Summary Mark Chapter 9

Chapter 9 starts with a verse that, IMO, should have been attached to Chapter 8. I honestly don’t know who or when these divisions into chapters and verses was done; I don’t believe it was done by the original author(s), but I cannot state that with certainty.

After that we get the Transfiguration. Like some of the other episodes in Mark, such as the Gerasene demoniac, the death of John the Baptist, and even the intertwined stories of Jairus and the bleeding woman, this has the feel of a story that was told in its entirety as it came down to Mark. These stories feel very organic, with a beginning, middle, and end, and they all have a moral, or a lesson, sort of like Aesop’s fables. Not saying that Mark was imitating, but just noting the similarity. I suspect that this sort of set-piece tale is fairly common in didactic writing. The lesson is that Mark is telling us with Jesus’ divinity. There were doubts in Chapters 6 and 7; in Chapter 8 we get what amounts to a run-up to the final confirmation of Jesus’ identity. It could be said to begin with the feeding of the 4,000 in the wilderness, connecting Jesus to God the Father feeding the Israelites with miraculous manna in the desert. Then we get Peter’s declaration: “You are the Christ.” This is the first use of the term since 1:1. Then, as the climax, we get the Transfiguration, which should remove all doubt.

There is also a more formal or stylized, or style aspect of this story. In a sense, this is the complement to Jesus baptism, or even something like a second baptism. It could be argued that this is the moment when Jesus becomes the Christ, or is confirmed as the Christ. He is shown with Moses and Elijah, two major pillars of Judaism; and he is now the central figure, standing between the other two. Jesus has become the culmination of the process the other two set in motion, or something along those lines. I’ve always been a bit puzzled why Abraham was not chosen; my suspicion is that Elijah was put in the group because of the subsequent discussion about Elijah coming first, and Jesus flat statement that Elijah has come. The implication is that, since Elijah has come, there is no impediment to the arrival of the Day of the Lord.

This event is tied together with Jesus prophecies and references to the Suffering Servant of Deutero-Isaiah and eschatology: the Day of the Lord. The implication of Malichi is, seemingly, that Elijah will come again. As such, it becomes an important prelude to the idea of Jesus’ return in the Parousia. And, since the Parousia was introduced at the end of Chapter 8, which spills into Verse 1 of Chapter 9, we can see a little more clearly how these concepts all fit together. In doing this translating, and in presenting is as I am, it is easy to lose sight of the forest because we become so engrossed in the trees. Again, I’m not well-versed on scholarship about who or when the chapter/verse numerations were added, but I think they sometimes create what may be artificial divisions in the narrative. We can see how this episode may, more naturally, fit with material in Chapter 8.

Then we get an interesting tale about the expulsion of an unclean spirit. The story is interesting because the disciples were unable to drive out the spirit. The problem was the lack of faith; whether the child’s father did not have enough faith in the disciples, or the disciples lacked confidence in their abilities for whatever reason. If the latter, this provides another…gap?…salient?…cross reference (?) in the narrative. Back when he sent out the Twelve back in Chapter 6:7, he gave them power to expel demons, and in 6:12, we are told they expelled many. Now, why couldn’t they expel this one? The most compact and consistent answer is because the lack of faith was on the part of the child’s father, which is why Jesus had to emphasize “all things are possible, if you believe” in 9:23. The other possibility is that the group of disciples in question were not members of the Twelve. Less likely, perhaps, but still possible and something to be noted and considered, even if it’s ultimately dismissed. This is how the historical process has to work. Otherwise, there are Ernest Hemingway called “holes in your story”. You have to know what you leave out; otherwise, there’s a hole. Later in the chapter, we are told of the person expelling demons in Jesus’ name. John said they stopped him, but Jesus said to let him because ‘who is not against us, is for us’.

Here is a very radical thought. I have never read this anywhere, so all the blame should fall on me if this turns out to be a ludicrous proposition. We noted how certain themes have only started to crop up here in Chapter 9. This led to me speculating that maybe Mark’s original narrative was added to later, by well-meaning Christians (as they probably were by then) who wished to make Mark sound more like Matthew. What if the original version of “Mark” (or what became “Mark”) originally ended with the Transfiguration? Start with the baptism, end with the Transfiguration; two similar episodes, the beginning and the apotheosis of Jesus. I would include some of the stuff in late Chapter 8 as later additions, especially the part with Jesus predicting his suffering and death. Just think about that? It’s a very compact, tidy narrative of Jesus the wonder-worker. Because, not only do themes start to appear, other themes start to disappear in Chapter 9. The healings and the exorcisms have played a prominent role so far, as has the wilderness theme. They all more-or-less disappear from the rest of the narrative. It’s almost like there are two separate narratives woven together. Or, perhaps the account (written or not) that came down to Mark ended with the Transfiguration; he was the one who then started to add some of the ideas that were more fully developed in Matthew.

As I said, speculation. However, now that the idea has occurred to me, I will keep an eye on it from here on out. If I were composing an essay on the topic, I would note the idea and see what the text told me; then I would decide if the idea has merit. So, I will do this, but with you as an audience. Perhaps this will elucidate the historical process a little more clearly.


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 18, 2013, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed your post! I’d like to interact with your question briefly–whether Mark originally ended with the transfiguration. If that were so, wouldn’t it be rather strange for Mark to not include Jesus’ death? Presumably Mark was written after his death. How could an account of Jesus leave out that part, especially after such a high-point such as the transfiguration?

  2. Ben, that’s an excellent question. Let me try to clarify.

    Part of the problem is that maybe I should have said it was Mark’s source that ended in the Transfiguration. Yes, Mark wrote after Jesus’ death. He likely wrote after Paul’s death. As such, he would have been aware that Jesus had died, and was likely aware of how Jesus died. But that story may not have been part of what an earlier source recorded.

    It’s important to keep in mind that I am coming at this from an historical point of view. I am not dealing with issues of faith; my concern is how we got from Jesus’ teaching to the full-blown Christianity of the time of Constantine and Augustine.

    Because from the historical perspective, Christianity did develop, as new layers settled over what previous followers of Jesus had believed. For example, the earliest versions of Mark, while they had Jesus’ death, did not have a Resurrection story. Does this imply that Mark did not believe Jesus rose from the dead? Not necessarily, but it may indicate that some followers of Jesus perhaps did not believe this.

    And the idea of the Ascension didn’t become part of the narrative until Luke wrote; Matthew has nothing about it. And Mark is totally silent on Jesus’ birth; because of this, some followers held that he did not become the Christ until the Baptism. This became known as Adoptionism. Then for Matthew and Luke, Jesus was divine from birth; for John, he was the Logos, eternal with the Father.

    So, historically, it appears that who Jesus was seen to be changed over time, and new pieces, or layers, were added to the narrative. The idea of the Trinity really didn’t come into existence until the Third Century. As such. I’m suggesting that Mark’s original story may have ended with the Transfiguration, as a story showing Jesus becoming God. But, really, I suspect that this was one of the narratives that Mark used for his gospel, and that he added onto it to present a more complete story. The source that ended with the Transfiguration would have been an earlier source, and maybe one that was not eager to emphasize Jesus’ death. This was seen as scandalous by many in the ancient world.

    So I hope that helps. My sense is that this will be a them and topic that I return to as I continue along with Mark. My thoughts are still evolving here; I’m not entirely sure where I will end up on this.

    So, stay tuned, and feel free to continue the dialogue.

  3. If the transfiguration is not the final climax of the original story, it must at least be a major turning point in the story – a show-stopper if it was a musical. It confirms what the listener is hoping to find out, is Jesus really the Jewish Messiah? It provides a necessary counterpoint to the other great climax in the fuller story, the Crucifixion, which is in obvious conflict to his Messiah-hood. Messiahs are not nailed to a tree.

    So what does the transfiguration provide to the listener? This leads to your question “why Elijah, and why not Abraham?” and equally important “why Moses?” Elijah was the other great prophet from Galilee, besides Jonah, which fought the prevailing idea that a Messiah would come from Judea. Elijah is the prophet who symbolically has a place at important meals in Jewish households today, and as such represents all of the great prophets. Elijah and Moses did the most to define the worship of Yahweh, while Abraham was an El-worshipper and the father of a larger group of peoples – the circumcised. Elijah was the traditional herald of the next Messiah, and John the Baptist emulated his style, so this reinforces the use of John the Baptist as the herald of the Messiah. This was one, definitive, unambiguous statement that Jesus was at least the status of Moses and Elijah, so no matter what else the listener hears, it must be interpreted to include that “fact”.

  4. I am still intrigued by my suggestion–and I’m pretty sure it’s mine–that this was the climax of at least one version of the Jesus story. Think about it–it’s remarkably similar to the story of the Ascension. Both leave no doubt about the divinity of Jesus. He’s not only on par with, he’s superior to Moses and Elijah. They are on either side of Jesus, ceding to him the place of honor.

    So yes, the point of this is to leave no doubt about who Jesus was. A show stopper (great analogy), but not the finale. This relates, I think, to my idea that Mark was cobbling together a number of different traditions in the attempt to create a unitary narrative. And given the way Matthew and Luke follow Mark, the latter was pretty much successful.

    I was not aware that Elijah was envisioned as being from Galilee. But, this makes more sense than him being from Judah, since Elijah is part of the story of Israel rather than the later story of Judah that attempted to absorb the epics of Israel. But I’m not so sure that the origin in Galilee was the point. From what I’ve read since, it’s become more clear that Elijah was the “greatest” prophet in Jewish tradition. Christians give place of pride to Isaiah, but for Jews, it seems that Elijah was paramount. That is why the passers-by assumed Jesus was invoking Elijah from the cross (?).

    And since a place is left for Elijah at a Seder, the connection with Moses is pretty strong. But I do like you ideas about Abraham being an El worshipper and the father of many nations. Moses, OTOH, was the sole possession of the Jews. It’s just that the Baptist tells those listening not to assume that being children of Abraham will suffice for salvation. But, this is myth; there is no single answer. A lot has to do, I think, with whose founding myth was being cited. There were at least a couple, and they did not tell quite the same story. But that’s the beauty of myth: a good one can accommodate a number of different ideas. But very good points about Abraham. It’s stuff that never would have occurred to me.

    And this is a good point to remind everyone that I am decidedly an amateur about a lot of this. My background is not in biblical studies; it’s in classics. As such, there are lots of different ideas and facts, and a lot of different background information that I simply do not possess. If I miss stuff, please feel free to fill me in. I won’t be offended. I promise!

  5. Starting from your ideas, could it be that these texts started as a book of short stories stitched together? More than chapters, since each could be read independently in a sitting, but cumulatively work together to answer the important questions for listeners over time, and possibly a liturgy: Where did he come from? How do we know he is special? What did he do here? What did he try to tell us? Who did he work with? What were his views on society? What were his views on Judaism? — Could this be a book of crib-notes, to be fleshed out later, and in a particular liturgical order, and did this provide the basis of the synoptic gospels? And was that Q? Or did the synoptic order arise unofficially amongst the scribes?

    Regarding Abraham, when Isaac is NOT sacrificed, this defines that Abraham’s god is different from the Phoenician’s god, or that their common god wanted a different relationship with Abraham.

    I bring up Galilee connections for a few reasons: The idea of Jesus as Galilean seemed to be important, both positively and negatively, but it has been a little while since I studied this topic so I will have to delay a full response to that. Jerusalem’s views of Galileans is part of the reason, and expectations of the Messiah another, and possible iconography connections to Jonah as a fellow Galilean prophet is another.

    Professionals rely on their colleagues’ specialties and experiences, but realize that your “amateur” work has taught me where the ambiguities in the text are, that there are many words for love and Paul seems to have invented one, and ofthe various types of spirit, soul, and other concepts that your classical training brings to the classroom. it is not just your translation, but your discussion of the translation that is so informative.

  6. Yes, there is a sense of a bunch of short stories stitched together, especially in Mark. The one that first made me think of this is the Gerasene/Gadarene demonaic (Ch 5). That feels like a block of text. Another is the death of the Baptist. Then, of course, there is the Passion story. It’s highly likely that all of these existed as stand-alone stories before Mark joined them into a continuous narrative. I hate to keep coming back to the Arthur legend, but that is more or less what happened. Different stories were created in different areas, all revolving around Arthur, but many of them were conceived as stand-alone tales. Parzifal, is a great example, and the story of King Mark, Tristan, and Isolde is another. Eventually, Mallory wove them all together into a unified narrative.

    The only think I’ll say about the Galilee part is that I don’t know if that was actually integral to Jesus’ identity, especially for Mark. I’ve discussed that I think Jesus was actually from Caphernaum, and not Nazareth. I think Matthew, especially, became concerned with tying Jesus to OT texts, and that the Nazareth/Bethlehem connections were more or less invented later. Now, Caphernaum is not part of Judea, so I’m not saying that Jesus wasn’t from Galilee, or somewhere other than Judea; what I’m saying is that I think the Galilean identity is something that accrued, or was added over time. Overall, Mark is very non-specific about where Jesus is from. In Chapters 3 and 6, he never mentions the name of the town where Jesus’ family lived, or where he went when he could do no miracles This tells me that this particular facet of the story had not been finalized when Mark wrote. I think this is one of the things that Matthew very pointedly sets out to correct by creating a genealogy and fixing Jesus to a specific home town: he will be called a Nazarene…

    Excellent point about the non-sacrifice of Isaac. That had never occurred to me. It absolutely feels like an aitiological myth to explain why the Hebrews didn’t sacrifice their children like the other Canaanites did. I suspect the real reason is that they became herders, and there is a generalized connection between herders and clan-groups that prized boy-children as fighters. That’s a very general statement distilled from a number of books.

    Thanks for the kind words. Mark Twain said it best: We’re all ignorant. But on different subjects. We all have our talents and our areas of expertise. My only point is that my area of specialisation is not in biblical studies. But in many ways I think that is a good thing. If we’re looking for the historical Jesus, some historical insight and training can probably help. Like my inference about Jesus’ home town above. That’s not something you will find in textual analysis, I think. But then, I can get annoyed when non-historians start making generalized judgements based on limited knowledge; I would imagine a biblicist could easily get annoyed with me.

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