Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived In: Part 1

Icon, St. Mark the Evangelist by Emmanuel Tzanes (1657)

Icon, St. Mark the Evangelist by Emmanuel Tzanes (1657)

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived In


This is originally a class I did with my congregation in February and March of 2015, where I looked at several different ways to approach Mark’s gospel and the way it paints a picture of both Jesus and the world in which Jesus lived.  Originally this was a four session class; my plans are to add a fifth reflection based upon Mark as an interpreter of scripture.

Why do we have the Gospel of Mark?

The gospel of Mark in codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest complete copies of the New Testament dating to the fourth century

The gospel of Mark in codex Sinaiticus, one of the earliest complete copies of the New Testament dating to the fourth century

Mark is the briefest of the gospels and the reality that almost the entire gospel of Mark is also in Matthew in Luke meant that for much of the history of the early church Mark received comparatively little attention. In recent years that has changed because most scholars believe that Mark was the first gospel written with Matthew and Luke using Mark as a pattern for their own gospels. Mark reflects a highly aural form (having to do with the ear and hearing) of literature and it is a masterful composition (which I will deal with in part 5) but before I go any deeper perhaps it is worth asking the question ‘why do we have Mark or any gospel in the first place?’ There could be a much longer discussion about the process in which we went from the texts of Mark’s gospel and the other writings that make up the New Testament to the Bible we have today but at some point somebody who we now attribute as Mark compiled these stories into a written form.

The gospel stories probably were told orally for quite a while before the Gospel of Mark as we have it today. Jesus’ crucifixion probably took place around 30 C.E. (or A.D.-C.E. stands for Common Area which is the more commonly used in scholarly writing, but it reflects the same dating as A.D. which is the old Latin abbreviation for the year of our Lord). In the time after Jesus’ death the message begins to spread throughout the Roman Empire and the dynamics of the early church began to change from a Jewish community centered in Jerusalem and Palestine to a predominantly non-Jewish/Gentile community located throughout the Roman Empire. As both time and distance separated these early Christian communities from the life of Jesus and the land Jesus lived in there was a need to maintain some continuity of the story. Most scholars believe Mark’s gospel was written sometime around 70 C.E. which is the time of the Jewish War with Rome and with the collapse of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the followers of Jesus there is also the loss of a central place where the original witness of the story could be referred to. This is also the time when many of Jesus’ original followers begin to be martyred and the first witnesses to the story are being lost. Christianity was also increasingly finding itself on the outside of the Jewish people and with the collapse of the temple and Jerusalem it was a time where the followers of Jesus began to seek construct an identity now as Christians and no longer directly connected with Judaism.

In times of crisis where people are attempting to construct their identity some basic questions come up: Who are we? What do we believe? Where do we find our sources of authority? And there are many ways that the New Testament wrestles with this, there are the letter of Paul for example to the early communities he was connected with which tell their own story and through a dialogical exchange try to form identity, but for the communities of the early church they also went back and told stories of Jesus. With losing of some of the early witnesses there was a need to collect together these stories in a way that could be passed on to ensure the continuity of faith from generation to generation. The gospel of Mark through telling these stories became an enduring witness to the faith and the questions of a people who came together and wondered about the mystery of the way that God had met them in Jesus of Nazareth.  Unlike some of my other documents, this will not go step by step through a book of scripture but will instead suggest some different windows to help understand the world the scriptures are written in and what they might say about Jesus and how they might highlight the story in new and interesting ways. As I mentioned before I intend for this to be a five section inquiry with the following parts:

  1. Binding The Strong Man: The Kingdom of God/The Kingdom of Satan and the Porous World of Scriptures
  2. A World of Empire: The Pax Romana and the Peace of Christ
  3. Second Temple Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots (oh my)
  4. Reading Backwards and Forwards: Mark as an Interpreter of Scripture
  5. The Storyteller and the Cross: Mark as a Master Storyteller and How the Cross Shapes the Story

Part 1: Binding the Strong Man: The Kingdom of God/The Kingdom of Satan and the Porous World of Scriptures

We live in a very different world than the early church did in many ways. One of the ways it is very different is we live in what Charles Taylor calls a ‘disenchanted world’ where we don’t think about most of our lives being influenced by angelic or demonic forces (Taylor, 2007). The spiritual world for us is something that is not keenly felt, but the ancient world was much more porous with good and evil external forces acting upon both communities and individuals. While we might think about things in terms of fantasy and enjoy entering in an imaginary way into world filled with magic and danger most of our lives spend very little time in reflection upon the supernatural. We also live in a very scientific world where diseases for example are caused by certain germs or viruses and there are treatments we can use to counteract these things that we can now see under a microscope. The ancient world saw things much differently, sickness may be either inflicted demonically or as a judgment for one’s sins (where one is receiving the cost of some action one has done against one’s community or by extension the deity one’s community worshipped).

The gospel of Mark inhabits this porous world where Satan, demons unclean spirits, hostile storms and the demonic power of sickness keep people separated from community. Healing and exorcisms were the province of the religious authorities, there were doctors at the time but their ability to heal was very limited. Wounds could be bound up and broken bones healed, but modern medicine is a very recent phenomena. On the other hand there was a much tighter bond among the community and the community and their devotion were a strong ward against the intrusion of evil. This is a time where there are very real fears of contamination and that if someone was feared to be a contamination agent (by either ethical or physical symptoms) they were excluded from the community. In a world of magic and exorcisms Jesus is, among other things, presented as a healer and exorcist in the gospel of Mark.

Binding the Strongman

20 and the crown dame together again, so that they could not even eat.21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”22 And the scribes who came from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts our demon.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom will not be able to stand.25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Mark 3: 20-27

Jesus Healing the Gerasene, medieval image

Jesus Healing the Gerasene, medieval image

When Ched Myers wrote Binding the Strongman (Myers, 1988) in the late 80s he called attention back to the reality that for Mark’s gospel there is a continual presence of the demonic and the attention that is paid to Jesus’ role as an exorcist. For Myer’s the above passage provided a key to understanding the gospel of Mark, where Jesus is able to do the healing and casting out of demons because he has already bound the strongman and stands victorious over those demonic powers.  How does this type of reading make sense of the world of Jesus as it is presented in Mark’s gospel? It helps illuminate why Mark spends so much time focusing on the actions of Jesus as a demonstration of the reality of the kingdom of God being present in the midst of the world.

Unlike the other gospels, Mark begins with a very terse and loaded entry into the gospel. Matthew begins with an extended genealogy, Luke with an extended birth story for both John the Baptist and Jesus, John with a poetic introduction to Jesus as the Word of God made flesh, but Mark begins simply: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. Mark 1.1 and then launches into the story of Jesus as an adult. Yet in this short little verse there is a lot to unpack.  To call this a gospel to us is simply to declare it as good news, but in the ancient world gospels were royal proclamations and often declared that an area was now under the power of Caesar or one of Caesar’s vassals, but this begins as the gospel of Jesus the Christ, and Christ is the Greek word for messiah (anointed one) which is also a title for king. To declare Jesus as son of God also has some implications in the Roman context which I will address in the next post on this, but it also had implications for the porous world of ancient Palestine as the source of Jesus’ authority. Mark’s gospel will wonder about the mystery of who Jesus is and will allude to things strongly in some areas and more elusively in others, but that there is a connection between Jesus and the God of Israel is never in doubt for Mark’s readers.

Mark quickly moves us into the baptism scene where we get to see what Jesus sees. We get a glimpse that those around Jesus do not get into who he is and we begin to wonder what this will be. We get to hear the voice from heaven declare of Jesus, ‘this is my Son, the beloved one with who I am well pleased’ we get to see the heavens ripped open and the spirit descending upon Jesus. Mark wants us to know that the world is now changed and that the separation between the heavens and earth are now opened up (irreparably- Mark’s use of the unusual word for ripping is unlike Matthew and Luke where the heavens open up for a moment) and the kingdom of God is at hand has to do with God’s proximity to the world. The God of Israel is no longer distant or detached but is now present in the world and that changes the way things are. Mark wastes little time with Jesus being out in the wilderness, there is no long temptation narrative like in Matthew or Luke, but rather Jesus is simply cast out into the wilderness, tempted by Satan and the angels minister to him. But from this point forward the demonic forces have no power over Jesus and the strongman has been bound and the kingdom has drawn near.

Jesus’ basic proclamation that the kingdom of God has drawn near is now witnessed to by the evidence of God’s power pushing back the domain of the demonic. So for example just within the first chapter of Mark Jesus will cast out an unclean spirit who challenges him in the tabernacle, cure Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, heal the sick and all those possessed throughout Capernaum, go throughout the region healing and finally heal a person with a skin disease, frequently referred to as leprosy which kept him out of the community. In this new reality ushered in by the divine presence overcoming the demonic struggles of the people many who were once excluded now have a place: lepers (and others excluded for medical and purity concerns), tax-collectors (viewed as traitors and thieves) and other sinners as well as the injured and the disabled now have a place in the community. It changes the relation of people to Sabbath and many other boundary markers of the Jewish community where they attempted to distinguish themselves from the other people around them to maintain their relationship with God. Now with God’s approach the Sabbath is for humankind and not humankind for Sabbath.

This will create conflict because people have invested the religious authorities of their day (which I will speak about more in part 3) with the task of maintaining these boundaries and keeping them secure in an insecure spiritually dangerous world. It is not surprising that the Pharisees come into quick conflict with Jesus about Sabbath, eating, who is in and out of the community and authority. Jesus does a number of things that indicate he is setting up a new community, for example the setting aside of the 12 apostles on the mountain which seems to foreshadow the creation of a new Israel (a new 12 tribes). Even Jesus’ own family is unsure what to think of him and in the portion of Mark 3 quoted above is coming to restrain him and try to get him to conform more to the expectations of the community. Into this world Jesus tells parables which are suggestive of the mysterious Kingdom of God which is unexpected in its nature. A sower who sows regardless of the soil type knowing the harvest will be complete, a lamp that some would hide but is meant to be for all to see, a growing seed, and then a mustard seed, all of these parables point to an unexpected reality of the presence of God in the midst of their world. The parables and the healing all point to the invasion of the world by God’s power precisely in the person of Jesus. Mark doesn’t answer all the questions this raises but instead lets the story stand on its own and speak with its own voice to the world both of Jesus’ time and the world of the readers of Mark. It is to this world of empires that we will turn next, specifically the world of the Pax Romana where Jesus’ message of the kingdom is proclaimed.

1 thought on “Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived In: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew | Sign of the Rose

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