22 October 2018

Is there more to blind
Bartimaeus than
we see at first sight?

What can blind Bartimaeus see that 12 have passed by? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was working in recent days on resources for next Sunday’s lectionary reading, including the Gospel reading (Mark 10: 46-52), in which Bartimaeus the blind beggar is healed by Christ outside the gates of Jericho.

Saint Mark gives tells us – or seems to tell us – the name of this blind beggar, ‘Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar’ (verse 46).

But the name Bartimaeus literally means ‘Son of Timaeus,’ and so we are told only the name of this man’s father. Bartimaeus is an unusual Semitic-Greek hybrid, and Timaeus is an unusual Greek name for this place and at that time.

Indeed, Timaeus may not be his father’s name at all, no more than James in John in yesterday’s reading are not the sons of ‘Thunder,’ but the sons of Zebedee.

So, who was Timaeus, and what is the significance of this apparently Greek name at this point in the Gospel story?

The culturally significant occurrence of this name may lie in the name of Timaeus (Τίμαιος), one of Plato’s dialogues, mostly in the form of a long monologue by the title character, Timaeus of Locri. He delivers Plato’s most important cosmological and theological treatise, involving sight as the foundation of knowledge, and describing the nature of the physical world, the purpose of the universe, and the creation of the soul.

The blind son of Timaeus cries out to ‘Jesus, Son of David’ and asks for mercy. This cry is one of the Biblical foundations of the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.’

Until now, the disciples have been blind to who Jesus truly is. It takes a blind man to see the truth. When he does, Bartimaeus makes a politically charged statement. Jesus is ‘Son of David,’ King of the Jews, and Messiah. In other places, Christ orders silence on the matter, but not here. His time is approaching.

The cloak Bartimaeus throws off (verse 50) is probably the cloth he uses to receive alms he is begging for. When he throws away his cloak away, he gives up all he has to follow Christ. In this Gospel, garments often indicate the old order, so Bartimaeus accepts the new order.

Socrates describes his ideal state the day before the dialogue involving Timaeus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Plato is depicted in Raphael’s The School of Athens carrying a bound copy of Timaeus. Plato’s Timaeus (Τίμαιος), written ca 360 BC, speculates on the nature of the physical world and human beings, and is followed by the dialogue Critias.

The participants in the dialogue include Socrates, Timaeus, Hermocrates, and Critias. Some scholars believe that it is not the Critias of the Thirty Tyrants who appeares in this dialogue, but his grandfather, who is also named Critias. It has been suggested that Timaeus was influenced by a book about Pythagoras, written by Philolaus.

The dialogue takes place the day after Socrates describes his ideal state. In Plato’s works such a discussion occurs in the Republic. Socrates feels that his description of the ideal state was not sufficient for the purposes of entertainment and that ‘I would be glad to hear some account of it engaging in transactions with other states.’

Hermocrates wishes to oblige Socrates and mentions that Critias knows just the account to do so. Critias proceeds to tell the story of Solon’s journey to Egypt where he hears the story of Atlantis, and how Athens used to be an ideal state that subsequently waged war against Atlantis. Critias believes that he is getting ahead of himself, and mentions that Timaeus will tell part of the account from the origin of the universe to humanity.

Timaeus begins with a distinction between the physical world, and the eternal world. The physical one is the world that changes and perishes: therefore, it is the object of opinion and unreasoned sensation. The eternal one never changes: therefore it is apprehended by reason: ‘As being is to becoming, so is truth to belief.’

Timaeus suggests that since nothing becomes or changes without cause, then the cause of the universe must be the father and maker of the universe.

Timaeus continues with an explanation of the creation of the universe, which he ascribes to the handiwork of a divine craftsman.

‘Wherefore, using the language of probability, we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.’

Timaeus explains how the soul of the world was created, with two bands in their middle, like in the letter Χ (chi).

The Timaeus conjectures on the composition of the four elements that some ancient Greeks thought constituted the physical universe: earth, water, air, and fire. The dodecahedron, with 12 faces, was taken to represent the shape of the Universe as a whole, and was the shape into which God had formed the Universe.

The Timaeus was the only Platonic dialogue, and one of the few works of classical natural philosophy, available to Latin readers in the early Middle Ages. It had a strong influence on mediaeval Neoplatonic cosmology and was commented on particularly by 12th century Christian philosophers of the Chartres School, such as Thierry of Chartres and William of Conches, who, interpreting it in the light of the Christian faith, and understood the dialogue to refer to a creatio ex nihilo.

Perhaps we pass over the name of Bartimaeus too quickly, and need to understand how significant a tole he plays. He is to be found outside the gates, he names who Christ is, and he has other insights into the significance of the Twelve and the Universe than the disciples can ever grasp on the final part of the journey along the road to Jerusalem.

Plato is depicted in Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’ carrying a bound copy of ‘The Timaeus’

A peaceful image of
Shia Muslims on
the streets of Limerick

Shia Muslims marching peacefully through the streets of Limerick at the weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Walking through the city centre of Limerick at the weekend, there was large group of people flying red flags as they processed along O’Connell Street, waving red flags and with a garda car moving slowly in front of the march leaders.

Was this a protest march in sympathy with the massive anti-Brexit protest by 600,000 people in London at the same time?

Or could some people have started a little early in celebrating the centenary of the Limerick Soviet?

Was it a protest against the housing problems or hospital queues?

There were no rally cries, no chants and muted sounds. No chants of ‘No, No, No,’ ‘Out, Out, Out’ or even ‘When do we want it? Now!’

As I arrived at the head of the march, I realised how wrong my presumptions were. This was large group of Shia Muslims from the whoishussain organisation, marking Ashura or the martyrdom of Hussain at Kerbala a month later.

Meanwhile, further along O’Connell Street, the Mormons were canvassing on one corner, while the Jehovah’s Witnesses had their pitch diagonally opposite them – both groups probably as far removed from Christianity as the Shia Muslims on the street, but attracting far less attention.

They Shia marchers were dignified, they were modest, they were demure, and they were certainly lacking in any shows of aggression. They prayed quietly and beat their chests slowly and rhythmically as they moved along O’Connell Street.

Unlike the opposing Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses on the next street corner, they prayed as the moved slowly, and they made no efforts to proselytise, apart from handing out a few leaflets and bottles of water.

The banner heading their march quoted Hussein as saying: ‘If you do not believe in religion and do not fear the hereafter, then at least be free from tyranny and arrogance.’

They said they were taking a stand around the world against violence and injustice, and wanted to ‘transform the world into an oasis of peace.’

It was a sharp contrast with many prejudicial images of Muslims in the world today. And it was a welcome contrast to the projections forced onto Shia Muslims in Iran and Yemen by Trump and his allies in Saudi Arabia.

A few weeks ago, early one morning in the quiet still before the city came to life, I had noticed four Buddhist monks making their way along O’Connell Street in dignified silence, and commented that there are surprises waiting for us when we keep our heads up and our eyes open.

Limerick is a city of diversity, pluralism and tolerance. If only this city was a microcosm or cross-section of the world.

Shia Muslims marching peacefully through O’Connell Street in Limerick at the weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)