Mark Chapter 4:21-34

Chapter 4 moves on to more parables.

21 Καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς, Μήτι ἔρχεται ὁ λύχνος ἵνα ὑπὸ τὸν μόδιον τεθῇ ἢ ὑπὸ τὴν κλίνην; οὐχ ἵνα ἐπὶ τὴν λυχνίαν τεθῇ;

And he said to them, “Does a lamp ever come that may be put under a measure (bushel basket), or under a bed? Is it not put on a lamp stand?”

21 Et dicebat illis: “ Numquid venit lucerna, ut sub modio ponatur aut sub lecto? Nonne ut super candelabrum ponatur?

22 οὐ γάρ ἐστιν κρυπτὸν ἐὰν μὴ ἵνα φανερωθῇ, οὐδὲ ἐγένετο ἀπόκρυφον ἀλλ’ ἵνα ἔλθῃ εἰς φανερόν.

“For is the thing not hidden unless in order to be made manifest/visible, nor does it become hidden but it will come to light.

The Greek is a bit…tricky here. It’s not that the meaning isn’t obvious as was sometimes the case in Paul; rather, it’s that it’s difficult to give a sense of the Greek in something at least resembling grammatical English. The problem is that, here, the basic rules of the two languages are conflicting, if not quite (but close) contradictory.

22 Non enim est aliquid absconditum, nisi ut manifestetur, nec factum est occultum, nisi ut in palam veniat.

23 εἴ τις ἔχει ὦταἀκούειν ἀκουέτω.

“If someone has ears, let him hear.”

A paraphrase of 4:9 above. Interesting: the first use of this circumlocution was in 4:9, and now we get it repeated a dozen verses later. In 4:9 I speculated that the oddness of the phrase, perhaps, implied that this was possibly an idiosyncratic expression of Jesus. Now, it comes twice in relation to a parable that also may be authentically Jesus, so maybe these all reinforce each other to make this all more likely to be authentic stuff? Now, technically, the use here is not in conjunction with the Parable of the Sower, but it follows hard on the heels. 

So, maybe?

I did some checking and found that the Parable of the Sower is in the Gospel of Thomas. It is not, however, in the Q document as reconstructed by Burton Mack in his book, “The Lost Gospel: The Book Of Q And Christian Origins”. However, the saying in V-22 about what is hidden being brought to light is in both, so there is some consensus that this, and several of the little pearls of wisdom that we will encounter in the following verses discussed in this post are also believed to trace back to Jesus himself.

But what does this say? Or what does it mean? What is hidden will become manifest? And what does this have to do with a lamp?  The lamp is an arresting image, and it has a lot of implications. Remember that the light/dark dichotomy was important for Paul, but this is the first time we’ve encountered any sort of “light” metaphor.

What I get when I read this particular section is that Mark had access to a collection of sayings of Jesus. (For the moment, I’m not talking about “Q”; but I will get to that at some point.) He then interwove them into his narrative as best as he could. This what what I meant when I said Mark was particularly skilled at piecing his disparate sources together; here, I think, the seams show, if just a bit.

The idea of hidden things would seem to be part of the transformation into an interior-focused values system. A lot of Judaism, as a lot of paganism, focused on the external actions: what you did is what counted. At some point in the last few centuries BCE, this began to give way to an inward-looking values system. This was one of the major contributions of what is subsumed under the rubric of “Hellenistic Philosophy”: given the dislocations brought about by large empires that spanned many ethnic groups was that an individual was left on her own as the familiar, cozy, insular world of one’s home town, or region became swallowed in the tide of foreign domination. The result were different philosophical schools, such as the Epicureans and the Stoics, and the growing popularity of what are vaguely called “Eastern Mystery Religions”, such as the cults (read that word w/o the negative connotations) of Isis, or Magna Mater.

The facile comparison is the distinction between a shame and a guilt culture, but that is really too crude, and too anachronistic for the First Century CE.

Both of these general movements, pagan philosophy and Eastern religion spoke to the individual as a member of a self-selected group rather than as part of a corporate whole. Judaism, in the sense of the covenant between YHWH and the Israelites, was–or, at least, had been–a corporate sensibility: what mattered was the group, and one demonstrated one’s identity with the group by participating in the outward ritual. This had begun to change in the last few centuries BCE, whether as a result of the alien Greek presence, or parallel to it. While the history of the ancient Near East is the tale of a succession of empires, the empire of Alexander and his successors–which, eventually included Rome–was a permanent fixture. By the time of Jesus, the Graeco-Roman presence in Judea was 300 years old–longer than the US has been a country.

23 Si quis habet aures audiendi, audiat ”.

24 Καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς, Βλέπετε τί ἀκούετε. ἐν ᾧ μέτρῳ μετρεῖτε μετρηθήσεται ὑμῖν καὶ προστεθήσεται ὑμῖν.

And he said to them, “Watch what you hear. In the measure that you measure, you will be measured, and it will be increased.

Love this: watch what you hear. And that’s pretty much a literal translation. Rather a clever chap, that Jesus (or was it Mark?). A way with words.

The measure you use will be what you are measured with; paraphrase: live by the (metaphorical) sword, die by the sword. Or, judge not, or you will be judged. Kind of get a theme here, don’t we?

24 Et dicebat illis: “ Videte quid audiatis. In qua mensura mensi fueritis, remetietur vobis et adicietur vobis.

25 ὃς γὰρ ἔχει, δοθήσεται αὐτῷ: καὶ ὃς οὐκ ἔχει, καὶ ὃ ἔχει ἀρθήσεται ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ.

“He who has, it will be given to him, and he who does not have,  what he does have will be taken from him.”

This has always bothered me. But it’s one of those contra-positives, or has a Zen quality to it: the very offensiveness is what gets your attention and makes you think about what is said. Again, a clever turn of phrase. But it’s about faith: the people who have faith will be rewarded with more faith, while the people without faith will lose what little faith they have.  This is not about possessions, or social justice.

25 Qui enim habet, dabitur illi; et, qui non habet, etiam quod habet, auferetur ab illo ”.

26 Καὶ ἔλεγεν, Οὕτως ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς ἄνθρωπος βάλῃ τὸν σπόρον ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

And he said, “How is the kingdom of God, like a man who casts seed upon the ground.

Another sower? We’re in re-runs already?

26 Et dicebat: “ Sic est regnum Dei, quemadmodum si homo iaciat sementem in terram

27 καὶ καθεύδῃ καὶ ἐγείρηται νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν, καὶ ὁ σπόρος βλαστᾷ καὶ μηκύνηται ὡς οὐκ οἶδεν αὐτός.

“And it sleeps and (then) wakes, night and day, and the seed springs up and and grows, how he does not know.

This is good: the seed sleeps, then it wakes. The temptation is to translate << βλαστᾷ >> as “germinate”, since that’s the Latin word, but it may not give the proper sense in English. At least, it wouldn’t connect in the same way that “grow” does. At least, not for me.

27 et dormiat et exsurgat nocte ac die, et semen germinet et increscat, dum nescit ille.

28 αὐτομάτη ἡ γῆ καρποφορεῖ, πρῶτον χόρτον, εἶτα στάχυν, εἶτα πλήρη[ς] σῖτον ἐν τῷ στάχυϊ.

“The earth bears fruit automatically, first the stalk, then the head (or the ear), then (it) fills with wheat in the head (or the ear).

<< αὐτομάτη >> would transliterate as “automate”, the second ‘a’ as short, and the terminal ‘e’ with a long ‘a’ sound.

28 Ultro terra fructificat primum herbam, deinde spicam, deinde plenum frumentum in spica.

29 ὅταν δὲ παραδοῖ ὁ καρπός, εὐθὺς ἀποστέλλει τὸ δρέπανον, ὅτι παρέστηκεν ὁ θερισμός.

“When the grain is given over, immediately he sends the sickle, then the the harvest is taken in.”

29 Et cum se produxerit fructus, statim mittit falcem, quoniam adest messis ”.

30 Καὶ ἔλεγεν, Πῶς ὁμοιώσωμεν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ, ἢ ἐν τίνι αὐτὴν παραβολῇ  θῶμεν;

And he said, “How shall we liken the kingdom of God other than we set it in this parable.”

The kingdom of God. This is, properly, only the second usage of this term in Mark.

30 Et dicebat: “ Quomodo assimilabimus regnum Dei aut in qua parabola ponemus illud?

31 ὡς κόκκῳ σινάπεως, ὃς ὅταν σπαρῇ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, μικρότερον ὂν πάντων τῶν σπερμάτων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς,

“It is as the seed of the mustard, which (is) then planted in the earth, the smallest of all the seeds upon the earth.”

I came across a really tortured and convoluted attempt by a biblical literalist to explain away how the Greek did not really say ‘the smallest of all seeds.’  The gist and basis was that << μικρότερον >> didn’t mean ‘smallest.’  The problem is that, apparently, there are smaller seeds, and he couldn’t have Jesus saying something that wasn’t literally true. He admitted that it has the superlative form, but that the meaning here was merely comparative.    I won’t say the argument (sic!) is without merit, but it just runs 180 degrees against the what Greek really says. The clincher is the << πάντων >> “all”. One doesn’t say, “smaller of all seeds.  One could, but then the sense would become “smaller than all seeds, which comes back to the superlative. Rather than admit that Jesus may have been speaking poetically in calling it the smallest, he tied himself in a knot trying to deny the common sense reading of the text.

This was something of a textbook example of trying to make the text fit the belief, rather than drawing belief from the text. I don’t mean to disparage anyone’s beliefs, but the point of this exercise is to approach the text, as nearly as we can, without preconceived ideas of what ‘everyone knows’ it says.

31 Sicut granum sinapis, quod cum seminatum fuerit in terra, minus est omnibus seminibus, quae sunt in terra;

32 καὶ ὅταν σπαρῇ, ἀναβαίνει καὶ γίνεται μεῖζον πάντων τῶν λαχάνων καὶ ποιεῖ κλάδους μεγάλους, ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν.

“But when it grows, it comes up and becomes the largest of the garden plants, and creates big branches, so that under its shadow the birds of the air are able to place their nests (rest).”

Again, this is an image, and a metaphor–or a parable–that really does require some contemplation. The poetry makes historical analysis a bit harder; what does Jesus mean? Obviously, that it starts small, and that it has–or will?–grow to be a large, accommodating and capacious. Are we to infer that we do not, or will not, know how it grows, just as we don’t know how the seed grows?

That’s the interesting point about this parable: we are told the kingdom is coming, or is here, but we are not told exactly how we become part of it. Will it happen automatically, as with the seed? Or do we need to do something to bring it about? Or to ensure our inclusion?

To this point, we have not really been told about this. We have not been told to repent, except by John. We have not been told to follow a moral code, unless you consider hanging out with tax collectors and sinners and not quite following the strictures about the Sabbath a moral code. That seems a stretch. There’s the implication that we should not love money, as this is part of the thorn patch that will choke off the germinating Word. This entire chapter, and pretty much the whole gospel so far has not really provided any clear delineation of how we are to behave, or what we must do to bring about the kingdom of God, or how we are to be members in good standing of this social order.

32 et cum seminatum fuerit, ascendit et fit maius omnibus holeribus et facit ramos magnos, ita ut possint sub umbra eius aves caeli habitare “.

33 Καὶ τοιαύταις παραβολαῖς πολλαῖς ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς τὸν λόγον, καθὼς ἠδύναντο ἀκούειν:

And with many parable such as these he spoke to them the word, accordingly as they were able to hear.

33 Et talibus multis parabolis loquebatur eis verbum, prout poterant audire;

34 χωρὶς δὲ παραβολῆς οὐκ ἐλάλει αὐτοῖς, κατ’ ἰδίαν δὲ τοῖς ἰδίοις μαθηταῖς ἐπέλυεν πάντα.

Aside from parables, he did not speak to them, (but) alone with his particular disciples he explained everything.

34 sine parabola autem non loquebatur eis. Seorsum autem discipulis suis disserebat omnia.

“His particular disciples” isn’t exactly the greatest translation. But it’s about the best I could do to render << τοῖς ἰδίοις μαθηταῖς >>. The << ἰδίοις  >> is the root of  ‘idiosyncrasy’, and also ‘idiot.’ In Athenian Greek, which became Greek, “idiot” referred to someone who did not take part in the assembly. The basic meaning is ‘private’; so an idiot was someone who kept to himself (alone, in private) rather than participating in the government by way of the assembly. So the sense here is that Jesus, in private, explained the parables to those that were his private disciples. 

Jesus only talked in parables. This hearkens back to 4.11, in which we discussed how Jesus seemed intent to obscure his message, so that they would not be able to understand, which might make them turn to God and be forgiven. But the other implication here is that Jesus reserved the meanings for his disciples; they alone got the whole story. And this sort of “secret” doctrine, doctrine that is reserved for the initiated few, is pretty much a hallmark of what came to be known as Gnosticism. There was one teaching for the public, and another for the select. Mind, I am not saying that Mark was a Gnostic; rather, I’m saying that some of what he said sounds like it has Gnostic implications.

And this occurs to me: is this why Mark has not told us what we must do to ensure our membership in the kingdom of God? Has he not told us because that knowledge is reserved for the chosen few, the Elect?




About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on February 5, 2013, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You do make a stronger case for even more Gnosticism in this. Does that mean there isn’t Daniel-style apocalypse, too, or not? Does conflicts between the two explain some of the contradictions you outline? Could the gnostic comments be inserted later by philo-Gnostic writers? Jesus is often very literal in the Daniel-style predictions to warn everybody, but this part makes it seem Jesus is hiding some details. Was this inserted to boost the street-credentials of the inner circle?

  2. Isn’t the idea of the hidden lamp is that a hidden lamp is useless?

  3. Oops (maybe). Yes, a hidden lamp is useless. This is a great example of (possibly) getting so carried away by the symbolism that one misses the obvious meaning. Although I think I wasn’t wholly off the mark, either. Just missed something. Or a few things. Or a lot of things.

    Spoiler alert! When we get to the Daniel-style apocalypse stuff, especially in Chapter 13, I will tell you that I do not think any of that stuff came from Jesus. I think that was all created later to explain the destruction of the Temple after the fact. As such, I have serious doubts about Jesus being a preacher of apocalypse.

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