Archive for the ‘Gospel of Mark’ Category

I’m continuing to ponder Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman. Here I’m thinking through a thought, rather than presenting any sort of hypothesis: is the reader of Mark really expected to believe that Jesus wasn’t intending to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter?

I ask this because there are many readings of the passage in which the woman is said to change Jesus’ mind.

Let me unpack my ponderances…

  • It’s clear that there are significant historical animosities between the Jews and the repatriated northern kingdom (2 Kings 17), but the woman is not requesting anything that would contravene Jewish law or sensibilities, is she? The reader of Mark knows that Jesus can heal at a distance, and that he is happy to heal unclean demon-possessed people in Gentile territory (Mark 5). Wouldn’t the reader expect the same thing to happen here?
  • The reader of Mark has already come across numerous points at which the ministry of Jesus seems to echo the ministry of Elijah/Elisha, but on a more massive scale: the ministry of John the Baptist; being attended by animals in the wilderness; healing a man with leprosy; multiplying loaves; etc. We have been told explicitly that some people think Jesus is Elijah (6:15). Now we see that Jesus enters the territory where Elijah healed a woman’s child – a fact elsewhere explicitly acknowledged by Jesus (Luke 4). Aren’t we being set up to expect that Jesus will heal the child?
  • The reader of Mark has also already seen that Jesus does not categorise ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in the way that the Pharisees do (Mark 7). And, as mentioned, we have already seen that Jesus is not put off by the (extreme) uncleanness of an unclean Gentile (Mark 5).
  • Further, the reader of Mark has already become familiar with the pattern of seeing a hurdle placed in front of those who come to Jesus pleading for help, which gives them an opportunity to express bold faith (e.g. the full house; the need for the bleeding woman to go public; the death of Jairus’ daughter). So isn’t it natural for the reader of Mark to suppose that the same thing is happening here, when Jesus offers his initial response?

These things are pushing me to think that the Syrophoenician mother is not changing Jesus’ mind. So what, then, is the point of including this episode in Mark’s Gospel? I think it functions to underline the motif of Jesus as bread for the world. But I’m still thinking that through…


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I remember a few years ago I watched the movie The Machinist, starring Christian Bale. I thought it explored some interesting issues, and I later went online to see what people were saying about it. I encountered one online forum in which someone suggested that he had found a mistake in the film: the clock appeared to be showing exactly the same time at different times of day in the film. Now, the observation was correct, but the assertion that it was a mistake betrayed the fact that this person had missed what the film was trying to do with that motif: the viewer was supposed to be provoked by this apparent problem to look deeper into what was happening within the movie.

I think the same thing can happen with the Bible. I’m currently thinking about Mark’s interaction with the Syrophoenician woman, and pondering why Mark includes this episode. Here are some of the numerous questions I’m currently thinking about:

  • Why did Jesus go to Tyre in the first place? To get a break? But he already knew there were people in this region who were interested in him (3:6-12) To reach the Gentiles? But he had already done this decisively in the Decapolis (5:1). Because of an impulse to follow the ministries of Elijah/Elisha? If so, why? To escape Herod Antipas?
  • Why does Jesus initially rebuff the woman? Because he is not convinced that it is time to go to the ‘unclean’ Gentiles? But he has already intentionally gone to the uncleanest unclean Gentile imaginable – a bleeding, grave-dwelling, pig-lover in the Decapolis! And he willingly cleansed him. Is it because he can’t imagine opening his healing ministry to the child of a Canaanite woman? But this would not have been a shocking thing for a Jew: Elijah had done exactly this in exactly the same area – a fact which Jesus elsewhere explicitly approves at the beginning of his ministry (Luke 4:25-26). Is it in order to engender a response that he wishes to hear? If so, why?
  • Why mention that when Jesus leaves Tyre, he goes to the Sea of Galilee via Sidon? This is clearly the complete wrong direction.

I have a few hunches about some of these questions, but I’m still thinking them through. I had a browse online to see what other people are saying, and I found some similar comments to those I found about The Machinist: ‘Aha! Mark has made a mistake! He thinks Sidon is on the way to the Sea of Galilee!’ But as a master storyteller, couldn’t it be that Mark is doing something similar to the director of that movie? Perhaps he’s provoking the reader, causing us to ask, ‘What, why go to this classic Gentile duo of Tyre and Sidon??’ It might be that by paying attention to apparent anomalies like these that we will attune ourselves to what Mark wants us to see in Jesus’ ministry.

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Later this week, I’ll be looking at Mark 15 with my NT class. I did some work on this passage last year, and noted a number of intriguing things in the narrative:

Firstly, Jesus is frequently on the receiving end of the action. Notice the number of things that are done to Jesus in chapter 15: they lead him away, they put a robe on him, they put a crown on him, they strike him, etc… This changes when it comes to a climax and Jesus is in the active voice – what does he do? He cries and he dies.

Secondly, Jesus’ kingly glory is not what his disciples expected. The attentive hearer of Mark’s Gospel can’t help but recall the request of James and John to sit at his right and his left in his glory… now here is Jesus, installed as king in chapter 15, and the positions at his right and his left are crosses.

Thirdly, Jesus’ vindication corresponds with his mocking. While the soldiers had taunted and mocked Jesus as a failed king, the centurion himself acknowledges that he is Son of God. While the chief priests and elders had mocked Jesus as a failed saviour, the temple curtain itself rips in two upon the accomplishment of his atonement.

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I’m currently reading a chapter of Mark’s Gospel each day with 6yo Cara and 4yo Luke. Along the way, they’ve been intrigued by the way in which Jesus tells people to keep quiet about his identity. Today we finally hit Caesarea Philippi, where it becomes evident that the disciples have begun to grasp who Jesus is. But when I read v30, “and Jesus warned them that they should speak to no one about him,” Cara dropped her jaw and rolled her eyes: “what? still???!!”

It’s somehow very invigorating to see this live interaction between children and text, as they encounter the Messianic Secret for the first time. I told them that when we get to the end of Mark’s Gospel, I’m going to ask them why they think Jesus wanted to keep things so secret – I’ll be intrigued to hear their thoughts!

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I’m just thinking a little more about Casey’s approach to the “son of man problem.” If I’m reading him rightly, he contends that the Gospel-writers (Mark in particular, being the earliest) faithfully rendered the Aramaic versions of bar (e)nash(a) from the lips of Jesus into the fixed Greek form ho huios tou anthropou. This was a direct translation, and was made consistently definite in order to preserve consistency of reference to Jesus for the sake of the Evangelists’ audience. But the problem came when, after the church became overwhelmingly Gentile, these non-Aramaic speakers could no longer detect the obvious generic Aramaism behind the fixed Greek expression, so the church fathers interpreted ho huios tou anthropou as a fixed title, derived from the supposed Messianic prophecy of Daniel 7:13.

But here’s my question (and keep in mind I often say things before thinking them through properly): Doesn’t Mark’s practice of transliterating and then translating Aramaisms for his audience (e.g. talitha koum, which means, ‘I say to you, little girl, get up’) mean that from the outset Mark would have been aware of the potential problem being caused by giving a consistently definite fixed expression in place of an indefinite generic Aramaic expression? Or, to put it another way, did Mark really envisage an audience competent to detect a generic Aramaism behind a fixed Greek expression in the first place? Or, to put it yet another way, given that Mark clearly knows how to give help to non-Aramaic speakers when he thinks it is needed, isn’t he knowingly allowing readers to come to the impression that the fathers came to – that Jesus used the term son of man as a fixed title?

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I’ve been reading Mark’s Gospel lately, and as I read yesterday about Jesus turfing people out of the temple, one word stood out to me: ἐδίδασκεν. He was teaching them. The whole section gives the impression of being carefully planned by Jesus, for the purpose of making a point to his disciples…

  • He gives detailed instructions to two disciples about getting a (Messianically significant) foal – perhaps having pre-arranged this with the owners
  • He makes a point of cursing a figtree which is not even in season – for failing to produce fruit
  • He enters the temple, which has, throughout Mark, been depicted as failing to produce the fruit of true purification
  • As if trying to force the hand of his opponents, Jesus makes a ruckus in the temple, seizing on a relatively mild symptom of the temple’s fruitlessness
  • And in the midst of this, Mark tells us that Jesus ἐδίδασκεν.

Exciting stuff… can’t wait to find out how it ends! 😉

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I’ve just been looking back at Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ, and noticed he has an interesting little summary of what’s going on in Mark’s Gospel. He suggests that the lack of a birth narrative and the lack of a resurrection appearance narrative might be evidence of Mark’s intention to present Jesus as a realistic model for disciples:

Whether Mark knew of any miraculous birth tradition we cannot say. But if he did, he had good reason for not including one in a story of Jesus shaped to serve as a paradigm for his readers. As Christians, their life too began with their baptism, and Mark emphasizes that they too are called to follow Jesus in proclaiming the gospel and with a readiness to undergo persecution, trusting that if they lose their life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, they shall receive eschatological vindication (e.g. 8:34-38). Likewise, no resurrection appearance was necessary or even appropriate. For readers who are to live with trust in God for their own vindication, it was sufficient to affirm that God has raised Jesus, the paradigmatic figure for their own lives and hopes (16:5-6). p311.

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