Summary, Mark in toto, Part 1

We’ve read the entire gospel, including the epilogue that contains a Resurrection story that was not part of the original, and apparently written by someone familiar with Luke’s version of the Resurrection story. Or, Luke and the author of Mark 16 had access to the same source. I should have thought of that earlier. It pays to remember that there is almost always another possible explanation to the one that may seem obvious.

As the gospel gets started with Jesus beginning to preach after the arrest of John the Dunker, what we get is a series of stories of, well, Jesus preaching. Jesus travels about Galilee and environs, crossing and re-crossing the Sea of Galilee, even venturing into the territory of Tyre and Sidon. On these wanderings, he heals all who are brought to him, exorcises hordes of demons, and preaches the good news by telling parables about the coming new order. All who hear him are amazed, and he is enormously popular, having to skulk about in the wilderness because he’s unable to enter towns due to the crowds he draws. One consistent message is that the healings and the exorcisms he performs are done by virtue of the faith of the person requesting. When Jesus returns to his (unnamed) home town, he can do little because they don’t have faith in him, largely because they knew him when. In contrast, the bleeding woman’s faith is so great that she is healed despite the fact that Jesus was completely unaware (not exactly omniscience) of what was happening until he felt the power going out of him. During this stretch of narrative, which seems to run through Chapter 7 and into Chapter 8, there is a level of uncertainty about who Jesus actually is. A demon tells us that he is “the holy one of God”, but that doesn’t really tell us much.

In the commentary, I made observations about the ambivalence of Mark regarding Jesus’ divinity at several points in the narrative. As the gospel moved on, however, it seemed that this ambivalence dissipated, and all doubt about Jesus’ divine status was removed when we reached the Transfiguration story in Chapter 9. There, Jesus was all-but assumed into Heaven as Moses and Elijah appeared with him in a blaze of dazzling light. Then, in Chapter 11, when Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem that is commemorated on Palm Sunday, the pervading sense seemed to be that Jesus was the heir of David, the Messiah, the Christ. Reading all of this piecemeal, section by section, some of the flow and context was lost; reading it start to finish, I had the distinct impression we were reading about two separate and distinct representations of Jesus. This led to the question of whether this distinction was present in the text, or whether it was something that occurred to me based on a flawed reading of the text.

So I did some crude textual analysis.

One of the techniques of textual analysis is to count up the number of times a given word crops up in a particular work. Counts like this are then used to spot thematic trends or changes in authorship; for example, odd words occurring once may be a clue that the word in question is a gloss that became incorporated into the text. This is especially true for a word that has evolved in meaning. Of course James Strong has done that for both the Hebrew Scriptures (f.k.a. “the Old Testament”) and the New Testament. Strong’s Words is an invaluable tool both for analysis, and sometimes for helping to figure out what a particular word might mean in a given context. I have cited such analyses a number of times; it was particular helpful when reading 1 Thessalonians and Galatians. Mark’s vocabulary, in contrast, is less controversial, or perhaps less tortured. (Bear in mind that this is coming from a Classics person; such persons often have a snobbish disdain of NT Greek. That the disdain is rarely—if ever—justifiable is beside the point.)

I took a slightly different approach. Jeffrey Burton Russell, in his magnificent series of books on The Devil, Satan, Lucifer, and Mephistopheles introduced me to the idea of the historical concept. It’s more than just the use of a given word; it’s also all the various ways that a word can be expressed. Take, for example, “the Christ”. Counting up the times this word occurs is helpful, but I believe it’s incomplete. Recall that in 1:24, the unclean spirit that Jesus has expelled informs us that Jesus is ‘the holy one of God’. I think we are fully justified in taking this as a synonym, or a proxy for “the Christ”. Yet, if we only counted instances of the exact word, we’d miss this example in 1:24, and our count—and so our analysis—would be incomplete.

In doing this conceptual analysis, I noticed something that I found striking. The concepts that occur in Chapters 1-7, roughly the first half of the work, are different from the concepts that occur in Chapters 8-15. More, the difference between 1-7 is more pointed than what occurs in 11-15. A number of concepts that show up in the first half sort of drift off in Chapters 8-10, and a lot of the concepts of 11-15 are first seen in this middle section of 8-10. Even further, there is a qualitative, or typological distinction between the types of concepts that occur in 1-7 vs. those that occur in 8-15.

In the first half, we encounter almost all of the healing stories (12 of 14); most of the exorcisms of demons (9 of 13); the comparisons to the current practice of religion (14/19); miracle stories, when the laws of nature are suspended, such as when Jesus calmed the storm (5/7); 14 of the 15 parables Jesus told; two-thirds of the references to a ‘new order’ or a ‘new teaching’ of some sort (4/6); all of the references to sinners, sinning, and repenting (8/8); references to the wilderness (7/8); and most of the references to ‘good news’ or preaching (15/19). In addition, use of the word ‘saved’ in these chapters always refers to mortal life and never everlasting life; and all references to someone being raised from the dead refer to Jesus raising someone else—such as the daughter of Jairus—rather than Jesus referring to his own coming resurrection. Finally, we get 8 of the 13 references to persons being healed by their faith; in the case of the bleeding woman, whether Jesus willed it or not. Three more occur in the ‘transitional’ section of Chapters 8-10.

In short, these are the stories that would have been told about the wonder-worker that was (probably) mentioned by Josephus. I believe the part about the ‘Wonder-Worker is genuine; most of the rest was most likely added by later Christians. Had the whole passage been invented by later Christians, I doubt they would have referred to Jesus as a “Wonder-Worker”, which had undertones of “charlatan” even back then. The modern American colloquialism would probably be something like “snake-oil salesman”.

In contrast, starting with Chapter 8, the concepts we get are different. While the concept of the Christ occurs only three times in 1-7 (and the occurrence in 1:1 is quite likely a later addition), the concept occurs 8 times in the last half; most of the references to the kingdom (10/14) occur in the second half, and three of the four that occur in the first half are contained in the parables of Chapter 4. In 8-15, ‘saved’ now comes to mean eternal, rather than physical life. When the topic of rising/being raised from the dead crops up, it is Jesus talking about his own resurrection rather than the resurrection of another. In Chapters 8-11 the theme of the ‘suffering servant’ is introduced, with Jesus referring to himself and his coming suffering at the hands of others. Even the title ‘son of man’ is used primarily in the second half, nine times, vs. just twice in the first half of the gospel. Jesus introduces the theme of humility in Chapter 9; the theme of the elect in Chapter 13; the theme of “the life” occurs six times in Chapters 8-10, and nowhere else. Finally, the idea of Jesus returning in glory is not mentioned until Chapter 8.

In short, the second half of the gospel seems to be more about the Christ than Jesus the man who was a wonder-worker. The implication of this is that the second half is more closely related thematically to Paul than the first half of the gospel. Paul does not talk about miracles, or wisdom sayings, or parables, or Jesus’ family outside of James. Jesus’ mother Mary is never mentioned by Paul, let alone Mary of Magdala. Paul does mention—but not much else—the Twelve. Paul is almost (but not quite) wholly devoid of anything relating to Jesus’ life. The major exception is in 1 Corinthians, when Paul discusses what we call The Last Supper.

Paul had lived and written and died before Mark wrote this work. We have Paul’s own words attesting what he believed about Jesus. However, much—about half to be precise—of what Mark wrote is not in—or even implied by—what we find in Paul. Given this, and the bifurcation that we find in Mark’s gospel, I believe we are justified to infer that there were at least two separate traditions that Mark tapped into when he sat down to write. Based on what is in the text, it would seem that the traditions can be roughly broken into two types: Jesus the Wonder-Worker, and Jesus the Christ.

(By ‘tradition’ I refer to an account of Jesus which may have included stories about his life, his teachings, or any other aspect of Jesus. This may consist of a set of stories, or a narrative, or a set of sayings like the hypothetical “Q”. These stories/narratives/sayings may have been written, or, which may be more likely, related orally, perhaps as part of being inducted into the mystery of the Jesus followers.)

As a result, I believe that Mark’s great contribution to Christianity was that he attempted to weld these two separate traditions into a single narrative that encompassed both interpretations of Jesus’ life and death, and the implications of both. He was largely successful in this attempt. I say ‘largely’ because there are definite ‘seams’ in the work, where it’s pretty apparent that different—and even contradictory—views are woven together with varying levels of success.

(to be continued….)


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 October 24, 2013, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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