Mark Chapter 8:11-21

The last installment ended with Jesus sailing away from the feeding of the 4,000 and embarking in the territory of Dalmanoutha.

11 Καὶ ἐξῆλθον οἱ Φαρισαῖοι καὶ ἤρξαντο συζητεῖν αὐτῷ, ζητοῦντες παρ’ αὐτοῦ σημεῖον ἀπὸ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, πειράζοντες αὐτόν.

And the Pharisees came out and began to examine him, seeking from him a sign from the sky, testing him.

Here, << το οὐρανος >>, is singular. Does that mean it should be translated as ‘the sky’ or as ‘heaven’? We faced the same problem in 1 Thess, 4:16, in which the son of God will descend << ἀπ’ οὐρανοῦ >, and this is frequently, if not usually, translated as ‘heaven’ rather than ‘sky’. I would argue that, while there was a sense of God as living in the heavens, in the sky, that the concept of ‘heaven’, as we think of the term, did not truly begin to coalesce until Revelation, which was probably written at least another generation after Mark. As such, it can be deduced that translating this as ‘heaven’, without qualification, is anachronistic, largely because it is now so fraught with implications that it is difficult for someone of our era to see/hear the word and not think of Pearly Gates, harps, and streets paved with gold.

Having said that, it’s obvious that there was a general connexion between God and the sky. The Pharisees seek a sign from the sky because that is where God was, more or less, thought to live. For that matter, even Romans, or pagans in general were big on reading the flights of birds as indicative of the will of the gods. Birds, after all, flew through the sky, and so were closer to the gods. Olympus was a mountain, after all.

Beyond that, though, the Pharisees are up to their usual no-good. They are testing (the word can also be read as ‘tempting’) Jesus. Does he truly have God’s favor? The implication is that this was what popular opinion,  or perhaps conventional wisdom, was at least beginning to say about Jesus. At least, this is what Mark would have us believe that conventional wisdom thought of Jesus. Can we trust this?

The Quest for the Historical Jesus (QHJ) literature has a lot of discussion about Jesus as an end-times prophet, a preacher of apocalypse. Some in the QHJ argue that this is who the ‘real’ Jesus ‘really’ was, and that his message, at its core, was the coming of the end times. As such, a sign from heaven would be a reasonable expectation. So all of this makes sense; but the question is: does it only make sense in hindsight? Of course, let’s not forget that Paul seemed to be expecting the Second Coming soon. This would seem to support the contention that Jesus was indeed preaching apocalypse. Or was he? Or was that something that Paul and others read back, not so much from anything Jesus said or did, but from the fact that The Christ was raised from the dead? In this way, it wasn’t that Jesus preached apocalypse, but that later followers came to believe that the apocalypse was coming because of the Resurrection. As such, we cannot safely assume that Jesus was preaching apocalypse.

But more generally, if you want to read after-the-fact prophecy, Suetonius has a ton of it in his Lives of the Caesars. After the deaths of Julius and Augustus Caesar, people were falling all over themselves to read their eventual destiny of fame back into their lives. Things they said took on great import, there were all sorts of marvels seen, like the eagle flying up to “heaven” at Augustus’ funeral, which was taken to be the soul of Augustus joining the gods, etc. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised to see Jesus’ followers doing the same thing.

11 Et exierunt pharisaei et coeperunt conquirere cum eo quaerentes ab illo signum de caelo, tentantes eum.

12 καὶ ἀναστενάξας τῷ πνεύματι αὐτοῦ λέγει, Τί ἡ γενεὰ αὕτη ζητεῖ σημεῖον; ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, εἰ δοθήσεται τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ σημεῖον.

And groaning in his spirit, he said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen I say to you, no sign will be shown to this generation.”

<< τῷ πνεύματι >> is in the dative case. The dative can be the indirect object; it can mean with, in, by, to, from. So how do we take ‘groaning’ and ‘his spirit’? In his spirit? With his spirit (a loud exhalation of air, for example)? From his spirit–way down from what we would call the depths of his soul? The KJV, NASB, and ESV all choose ‘in his spirit’. That’s what I settled on, eventually as well.

Why?

Excellent question. In this case, I can only say it felt right, but ‘from his spirit’ is, I think, another strong contender. Writing this, I’m tempted to change my translation.  

As an aside, note that I really spend a lot less time talking about the Greek here than I did with Galatians. The Greek in Mark really is much more straightforward, which tells me it’s very much translation Greek. It’s the language of someone who learned Greek, rather than someone who grew up speaking it. Paul, I think, grew up speaking it to some extent. He seems to have known enough to get himself muddled. That’s generally not true in Mark. Although, in places like this, we still run across ambiguities for which there really is no answer.

BTW: the NIV takes the coward’s way out and renders this as ‘sighing deeply’. Sure, it works, it has a more natural feel in English, but it’s not what the Greek says.

12 Et ingemiscens spiritu suo ait: “ Quid generatio ista quaerit signum? Amen dico vobis: Non dabitur generationi isti signum ”.

13 καὶ ἀφεὶς αὐτοὺς πάλιν ἐμβὰς ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὸ πέραν.

And dismissing them, embarking again they went across (back) to the other shore.

Note:Across to the other shore” is all included in the single word << πέραν >>

13 Et dimittens eos, iterum ascendens abiit trans fretum.

14 Καὶ ἐπελάθοντο λαβεῖν ἄρτους, καὶ εἰ μὴ ἕνα ἄρτον οὐκ εἶχον μεθ’ ἑαυτῶν ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ.

And they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had nothing but a single loaf with them in the boat.

Note that what I translate first as bread, then as loaf, is the same word, the concept of loaf being inseparable from the concept of bread.

Now to discuss the episode: it’s almost a throwaway sequence. It’s brief, doesn’t go very far, and makes one wonder why it was included here separately and not just worked into the text at another point. The Pharisees want a sign; this generation won’t see one. Jesus goes back across the lake.

Now, wanting a sign is not at all unusual as discussed above. We are told that the Pharisees were testing Jesus. I think the implication is that they did not expect him to deliver one because they did not believe he was truly a prophet, or a man of God as they would have (likely) understood the term. So it is rather a ‘bet you can’t’ sort of taunt.

What is most significant about this, passage, IMO, is the insistence on ‘this generation’. This phrase, with much the same tone and context, will occur four more times in Mark, and numerous times in Matthew. I think that this is something of a response to Paul, or to those of Paul’s generation. Paul expected to see The Christ, the Son of God, come down from the sky (1 Thess), and he didn’t. So the most logical reading of Jesus’ insistence on ‘this generation’ is to explain why nothing had happened. So far. Here it was, forty years or more after Jesus’ death, and still nothing had happened.

And that brings up a lot of other questions, especially for anyone concerned with QHJ. As mentioned, something like this statement occurs many times in the Synoptic Gospels, sort of culminating with the last of the three, Luke. Which makes sense; the more time that passed without a sign, the more an explanation was needed.

Does this have any implications for the idea that Jesus was a preacher of apocalypse? IMO it does. Jesus’ message of apocalypse must have been fairly well known, which meant that the evangelists had to explain why nothing had happened. Paul expected something, but many people who had seen Jesus were still alive: Peter, James brother of the lord, & c. So, for Paul, the sign was immanent, and not necessarily overdue. For Mark, this was a problem. For Luke, he really had to address this. By the time of John, maybe, the followers of Jesus had sort of come to grips with the delay, and to bake it into their expectations, as one would say in the corporate world.

So, I think this does strengthen the case for those who say that Jesus had a message of coming apocalypse.

14 Et obliti sunt sumere panes et nisi unum panem non habebant secum in navi.

15 καὶ διεστέλλετο αὐτοῖς λέγων, Ὁρᾶτε, βλέπετεἀπὸ τῆς ζύμης τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ τῆς ζύμης Ἡρῴδου.

And he commanded them, saying “Look, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod”.

This warning against the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod is perhaps an indication that Jesus did have a sense of humor, even if it was a bit wry. They are talking about bread, he brings up the leaven of the Pharisees, with whom he just had an encounter that wasn’t exactly pleasant.

15 Et praecipiebat eis dicens: “ Videte, cavete a fermento pharisaeorum et fermento Herodis! ”.

16καὶ διελογίζοντο πρὸς ἀλλήλους ὅτι Ἄρτους οὐκ ἔχουσιν.

And they dialogued among themselves that they did not have bread.

16 Et disputabant ad invicem, quia panes non haberent.

17 καὶ γνοὺς λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τί διαλογίζεσθε ὅτιἄρτους οὐκ ἔχετε; οὔπω νοεῖτε οὐδὲ συνίετε; πεπωρωμένην ἔχετε τὴν καρδίαν ὑμῶν;

And understanding (this) he asked them, “Why do you dialogue amongst yourselves (that) you do not have bread? Do you still not know, or understand? Do you have a heart that has been petrified?”

“Dialogued” is sort of a perverse translation of  << διελογίζοντο >> and << διαλογίζεσθε >>. In fact, it’s not really a translation at all, but a transliteration. However, I thought it might be useful from an etymological perspective to see how words come about and evolve. Perhaps I should ask for indulgence on this! 

Dullards! In the previous verse, Jesus was feeling a bit jocular, willing to make a bit of a joke, even if the joke did have a serious point. Here, however, he’s lost his patience. He warned them about the leaven of the Pharisees, and they continue to talk about physical bread.

I repeat: Dullards!

Which ought to make us ask ‘why?’. Why are the disciples so thick? Were they? Or is this a nice, neat way to get Jesus to explain himself? Is this gospel, in fact, an attempt to explain the hypothetical Book of Q?

Just to clarify my point here. The theory is that the sayings of Jesus had been transmitted, whether orally or in written form, or perhaps sequentially in that order, from the time of Jesus himself. Matthew had access to a copy, but Mark, supposedly, did not. Some of the QHJ people argue that these sayings represent an more authentic tradition. The existence of the Gospel of Thomas demonstrates that this is/was a definite possibility.  But I am not quite convinced.

Perhaps Mark did have access to Q. Perhaps he chose, deliberately, to put the oral sayings of Jesus into context. IOW, to explain–or interpret them. Here, Q said: “Jesus said, ‘Beware the leaven of the Pharisees!’ ” Mark read, or heard, this, and wondered what exactly it meant. Or, more likely, different people read/heard this and had different interpretations of what it meant.  Being aware of the differing interpretations, Mark decided to put the saying into a context, and then have Jesus himself explain what it meant. Remember my contention about Mark being a bit of weaver, who wove together different traditions with a great deal of skill, even if he couldn’t always hide the seam.

Of course, this suggestion raises other problems, like, why get rid of things like The Sermon on the Mount? Those will be addressed more fully, probably in the overall summary to Mark’s entire gospel. Stay tuned!

17 Quo cognito, ait illis: “ Quid disputatis, quia panes non habetis? Nondum cognoscitis nec intellegitis? Caecatum habetis cor vestrum?

18 ὀφθαλμοὺς ἔχοντες οὐ βλέπετε καὶ ὦτα ἔχοντες οὐκ ἀκούετε; καὶ οὐ μνημονεύετε,

“Having eyes, but you do not see, and having ears, you do not hear.  And you do not remember.”

Speaking of remembering, recall the use of the word << βλέπετε >> when we get to V-24. And recall that we recently heard the word << ἀκούετε >>back in 7:35-36, when Jesus did the spitting and cured the deaf man in the Decapolis. I will argue that the repetition goes beyond just using the same word, because the repetition seems to be thematic. Recall that the deaf man did hear, but the disciples, who have fully functioning ears, do not.

That makes them dullards.

18 Oculos habentes non videtis, et aures habentes non auditis? Nec recordamini,

19 ὅτε τοὺς πέντε ἄρτους ἔκλασα εἰς τοὺς πεντακισχιλίους, πόσους κοφίνους κλασμάτων πλήρεις ἤρατε; λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Δώδεκα.

“When the five loaves having been broken into five thousand, how many baskets/measures of fragments were filled?” They said to him, “Twelve.”

19 quando quinque panes fregi in quinque milia, quot cophinos fragmentorum plenos sustulistis?”. Dicunt ei: “ Duodecim ”.

20 Οτε τοὺς ἑπτὰ εἰς τοὺς τετρακισχιλίους, πόσων σπυρίδων πληρώματα κλασμάτων ἤρατε; καὶλέγουσιν [αὐτῷ], Ἑπτά.

“When the seven (loaves were broken) into the four thousand, how many measures/baskets of fragments were filled?” They said to him “Seven.”

Quick note: both << κοφίνους >> and << σπυρίδων >> refer to a measure of something and the container into which it was put, like the bushel basket, or the peck basket used in the USA (and elsewhere? I doubt it…). The << σπυρίδων >> was larger than the other; so for the four thousand, there were fewer baskets leftovers, but the baskets were larger. My apologies, but I don’t happen to know the relation. But that’s the sort of technical question that does not truly pertain to our task here.

20 “Quando illos septem in quattuor milia, quot sportas plenas fragmentorum tulistis?”.  Et dicunt ei: “ Septem”.

 21 καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς, Οὔπω συνίετε;

Then he said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

21 Et dicebat eis: “ Nondum intellegitis? ”.

All in all, a bit convoluted. The point is that Jesus is trying to get his message across to his disciples, but the disciples simply don’t get it. 

Now, this is why I suggest that Mark has chosen the narrative “biography” of Jesus in order to provide a dramatic context in which Jesus has the opportunity to explain his own sayings. These sayings had been transmitted for two generations as “Q”, but the level of ambiguity was such that many different interpretations had been put forward. This is not surprising; depending on the word emphasized, the simple sentence “I am going to the store” can have a number of different implications. “I am going to the store”– and not you.  “I am going to the store“–and not the theatre. Given the ambiguity possible when something is repeated over and over, or even (perhaps especially) when something is written down, different interpretations are more or less inevitable. Look at the arguments over exactly what Adam Smith said, what he intended, etc.

Mark’s purpose in writing, perhaps, was to solve some of this ambiguity. Of course, that meant that he would solve it as he understood it. Apparently, neither Matthew, Luke, nor John found Mark’s explanation wholly satisfactory.

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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 April 14, 2013, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Interesting thought about encapsulating the sayings of Jesus into a story, to remove ambiguity in the meaning of the sayings. It has another benefit for memorization, like the ancient memory technique of “by locus”, which put the items to be memorized as locations on a journey.

  2. I’m having serious second thoughts about “Q”. No doubt the traditions were transmitted, but I seriously doubt that there was ever a document “Q” that was anything more than a local tradition. If that. Plus, biography has the added benefit of giving a sense of who Jesus was, rather than just what he said. It’s rather a fuller picture.

    But I will be discussing Q–yes or no–in greater detail, starting with Matthew.

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