Mark: Outlines and Commentary
By Derek Leman
© 2017 Derek Leman
Table of Contents
The beginning, gospel, Messiah.
The first verse of Mark could be taken as an introduction to the whole book or only as introducing the first scene of the book in vss. 1-8. If we consider vs. 1 to be an introduction to the entire book, we would expect that the book would be about the themes of gospel and Yeshua’s identity as Messiah. This is, in fact what we find. The entire gospel of Mark is made up of short scenes and every scene in this gospel is about Yeshua’s identity (Messiah, Son of God) and message (kingdom). What Mark does in this book is to show, not tell — by relating scene after scene (we will learn later what these kinds of scenes were called in Greek biography and history writing) — that Yeshua is Messiah and that this is all good news or gospel fit for changing a person’s life and bringing a person into union with God. Mark’s show-don’t-tell method is consistent with similar ancient biographies and histories, as we will see as the commentary unfolds. The first word in Mark is beginning. This reminds us of Genesis 1, but Mark does not mean here the beginning of the world or of the Messiah, but of the gospel. God is doing something new, just as the second part of Isaiah (Isa 42:9; 43:19; 48:6) declares, the divine turning point of redemption is a new beginning (and Mark 1:1-8 has an Isaianic theme). Gospel (“good news”) is a word (from Isaiah 52:7) with Hebrew origins (besorah) which has come to be used specifically for something about Yeshua in the first century Yeshua community. The English word “gospel” translates the Greek euangelion which in turn translates the Hebrew besorah. What is gospel/good news? The simple meaning is a message delivered by a runner (messenger) in ancient times which means something good (such as “the attackers have been defeated”). Such a message could make the difference between life and death, suffering and freedom. The divine gospel is seen in Isaiah 52:7 concerning the or good news in the last days that the rule of God has begun and Jerusalem is saved. The early Yeshua community called the teaching of stories about Yeshua’s life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection the gospel (besorah, euangelion). They believed that learning these stories together connected people with the meaning of history, of God’s plan for the last days, and how God’s people should live and worship and serve each other. The gospel of Yeshua, says Mark, is about the one who is Messiah. Although nearly all modern Bibles have after “Jesus Christ” also the words “the Son of God,” this last phrase is missing in a few key manuscripts such as Sinaiticus. It is very difficult to explain how scribes could have omitted “the Son of God” but very easy to see how they could have added it. Therefore, it is most likely that “the Son of God” is not part of Mark’s original text. The rest of Mark’s gospel, however, will repeated show that the one who is “Christ” (Messiah) is the Son of God. In fact, the main point of Mark is to reveal that Yeshua is much more exalted than he appears to be and that all traditional ideas of “Messiah” fall short of fully describing him.
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John the Baptizer appears as the voice preparing Israel in the desert (2-4), Judeans and Jerusalemites come to John for immersion (5), John’s appearance (6), John’s proclamation of the One to come (7-8).
Mark presents John the Baptizer as the forerunner of Yeshua. Historically the connection between John and Yeshua may not have been so obvious. John was well-known as the attestation in Josephus’ Antiquities 18.5.2 shows. But was his role in heralding Yeshua well-known? In other mentions of John in the gospels, it is possible to see John’s group of followers as a separate movement from Yeshua’s.
John’s teaching could have been understood by some, insiders most likely, to point to Yeshua, and by others as a general call to repentance and preparation for the coming judgment. The fame of John, then, seems to have meant something else to those outside of the Yeshua movement. Mark introduces a scriptural citation as coming from Isaiah which actually is two or three verses combined: Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. The Exodus 23 context has little to do with John’s meaning. The Malachi context is of a prophetic messenger who comes to prepare the people for judgment. This fits perfectly with John’s role. The Isaiah context is about the end of the exile, but its featuring of the desert makes it an apt text to describe the desert prophet (it is a text that was also used by the people of Qumran who saw themselves as the righteous in the desert preparing Israel’s way out of exile). John is the desert prophet preparing the people for a soon coming time of judgment and for a deliverance from exile. John’s baptism or immersion ritual has drawn much interest. The residents of Qumran highly emphasized immersions as well. How much is John like the desert Essenes? John’s baptism does not appear to be repeatable. It is not like the washings in mikvehs common to Jewish practice, which are self-administered. Further, the idea of an immersion as an act of repentance is an innovation, not something taught in Leviticus. John’s baptism is something new. The sources for John’s understanding of immersion may have included direct divine revelation, Ezekiel 36, and the sprinkling of water that cleanses Israel and gives a new heart, the immersion of Naaman into the Jordan in the days of Elisha, and the story of Israel entering the land by walking through the Jordan. John’s baptism is a new start. It is a movement of repentance and renewal of the people, who come from all over Judea to this popular prophet. John is described in terms like Elijah, who was called a hairy man and who wore a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8). John wears a hair garment and a belt. John’s diet is grasshoppers and wild honey. This may suggest asceticism or extreme purity, since grasshoppers would only be handled by the one catching them and wild honey would not be subject to the tithe (Collins). How does this scene fit with Mark’s stated theme to show the gospel of the Son of God? It is in John’s teaching that Mark finds the connection. John speaks of the one who comes after him who is greater, so much greater that John is as nothing in comparison. He says that the baptism of the one who comes after is in the Holy Spirit. Mark does not include the mention of baptism of fire but focuses on the Spirit. Ezekiel 36 is almost certainly in mind. In Ezekiel a cleansing with water preceded the giving of a new spirit, God’s own Spirit. There is no doubt that Mark would have us think of Yeshua as the one who comes after John, who is greater than John, and who takes us from repentance to the greater work of being endued with God’s Spirit in complete renewal.
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Yeshua is baptized (9), the Spirit as a dove descends (10), the voice from heaven calls Yeshua Son (11).
C. Myers (Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 1988) calls the baptism event one of three “pillar stories” around which Mark organizes his gospel. The other two are the transfiguration (9:2-8) and crucifixion (15:33-41). At the baptism the heavens split and a dove descends. At the transfiguration Yeshua’s garment turns white and a cloud descends. At the crucifixion the veil is rent and darkness spreads. The voice from heaven calls out about Yeshua’s sonship at the baptism and transfiguration, but at the crucifixion there is only Yeshua’s anguished shout. The voice from heaven calls Yeshua Son in the first two, but a centurion affirms that he is the Son at the crucifixion. All three incidents mention Elijah as well. There is much discussion about whether Yeshua’s baptism is a legend or an event that truly happened. Of course, knowing what happened in history is notoriously difficult and the idea of proving that an account is historical is a misnomer. All that can be done for any story of history or to suggest evidence and possibility. It is important to realize that, while the baptism of Yeshua story lacks a strong link to eyewitnesses (John was dead before even the early stages of oral tradition about Yeshua), it is a potentially embarrassing story for the Yeshua movement. The idea that the hero of the Yeshua movement came for a baptism of repentance administered by a lesser prophet could lower people’s image of Yeshua. Mark does not address this potential embarrassment, though Matthew and Luke do. The heavens rending, like a cloth or parchment, is a repeated theme from apocalyptic writings such as the Testament of Levi 2:6, “and behold, the heavens were opened” (Witherington). The story of Yeshua’s life is both earthly and heavenly. He is a figure between two worlds, as it were. The idea that the Holy Spirit is a dove perhaps comes from Genesis 1:2, where the Spirit was hovering over the waters (Collins). The Spirit came onto people in the Hebrew Bible to endue them with powers including strength, prophecy, and so on. Collins argues that the clearest text suggested here is Isaiah 61:1-2, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Just as the figure in Isaiah 61 is called to proclaim good news and liberty, Yeshua is about to go out proclaiming the gospel or good news and to set people free from illness and the demonic. Collins also argues that the descent of the Spirit as dove would reveal the importance of Yeshua to a Greco-Roman audience. The gods in Greek myth would descend at times as birds. The idea of a man on whom divinity descended would be an image familiar to pagans. A simple, not yet adequate, understanding of Yeshua for a Roman would be as a divine man. Of course, it would be necessary for such an image to be filled out in the process of discipleship with a deeper understanding of monotheism and the meaning of God in a Jewish context. The voice from heaven combines two scriptures in affirming Yeshua’s identity and mission: Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Yeshua is God’s Son, a term also used of the Davidic kings. This is not yet a term which can be tied down to views of Yeshua’s divinity, but rather his messiahship is in view. Yeshua is also the Servant of Isaiah 42, with whom God is pleased. The one word that does not come directly from these two verses is “beloved” (agapeitos). Its origin is mysterious. Matthew 12:18 inserts the same word into its citation of Isaiah 42:1. Whatever the origin of the term and the evangelists’ reasons for associating it with this saying from heaven, the adjective further describes Yeshua’s relation to God: Davidic Son, Beloved One, Servant of the Lord. Mark yet again fulfills his purpose, from the first verse of the gospel, to show Yeshua as Messiah. Now, in the scenes to come, he will show how Yeshua fills these roles. And the working out of Yeshua’s identity is not necessarily what people would have expected.
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The Spirit drives Yeshua into the desert (12), Yeshua is tempted and with the beasts and angels (13).
Modern readers know the temptation story, the longer version from Matthew and Luke. It is easy to forget that Mark’s version was the first to be written down. To understand what Mark is doing with this telling of the story, we need to lay aside any knowledge we have of stones and bread or temptations to rule the world’s kingdoms. We can consider those things when studying Matthew and Luke, but Mark’s telling deserves to be studied on its own right. What does this telling say about Yeshua? About us as his disciples? First, Yeshua is driven or compelled to go into the wilderness or desert. The picture is Yeshua leaving the oasis of the Jordan River and going into the hard-baked hills shimmering with heat, a place of hardship, where life is difficult. Why is Yeshua driven or compelled? This recalls the way the Spirit propelled Elijah and Ezekiel. In 1 Kings 18:12, Obadiah did not want to bring Elijah’s message to Ahab because he knew that Elijah could be propelled by the Spirit, transported to different places, exposing Obadiah to the king’s wrath. When Elijah had ascended into heaven, the prophets went looking for him. They thought possibly he had been transported in the Spirit to some mountain or other (2 Kgs 2:16). Ezekiel is constantly being transported by the Spirit, such as in 3:12 and 14. Likewise, Yeshua was propelled. We cannot say whether this was a compulsion for him to walk there or if he was transported miraculously. The forty days compares with several images in Israel’s past: Moses on the mountain forty days, Israel in the wilderness forty years, and Elijah forty days and nights in the desert fed by angels (1 Kgs 19:8). Yeshua is with the beasts, such as scorpions and adders, a symbol in apocalyptic writings of demonic danger (see Test. of Issachar 7:7, Test. of Naphtali 8:4, Witherington). As Israel was tested forty years in the desert, so is Yeshua. And Psalm 91 is also in view, that the angels would take charge over him and guard his ways in these perils. What is Mark saying about Yeshua in this very short description of the temptation, the first account written down? Yeshua is like the prophets. Yeshua is like Israel. Yeshua is in an apocalyptic battle with Satan and has won. Yeshua is waited on by angels, the champion of God’s armies in the battle between God and the forces of evil. This is consistent with Mark’s purpose to show us that Yeshua is Messiah. We will need to remember this later when Yeshua talks about binding the strong man and when we see Yeshua in encounters with demons. Mark shows us the inner layer, the deeper meaning of the life of the Galilean teacher. He is more than he appears. This flash insight at the beginning will be needed in the more ambiguous narratives that follow. Let the reader not forget.
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Yeshua comes into Galilee proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom.
One of the questions of history about this part of the Yeshua story is to what degree Yeshua was a disciple of John the Baptist. Do we read Yeshua simply as forming an independent movement or were they at the beginning a continuation and overlap with John’s? Mark keeps the two rather separate, “after John . . . Yeshua came into Galilee.” This does not reflect the totality of the situation. The fourth gospel will show much more the overlap. Mark keeps his presentation simple. There was the period of John and then the period of Yeshua began. This is a valid way of looking at the history even if there was actually more overlap. Events in actuality can always be viewed from multiple perspectives, so that we are not surprised Yeshua’s movement is different that John’s and, at the same time, an outgrowth of it. Yeshua’s message, simply, is that the expected outpouring of divine wonders is close to happening. The final age is close to dawning. The status quo will end and the next phase of God’s work will shortly be seen on earth. The time is fulfilled definitely refers hearers to the sayings of the prophets. Prophetic things are about to happen. No doubt some in Israel thought things would stay the same for an indefinite future. Yet there were strong currents of expectations. Fervent groups like the Essenes wrote of soon-coming apocalyptic events. Common Israelites may also have had at least hopes for something like this to happen soon. The revolt against Rome, which started less that forty years later, was apparently backed up with prophetic hopes. Take for example this passage in Josephus, “But their chief inducement to go to war was a equivocal oracle also found in their sacred writings, announcing that at that time a man from their country would become the ruler of the world” (Jewish War 6.312-313). Kingdom of God is a phrase that can refer to an age (the age to come), a place (Israel renewed in the age to come), and most importantly to divine activity (the rule of God seen through his power on earth). There is no need to limit the term to a time, place, or activity of God. It means all of them in different contexts. Some have argued that the word translated “near” actually means “has arrived.” Yet in numerous Hebrew contexts, the verb for drawing near means near in time and space, not “already arrived.” What does Yeshua look to as the sign that the kingdom has actually come? This is a debatable point, but he most likely refers to his healing miracles which will soon be demonstrated, his transfiguration which will foreshadow the glory of the age to come, and his resurrection which will bring the age to come in part. Yeshua’s prophetic message is as true today as when he spoke it 2,000 years ago. Even in our time we may say the kingdom of God has dawned, but it has not fully arrived. It is near but not now. It is partially realized, but not yet fully here. And the message is repent, to change our lives as if the kingdom’s arrival means everything.
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Yeshua calls Simon and Andrew (16-18), Yeshua calls John and James (19-20).
Here is a perfect example in which we can see how the way a writer tells a story can bring more than one meaning to the same events. Mark and John have very different versions of the calling of the initial disciples. It is not that the two ways of telling the story cannot be harmonized (they can, in basic outline). It is, rather, that the same events can be told with variation in what is included and what is emphasized. John’s account has some of the disciples previously in the circle of John the Baptist and shows that they knew Yeshua was the Coming One through the Baptist’s proclamation. Mark’s account makes it sound as if the disciples meet Yeshua for the first time when he approaches them at the Lake of Galilee. The difference in emphasis in the two accounts is obvious. In John’s gospel, the disciples know who Yeshua is from the outset because they have heard from John the Baptist. In Mark’s gospel, the supernatural authority of Yeshua is emphasized, so that a group of fishermen leave everything suddenly to follow. If we harmonize these accounts, not without some problems of detail that I will omit here, we might say that these fishermen at the lake already know who Yeshua is. They have returned to Galilee and taken up their trades again. But when Yeshua calls them, they are ready to drop everything a second time and follow. In Mark’s version, the disciples are like Elisha, who left his plowing to follow Elijah (1 Kgs 19:19-21). Collins suggests that the idea of a philosopher calling disciples to leave everything, such as Diogenes or Xenophon, was known in the Greco-Roman world. This sudden calling story would have made sense to both Jewish and gentile hearers. Yeshua’s call is so potent, committed people lay aside everything, at least for a time. No doubt this is a model for later disciples to realize that nothing is worth clinging to if it interferes with following Yeshua. We must be willing to un-attach ourselves from kinships and vocations to follow the call. And Yeshua is calling these fishermen to do something, to be part of something. He describes it as being fishers of men. There are two primary ideas that could be in view. One is judgment. In Jeremiah 16:16-18, fishermen are called to help God find all the reprobates in Judah so they might be judged (Collins). It could be that Yeshua is calling disciples to proclaim the kingdom that will be rejected in order to seal Judah and Jerusalem’s judgment. But the other meaning is more persuasive. Yeshua will heal and demonstrate the kingdom in the narratives that immediately follow. And he will send disciples out to heal and proclaim the hope of the kingdom. Thus, the disciples are to catch people by giving them a vision to believe in Yeshua and the soon coming kingdom of God. Yeshua is starting a movement. It will be a renewal movement, calling Israelites to repent and believe.
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Yeshua’s astounding teaching in the Capernaum synagogue (21-22), Yeshua commands an unclean spirit to leave (23-26), the people are astounded at his authority (27), Yeshua’s fame spreads in Galilee (28).
Mark does not inform his readers why Capernaum is important and why it became the base of Yeshua’s operations. Capernaum was a village of decent size and important industry on the north shore of the Lake of Galilee. A number of sources indicate that Capernaum had a Roman custom post. This was most likely due to the nature of the fishing industry, in which goods were sold and consumed quickly. Taxation would require immediate presence or the commercial value would be lost to the taxing government. Also, though some modern sources express doubt about the existence of synagogues in this period, Josephus and Philo both give evidence for them. Furthermore, a limestone synagogue built in the fifth century CE, one much visited by tourists today, has basalt foundations which quite likely may be an earlier building used for the same purpose. Capernaum was likely a large enough village to find a separate building, and not merely a house, useful for Sabbath readings and prayers. Yeshua taught in the synagogue. We’ve no idea who granted him this authority or what the custom of the time was to allow various people speaking rights in the Sabbath meetings. Though Mark does not inform us, Yeshua’s sojourn in Capernaum is as house guest with Andrew and Peter and perhaps with the Zebedees as well. The synagogue crowd was “astounded” (vs. 22) and “amazed” (vs. 27). In the first instance, the astonishment is with the manner of Yeshua’s speaking. Readers of the gospels can identify with this amazement, and Yeshua’s words ring loud 2,000 years later as they did in Galilee. Mark explains this differed from the way scribes would teach. We know almost little about scribes in Galilee. It is doubtful this was an organized group. But the literate people, many of whom would have found work through their literacy, especially with the Roman government and perhaps with the Herodian administration, were likely the regular teachers in local synagogues. We should not mistake Galilean scribes for Pharisees or assume that they used the rabbinical style of citing earlier traditions handed down from the fathers, though it is possible. Nonetheless, we can imagine Yeshua telling people what Torah meant in his authoritative manner, describing the truths from the point of view of God’s original intention. Such certainty and clarity astounded the audience. The first encounter of Yeshua and a demonic power occurs here in Capernaum. The demonic encounters will generally follow the same pattern: the spirit responds to Yeshua’s presence as if compelled, the spirit has arcane knowledge of Yeshua’s identity, Yeshua commands, and the spirit must comply. Yeshua does not allow the spirits to testify of his identity, but always commands them to silence. No one before Yeshua ever had spirits react this way and demonic exorcisms in the Bible begin with Yeshua. More will be said about this later. This scene in Mark again fulfills the purpose set out at the beginning. Yeshua’s identity as the Son of God is hinted at in his amazing authority, even over the powers of evil.
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Yeshua and Peter’s mother-in-law (29-31), the sick and possessed in Capernaum come to Yeshua (32-34), Yeshua sets out to proclaim also in the rest of Galilee (35-39).
Yeshua has, in Mark’s telling, come into Galilee proclaiming the kingdom. Then he has taught in the Capernaum synagogue, where his authority has caused a stirring, and has commanded demonic powers. Now, in this scene other aspects of his proclaiming the kingdom are about the become evident. First, like the prophets Elijah and Elisha, Yeshua is received with hospitality by Simon and Andrew. And like Elijah and Elisha, Yeshua does something good for the one providing for his needs, namely Peter’s mother-in-law. This scene in an of itself shows true what Yeshua has said about the kingdom. After a long absence, divine miracles are again in Israel. The rule of God, which is also what Elijah and Elisha had been all about in their time, is stirring again amongst the people of God. So in the next scene the signs of God’s rule escalate. All the sick and possessed in Capernaum come to Peter’s family home, where Yeshua heals and delivers them. This is now beyond anything Elijah or Elisha did. Whatever divine spirit was on them, much more is on Yeshua. Whole cities, and soon to be regions, are healed. The forces of evil are defeated as easily as if they had no power at all. Before Yeshua’s coming, these forces were even hidden. But in the nearness of his presence they come out of the shadows and submit without a chance of resisting. They want to show their knowledge of Yeshua’s identity, but he will not even permit them to speak. And then, the next morning, Yeshua has found solitude. His disciples come to him and find he does not work alone. He prays. The relation of the Son and his Father will be explored more later, but for now we have an inkling that there is more to Yeshua than a simple magician or wonder worker. He is not a solitary power, but a devout Israelite empowered by prayer. And he desires to do in the rest of Galilee what he has done in Capernaum. He desires to proclaim the kingdom. What does he mean by proclaim the kingdom? The story in Mark leaves us with the impression that teaching in the synagogue, healing the ill, and commanding the defeat of forces of evil is what he means. When Yeshua does these things, the kingdom is revealed. What does this tell us about the kingdom? It is a reality in which illness, disability, and evil are powerless. And again, Mark has fulfilled his stated purpose, for the Messiah, a designation which Yeshua will redefine, is revealed in these healings and deliverances. He is greater than Elijah and Elisha. And he has a mission from the God of Israel to whom he speaks.
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Yeshua heals a leper (40-42), Yeshua commands him to appear before the priests (43-44), the leper proclaims the news all over Galilee (45).
In this very short scene, which seems simple, we have raised for us a number of issues: historical, literary, and concerning Yeshua’s stance toward biblical law. Should vs. 41 read that Yeshua was angry or moved with compassion? How does this section complete what began in 1:14-15 with the proclaiming of the kingdom in Galilee? Does Yeshua become impure in this action and if so, does he follow the biblical law regarding purification? Why does Yeshua command the healed leper to go to the priest? Finally, how does this scene show Yeshua as Messiah and Son of God? The issue in vs. 41, about whether Yeshua was moved with compassion or angry, is a dispute about what the oldest version of Mark might have said. A few manuscripts say he was angry, but the most and oldest manuscripts say he was moved with compassion. Historian Maurice Casey solves the possible dilemma with his research into the Aramaic idioms from the Dead Sea Scrolls. He says the confusion is likely due to the word in Aramaic that perhaps passed down in the period of oral tradition. The word in Aramaic is regaz, which has both meanings of trembling with pity or anger (in Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth). This is important because some scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, have made an issue of this passage and Yeshua’s character. The literary thing to notice about this scene is how it completes what was started in 1:14-15. Yeshua came into Galilee proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. The leper, after he is healed, travels all over Galilee spreading the news. The leper is doing what Yeshua did and what Yeshua said his disciples would do with him. The news that one has come who is healing illness and commanding demons is notice that the kingdom has begun to appear. Mark rounds off a section with bookends about proclaiming the kingdom and in between we find stories of healing and exorcism. We should conclude that the healings and exorcisms are demonstrations of the kingdom and learn from that. As for the question of impurity, according to Leviticus, anyone having contact with a leper becomes unclean. Yet Mark does not show Yeshua going to purify himself. Some have concluded (see Witherington, for example, in The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary) that Yeshua regarded all matters of impurity to be done away with now that he was bringing the kingdom. But there are major problems with the view that Yeshua overturned whole sections of the law. First, he never states this, but to the contrary, claims in some places in the gospels that he keeps the law. Second, though not stated in Torah, it is assumed that one who has touched a leper follows the commandment in Leviticus 15:7 for one who touches a person with a discharge. This requires merely an immersion, laundering clothes, and remaining unclean until evening. There is no reason to assume Yeshua would have failed to do these things as commanded. The gospels do not show Yeshua offering sacrifice or obeying many other aspects of the law. This does not mean he refrained from obeying them. Finally, Yeshua sternly charged the leper to obey the law and show himself to the priest for the final cleansing ceremony commanded in Leviticus 15. This is not at all consonant with the theory that Yeshua overturned the law or any part of it. Rather, what we have in this story of Yeshua is once again a man who cures illness and commands evil to depart. Yeshua frees people, like this leper, from suffering and social isolation. Furthermore, we might note, as Witherington observes, that the priests could only declare a healed leper clean, while Yeshua could heal a leper. Mark again is fulfilling his purpose in showing Yeshua to be the Son of God. He can do what even the priests in Jerusalem cannot. And the gospel of the kingdom even gets proclaimed by healed lepers.
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Yeshua returns to Capernaum and a crowd gathers at the household where he is staying (1-2), friends lower a paralytic through the roof (3-4), Yeshua poses a riddle and demonstrates his authority to forgive sins (5-12).
Mark 2:1 – 3:6 is a collection of five conflict stories just as 1:14-45 was a collection of kingdom proclamation and demonstration stories. How were such stories passed down from the time of Yeshua until Mark wrote? How did stories like this come to be grouped together? Adela Yarbro Collins comments that this section is “a collection of historical reminiscences about conflict between Jesus and other Jewish teachers.” Mark’s organizing principle is not chronology, since he gathers stories around themes — with much of ch. 1 being on the theme of proclaiming the kingdom and chs. 2 and 3 being about conflicts with Judean teachers. There was a large body of tradition, stories told and retold about Yeshua, in the early congregations, and Mark’s genius was organizing them into a pattern. Though some have claimed the gospel writers would go so far as to create stories in order to comment on issues of their time — so Mark allegedly invents “synagogue conflict” stories to reflect his own community’s tensions with the synagogue — Collins rejects this notion. Her objection is simple: too little detail is given about the Jewish practices for this to be invented story. The issue is Yeshua’s authority, not some imagined Christian-Jewish conflict. The paralytic story is ultimately about Yeshua’s authority to forgive sins. There are two interpretations that would limit the authority of Yeshua in this story. One is the idea that a prophet might have divine knowledge that a person’s sins are forgiven. While true, this interpretation does not fit Yeshua’s words, “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” The second is the idea that Son of Man here means humanity in general. The meaning would be, people can declare each other’s sins to be forgiven. This interpretation is weak in light of the complicated literary use of Son of Man in Mark, both for the eschatological and powerful figure of authority and, ironically, for the sufferer whose trials are a ransom for others. Yeshua’s saying is sufficiently ambiguous so that the opponents who hear him cannot pin him down and accuse him successfully in court of blasphemy. Yet Mark’s shaping of the story is clearly intended to remove all ambiguity for the reader. Anyone thinking this is merely a prophet with divinely revealed knowledge of a person’s forgiveness is redirected by the way Mark has the opponents react, “No one can forgive sins but God alone!” Clearly Mark would have us see the full scandal of Yeshua’s action and saying. Yeshua’s way of demonstrating his authority is a wisdom tale. Forgiveness of sins is invisible and unprovable. Healing a visible disability is clear-cut. The riddle “which is harder” is a doubly complex one. To the skeptic, the healing is harder because it requires demonstration. To the believer, granting forgiveness is harder, because broken union with God has consequences reaching farther than disability. In this first of five conflict stories, Yeshua visibly demonstrates his authority as the Son of God, though cloaking his identity in the more ambiguous Son of Man. Throughout Mark’s gospel there will be a growing realization that the Son of Man is the Son of God.
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The call of Levi (13-14), dining with tax collectors (15-16), the sick need a physician (17).
Mark divides his scenes with notes about the change in location, as he does in vs. 13. Yeshua is now outside and walking along the sea and still more crowds are coming to him. He comes to a toll collection station and there is one Levi son of Alphaeus. Collins reminds us that Levi was probably of the lowest level of officials in the farming of taxes for Herod Antipas, who passed on revenues to Rome. Since they are beside the lake, possibly still in Capernaum, but not necessarily, this is likely a collection of tolls on the commercial value of fish and similar goods. The name “Levi son of Alphaeus” presents us with a problem, a problem with four aspects: (1) only here is Levi called “son of Alphaeus,” (2) in all of the lists of disciples we find “James the son of Alphaeus,” (3) Matthew does not mention Levi but tells the same story regarding someone named Matthew, and (4) Mark lists a Matthew among the disciples (as do all the disciple lists) but apparently regards him as a different person than Levi. The traditional explanation is that Matthew and Levi are the same person. Yet it is rare, and it seems we know of no other case, for a person to have two Semitic (that is, Jewish) names. Those who have multiple names generally had a Semitic name, a nickname, and possibly also a Greco-Roman name (e.g., Simon (Shimon) is Peter (Petros) and Cephas (Kefa)). The only gospel with a tradition that Matthew was a tax collector is Matthew (it is important to note: overwhelming evidence shows us that the gospel of Matthew was not written by a disciple of Yeshua even though it is known as “Matthew’s gospel” traditionally). If we had only Mark and Luke, we would not have any reason to equate Levi with Matthew. It seems best to think of Levi as a different person than Matthew, not one of the Twelve. As to Mark saying that Levi is the “son of Alphaeus,” the possibility is raised that Levi could be the brother of the other James who is among the Twelve. There are large gaps in our knowledge about the identity of the Twelve and other disciples of Yeshua. We simply cannot be sure when it comes to specifics about a number of the people named in the gospels. Those who were living at the time the gospels were written knew far more than we do today because of the large number of stories that were told in congregations from the testimony of eyewitnesses, only a small number of which made it into writing for later generations. Yeshua’s calling of a tax collector to be a disciple and then dining with tax collectors gives a message. The message, in short, is that the kingdom is to be populated with people who repent and decide to turn to God. Another aspect of the message is that all Israelites are like tax collectors. Those who do not see that they are ill and in need of a physician are the ones who are missing God. People who want God’s rule in their lives must admit the need of the physician to heal and save. Ironically, then, tax collectors can make better candidates than religious authorities. Yeshua is preaching repentance to his generation and he acts in concert with his message by calling sinners and healing them. And Mark again fulfills his stated goal in this scene since Yeshua draws even hopeless sinners like tax collectors to new life, a kind of revival that could only come from a true prophet or from Messiah.
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Controversy over fasting (18-19a), Yeshua’s saying foretells his death (19b-20), two sayings about old and new (21-22).
In order to make a chreia or typical biographical scene out of this material, Mark has had to stretch a bit. Note that this does not sound like the other scenes we have encountered. There is no geographical setting or indication of time. We could guess that criticism from the disciples of the Baptist and from the Pharisees did not come altogether on one occasion, but repeatedly over different occasions. Thus, Mark is combining more than one incident thematically. Likewise, we need not think Yeshua uttered these sayings all at one setting. They represent, most likely, several of his sayings combined by Mark to fit the theme. In other words, Mark took an aspect of Yeshua’s life, the kinds of criticism he faced over the eating and drinking, and combined it all in one chreia, or biographical scene. Interestingly, Mark does not use a saying here that is in Matthew and Luke that would have been fitting: The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “See a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34). Therefore, since we have a scene put together thematically, we can suggest that the sayings may come from different settings in Yeshua’s life. Possibly we should imagine three sets of sayings or we might argue only two. The first saying is that the groomsmen will feast while the bridegroom is with them. The second is that the bridegroom will be taken away and then the disciples will fast. The third is the pair of sayings about old and new. It is an interesting question, one which cannot be answered, whether Yeshua uttered the saying about his death this early in the story. Still, though there is uncertainty, it would fit with the pattern shown in the gospels for Yeshua to say enigmatic things without worrying that people understand him at the time. He knew they would understand later. So, it may just be that on one or more occasions, when he was criticized as an eater and drinker, Yeshua spoke of the bridegroom and of being taken away. Is the bridegroom set of sayings a parable? In later rabbinic midrashim, the bridal chamber will be a frequent theme. It could simply be that weddings had such a cultural value they ended up in stories quite naturally. Or it could be that early parables about bridal chambers were already known and Yeshua makes one of his own. Another question is whether Yeshua’s saying comes from his own time or is made up by Mark to fit the controversies between the later Yeshua community over fasting practices with the synagogue. The statement that the “bridegroom is with them” suggests this is from Yeshua’s time. Even if we theorize that later believers thought this meant only the spirit of Yeshua being present, we’re hard-pressed to explain the “bridegroom will be taken away” saying. Therefore, this scene has the marks of being from Yeshua’s time and not a later invention. What is the meaning of Yeshua’s sayings and how do they fit Mark’s stated purpose? First, we should consider the claim that Yeshua as bridegroom is a declaration of his divinity. This could be the way later readers would take his saying, since God in Isaiah 54 and 62 is Israel’s bridegroom, we need not think Yeshua’s original hearers thought anything of the kind. It simply means Yeshua is the exalted convener of a banquet, the banquet of disciples anticipating the soon coming kingdom. It is a happy occasion and fasting is inappropriate. Second, the idea that the bridegroom would be taken away is a reference to Yeshua’s arrest and death, the very idea that he will have such difficulty explaining even to his disciples. It is an ironic parable in which the bridegroom is taken away, since that is not how weddings usually end. Finally, the two sayings about old and new may have originated in a different context. They are brought up here to contrast the celebratory practice of Yeshua with the rigorous fasting of the Baptist and the Pharisees. No one should read any silly and unhistorical notions of Judaism versus Christianity into these statements. Rather, Yeshua says people must be open to new things God is doing and adjust their traditions accordingly. So Mark achieves his purpose by showing Yeshua as the exalted bridegroom presiding over the wedding banquet of the kingdom and calling for new ways of relating to God.
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Yeshua’s disciples pick and eat grain walking through fields on the Sabbath (23), Pharisees object (24), Yeshua refers to David’s example (25-26), Sabbath for man (27), Lord of the Sabbath (28).
This story raises many questions. Did Yeshua’s disciples actually break the Sabbath? Did they merely break an interpretation of the Sabbath rules according to some Pharisees? Is this ultimately about the Pe’ot or corners of the field issue in Jewish law? Since the example of David is not a perfect match for what happens with the disciples, why does Yeshua use it? What does it mean, in the context of Second Temple Judaism, that the Sabbath is made for humankind? Is the Son of Man in vs. 28 Yeshua or humanity in general? These six verses raise extraordinarily complex issues. I highly commend for further research Ben Witherington’s The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary and, for those who want more depth, Maurice Casey’s Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel. First, Exodus 34:21 forbids working even during harvest time on Shabbat, which may be taken as forbidding reaping on Shabbat. Yet, the disciples are not reaping, but picking only for their immediate needs. What is it that the Pharisees object to? In general, we can say that the Pharisaic-scribal movement, at this time a small movement in Judaism, was enlarging the scope of the commandments by making traditions. Although we have no specific source as evidence, it is very reasonable to assume that this movement wanted to build fences around Sabbath laws, so that even picking for immediate needs was forbidden on the Sabbath. The general meaning of this story is that Yeshua does not agree this is the direction halakhah or rules of observance ought to go. This is terribly important because it gives guidance for the Jewish movement of Yeshua-followers in how to make halakhah and the non-Jewish church can also learn from this principles for practical living. Maurice Casey adds that the disciples also have a legal basis because of the law of the Pe’ot or corners of the field, which Leviticus 19:9 says should be left unreaped for those in hunger. Yeshua uses the story of David in the days of Ahimelech the priest (and Abiathar his son) as a double-edged sword, or even triple. In the first place, the David story shows that human need has been seen to take precedence over holiness regulations. In the second place, the David story is an unanswerable puzzle and the Pharisees will be trapped if they try to answer it. They cannot say, “David and the priest did wrong.” But they also cannot explain how David could violate the prohibition on eating the sacred bread and doing so, most likely on the Sabbath. The sacred bread was replaced on the Sabbath according to the Torah and also early rabbinic sources. In the third place, Yeshua may be implying that he is like David, one who can make authoritative judgments about matters of Torah practice. This story of the grainfield is deep. But the biggest payoffs come in vss. 27 and 28. The Sabbath is made because of and for the benefit of man. Witherington shows that the idea did exist that God made things for the benefit of people and to be enjoyed. 2 Baruch 14:18, for example, says “you said you would make for your world humankind as the manager of your works, to make it clear he was not made for the world, but the world was made for him.” Thus, Yeshua is saying that Sabbath regulations in Judaism must be about rest and not fences which make rest more difficult. Finally, in vs. 28, is Yeshua using Son of Man to mean “humankind” or to refer to himself as the specific Son of Man? One problem in answering this is that we have to decide of Yeshua made this statement or if it is a summary statement made by Mark. It is impossible to be certain. But if it is a saying of Yeshua, then it is a riddle much like others he poses and much like his use of the David story. His words have two meanings. Humanity is lord over the Sabbath, since it is made for humanity and also the ultimate Son of Man, Yeshua, has authority to law down halakhah about the Sabbath just as King David did with the sacred bread. It is probably best to read the whole passage as a riddle. The David story raises unanswerable questions. The Son of Man saying implies that Yeshua is the Son of Man who is Messiah. It was probably even more mysterious to those who heard the exchange in the first place. Who is this Yeshua? How does he overcome his opponents so skillfully? What is the answer to his riddles?
FURTHER NOTE: Adela Yarbro Collins says the saying about the “son of man” and the Sabbath can be understood as having two meanings at once. The first meaning is “if the Sabbath was made for (to benefit) human beings (and not to harm them), then the human being (son of man in the generic sense) is master of the Sabbath. But that is not all the meaning in the verse. She continues:”A clue to the solution lies in the link between the first or ideal human being and the king. The first man was created in the image of God. The ‘image of God’ is associated with having dominion in Genesis 1 . . . the solution to the riddle is that ‘son of man’ is ‘the Son of Man,’ that is, the messiah. Neither Mark 2:10 nor 2:28 alludes explicitly to Daniel 7:13. But the informed member of the audience knows that Jesus is the one like a son of man alluded to in Daniel 7, that he is the messianic Son of Man in an understanding of Daniel 7:13 characteristic of the followers of Jesus. For the informed member of the audience, the allusion to Jesus’ status as the Messiah in 2:27-28 puts the appeal to David in a new light . . . Just as David had authority to override conventional interpretations of the will of God because he was God’s chosen one, so also Jesus has authority to interpret and proclaim the will of God in the last days” (Mark: Hermeneia Series. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).
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Yeshua encounters a man with a withered hand in a synagogue on the Sabbath (1), Yeshua enacts a healing on the Sabbath to make a point (2-3), Yeshua indicts his opponents and is grieved (4-5), the Pharisees go to plot with Herodians.
It is good to keep vs. 5 in mind while reading this story. It would seem, at this point, that Yeshua had hoped for better from his opponents, perhaps that they would see the wisdom of his teaching and approach to God and Torah and kingdom. Or maybe a better read is that Yeshua knows beforehand what the outcome of his enactment will be, but still grieves that his reception by the leadership of Judea must be this way. Curiously, the “they” of vs. 2 is to be understood from the previous scene, the Pharisees watching him in the field, and is not defined until vs. 6 as Pharisees. These Pharisees then go out and conspire with Herodians. Historically, the scene is believable. Some Pharisees have been checking out this wonder worker who is growing in reputation and who has a way of talking about God and God’s rule that draws much attention. The Pharisees have little political power in Judea and none here in Galilee. So what do they do? They go and conspire with Herodians, people connected to Herod Antipas, who is the power in Galilee. This bit of historical knowledge shows that Mark’s sources are based in credible information about politics in Galilee (an important thing to note since the gospels are often doubted when it comes to historical veracity). We should realize too as we read this story that it is a deliberate enactment by Yeshua to make a point. The man did not ask to be healed. His condition could have been healed privately or later. The public healing of a disability which was not painful or life threatening on the Sabbath is an act of Yeshua to declare what he has already said in the previous scene about the meaning of Sabbath. He now backs up his teaching with a miracle. There is an argument, which Yeshua does not use here, but in the Fourth Gospel (John 5:17), that God does not cease his work on the Sabbath and neither should acts of mercy and lovingkindness cease on this holiest of days. Yeshua does not merely suggest that good works are permissible, but even desirable on the Sabbath. As is often the case, there is more to Yeshua’s words than meets the eye. His opponents are incensed at his healing on the Sabbath, yet they are plotting treachery on the holy day. Mark accomplishes again his stated purpose, showing Yeshua as Son of God who thwarts Israel’s teachers and does the work of God like no other on God’s day.
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Great crowds from all directions come to Yeshua in Galilee (7-8), Yeshua retreats to a boat to escape the crush (9-10), Yeshua suppresses the recognition by unclean spirits (11-12).
This section is a transition from the previous two sections focusing on proclaiming the kingdom in chapter 1 and enacting the kingdom with healings and exorcisms in chapter 2. This summary looks both behind and ahead. Mark wishes to show in this section the amazing popularity of Yeshua and the broad impact he was having on the whole region. He leaves Capernaum to get away to the lake, and crowds come to him from all over. The list of places is sort of a north-south-east-west list. Judea, Jerusalem, and Idumea are to the south. Regions beyond the Jordan (Perea and possibly the Decapolis) are to the east. Tyre and Sidon are to the north. In 1:5, people from Judea and Jerusalem were coming to John the Baptist. Yeshua’s crowds come from farther and wider. Yeshua retreats with his disciples from the crowds a number of times in Mark: at 1:35; 3:13; 4:10; 4:34; and 6:1. In each case, solitude is not to be found. The crowds press in. In the next section, 3:7 – 6:6, opposition to Yeshua will increase and also the power of his miracles will increase. The conflict between Yeshua and the establishment and also the revealed power of Yeshua are escalating toward the Passion narratives. We can see in this summary three ironic levels of people: the crowds who do not want to submit to Yeshua but only to see signs and be healed, the disciples who submit to him but do not yet understand who he is, and, ironically, the unclean spirits who understand who Yeshua is but do not wish to submit to him. The only ones who understand Yeshua’s identity are the unclean spirits and very soon Yeshua will be accused of doing his wonders by means of their power (3:22). But in this summary, Mark continues his message and forwards his literary goal of revealing Yeshua. He uses irony to make his point. From the outset Mark said he would show us that Yeshua is the Son of God. At this transition, the demons proclaim Yeshua’s true identity though no one else understands it yet. This principle has been famously used to illustrate the difference between true faith and mere knowledge. Witherington cites Augustine, who said of these unclean spirits, that they erred in declaring truth but without spiritual commitment and personal love for Yeshua. Similarly, the crowds come to receive a gift from Yeshua, but they also do not have spiritual commitment or personal love for him. Neither is what discipleship is all about. It is not enough to have truth or to believe in miracles. True discipleship is union with Yeshua and through him the Father.
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Yeshua ascends the mountain and calls those he wants (13), Yeshua appoints the Twelve (14-15), names and descriptions of the Twelve (16-19).
The theme in this scene is the restoration of Israel’s twelve tribes. It is not merely that the number of Yeshua’s disciples is twelve. It is also evident in some of the later sayings of Yeshua, such as in Matthew 19:28 and Luke 22:30, about the disciples sitting on twelve thrones in the age to come and judging the twelve tribes. Mark does not have that saying, but he does shape this scene to bring the formation of Israel at Mount Sinai to mind. Yeshua ascends “the mountain.” Is it Mount Tabor or some other Galilean hill? We do not know. By leaving it unspecified, Mark brings to mind Mount Sinai and especially the scene in Exodus 19:3-6 in which God says the Israelites are his own possession from among all the peoples of the earth: priests and a holy nation. In comparison, Yeshua chose the Twelve for three things: (1) to be with him, (2) to proclaim the word about the kingdom, and (3) to have authority over evil powers. Collins explains at length the importance of the restoration of the twelve tribes as a theme for Second Temple Judaism. The idea is found in the Temple Scroll and in the Apocryphal book Sirach at 48:10. The list of who is included in the Twelve is almost without variation in all four occurrences: Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 614-16; Acts 1:13. There is only one exception, the only name in the list of the Twelve that changes is Thaddaeus. He is missing in Luke and Acts where we find instead Jude the son of James. If Thaddaeus is postulated as a variant name for Jude the son of James, then our lists can be harmonized. If Thaddaeus and Jude are not the same person, then we have some sort of disagreement between the sources as to who was in or not in the Twelve. What are we to make of the idea of the Twelve historically? In spite of their importance in Yeshua’s descriptions of their role, most of them disappear from the early historical record. We find in the writings of the church fathers a number of stories, many of which seem late and legendary. In Acts, Peter is important, John of Zebedee is mentioned in a handful of stories, James of Zebedee is mentioned when he is executed by Herod Agrippa, but the Twelve do not play any role at all otherwise. The idea that the author of Matthew was famous Matthew of the Twelve is almost certainly wrong for reasons easily demonstrated. The idea that John of Zebedee wrote the Fourth Gospel, the epistles by his name, and Revelation is unlikely when closely investigated. Was the importance of the Twelve primarily during Yeshua’s lifetime? Or did the Twelve go on to do things we know nothing about except for some distorted and embellished stories that carried into tradition? It is vital for us to realize that we know far less than we imagine we do about the earliest believers and their history. Historical humility is in order and the work done by the Twelve after Yeshua rose has largely been forgotten. But we can see what Mark is doing with the story and with the idea of the Twelve. Yeshua is restoring the tribes of Israel, appointing Twelve who will share some of his authority over evil powers and who will join him in proclaiming the message that God’s rule is near. And so, even in the story of Yeshua choosing his disciples, Mark keeps his focus on the goal: to show Yeshua as Son of God and Messiah. What sort of man chooses a highly symbolic inner circle of Twelve and tells them they are empowered from on high? Only the kind of man Mark is telling us Yeshua knew himself to be.
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Returning to Capernaum, the crowds are a problem (20), Mary and the brothers come to restrain Yeshua (21), scribes accuse Yeshua of demonic collaboration (22), Yeshua refutes the charge (23-27), Yeshua warns of blasphemy against the Spirit (28-30).
Mark is the only gospel to record the opinion of Mary and the brothers of Yeshua that Yeshua is “out of his mind.” While Matthew and Luke include the story in the next scene (3:31-35), they omit the explanation found in Mark as to why Yeshua’s family is looking for him. This scene begins with a famous Markan technique of sandwiching one narrative in between another. Vss. 20-21 introduce a story about Yeshua’s family coming to restrain him, but Mark tells another story before resolving the first one. The stories are always related in this sandwich technique. So here we have a structure which could be represented as follows: Story A.1 (family coming to restrain), Story B.1 (opponents accuse of demonic empowerment), Story B.2 (Yeshua refutes demonic empowerment accusation), Story A.2 (Yeshua dismisses his family). Vs. 21 raises a number of issues, which I will address further in the next scene, about Mary and her relationship with Yeshua as well as the brothers of Yeshua. Why do they think he is out of his mind? Is it the large crowds or the healings or all of it together? Collins gives examples from Plato and Philo of highly gifted people being thought crazy by those who know also their ordinary side. It is hard to believe that someone known in a domestic manner can be a famous or extraordinary person, rising above the mundane. Although we can understand this issue generally, it nonetheless raises both a historical problem and a theological one. If we take the witness of all the gospels together, then Mary knew in advance of Yeshua’s role as Messiah and Savior of Israel (Luke 1:26-56). How then can she think her son is out of his mind? How does this scene fit with depictions of Mary as the person of faith? How do we explain her doubt? Further, if Yeshua is who the gospels claim, isn’t it a problem that his own family cannot see his identity? These are questions that should not be easily dismissed. Yeshua’s identity is a challenge even for those closest to him. One solution is to assume that there is no historical basis for Luke 1:26-56 and similar passages. Perhaps Mary thinks Yeshua is an ordinary son and is alarmed by his prophetic-messianic pretensions. Yet this is not the only possible read. I will say more in commenting on the next scene. The rest of the scene raises major issues as well. The scribes must explain how Yeshua can do all these wonders. The unclean spirits have been affirming Yeshua, calling him things like “the Holy One of God.” It is a reasonable (but not insightful or wise) accusation to suggest that Yeshua is in league with Beelzebul (a name for the leader of Evil, perhaps identical with Satan, derived from the name of Baal, cf. Testament of Solomon). If this is true of Yeshua, as Collins shows, then he must be stoned as a sorcerer. Yeshua uses the name Satan (and he does use it as a name, as Collins shows) in answering the Beelzebul charge. The first part of his refutation is simple: I am defeating evil, so why would evil help me do that? His second argument takes it further: Satan is the strongman of the house of evil and to defeat evil, one must first defeat the strongman. So how can I be in league with Satan when, rather, you should see that I am stronger and that Satan is already defeated? Yeshua then explains where his power comes from: the Holy Spirit which dwells in him and empowers him. Yeshua does not say that the power to do all these works resides in his own strength, but credits the Holy Spirit. Yeshua is claiming to be no more than a Spirit-endowed prophet here. He warns that people who do not awaken in their spirits when they encounter directly the power of God are so hardened against belief, they will never obtain forgiveness. One good way to read this is to say: those who experience the divine presence so powerfully as in the time when Yeshua brought it so near, and yet refuse to believe, are beyond hope of believing any other way. By this reading, the much feared “blasphemy against the Spirit” is not something most people need worry about. Also, it is not necessary to press the “for all eternity” part as if Yeshua is absolutely teaching eternal separation in the afterlife. His point could be taken more simply: if people won’t believe faced with the actual Presence, nothing can ever make them believe. This story has major implications for the identity of Yeshua. Mark has said he will show him to be Messiah and Son of God. In this scene, Yeshua is at the very least a prophet endowed as no one ever before by the Spirit. Will that identification be sufficient? Is he also something more? Mark will raise the bar in scenes to come.
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Mary and Yeshua’s brothers arrive (31), the crowd informs Yeshua (32), Yeshua dismisses his family and teaches a deeper meaning to kinship (33-35).
This story illustrates perfectly how Matthew and Luke use Mark as a source and yet feel free to adapt and change what they receive from their sources. Both Matthew and Luke include this story (Matt 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21). Yet neither includes a parallel to Mark 3:20-21, we might guess because they found it too disturbing. In Mark’s account, part of the dynamic of the story is that Yeshua’s family thinks he is out of his mind. Perhaps they think this because of his miracles and the crowds or perhaps because he is speaking defiantly to dangerous leaders who can have him killed. Matthew and Luke use the story somewhat differently. They both emphasize more the positive sense of Yeshua’s saying. Thus, Matthew does not have Yeshua speak of the “crowd” but rather the “disciples” as his family (this is not a discrepancy as many in the crowd were disciples in the broader sense beyond the Twelve). In Mark’s version, we are to understand that there is tension between Yeshua and his family. They wish to prevent him from completing his work by talking him out of either the public spectacles or, at the very least, the defiant words to dangerous leaders. Thus, in Mark, the idea that we have a deeper kinship in the community of faith is in part a message not to let actual kin keep us away from the work of God. Yeshua’s family, including Mary (an important part of our understanding of Mary’s journey through the trials of her son’s life), is among the outsiders, those who are not in Yeshua’s inner circle. They are not among those who do the will of God. How can Mary, if the stories in Luke 1:26-56 really happened, think her son is out of his mind? Is this evidence that Mary had no idea about Yeshua’s exalted identity? Not necessarily. There are multiple possibilities. One is that throughout his childhood Yeshua did not work miracles and after so many years, Mary does not recognize this new power in her son which was hidden. Closely related is the idea that she may have expected a much more conventional savior-ruler identity for her son instead of this upstart who takes on the Israelite leadership and defies common ideas of fidelity to God. Mary must make the same journey of understanding as everyone else, finding out who her son really is. She must become an insider. Much of Yeshua’s teaching in Mark is about those inside and those outside. Yeshua has been calling disciples and naming the Twelve as his innermost circle. In 4:11, he will further describe the dynamic of those on the inside and those on the outside. The spiritual kin of Yeshua are a cohesive group whose bonds exceed family ties. Some scholars call this fictive kinship. It is a social re-ordering, people coming together and finding a new purpose by living out Yeshua’s teaching and thereby doing the will of God. Doing the will of God is choosing to be part of Yeshua’s spiritual family and making new bonds with each other that transcend even normal familial love. People in the outer circle, checking Yeshua out from a distance, will see the attributes of the kingdom in the Yeshua-community and want to become insiders.
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A huge crowd by the lake (1), Yeshua teaches many things (2), the Sower parable (3-8), Yeshua calls for close hearing (9).
Parables are by nature multivalent, subject to multiple meanings and interpretations. This multivalence is part of what makes parables a useful tool in teaching. Life has layers of meaning just as these metaphorical sayings do. Is the Sower to be identified with Yeshua, with God, or with the disciples who will come after doing as their master did? Yes to all three. The same parable can be read with varied meanings. Our summary of the Sower Parable will come in three parts: the crowds hear the parable in vss. 3-9, the disciples get a private lesson in Yeshua’s methods in vss. 10-12, and the disciples get a private interpretation of the parable in vss. 13-20. We should begin by noting that the setting is in front of a large crowd. Mark emphasizes in the first part of Mark the size of the crowds coming to hear Yeshua and witness miracles. In vss. 10-12, Yeshua will explain that he gives the crowds parables which are unclear, ambiguous. This Sower parable would be highly suggestive, but hard to pin down with regard to its meaning. Vs. 2 tells us the Sower parable was one of many teachings on this occasion. Witherington observes that the parable follows a convention of rhetoric and storytelling by being patterned after threes. It may seem that the parable revolves around the number four, but in reality, there are two sets of three. The unsuccessful seeds come in three sets: those that fell on the path, in rocky soil, and that are choked out by weeds. The successful seeds are also threefold: producing thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. The idea of a divine sowing of seed is a common image in both Jewish and Greek literature, as Collins shows with references from 4 Ezra, 1 Enoch, and several references to Greek literature. As we look just at vss. 1-9, saving the two sections of private explanation to the disciples for later, we should consider associations the audience may have made in this first hearing. Someone, maybe Yeshua as the potential Ruler-Savior that many hoped he would be, or maybe God, was sowing seed. Most of the seed did not bring success. But some of the seed would bring what would be as large a harvest as was possible in the best of times. Collins and Harrington both cite evidence from ancient writings about agriculture that a hundredfold harvest was possible, though exceedingly rare. The crowds would be asking things like, “Is Yeshua the Sower? Is the seed rebellion against Rome? Are we to follow him into this?” Most of all, people can see that some sort of secret is being hinted at. Something hidden is being unveiled. At the end, Yeshua calls his hearers to listen closely. How do they respond? Those who want to be part of the thirty, sixty, and hundredfold harvest have a clear directive. They need to listen closely. This should draw some to come in closer, to remain with Yeshua longer, to lay aside their normal occupation long enough to find out more. Who will take up this challenge? That is what leads us into the private explanations in the next two parts of the scene. Those who remain only part of the crowd will never discover the secret. They will miss the harvest. They will be seed sown on the path. Mark’s apocalyptic style of telling the story is transparently intended for his readers as well. Those who hear the gospel read in the community of Yeshua and pay close attention will see the harvest and know its meaning. But too few pay attention. Too few follow closely. Most remain in the crowd.
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Inquirers come to Yeshua to find out the secrets (10), Yeshua explains insiders and outsiders (11), Yeshua explains from Isaiah 6 how his mission brings both judgment and redemption (12).
Was Yeshua a simple teacher spinning homey lessons from farming life and making it oh-so-easy for everyone to see the kingdom and be ransomed from this wicked age? Was he, as is often portrayed in some circles of modern religion, a teacher with a low threshold for admitting people into the kingdom? Were his lessons designed to assure the crowds of their forgiveness, that they were right already, that all was well? A lot of pen and ink has been spent explaining away the meaning of Mark 4:10-12. We need not read these verses, though, as either shutting people out or opening the doors wide to new life. Instead, we should read them as a challenge to the hard but rewarding road of discipleship. Yeshua’s concern, ultimately, is not with who is to be blessed and who is not in the afterlife (a modern religious preoccupation), but with what God is presently doing and who is joining him. First, we notice that those who came to hear Yeshua’s private explanations were not merely the Twelve. Yeshua was not restricting his movement to the Twelve at all. He was calling all sons and daughters of Israel to hear. That is why he said, “Let anyone with ears hear.” And we read that “those who were around him and the Twelve” came to do just that. Yeshua explains his insider-outsider method. Yeshua as apocalyptic prophet comes out clearly here. Apocalyptic literature is about the hidden being revealed, about the scroll being rolled back so the faithful get a glimpse beyond. To you, says Yeshua, you who gather close to hear my words, to find out their meaning, who want to get beyond the simple excitement and sensationalism of rebellion or divine blessing falling from the sky, to you is given the secret of the kingdom. The parables draw people. They are vague, suggestive. People want to know about seeds and mustard and great catches of fish. These sound to them like long awaited change. But few will go further, joining God in the work of the kingdom. As Isaiah had said, most will not listen or understand — their hearts being hardened with self-centered expectation. Yeshua’s generation, like Isaiah’s, will face judgment and sorrow. Yeshua’s message, like Isaiah’s, is not easy to understand. Yeshua will tell the inner circle more, giving them the secrets of the kingdom of God so that they may be part of his reign. The secrets are not easy to live by and even the inner circle will stumble. Yet the one who endures to the end will be saved. To those outside, however, everything comes in parables so that their hopes are stirred. Hints of divine grace come to them. But the inner circle will have to live the message and understand it, showing the meaning of the kingdom to others who are slow to understand. Yeshua is the Sower and he will now tell them what his parable means.
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Yeshua explains the Sower parable.
Mark tells us in vss. 10-12 that Yeshua referred to Isaiah 6:9-10. It is a feature of later midrash that when any part of a scripture is cited, the whole passage in understood to be the context. It is part of the art of midrash not to quote the most relevant verse but to leave it to the hearers to figure it out. It is, thus, quite possible that Yeshua has all of Isaiah 6 in mind as he tells his parable, especially Isaiah 6:13 about the “holy seed.” Isaiah 6 was an important chapter, the one in which Isaiah saw God’s robe in the Temple and had his lips burned with coal by a seraph. We read there that the prophet was called to speak truth to a people that would not listen, instructed about the coming exile of Israel, and promised that a “holy seed” would remain in the cut off stump of Israel. As N.T. Wright says, “Within second-Temple Judaism, the idea of ‘seed’ is capable of functioning as a shorthand for the ‘remnant’ who will return when the exile is finally over.” Some might object that the Sower Parable says the seed is the word, not the remnant of Israel that remains faithful to God. Many think of “the word” as a reference to the scriptures. Wright anticipates this objection and notes another important Isaiah message, from chapter 55, in which the “word will not return void.” The word in Isaiah 55 is the word of Israel’s return, in joy, to the land and to blessing. The seed and the word in the Sower Parable are the word of good news, that exile is over, that Israel is restored to blessing (a specific word, then, and not a term for the whole of the scriptures). That is the word the crowds in Galilee hope to hear about. That is the word the inner circle of Yeshua wants to hear as well. In the common thinking of the people, the kingdom of God would come suddenly and completely. One day the people would be oppressed and burdened with foreign rule and then the kingdom of Israel would rise meteorically and smash the foreheads of Moab and Seth (see Numbers 24:17). In the second Jewish revolt, around the year 130 C.E., people even gave the name “Son of the Star” (Bar Kochva) to the rebel leader, Simon. Expectation was of either a human or heavenly king leading the people to victory and a new age. The change would be drastic, complete. If Yeshua’s Sower Parable is about the end of the exile and the word of Israel’s restoration, it disappoints expectant crowds with frustrating incompleteness, delay, and upheaval. The word of restoration, the seed, does not bring a complete crop. Birds eat it, rocks prevent its growth, and weeds choke it out. Only some of the seed grows to bear fruit. To put it in the simplest terms, Yeshua spoke of a penultimate stage, a coming of the kingdom in part, an age to come being being realized progressively instead of suddenly. This does not indicate that Yeshua had given up on the sudden and dramatic reversal of evil at the end of the age. In other places he spoke of the sharp and decisive victory of the Son of Man. A day would come when the sheep would be separated from the goats. The Son of Man would be seen coming on the clouds. The coming of the Son of Man would be like lightning, visible to all. The elect would be gathered from the four winds. Those who endure to the end will be saved. About that day and hour no one knows, but the Father. So it is not that the Sower Parable denies the story Israel is waiting for. It is, rather, that the Sower Parable, introduces a new part of the story, a time of partial realization. The kingdom of God is near, not far. It is at hand, but not for all. It is coming now, for those who let the seed fall on willing hearts. Yeshua is bringing the kingdom as his hearers listen. He is headed to a final confrontation that will inaugurate a new age beginning with his own resurrection. But many people will never even receive the word of restoration, of all things made new. The birds, which Yeshua told his inner circle represent the evil powers allied with Satan, will steal the word before it can germinate. Many things keep Israelites (and other people in the long history since Yeshua) from even considering the restoration of Israel and the nations in the person of Yeshua. The scandal in Yeshua’s story, the one that causes most to let the seed be snatched by birds, is that the world goes on with its evil and suffering intact. The life, death, and resurrection of Yeshua brought no visible change. The seed of restoration seems to have fallen off the path. The hard message of the Sower Parable is that restoration is actually here for those who receive Yeshua’s words and use them to bear fruit. Kingdom blessings do not wait completely for the age to come. They can be realized in part now in the community that Yeshua called to be the remnant of Israel and to spread to all nations.
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The lamp on the stand (21-23), the measure you give (24-25), the unseen growth of the seed (26-29), the mustard weeds (30-32), parables and private explanations (33-34).
It is helpful to note that in Matthew and Luke, who use Mark as a source, but who also have other sources, the sayings collected by Mark here are spread around to different places and contexts. In other words, the way these sayings are grouped in Mark is unique. What is Mark’s purpose in this section? It seems to be a high point in Mark’s outline, in his development of the stated purpose in Mark 1:1. Mark has a difficult task: explaining how a crucified criminal is, in fact, the Son of God. Mark casts the answer in the form of an apocalyptic revelation. Chapter 4 is the chapter about the secret of the kingdom of God, about the unexpected identity and message of the savior-king Yeshua who will bring the holy seed of God’s word that the exile is ended. But it won’t look like exile is over. So for many people the seed will not take root or if it does take root, will not thrive and bear fruit. The Sower isn’t bringing what everyone expects. So, in vss. 21-34 we see hints about the hiddenness, about the revealing that doesn’t look like revealing. Yeshua is a lamp and must be put on a stand (the cross, of course). No one could possibly, at that time, know this is what he meant. His words would echo later when the hidden was revealed. Nothing stays secret. God reveals and all will be made known (after the resurrection). Those who understand get on mission with Messiah and God. They give in the form of healing, encouraging, saving, comforting, feeding, and resisting evil in small and large forms (just as Yeshua did). With the measure you give, so you will get. To those who have little, less will be given. That is, those whose religion is self-centered will be blind to the secret of the kingdom. But those who seem to know little will be given much. The seed is already being sown in Yeshua’s day and overnight, in the time of despair surrounding Yeshua’s apparent failure and execution, the seed is growing. There will be a harvest and the growth is beginning already while it appears to be nothing. The kingdom is like a noxious weed (see Witherington who cites Crossan and Oakman on the significance of mustard as it relates to this parable). Those the religious do not want in (sinners, gentiles, lepers, the poor, the great unwashed) will nest in the branches of the mustard weeds which seem to spoil the garden. But Mark does not include us, the reader, in all the information. He shuts us out from the private explanation. The kingdom will not be understood by all. Mark wants us to know this peek behind the apocalyptic curtain, this glimpse of deeper meaning, is but the beginning. By remaining close to Yeshua and his community we will be as close as is possible and grow as much as is possible into union with God, his rule, and his better world.
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Transition: Yeshua sets out for the other side of the lake (35-36), a sudden wind rises and Yeshua sleeps (37-38), Yeshua stills the wind and waves (39), Yeshua asks why they would fear (40), the disciples wonder who he is to have such authority over nature (41).
The section progresses beautifully and artfully. A Sower has come to plant the seeds of restoration for Israel, an end to exile. He gathers disciples and an inner circle who will get the secret to the kingdom while other hear only riddles. The end of exile will not look like the end. So most will have the seed of the Sower snatched before it even takes root. Others will start to follow and have the crop ruined before it brings fruit. But some will bear fruit, which is the manifestation of the kingdom in this age.The lamp will have to be placed on a stand (Yeshua on the cross). The measure to which people live as the Sower directs will be measured to them. The seed is already growing unseen. Its troublesome weeds will pop up all over and seem the ruin of the beautiful fields, so that unwanted birds (gentiles, sinners, the poor) will nest there. And it all stems from the secret, the secret that the curtain has been laid back at the corner and hidden reality has peeked through. The secret is the identity and mission of Yeshua. At the end of this apocalyptic riddle chapter, Mark places his biggest clue: “Who is this that even the wind and waves obey him?” This scene will be the first of several returning to the mighty deeds of Yeshua. Anyone can claim to be the Sower. Anyone can claim to have a secret. But these mighty deeds show his words to be far more than the beginning of yet another sect, a group of trembling prophet-hopefuls imagining meaning behind every event in their community. The disciples’ question is in contrast to the upcoming rejection at Nazareth in which people say, “Is this not . . .?” (Collins). There is further patterning between 4:35 – 6:44 and 6:45 – 8:26. Both sections have a sea miracle, three healing miracles, and a feeding of a crowd (Collins). Like Jonah (see Jonah 1:5), Yeshua is sleeping (Collins). Unlike Jonah, the authority in stilling the storm lies in Yeshua himself (the storm stilled in Jonah only when the sailors threw him into the sea). Why rebuke wind and waves? Aren’t they part of nature and isn’t nature essentially good? No, in the biblical worldview, nature has gone wrong and storms and disasters are evil. In the original order as well as in the world to come, no storm would threaten life, especially not the life of the Son of God in a boat. Witherington calls vs. 41 situational irony; the disciples do not understand the situation as fully as the reader. This inclines the reader to answer the question. This one who commands is the divine-man. Is this about Yeshua being God or merely a man endued with God’s power? While the latter is possible, Yeshua’s authority exceeds that of any other prophet. No one else has commanded storms. This story on its own is not determinative, but it is one more piece of information along the way to Mark demonstrating his point: that this is the Son of God. Even that title is ambiguous, open to more than one interpretation. The identity of Yeshua is an apocalyptic mystery. But in that mystery is the secret of the kingdom.
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Transition: Yeshua and disciples arrive on the other side (1), the possessed man in the tombs (2-5), the demons called Legion (6-10), the herd of swine rushes into the lake (11-13), the people want Yeshua to leave (14-17), the demoniac wants to follow Yeshua (18-20).
One of the problems to consider with this passage is the timing. Yeshua and his disciples set out to cross the lake at evening according to 4:35. Yet, arriving on the other side, the possessed man is said to immediately approach Yeshua. The story does not seem to be at night. The lake of Galilee is not that large enough for the trip to last until morning. How do we explain this? This is one example of a pattern that can be seen in Mark: his episodes are not truly chronological, but are grouped together in some cases thematically. In 4:35-6:44 Mark has gathered a sea miracle, three healings, and a feeding miracle. The next section from 6:45 – 8:26 also has a sea miracles, three healings, and a feeding miracle. So why the note about them departing at evening if Mark was not planning to keep up the timing in his telling of the story? It would seem that Mark gets his stories from a source and sometimes includes details from his source which do not perfectly fit the final arrangement (from the preaching of Peter, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses). The second problem is more obvious: where did this story take place? Mark says “the region of the Gerasenes” (Gerasa, modern Jerash), one of the cities of the Decapolis. Matthew says “the region of the Gadarenes” (Gadara, closer to but not right by the lake). Some feel this is a discrepancy between Matthew and Mark. Others feel the region overlapped and could be described either way (of the Gerasenes or of the Gadarenes). We should say that the gospel writers were true to their sources, even if their sources disagreed. Matthew knew Mark and used Mark, but his information from his sources differed and he corrected Mark by locating the place in the region of the Gadarenes. In any event, the discrepancy makes it impossible to tell where on the lake the story took place. Finally, was there one demoniac or two? Mark and Luke say one, but Matthew says there were two (see Matt 8:28). Again, we learn from this that the evangelists relied on sources (testimony they heard, or perhaps early written stories). Matthew’s eyewitness remembered two and Mark’s one, and Matthew, again, deliberately corrected Mark’s account based on his source (but Luke preferred Mark’s version). What about the greater meaning of the story? The Legion of demons is like a Roman legion (6,000 soldiers), an army of the strong man (Satan), and yet Yeshua’s power is so much greater there is no real contest here. The story of the possessed man of the tombs gives us an idea how powerful Yeshua really was and is. Those who experienced Yeshua gradually came to realize his identity.
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Yeshua and disciples cross back over the lake (21), Jairus, a synagogue leader, begs Yeshua to come heal his daughter (22-24).
The intertwined story of Jairus and the woman outcast with constant bleeding is in all three synoptic gospels and is a major part of Yeshua’s story. The sequence in all three gospels is the same: Yeshua arrives, Jairus comes begging, on the way a woman who is bleeding tries to secretly touch Yeshua and be healed, Yeshua seeks out the woman and speaks to her, and then Yeshua arrives at Jairus’ home and raises his daughter. Here in the first part of the story are several interesting questions. Where does Jairus meet Yeshua? Who is Jairus? Is this story more about Mark’s time than Yeshua’s since it involves a synagogue leader and the disciples in Mark’s generation were in conflict with the synagogue? Mark’s storytelling has not been strictly chronological thus far. As noted, he has made two collections of parallel stories: a sea miracle, three healings, and a feeding miracle. Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the flow of blood are healings two and three. Even these two stories evidently come from different sources. Collins explains that the Jairus story is told with one grammatical style, short sentences in the historical present tense, and the woman’s story in a different one, longer sentences and aorist and imperfect tense verbs. Thus, we need not think that the healing of the woman with the flow of blood happened while Yeshua was walking to Jairus’ house. Mark possibly has brought these stories together for a literary reason, which we will consider later. Jairus meets Yeshua near the lake, but evidently at least some walk away. Yeshua has come back to the side of the lake he was on before the Gerasene demoniac incident. It is possible, then, that Jairus could be the synagogue leader from any of the Jewish towns near the lake (Capernaum, Bathsaida, Chorazin, or others). Jairus is one of the few named people who received a miracle from Yeshua. Richard Bauckham discusses the idea that after Yeshua has ascended, the Yeshua communities had certain people who were well-known as eyewitness, who became followers and told their stories again and again. Matthew does not name Jairus in his version, though Luke does. Based on patterns with other eyewitnesses, Bauckham argues that this means Mark personally was aware of Jairus’ testimony. If Peter was Mark’s source, as tradition says, then it may be that Peter was personally aware of Jairus’ testimony. Furthermore, naming eyewitnesses may have been for the benefit of the readers of the gospels. Mark may have expected his immediate audience to know of Jairus or to have heard of his testimony. It is likely, then, since Jairus is named, that he was known in the Yeshua communities long after Yeshua had gone away. That leads to our final question for this section. Is the fact that Jairus, a synagogue leader, prostrated himself to Yeshua, a reason this story was so important for Mark’s audience? Were they suffering persecution from the synagogue? Were the Jewish followers of Yeshua being forced out of the synagogue? It is possible. And if so it only strengthens Mark’s use of double meaning in Jairus’ words, “Come and lay your hands upon her so that she may be saved and live.” The word “saved” can also mean “healed,” which in Yeshua’s teaching is all one related concept. Salvation is not something for the afterlife or a purely spiritual transaction. People need Yeshua to be saved from all things including death, illness, evil, sin, and judgment.
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A woman with a long story of suffering (25-26), the woman touches Yeshua secretly and is healed (27-29), Yeshua seeks out the one who caused power to go out from him (30-32), the woman confesses (33), Yeshua tells her that faith has saved her (34).
As mentioned in the previous section, it is not necessarily that the incident with the woman with the flow of blood happened as Yeshua was walking to Jairus’ house. Mark has intertwined the stories for literary reasons. This story of the woman who touched Yeshua is told in different grammatical style, coming from a different source (see above). The woman is evidently well to do, being able to afford private physicians, but they have depleted her wealth and she is worse. Collins talks about ancient complaints concerning the ineffectiveness of doctors. The idea that the woman would be isolated or an outcast because of her perpetual vaginal bleeding is not true. Collins, citing Shaye Cohen, shows that in the Second Temple period, menstruating women were not secluded. The woman has seen Yeshua touching and healing people and from this the idea of secretly touching him occurs to her. In touching him, she would render him unclean, so perhaps she feared he would not voluntarily touch her. Some have made it a point to claim that Yeshua does not become unclean when he touches lepers and people like this woman with a flow of blood. The text nowhere makes this claim. In order to follow Torah, Yeshua would have to wash his clothes and be immersed and be unclean until evening, a procedure he could easily fulfill by the lake of Galilee (see Lev 15:25-31). The story is full of mystery. Does Yeshua have to know he is healing in order to do it? Apparently not. Is the power Yeshua’s or does the power come through him from above? The description “power had gone forth” suggests the power comes from above and Yeshua is the conduit. Why does Yeshua want to find out who touched him? Is it for the woman’s benefit? Does Yeshua know or not know? The story of the woman is a perfect model of the kind of faith Mark is calling for in his audience. She believes in Yeshua’s power. She comes to him to be saved. She confesses before him her deep need. And she hears from his mouth, “Your faith has saved you.” The word save also means heal. Yeshua heals body and spirit. Our need for him is not simply about afterlife, but about being saved and changed in the present.
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A friend comes from Jairus’ house to say the daughter is dead (35), Yeshua says not to fear (36), Yeshua only allows the three to follow (37), Yeshua says she is only asleep and the mourners scoff (38-40), Yeshua raises the girl and all are amazed (41-43).
We have discussed the evidence that the stories of Jairus and the woman with the issue of blood were combined by Mark though they did not occur together. The grammatical style of the two stories is different, suggesting different sources. Vs. 35 further demonstrates that the woman’s story has been interposed here. In vs. 35, we are told that the messenger from Jairus’ house comes with the bad news “while he was still speaking.” Collins dismisses the idea, proposed by many interpreters, that the woman’s story was interposed to suggest delay. That is, while Yeshua was busy healing the woman, enough time passed that Yeshua missed getting to the girl while she was alive. This is not how Mark presents the story, since he says “while he was still speaking.” Why then would Mark interpose the story of the woman into the Jairus story? Collins proposes that it is because the woman’s story shows the kind of faith required in a frightening situation. The woman believes and is saved. By contrast, the people at Jairus’ house do not believe. No healer can raise the dead. If he had only arrived while she was alive. Yet in situations like this and like the storm on the lake earlier, Yeshua expects people to believe even when the problem seems larger and outside of the ability of a prophet. Yeshua expects that Jairus and his disciples will have no fear, but only believe. The message to Mark’s readers is clear: we may face new dangers, new situations, but Yeshua’s power triumphs over them all. The use of the word sleep for death has raised many questions. Is Yeshua saying she is in a coma? Does it mean death is merely like sleep? Based on other uses of sleep as a term for the state of death in John 11, 1 Thessalonians 5, and earlier writings such as Daniel 12, Witherington argues that sleep was a word used by those who believed in resurrection. It is quite possible that in Galilee the notion of bodily resurrection was not widely accepted. Yeshua, as we see in other stories such as Mark 12:26-27, shares the Pharisees’ belief in bodily resurrection. Those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake. Those who are asleep will live with him. Lazarus has fallen asleep, but Yeshua goes there to awaken him. The idea of death as a state relative to those separated on earth, but only partial and temporary in the heavenly perspective, is part of the belief system of the apostles. Many wonder why Yeshua used the phrase talitha kum, which is Aramaic. Some have charged that early Yeshua-followers looked on such words as magical and hoped they could use Yeshua’s words to perform wonders. There is far from enough evidence in the few Aramaic clauses left to stand in Mark for such an assertion. It may be that the simplicity of Yeshua’s words was beautiful in the memory of Peter, who tradition says was Mark’s primary source. It seemed beautiful and worth remembering that Yeshua raised the dead simply by saying, “Little girl, get up,” just as he stilled a storm merely by speaking. It also may be part of Mark’s presentation of Yeshua as the Son of God. After all, isn’t it at least a hint of Yeshua’s greater identity that he, like God in Genesis, causes monumental things to happen with simple verbal commands?
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Yeshua and disciples come to Nazareth (1), in the synagogue people doubt Yeshua’s validity (2-3), Yeshua’s saying about honor (4), Yeshua’s inability to work miracles there (5-6a).
The incidents of 6:1-29 are possibly interposed between what was a neater arrangement of miracle stories from which Mark drew. Two sections of Mark have parallel series of a sea miracle, three healings, and a feeding miracle (4:45 to 6:44 and 6:45 to 8:26). Even within these sections there is evidence of layering, as noted before that the Jairus story has a different style than the woman with the flow of blood. So, it is possible that as the ways of telling Yeshua stories developed, we can see traces and layers of development. If 6:1-35 is interposed within a set of miracles, we can bet there is a literary and theological purpose which can likely be discerned. In this interposed section we have three units: the rejection at Nazareth, the sending of the Twelve, and the account of John the Baptist’s execution. Witherington calls our passage, the rejection at Nazareth story, a textbook example of the Greek style known as chreia. A chreia is a short biographical scene which surrounds a saying. The saying here, about prophets, honor, and the hometown, is in all three synoptics. The scene is also in all three synoptics, but placed in different locations. Matthew uses it after the parable collection to show typical rejection. Luke places it at the beginning to emphasize that Yeshua was misunderstood. Mark uses the story, clearly, to show why Yeshua was not widely acclaimed as Messiah in spite of the wonders he performed. The people did not doubt that Yeshua could do wonders. They grant that he has done them (“What mighty works are wrought by his hands!”). In Witherington’s phrase, they see Yeshua as overreaching. He is a person known to them, presumably who showed no sign of divinely given powers as a child. The point of the carpenter remark is not likely disparaging the role of labor, as Galileans were not an aristocratic people and had no aristocracy. The point is more that Yeshua is “like us,” one of the ordinary, and not from some place or group with the kind of power and heritage to be the Messiah. The Nazareth childhood of Yeshua was a scandal for the early disciples. Skeptical historians often say that the Bethlehem birth was invented without historical basis to escape this scandal. And Mark does not avoid describing the scene in terms of disgrace. Looking at Matthew 13:58, the parallel to Mark 6:5, it is apparent that Matthew found Mark’s wording scandalous. He changed “could do no mighty works” to “did not do many mighty works” (note: even Mark says Yeshua did some miracles there). How can we explain “could not”? Is it possible that the very human Yeshua had limitations? Is it possible that faced with pressure of unbelief he had doubts and could not do wonders? The pious (but possibly true) explanation is that Yeshua, as we see with God in other stories, works with human faith and cooperation rather than against it. But Mark does not wish to blunt the scandal and and in light of the fact that he has an agenda to show the hiddenness of Yeshua’s identity, it makes sense that he would emphasize the “could not.” Even Yeshua, the Son of God, was human and experienced failure. Just as his preaching would fail to mobilize all Israel for the kingdom, so his hometown visit failed to create more disciples.
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Yeshua teaches in the villages (6b), he sends and authorizes the disciples in pairs (7-11), the disciples preach repentance and exorcise and heal (12-13).
Curiosity about how to apply the teaching of this passage has led to dramatic movements in church history. Do readers of this gospel story need to imitate the disciples to forsake all income and live as itinerant preachers? Alternatively, could this be a special calling for some (“missionaries”)? The mendicant orders of the medieval Europe took vows of poverty and sought to live according to Yeshua’s instructions here to “take nothing” and to have “no bread, no bag, and no money” in their purses. Some even went further, forsaking sandals in order to outdo the poverty of the disciples on this mission (the discalced or barefoot orders of monks and nuns). The passage raises another important question: how much miraculous power did the disciples have? In many other texts Mark will emphasize their failure, but in this story they exorcise demons and heal people while preaching in imitation of John the Baptist and Yeshua. Are these the same Twelve of whom Yeshua said, “Have you no faith?” and “Are you of so little understanding?” Witherington sums up the contrast best: “They seem to be better at doing the ministry than understanding what it is all about.” If this is the case, then we might say that Yeshua is not satisfied even with proper deeds and good mission work. He also wants his disciples to have understanding of the apocalyptic secrets of the kingdom. Those who say, “If we love each other and do acts of kindness for each other and the world, we need not worry about studying the gospels or the Bible and finding the right theology” have a good point in that loving deeds are better than knowledge without deeds. But Yeshua does not wish to make missionary disciples who are ignorant of the hidden truths and great revelations of the mystery of the kingdom. Yeshua’s disciples are to come forth with both knowledge and deeds. For those who wish to study the contrast between two traditions of the sending can compare Luke 9:1-6, which is much the same as Mark’s account here, and Luke 10:1-12, which seems to preserve another sending tradition of the seventy, who are given very different instructions. Comparing and contrasting the two reinforces an important point here: the idea of a vow of poverty is not a universal principle either of discipleship or of mission. It is not the case that Yeshua commands all his followers to go without bread and money nor that he commands his special servants who go on mission to use this technique. The instructions to the Twelve here in Mark 6 are specific to this mission and have a specific purpose. What might that be? Witherington, citing Myer’s book, Binding the Strongman, says that these instructions are a prophetic message. The disciples are to become like sojourners (resident aliens) relying on the good will and kindness of the native Israelites. They are to become like people marginalized, since Yeshua will be marginalized. They are, essentially, to test the righteousness of the villages and people of Galilee. Will they be treated with hesed (lovingkindness) or rejected? Those who receive them are those who are willing to do what God requires to make his kingdom come on earth. Shared resources are the way of discipleship. On this mission, the disciples are to come as the poor. On others, they will use their own resources. Neither way is a universal command. But the message is clear: disciples of Yeshua will welcome those in need and support one another in the work of God.
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Herod Antipas hears of Yeshua’s work (14-16), the back story of John the Baptist’s arrest, execution, and burial (17-29).
The son of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas was appointed by Rome as Tetrarch over Galilee and Perea. Antipas did much better than his older brother, Archelaus, who was only briefly king of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Archelaus was deposed by Rome for ineptitude, but Antipas remained Tetrarch in Galilee for over four decades, until his nephew, Agrippa I (who appears in Acts 12) accused him before Caligula and took his place in 39 CE. The gospels depict Antipas as a debauched leader in the style of bad Roman emperors. Why does Mark place this interruption in the flow of the narrative at this point? Yeshua has just sent the disciples proclaiming the kingdom, healing, and exorcising in the towns of Galilee, Herod’s province. First, Yeshua’s activity in Galilee would come to the notice of Galilee’s ruler, since wonder workers and religious heroes might be a threat. Second, the story of the Baptist foreshadows Yeshua’s own coming trial and execution. Third, Yeshua has sent the disciples out in poverty like sojourners in the land, a sign of expected rejection, and Antipas’ treatment of John is further evidence that rejection is what Yeshua can expect. Fourth, Antipas’ thoughts about Yeshua fit into the larger question, “Is Yeshua the Son of God, the Messiah?” Antipas thinks of him as the Baptist redivivus, like Elisha who had the spirit of Elijah in him. As Collins shows, much of the story in Mark 6:14-29, the parts about Antipas’ marriage and executing John the Baptist, is all confirmed in Josephus. There is an infamous mistake in the account in Mark, since Herodias is said to have been formerly the wife of Philip, when, according to Josephus, she had been the wife of Antipas’ half-brother Herod son of Mariamne. Collins explains this as an error that grew in the oral retelling, since Philip was much better known than Herod son of Mariamne. The fact that Antipas is called king in Mark’s account is often considered an error as well, but Witherington points out, as is well known, that Antipas styled himself a king and not merely a Tetrarch. The backstory of Antipas and John the Baptist shows the kind of evil Yeshua is opposing. Antipas is a debauched leader who decides great matters based on momentary lusts. He is a fool governed by scenes like the sensuality of a dancing teenager. Justice is far from the order of the day. It is important that in this characterization Antipas fears John the Baptist and is reluctant to execute him, just as Pilate will later be reluctant to execute Yeshua. Yet Antipas does it anyway. The highest criteria for corrupt leaders like Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate is not justice, true justice as God demands for the earth as his kingdom, but the whims of politics. Like John the Baptist, Yeshua will be executed through the pressuring of an interest group. The chief priests will be like Herodias, pressuring Pilate into an execution he does not agree with. Like John the Baptist, Yeshua’s followers will take care of his body after death. Yeshua will die an innocent prophet like John. This is how evil reigns in the present. And Mark’s presentation follows the apocalyptic style, insisting that evil reigns new, but a deeper meaning lies behind the reign of evil. It will not be the last word. The kingdom will break through and what seems a victory for evil will be turned into goodness in the end.
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The disciples report (30), Yeshua seeks to go to a deserted place (31-32), the crowds see where he is going and run ahead (33-34), the problem of the crowd and lack of food (35-38), Yeshua causes them to lie down and be fed (35-44).
There are many allusions throughout this story to Psalm 23 and to various feeding miracles of the Bible. From Psalm 23 we find Yeshua seeking a place to rest (vs. 31), but the crowd that comes seems to him like sheep without a shepherd (vs. 34), and he causes them to recline or lie down on the green grass (vs. 40). Feeding miracles are nothing new in the Bible. This story calls to mind Moses and the manna, especially since the place is a wilderness and the people are arrayed in hundreds and fifties like the Israelites. Elijah’s feeding the widow of Zarephath with a miraculous supply of oil and flour (1 Kgs 17) and Elisha’s multiplying of barley loaves (2 Kgs 4:42) come to mind. There are a number of feeding miracles in Second Temple literature and in Greco-Roman sources. It is doubtless important to see Yeshua’s feeding miracle in light of Isaiah 25 as well, the great banquet with which God will feed his people in the age to come. In the Damascus Document from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the people will be organized for the messianic banquet in tens, fifties, and hundreds and the leader will “have pity on them like a father on his sons, and will provide drink to all of the afflicted among them like a shepherd to his flock” (CD 13:7-8). Mark places the feeding of the 5,000 right after the account of Herod’s banquet. Herod’s banquet was debauched and deadly. It prefigured Yeshua’s death, says Witherington, while the feeding of the 5,000 prefigures Yeshua’s role as Messiah in the age to come at the great banquet of God. This feeding miracle is in all four gospels. Yeshua’s prayer at the beginning of the feeding is both the standard Jewish custom and also the origin of later Christian customs surrounding the Eucharist. Yeshua takes the loaves and fish, lifts his eyes to heaven, blesses God for the loaves, breaks them, and distributes them. The feeding miracle continues the theme, repeated in the gospels, of Yeshua bringing the blessings of the kingdom here and now. No one will be hungry and unfed in the time of God’s complete rule. Yeshua finds it imperative and teaches his disciples it is imperative to provide future blessings now. We are to make this world like that world as far as we are able. Although feeding miracles have happened before, Yeshua’s deed exceeds that of Elijah and Elijah in size and scope. Neither is the feeding like the manna in that Yeshua brings it to pass without a word from heaven. Mark continues to fulfill his purpose, showing us Yeshua as Son of God.
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Yeshua sends away crowd and disciples to go alone and pray (45-46), from the mountain Yeshua sees the struggling boat and determines to reveal his glory (47-49), the disciples do not understand about Yeshua’s glory (50-52), Yeshua heals many in Genessaret (53-56).
This section has a number of potentially confusing references to geography, timing, and the intentions of Yeshua which need to be clarified at the outset to make the story understandable. First, the geographical references are very confusing and it seems best to understand that Mark is combining a number of sources and is inconsistent on the geography. Yeshua had been in the villages presumably on the north side of the lake (6:6) and then went to a deserted place somewhere else on the lake (6:31-32). Now the disciples are sent to the “other side” to Bethsaida (vs. 45), which is northeast, but they land at Genessaret (vs. 53), which is northwest. Second, the timing of the story is surprising. The trouble occurs in the fourth watch of the night, a reference to Roman ways of dividing time. This is consistent with other Markan references that are Roman, evidence that his audience is largely non-Jewish. The fourth watch would be between 3 and 6 in the morning. But most confusing is the statement that Yeshua “wanted to pass them by” in vs. 48. Are we to understand that Yeshua was planning to avoid them as he walked on the water across the lake? If that were true, the whole story would make no sense, since the motive for Yeshua coming to them was his concern for their safety on the lake (vs. 48). Furthermore, in vs. 50, Yeshua seems to have a purpose in revealing something of his glory to them to teach them faith. The solution lies in the special verb used for “pass by.” It is a verb used in one of the most famous theophany stories of the Bible. Moses requested to see God’s glory and God placed Moses in the cleft of a rock and passed by in such a way that Moses could see a little, but not too much, of the divine glory (Exod 33:19-22). Yeshua in this story is revealing some of his glory to his disciples. Mark could hardly give a clearer example of the theme that Yeshua is the Son of God, an as yet undefined term which means that Yeshua is more than a man, a figure of exalted and mysterious identity. Who is this man who walks on the water? Who is this man whose very appearance can frighten or inspire faith? Once we understand that the appearance of Yeshua on the water is a theophany, an appearance of divine glory in Yeshua, the story makes sense. It happened like this: Yeshua went up to pray and sent his disciples to Bethsaida. Late at night Yeshua is still praying when he sees the disciples’ boat struggling in the bad weather on the lake. He determined to give them a revelation of his glory and walked on the water to them. When they looked on his glory with fear, he calmed them and taught them a lesson in faith, saying, “I am,” another expression associated with theophany from Exodus 3. The disciples were still without understanding of the loaves, that is, the feeding miracle. They did not yet understand that Yeshua is more than a prophet. When they came to the shore of the lake, Yeshua continued healing the masses. Yeshua is the divine man bringing God’s rule wherever he goes, and God’s reign puts an end to illness and disability and fear.
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Pharisees and scribes observe some of the disciples not practicing handwashing (1-2), Mark explains handwashing as a Pharisaic custom (3-4), the Pharisees criticize Yeshua for not correcting his disciples (5), Yeshua charges the Pharisees with using traditions to overturn God’s commandments (6-8), an extreme example of tradition justifying unrighteousness (9-13).
There are two related kinds of handwashing in Jewish practice. One is handwashing before prayer. The early adoption of this custom by at least some Jews, prior to the time of Yeshua, is attested in the Letter of Aristeas (c. 150 BCE). The second kind is handwashing prior to eating. As is often the case with Jewish customs, the New Testament is our first example of its existence. It is doubtful that the practice of washing hands before meals was a widespread custom. It is the kind of custom that fits what we know about the Pharisees, a small movement of educated and middle class zealots for ritual holiness. It is important to note that handwashing is not about hygiene. It is about ritual purity. The story of Yeshua’s dispute with the Pharisees over handwashing has been misunderstood in many ways. The following are a number of misunderstandings of this story: (1) that the story is about the dietary law of Leviticus 11, (2) that the story shows us Yeshua did not practice handwashing, and (3) that Yeshua represents Christianity over and against Judaism. Historic misunderstanding of this story has done harm to Jewish-Christian relations. Scholars who normally do excellent historical work continue to use it to pit Yeshua against the teaching of Moses. This is theologically problematic, as if the Son would oppose the teaching of his Father, something we do not see happening anywhere. Yeshua’s criticism is of religious leaders, not divine Torah. The story begins with some Pharisees and scribes noticing some of Yeshua’s disciples failing to practice handwashing. It is very difficult to imagine why Mark would not have told us if it was the case that Yeshua did not pracr=tice handwashing. It seems, from this account, that Yeshua did practice handwashing, at least on this occasion. Mark then explains handwashing. It is not a Torah command. It is something the Judeans (the Jews) do. This may mean the Sadducees also. It does not mean the general population are practicing this custom en masse. Handwashing is a custom related to washing vessels. These practices stem from Leviticus 11 and the various washings prescribed in Leviticus and Numbers. The Torah nowhere speaks of handwashing. It is an innovation to claim that washing one part of the body, instead of the whole body as it is in Torah, could have any effect. In fact, washing in Leviticus does not render one clean until sundown. Handwashing as an act of purity is problematic. It is an invention. It does not follow the principles of the purity laws of Torah. Why, then, would Yeshua practice it? The intention of handwashing, in its good sense, is to bring the holiness of the Temple into the home. Perhaps Yeshua appreciated it as a symbol of the holiness of God in the home. But he did not view it as a necessity. Citing Isaiah, Yeshua denounces the hypocrisy of the leaders. Their priorities are all wrong: a focus on personal piety instead of service and love. Personal piety is the refuge of the weak, the unloving, when not combined with service and love. Yeshua lists an extreme example of how some Pharisees are justifying unrighteousness with tradition. By declaring any excess funds as devoted to the Temple, they have an excuse not to support their parents. This was certainly not a widespread practice. It is an example of where the error of personal piety can lead. Yeshua’s teaching will become more clear in the second part to come.
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Saying to the crowd (14-15), instruction for the inner circle (17-23).
Two observations will help the reader to understand this section. First, it comes in two parts: a saying to the outsiders (vss. 14-15) and further instruction for the inner circle (vss.17-23). Second, Yeshua’s problem is not with the sanctity of the symbolic purity laws of Torah, but with religious teachers who judge people by false priorities of secondary purity rules which negate the weighty matters of Torah that he will specifically enumerate for his inner circle. Put more simply, Yeshua is taking on a religious teaching that would go light on evils like deceit, lust, greed, and unkindness while judging unrighteous any violation of actual or even traditional symbols systems of purity. Yeshua’s saying to the crowd is like a parable as Yeshua explained Mark 4:11: outsiders get parables. What is it that is outside and goes in which the religious teachers claim can defile? In the handwashing dispute, they are claiming first that contact with impurity in the marketplace through contact with people who are not scrupulous about purity laws give them a secondary impurity. Their innovation is to create an instant ceremony of cleansing hands so that the impurity will not transfer to food and then to their bodies. Purity laws can become an infinite regress (a chain with no end). But if Yeshua doesn’t agree with the whole system, then why does he, apparently, join in the handwashing ceremony? It is probably like Yeshua’s resistance to the Temple. Yeshua is not anti-Temple. He is against the corruption and the burdensome Temple taxation of the people. Similarly here Yeshua likely approves of bringing Temple sanctity to the meal as an observance of worship, but not as a paranoid practice of secondary purity. In his explanation to the disciples, vs. 19 is a subject of special interest. The common interpretation is that that last part of vs. 19 is Mark’s comment. Some modern translations are very deceptive in supplying words that are not there. The text simply reads, “since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer, cleansing all foods.” It is possible, as did Origen and Chrysostom, to assume that the phrase “cleansing all foods” belongs with the earlier clause in vs. 18, “he said to them.” In this interpretation, the statement would be something like this, “He [Yeshua] said to them, X, cleansing all foods.” In other words, it is possible that vs. 19 means Yeshua declared all foods clean by the principle he taught. Yet it is also possible that Yeshua’s logic is simply, “it exits the stomach and goes into the sewer, cleansing [or purging] all food.” In this case, he is simply saying, what goes out of you can’t defile you. Regardless of which of these readings we follow, in neither case is Yeshua saying that Jews may disregard the dietary laws. At most he is acknowledging that the purity laws are symbolic and that ethical laws take priority, a point he makes repeatedly. The religious teachers choose to emphasize purity laws. Yeshua keeps the purity laws, looking to their deeper meaning, that God is about life and not death. But Yeshua follows the ethical principle of the Law: to love people, God, and to reverence life and goodness. This is where true righteousness is. And so we need to be on guard against the evil things that come out of us and do harm. We do not need to become paranoid about impurity. Modern religious people should not think this is simply some criticism of various forms of Judaism. Modern religion equally makes rules about various minor issues while excusing complete inaction with regard to justice, while allowing people to live selfish lives and claim they are religious because they avoid some kind of cultural impurity. Yeshua says we will not be his followers unless we become vessels of justice and love.
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Yeshua goes up to Tyre (24), a woman begs Yeshua to set her daughter free from a demon (25-26), Yeshua refuses her (27), the woman is brave and persists (28), Yeshua relents and frees her daughter (29-30).
There are two ways of reading this story. One of the ways will not occur to most followers of Yeshua as it seems to go against the image of his sinlessness and perfect compassion and love for others. The first way to read this story is that Yeshua genuinely does not want to help a Canaanite woman but is shamed into doing so. The second way to read it is as if Yeshua is not serious about his objection but is prodding the woman on to a persistence in her request and to a deeper level of faith. In favor of reading Yeshua’s intention favorably, we can say that it is often his way to place a difficulty in the way of people who come asking for help. He challenges people’s notions and requires signs of faith. Many of the miracle stories involve two stages, a request by a person seeking help and an obstacle to be overcome. This woman’s obstacle is being a gentile asking a Jewish healer for help. If we can follow the reading that takes Yeshua’s attitude as being actually sympathetic to the woman, we can say that her faith is remarkable. She is a model for gentile faith: someone willing to come to a Jew for salvation. Compared to many in Israel who refuse to believe, who are so set on nationalistic hopes for glory or who, as power-brokers wish to hold on to their domination over the people, this humble woman simply wants healing. No sense of ego gets in her way. Yeshua allows this woman to demonstrate humility and faith. It is a fair reading to assume that, as in other cases, Yeshua does not reveal all he is thinking. He probably used the incident, and the disciples probably kept telling the story, to show that all boundaries can be crossed, even the Jew-gentile boundary. And it is fitting in Mark’s order of events that Yeshua in conflict with the leaders of his own people, would, like Elijah, find greater faith in Tyre than in Jerusalem.
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Yeshua travels into the Decapolis region (31), a deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to him (32), Yeshua takes him aside privately and with strange signs heals him (33-35), Yeshua orders silence but the astounded people proclaim it (36-37).
This story does not occur in Matthew or Luke. Why would they omit this story? A good guess is because the story has disturbing and problematic elements which suggest in some ways that Yeshua acted like a magician. Mark says Yeshua went north from Tyre toward Sidon and then looped through Syria, headed south toward the lake of Galilee and came across the Decapolis region. This is primarily a gentile region, although there were some Jews here. The large geographical circuit brings the reader back to the statement in 3:8 that news of Yeshua’s healings occurred beyond the Jordan, in Tyre and Sidon. Mark emphasizes Yeshua’s fame throughout a broad territory to show how amazing and powerful he was. This man of the Decapolis region is deaf and impaired in speech. Of Yeshua’s many miracles, this one is likely included because it fills out the kinds of signs Messiah would do according to Isaiah 35:5-6. He heals the blind, deaf, lame, and mute. The actions of Yeshua are strange. He does six things that all appear to be elements of magic: puts his fingers in the man’s ears, spits, touches the man’s tongue, looks up to heaven, sighs, and says in Aramaic ‘be opened.’ No other miracle story of Yeshua has this many elements of sympathetic magic. Pliny describes the use of spittle as a well-known custom of healing, though Pliny himself knew there was no real power in it (Collins). The sighing noise Yeshua makes looks the same as actions listed in some magical papyri describing pagan healing incantations (Collins). The idea might be releasing breath into the air before speaking to fill the words with power. Why would Yeshua do these things? In other healing miracles Yeshua’s sympathetic acts include simpler things like touch, grasping a hand, and speaking command words such as arise. In each case these seem to be for the benefit of those being healed. These gestures and actions help people believe. Perhaps in a gentile region Yeshua acts in ways that would fit the role of a magician. The people who witness the healing are amazed and spread word all over the territory. Mark emphasizes both the spreading fame of Yeshua and a connection to prophecy, that he healed even the deaf and mute, alluding to Isaiah 35:5-6: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped . . . the tongue of the mute will sing for joy.”
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Yeshua has compassion and wants to feed a crowd (1-3), the disciples ask how he can feed a crowd in the desert (4-5), Yeshua gives thanks and 4,000 are fed (6-9).
The problem of the two feedings is notorious. Why does Mark include two feeding miracles? They are similar in many ways. A large crowd is fed by an impossibly small supply of food. They are also different in some ways. In the second feeding Yeshua raises the issue of food, not the disciples, and the crowd has been with him three days. The second feeding story has no teaching associated with it. Both feeding miracles come in a sequence seen in the relationship between 4:35 – 6:44 and 6:45 – 8:26. Both sections have a sea miracle, three healing miracles, and a feeding of a crowd (Collins). The second feeding could be, like the second sea miracle, a pattern showing that Yeshua did various miracles repeatedly. The common interpretation of the two feedings is that the first is in a Jewish place and has certain Jewish characteristics while this one is in a gentile place. The problem is that neither account emphasizes that the crowd is either Jewish or gentile. It is possible, but even if true, Mark makes no reference to the issue. Some have even looked to the numbers in the stories to reinforce the Jew-gentile interpretation. In the first miracle, five loaves feed five thousand, and there are five books in the Torah. In the second, seven loaves feed 4,000. Seven could be seen to allude to seventy nations and 4,000 to the four directions of the compass out to all nations — somewhat weak as numerological theories go. And if Mark wished to make some point about Jews and gentiles, he has done a poor job of letting his readers know where either feeding occurs. But it may be that there is more to the second feeding than mere repetition. A theme in Mark, which will especially come up in this section, is the inability of the disciples to understand Yeshua. They fail to grasp fully who he is, what he can do, and what his mission is about. The reader should find it shocking that in vs. 4 the disciples ask, “How can one feed these men with bread here in the desert?” How can men who saw their master feed 5,000 with a small amount of food wonder how he will do it this time? Do they not understand? That is exactly what Yeshua will ask them more than once in this section. Perhaps Mark wants us to look at the second feeding to see that disciples often need greater understanding. The disciples are slow to learn. And Mark wants us to learn who Yeshua is, the Messiah and Son of God.
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Yeshua and disciples come to Dalmanutha (10), Pharisees ask for a sign (11-13), the disciples don’t understand Yeshua (14-21).
No one knows where Dalmanutha is. The issue of revelatory signs and faith comes up more than once in the gospels and in the Bible as a whole. Two comparisons may help us understand this particular story in which some Pharisees ask Yeshua for a sign from heaven. The first is in John 10, where the leaders ask Yeshua to say plainly if he is the Messiah. He responds, “The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me” (John 10:25). In other words, they have already seen signs and yet have not believed. A second example for comparison is the story of Israel in the wilderness. God worked signs and wonders before Egypt and all Israel saw them. Yet the people came to Moses afterward more than once complaining of lack of water or food. Moses asked, “Why do you test the Lord?” (Exod 17:2). In other words, the people should no such a simple problem is as nothing to the Lord, but instead of asking in faith they complain that God wants them to die. Here in Mark 8, some Pharisees ask Yeshua for a sign from heaven. Yeshua sighs deeply (perhaps exasperation like Moses). He refuses to give the sign and abruptly departs. Mark tells us the Pharisees ask for the sign in order to test Yeshua. What are we to make of Yeshua’s refusal? First, we might note that Yeshua does not do miracles to prove himself to skeptics. Nearly all of his miracles have been to do good or defeat evil. Occasionally, such as the walking on water and coming later the Transfiguration, a miracle is a sign and not a deed of mercy per se. Yeshua will not answer their test with a sign. Part of what is going on here, and the next scene confirms this, is that the Pharisees and other onlookers have already seen signs. Yet like Israel in the wilderness, they are not satisfied. How many signs must Messiah do to prove his identity? If people will not believe after several wonders, will a few dozen more bring faith? After departing, the disciples start thinking about their lack of bread. Meanwhile, Yeshua utters a saying about the leaven of the Pharisees and Herodians. He means by the phrase their dangerous way of seeking personal power. But the disciples are thinking of bread. Yeshua asks how they can be so dense. Did they not witness the two feedings? It was already shameful that before the second feeding they would ask, “How can we feed these people in the desert?” Mark artfully has this scene end without resolution. The disciples do not understand who Yeshua is. They have seen signs and believe more than the Pharisees and Herodians do. But their faith is incomplete. Before the end they will all forsake him (see 14:50). They have not learned that Yeshua is to be trusted above all appearances. No matter what happens, the one who speaks to storms and feeds thousands will triumph. The hardest test of faith is yet ahead, but the disciples are not able even to figure out how to get past the lack of bread. How much more will they despair when it appears the whole messianic mission is compromised? Are they of so little understanding?
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Yeshua and the disciples come to Bethsaida (22), Yeshua takes the blind man and disciples aside (23), the healing is at first partial (24), complete healing (25), command to secrecy (26).
This healing story contains a number of unusual features. It is similar in many ways to the healing of the deaf and speech impaired man in 7:31-37. Why the physical actions which seem to be sympathetic magic (spitting)? Why does Yeshua take the man away from the village for the healing? How is it that Yeshua heals a man only partially the first time and requires two stages to complete a healing? Why is it that Mark alone records this story and how does it fit into some unique aspects of Mark’s literary themes? On many occasions Yeshua has healed without even a touch, from a distance in some cases. He does not have to be physically present to heal, much less spit in someone’s eye. Of course, one could assume differently: perhaps other miracles required such actions as well but the evangelists usually omit them. Yet this does not seem to be the case, because the stories often mention much simpler actions, such as taking a girl by the hand and speaking the word “arise.” Clues to the meaning of the strange features of this healing are readily supplied by the surrounding narrative. Running through Mark is a theme of mystery, the messianic secret. Who is this Yeshua? And on a more subtle level, Mark reveals that Yeshua is not who anyone thinks he is, even the disciples. They are without understanding. The usual ideas of a prophet or deliverer are not coming to pass with Yeshua. He isn’t the kind of messianic figure people expect. And Mark puts this story right before the Caesarea Philippi incident. In that story there are also two stages. Peter gets stage one right, “You are the Messiah.” But he flubs the second one: “The Son of Man must suffer,” says Yeshua, but Peter rebukes him. Commentators have called this two-stage healing an acted parable. He has brought along just the disciples. Note that in vs. 27, Yeshua continues on to Caesarea Philippi with his disciples, so we were to understand that they were with him and witnessed this healing. It is another private revelation to the inner circle. And the meaning is that the disciples see, but not completely, they understanding, but not clearly. They know Yeshua is the exalted one, God’s man, Messiah. They do not understand, and will not until after the resurrection, what Messiah means. They see people like walking trees. Messiah means to give people full humanity.
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Journey to Caesarea Philippi and Yeshua’s question (27), the people say he is a prophet (28), Peter says he is Messiah (29), Yeshua commands secrecy (30).
The parable of the two-stage healing (vss. 22-26) pointed to just this misunderstanding. The disciples have a higher quality of understanding Yeshua than the crowd, but not by much. They have not yet ascended in their knowledge. The classic drama of Mark is at issue in this scene. Yeshua is Messiah and Son of Man, but not as the disciples expect. To understand the reactions of the people and of the disciples to Yeshua, in their consideration of his identity and aims, we must remember that they did not know the end of the story. We must enter into the story from the middle, as they did, and try to see Yeshua. This is an exercise in faith that is valuable, since Yeshua is not simply the one who died and rose. He also is the prophet of the kingdom. The idea that John the Baptist’s spirit might have come back into Yeshua (as Elijah’s did into Elisha, see 2 Kgs 2:9, 15) is sensible. All of the suggestions of the people involve the idea of Yeshua being empowered by a spirit of a classical prophet or of John’s. This is a bit unusual and makes us wonder if it did not occur that God might simply empower a new prophet instead of filling a person with the spirit of Elijah, John, or some other prophet like Malachi or Isaiah. Yeshua is not satisfied with this answer, though we should note that it is largely true. Yeshua is a prophet like John or Elijah in many ways, a prophet of the kingdom. Yet he will say later that Elijah has already come through John. Yeshua sees his role as larger than prophet and hopes his disciples do as well. The reading of this story which has Yeshua in denial about his role as Messiah is very problematic. Yeshua clearly sees himself as something larger in role than a prophet. And his command to secrecy in vs. 30 hardly indicates that he disagrees with Peter. The disagreement is about the role of Messiah (sufferer or deliverer?). It is much easier to understand Yeshua’s command to secrecy in light of the danger of publicly declaring oneself the Messiah. See Richard Horsley’s Jesus and the Spiral of Violence for an indication of the tensions and dangers of the idea of kingship and resistance to Rome. On Yeshua’s further questioning, Peter answers that he is Messiah. Matthew expands this (“Messiah, the Son of the living God”). We might ask in what sense Peter thought Messiah was the right answer. Ideas of Messiah before the resurrection of Yeshua were much more vague and variable. Yet in various citations in Josephus, Suetonius, and Tacitus, we can confirm that the notion of a king arising in Judea and leading resistance to Rome was a popular notion. The gospels also hint this on many occasions (Luke 4:18-19, where Yeshua omits the line about vengeance from Isaiah 61 may be a hint). Not least of the hints is that Pilate had “King of the Jews” written on a placard nailed to the cross. The fact that Peter (and maybe all the disciples) recognized Yeshua as Messiah does not mean they understood Yeshua’s mission accurately and certainly not that they could put together the whole network of verses and scriptural themes that came to be associated with the Messiah idea in the New Testament. Peter’s understanding was primitive, as the next scene shows clearly. This scene in Mark is central to his purpose, to reveal Yeshua, the crucified one, as the Son of God, in all the glorious paradox and misunderstanding that surrounded his life.
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The Son of man must suffer (31), Peter and Yeshua in conflict (32-33), Yeshua explains to the crowd the total demands of discipleship (34-38).
This scene, first with Yeshua’s teaching the disciples and then with the address to the larger crowd, follows the pattern of other examples of more detailed teaching following a general truth. The general truth, stated by Peter, is that Yeshua is Messiah. The detailed teaching is now about that same topic: yes, I am Messiah, but I will suffer. Those who try to read this as if Mark thinks Yeshua, Messiah, and Son of Man are not identical have a tough interpretation to sell. The passage makes the most sense if Yeshua agrees that he is Messiah and uses the term Son of Man for himself and equates Son of Man with Messiah as well. Yeshua will use the term Son of Man repeatedly and in some cases he clearly refers to himself and in some cases clearly to an apocalyptic figure (8:38; 9:9, 12, 31; 10:33, 45; 13:26; 14:21, 41, 62). Although it is commonplace on this side of the story of Yeshua to simply assume that Son of Man equals Messiah, the many vague and cryptic references to kingly figures in various texts of the Hebrew Bible only converge on one another if we assume they are all talking about one apocalyptic figure. Daniel’s Son of Man (Dan 7:13-14) is a royal figure who has dominion, but is not clearly connected with other passages that might be deemed messianic. By Mark’s time, equating all the different messianic texts had progressed considerably. Is it possible or likely that Yeshua would already have seen all these texts worked out into a clear story of a suffering deliverer who returns as conquering king? Mark presents it this way. A historian cannot address this question with anything approaching certainty. So we are justified in reading the narrative in a straightforward manner. Yeshua tells Peter the Son of Man must suffer, by which Peter understands him to mean that Yeshua is the Son of Man, which means Messiah, and will suffer. This idea alarms Peter. The Son of Man rules. He does not suffer. He ends the evil empire. He does not succumb to it. Yeshua’s rebuke includes the idea that Peter has in mind the things of man. This likely means that it would be the way of humankind to use power to avoid suffering and that Yeshua could do this. But the way of God is to follow a hard path if it is commanded. Yeshua must have the things of God in mind, the path of suffering. Then Yeshua calls the crowd to listen in and he tells them God not only demands that Yeshua follow the path of suffering, but that they would as well. Yeshua is the Son of Man who, in the future, will come in glory and with angels. Those who follow his path, willing to suffer for love of people and fidelity to God will find his welcome. Those who choose the way of humankind over the way of God will make him ashamed when he comes as King. Following Yeshua is not merely some private commitment of religious faith. It is a literal, physical path in life that involves doing and being for others and for God in a sacrificial manner. Much religion has settled instead for the way of man, opting out of the hard road of loving people to the fullest.
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Yeshua says some will see the kingdom (1), Yeshua is transformed in their sight and Moses and Elijah appear with him (2-4), Peter suggests setting up booths (5-6), God’s voice from heaven declares Yeshua the beloved Son (7-8).
There are three scenes in Mark which might be called pillar scenes, says Ched Myers in Binding the Strongman: the baptism, transfiguration, and the death of Yeshua. In the first two, God’s voice from heaven declares Yeshua the Son. In the third, a Roman centurion declares it. All three follow the theme Mark set out in verse 1 of his gospel: to show Yeshua as the Son of God. Vs. 1 has an ambiguity about it that is likely purposeful. The statement about the kingdom of God coming is in a verb tense (perfect participle) which could be present or past. If present, it means that some will see the kingdom come in the future. If it means past, then some will see that the kingdom “has come.” Harrington prefers the idea that the kingdom is future based on Yeshua’s saying in 1:15. Mark may just be purposefully keeping up the ambiguity between whether the kingdom has arrived already through Yeshua’s actions or will arrive in the future. The larger idea seems to be that the full arrival of the kingdom is future, but wherever Yeshua is working his wonders, it has in some sense arrived. The transfiguration is best understood as the disciples seeing an early view of Yeshua in his glory (a christophany). Moses and Elijah both were understood to have mysterious ways of passing out of the world (Moses being buried by God and Elijah having ascended). They could represent many things (law and prophets, other exalted figures acknowledging Yeshua’s supremacy, foretellers of Messiah coming to point the way, etc.). The mysterious, unnamed mountain reminds of Sinai/Horeb. Peter’s strange comment perhaps means he wanted to prolong the christophany by making a booth as at the feast of Sukkot (Harrington, see Lev 23:42). The cloud again reminds us of Sinai in Exodus 19. The contrast between Yeshua transfigured and returned to normal is the paradox explored throughout Mark. He is the Son of God scandalously crucified. This theme is especially potent in comparing the transfiguration and the passion narratives. Dale Allison, in his commentary on this scene in Matthew, draws the following parallels with the passion narrative. Yeshua brought others to the Mount of Transfiguration, whereas others brought him to the Mount of Golgotha. Yeshua’s transfiguration was an elevation on a mountain and his crucifixion is an elevation on a hill and a cross. The transfiguration was private but the cross is public. The transfiguration is light, but on the cross, the sky is darkened. At the transfiguration Yeshua’s garments shine, but at the cross they are taken away from him. In the first scene, Yeshua is glorified, but in the second he is humiliated. Elijah appears at the transfiguration, but people note the absence of Elijah at the cross. Two saints stand beside Yeshua but at the cross two criminals. God affirms Yeshua’s sonship at the first, but people deny his sonship at the second. Disciples prostrate themselves in worship at the transfiguration, but soldiers mockingly bow to Yeshua at his humiliation right before the cross. The death of Yeshua is his untransfiguration.
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