Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and The World He Lived in Part 4: A Scripture Shaped World
When I originally did my presentation on the Gospel of Mark and the way that it interacts with the world in which Jesus lived and breathed I left out a very important part, the way the Gospel of Mark interacts with the Scriptures (at this time the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament most likely in its Greek translation the Septuagint) and uses the language and world of the scriptures to find a way to talk about who Jesus is and what the Kingdom of God means in a world of the Roman empire, Second Temple Judaism and a world where the conflict between good and evil was viewed in terms of conflict between various spiritual forces. Inhabiting a Jewish world where the language of the scriptures would have been a critical part of that world it is not surprising that Mark uses scriptures to help illuminate who Jesus is and to allude to a deeper engagement with the story of the God of Israel and the people of that God.
The question of Mark as a reader of scripture is normally handled by looking at the explicit places where the gospel quotes the scriptures and often without taking some time to examine the broader question of how Mark is using these scriptures to show who Jesus is. Richard B. Hay’s recent work on the way that the gospel authors utilized scriptures is a helpful and generative study of this question in a much more holistic light. In examining the interaction between the way that the Hebrew Scriptures were read by Mark and the way they form a linguistic world that the gospel is able to access Hays argues:
And upon rereading, we discover numerous passages scattered through this Gospel that offer intimations of a disturbing truth: Jesus’ identity with the one God of Israel. Unlike the Gospel of John—which explicitly declares that Jesus is the Logos, the Son who is one with the Father—Mark shies away from overt ontological declarations. Nonetheless, Mark’s Gospel suggests that Jesus is, in some way that defies comprehension, the embodiment of God’s presence. Mark never quite dares to articulate this claim explicitly; it is too scandalous for direct speech. For Mark, the character of God’s presence in Jesus is a mystery that can be approached only by indirection, through riddle-like allusion to the OT. (Hays, 2014, p. 19f.)Emphasis authors.
From the first direct citation in Mark 1: 2-3 which weaves together Malachi 3.1, and Isaiah 40.3, both passages which link back to the LORD, the God of Israel being the one who is coming, Malachi pointing to the LORD coming in judgment and Isaiah who proclaims the LORD God coming with might to rule and to gather together the people of Israel. Right at the very beginning there are the audacious and bold claims about the one who is coming, and yet throughout the narrative of Mark the characters in the story will wonder and will have the secret kept from them who this Jesus is. The demons may know who Jesus is but they are silenced, others may have flashes of who Jesus is but they are also told not to speak to anyone about it, Jesus’ identity is a mystery that is ultimately revealed by his actions and the way these actions resonate with the story of who God is in relation to God’s people.
Many of the conflicts that emerge between Jesus and the Pharisees early in the gospel revolve around Jesus doing things that are reserved for the God of Israel. In Mark 2.1-12, when Jesus heals the paralytic man who is lowered through his roof the accusation is, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And the scriptures do highlight in several places that the God of Israel does forgive sins, for example Hays lifts up Exodus 34.6-7:
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.
A similar dynamic is at play with Jesus declaring he is Lord of the Sabbath at the end of chapter 2, where now Jesus is able to interpret what the commands of God mean and becomes an authoritative interpreter of the scriptures. Perhaps this is some of the wonder that Mark records in 1.22 where the crowds are amazed at him teaching as one with authority. Mark continues, through Jesus’ actions, to invite us to wonder who Jesus is and how he is connected with the God of Israel, from his healings and exorcisms to the walking on water in Mark 4. 35-41 where the disciples wonder, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” and whether Mark directly evokes Psalm 107 or not, it provides an evocative answer to the question, “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress; he made the storms be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Psalm 107. 28f. Continuing in the story of the feeding of the five thousand with the evoking of the image of the people as sheep without a shepherd there are numerous allusions to the LORD, the God of Israel being the shepherd of the people, most memorably Psalm 23, but more pointedly Ezekiel 34 which rails against the leaders of Ezekiel’s time who have not proved to be faithful shepherd and in response the LORD declares, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the LORD God.” Ezekiel 34.15. We are left to wonder after each event who is this Jesus, and how is he able to speak in ways that reflect God’s speech, how is he able to act in ways that reflect God’s actions and how does he embody the presence of the God of Israel who has drawn near with God’s kingdom. Mark points us continually to the suggestive but never overt answer that Jesus is fulfilling the role that God has promised to fulfill in the scriptures. That Jesus can forgive, can be Lord of Sabbath, can master the elements and the demonic forces that threaten God’s people and can be the faithful shepherd that the people has longed for.
Mark continues to invite those with eyes to see and ears to hear to sit and wonder about who Jesus is and to listen to the frequently allusive way in which the language of scriptures helps to paint this picture in a suggestive way. Yet it is a mystery that Mark invites his readers into, the mystery of the kingdom of God that arrives in parables rather than outright proclamation. Most of Jesus’ overt quotations of scriptures come at the end of the book of Mark where the question of who Jesus is comes to its ironic and sharply contested conclusion. Jesus’ authority is continually questioned by the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the scribes and the chief priests and Jesus continues not only to allude to scripture but to embody it. Whether it is the allusion to Jeremiah’s temple sermon when Jesus enters the temple in Mark 11.17 and contrasting it with the vision of Isaiah in 56.7 and Jesus continuing to embody the role of Jeremiah in conflict with the temple of his day (see the previous post particularly on Jesus and Jeremiah), and the way this plays into the image of the cursed fig tree and the oracle of Jeremiah 8.13. The allusion to Isaiah 5 with both the parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12. 1-12 and the denunciation of the scribes in Mark 12. 38-40. The language of Daniel 7 forms the answer to the High Priest in the trial where Jesus is accused of blasphemy, but also forms the background for the Son of Man imagery used throughout the gospel. Mark uses these images poetically and sometime Jesus seems to take on the role of the God of Israel, other times Jesus walks in the place of Israel and is able to cry out to their God, sometimes he is the fulfillment of the hope of Israel and the scriptures, and yet in every place Mark leaves us with the mystery of the kingdom of God. Yet the use of scriptures continually points that somehow, evocatively, in Jesus we in some way encounter the divine presence of the God of Israel. Mark is not interested in explaining how this comes to be but rather inviting us into the journey and experience of the new people of God trying to find the language to explain who this Jesus was and what he did and finding in the language of the Hebrew Scriptures a vast set of hopes and expectations and words that describe the relationship of God to God’s people. And into that web of images the experience of Jesus mysteriously seems to fall and we wonder with the first hearers of the message what that means for our experience of this Jesus Christ the Son of God whose gospel we receive from Mark.