Tag Archives: Gospel of Mark

The Parable of the Mesquite Tree

Velvet Mesquite with spring foliage, CC 3.0

I know that many people remember times growing up when they would walk through the grass without shoes, feeling the thin blades tickle their toes; that was not my experience growing up. On one hand the grass in south Texas was not the soft grass I would later experience in Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska which seemed to provide a universal blanket on the ground; yards where weeds were the exception as the grass thrived in the more temperate summers and more regular rains. I remember one of the years I served a congregation in Nebraska and they complained about the drought they were undergoing, and I remember thinking that this would have been a particularly wet year growing up near San Antonio. On the other hand, was the presence of the mesquite tree that occupied the back yard of my childhood home. This hardy tree made the already rough combination of grass and weeds a perilous minefield for those daring enough to venture into the yard without thick soled shoes.

Nobody chose to plant the mesquite tree and why would they? Although they were near impossible to kill they didn’t provide a thick canopy of shade like a maple or oak might. The mesquite tree produced bean pods which may have been edible but nobody I knew ate them or used them as feed for animals, but the pods would cover the yard attempting to produce even more of the unwanted trees. The wood seemed to have only one good use, for burning. When it burned it produced a hot fire with a pungent smoke, a fire that seems

to mirror the trees resilience in the ground. When the tree is cut down it activates its own trigger in the roots to produce more and heartier mesquite trees and like the hydra of myth where once you only had one head now you had multiple trees vying for the space occupied by the severed trunk on top of the still living roots. But most distinctive are the thorns, sometimes several inches in length and both tough and sharp. I remember pulling a thorn out of my foot that had punctured through my sandals and still was buried a half inch into my foot. Nobody would plant this tree within their garden.

Yet, as Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed which comes from a small seed, it too was considered a nuisance plant, an extremely large noxious weed that was hard to remove from a field and was something that no farmer would voluntarily introduce. It was the antithesis of the mighty cedar which Ezekiel 17 could reference as an image for God’s planting God’s people in the land of milk and honey. For the cedar is a tree valued for it’s image of strength and power, valued for its strong wood used in the construction of the temple, palace and home. Yet both the mustard and the mesquite become homes for the birds of the airs and seem to provide protection for countless other creatures. Perhaps the kingdom of God looks more at times like the rough field with the mesquite tree than the palatial gardens that have every plant and tree managed and growing in near perfect symmetry. Perhaps the kingdom of God emerges in the less fertile places where only a fast-growing shrub or an incredibly resilient tree can endure the hot sun and unforgiving soil. Unlike the fruit trees which need continual tending or the cedars which thrive mixture of clay and loam and higher altitude of the mountains of Lebanon these unruly plants thrive like weeds no matter how hard they attempt to be eliminated. Perhaps the kingdom of God is something that refuses to go away, no matter how often it remains untended, unirrigated, uncared for, unloved and unwanted. Perhaps it thrives in the areas and situations that kill things more beautiful but less hardy. Maybe the kingdom of God also has its own thorns which may provide protection for the creatures that nest in its branches but provide a painful nuisance for those who look upon the tree as fit only for the fire. And perhaps, just perhaps, that which seems inconvenient, unlovely, and a waste of space to human eyes might be necessary, lovely and providential within the upside-down kingdom where the first are last and the last are first, where masters serve and kings are crucified. I may not always understand it, but I’ve learned to walk among the places where mesquite grow by wearing shoes with good soles and to wonder at their improbable place within God’s garden.

Photo of the foliage of a honey mesquite (Prosopis Glandulosa) by Don A.W. Carlson Shared by CC 2.5

Mark’s Portrait of the Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 5

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

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

Mark’s Portrait of the Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 5: Structure and Reading in Light of the Cross

This final entry on these windows into how Mark presents Jesus and his world to us deals with two large topics which could consume a lot of space on their own right, but since these are designed more as an introduction to the way Mark presents Jesus and his world they will be shown briefly as a way to suggest some further work. When we look at the Bible in general and the sixty six books that make up the canon of many people’s Bibles if we pay attention we realize that the people who composed the scriptures do not tell stories the way that we tell stories. In the modern world, stories are written for the eyes and paper is cheap (and digital print is nearly free). We live in a literate, or as some would argue post-literate culture. We live in a culture where literacy in at least one language is assumed, where education is available for men and women to be able to read and write at some level of proficiency and where information is available on diverse platforms and especially with the advent of the internet and digital connectivity we are able to access a wide variety of media from a variety of perspectives with very little effort compared to previous times and places. With the easy accessibility of the written word, some would argue we have even gone as far as living in a post-literate culture where everyone has the ability to read but due to the increasingly visual nature of communication many people no longer utilize their literacy to be a primary source of information but instead rely upon the continual availability of visual media to be their source of information to interpret their world. Regardless of whether we live in a literate or post-literate world we live in a far different world than the world of the writers of scripture, like the Gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Mark is written to an aural culture (aural having to do with the ear). Most people in the time of Mark’s gospel would not be highly literate or have access to written texts.  One of the reasons the scribes receive the highlighting they do in the gospels is that they are among those religious and political elites that were both literate and had access to the written texts. Visual images were present in the time of the gospels but they were permanent, and they would be placed onto stones or coins where they would combine physical images with textual information so that information could be communicated that way, but to lock in images this way was costly and time consuming. These images did not change and became a static part of people’s environment. Most information was communicated by speaking and in ancient cultures they had ears to hear far better than we did. They would be familiar, for example with large pieces of Torah or the prophets or the Psalms being read and or sung. They were able to listen for longer periods of time than we are used to listening for and they also knew how to structure speech so that it could be remembered. That does not mean that written texts were not consulted, merely that people’s memories also became saturated with the images of scriptures and the stories they heard primarily through the spoken word. When you are telling a spoken story, you tell it differently if you want people to remember the details and Mark’s Gospel is an excellent example of an aural piece of literature, a piece of work that is written more for the ear and less for the eye.

When you tell an aural story you don’t spend all of your time on details, you allow the person hearing the story to fill in the details of the world. When we read a novel, for example, we expect the author to narrate for us a description of the world and to paint us a picture with words about how something looked, tasted, smelled, sounded like, felt like, what feelings it evoked in the person and more. If you read the Biblical stories they are incredibly short when they give descriptions and when they do it is something to pay attention to. Mark is incredibly terse in how he tells his story, but it is also designed to be able to be memorized by a storyteller and told over and over again. The telling of Mark’s gospel takes about two hours from beginning to end and was memorable  enough to still be referred to over 2,000 years later.

Structure in Mark’s Story

Mark uses structure in a lot of ways to propel the story along. Sometimes Mark wants people to hear a linkage between various events and so uses shared vocabulary to link one event to another.  And example of this is the linkage between the baptism story in Mark and the crucifixion story where the temple veil is torn. Mark uses a very unusual word for this- schizomenous  a word that only appears twice in the New Testament  and both occurrences are in Mark. Schizomenous refers to an irreparably tearing, the beginning of the work is where we get schizophrenia from, and it occurs on the front end of the story in the baptism with the heavens being ripped apart and at the end of the story where the temple veil is torn apart forming a linkage between the two event. Hearing this unusual word could create in the hearers a sense of wonder at the connection between the crucifixion and the baptism, between the temple veil and the veil of heaven and what it means that they are both now ripped apart. Through something as simple as shared vocabulary Mark is able to make a profound linkage between two events that a casual reader may miss.

Mark has a distinctive vocabulary as well that pushes the narrative along and like most storytellers has words that speed up the narrative or slow it down. Characteristic of Mark is the tendency to drive the narrative quickly, particularly with the word euthus, which is frequently translated immediately or at that time (which doesn’t carry the same level of urgency that the word is trying to convey.) Mark wants us to understand that things are happening quickly in this narrative and the terse manner of storytelling compels this even faster.

Mark also uses geographical features to give structure to the story. This not only helps in remembering the story by forming inclusions, it also links the stories together in very interesting linguistic ways. For example in Mark 4. 35-51 Jesus stills the storm as they journey across the water to Gerasene and in Mark 6. 45-52 Jesus now walks on water while the disciples are on the journey to Geneserret. The linkage in the two stories of wondering who then is this Jesus also brackets a section where this question comes up again, but the section ends with the disciples not understanding  and their hearts being hardened. In a similar way mountain scenes tend to reveal, although in sometimes hidden ways who Jesus is: for example Jesus goes up a mountain to set aside the 12 apostles, later going up to the mountain to be transfigured before Peter, James and John. At times the mountains point back to times in the story of Israel, like the temple mount with Solomon or the Mount of Olives with David entering from that direction, other times the connection is less concrete as the hill of Golgotha is contrasted with the Temple mount and yet in many respects for Mark’s Gospel Golgatha comes to occupy the space of the temple mount and becomes the place where the disciples flee from but the Transfiguration in reinterpreted.

Sometimes Mark will use similar stories to form an inclusion, a set of brackets to what is within and the transition to what is to come. For example there are two feeding stories in Mark, the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark 6. 30-42 and the feeding of 4,000 in Mark 8.1-10 and could be looked at like this:

Feeding 5, 000

Jesus walks on water

Jesus heals sick in Gennesaret

What makes clean and unclean

Healing of Syrophonecian’s daughter

Healing of the deaf man

Feeding 4,000


Now a lot more could be gone into with the breaking down and highlighting of how this structure is highlighting different parts of the story and how they go together but at the center of the story is a question about what is unclean and clean and it is surrounded by stories where Jesus heals and while the disciples do not understand the deaf man is enabled to hear.  Another example is the use of healing of blind men in 8.22-26 and 10.46-52 to mark the beginning and end of a section on the disciples seeing and not seeing before transitioning into the crucifixion narrative.


Mark is a master storyteller and uses all sorts of structural elements to add flavor to his terse story and to evoke from that structure and highlights a broader story of God and God’s people that the story is a part of. Mark may focus primarily on what Jesus does, but in what is said and what is alluded to he also wants us to enter into the mystery of who Jesus is. It is a tightly woven story with many linkages and often there is benefit from both the wide reading of the entire narrative as well as paying close attention to the individual pieces that compose the narrative quilt.

Reading Backwards from the Crucifixion

Reproduction of Carl Heinrich Bloch's, Christ on the Cross (1870)

Reproduction of Carl Heinrich Bloch’s, Christ on the Cross (1870)

Mark has been called a crucifixion narrative with an extended prologue, and six of the sixteen chapters of Mark deal with the final week of Jesus’ life. There are a variety of ways that the New Testament talks about the crucifixion, many times they want to explain what is happening in the crucifixion but Mark at best alludes to this and is much more interested in narrating the journey to the cross and beyond. Mark does not engage in any discussion about atonement theology or Jesus dying for our sins, in fact the closest he comes to that is in Mark 10.45 where he states “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus goes to a Roman cross, rejected by the leaders of the temple and executed as a low class political prisoner and Mark’s narrative understands the scandal of the crucifixion for the early followers of Christ in the Roman world but Mark also doesn’t back away from this part of the story, instead the rest of the story only makes sense in light of the crucifixion.

Beginning at the midpoint of the story in chapter 8, Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he is going to be rejected by the elders, the chief priest and the scribes and be killed (see Mark 8.31, 9.31 and 10.33). Even before we arrive in the story in Jerusalem we are told over and over again where the story is going. Once in Jerusalem we encounter a story that is full of scriptural, political and religious overtones. Jesus enters Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, the way that David had entered the city in celebration in a way that intentionally echoes Zechariah 9.9, as the peaceful king who arrives on the donkey rather than the warhorse. It also has political implications as it implicitly mocks not only the pretensions of Kings like Herod Antipas in Jesus time, who ruled in Galilee, or Pontus Pilate and by extension Caesar.  Jesus immediately challenges the temple hierarchy and much of the story over the preceeding chapters (Mark 11 and 12) involves the various groups trying to shame Jesus and separate him from his authority with the crowds. Mark links a group of passages around money with the story of the widows mite leading into a long statement about times to come (and particularly the destruction of the temple) with another anonymous woman who anoints Jesus with very costly ointment of nard (and how that money could have been used) and then Judas being offered money to betray Jesus. These stories link together suggestively and it is an interesting contrast between the anonymous women and the infamous disciple but they stop short of being declarative. We, for example, are never given by Mark a reason why Judas betrays Jesus, although the other gospels will supply us with different reasons. The Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples becomes a new covenant and a new meal to be done to tell again a different and new story of God’s deliverance of God’s people. Playing with the resonant images of the festival Mark paints a powerful picture of what is getting ready to occur as we approach the crucifixion, although again in a suggestive and mysterious way.

Jesus again takes Peter, and James and John, like in the transfiguration, to Gethsemane and the three disciples again are unable to respond faithfully. The location links it back to the times when Jesus is declared the beloved Son and it is contrasted with the Father who does not respond to the prayer for the cup to be removed. Again, suggestively the language of cup also links back to the language of the meal where the cup is the blood of the covenant. Jesus is betrayed and taken into custody by the ominous crowd bearing clubs and swords and put on the stand for blasphemy. This is only a trial in the loosest of terms, but in the midst of the trial what has been hidden is made known when Jesus claims in front of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes his identity in terms of the words of Daniel 7 as the son of man. Jesus is handed over to Pilate and the charge against him becomes a political one, he is crucified as king of the Jews and a freedom fighter names Barabbas is released in his place. It is an interesting note that Barabbas means son of the father, and so one obedient Son of the Father is rejected for a rebellious one.

The crucifixion narrative itself is often misunderstood in popular portrayals because of the excessive focus on the flogging. The flogging and the mocking by the soldiers is more to dishonor the person than to weaken them, the Romans wanted their victims not to be too weakened otherwise they would die too quickly on the cross.  Crucifixion was a slow and agonizing way to die as the body fights against the limits of pain and suffocation. The people who were crucified where stripped and placed up as examples of what the cost of defying Rome was and not only were their bodies tortured by the long and painful process of crucifixion their honor was to die as well. Yet, in classic Markan irony it is from the mocking mouths of many of those around the cross that truth is said. Even the final statement from the centurion that , “Truly this man was God’s Son!” could be read as a final ironic (but true)mockery or an unexpected statement of faith from an enemy (much like the demons or the Syro-Phonecian  woman).  Mark brings us into the mystery of this God forsaken moment and invites us to wonder once again about the mystery of who this Jesus is, and is Jesus separated from God, is Jesus taking on the role of Israel, what is the linkage between these words of Psalm 22 spoken from the cross to the promised presence of God.  Mark does not present nice easy answers, but invites us to go back to the story again and wonder who this Jesus is and what the kingdom of God means. By linking the crucifixion and the baptism we wonder again about this ‘Beloved son’ also being the forsaken one. We are invited into a mystery where words fail us and the truth can overwhelm us.

Mark leaves the story on an unsettled note, an unsettled resurrection where the women  flee in terror and amazement and say nothing to anyone for they were afraid. Perhaps this ending reflects the ongoing nature of the story in the Markan communities, or the inability to put into words the mystery that they were a part of.  Perhaps we are called to go back to the Transfiguration where the Peter, and James and John are terrified, or in the boat where Jesus passes by and tells them not to be afraid, or when the storm has subsided and they are in great awe. To me Mark asks us to go back to story after story and to wonder again, ‘Who then is this Jesus and what is this kingdom of God that has come near.’ What words can we use to describe this mystery and do we dare state what seems to be a reality that somehow in this Jesus that God has come down to be among us in the most unusual and unexpected of ways? Mark’s story point to the crucifixion and the crucifixion and resurrection points us back to re-enter the story and see things with eyes that can see and to hear it with ears that can hear.



Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and The World He Lived in Part 4

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and The World He Lived in Part 4: A Scripture Shaped World

Scroll of the Book of Isaiah

Scroll of the Book of Isaiah

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.

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived In: Part 3

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived In: Part 3 Second Temple Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots, oh my

James Tissot, Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod, painted between 1886 and 1894

James Tissot, Reconstruction of Jerusalem and the Temple of Herod, painted between 1886 and 1894

The time of Jesus’ ministry takes place within a time scholars call Second Temple Judaism. Second Temple Judaism is named this simply because it is the time after the destruction of the first temple when the city of Jerusalem is captured and destroyed by the Babylonian empire in 588 BCE and the time after the temple is rebuilt as a part of the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the return from exile of some of the Jewish people beginning in 520-515 BCE. The world would change dramatically for the Jewish people over the 500 years preceding the time of Jesus’ life but with one exception (the time after the Maccabean Revolt (140 BCE). By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people have been under Roman rule (although indirectly ruled by client kings)since Pompey’s invasion in 63 CE.  For the time around Jesus’ life you will see some of the religious and political power struggles continuing to play out on the pages of the gospels between Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Herodians and other groups that are trying to figure out how to live out their political and religious philosophies in the context of Roman and Herodian rule.

The Pharisees

James Tissot, Woe Unto You Scribes and Pharisees

James Tissot, Woe Unto You Scribes and Pharisees

The Pharisees and the Sadducees are both political and religious movements that go back to the time of the Maccabean revolt. Both at various times would occupy greater or lesser authority based upon the ruler at the appropriate time, but by the time of Jesus the Pharisees and Sadducees have been in conflict for well over 100 years. The Pharisees according to the Jewish historian Josephus, a Pharisee himself, had more of their support in the common people and probably more in the rural areas, like Galilee, than within the city of Jerusalem itself (although there were certainly Pharisees within Jerusalem). Politics and religion are not separate in the ancient world, so the Pharisees exercise both political and religious authority. The Pharisees were more centered on the reading of the scriptures and the practicing of those scriptures as boundary markers for the people in contrast to the world around them.

The Pharisees are often only looked at from a Christian perspective for their disagreements with Jesus, and they are present from very early in the narrative of Jesus because they are present in Galilee where Jesus begins his ministry. You often see the conflicts with Jesus center around the tabernacle, reading of scripture, and particularly Sabbath and other distinctive practices that served as boundary markers in the Pharisees eyes for the Jewish people from the Gentiles. Both they and the Sadducees emerge from a time of forced Hellenization of the Jewish people under the Selucid Empire and to they hold onto these boundary markers as distinctive practices of every faithful Jew. For the Pharisees they attempt to heighten the religious practice of the people in order to bring about a closer coherence with God’s torah, God’s law. Instead of being focused primarily on the priestly practices of the temple they were focused on the actions of the everyday person to live a holy and righteous life.

The Pharisees did believe in the resurrection of the dead, which is a belief that emerges in the time of Second Temple Judaism. They were not in the positions of power and yet they believed that ultimately God would intervene and set the world right and the righteous would share in this world that God had liberated. With their focus more on individual practices, the reading of scriptures centered around the synagogues and their practice of trying to discern God’s will through the law they would survive the collapse of the temple in the wake of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 70 CE and eventually evolve into Rabbinic Judaism.

 The Sadducees

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together (1886-1894)

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together (1886-1894)

There is the old saying that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection so they were sad, you see-and while memorable the saying misses the point. The Sadducees, while they didn’t believe in the resurrection, were far from sad. They were predominantly the priestly class that were in a politically and economically more affluent position than their Pharisee counterparts. For the Sadducees, they understood that God was blessing them in their current life and that were the ones charged with maintaining the temple worship and sacrifice to God. For them the center of their life flows out of the first five books of the Bible and they become the cultic leaders of the temple, offering sacrifices and living a holy life in a priestly manner. The Sadducees to maintain their political power do have to maintain relationship with the Roman powers of the day, whether Herod the Great at the time of Jesus’ birth or Pontus Pilate at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. They are accused by the Pharisees of being collaborators at times, but with their focus on maintaining the temple function and sacrifice they see that as their primary task.

The Sadducees do come into Jesus when he enters into Jerusalem because Jesus does challenge the temple as the source of Jewish authority. For the Sadducees maintaining the temple and by extension Jerusalem are at the center of their life. When the temple is destroyed in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 70 CE the Sadducees begin to fade away. Without the temple and its worship they lose their reason for existing and do not have the distributed power base or the focal points of the Torah and the synagogue to be able to recast their identity as easily as the Pharisees do.


A much smaller group that do not play directly into the story of Jesus but who have come to prominence with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are the Essenes. The Essenes pulled away in a monastic way from society and formed smaller groups of dedicated disciples who were practicing a more rigorous form of Judaism. There appears to be both and ascetic and mystical side to the Essenes and they consider the temple compromised to the point where the only option is to separate themselves and form a new community of the righteous.


Describe by Josephus as the ‘fourth philosophy’ the zealots were those who felt that the Roman Empire was to be resisted by force. The time of Jesus’ life was not a peaceful one and the zealots make their way into the story in a number of ways. In both Mark and Matthew the apostle Simon is known  as Simon the Cananaean but Luke he is know as Simon the Zealot and it is certainly possible that among the followers Jesus there were former freedom fighters. It is also possible that Judas Iscariot’s title may refer to the Sicarii, the knife men and assassins who targeted Roman targets. Perhaps it is Luke’s gospel with the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the man is beaten up by the side of the road by bandits (who may well have been freedom fighters-the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was very instable much like the airport road in Bagdad) but many of Jesus’ teachings at the end of his ministry seem to be directed specifically against the revolutionary messages that the zealots were spreading even in his day. Perhaps this could be one reason, although this will never be more than suggestive, why Judas makes the decision to betray Jesus.

Focal Points of Jewish Identity

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

Throughout the history of the Jewish people they had different focal points of identity and authority (I deal with this more in depth in my posts of The Place of Authority, particularly parts 1-5). Family and tribe, land, the temple, Jerusalem, the Davidic king and the Torah and more broadly the scriptures at various points become the focal point of Jewish identity. Among the groups in conflict in Jesus day there are different variations on these points of identity. For the Sadducees for example the temple is a central point, for the Pharisees it focuses more on the Torah and the scriptures, and for the zealots there is a focus both on the land and the hope for a Davidic messiah that will lead them out of their captivity under Rome. Within the focal points are various practices and beliefs that help center each group and reinforce these beliefs.  Judaism had adapted to various situations throughout its life that would enable them to place their focus in different places to maintain their identity. The situation after the destruction of the temple would again be a time where the focus would again become focused on the Torah and on the Hebrew scriptures and the debating on what they would mean for their identity.  This was not the first time the Hebrew people encountered this challenge, previously in the Babylonian exile they had to reengage their stories to figure out who they were as the people of God.

Jesus and Jeremiah

Those who have read much in this blog know I spent an extended period of time with the book of Jeremiah, and because of that time there are a number of ways in which Jesus embodies parts of the prophet’s life and struggle. Both Jesus and Jeremiah stand at the edge of a major crisis in their respective times where there are people calling for resistance to the empires of their day, Babylon in the time of Jeremiah and Rome in the time of Jesus. Both would struggle with the temple and its hierarchy that had a vested interest in things remaining the way they were. Both would be considered traitors by their own people. Jesus is seen by those around him as a prophet, that is not to limit his identity to that but he was seen as at least that by most of the people of his time.  In Mark when Jesus asks, who do people say that I am the response is , “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” (Mark 8.28) but I found in intriguing that the Gospel of Matthew this is expanded to include Jeremiah specifically mentioned as one of the prophets.  Jesus comes into conflict with both the Pharisees and the Sadducees in his day and will ultimately be crucified by Rome under the title the King of the Jews, but the primary reason for his crucifixion in Matthew, Mark and Luke is his opposition to the temple and his challenge to both the Sadducees and the Pharisees sources of authority.

Jesus’ Temple Problem in the Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark dedicates most of chapters 11, 12 and 13 to Jesus’ struggle with the temple and it’s authorities in his time. After the entry into Jerusalem, the following day Jesus curses a fig tree a symbol of the Jewish people and then proceeds to turn over the tables in the temple, quoting Isaiah as the vision for what the temple should be (Isaiah 56.7) and Jeremiah for what the temple has become (Jeremiah 7.11).  On the way out of town Jesus and his disciples pass the now withered fig tree and in the text that follows Jesus says, “if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass it will be done for you.” (Mark 11. 23) Jesus is probably not talking about an abstract mountain, but rather the temple mount where they have just come from.  Later in chapter 12 after Jesus  had warned his disciples to beware of the scribes that devour widows houses we encounter the story of the poor widow who gives the two small copper coins. Perhaps this is simply a parable of the widow’s piety who gives all she haves to live on or perhaps this is a condemnation of the temple which devour all she had to live on.  Regardless of how this passage is interpreted in the following passage at the beginning of Mark 13 Jesus must deal with his own followers becoming impressed by the temple structure and Jesus remarks to them that the temple will be thrown down and they are not to place their trust in it, but they are not to become revolutionaries like many others who will be led astray.

Jesus will also struggle with both sets of religious authorities particularly in these chapters which lead up to the crucifixion narrative. Jesus has challenged their authority and they attempt to undermine his authority and shame him or have reason to accuse him of being a revolutionary. Jesus is eventually accused by the high priests and the elders who are assembled of blasphemy, of claiming authority for himself that rested either with the religious authorities or specifically with the God of Israel. Jesus will be a voice struggling within the Jewish people of his day for how people were to order their lives as the people of God and ultimately his vision would not be embraced by the leaders of his day. But for his followers Jesus would in various ways become the focal point of his follower’s devotion to God. As Richard B. Hays argues in his recent work Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Hays, 2014) each of the gospel writers envision Jesus as embodying the mystery of God (Mark), the fulfillment of the hope of the Hebrew Scriptures (Matthew), the one who redeems the chosen people of God (Luke) and the embodiment of the Jewish temple, sacrifice and festivals (John).  It is to Mark as an interpreter of the Jewish story that we will turn next.

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.