining ideas of phantom, spirit and soul as we are so apt to do in our modern period.

When the NT wants to speak of life after death it always does so in the context of anastasis/resurrection. If we want to understand what it means to live after we breathe our last we need to start with this concept and begin to purge ourselves of heterogeneous mixture of all these ideas that link things like phantom and spirit. The NT doesn’t do this…so if we claim to be biblical, or even logical, this is a first step in the right direction.

LESSONS LEARNED AND CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS

Finally, some have asked me if we can deduce from the usage of phantom language in this Markan account that phantoms/ghosts exist.

First, what we can say for certain is that in this passage of Mark the author is clearing playing with this language and the disciples are once again going to be stooges in the narrative. The author IS using language that would have had play in his context. It was intelligible and would have been widely understood. The sea was the abode of all sorts of mystery and it was not uncommon to hear of stories of ghosts on the waters. Before we can make a deduction about whether this proves ghosts to exist, let’s first understand why this passage occurs and its role in Mark.

Second, up until fairly recent history…and even into the present for many, it was a no-brainer that ghost and apparitions existed. That this language occurs in the NT is most likely not proof that these things are real, as much as it is proof that in this culture they were thought to be real. To reinforce this, one should only note that the NT does not make a big deal of ghosts or phantoms. There is not specific statement or series of stories regarding them…so if you are looking for a biblical reason to believe in ghosts, this one narrative is gonna leave you searching for more, even though culturally we can say that such ideas were common currency.

Lastly, dead persons are never called phantoms. When the Bible speaks of those dead in the faith, they are never referred to as angels, demons, apparitions, ghosts, phantoms or spirits. The popular conceptions we have of all these phenomena are all generated from hope and experience, but they are not generated from the NT.

The most salient NT passages that speak of the dead are in Paul. His passage in Corinthians states that “those absent in the Body will be present in the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5.6-8)…or again he states in 1 Thessalonians “those who are alive and remain will not prevent those that are asleep from seeing the coming of the Lord…the dead shall rise first.” In both these passages our state of existence is ambiguous. We can either admit this, or we can continue to make sense out of it by pressing these verses into OUR PRECONCIEVED ideas not grounded in the text.

Biblically, all we can say is that when we die God is responsible for our bodies thereafter…and a biblical theology of death has no place for an idea of people that turn into all sorts of metaphysical existences.

What one must conclude after evaluating this language of phantom/fantasma in the NT is that if we remove it from its literary context we are prone to all sorts of misrepresentations and conclusions, but at place in Mark…that the disciples would think Jesus a ghost, or an invention of their mind, is not all that surprising. After all, this is the Gospel where Jesus asks us, “Do you still not understand?” ( Mark 8.21)

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