From Plato's Timaeus to Mark's Bar-Timaeus
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
There are around thirty healing stories across the four gospels. If we read closely, they are almost always anonymous. Apart from Lazarus, we don’t learn the name of the person who is healed. These people had names, of course, but we never learn them.
In that sense, today’s lectionary text is a rare exception. The blind beggar is introduced as “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus”. It's the second time out of thirty healing stories in which we learn the name of the person who is healed: Bartimaeus.
Names were very important in the ancient world; they were more than labels to identify people; they conveyed meaning. An unusual name would capture the readers’ or listeners’ attention and add to the meaning of a story. There is a Hebrew folk saying, documented in the Bible, to indicate that a person’s name can tell us a lot about their personhood: “As his name is, so is he” (1 Samuel 25:25). So, we get the idea that it’s not for nothing that Mark names the blind beggar.
But why would he do that? Why would Mark give the blind man a name. What meaning does the name Bartimaeus has for Mark’s audience?
Mark’s first readers were an educated Christian community living in the city of Rome. The first thing they would have noticed about this name is that it is not Palestinian. Nor is it fully Greek or Latin. In fact, Bar-Timaeus is a linguistic hybrid that's half Aramaic (Bar: son of) and half Greek (Timaeus).
The name Timaeus may not be a big deal to us, after all, we don’t name our kids that. But to the 1st and 2nd century readers of this gospel, especially those who were acquainted with Greek culture, this name would have been familiar. It was the title of one of Plato’s works.
That Bartimaeus, the “son of Timaeus,” should be blind in Mark’s Gospel is particularly poignant because in the Dialogue, Timaeus famously contrasts "seeing" the mere physical world while being "blind" to Eternal Truths. He sings the praises of our sense of sight. His character 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 sight in my opinion is the source of the greatest benefit to us, for had we never seen the stars, and the sun, and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever have been uttered. But now the sight of day and night, and the months and the revolutions of the years, have created number, and have given us a conception of time, and the power of enquiring about the nature of the universe; and from this source we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man. This is the greatest boon of sight: and of the lesser benefits why should I speak? even the ordinary man if he were deprived of them would bewail his loss, but in vain. Thus much let me say however: God invented and gave us sight to the end that we might behold the courses of intelligence in the heaven, and apply them to the courses of our own intelligence which are akin to them, the unperturbed to the perturbed; and that we, learning them and partaking of the natural truth of reason, might imitate the absolutely unerring courses of God and regulate our own vagaries."
We talk about our favourite books and authors, so did the people of the Roman Empire. Reading the name of Timaeus may indeed have triggered an association with Plato’s idea that a good craftsman created a good universe; including the matter that became you and me. But in Plato’s Timaeus, the good craftsman left his creation behind with little concern for it. He left the Greek gods in charge of events; gods who were very self-serving.
In Mark 10, we have the Son of David, the one through whom all things were created, showing mercy and giving sight to one whose name means son of Timaeus; the person in Plato’s book who said our creator left us on our own. What a contrast Mark is showing – between the good craftsman of Plato’s Timaeus and the Jesus, the Son of David, the one who came to serve. For the author of Mark’s gospel, the good craftsman is none other than Jesus – the Logos - who is neither absent or aloof, but here to serve and show mercy to those who cry out to Him for help.
The Timaeus was the only Plato's dialogue available to Latin readers in the early Middle Ages. It had a strong influence on mediaeval cosmology. It was closely studied by 12th century Christian philosophers of the Chartres School (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 (creation from nothing or to contrast nothing comes from nothing).
Maybe we pass over the name of Bartimaeus too quickly, and need to understand how significant a role he plays. He is to be found outside the gates, he names who Christ is, and he has other insights into the significance Jesus than the disciples can ever grasp on the final part of the journey along the road to Jerusalem.
The Timaeus of Plato, R. D Archer-Hind translation.