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According to Mark

July 11, 2011

I’m a big fan of reading long chunks of the Bible.  I recently read several of the large Epistles in one or two sittings and was impressed at how much easier they were to understand that way.  It’s easy enough to see why this might be – the Epistles were probably meant to be read in one reading to a congregation.  Reading them in small chunks delineated by chapter and verse notation added centuries after they were written is inherently rather strange.

However, within narrative sections of the Bible it is often harder to see why reading short sections isn’t just fine.  After all, in many cases there are short self-contained stories to read.  I’d like to make the case that reading longer sections at a time has value anyway and I’d like to make this case using the Gospel of Mark.  I’ve chosen Mark primarily because I had to write Bible Study curriculum for Mark some time ago and so I can reduce the research time for this article by pulling my examples from Mark.  However, these principles apply to other parts of the Bible, especially the other gospels.

One of the main points I’d like to make here is that while Mark is broken into short sections these short sections are often clustered into longer ones.  For instance, Mark 2:15-17 is a section, as is 2:18-22, 2:23-28, and 3:1-6.  We could also say that Mark 2:15-3:6 is a section.  We’d do this by examining each story and noticing that they are all connected.  (This does assume that we can understand the smaller stories.  Without this ability stringing them together is rather like trying to read a line of nonsense words.  Since none of the words make sense the line doesn’t make any sense either.  However, the flip side of this is that the more there is to unlock the more impetus there is to learn to understand these shorter stories.)

Mark 2:15-17 is a story about the people with whom Jesus eats.  Essentially, he’s eating with the wrong people, breaking the Pharisees’ extremely strict ideas about ceremonial cleanliness (for whatever reason the Pharisees seem to have insisted that good Jews not eat with certain undesirables – see also Galatians 2:11-12).  The Pharisees challenge Jesus on this point and he replies, famously, that it’s the sick who need a doctor.

Mark 2:18-22 is also a story about eating, specifically a story about not eating.  People, presumably just everyday people, ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast when the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees fast.  Jesus’ reply uses two metaphors but revolves around one idea.  First, Jesus is special.  He has brought about something wonderful and new and so celebration, not fasting, should be the response.  Secondly, Jesus’ new thing cannot simply be placed into the old systems – it would break them.  It requires new systems.

Mark 2:23-28 is a story about the Sabbath.  The Pharisees challenge Jesus because his disciples are picking grain while they walk on the Sabbath, an activity that good first century Jews would consider to be harvesting, a banned activity on the Sabbath.  Jesus responds by referencing a story found in 1 Samuel 21 in which David breaks the Law but it seems to be okay because David is doing something very important that is part of God’s plan.  Having referenced this story Jesus declares that the Sabbath was made for people, not the other way around.  (Presumably this is something that the story demonstrates, that the Law exists for God’s purposes and can be flexed when it stands in the way of those purposes.)  He then declares that he is lord of the Sabbath, presumably because of his special place in God’s plan.

The last story in the sequence, Mark 3:1-6 is also about the Sabbath.  Here Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, challenging his onlookers by asking them whether it is Lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

If we put all four stories together we see something else: they are four stories about ceremonial laws.  In all four cases Jesus’ response is to break the law for the sake of God’s purposes.  Two of the laws are not found in the Torah but are interpretations of later Judaism (the issues of who to eat with and the fasts).  These two laws Jesus breaks entirely.  In the case of the Sabbath, which is the in Torah, Jesus respects the spirit of the law but not the letter (and especially not the letter as interpreted by the Pharisees and scribes).  Taken together these four stories are themselves a unit that describes Jesus’ response to ceremonial law with some nuance.

This is hardly the only such unit in Mark.  In Mark 4:35-41 Jesus calms a storm. In Mark 5:1-20 Jesus expels a whole group of demons from a raging, powerful demoniac.  In Mark 5:21-43 two stories are woven together.  In one Jesus heals a woman of a bleeding issue that has afflicted her (and left her ceremonially unclean) for twelve years.  In the other Jesus brings a dead girl back to life.  All three stories are power stories, where Jesus performs incredible miracles.  However, they are also all rescue stories.  In the first story the disciples are terrified that the storm will kill them and Jesus.  In the second story the demoniac is the unexpected object of mercy, restored to sanity and a normal life.  In the third story the recipients of mercy are both women, one unclean and the other a child, and so both of low social rank or perceived importance.  Not only are the stories all power stories and rescue stories but the rescue theme itself is building over time.

That’s not all.  Immediately after these stories of Jesus rescuing the afflicted with his power Jesus is rejected in his hometown (Mark 6:1-6).  Presumably we were supposed to notice this juxtaposition.  In another place the two parts of a story do not follow each other nearly so closely.  Mark 1:12-13 is the entire temptation narrative in Mark.  Unlike Luke (4:1-13) there is no discussion of what Satan says to Jesus or even who wins.  Jesus is tempted for forty days and that’s it.  Except, of course, it’s not.  Two chapters later, in Mark 3:22-27 the scribes accuse Jesus of using the powers of Satan.  Jesus answers, quite logically, that if he is going about casting out demons and generally undermining Satan’s work (which he has been doing between these two stories) then he cannot be of Satan.  In fact, “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man.”  Jesus must have fought Satan and won.  That’s the end of the temptation story.

Now, I’m mostly interested in discussing the value of reading large sections here.  It’s something everyone should do.  It’s something that brings to light a lot of things that can easily be missed otherwise.  However, I’d like to point something else out.  What we’re discussing here is, by and large, authorial decision.  Mark does not tell us anything like three years of material.  He picks and chooses (guided by the Holy Spirit) from that material and puts it all together.  By putting it together Mark can draw our attention to certain features.  We don’t need to hear every story where Jesus addresses ceremonial laws (and you can bet that there were dozens), four of them back-to-back should drive the point home.  A lot of people are leery of saying things like this.  In their mind, once we say that, we’re saying Mark lied.  These stories might not have happened in that order.  There’s a simple response to this: who cares?  It’s a convention in our culture that we tell histories in a linear fashion but it’s not at all clear that this is a universal convention.  What would be inherently wrong about Mark arranging his material by subject and not chronology?  I cannot imagine that anyone would believe that God was capable of inspiring the words of the Bible but that Mark could then pull one over on Him when it came to the order of the stories.

If longer units have something to say to us them we should read them.  This is not a hard case to make.  We don’t always need to read the whole larger section all at once but we do need to remember that the smaller stories may be connected into a much larger one.

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