Assessment of Mark’s Message
Now that we’ve had our discussion of the textual significance of Mark, where he came from, his intentions, his literary contribution to, and pivotal role in the Christian tradition, let’s spend a bit of time assessing what Mark’s message actually was. What does the text tell us about what Jesus’ posthumous followers believed, or were being told to believe?
Even a casual reading of Mark will impress the reader with its tales of miracles, miraculous healings, and exorcisms of demons. And even the casual reader will be aware of the parables, the need for faith, and something called the Kingdom of God. As for a non-casual reading, the same things leap out, but it was difficult for me to find something beyond an episodic series of events that did not necessarily tie together effectively. In particular, I had serious problems discerning what Jesus, or Mark meant by ‘the Kingdom of God’.
Now this is a topic fraught with implications, and one carrying a lot of baggage. As a kid in Catholic school, we were taught that Jesus did not intend a kingdom of this world, that he was always talking about a heavenly, or other-worldly, or after-life kingdom. The idea was that Jesus’ intention and purpose was not to liberate the bodies of the Jews as was the doctrinal standard of the concept, but to liberate all humankind’s souls to the redemption of the heavenly reward to be reaped after death. Great idea, great basis for a morality and a religion, but I found this particularly lacking as an overall theme in the gospel. Nowhere does Jesus sit down and tell his followers, or his disciples, or anyone exactly what the kingdom of God means how it will be realized, and how, exactly, it will ‘come about’.
From my still-limited knowledge of the QHJ, I have the sense that some of them, at least, still have a similar idea about the Kingdom of God. One of the dominant themes (or maybe it’s just because I’ve read more Ehrman than others in the QHJ project) of Jesus’ earthly ministry was his preaching of coming apocalypse. The Kingdom of God would come about after a period of tribulation, that the evildoers would be swept away, and the Kingdom of God would be established. Or something. Now, some of this may be more acutely defined or definitively stated in the other three gospels, but I also find this interpretation to be sorely lacking in evidence, at least in Mark. Yes, there is the ‘apocalypse of Chapter 13, but I don’t think that really describes a future state. In fact, I don’t think apocalyptic thought was really forward-looking at all, except in a very general way. It was more about the current state, the problems encountered–the Babylonian Exile, the rule of the Seleucids, Rome–with a promise that everything will be alright at the end. More than that, I do not think that this “prediction” really dates back to Jesus. Just as Daniel, written under the Seleucids, was set in the time of the Babylonian Empire, this “prediction” was actually describing what had happened during the Jewish War.
Now, there is a school of thought that the healings, and especially the exorcisms, were the signs of the coming of, or arrival of the kingdom. My attitude towards this was initially skeptical, but a little more textual diagramming has shown me that this skepticism may be unwarranted. What I noticed was that, starting in Chapter 1, we get a series of episodes in which Jesus performs some sort of wonder–a healing or an exorcism–and then we have a statement of how the old order of Judaism has been shaken. After the first exorcism, we have Jesus in the synagogue of Caphernaum, where those hearing are amazed at the new teaching. This is followed by another round of healings/exorcisms. Then Chapter 2 follows a similar pattern, in which Jesus tells the parables of the new cloth and the old wineskins, then ends with him proclaiming himself the Lord of the Sabbath. Chapter 3 starts with more healings, and ends with him proclaiming that those who do the will of God are his mother and brothers and sisters, rather than his earthly family. Chapter 4 has the parables of the kingdom, the sower and the mustard seed, and ends with Jesus calming the storm. This pattern is not ironclad, but similar sequences occur, at least till Chapter 11 when Jeus enters Jerusalem–with much less fanfare than is usually ascribed.
The climax comes in Chapters 9 & 10. In Chapter 9 we got the Transfiguration, and the revelation that Jesus is the Christ. In Chapter 9 we are told that others who don’t follow Jesus can expel demons in Jesus’ name. Then at the end we get the first mention of The Life; which is not explained. We are told it’s better to enter The Life one-handed or one-eyed than to be cast into the fire. We are also told the first time that the first shall be last, and that we must receive children. Chapter 10 begins with Jesus again altering the Law by not allowing divorce. Then we are told that, not only must receive children, we must be like them to enter the Kingdom of God. Then we encounter the rich young man who wants to know how he can inherit Eternal Life. This is another brand-new concept, like the ideas of The Life and Gehenna seen in Chapter 9. The young man is told how he must sell everything, and that the rich will have trouble entering the Kingdom of God; this is also brand-new. Then Jesus reinforces the idea that the first must be last, the greatest must be the servant of all. Finally, the chapter closes with healing a blind man. This is the last healing that occurs in the gospel.
The upshot is that, until we reach Chapters 9 & 10, we don’t have a particularly clear idea of what the Kingdom of God will be like, other than that it will not be like current circumstances in some ways. Before this, the idea of the Kingdom of God is hazy, at best. There were early hints that sinners would be welcomed, For example, there is the point in Chapter 2 when Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors, and he says that it’s the sick who need a physician, but the Lost Sheep doesn’t come about until Luke. The whole idea of sinners and repentance is very minimal; that of faith is very important. But faith in what? We are to have faith, apparently faith that Jesus would be able to help you. In order to be healed, or exorcised, one had to believe Jesus could do it. But there is no real, explicit connection between faith and the kingdom, as far as I can tell. Perhaps the implication is that faith will help bring about the kingdom, but that’s what it is: an implication. And note one thing: the young man is not told to have faith, so the connection remains implicit.
Then, in Chapter 10, we come across the goal/reward of eternal life. This is what the rich young man wants. Later, we are told that it will be very difficult for the rich (like the young man) to enter the kingdom. If A=B. and B=C. then A=C. Since the young man wants eternal life, and since it will be difficult for him to enter the Kingdom of God, presumably Eternal Life (A) is the same thing as the Kingdom of God (C. B=the desire of the rich for A and C. Or something like that. It’s an analogy, not a syllogism, much as I might wish otherwise.) Is this the crux of Jesus’ message about the kingdom? Has Mark been building towards this climax? Has he been teasing us with hints of the kingdom, but holding off with the explanation until Chapters 9 & 10? Was this all a literary coup?
I think so, at least to some extent. But what I really see (because this is my thesis and I’m blind to everything else?) are the collected tales of a wonder-worker, who may have had a message about the Kingdom of God. Maybe the kingdom was to be a sort of a universal siblinghood (perhaps to coin a phrase). In this kingdom, the sinners and tax collectors would be welcomed, and the rich would have trouble getting in. This sounds like it could be revolutionary utopianism; or it could be the message, as Burton Mack suggests, of a Cynic Sage like Diogenes, a sort of an early hippie movement.
But what I really think is that Chapter 10 represents the final weld between what those who followed Jesus the Wonder-Worker believed, and what those who followed Jesus the Christ believed. The Wonder-Worker taught a sort of common humanity, while the followers of the Christ taught eternal life. In Chapter 10, Mark makes the final weld that equates the two. There is a certain amount of sleight-of-hand involved, but the result is there as we switch from one to the other, and make them interchangeable terms.
As an aside, and as pure speculation, I’m going to toss out that the followers of the Wonder-Worker may have represented those followers of Jesus who came from John the Baptist. Maybe Jesus superseded John by taking over the message of repentance, and gaining additional attention for his message as a Wonder-Worker. Miracles are great PR, and the early Church knew that very, very well.
I was going to discuss more about how this all came about, the necessary historical developments, what happened between Jesus and Paul, between Paul and Mark, and between Jesus and Mark, but I think that is better served for a later point, after reading Matthew. The changes that Matthew makes will illuminate the process of development more effectively. I need to address Jesus as the Messiah, what that meant, how that came about, but the compare and contrast with Paul and with Matthew should help. I will also address Aslan’s ideas, to some extent. I’m not terribly impressed by his book, but he does say some worthwhile things. One thing that really grated on me was the complete, utter, and total lack of footnotes. Yikes! I would have failed any essay I submitted that did not have footnotes. Ten a page was a bare minimum.
In the end, the message of Mark is one of eternal life. Some of the surrounding details are hazy, or haven’t been nailed down, but that;s what the base message is. In this way Mark pointed the way for the evangelists and epistle writers who followed him. They would then elaborate on the fusion Mark created, which thereby set up the parameters for the Jesus as we think of him today.
Posted on October 29, 2013, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged Bible, Bible commentary, Bible scholarship, biblical scholarship, commenting, gospel commentary, Historical Jesus, mark's gospel, New Testament, religion, theology, Translate Greek NT. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.