Summary Mark Chapter 8

Chapter 8 was, I believe, a pivotal chapter.

We started with the (possibly twinned) feeding of the 4,000, in which Jesus once again demonstrates his ability to feed Israel in the Wilderness, as God did during the Exodus. Then we had the Pharisees looking for a sign, which will not be given to ‘this generation’. Then we talked about bread some more, and Jesus warned against the leaven of the Pharisees, which the disciples took literally, causing Jesus to regret their obtuseness. After that, a blind man is healed, so that the distinction between the disciples who ‘have eyes but do not see’ and some whose sight was restored and who does ‘see’, both literally and figuratively. In contrast to all the difficulty in understanding that the disciples have displayed, Peter was perceptive enough to realize that Jesus was The Christ, The Messiah.

After this, Jesus prophesies his eventual death, which causes Peter to get angry and rebuke Jesus. This leads to Jesus reciting several aphorisms that have become famous: one must deny oneself; one must take up one’s cross; there is no profit to gaining the world and losing one’s own life (or soul); and that whoever is ashamed of Jesus and his words will find himself disowned by the Son of Man when the latter is in the glory of the Father.

From an historical point of view, the most significant aspect of the chapter is the declaration of Peter that Jesus was the Christ. This is the first explicit statement to this effect in the gospels, excluding the opening line of Mark (which was, IMO, a later addition). In this chapter we get a lot of back-and-forth about who Jesus was and who he was thought to be. On the one hand, we saw the episode where Jesus had to try twice  to heal the blind man; it didn’t work fully the first time. Plus, for this healing, and the previous, Jesus is said to have used incantation-like acts and external “ingredients”–spitting–to effect the healing. There is a contrast between the scene with the bleeding woman where the power goes out of Jesus of its own accord, and she is fully healed. Plus, Jesus is suddenly doing the healing outside the town, for reasons which we are not told. Presumably, it’s not to attract undue attention from the secular authorities. This would be Herod, the man who executed John the Baptist a few chapters back.

This internal tension about Jesus’ identity, and a couple of stylistic points have led me to speculate that these last few chapters, or really almost the last half of the work, may have been heavily edited and added to by later writers/editors. Such was hardly unusual in the ancient world. Their idea of an ‘author’ was very different than ours. There was no sense of plagiarism, or deceit seen in writing something under someone else’s name. It’s not altogether different from Renaissance painters, whose students did most of the painting but the maestro’s name was signed at the bottom. I noted that the prophecies are ex-post, which very few biblical scholars would dispute, or even question. I also suggested that some of the statements seem to have been inserted to counter the ambiguity of the text. Why were these ‘offensive’ parts simply not left out, if a later writer thought that he was ‘correcting’, or at least ‘clarifying’ the text? Well, in some cases they were: Luke omitted the line in which Peter rebuked Jesus.

One thing that makes me very suspicious is that certain very key words do not show up until the second half of the gospel. Or, they become used more frequently in the second half of the gospel. “Christ” is one of them. So is “psyche”. These are words that grew heavy with the implications during subsequent developments in what had become “Christian” thought. As such, their sudden appearance later in the text is puzzling; if these were crucial to Jesus’ message, why did it take so long to bring them up? To this point, Jesus has primarily been a healer, who occasionally–but only occasionally–talks about the coming kingdom of God. This was Jesus’ mission statement back in Chapter 1, after he heard about John’s arrest. Nor has he talked much about repentance for the forgiveness of sins, despite the fact that he was supposed to be a disciple of John, or the fulfillment of John’s message. This lack of continuity makes me suspect that the link to John was something of a later invention.

This all leads to the issue of who or what the historical Jesus was. What, exactly, was he preaching? For most of Mark, it’s kind of hard to say. We get scattered references to a lot of things. In Chapter 8 we discussed the idea of Jesus as a preacher of apocalypse. But we’ve also had two episodes of mass feeding that are clearly designed to indicate that Jesus was at least the functional equivalent of God. The two are by no means mutually exclusive. But, looking back, what we have seen most are the healings: whether of physical problems–blindness, leprosy–or spiritual–driving out demons. In conjunction with the healings, we’ve been given several lessons about faith. Jesus could not perform any miracles in his (unnamed) home town because of lack of faith; the bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter, and the Syro-Phonecian woman’s daughter and others were healed because of their faith. We have also seen Jesus defying the laws of nature by walking on water.

This is why the rather abrupt transition to more theological issues, like losing one’s life, is significant. My contention all along has been that Mark’s intent was to weave together the various strands of tradition that he had heard. Many people witnessed Jesus, but not all of them took away the same message. Indeed, Paul, an after-the-fact apostle, came up with a message that brought him into conflict with Jesus’ brother, who had not been a disciple. The gospel of Thomas represents another strand of the tradition. The sayings at the end of Chapter 8 do not feel like an organic part of the text. The context is odd; they don’t flow. They seem to be inserted.

Perhaps, and time will tell, the transition that I am positing–whether it actually exists or not–in this chapter was the beginning of Mark trying to start tying up these loose ends. In that way, examining the text is a bit of a voyage of discovery. I’m formulating my hypotheses; let’s see if the rest of the text bears them out or refutes them. I find this exciting; almost like a detective novel.

Still, I fully realize these are serious questions. I also realize that I am not an expert on this text. But that’s good as well as bad. The lack of expertise does, IMO, help us to see what is in the text, and what isn’t.


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 19, 2013, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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