Mark Chapter 9:14-29

Chapter 14 continues. This is a longer piece of text than I prefer to do, but it may not require a lot of comment.

14 Καὶ ἐλθόντες πρὸς τοὺς μαθητὰς εἶδον ὄχλον πολὺν περὶ αὐτοὺς καὶ γραμματεῖς συζητοῦντας πρὸς αὐτούς.

And coming towards the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and scribes seeking towards them.

14 Et venientes ad discipulos viderunt turbam magnam circa eos et scribas conquirentes cum illis.

15 καὶ εὐθὺς πᾶς ὁ ὄχλος ἰδόντες αὐτὸν ἐξεθαμβήθησαν, καὶ προστρέχοντες ἠσπάζοντο αὐτόν.

And immediately the entire crowd seeing him, was struck by marvel, and running towards (him), they greeted him.

So far, there’s nothing really remarkable about any of this. It’s all of a piece with what we’ve seen so far. Nothing really jumps out at me as new or noteworthy or unusual.

15 Et confestim omnis populus videns eum stupefactus est, et accurrentes salutabant eum.

16 καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτούς, Τί συζητεῖτε πρὸς αὐτούς;

And he asked them, “What do you discuss?”

16 Et interrogavit eos: “ Quid inter vos conquiritis? ”.

17 καὶ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ εἷς ἐκ τοῦ ὄχλου, Διδάσκαλε, ἤνεγκα τὸν υἱόν μου πρὸς σέ, ἔχοντα πνεῦμα ἄλαλον:

And one from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, he having a mute spirit.”

That’s different. A mute spirit. 

17 Et respondit ei unus de turba: “ Magister, attuli filium meum ad te habentem spiritum mutum;

18 καὶ ὅπου ἐὰν αὐτὸν καταλάβῃ ῥήσσει αὐτόν, καὶ ἀφρίζει καὶ τρίζει τοὺς ὀδόντας καὶ ξηραίνεται: καὶ εἶπα τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου ἵνα αὐτὸ ἐκβάλωσιν, καὶ οὐκ ἴσχυσαν.

“And whenever it takes him (it) shakes him, and he foams (at the mouth) and gnashes his teeth and makes him go limp. And I asked your disciples in order that they might cast it out, and they did not have the power.”

A couple of interesting things here. First is the word << ξηραίνεται >>. Modern translations render this as ‘go rigid’; the KJV renders it as ‘pine away’, which is the secondary meaning in Liddell & Scott. However, the primary meaning is ‘to wither away’. Just to check, the Latin translation << arescit >>has basically the same two meanings as the Greek word, so it’s pretty much a one-for-one substitution. But this is the same word used in Matthew 21:19 to describe the ‘withered’ fig tree, and Liddell & Scott cite Mark 9:18 as using in the passive to mean paralyzed. It is my understanding of paralyzed that it means to lose muscle control, so that the limbs are limp rather than rigid.

More, thinking about what ‘to wither’ and ‘to pine away’ have in common, it seems like ‘going limp’ might be the better sense of the word. I am not sure how or why this came to be seen as ‘rigid’, but I don’t believe that to be the best sense of the word. But, as always, I could be wrong about this. I just want to point out that we seem to have another ‘consensus’ translation here. Not that it honestly makes a big difference. I suppose the foam (at the mouth) could indicate an epileptic, in which case ‘rigid’ might make more sense, but I’m not entirely sure that’s what the Greek says. Plus, epilepsy was known as the ‘sacred disease’, and Julius Caesar suffered seizures. This indicates that there was some knowledge of epilepsy as something other than demonic possession in the ancient world. Now, whether this knowledge penetrated to Galilee is an entirely different issue.

Upon further review, I can see a connection between ‘wither’ and ‘rigid’. When plants are green, they are supple; when they wither, they become rigid. It’s perhaps a stretch, but words do go in many different directions, often simultaneously.

Secondly, the speaker asked the other disciples to heal the boy, but they did not have the power. Not that they weren’t able, but that they were too weak, in the sense of strength. The standard verb for ‘to be able’ is <<δυναμαι>>, which is ‘I am able’ in the broadest sense. This word, <<ἴσχυσαν>> is much narrower in its meaning: they were too weak.

But I will leave it at that for now.

18 et ubicumque eum apprehenderit, allidit eum, et spumat et stridet dentibus et arescit. Et dixi discipulis tuis, ut eicerent illum, et non potuerunt ”.

19 ὁδὲ ἀποκριθεὶς αὐτοῖς λέγει, ω γενεὰ ἄπιστος, ἕως πότε πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἔσομαι; ἕως πότε ἀνέξομαι ὑμῶν; φέρετε αὐτὸν πρός με.

Then, answering them, he said, “Oh faithless generation, how long will I be among you? How long will I bear up (among) you? Bring him to me.”

We have the faithless generation, and the implied lack of faith preventing a cure. In addition, we have Jesus getting a bit exasperated: How long do I have to put up with this? He does not always seem to suffer what he considers fools gladly.

19 Qui respondens eis dicit: “ O generatio incredula, quamdiu apud vos ero? Quamdiu vos patiar? Afferte illum ad me ”.

20 καὶ ἤνεγκαν αὐτὸν πρὸς αὐτόν. καὶ ἰδὼν αὐτὸν τὸ πνεῦμα εὐθὺς συνεσπάραξεν αὐτόν, καὶ πεσὼν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἐκυλίετο ἀφρίζων.

And they brought (the son) to him (Jesus). And seeing him (Jesus) the unclean spirit tore him (the boy) in pieces, and falling on the ground he rolled frothing (at the mouth).

The Greek: << συνεσπάραξεν >> literally means ‘to tear’, as in ‘to tear to pieces’. Here, it is obviously used in a figurative sense, so I completely understand–and more or less agree–why it’s most often rendered as ‘convulsed’ in this passage. Consensus translations are not always so wrong.

I have never witnessed a grand mal epileptic seizure; however, this description does seem to fit what I understand about them. But, do not put much faith in my word on that.

The point is, the seizure was triggered by Jesus because, presumably, the spirit recognized Jesus, as so many others have before this.

20 Et attulerunt illum ad eum. Et cum vidisset illum, spiritus statim conturbavit eum; et corruens in terram volutabatur spumans.

21 καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν τὸν πατέρα αὐτοῦ, Πόσος χρόνος ἐστὶν ὡς τοῦτο γέγονεν αὐτῷ; ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, Ἐκ παιδιόθεν:

And he asked his (the boy’s) father, “How long (lit = ‘how much time’) has it been thus that has befallen him?” He (the father) said, “since childhood”.

If this had a juvenile onset, this is taking on more and more of the traits of a physical ailment. I know that epilepsy does often manifest in childhood.

21 Et interrogavit patrem eius: “ Quantum temporis est, ex quo hoc ei accidit? ”. At ille ait: “ Ab infantia;

22 καὶ πολλάκις καὶ εἰς πῦρ αὐτὸν ἔβαλεν καὶ εἰς ὕδατα ἵνα ἀπολέσῃ αὐτόν: ἀλλ’ εἴ τι δύνῃ, βοήθησον ἡμῖν σπλαγχνισθεὶς ἐφ’ ἡμᾶς.

“And many times also into the fire he throws (= the spirit throws the boy towards the fire), and towards the water in order to destroy him. But if you are able, help up and have pity on us.”

Now we have left the world of somatic illness behind. Or, at least, we have left epilepsy behind. 

22 et frequenter eum etiam in ignem et in aquas misit, ut eum perderet; sed si quid potes, adiuva nos, misertus nostri ”.

23 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Τὸ Εἰ δύνῃ πάντα δυνατὰ τῷ πιστεύοντι.

And Jesus said to him, “If it may be done, all is able (to be done) by believing.”  

I tried several different arrangements, but I’m still not happy with the way the direct speech came out. I cannot get it to bring out the Greek properly. My apologies.

23 Iesus autem ait illi: “ “Si potes!”. Omnia possibilia credenti ”.

24 εὐθὺς κράξας ὁ πατὴρ τοῦ παιδίου ἔλεγεν, Πιστεύω: βοήθει μου τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ.

Immediately, crying out, the father of the boy said, “I believe.  Help me in my non-belief.”

Again, we have the necessity of faith if the cure is to be successful.

It’s interesting to note how the role of faith is prominent both in Mark and in Paul, but in such different ways, or perhaps to such different ends. Here, it’s the means to effecting a cure of an affliction, whether physical or spiritual. In Paul, it was the means of been justified before God.

24 Et continuo exclamans pater pueri aiebat: “ Credo; adiuva incredulitatem meam ”.

25 ἰδὼν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς ὅτι ἐπισυντρέχει ὄχλος ἐπετίμησεν τῷ πνεύματι τῷ ἀκαθάρτῳ λέγων αὐτῷ, Τὸ ἄλαλον καὶ κωφὸν πνεῦμα, ἐγὼ ἐπιτάσσω σοι, ἔξελθε ἐξ αὐτοῦ καὶ μηκέτι εἰσέλθῃς εἰς αὐτόν.

But Jesus seeing that the crowd was running together upon them, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Speechless and mute spirit, I command you, come out of him and never again go into him.”

In the discussion about epileptic symptoms, I had lost sight of the fact that the spirit prevented the boy from speaking.

Here’s an observation,  or, more likely, a bit of speculation: after telling a dozen stories of healings and/or the exorcism of unclean spirits, Mark has been looking for ways to tell the stories in more interesting ways. So we’ve gotten the spitting and other details. Here, we have the injunction to believe, and the details of the spirit throwing the boy into fire or water. Saying that, there are likely to be some elemental-magic connotations to those two ‘basic elements’ of the ancient world.

25 Et cum videret Iesus concurrentem turbam, comminatus est spiritui immundo dicens illi: “ Mute et surde spiritus, ego tibi praecipio: Exi ab eo et amplius ne introeas in eum ”.

26 καὶ κράξας καὶ πολλὰ σπαράξας ἐξῆλθεν: καὶ ἐγένετο ὡσεὶ νεκρός, ὥστε τοὺς πολλοὺς λέγεινὅτι ἀπέθανεν.

And crying out, and much tearing, it came out. And (the boy) became as dead, so that many said (that) he had died.

Again as in V-20, the verb literally means ‘to tear’, but it’s usually rendered as ‘to convulse. Both here and in V-20, the KJV renders this as ‘tore’.

26 Et clamans et multum discerpens eum exiit; et factus est sicut mortuus, ita ut multi dicerent: “ Mortuus est! ”.

27 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς κρατήσας τῆς χειρὸς αὐτοῦ ἤγειρεν αὐτόν, καὶ ἀνέστη.

But Jesus taking hold of his hands lifted him and he (the boy) stood.

27 Iesus autem tenens manum eius elevavit illum, et surrexit.

28 καὶ εἰσελθόντος αὐτοῦ εἰς οἶκον οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ κατ’ ἰδίαν ἐπηρώτων αὐτόν, Οτι ἡμεῖς οὐκ ἠδυνήθημεν ἐκβαλεῖν αὐτό;

And he (Jesus) coming into his home, his disciples in private asked him, “Why were we not able to cast him out?”

28 Et cum introisset in domum, discipuli eius secreto interrogabant eum: “ Quare nos non potuimus eicere eum? ”.

29 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τοῦτο τὸ γένος ἐν οὐδενὶ δύναται ἐξελθεῖν εἰ μὴ ἐν προσευχῇ.

And he said to them, “This type cannot come out of anyone unless in prayer.”

29 Et dixit illis: “ Hoc genus in nullo potest exire nisi in oratione ”.

Whoa! Check this out. We have demon taxonomy. He talks about “this type”, and “type” could easily be rendered as “genus”, as in genus and species. Jesus has classified this demon, and has field notes on how to handle them. It reminds me of Harry Potter and the different types of dragon in The Goblet of Fire.

But what is even weirder, Jesus says that this kind has to be expelled with prayer, but there is no prayer in the description of the exorcism.

All in all, we are compiling a fair number of details about magical practice in the First Century. In his Antiquities, Josephus called Jesus a “wonder worker”, and R L Fox was very clear that wonder workers were a common site in this era, so Mark may have seen more than one on his own. And let us not forget the infamous Simon Magus of Acts. I mention all of this because it’s sort of a dusty little nook that doesn’t often see the light of day in discussions of the NT, or even religion as a whole.

Sometimes I think that, as residents of the ‘scientific’ 21st Century, we find it hard to credit that our ancestors could believe in such nonsense as magic. Hence the spate of  ‘scientific’ examinations of non-natural events in the past; for example, I saw something on The History Channel (or similar) about the witch craze of the 1500-1600s. The show took great pains to try to convince the viewer that it was all due to ergotism, a fungus that grows on cereal grains. When ingested, it can cause symptoms similar to those described in the trial records. But to try to write it off like this is an incredibly narrow-minded attitude. People believed in witches; people still believe in magic of all sorts.

Passages like this are invaluable for historians; everything written contains certain assumptions that the writers and their contemporaries held; these assumptions are baked right into the words. A bit of examination and reflection will reward the careful reader with real insights into what people actually thought and believed 2oo or 2,000 years ago.

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

  1. Only a few years ago, Antonin Scalia wondered aloud to a reporter why we don’t see the devil anymore. He seemed genuinely puzzled.

  2. I think that’s because Justice Scalia’s conception of the “devil” is too narrow. Whilst most people don’t see a figure with horns and a pointy tail, the “devil” is all around us if you look in the right places. Like, for those whose narrow understanding of social issues would leave millions of people out in the cold, hungry, and sick. I see that a lot. Perhaps Justice Scalia should look a bit more closely.

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