Friday, July 16, 2021

A Detour in John's Gospel

A Detour in John’s Gospel:
John 5:1-47.

A few years ago, simply for my own interest, I put together all the selections from the Gospel according to John included in the Revised Common Lectionary.  Though John, unlike the other Gospels, is not featured in any one year of the Lectionary, it gets generous selections along the way. 

Included are the “Logos” prologue, the wedding in Cana, the cleansing of the temple, the night meeting with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, five weeks on the Bread of Life story and discourse (chapter 6), the healing of the man born blind (chapter 9), and the raising of Lazarus.

Not included in the Lectionary is anything from chapter 5 of John.  This is a healing story with sequels, probably omitted in favor of the similar healing story in chapter 9 (reading for Year A, 4th Sunday in Lent.) 

I have found the chapter 5 story and discourses interesting in their own right and have done the following studies of them, as if they were in the Lectionary.  These were written in 2018.

John 5:1-18. 

This passage is remarkable for three things:  (1) the healing at the Sheep Gate pool, Bethesda, (2) the accusation of Sabbath violation, and (3) Jesus’ declaration about his and God’s working. 

(1) The healing story has several interesting details – interesting, though not essential to the larger narrative.  

The details of the place have busied scholars over the ages.  The “Sheep Gate” is apparently at the northeastern corner of the old city, just north of the Temple site (near the present “Lions” or “St. Stephen’s Gate”).  The pool has different names in different manuscripts of the Gospel:  “Bethesda” in the great majority of late manuscripts (after which many modern hospitals are named); “Beth-zatha,” preferred by current scholars as probably the earliest reading; and other spellings include “Bethsaida,” otherwise known as a town in northern Galilee. 

“Healing at the Pool of Bethesda,” painting in Vienna, by Pedro de Orrente, about 1620.
Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity Library.

This pool was the center of a healing area.  The original story assumed hearers were familiar with the healing powers of the pool, but centuries later scribes added verses 3b-4 (missing in most early manuscripts) to explain the old custom to hearers in later times. 

Periodically a heavenly messenger (“angel”) came and stirred up the waters of the pool, and the first person to get into the water after the stirring was healed of their malady.  The disabled man in this story could never get there soon enough, and so he had been waiting for 38 years for a chance to get healed.  Jesus sees this man, and “knowing” [the Greek means he comprehended the whole situation], offered to heal him. 

The healing happens at Jesus’ command:  “Get up!  Pick up your mat and walk” (verse 8, CEB).  These are the exact words with which Jesus commands the paralytic to rise and walk in Mark 2:1-12, and the two stories probably have a common ancestry in early tradition.  The unusual word for “mat,” krabatton, is used several times in these two stories.  The paralytic in the Mark story has his sins forgiven, which is the equivalent to being healed – the primary point in that story.  There is an echo of that point in the John story when Jesus later says to the healed man, “See!  You have been made well.  Don’t sin anymore...” (verse 14).  

(2) But it all happened on a Sabbath!  This is only mentioned as an after-thought (verse 9), but as John’s story develops it becomes the main point. 

“The Judeans” [“Jews” in later European translations] accost the healed man for carrying his “mat” on a Sabbath.  “The man who healed me made me do it,” explained the now able-bodied man.  They ask who that was, but the man doesn’t know.  Later, Jesus warns the man about sinning, and the healed one runs back to tell the authorities it was Jesus that gave him the orders.  (Commentators are divided about whether this was an innocent mistake or a very ungrateful act.) 

Finally we arrive at the crux of this healing story:  Jesus was responsible for making people violate the Sabbath laws!  The Judeans begin to “harass” (CEB) Jesus, even plan to kill him (verse 18), because of his crimes against the Sabbath.  This leads us to the real point of the chapter – Jesus’ reply. 

(3) Jesus’ declaration to the Judeans is bold and challenging.  “My Father is still working and I am working too” (verse 17, CEB). 

The first thing to notice about this reply is that Jesus chooses to talk about “working”! 

Working has to do with the Sabbath!  Everybody knows from Genesis 2:1-3 that God “works” for six days, but ceases work on the seventh day, and humans honor that model by observing the Sabbath.  Jesus says, God is still working, and (therefore) so am I.  One thing this means is that in God’s view right now is NOT a Sabbath.  Divine work is going on because THE Sabbath has not yet come.  In God’s economy, this is not yet the seventh day, when God will cease working.  The real work of God is still going on – and as long as it is, Jesus will be working!  

(See the same viewpoint in 9:4, "We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work," NRSV.)  

But the really challenging thing about Jesus’ reply is the implication that God’s work and Jesus’ work are coordinated – that they are on the same plane, equally divine! 

The Judeans recognize correctly what Jesus means, and indict him accordingly:  “...he was doing away with the Sabbath ... [and was] making himself equal with God” (verse 18). 

The charges are now fully developed, and the stage is set for Jesus’ monologue in defense, which comes next. 


John 5:19-30.  This monologue has three speeches that begin “Amen, amen” (“Very truly” in NRSV; “I assure you” in CEB), verses 19, 24, and 25.  Each speech is relatively independent.  

(1)  19Jesus said to them, “very truly [amen, amen] I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.  20The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished.  21Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.  22The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, 23so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.  Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.  (John 5:19-23, NRSV.)  

(2) 24Very truly [amen, amen], I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but  has passed from death to life.  (John 5:24, NRSV.)  

(3)  25Very truly [amen, amen], I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.  26For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; 27and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.  28Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation.  (John 5:25-29, NRSV.) 

 30”I can do nothing on my own.  As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.  (John 5:30, NRSV.) 

The first speech has Jesus speak of the “Son” in the third person – “the Father loves the Son...” (verse 20).  Then in the second speech, verse 24, Jesus speaks in the first person, “anyone who hears my word...”  Verse 25 then goes back to “Son” language, “...the dead will hear the voice of the Son...”  The final verse of the passage (30) repeats the opening verse (19), but now in first person speech instead of third:  “I can do nothing on my own...” 

The third person speech in verses 19-23 and 25-29 may be a clue to the background of such Son-and-Father language.  The message of these verses is that the Son does exactly what the Father does, including raising the dead. 

God and Son of Man in Daniel.  This kind of God-and-Son situation is presented in Daniel 7:9-10 + 13-14.  There the “Ancient One” (God Most High) sits in judgment on the evil empires that have been ruining the earth.  That Ancient One then receives in the heavenly court “one like a human being” (literally “like a son of man” – a human to replace the inhuman beasts of Daniel 7:1-8).  That Human One is given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14, NRSV). 

The assumption in the Daniel vision is that God empowers the “Son of Man” to carry out God’s rule over the earthly powers.  The Son of Man is the implement to establish God’s rule.  He thus does exactly what God is in fact doing (through him). 

The Daniel passage does not have any speech between the Ancient One and the Human One, but the Most High is definitely giving authority and power to the newly arrived Human One.  If the Human One were to speak to others about his authority and mission, he could say the very things Jesus says about the “Son” in John 5:19-30. 

(Modern commentators on John do not seem to have observed this Daniel background to this Son-Father speech, but it seems to me it exactly fits the language used in John 5:19-30.) 

The central verse in this passage, where Jesus speaks in the first person (verse 24), is very awesome:  “Very truly [amen, amen] I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (NRSV).  This verse alone states the central message of the entire Gospel. 

Resurrection.  The Son’s power to raise the dead is elaborated in the second third-person speech (verses 25-29).    “For the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [the Son’s] voice and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (verses 28-29, NRSV).  (The resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked is also promised in Daniel:  “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” Daniel 12:2.  This promise of the two-fold resurrection is given nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible.) 

In Jesus’ own voice, this promise of a resurrected life is a truly spectacular claim for those who bet their lives on the truth of Jesus’ gospel! 


John 5:31-47. 

First, this passage is about “testimonies” – who vouches for the truth of Jesus’ identity and authority.  (The Greek word-group involved here is marturéō; to witness, testify; marturía, a witnessing, a testimony; and mártus, one who witnesses, testifies [in later times, “a martyr.”]  These words occur eleven times in verses 31 to 39.) 

Secondly, this passage is not about “Son” and “Father”; it is about “me” and “you (plural).”  There is no third-person speech here; everything is direct address by Jesus to the unbelieving Judeans.  This is accusation and condemnation of the opponents, those who do not believe, who do not accept the “testimony” to “me.” 

The issue in this passage is, what does it take to get the Judeans to believe in Jesus as the one sent by God?  What testimony can be offered?  The passage will consider five possibilities. 

First, Jesus’ own testimony can’t be used (verse 31).  From other people’s viewpoint, he is the question, not the answer.  (A slightly different rhetorical tack is taken on this topic at 8:13-18.) 

Secondly, Jesus knows that John the Witness (“the Baptist,” though never called that in this Gospel) gave true testimony to him.  The Judeans even sent people to question John about that, and for a while he was “a burning and shining lamp” in whose light the Judeans were willing to rejoice (verses 32-35). 

Third, there is a testimony “greater than John’s,” namely, “the works that the Father has given me to complete” (verse 36).  These, of course, are such things as healing the disabled man at the pool of the Sheep’s Gate.  (See also Nicodemus’ testimony in John 3:2.) 

And, apparently as a testimony separate from the mighty works, “the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf” (verse 37).  This seems to refer to one of the divine speeches in which God addresses Jesus as “son,” since Jesus goes on to say, “You [Judeans] have never heard his voice or seen his form [as I have], and you do not have his word abiding in you...” (verses 37-38).  Unlike Jesus and those who believe in him, the Judeans do not have the rapport with God the Father that would enable them to “hear” the divine testimony to Jesus. 

The fifth and final possible testimony to Jesus is the scriptures.  Here the Judeans have a great advantage.  These are THEIR holy writings.  “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life” (verse 39).  These should be convincing because “it is they that testify on my behalf”!  Yet, “you refuse to come to me to have life” (verse 40).  There clearly were very different ways of reading the scriptures! 

In a kind of peroration (verses 41-47), Jesus ticks off more reasons why the Judeans are not able to believe in him.  “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?” (verse 44).  And as a final shot at their pride in the scriptures, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (verse 46). 

(Note:  It should be obvious that there is nothing “fair” – much less “true” – about these slams at the “Judeans.”  Like Matthew 23, these statements are fierce propagandistic slurs fired at  powerful enemies in the religious wars of Jesus believers against synagogue teachers – possibly at an early time in Judea, more likely well after 70 CE in Asia Minor [Ephesus].)

Jesus has recited many testimonies why the Judeans should believe in him – rather than plan to kill him! 


Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Jesus and the Sabbath

 Jesus and the Sabbath

Because Easter moves around – sometimes early, sometimes late – in our civil calendar, the Lectionary readings “after Pentecost” have to be adjusted.  (If Easter is late, there are fewer Sundays “after Pentecost.”)  What was the Gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost in 2018 was omitted entirely in 2021, when Easter was a little late. 

The Gospel reading omitted in 2021 was Mark 2:23-3:6, two controversy stories about Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath.  I think this reading is interesting enough to make a separate posting in this Bible Studies blog.  

Mark 2:23-3:6.  

This reading is two “conflict” episodes in which Jesus answers charges that he is violating the Sabbath commandment.  I believe that the usual treatments of these episodes have seriously trivialized what are in fact profound affirmations of the Jesus movement.  Thus, the following comments are not very standard commentary material. 

The Context.  Scholars have long recognized that Mark 2:1-3:6 is a collection of five “conflict stories,” which presents the opposition of the Judean leaders to Jesus’ message and mission.  The scribes and the Pharisees indict Jesus for not observing the Law as they teach it, which means they deny who he really is, “the Son of Man.” 

Read as they stand (without theories about editorial changes) these passages present four ways the Jesus people differ from the Pharisees. 

  • Jesus, the Son of Man, can forgive sins, 2:1-12. 
  • Jesus calls and has table fellowship with people excluded by Pharisees as “tax collectors and sinners,” 2:13-17. 
  • Jesus replaced old Pharisee practices (like weekly fasting) with New Wine (new forms of religious practice) based on Messianic joy, 2:18-22. 
  • Jesus is Lord of the sabbath, over-riding the old trivial sabbath rules of the Pharisees, 2:23-27 and 3:1-6. 

I will attend more closely to the Sabbath controversy episodes.  

First Conflict:  Eating grain on the Sabbath, 2:23-27.  

While walking through the grain fields, Jesus’ disciples pull off a few heads of grain and eat them.  The Pharisees say, “That’s unlawful on the sabbath!” 

Commentators take us into details about when that is and is not a violation of sabbath rules as interpreted in Biblical and Rabbinic texts.  Very few cry out, “What a ridiculously trivial little issue is this!!”  To be an actual violation you have to pull off enough grain to qualify as “reaping”!  Does our text even vaguely entertain that kind of question?  No. 

The main point, of course, is Jesus’ reply.  

Without any obvious connection with the sabbath, he refers them to an episode in the story of David.  David once entered the sanctuary of the Lord and took the most holy bread because he and his men were hungry.  The episode is in I Samuel 21:1-6. Commentators will tell you various corrections in Jesus’ reading of that passage, but it's pretty trivial stuff. 

Jesus’ real point is the big picture of David the Anointed Fugitive.  You must read the whole narrative of the Young David, I Samuel 16 to 26. 

Throughout these chapters David has been secretly anointed by the Lord as the future king (I Samuel 16:1-13).  He and others throughout the stories refer very reverently to the “Lord’s anointed” – who must be protected and revered.  

For example, in I Samuel 25:28-31 Abigail argues David out of shedding the blood of the "fool" Nabal:  "When the Lord [Yahweh] has done to my lord [David] according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel, my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause..."

And David himself is careful to protect "the Lord's anointed":  He says to King Saul, who is trying to kill him, "I will not raise my hand against my lord [Saul]; for he is the Lord's [Yahweh's] anointed," (I Samuel 24:10).  And later, having spared Saul again, David says, "Do not destroy him; for who can raise his hand against the Lord's [Yahweh's] anointed and be guiltless?" (26:9).  

The David of I Samuel is the Lord of the future, secretly anointed, persecuted by the established authorities of his time (King Saul and his army), but who is marvelously protected both from his enemies and from engaging in behavior inappropriate for “the Lord’s anointed.” 

That is who David was when he took holy bread from the sanctuary to feed his men – and that is who Jesus really is when his disciples eat grain on the sabbath. 

Indeed, Jesus was Lord of the sabbath – and the Pharisees did not know that he was the New David, come again as the secret and persecuted “anointed of the Lord.” 

Second Conflict:  Healing the man with the withered hand, 3:1-6.  

                 "Man with the Withered Hand," James Tissot, 1836-1902.
                    Courtesy of the Divinity Library, Vanderbilt University.

Here we have a very different approach to the violation of the sabbath. 

This is a set-piece stand-off between Jesus and the Pharisee opponents.  Almost no details:  In the synagogue on a sabbath, a man with a withered hand, the opponents (“they”) watching expectantly for Jesus to violate the sabbath.  No discovery here:  this is a challenge and response.  Jesus knows their wicked thoughts, brings the disabled man to center stage, and makes a challenging speech.  Listen carefully to the extreme dimensions posed in the speech: 

“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” 

“To save life or to kill”? 

We have a withered hand before us, not a threat of death or terror.  The withered hand obviously could wait another day until it was not a sabbath.  Some issue much greater than simply the hand is on the table.  Jesus says the sabbath issue can be a matter of life and death.  We are not talking trivial oral-torah rulings about what is “work” on the sabbath (the Pharisees’ specialty). 

What else?  After a sullen silence from the opponents, Jesus gets mad and – still knowing, without speech, where the opponents stand – “he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”  What does that remind you of?  Where have you heard of hardening of the heart? 

How about Pharaoh and Moses in the Exodus story?  Here we are in another stand-off between the savior God sends and the powerful enemies who oppose and threaten him. 

Jesus heals the withered hand – showing who he really is.  But the enemies know that the real issue is indeed one of life and death – and they act accordingly: 

“The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (verse 6).  This was indeed not simply an issue of a trivial sabbath rule! 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

MARK: Story of the Messiah in Action


MARK:   Story of the Messiah in Action 

As users of the Revised Common Lectionary know, Year B (2018, 2021, etc.) is the year of Mark’s Gospel.  From Advent 2020 to Advent 2021 there will be 30 Sundays with Gospel readings from Mark, and in other years, with different dates for Easter, there can be as many as 37 readings from Mark.  Thus, a little introduction to this Gospel as we enter Year B may be in place.

As indicated below, compared to the other Gospels, Mark emphasizes Jesus’ actions more than Jesus’ teachings.  However, many of the actions that tend to reveal who Jesus is he tries to keep secret.  Thus, the reputation of Mark’s Gospel is that it presents Jesus as the Secret Messiah in Action.  

[A note on terminology.  The words “Jew,” “Jews,” and “Jewish” are avoided here when the subject is the people referred to in the New Testament.  These words are later translations into European languages of the Greek word ’Ioudaíos, which, more literally translated, is “Judean” and “Judeans.”  This is a respectful reminder that there are no “Jews” in the New Testament; only “Judeans” and peoples of the nations (“gentiles”).] 

Contents of this Essay:  
About Mark
Hearing Mark (Contents)
The Meaning of Mark 

About Mark

Basic Data about the Gospel According to Mark

1.  Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels. 

Matthew                          1,070 verses.

Mark                                  678 verses.
Luke                                1,151 verses.
John                                  878 verses. 
(These counts are from the “Received Text” and include later additions to original texts, such as the 2nd century ending added to Mark [Mark 16:9-20].) 

2.  Mark is more about the Action of Jesus than the Teaching of Jesus.

Jesus speech in Matthew                            647 verses.           60%     

Jesus speech in Mark                                  288 verses.           42%
Jesus speech in Luke                                  591 verses.           51% 
Jesus speech in John                                   429 verses.           49% 

(The quantities of Jesus speech are based on the red-letter printing in The King James Study Bible, Thomas Nelson, copyright Liberty University, 1988.  The verses are the same in both English and Greek.) 

3.  Mark is a “synoptic” Gospel. 

·        The first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) share a basic story line, though with major variations in the two larger Gospels.  (Older tradition, from the second century on, viewed Matthew as the earliest Gospel, the others supplementing or abbreviating it.) 

·        West European scholars, beginning in the eighteenth century, became interested in the “history” of these works, how and why they have common materials but are still quite different (eventually called “the Synoptic Problem”). 

·        To advance this study, they created the Synopsis (meaning “view together”), which printed the three Gospels in parallel columns, with the similar (sometimes identical) passages side-by-side. 

·        The Synopsis showed that some passages (with small variations) appear in all three Gospels; some passages appear in only two Gospels (mostly Matthew and Luke), and some passages appear in only one Gospel (many in Matthew or Luke; very few in Mark only). 

·        Close study of the Synopsis gradually convinced scholars that Mark was the earliest Gospel, not Matthew.  The details of the parallel passages make most sense if Matthew and Luke took over material from Mark, rather than the reverse. 

4.  Mark has no Author.

All of the Gospels in the New Testament are anonymous.  (The title "According to Mark" was added in the second century when the four Gospel scrolls began to be copied into a single codex, "book.")  None of the Gospels says who the speaker or writer is.  The speaker in Luke does come out on stage to tell what he is about, speaking to his sponsor, but he does not tell us who HE is (Luke 1:1-4). 

It is clear that in the first Christian century, people did not care about “authorship” of Gospels.  Gospels began to be written only after the first generation of disciples had died off.  They are second generation works.  Each Gospel speaks to and for a considerable body of believers in its metropolitan region, presenting the accumulated tradition about the Messiah who brought them deliverance from the coming judgment of God. 

5.  Later Christians thought the Gospel was written by (John) Mark in Rome.

In the second century, Christians decided they had four and only four real Gospels.   Only “apostolic” writings were authoritative, and each Gospel was assigned an origin that was apostolic, in their view.  Matthew was from the apostle Levi; John was from the aged "beloved disciple" in Ephesus.  Luke was not an apostle, but he had been a long-term companion of Paul (Acts 16-28) and his Gospel was Paul’s.  An early tradition reported that a man named “Mark” had been the interpreter/assistant of Peter in Rome, and the Gospel according to Mark was in fact Peter’s Gospel. 

Luke’s work, Acts of the Apostles, mentioned a "John whose other name was Mark."  The mother of this John/Mark had a well-to-do house church in Jerusalem where Peter was prominent (Acts 12).  This Mark was a cousin of Barnabas, sponsor of and co-worker with Paul.  Mark accompanied them in their work, and when Barnabas and Paul separated he went with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-39).  Paul occasionally mentioned the valuable help of a “Mark” in his later letters (Philemon 24 and Colossians 4:10), which could be a reference to the same man. 

The letter of I Peter, probably not by the “true” Peter, has the comment, “Your sister church in Babylon [Rome]…sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.”  This locates “Mark” in Rome and definitely associates him with Peter, whenever this was written. 

About 180 of the Christian Era, the churchman Ireneas wrote:  “So Matthew among the Hebrews issued a Writing of the gospel in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel at Rome and founding the Church.  After their decease Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what Peter had preached.”  (Against Heresies, III, 1, trans. Edward Rochie Hardy, in Early Christian Writers, vol. 1, Westminster, 1953, p. 370.) 

That remained the view of the origin of the Gospel According to Mark until the nineteenth century. 

6.      My Conclusion. 

The Gospel was dictated by an experienced reciter of the oral lore to a (professional) scribe in Rome, sometime after the death of Peter (64 to 70 CE).  It was an essentially Galilean-oriented presentation, though it had come to Rome (as had both Paul and Peter in the early 60’s) and become authoritative there, with perhaps a few adaptations to the new setting.  It circulated early, on written scrolls, to other Christian centers, where Matthew (Syria) and Luke (Greece) knew it.  It was probably preserved after the other Gospels became more popular, and held its place as one of the four, precisely because it was the Gospel of Rome.

 Hearing Mark (Contents)

A recent commentator on Mark begins his work this way: 

The Gospel of Mark is a written text to be read aloud, all at once… Before proceeding, the reader is advised to cease and desist from reading all secondary literature (including this commentary) and to read the Markan narrative itself as a whole—or better yet, to listen as the story is read aloud by someone else.  (M. Eugene Boring, Mark. A Commentary, “The New Testament Library,” Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, page 1.) 

Hearing rather then reading.  This recommendation comes from the recognition – finally – that the Biblical world was an ORAL world.  Throughout the 20th century, study of the Gospels was mostly caught in the “Gutenberg Galaxy,” the mass of unconscious assumptions imprinted on Western scholars by constant exposure to the printed page.  Scholars talked constantly – and only – about "writing," “authors,” and “books.”  (If they were going to be historically accurate they would have spoken of reciters rather than writers and they would have banned the word “book” and spoken only of scrolls.) 

The ancient world was ORAL; few could read; most people listened – and many were good listeners!  The scrolls, besides being rare, required practiced readers who could turn unvocalized (Hebrew) and unpunctuated (Greek) texts into intelligible oral performances. That’s how the Scriptures lived for early Christians.  (Among many resent writings on this topic, see especially Antoinette Clark Wire, The Case for Mark Composed in [Oral] Performance (Cascade Books, Wipf & Stock, 2011). 

Contents.  The above is a preface to hearing Mark, but we still need to address the question, what do we find when we look into and listen to this Gospel?  

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, teacher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, published Hearing Mark: A Listener’s Guide (Trinity Press International, 2002).  She describes a project she did with community churches (Protestant and Catholic), which concluded with a “performance” of Mark.  There were four sessions, each devoted to listening to a large hunk of Mark:  Kingdom (Mark 1-4:34), Community (Mark 4:35-8:26), Discipleship (Mark 8:22-10:52), and Suffering (Mark 11:1-16:8). 

That is one way of identifying major themes in the successive sections of the Gospel. 

While scholars divide Mark in many ways, most recognize that, whatever else is true, Mark has two major sections, following a theme-setting introduction. 

  1. Mark 1:1-13 is a succinct introduction.  John the Baptist is introduced, baptizes Jesus, who is empowered by God’s spirit and certified by the heavenly voice as God’s son.  Jesus is then tempted, setting up the cosmic struggle between God’s Spirit and Satan that is the real drama behind what follows. 
  2. Mark 1:14-8:30 presents Jesus active in Galilee.  He proclaims that God’s kingdom is at hand, and acts accordingly.  He recruits disciples, exorcises unclean spirits, forgives sins, and in general exercises divine authority in ways people have not seen before.  They flock to him, hear his parables, and receive his healing, feeding, and compassion.  In all this, the demons know he is really the Son of God who will destroy them, and the scribes and Pharisees criticize and oppose him.  Jesus urges people to keep his divine powers secret; he is a Messiah, but a secret one.  This section concludes when Jesus elicits from the disciples their recognition that he is indeed the Messiah (8:27-30). 
    • Mark 1:14-5:43 is a cycle of disciples, healings, controversies, and teaching around Galilee.  Jesus calms a storm to save the disciples' boat.  
    • Mark 6:1-8:30 has Jesus rejected in Nazareth, then sending out disciples, and a wider cycle of healings, controversies, and teaching -- this time with marvelous feeding of the multitudes.  Jesus walks on the stormy lake to reach the disciples' boat.  By the end the inner circle knows Jesus is the Messiah.  
  3. Mark 8:31-16:8 presents Jesus going to Jerusalem to die as the Suffering Servant.  Jesus tells the disciples three times that he will suffer and die but also rise on the third day.  In one key statement Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came… to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).  The disciples do not (cannot ?) hear this – either the death or the rising again.  The cost of following Jesus is heavily emphasized.  One who gives up one’s life for Jesus will in fact save it.  Jesus makes a royal show entering Jerusalem, holds public debates with the authorities who oppose him, blesses his little group with a final supper, and is betrayed to the powers, both Judean and Roman, finally confessing to the high priest that he is indeed the Messiah and Son of Man.  They crucify him, thereby carrying out God’s will, as Jesus recognized in his prayer in the Garden.  The Gospel ends with an empty tomb; the women who find it tell no one, but a heavenly messenger informs them that everything goes back to Galilee (Mark 16:7).  
    • Mark 8:31-10:52 has Jesus say the Messiah must die, but three disciples get a glimpse of the glory beyond the passion -- a forecast of the risen Jesus.  On the way to Jerusalem there are controversies, now about marriage, children, wealth, and leadership (in the coming church).  Jesus gives sight to a man who calls him "son of David."  
    • Mark 11:1-13:37 has Jesus come to Jerusalem as king, clear the temple of merchants, condemn the current leaders of Israel, and deliver a long discourse about the coming end of the world.  
    • Mark 14:1-15:41 presents in powerful detail the death of the Suffering Servant.  Jesus is anointed, betrayed, and abandoned -- but not before he has given his followers a solemn meal to keep his presence with them.  A Judean court finds a way to condemn him and a Roman governor, against his better judgment, has him crucified.  The crucifixion is remembered more for the mocking by the onlookers than for any intense suffering.  However, the cosmos is darkened in recognition of who has died, and an awe-struck Roman officer says, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (15:39, NRSV).  
    • Mark 15:42-16:8 introduces a previously unknown follower, with wealth and status.  This Joseph of Arimathea gets Jesus buried in an upper-class tomb, with a stone closing it in.  Two days later, however, three women find no body in the tomb but are told by a heavenly messenger that Jesus is risen from the dead, and will continue his mission with them back in Galilee.  The women are terrified and tell no one.  

The Meaning of Mark

Here are the things I conclude are most important about this Gospel.  

1. The supernatural status of Jesus is essential to Mark’s presentation of the gospel.  In Mark’s terms, Jesus’ baptism and temptation open a cosmic-level conflict between the Spirit and Satan which is then carried on on the human level in Jesus’ exorcisms, healings, and disputes with authorities. 

2. Mark presents the apocalyptic Jesus.  Jesus told people the judgment of God is at hand, is actually beginning in his work.  Good news for some, bad news for others.  He said the final reckoning would come in his generation.  

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (1:15, NRSV margin).  

“And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’” (9:1).  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (13:30).

These last two sayings are not convincing as creations of the early church (as many have argued) rather than as coming from Jesus.  Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist and shared his message that the reign of God was about to overwhelm the current world.  Jesus insisted, even through his own death, that the Kingdom of God (Reign of God) had its preliminary start in his presence and person.  The longest discourse in Mark is about the coming -- and not coming -- of the Son of Man in power (chapter 13).  The post-Markan churches gradually found ways around the embarrassment of the unfulfilled prophecies.  (Luke evolved the Kingdom into the Church by writing Acts – but without giving up the expectation that the Son of Man would indeed soon come in power.) 

However, these hard sayings were not simply eliminated from the tradition or the Gospels.  They were accommodated to the faith that a new life option had appeared as an alternative to the worldly ways of the “present age” that is passing.

3.  Community and Discipleship are an alternative life option.  (Elizabeth Malbon’s emphases were correct.) 

After Jesus was rejected by his own people at Nazareth, he began shaping his disciples into an alternative community.  A new wider circuit of activity (chapters 6-8) was initiated by the sending out of the disciples, and new topics appeared with the feedings of the multitudes (intimating communal living in the care of the disciples).  And after Jesus heads toward Jerusalem, topics of communal life are the focus:  marriage, children, wealth, and true greatness (chapter 10). 

Mark’s Gospel prepares people for a new manner of communal life in Jesus’s name. 

After Jesus announces clearly that he must go to Jerusalem to die, the requirements of following Jesus (Discipleship) are stated in stark terms.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (8:34-35, ESV translation).  As Mark presents them, the disciples are not usually up to expectations, but their limitations are pretty clearly designed to show how relatively ordinary people can in fact become Jesus’ true followers and disciples!  

4. The Passion Narrative is the fundamental core of this Gospel.  (The subscript, deepest-level message, of this narrative is that, “God suffers!”  See the discussion of the Passion Narrative in the Good Friday Lectionary readings for 2021.) 

The divine necessity of Jesus’ rejection, suffering, and death is announced in unmistakable terms.  “ ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering... and be killed, and after three days rise again.’  He said all this quite plainly…. But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him” (8:31-32 and 9:32).  The narrative from Palm Sunday to the Empty Tomb (chapters 11-16) is about one-third of the Gospel, and the earlier parts of the Gospel serve as preface and explanation of the passion. 

The earlier parts make sure we understand who it is that suffers, dies, and is exalted to heavenly power. 

5. The Structure of the Gospel shapes the message.

(1) The Spirit-empowered mighty acts of the Galilean period (chapters 1-8:30) culminate in the disciples recognition of Jesus as the Messiah (finally catching on to what the demoniacs—and the hearers of the Gospel—knew from the beginning).  

(2) The Jerusalem-oriented period of divinely-ordained rejection, suffering, and death of Jesus (8:31-16:8) is the real message about the Messiah ("Christ" = Messiah).  The relatively amazing episode of the Transfiguration on a mountain in Galilee (9:2-10) is Mark’s (only) presentation of the Risen Jesus.  There is no appearance in Jerusalem.  There Jesus’ followers know only the death of the Messiah and an empty tomb.  The sequel will take them back to Galilee (16:7).  (This is an outcome radically rejected by Luke and John, who were deeply invested in a Jerusalem-based Christianity.)

6. The narrative detail in Mark is compelling.  Compared to Matthew’s and Luke’s treatments of the same narratives Mark has more color and vigor (for example, the Gerasene Demoniac, Mark 5:1-20, and the epileptic boy in Mark 9:14-27).  One should read the passages found in all three Gospels in a Synopsis -- for example, Gospel Parallels, Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr (Nelson, 1979 and 1992).  It is hard to avoid the view that Mark is closest to a real human Jesus (as classic commentators like A.B. Bruce and Henry Swete, 1898, believed).


For eighteen hundred years Mark was the neglected one among the four Gospels.  In modern times, the last has become first!  Mark has been recognized as the earliest of the written Gospels, and perhaps the most original testimony to the activity of the Messiah.   The special message of Mark is that the impending Reign of God leads to – and beyond – the cross in Jerusalem. 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Exodus Story and the Passover

                              The Exodus Story and the Passover

                                                      (Originally written in 2008 as a Special Note for Biblical Words; 
                                                                             moderately revised for this posting.)

The Revised Common Lectionary Readings for this part of Year A omit eight chapters from the Exodus story (Exodus 4-11).  These chapters include everything from the call of Moses to Passover night.  They include the central part of the struggle for the deliverance of the “Hebrew” slaves.  Dropping eight chapters of narrative from, say, the book of Numbers may be an acceptable choice to accommodate limits of the Lectionary cycles.  But dropping eight chapters from the very heart of the most critical narrative of Israel’s sacred story seems embarrassing. 

The reasons for this omission are likely two: 

(1) Because of its length, the Plague Narrative (chapters 7-11) could not be included in its entirety, and selecting only one or two plague episodes would give a fragmentary and ragged impression.  Besides, the Passover passage (the Lectionary reading for the 14th Sunday) does include a brief report of the tenth plague. 

(2) The Plague Narrative, in its most straightforward sense, is not edifying.  It does not present God in a favorable light.  It shows the Mighty One inflicting deliberate suffering on a people caught at the mercy of its dull-witted and stubborn potentate.  It even shows that Mighty One holding up the sagging Pharaoh with his left hand while he pops him again with his right.  Undignified, if not downright immoral!  Best leave it out of the Lectionary entirely! 

Well, here, outside the proper confines of the Lectionary, some points about this historically colossal narrative may be made.  This discussion may seem like presenting the Scrooge view of the Exodus, for though the Exodus is a liberation story, when read closely it does not fit liberation theologies of our time very comfortably. 

This is for two reasons:  (1) The Exodus is only part of a larger story, the completion of which is the conquest of a promised land by a triumphant chosen people.  Everywhere through the story, there are clear signs that that promised-land conclusion is the overarching meaning of the liberation from slavery in Egypt. 

(2) The Exodus narrative itself makes clear that the defeat of the enslaving power is exclusively God’s doing.  Human initiative (read “political action”) utterly fails to achieve liberation; that is what Exodus 5 demonstrates in the structure of the Exodus action.  The population who will be redeemed by God’s action is passive during the whole thing.  The contest is exclusively a power struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh.  This is certainly a major theological statement of the Israelite tradition.  The Exodus was God’s doing, an astonishing winning of the prize for which God and Pharaoh were competing. 

And the Plague Narrative makes indelibly clear that this is only a power struggle.  There is nothing about justice, rights, or morality in the struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh.  They share no common framework – no covenant – within which rights or justice could be appealed to.  The one and only issue is power.  Who is stronger?  Who can force the other to give up possession of the Hebrews. 

Issues of right and wrong cannot enter the sacred story until Israel has been to Sinai.  In Egypt, Israel is only being born, being forced with birth pangs from the womb that used to nourish it but now has become constricting and oppressive.  At Sinai Israel will experience his Bar Mitzvah, will become responsible for keeping the Law.  From then on matters of justice and morality will be of great importance.  The Exodus is a contest of power, not of justice.  The character of the narrative makes that clear. 

The Structure of the Plague Narrative.

First a couple of preliminaries about the larger narrative that includes the plague sequence. 

The final unity.  Exodus 1-13:16 is a composite narrative, an extended re-telling that interweaves earlier narrative strands.  Though the narrative is composite, the focus here is on the final composition.  We are listening to what the narrative has been made into, rather than what it was made out of.  We are looking at the structure of the final story, not its sources.  (At the end, there are also a few non-narrative passages, instructions for every Israelite to observe the Passover, keep the Unleavened Bread festival, and devote or redeem the firstborn of livestock and family – all the standard spring festival actions, 12:43-49; 13:3-16). 

Not the Red Sea.  The Masoretes, who gave us the present form of the Hebrew Bible, made a major break in the text at Exodus 13:16.  The departure from Egypt has been narrated, including the Israelites receiving the Egyptians’ jewelry, taking along their own livestock, and accompanied by a “mixed multitude” (12:33-39).  Their long stay in Egypt is then summarized: 

The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years.  At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.  That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt.  That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations (Exodus 12:40-42, NRSV). 

This summary was before Israel had even started to the Red Sea. 

On the other hand, the Masoretes put no break at all after the Red Sea incident.  Exodus 15:22 simply follows Miriam’s song about the Sea, carrying on the wilderness story without heading or break.  The Red Sea episode is not the end of the Exodus; it is the beginning of the Wilderness.  At Exodus 13:17 a new set of circumstances begins, and topics and themes that will recur from there to Deuteronomy appear.  First, the way through the wilderness is introduced (13:17-18, the Israelites “prepared for battle”).  The pillar of fire and cloud leading the way is introduced (13:21-22).  Unlike the context in Exodus 7-12, the language and strategy here is of battle; here Yahweh will win a battle, not a court contest!  Finally, most characteristic of the Wilderness stories is Israel’s complaint about the exodus:  “Was it because there were not graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (14:11).  This complaint (“murmuring”) will appear again and again in the wilderness, all the way to Numbers 21. 

The Red Sea episode is NOT a part of the Exodus Narrative; it is the beginning of the Wilderness theme, balanced at the end of the wilderness by the crossing of the Jordan River in Joshua 3-4.  (See Psalm 114:3-4! and Micah 6:4-5.)  (In post-Biblical times, of course, the Passover Seders could not resist including the “victory” of the Red Sea in the Passover story sung about at the Seder!) 

The Larger Narrative.  After Israel sank into deep oppression through slave labor and genocide (chapters 1-2), God in heaven made a first movement in response to Israelite laments (2:23-25).  That movement led to the call of Moses and Aaron with declaration of Yahweh’s overall plan and instructions for their particular roles (chapters 3-4).  They hasten to Egypt and let both the Israelite leaders and Pharaoh know what Yahweh demands.  That leads not to an exodus but a worsening of the oppression and reduces everyone, including Moses, to resignation and despair (chapter 5).  At that point, Moses complains, “O Lord, …since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people” (5:22-23, NRSV).  (So much for direct political action.)

This signals yet another Divine Turn.  A divine speech declares who Yahweh is (in the P strand the name Yahweh is first introduced here) and what he is going to do – take Israel from Egypt and give it the promised land (6:2-9).  Then there is a pause in the flow of action while the narrator recites some genealogical lore about the Levites, and Moses and Aaron in particular (6:14-27, which carries the Levite genealogy two generations past Moses, to Phinehas, a priest of destiny in Numbers 25:6-13). 

Finally we are ready for the court contest to begin. 

The action of the Plague Narrative is very formalized.  It is a courtly duel in which too powerful lords declare themselves and then demonstrate their prowess.  Typically Yahweh sends Moses (and Aaron) to negotiate with Pharaoh, announcing a “blow” if the Hebrews are not released.  The coming of the “blow” shows that Yahweh’s power is greater – that Pharaoh cannot prevent it.  Pharaoh tries a number of evasions, the details of which contribute to the steady crescendo in the plague sequence.  A subordinate theme is the efforts of the Egyptian magicians to keep pace with the miracles done by Moses and Aaron, and their increasing discomfiture is a touch of comic relief in the narrative progression. 

There are ten plagues in the final narrative.  The number of plagues, and the terminology for each one, could vary from recitation to recitation, as is seen in Psalm 78:42-52 (probably six plagues, varying terminology) and Psalm 105:27-36 (seven plagues, pretty much Exodus terminology but different order). 

The plague episodes are not uniform.  Three of them have no audience with Pharaoh at the beginning, but simply launch into instructions to Moses and Aaron to bring on the plagues:  these are the third, sixth, and ninth plagues.  It seems likely that the base of the present narrative was originally a seven-plague sequence, made up of what are now the first, second, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and tenth plagues. 

Except in Psalm 105, the first plague always is turning the water of the Nile into blood (7:14-24).  There follow a number of nuisance plagues (frogs, gnats, flies, and belatedly, in the sixth plague, boils).  After that Yahweh begins direct assaults on the Egyptian economy:  the fifth plague kills livestock (9:1-7), then hail kills both livestock and crops (9:13-35), and then locusts finish off the crops (10:1-20). 

Standing in a unique role is the ninth plague, the plague of darkness.  This is no ordinary absence of sunlight; it is “a darkness that can be felt” (10:21).  First, this plague implies that the contest has gone cosmic, involving the heavenly powers, not just local conditions (though the Israelites somehow still had light that was lacking to the Egyptians, 10:23).  Secondly, this plague may be symbolic, since the chief god of Egyptian royalty was Ra, the sun god, giver of light. 

Finally, the last plague is always the death of the first-born.  This is the first direct assault on human life in the plague sequence.  While the Israelites are sheltered in their homes, protected from “the Destroyer” by the sacrificial blood on the doorposts, the first-born of all the Egyptians – and especially of Pharaoh – are killed by the numinous power passing through the land, house by house! The death of the crown prince and of the heir apparent in every family is the ultimate defeat of the enemies of Yahweh’s people.  This plague is the climactic event of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. 

In later Israelite religious practice, this sequence of events (which began on the tenth day of the month, Exodus 12:3) was the occasion of (1) the Passover observance, (2) the offerings of the first-born animals and sons by Israelites, and (3) the observance of the Unleavened Bread festival (the release of the new grain crop for human consumption).  All of these things were aspects of the spring festival in historic times, running over a nearly two-week period in March and April. 

Its Setting in Israelite Life.  

Assuming this overview of the Exodus narrative, we may speculate on its place and power in historic Israelite life.  When would reciting just this kind of narrative have been most cogent to the condition and needs of early Israelites? 

We assume that the Passover went back to pre-monarchic times as an Israelite custom.  In the later monarchic period, it was remembered as an observance of the age of the judges, an observance that had fallen into neglect in the time of the kings.  “No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah” (II Kings 23:22).  (The passover was not congenial to kings!)

The instructions for the Passover in Exodus 12 require permanent houses, with doorposts and lintels, houses that were the numinous boundaries of danger during the critical night.  The next morning the Israelites went out of their houses to celebrate the feast of Unleavened Bread, the eating of the new grain crop.  (On this see Joshua 5:10-12.) 

The setting is unquestionably well-settled agricultural-pastoral communities.  This setting corresponds to what we now know of the Iron Age I settlements of hill-country Israel (around 1200 to 1050 BCE).  (See, for example, Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel, ed. Brian B. Schmidt [Society of Biblical Literature, 2007], Part 3, “The Historical Origins of Collective Israel,” pp. 67-98.) This is the social-economic world in which the Passover narrative would have been important and in which its development and progressive elaboration would have had its early stages. 

We may recall that Egypt had been a major power over the Canaanite city-states periodically for more than three centuries before 1200 BCE.  Pharaoh had long been a mighty figure off to the south, either threatening or supporting the tranquility of every Canaanite community.  Around that date, Pharaoh Merneptah made a substantial raid into Canaan, destroying (he claimed) several cities as well as the people called “Israel” (his victory stele contains the first mention of “Israel” in history).  However, the pharaohs were beginning to lose their power in Canaan, and within fifty years after Merneptah they were only a memory, good or bad according to each local community’s past experience. 

Now we may project that for Israelites in this period and in this setting, the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative is every petty Canaanite city-state king writ large In such a context we can see the power that that narrative could have for a lesser developed people living out of the reach of city-state kingdoms that were mainly in the valleys and plains.  The Plague Narrative is a long, intricate enjoyment of the increasing embarrassment of the local city king who has pretended to power over the Israelite peasant settlements. 

The Passover observance was required of every Israelite head of household (see Exodus 10:8-11; 12:43-49, and Numbers 9:13).  The full instructions for the observance are given in Exodus 12:1-28. 

Section from "Blood of the Paschal Lamb Applied to Doorpost," Mosaic, 
Saint Mary Magdalene Catholic Church, Columbus, OH.  Courtesy of Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

At the first new moon in the spring (Nisan in the later calendar), each family began to prepare for the observance.  Ten days after the new moon, they selected a year-old lamb or kid for each house, and on the fourteenth day after the new moon (at full moon), sacrificed the animal, using its blood to protect the doorway of their house, and eating that animal in an atmosphere of danger and haste.  The bread eaten with that meal must be the first produce of the new grain crop, not yet mixed with the leavened dough of the past year’s crops.  At morning, they went out of the house (no doubt rejoicing), and began the ceremonies of the seven-day Unleavened Bread festival. 

Keeping this observance was every Israelite’s commitment to Yahweh, the mighty Lord who could keep them safe from the local city-king who coveted their servitude! 

The compelling power and purpose of the Exodus narrative, as we hear it, was to cement Israelite allegiance to the Lord of the tribal coalition that resisted the city-state kings surrounding  their highland regions.  On this understanding, the Exodus narrative, pretty literally, created and continually re-created Israel as a covenant people of Yahweh!