Monday, September 26, 2011

Nicknaming the Disciples (Mark 3:17)

Who were the sons of thunder? James and John (Mark 3:17).

In Mark’s list of Jesus’ twelve disciples, it is noted that Jesus conferred the name “Boanerges” upon the sons of Zebedee, James and John (Mark 3:17). The moniker is Aramaic, the language Jesus actually spoke, as opposed to the Greek in which the New Testament is written. Mark gives us more glimpses into Jesus’s Aramaic than anyone (Mark 3:17, 5:41, 7:34, 11:9, 14:36, 15:34). Mark translates the name for the reader, “Sons of Thunder”. Boanerges is referenced only here in Mark and never used again in the New Testament.

The epithet’s meaning is ambiguous and its etymology uncertain. Mark gives no explanation as his interest is in the renaming not its meaning. Traditionally the surname has been associated with the brothers’ temperaments, excitable and impetuous, characteristics befitting former sailors. This is consistent with their fiery outbursts later in the gospels (Mark 9:38-41, 10:35-45; Luke 9:49-50, 52-56), especially their offer to call down fire from heaven on a city of inhospitable Samaritans (Luke 9:52-54). It has been speculated that this vehemence translated into zeal and power in their preaching.

James Rendel Harris (1852-1941) analyzed the concept of “Thunder Twins” in his book Boanerges (1913) and demonstrated that the idea existed in diverse cultures throughout the world including Greece, Scandinavia and Peru. Most scholars have focused on a connection to Greek mythology’s Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux), known collectively as Diskouroi or Dioscuri - “sons of Zeus” . As is common in Thunder Twin myths, the brothers had differing paternity as Tyndareus had sired Castor while Zeus produced Polydeuces. Consequently, Castor was mortal and Polydeuces immortal. Castor died in battle and Polydeuces was so attached to his brother that he lost the will to live when his brother died. Polydeuces negotiated with Zeus a chance for a single immortality with his brother. The inseparable brothers’ appearance, in the form of St Elmo’s fire, on the rigging of ships was believed to forewarn escape from a storm.

Ronald Brownrigg (1919-2011) contended that Boanerges was “a title exactly equivalent” to Diskouroi (R. Alan Culpepper [b. 1946], John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend, 40). In addition to the collective nickname, Dennis R. McDonald (b. 1938) identifies several parallels between the two sets of brothers (McDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, 29). James was the first disciple martyred (Acts 12:2) and like Castor died a violent death. Like the immortal Polydeuces, John was the last disciple to die and many expected him to live until the Parousia and as such, avoid death (John 21:22). Like James and John, the slain brother, Castor, is named first even though he is the lesser known of the brothers. Like Polydeuces, the sons of Zebedee attempted to negotiate a special place in the afterlife as they asked Jesus to sit at his right and left (Mark 10:35-37). McDonald interprets their having no preference as to which brother is given the more preferential seat as a sign of their brotherly love. Unlike Zeus, Jesus denied the brothers’ request (Mark 10:38-40).

Mark was purportedly written to Rome where Castor and Polydeuces were held in high regard. Some have seen a further connection as Boanerges references the brothers’ relationship to their father and they were the only disciples said to have left their father to follow Jesus (Matthew 4:22; Mark 1:20). Some have seen this as an indicator that they also left Zeus to follow Jesus.

Others have seen Jesus’ naming his disciples as replicating what God did with the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham and Jacob (Genesis 17:5, 15, 32:28, 35:10). Ched Myers (b. 1955) associates the appellation with the apocalyptic idea of being given a new name (Revelation 3:12, 22:4). Hans Bietenhard (1916-2008) relates the name to the potential unbreakable fellowship or mighty witness of the two brothers (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 5:253-61).

What do you think the name Boanerges means? Has anyone ever given you a nickname? What nickname would you most covet? Why did Jesus rename these disciples? Why do people bestow nicknames?

Nicknames are informal names of address usually awarded, not chosen by the recipient. John D. DeLamater (b. 1941) and Daniel J. Myers (b. 1966) explain:

Forms of address clearly communicate relative status in relationships. Inferiors use formal address...for their superiors...whereas superiors address inferiors with familiar forms (first name or nickname. (DeLamater and Myers, Social Psychology, 185)
Sociologist James K. Skipper Jr. (1934-1993) concludes that the use of nicknames implied feelings of intimacy with the person named (Skipper, “The Sociological Significance of Nicknames: the Case of Baseball Players”, Journal of Sport Behavior (JSB), 7(1), 28-38).

We nickname people because we want to make them ours or want it known that they are one of ours.

In Mark’s list of disciples, James and John are listed second and third after Simon, whom Jesus renamed Peter (Mark 3:16). One might think Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, would naturally follow Peter in the list of disciples, but he is usurped by the sons of Zebedee. These three and only these three receive nicknames from Jesus. They formed Jesus’ inner circle and received further intimacy with Jesus than their fellow disciples They were the only witnesses present at the raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1, Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28), and Gethsemane (Mark 14:33).

If you have been given a nickname, how did it make you feel? Do you feel Boanerges was a term of endearment? Who is in your inner circle? Do you refer to each other differently than do outsiders?

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