The Gospel as the Great Passage, II: On Unlikely Teammates

Majime Mitsuya sees words as ships sailing in an ocean of referents and symbols. Other people are like mysterious islands appearing in the distance, clothed in light. Misunderstandings and false assumptions might lead to shipwrecks. And yet, it’s worth trying, again and again, to reach these islands, these others. With the help of a map, if possible.

The Great Passage follows Majime and his coworkers as they create a dictionary that might become such a map—a map made of words—perfecting it as the years pass by. In my last article, I drew a parallel between Majime’s dictionary, also called The Great Passage, and Scripture, which is for us a map of the meaning of existence, also made up of words. In this case, words that are inspired by God.

The show highlights the beauty and value of its map of words by focusing on the oft-overlooked experiences of the people who create it. We get to see different moments in their lives and the work processes that illuminate their specific choice of words. I will humbly try to do the same here with the four Gospels, whose words have so often brought me light.

The Great Passage was planned as an instrument for bringing understanding to Japanese speakers. The Gospel of Christ was even more ambitious, created “to preach unto them that sit upon the earth, and over every nation, and tribe, and tongue, and people,” as Revelation 14:6 puts it. And thus, the Apostles were sent to the four corners of the Earth.

Like these corners, the Gospels were four: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of them is a singular contribution, with a unique method and style and specific choices of words that make each Gospel different from the rest. After all, they are the product of divine inspiration, but also of the hard work of a unique personality—the Gospel writer—that also shines through.

The main authors of The Great Passage are also four. You have the veteran editor Araki Kōhei, the precise and hardworking Majime Mitsuya, the more playful, executive-leaning Masashi Nishioka, and the wise Professor Matsumoto. Each one is a wonderfully developed character with a clear influence on the map of words.

The Evangelists were also each very different from one another. “In composing the sacred books,” says the encyclical Dei Verbum, “God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.” And those powers and abilities were not the same.

And yet, the four Gospels all convey one great message. Their unity is as breathtaking as their diversity. They expand on the same themes, complement and deepen each other, and work together to create a vivid picture of Christ’s life, preaching, Passion, and Resurrection that has captured the imagination of Humanity throughout the ages.

If you have seen, say, Mel Gibson’s The Passion, you have seen the Evangelists speaking as one. But how can these things be united so perfectly? The human and the divine, inspiration and hard work, the personality of one and the personality of another, words chosen according to different criteria? Well, perhaps some comparisons to The Great Passage will help.

In the show, the four members of the team balance each other while each bringing something unique to the table. In that way, they bear a resemblance to the Gospel writers, all people with wildly different backgrounds, perspectives and concerns who yet came together to create a whole through time and space. A whole that, as with our dictionary team, would help the reader navigate to his or her destination.

In this article, we will focus on Kōhei and Majime, and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. You see, they pair off well together because in the anime, the contributions of these characters to The Great Passage are the most straightforward and direct, and they are also the focus of the first episodes of the show: Majime is Kōhei’s direct successor.

Similarly, Matthew and Mark are believed to be the Gospels of the first phase of the preaching of the Gospel by the ancient Church, and their main sources seem to be two of the great protagonists of this first wave. When they were first written and circulated, these Gospels were considered to be an aid to the verbal preaching of the Twelve. In fact, the Gospel of St. Matthew came from one of the Twelve, while the other, the Gospel of St. Mark, came from a direct collaborator of another of them, St. Peter. Here we go.

Kōhei and the Gospel according to Matthew

Araki Kōhei is the disciple of a great master. A lover of words from a young age, he was once an impish teen who used dictionaries to search for dirty words. Then, he became a disciple of Professor Matsumoto and together they sailed the ocean of words again and again. In time, he managed to become a respected editor of an editorial company.

Forced to retire in order to take care of his wife who suffers from an unexpected grave illness, Kōhei promises his master that he will find a worthy successor for their great dream. They need an authoritative and accessible new edition of the Koshien or “wide garden of words”—the dictionary masterpiece of Izuru Shinumura, which included 230,000 words.

Professor Matsumoto is old and afraid that he won’t see the end of the project. He knows that it won’t be easy to find a replacement. But Kōhei, wholly faithful to the Professor and his ideas, is a man with a decisive personality and a good eye for people, and he is also familiar with the editorial world and the publishing house he works in. He’s loving, faithful and clever—the perfect insider—and he will see that the job gets done.

When he hears a funny story about a terrible salesman, Kōhei sees the potential beyond the punchline. He seeks out that salesman, and asks him how he would define “right”. How would you do it? The opposite of “left”? A legal claim? A synonym for appropriate, correct, due, fitting? I won’t spoil Majime’s answer, but it fully convinces Kōhei to take him in.

Matthew, the son of Alpheus (Mark 2:14) looked, at first, more like a Majime than a Kōhei when it came to the project of evangelizing Israel. He was, after all, one of the hated tax collectors who served the Romans and who were considered to be as disreputable as the thieves and prostitutes they were often grouped with. On top of that, he came from the backward region of Galilee. But Our Lord chose Him–the despised, the unworthy.

St. Matthew was taught and sent to preach with the other Apostles and took part in the inner circle of the early Church, the community of the disciples. He no doubt suffered every time Jesus was criticized for this decision to include him, or accused of eating “with tax collectors and prostitutes,” but like Kōhei, in time he would become a loving, responsible man and a faithful disciple of his teacher, and would put His message in words.

St. Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202) mentions that, after the Ascension, Matthew preached the Gospel among the Hebrews, and Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215) adds that he did this for fifteen years. After that, according to Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260/265 – 339), Matthew went on to preach the Gospel to other peoples. Before that, he is said to have completed his Gospel, the written form of his preaching.

The Gospel of Matthew is, in all probability, the first of the four and their forerunner, and may have been written in the first fifteen years after Jesus’ Ascension. The text itself reads like the work of a veteran preacher of the message of Jesus: we can characterize it as an “insider Gospel”, one that seems specifically directed to the Jewish people, addressing their more frequent concerns with the new message. 

Why don’t Christians observe the ritual law? Why don’t they obey the teachers of Israel? What does Scripture truly say about the Messiah? St. Matthew highlights Christ’s clear-eyed criticism of the Pharisees and their vices, the aspects of Christ’s message that are most striking for a person formed under the Law of Israel, and the ways in which it is not destroyed, but rather fulfilled under the New Covenant.

It is only natural, then, that St. Matthew would use specific terms that are best understood in their Jewish context. Specifically, let me introduce the word akatharsia. What is akatharsia? Well, the Greeks would call the feeling of cleanness and purity they experienced after watching a tragic story that pulled at their heartstrings “katharsis”. Akatharsia is the opposite of that—uncleanness, ritual impurity, but also desolation, death, and darkness.

Akatharsia is the word for “the forces of death,” and as this article explains in detail, it is applied in Matthew to the Pharisees (Matthew 23:27), the lepers (8:3) and the demons (10:1), and then by Christians to sin (Romans 6:19, 2 Corinthians 12:21, Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 4:19). It conjures up the texture of skin afflicted by leprosy, corpses, the hidden horrors beneath the facade of the hypocrites, and the outlook of the possessed.

The repeated use of the same word or similar terms allows us to grasp just how much the Jewish listeners of Christ lumped these things together, and introduces us to the symbolic power of His acts. The Gospel of Matthew highlights how Christ attacks and confronts these “forces of death” with his power, showing that He is the true Messiah promised to Israel and the one who would defeat Sin and Death.

St. Matthew, like Kōhei, is a man who did his part wholeheartedly, even if he only got started and had to pass it on to someone else. His preaching, written and spoken, was a vital part of the first wave of evangelism, that he continued by going beyond Israel and, according to tradition, ultimately sealed his work with his blood. His was a crucial first step in the overarching project of putting the whole Gospel into written words, a task that would require more writers to complete.

Both Kōhei and St. Matthew see their works as works of love. Their missions are at first daunting and defy the imagination. Still, both forerunners jump into the action, drawing on all their experience and skill and ultimately defeating time and all sorts of difficulties to open the way for those who would come after them. Because love, in the end, is more powerful than time and even death.

Majime and the Gospel according to Mark

By now, you know quite a lot about Majime Mitsuya, the uncut gem of a researcher that Kōhei finds by chance. Majime lives in an old boarding house among his books, his only friend being the old lady who manages the building. He goes to work every day in a world of such complexity that it overwhelms him, but that doesn’t change his diligent, courteous, humble attitude as he remains open-hearted to the whole world.

As he becomes more and more invested in The Great Passage, Majime gradually steps up to head the project. He grows into the role, maintaining his precise and hardworking demeanor while becoming more open to love and wonder. He comes to experience connections he cannot even put words to, and is eventually able to give light to others. In some ways, his experience is perhaps not unlike that of St. Mark the Evangelist.

You see, St. Mark is believed to be a direct collaborator of St. Peter the Apostle (1 Peter 5:13) who would have accompanied him from Israel to Rome, the greatest city of his day. St. Mark’s writing is peppered with Latinisms that show “more familiarity with the common Greek of the Roman Empire, which freely adopted Latin words and, to some extent, Latin phraseology,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

We can only imagine the variety and strangeness of humanity that St. Mark came into contact with as, similarly to Majime, the person he was helping, St. Peter, struggled to grow into his role, while unexpected miracles and unimaginable developments continued to unfold left and right. In comparison with the Apostles, Mark was probably a relative latecomer to the early Church. But he listened and he learned, and then he wrote his account.

For his part, Majime learns of the harshness of the editorial world as his project clashes with the way the business of the publishing house is conducted. Conflicts would also be present in St. Mark’s life as Rome, the main political center of the Mediterranean world, came to see some aspects of Christianity as threatening to its authority and took measures to counteract the growth of the new faith.

Despite the protest of many Christians (including St. Justin Martyr, an old friend) that it was possible to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s, the early Church clashed with the Roman Empire, to the point that in the year 64 CE, St. Peter would be executed by Nero, the Caesar. The Gospel of Mark is widely considered to have been completed by then, since St. Peter is said to have approved the manuscript.

In his Against Heresies, III, 1, St. Irenaeus says of Mark’s Gospel that “Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself also handed down to us in writing what was preached by Peter.” That’s why St. Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, explains that Christ gave the title of “Boanerges” or sons of lightning to the sons of Zebedee (a fact mentioned exclusively in Mark 3:17) and says that this is written in the “memoirs” of St. Peter, thus identifying them with the Gospel of Mark.

But that second-hand account doesn’t mean that we cannot learn anything about the personality of St. Mark. We can gather from his Gospel his desire for exactitude in matters of persons, places, times, dates and numbers. His Gospel is the shortest, yet most energetic and compressed. It uses the most direct syntax and a high number of action verbs, making it easy to follow. His Gospel is the work of a hardworking researcher and direct communicator.

We may also see something of Majime in St. Mark’s love of miracles, narrated graphically and given great prominence, with vivid touches and minute details not found in the other Gospels or even other narratives of the same miracles, to the point that miracles comprise almost a fourth of his Gospel. Connected to the greatness of those miracles is a keyword St. Mark uses repeatedly: the word exousía.

Exousía comes from the particle “ex” or “out”, united with the word “ousía”, that is, “being”. It conveys a sense of taking what you are out into the world, and thus it is translated as “strength”, “freedom” or “power”, and often, “free, sovereign authority”. It is a central thematic concern in the entire Gospel of Mark, and it is also St. Mark’s explanation of the miracles of Christ. Jesus had that power, that authority; He had exousía.

The exousía of Christ, emanating from His being, is the exousía of God. It is the kingdom of God that is among us in Him. Mark uses this word to characterize Christ’s authoritative teaching in the synagogue (Mark 1:21), His power to exorcise (1:23-28), His authority to forgive sins (2:1-12), His command to the fig tree, (11:12-14 and 20-24), and His cleansing of the Temple (11:15).

Exousía is what is given to the servant put in charge of his fellow servants in the parable while the Master was absent, and it is what Satan tries to offer in his third temptation of Christ in the wilderness. It is what allows Christ to command the impure spirits and free the possessed, and Mark shows us how Christ defends it, rhetorically as well as with signs, when it is questioned by the Pharisees, the Scribes, the High Priest, and Pilate, the representative of Caesar.

The most common usage of exousía refers to the power of the King or the Emperor (as with the Latin imperium). In that context, it would mean something akin to “sovereignty” or “jurisdiction”. Thus, St. John the Baptist, whose introduction opens St. Mark’s Gospel, characterized himself as the herald of a great King who comes before the royal entourage, asking the people to prepare the way, not unlike the Secret Service preparing the visit of the President of the USA. Jesus is that King. 

The fact that He has this kind of power makes His trial and His Passion all the more extraordinary, considering that He chose not to use it for his own protection. But, as with sovereignty and jurisdiction, it is also the kind of power that can be passed on and shared, or gifted to others in order to complete the work of the King, even after he must leave, as with Kohei. Christ explicitly gives the Twelve his power (the term is exousian) when He sends them to preach to Israel.

In the capital of the largest Empire of its time, in the midst of all the different peoples, languages and experiences, Mark, the precise and hardworking collaborator in a mission bigger than himself, tells us in awe the tale of the King of Kings and His godly power and authority, used for the sake of sacrificial love. Love is the center of everything in Mark’s Gospel, and it is also the key to the story of Majime Mitsuya and his own Great Passage.

There are some important aspects of Majime’s character arc that I have not gotten into, but fear not: I will talk about them next time, connecting them with Matsumoto and (especially) Nishioka. See you next time!

The Great Passage can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.

Leave a Reply