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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Mark

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( 1:1–13 ) Introduction

There is widespread agreement that the opening verses of Mark form an introduction to the book as a whole. As such they set the scene for the detailed story that is to come. Moreover, in many respects they identify the characters of the story and define the terms in which Mark intends it to be read. As we shall see, the motif of secrecy is an important theme in Mark's narrative: on several occasions characters in the story fail to understand who Jesus is or what his ministry is about. Yet for the reader of the gospel there is no secrecy at all: Jesus' identity is disclosed right from the start. On the other hand, not everything is revealed, otherwise Mark's story would be redundant. Thus Jesus is identified as Son of God in these introductory verses; but the full significance of what it means to be a/the true Son of God is maybe only shown by the ensuing narrative. Older editions of the text, and older commentaries, suggested that the introduction comprised vv. 1–8 . However, it is now widely accepted that the introduction goes at least as far as v. 13 , if not v. 15 . Certainly vv. 1–8 are incomplete without the sequel in vv. 9–13 which serve to identify the person of Jesus.

Almost every aspect of v. 1 is debated. The words ‘the Son of God’ are missing from some Greek manuscripts, but probably do represent the original text of Mark: the importance of the term for Mark's Christology, and the key place of this opening verse to announce the terms of the story to come, make this highly probable. The ‘good news’ is in Greek euaggelion, or ‘gospel’. Elsewhere in the NT, the gospel is the Christian message which is preached; it is not a literary product which is written or read. The same is probably true here, though this verse may have contributed to the process whereby ‘gospel’ became the term to refer to a written account of the life of Jesus. It is not clear how this gospel is the gospel ‘of Jesus Christ’. Is it the good news about Jesus, or the good news preached by Jesus? v. 14 (where Jesus proclaims the good news) suggests that the latter is in mind, though it is not impossible that both are intended. The force of the reference to the ‘beginning’ is also uncertain. Does this mean that v. 1 refers only to the introductory verses (so that the full ‘gospel’ then follows)? Or is there a sense in which the whole of Mark's story is only a ‘beginning’, and it is up to each reader to carry on where the story leaves off to find the complete gospel? The nature of the ending of Mark's story, with its startling abruptness (see MK 16:8 ), makes the latter possibility an attractive option. But in any case the opening verse makes it crystal clear to the reader who is the subject of the story to come: it is Jesus who is the Messiah and Son of God. Yet what these terms mean is not yet made clear.

vv. 2–8 serve to set the scene in a wider context. They first bring on to the stage not Jesus himself but the figure of John the Baptist, and in turn John is introduced by a (mixed) OT citation. (v. 2 is a mixture of Ex 23:20 and Mal 3:1; v. 3 is from Isa 40:3 . The reference to Isaiah in the introductory words in v. 2 is probably a mistake.) Yet John has little significance of his own in Mark's narrative. Mark tells us nothing of John's own eschatological preaching (as in Mt 3:7–10 and par.), nor of any of his ethical teaching (cf. Lk 3:11–14 ). The only words John speaks point forward to Jesus (vv. 7–8 ). Similarly the OT citation (one of the very few explicit citations in Mark) is only brought in to point forward to John. vv. 2–8 are really therefore constructed from the end backwards, where each element points forward to the next. The citation of the OT identifies the time as one of the fulfilment of Jewish eschatological hopes. Moreover, the note in v. 6 of John's clothing may be intended to evoke the clothing of Elijah (2 Kgs 1:8 ): hence John is cast in the role of an Elijah-figure, and Elijah was the prophet expected to come before the final day of the Lord (cf. Mal 4:5–6 ). So too the ‘wilderness’, as the place of John's baptizing activity, was the place from where many Jews expected the final eschatological deliverance to appear. Thus the details of Mark's account serve to place the events to come within a context of the fulfilment of Jewish eschatological hopes. How far all these expectations relate to the historical person of John himself is hard to say. It is not easy to ascribe the words of the saying in vv. 7–8 to the historical John: John may have been expecting the coming of God Himself. Nevertheless, for Mark, the saying now refers to Jesus.

This is made clear in v. 9 : the one announced by John is Jesus from Nazareth. Further, Jesus is now baptized by John. Historically it seems very likely that this reflects a real event in the life of Jesus. (Later writers are clearly embarrassed by it: why should Jesus, the sinless Son of God, be baptized for the forgiveness of his sins? However, Mark shows no such embarrassment.) But what the event might have meant in Jesus' psyche we just do not know. The most we can say is that it probably signified Jesus' commitment to John's cause and expressed his agreement with his message. For Mark, the significance of the event is that this is the moment when Jesus' identity is given the absolute seal of divine approval: God himself declares Jesus to be His Son. The reader is now in no doubt: the story to come is the story of the Son of God. The precise meaning of ‘Son of God’ in Mark is much debated. The words of the voice from heaven here conflate two OT verses in addressing Jesus as ‘Son’: Ps 2:7 (suggesting a royal figure) and Isa 42:1 (implying an idea of Jesus as the servant); in addition the words ‘the beloved’ may recall the words of Abraham about Isaac (cf. Gen 22:2 ). The phrase ‘Son of God’ can have a wide range of meanings. Later it came to signify Jesus' full divinity as a member of a divine Trinity. But in the first century the term had no necessary overtones of divinity: it could refer to a royal figure (cf. Ps 2:7 ), or to the nation Israel (cf. Hos 11:1 ) or to a righteous sufferer (cf. Wis 2:17 ). Perhaps it would be wrong to press Mark into too rigid a mould here: Jesus is a royal figure (as will be stressed particularly in ch. 15 ); but as Son of God he is supremely one who will suffer and die. Indeed it may be Mark's intention precisely to spell out in his story the way in which true divine sonship should be seen. The reference to the heavens being ‘torn apart’ indicates a theophany (cf. Isa 64:1 ); and the coming of the Spirit again implies the fulfilment of Jewish eschatological hopes (cf. Joel 2:28–31 cited in Acts 2:17–21 ). The significance of the Spirit being symbolized as a ‘dove’ is uncertain, but may allude to the creation story in Gen 1:2 where some Jewish exegetes interpreted the words there as referring to the Spirit ‘hovering’ like a dove. In that case, the story here may again be indicating the start of a new creation.

vv. 12–13 recount the so-called ‘temptation’ of Jesus (‘testing’ would be a better description.) The story is much shorter than the threefold temptation story of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Jesus is in the wilderness for ‘forty days’ (a time with many OT resonances: cf. Moses in Ex 34:28 ; Elijah in 1 Kgs 19:8 ). The ‘testing’ by Satan is probably to be thought of as a titanic struggle with the powers of evil. The exact details are uncertain (e.g. does the struggle last for forty days? Do the angels minister during, or after, the struggle? What do the wild beasts signify?). But the general thrust of the narrative seems to be that Jesus is victorious in the battle against Satan. Mark probably intends the story to act as the interpretative key for at least part of the narrative to come. Exorcisms and battles with unclean spirits will occupy a significant part of Jesus' ministry. The temptation narrative shows that these are part of a broader eschatological battle with the powers of evil; and also that Jesus is victorious in that battle, as 3:22–30 will show.

( 1:14–15 ) Jesus' Preaching

This is something of a transition, in which Mark gives what is probably intended as a summary of Jesus' preaching. John is almost forgotten (his arrest is mentioned only in passing, and no reason for it is given): all attention is focused on the person of Jesus. Yet Jesus' preaching does not focus on himself, but on God. It is the time of the fulfilment of Jewish eschatological hopes (‘the time is fulfilled’), and Jesus proclaims the imminence of the kingdom of God. (The verb ‘has come near’ represents a Greek word which probably implies that the kingdom is very close, but not yet present.) Reflected here are Jewish eschatological hopes for the intervention of God in the affairs of the world to establish himself as king and for his kingly rule to be acknowledged by all. (The ‘kingdom of God’ is probably meant in an active sense of God ruling as king, rather than as a spatial area over which he rules.) The time is thus one of the imminent fulfilment of eschatological hopes. In the face of this imminent event, people must ‘repent’, i.e. change their lifestyle in preparation for what is to come, and ‘believe in the good news’. It is worth noting that here, as throughout the synoptic gospels generally, the object of faith is not Jesus himself. Here it is the gospel, the good news, which must be ‘believed’. Jesus becomes the object of faith after Easter. Thus Mark seems to reflect the pre-Easter situation quite well in that Jesus does not refer to himself explicitly as the focus of the belief of others.

What is announced here is that the kingdom in its fullness is still to come. However, there is a sense in which the events of Jesus' ministry represent the fulfilment of eschatological hopes, so that the kingdom is in part already present in the work and preaching of Jesus. Thus the eschatological claims in Mark have a characteristic dual element: the eschatological events are proclaimed as due to come—and to come soon—but also they have already partly arrived in the person of Jesus.

After the summary statement of Jesus' preaching the story moves on to a different level with the more historical account of Jesus' ministry in Galilee.

( 1:16–20 ) Call of Four Disciples

The first event narrated by Mark is the call, and response, of the first four disciples of Jesus. The story is told in an extremely compressed way. No unnecessary detail of information is supplied. It is thus quite pointless to speculate, for example, on why the disciples responded without demur, or whether Jesus had met them beforehand. Mark is not interested in the psychology of the disciples or of their response. Rather, for him the centre of the action is once again the person of Jesus: Jesus is the one who calls and summons others to be his followers with the single authoritative word ‘Follow me!’; and those who are summoned in this way obey him without any hesitation. Yet whilst it is the case that Jesus is the central character in the story, it remains the case that the disciples will also occupy a key role in the narrative to come. Much has been written on the role played by the disciples in Mark's story, focusing in particular on the very bad press they get later, when they fail to understand Jesus (cf. 8:17–21 ) and finally desert him completely (cf. 14:50 ). (See Weeden 1971; Tannehill 1977 .) Here it must be said that the portrait of the disciples is entirely positive: Jesus calls them and they obey him instantly and without reserve. The effect of the story is thus to place the disciples in a good light so that the reader responds to them thoroughly positively. Any negative portrayal of the disciples later in the story will have to be balanced against this initial picture.

The phrase ‘fish for people’ (lit. ‘fishers of men/people’) is highly unusual, despite its later popularity in Christian hymns and songs: the phrase suggests a somewhat harsh and negative activity of ensnaring for judgement (cf. Jer 16:16; Ezek 29:4–5 ). Mark refers to ‘Simon’ here, and only later (after 3:16 ) does he use the name ‘Peter’. All four men called are fishermen; as such they were certainly not destitute in economic terms, apparently owning boats and probably making a reasonable living (cf. 10:28 ). Jesus' call to others to ‘follow’ him by joining him physically in his itinerant ministry is quite unlike that of a Jewish teacher having pupils who study the law under him. It is thus difficult to find any close analogies in the immediate Jewish background for the phenomenon of discipleship in the sense envisaged in the gospels. The theme of the authority of Jesus, which is clearly central for Mark, is continued and developed in the next story.

( 1:21–8 ) An Exorcism in Capernaum

The action takes place on the sabbath (though no question of a possible breach of sabbath law is raised here). The pericope consists of the account of the exorcism, which Mark appears to have framed between two notes about Jesus' teaching (vv. 21–2, 27 ). Such a sandwiching technique is very typical of Mark, who seems to use the resultant structure to allow one part of the sandwich to provide an interpretative key for the other part. The story of the exorcism itself may well be traditional. There seems to be a note of secrecy here, and secrecy is a characteristic Markan motif; but in fact it is really only apparent. The unclean spirit tries to utter Jesus' name (v. 24 ). The motif can be paralleled in other similar exorcism stories: uttering the other person's name was thought to be a means of overpowering your opponent. Jesus thus silences the demon (v. 25 ), not to impose secrecy, but in order to stop the demon naming him: the act of silencing is itself the action which gains mastery over the demon. However, as we shall see, Mark develops this motif in a peculiar way later (see 1:34; 3:12 ). Jesus' activity as an exorcist is well attested. Jesus was by no means unique in claiming the power to exorcize (cf. Lk 11:19 ), though in the Christian tradition, Jesus' exorcisms are claimed to be the manifestation of the arrival of the kingdom of God (Lk 11:20, cf. Mk 3:22–30 ). For Mark the emphasis clearly lies on the authority and power shown by Jesus in exorcizing. This is shown in part by the way in which Mark inserts the exorcism story into two notes about Jesus' ‘teaching’ with ‘authority’ (vv. 22, 27 ). The fact that the story itself is not about Jesus' teaching at all suggests that these framing references are secondary; moreover the fact that, so far in Mark's story, Jesus has given virtually no explicit teaching suggests that Mark is at this stage more interested in the fact that Jesus' teaching is authoritative than he is in the contents of that teaching. (The contents will come later, e.g. in ch. 4 .)

One other detail should be noted here. Jesus' authority qua teacher is said to be ‘not as the scribes’ (v. 22 ). (The scribes were the legislators in Judaism, those who decided how the law should be applied in new situations, and made decisions when different laws clashed; but it is not apparent that Mark knows clearly the differences between the Jewish groups he mentions.) The reference here is left hanging, but the scribes reappear soon, i.e. in 2:6 , where they are again opponents of Jesus. This is the first hint of a theme that will dominate the whole gospel: Jesus as the authoritative figure who teaches and exorcizes is the one who as such will clash with the Jewish authorities, and that clash will ultimately lead to the cross. The theme is only hinted at here, but will be developed significantly in the next chapter.

( 1:29–31 ) The Healing of Peter's Mother-in-Law

As in previous stories, the extraneous detail is kept to an absolute minimum. Some have suggested that the story may be due to Peter's own recollections: this is possible, but scarcely provable one way or the other. For Mark the story no doubt shows Jesus' continuing authority, here extending to an ability to heal physical illness as well as to exorcize. The story is told in the form of a classic healing story: the description of the illness with a request for healing, the healing itself, followed by a demonstration of the cure or an acclamation. The final phrase (‘she began to serve them’) might be intended as just a piece of evidence that she really had been cured; alternatively, and more probably, it also shows Peter's mother-in-law performing what is, for Mark, the supreme Christian action of ‘serving’ others (cf. 10:44–5 ). In Mark's gospel it is striking how often the women characters are presented in a far better light than the male disciples. Here Peter's mother-in-law does what every Christian is called to do, namely to serve others.

( 1:32–4 ) General Healings and Exorcisms

The note about ‘evening’ (v. 32 ) indicates that the sabbath (cf. v. 21 ) is over, and so people are allowed to carry the sick to Jesus. The account is general and the details rather hyperbolic (‘all who were sick’, v. 32 , ‘the whole city’, v. 33 ). Mark thinks that this reflects Jesus' usual activity, and it shows the importance Mark places on Jesus' miracles. There is thus no real place for any theory that Mark positively disapproved of this aspect of Jesus' ministry, as some have argued (cf. Weeden 1971 ); however, as we shall see, there may be a sense in which Mark shows an element of reserve about whether this is the most significant aspect of Jesus' life and work. A characteristic Markan note comes for the first time in v. 34 , where Jesus commands the demons to be silent. The motif was present in Mark's tradition (cf. v. 24 ), but Mark seems to develop it in a peculiar way: now the demons know Jesus' identity and are forbidden by Jesus to make this knowledge public (cf. too 3:12 ) so that others remain in ignorance. This is then the first appearance of the so-called ‘messianic secret’ in Mark. In many respects it is somewhat artificial and probably represents Mark's own interpretation of his tradition. (Certainly v. 34 alongside v. 24 indicates that the secrecy motif has been imposed secondarily as a development of the earlier tradition.) The significance of the secret in Mark is debated (see the survey of views in Tuckett 1983 ). Perhaps the best solution is that, via the secrecy charges, Mark indicates to the reader (for whom there is no secret at all! cf. 1:1 ) that Jesus' identity must remain a secret to human characters in the story—at least prior to the cross. Jesus' identity is finally recognized by a human being at the cross (cf. 15:39 ), but not before. Mark may thereby wish to indicate that Jesus' identity can only be truly perceived in the light of the cross. Hence, in the story-world created by Mark, before one gets to the cross, Jesus keeps his identity secret. (See Räisänen 1990 .)

( 1:35–9 ) Extension of the Ministry

These verses portray a slight interlude in the narrative. Not all the details are entirely clear. Jesus withdraws to a private place to pray (v. 35 ): perhaps the note underlines the fact that Jesus is ultimately dependent on God for all that he does. Does the withdrawal indicate also an element of reserve on Mark's part about the importance of the miracles? This is possible (cf. too 8:27–30 ), though in v. 29 Jesus goes out and about not only preaching but also ‘casting out demons’. The disciples are said to ‘hunt’ for Jesus (v. 30 ). The verb used is rather unusual, indicating perhaps some kind of hostile pursuit. It is possible that this is the first indication in the narrative of the motif which will be considerably developed later whereby the disciples fail to respond properly to Jesus (ctr. MK 1:16–20 ). Perhaps then the story hints here at what will come more fully later. The disciples have, it is true, followed Jesus in one sense: but the true following will be shown later to be rather different (cf. 8:34; 10:52 ). Jesus' response is to go ‘throughout Galilee’. Again we have a summarizing statement from Mark, showing Jesus' universal activity in preaching and healing. The reference to ‘their’ synagogues in v. 39 may be revealing: does this show that for Mark, the Christian community had separated from the Jewish community? Certainly it is likely that Mark was writing for a Gentile audience and this may be one piece of evidence for this.

( 1:40–5 ) A Leper Healed

The next story, only loosely connected with its context, shows Jesus healing a leper. (The condition referred to as ‘leprosy’ in the Bible probably covers a wide range of illnesses.) A number of details in the story are obscure. Jesus' action is said in v. 41 to be due to his ‘pity’, or compassion; however, some Greek manuscripts say here that Jesus was ‘moved with anger’. In view of the fact that it is hard to see why ‘pity’ might have been changed to ‘anger’ by a scribe, but very easy to see how the reverse change might take place, some have argued that the reference to ‘anger’ here may be original. Matthew and Luke also both omit the phrase, which would also be easier to explain if the original reference here was to Jesus' anger. References to pity, or compassion, as the motive for Jesus' miracles in the gospels are rare. However, the reason for any ‘anger’ here is not clear (cf. also below on v. 43 ). Touching the leper would render Jesus unclean according to Jewish purity laws. Jesus' action here may thus show him seeking to break down the barriers created within human society by such purity laws. (Cf. further MK 5:21–43 .) The reference to Jesus ‘sternly warning’ the man (v. 43 ) is also difficult. The verb used is a rare one, usually expressing intense anger. But who or what is Jesus angry with? The man? The leprosy? Evil spirits thought to be behind the illness? Perhaps Mark simply understands the note as referring to Jesus' urgency in sending the man to the priests; but in an earlier version of the story, Jesus' anger might have been thought to be directed against evil spirits.

Jesus commands secrecy in v. 44 : the man is to say nothing but to go to the priests to have his cure certified (as required by the law in Lev 14 : at this point there seems to be no critique of the law at all). Although these secrecy commands after miracles have sometimes been linked with the messianic secret, they should probably not be so interpreted. Here the secrecy commanded in v. 44 is limited, since the man is to make his cure known to the priests. But in any case v. 45 shows that secrecy is not in fact maintained: the man goes out and proclaims openly what has happened. Perhaps this is one way in which Mark's narrative emphasizes the success of Jesus' activity as a healer: despite Jesus' own attempts to keep things quiet, the news spreads like wildfire! This then is rather different from the secrecy of 1:34 where other people in the story do not come to share the knowledge about Jesus that the demons had. Thus it is probably right to distinguish between a ‘messianic secret’ which is kept (as in 1:34 ) and a ‘miracle “secret”’ which is immediately broken (as here). (See Luz 1983 .) The story thus ends on a note of Jesus' great popularity. The very next story will show that such popularity is not universal.

( 2:1–3:6 )

The next section of the gospel comprises five stories showing Jesus in a series of controversies with the Jewish authorities, and this series reaches its climax in the plot to have him killed ( 3:6 ). Although it is sometimes argued that the collection is pre-Markan, partly because the plot to kill Jesus seems to come very early, such a theory is unnecessary. The note in 3:6 is not isolated: as we shall see there are a number of details pointing the reader forward to the passion to come (see MK 2:7 , 20, as well as the references to Jesus as Son of Man). This series may in fact be Mark's way of indicating very early in his story the course which the ensuing narrative will take. For Mark Jesus is supremely the one who will suffer and die, and this theme dominates the account. The collection here, with all its forward-looking references to the passion, may well be Mark's own composition.

( 2:1–12 ) The Healing of the Paralytic

The story in its present form is probably composite: a straight healing story (vv. 1–5, 11–12 ) has been disrupted by the insertion of a debate between Jesus and the scribes about his authority (vv. 6–10 ). The healing story itself is fairly straightforward, but it is important to note the reference to ‘faith’ in v. 5 : miracles in Mark generally only occur, and can only occur, in a context of faith (cf. 6:5 ). Yet it should also be noted that this faith is not necessarily faith ‘in Jesus’, but rather in God who works through Jesus; moreover, the faith here is not that of the paralysed man himself, but of his friends. This is then not quite the same as some presentday kinds of ‘faith-healing’ that emphasize the faith of the sick person. The connection between illness and sin is here assumed and not discussed (cf. Jn 9:2–3 ); though whether this element was present in the original healing narrative is uncertain. Perhaps it was added as simply the motif to generate the following controversy about Jesus' authority.

The debate in vv. 6–10 focuses on Jesus' authority (cf. 1:22 ), an authority which is questioned by the scribes (again reminiscent of 1:22 : thus the implicit opposition between Jesus and the scribes now becomes explicit). The scribes accuse Jesus of ‘blasphemy’ (v. 7 ), which is precisely the charge on which Jesus will be condemned to death at his trial ( 14:64 ). The historical problems are acute as Jesus has not technically committed blasphemy, an offence which involved uttering the divine name (m. Sanh. 7.5: see MK 14:64 ). It is possible that, if the account here is at all historical, the scribes may have meant that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy in a looser sense than that defined by Jewish law. However, Mark may not have been aware of such details. For him, what is important is to show that the conflict between Jesus and the scribes here is literally a life-and-death struggle.

The debate is about Jesus' authority, and his authority to forgive. By implication, the story claims that Jesus does have this authority, which is usually the prerogative of God alone (though strictly Jesus does no more than declare God's forgiveness). At this point, Jesus' authority is said to be signalled in part by reference to him as Son of Man. This enigmatic phrase has generated enormous discussion. It is possible that the phrase alone (in Aramaic) simply means ‘a man’, or ‘someone’. Yet this scarcely fits the present context where the issue is the authority of Jesus, not of any human being. Elsewhere in Mark, ‘Son of Man’ is a term used to refer to Jesus' suffering (cf. 8:31 etc.) and future vindication ( 14:62 etc.). Although disputed, one very plausible background for the term, certainly at the level of Mark's understanding, is that of Dan 7:13 , where a figure described as ‘one like a son of man’ appears as a symbol for the vindicated people of God in the heavenly court; and since the people concerned in Daniel are presently suffering violent persecution (probably under Antiochus Epiphanes), the figure of Dan 7 may be associated with suffering as well as vindication. (This last point is more disputed.) If so, then the term ‘Son of Man’ as applied to Jesus by Mark may be intended to evoke this twin idea of suffering and vindication as the role which lies ahead for Jesus.

The present reference to Jesus as Son of Man may seem out of place in such a schema. In fact it is probably thoroughly appropriate. The wider context in Mark is the series of controversies leading to Jesus' death; so here then, Mark may also be indicating allusively (as in v. 7 ) that the controversy is one which will lead to death: the one with authority is the ‘Son of Man’, i.e. the one who must suffer and die. Since the reference to ‘Son of Man’ here makes excellent sense in Mark's literary scheme, and really makes sense only there, it is probably due to Mark himself, though the substance of the saying, without Jesus' explicit self-reference as Son of Man, may be pre-Markan.

( 2:13–17 ) Jesus and Social Outcasts

The second of the five controversy stories concerns Jesus' relationship with tax-collectors and sinners. In what may originally have been a separate story, Mark tells of the call of Levi in vv. 13–14 . The story, with its stark simplicity and lack of any extraneous detail, is similar in form to the call stories of 1:16–20 . Levi appears nowhere else in this gospel (though Matthew evidently identified Levi with ‘Matthew’, one of the twelve: cf. Mt 9:9; 10:3 ). Levi is said to be a ‘tax-collector’: what is probably meant is not someone who collected taxes for the Romans directly, but an employee of Herod responsible for collecting some of the local tolls. Such people had a uniformly bad name amongst Jews, primarily for their unscrupulousness and dishonesty.

Levi's response to the call is to invite Jesus to his house (v. 15 : it is possible that the house actually belongs to Jesus—the Greek is ambiguous, speaking only of ‘his’ house—but this seems unlikely). Again Jesus comes into conflict with the authorities, here ‘the scribes of the Pharisees’. The exact nature of the Pharisaic party is debated. They seem to have been an influential group of lay people, deeply concerned to apply the law to ever new situations, if necessary by legislating afresh, and also concerned to maintain a higher than normal level of purity in their everyday lives. Here they accuse Jesus of eating with tax-collectors and sinners. Eating with such people may have signified an offer to associate with them without condemning their faults, and this may have offended a strict law-abiding group such as the Pharisees. The identity of the ‘sinners’ is even more uncertain. The term might refer to those who did not maintain a Pharisaic interpretation of the law; or it may refer to those who deliberately flouted the law. The former is perhaps more likely: the term is often used in polemical contexts to refer to those who do not belong to the speaker's own in-group; it is then a way of castigating outsiders. If so it may indicate that the Pharisees expected Jesus not to consort with those outside their group, and hence may suggest that in fact Jesus had quite close links with the Pharisees. If that were the case, it might explain better why the Pharisees so bitterly opposed Jesus. For Mark, however, the Pharisees seem to be no longer very relevant for his own community: e.g. in 7:3–4 he has to explain some of their customs for his readers.

Jesus' final reply in v. 17 is enigmatic. Does it imply that there are righteous people who need no call? It is perhaps better taken as ironic. The righteous need no call—but by implication those who think that they are righteous are perhaps thereby showing they are not righteous. Certainly the saying links with the previous story in showing both Jesus' concern with sinners and sin and his unique authority.

( 2:18–22 ) Old and New

The next story concerns the issue of fasting. Again the story is probably composite, with vv. 19b–20 representing a secondary allegorizing of an original tradition.

John's disciples and Pharisees are said to be fasting, and Jesus is asked why his own disciples do not. Fasting was required of all Jews at times, though the story here, by singling out the Pharisees and John for mention, suggests that the fasting in question was an extra obligation taken on freely. The very fact that Jesus is asked why his disciples do not join in is a further indication that Jesus may once have had close links with the Pharisees and hence his failure to follow their practices was a matter of surprise to them. Jesus' reply is to refer, in a variety of metaphors, to the totally new situation that now obtains and its incompatibility with the old: it is like a wedding when fasting is simply inappropriate; similarly, the old and the new will not mix, just as one cannot mend a cloak with unshrunk material, or use old wineskins for new wine. By implication, the ‘new’ is the presence of Jesus in his ministry: as such it is incompatible with the old ways. The new life of the kingdom is one of joy and celebration and renders fasting obsolete. The implicit claim by Jesus is startling in its scope.

vv. 19b–20 probably represent a secondary allegorizing of the tradition, looking ahead (in the story's terms) to the time when the bridegroom (i.e. Jesus) will be ‘taken away’ (i.e. die). Fasting will then be reintroduced (as we know it was in the early church). These verses may then be looking ahead to the time of the church, and justifying current church practice; but they also draw the reader's attention forward to the moment of the taking away of the bridegroom, i.e. to the death of Jesus. Like the hints in v. 7 and perhaps v. 10 , the reader's gaze is directed to the cross which, for Mark, is never far away in the story.

( 2:23–8 ) Jesus and the Sabbath: The Cornfields

The final two controversy stories involve sabbath law, the command that one shall do no ‘work’. In the first of these stories, Jesus and his disciples go through the cornfields, plucking corn as they go (v. 23 ). Such action was not in itself illegal, but interpreters of the sabbath legislation decided that reaping and threshing should count as work and hence were not allowed on the sabbath. The presence of Pharisees, apparently spying in a cornfield on the sabbath, strains credulity and is unlikely to be historical. Possibly we have here then a reflection of a debate in the early church about how far sabbath law should be obeyed by Christians (note it is the disciples, not Jesus, who perform the questionable activity); yet it seems equally likely that Jesus himself was engaged in similar debates.

Jesus' first reply (vv. 25–6 ) refers to the example of David breaking the law by eating the shewbread when he was hungry (1 Sam 21 : the reference to Abiathar being high priest at the time is wrong, and Matthew and Luke both omit the note). The example provides some precedent for acting illegally, but scarcely provides a strong argument for breaking such an important law as the sabbath law. The repeated introductions in v. 25 and v. 27 may indicate a seam in the tradition, and v. 27 is more likely to be the original conclusion to the story. The lack of appositeness in vv. 25–6 may betray the secondary origin of this tradition.

Jesus' second reply is far more devastating. v. 27 seems to relativize the whole sabbath law, so that any human need would legitimize not keeping the sabbath. (Jews at the time certainly allowed work on the sabbath if life was in danger, but this verse seems to go much further.) The implication of this saying in relation to the law is very radical. (Matthew and Luke, perhaps because they realize this, both omit the verse.) v. 28 may represent a slight backing away from the radicalness of v. 27 : Jesus (as Son of Man) is lord of the sabbath. Does this imply that Jesus can abrogate sabbath law, but not anyone else? (If we took ‘Son of Man’ as meaning ‘a man’, then v. 28 would say the same as v. 27 : human need would override the sabbath; but this seems impossible for Mark—for him the Son of Man is Jesus and Jesus alone.) Certainly in Mark's eyes it would seem that the one with the unique authority to dispense sabbath law is Jesus alone. Why then is he referred to as Son of Man? Perhaps again, as in v. 10 , it is Mark's way of pointing forward to what is to come: the one who claims this authority inevitably clashes with other authority figures, a clash which will lead to suffering and death, the appointed lot of the one who is ‘Son of Man’.

( 3:1–6 ) Jesus and the Sabbath: The Man with the Withered Hand

In the last of the five controversy stories here, Jesus is again in dispute over sabbath observance. The occasion is a miracle, Jesus healing a man with a withered hand. But in form-critical terms, the story is not a ‘miracle story’: the focus of attention is not the miracle for its own sake, but the controversy between Jesus and the authorities about his right to heal the man on the sabbath. There is debate about whether Jesus' actions here do in fact constitute ‘work’ and thus breach sabbath law. Strictly speaking, Jesus is recorded as doing nothing that could be deemed to be work. However, in its present form, all the parties concerned in the debate presuppose that Jesus has worked. Jesus' justification for his action would scarcely satisfy a Jewish opponent. The principle of working on the sabbath to save life was accepted by all; but a man with a withered hand was not in danger of losing his life. Jesus' rhetorical double question in v. 4 would have had a clear answer from Jews: one must of course save life on the sabbath; otherwise one ‘does good’, which means obeying God's law and not working. Jesus' saying here seems to presuppose a significant extension of the meaning of saving life: his own ministry is an activity of saving life in a radical sense, and hence justifies relativizing the sabbath law. Yet it is hard to avoid the impression that the story here shows Jesus acting in a rather provocative way in relation to his Jewish contemporaries and their sensibilities regarding what was acknowledged as one of the most important parts of the whole Jewish law.

The conclusion to the story—and to the series of five stories—is a plot to kill Jesus (v. 6 ). The alliance of Pharisees and ‘Herodians’ seems implausible historically. The Herodians were not a party, but may have been the supporters of Herod Antipas: as such they would normally have been opposed by the Pharisees. It is notable too that the Pharisees rarely make any appearance in the passion narratives themselves. Perhaps the mention of the two groups here is intended by Mark simply to indicate the combined forces of religious and secular power in general. The key point is the note that the authorities plot to have Jesus killed. The controversies are so deep-seated that they will lead to Jesus' death. For the reader, the cross is now clearly in view. Jesus' life and ministry inevitably lead to conflict, suffering, and death. The cross for Mark is an inalienable part of what it means for Jesus to be God's Son.

( 3:7–12 ) General Healings

Mark now gives another summary statement about Jesus' activity as a healer and an exorcist, similar to 1:32–4 . Jesus' popularity and success are again emphasized. As in 1:34 , however, a typically Markan motif recurs in v. 12 : Jesus commands the demons not to make known his identity (here as Son of God): other human beings in the story are not allowed to know who Jesus is at this stage. Once again Mark seems to be taking up a traditional motif from exorcism stories (the exorcist silences the demon) and giving it his own peculiar interpretation. As before, for Mark the true nature of Jesus' divine sonship cannot yet be revealed: such knowledge will only come at the cross.

( 3:13–19 ) The Call of the Twelve

The appointment of an inner group of twelve disciples is well attested in the earliest Christian tradition (cf. 1 Cor 15:5 ). Mark does not make a lot of this. The number twelve is probably deliberately intended to evoke the number of the tribes of Israel: the new body round Jesus is the nucleus of a new people of God. The fact that the number is twelve, not eleven, so that Jesus himself is not one of the number, implies an even more privileged place for Jesus. He is the creator and inaugurator of the new Israel. The twelve are said to be ‘apostles’ here (though the phrase is absent from some Greek manuscripts). Mark uses the term elsewhere only at 6:30 . The use of the word may be anachronistic here and reflect post-resurrection usage: it was used in the later Christian church to refer to special authority figures in the movement, but it is doubtful if Jesus himself used the term. The names of the twelve are mainly traditional, and nothing is known of most of them. The extra name of Peter given to Simon is not explained (cf. Mt 16:18 ); the name ‘Boanerges’ given to James and John is peculiar to Mark here. Some discussion has taken place over the penultimate name ‘Simon the Cananaean’ (NRSV). The word for ‘Cananaean’ has been interpreted as ‘Zealot’, with conclusions drawn about the possible presence in Jesus' immediate circle of a member of the Zealot party, the political group later very influential in fomenting armed rebellion against the Romans. However, it is almost certain that such a party did not exist prior to the time of the Jewish War in c.66 CE. Hence no conclusions can be drawn about Jesus' possible involvement with the activity of such a group, which is in any case extremely unlikely. The word here may simply imply that Simon was a very zealous character.

The reference to Judas Iscariot once again reminds the reader of the story to come: even at this moment, betrayal and its consequences are not far away.

( 3:20–35 ) Further Controversy

This section represents another example of Mark's sandwiching technique: the story of the Beelzebul controversy with the scribes (vv. 22–30 ) comes between the two halves of the story of the dispute between Jesus and his family (vv. 20–1, 31–5 ). Mark thereby shows the increasing hostility and alienation experienced by Jesus: the failure of his family to accept him is shown to be akin to the hostility of the scribes. Throughout the gospel, Jesus becomes more and more isolated, as one group after another—steadily getting closer to home—deserts him. The Beelzebul controversy demonstrates the increasing intensity of the hostility from the ‘scribes’ (cf. 1:22; 2:6 ). Here they are said to be ‘from Jerusalem’, one of the first indicators in Mark of what will be a strong distinction between Galilee and Jerusalem, with Jerusalem as the place of hostility and, finally, death. The issue is again about Jesus' authority and power, the scribes accusing him of using demonic power. (‘Beelzebul’—the name varies in different manuscripts—was probably originally the name of a minor demon: this period was a time of great flux in beliefs about demonic figures, with no standardized model of a monolithic Devil figure universally established. However, Mark himself does seem to presuppose such a model and evidently regards the two names as referring to the same figure.) Jesus replies at first in a series of images (literally ‘parables’, v. 23 ), but all based on the same theme: a power fighting against itself would collapse immediately. By implication, Satan's kingdom is thought of as still standing: hence it cannot be opposed by its own forces—Jesus' power must have other roots.

The saying in v. 27 may have had a separate origin. The presuppositions now seem to be different: Satan is the strong man who has now been bound and his property is being plundered, i.e. by Jesus. The image derives from Jewish eschatology (cf. Rev 20:2 ): the binding of Satan is a feature of the eschatological end-time. The claim being made here is then that the end-time has arrived: Jesus' exorcisms are not just everyday events, but the final overthrow of the power of Satan. Moreover, Mark's arrangement of the material, with v. 27 following vv. 24–6 , suggests that he regards v. 27 as providing the hermeneutical key for the previous verses. Thus, whatever these sayings may have implied earlier in the tradition, Mark regards Jesus' argument in vv. 24–7 as claiming to have won the final victory over Satan. The saying in vv. 28–9 reverts to the issue of Jesus' authority. The Markan version is probably more original than the parallel in Q (cf. Lk 12:10 ) which speaks of blasphemy against the Son of Man being forgivable. Here all sins are said to be forgivable, except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In context the meaning is clear: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a denial of the power of Jesus in his exorcisms. By implication, therefore, Jesus exorcizes by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1:12–13 ), and a refusal to accept this by the scribes is the unforgivable sin. Yet again Mark focuses all attention on the person of Jesus and the authority by which he acts. For Mark the centre of attention is supremely the Christological question of who Jesus is.

( 4:1–34 ) Parables

At this point, Mark gives the first extended block of teaching by Jesus. Up to now, Jesus' teaching has been important as illustrating his authority (cf. 1:22 ); here, for the first time, some content is given. The content here consists mostly of parables. The parables are widely thought to be the most characteristic part of Jesus' teaching, though Mark does not give many examples. Christians very soon interpreted Jesus' parables as allegories, finding significance in each detail of the story, and we can see that process starting as early as Mark himself (see vv. 14–20 ). The recognition that Jesus' parables were not originally allegories in which every detail of the story has significance is now well accepted in modern scholarship. Some though have taken this to the other extreme, arguing that they have only one single meaning. This is probably too rigid: the parables may have been intended to make more than one point, even if a detailed allegorical interpretation by Jesus is unlikely. It is generally thought that Jesus used parables in order to enhance his teaching and to get his message across. As we shall see, this makes Mark's account of Jesus' speaking about his own parables in vv. 11–12 here extremely difficult to accept as historical.

This section in Mark is almost certainly composite. The large number of (often unnecessary) introductions (cf. vv. 2, 10, 13, 21, 24, 26, 30 ), as well as the inconsistency in the settings (Jesus speaks to the crowd in v. 2 , withdraws to an inner group in v. 10 , but still seems to be speaking to the crowd in v. 33 ) suggest that originally separate traditions have been combined here. For example, some have argued that Mark has taken over a prior collection of three ‘seed’ parables. Whether there is such a pre-Markan collection here is uncertain. Much depends on one's interpretation of the difficult vv. 10–13 (see below), and whether one judges the ideas there to be non-Markan and hence pre-Markan.

( 4:1–9 ) The Parable of the Sower

It is generally assumed that Jesus' parables are true to life and not artificially constructed, unrealistic stories. (Such a broad generalization is unlikely to be true always: sometimes they make their point precisely because what they describe is unexpected and extraordinary.) Much discussion has taken place about whether the details of the parable of the sower are true to life: is the action of sowing seed ‘on the path’ (v. 4 ) normal practice? Are the yields of the good earth (v. 8 : ‘thirty and sixty and a hundred fold’) normal or abnormal? Perhaps the issue, at least in relation to the first point, is not too important: this is not a story inculcating good horticultural practice! It is a story about how preaching is received. The story is thus almost inherently allegorical—at least to a certain extent, if not down to the smallest detail. The yields in v. 8 are probably extraordinary: the result of the seed falling on good earth is not just what ‘normally’ happens, but a divine miracle.

The overall interpretation of the parable can be taken in two quite different ways: it can be assurance to those who receive the ‘seed’ that all in the end will be well—the harvest will come; or it can be a warning to those who hear the message to ensure that they receive it properly and not be like the three types of unproductive soil. The first interpretation has in its favour the fact that the other two parables in this chapter probably have a similar message. However, there is no reason why all three parables should be saying the same thing; and the fact that all three are included suggests that maybe Mark at least thought they were not simply repetitions of each other in slightly different wording. Further, the considerable detail given to the first three kinds of soil suggests that these are of interest in themselves, and are not simply negative foils to the good soil which is alone the point of the story. Thus it seems likely that the parable is in some sense a warning to people to take care how they receive the preaching of Jesus. It is not just encouragement to the ‘good’ that all will be well in the end; it is as much a warning to those who listen to make sure that they are ‘good soil’. Mark's own interests may come to the fore in his description of the second type of soil (vv. 5–6 ). The description here is longer than the other three and may have been expanded by Mark: for Mark, ‘rootless’ Christians are perhaps the cause for most concern. What this might mean in practice is spelt out later (see on v. 17 ).

( 4:10–13 ) The Theory of Parables

These verses are, by almost universal consent, among the hardest in the whole gospel to interpret. vv. 11–12 seem to ascribe to Jesus the view that he teaches in parables precisely in order to hide his meaning and to prevent other people (the crowds) from understanding him. This is what Mark's Greek clearly means, and it is thus virtually impossible to see this as coming from Jesus himself, who (it is usually assumed) used parables to enable understanding, not prevent it. Hence the saying in its present form is almost certainly the product of someone writing later than Jesus. v. 12 uses the words from Isa 6:9 to say that the failure of people to understand Jesus' message is due to divine predestination. Attempts are sometimes made to rescue the saying for the historical Jesus by claiming that the words ‘in parables’ in v. 11 originally (in Aramaic) meant ‘in riddles’, and were unrelated to Jesus' using stories (‘parables’) to enhance his message. Hence Jesus was simply reflecting on the fact that people had not accepted his message (so Jeremias 1963 ). However, this scarcely solves the problem of what the saying now means in Mark's Greek: at this level it clearly relates to Jesus' use of ‘parables’, i.e. stories.

The verses suggest a rigid division between a privileged in-group and a condemned out-group. The latter fail to understand the message as a result of a divinely predetermined decision (v. 12 ). The text cited (Isa 6:9–10 ) is one of the classic texts used by Christians to seek to explain the failure by others to respond positively to the Christian message (cf. Jn 12:40; Rom 11:8 ). In the light of hostility experienced, Christians sought to come to terms with apparent failure by ‘explaining’ their lack of success as due to predetermined action by God. What we see here, therefore, is probably not any reflection of a conscious decision by Jesus, but an attempt at rationalization by a later Christian group in the light of bitter experience of rejection, but struggling to maintain an overall theistic world-view. The sentiments here may be unattractive in one way; but the struggle to reconcile belief in God with apparent failure in the world's terms is a perennial problem for many.

The in-group are said to be those who have received the ‘secret’ (NRSV, lit. mystery) of the kingdom. The benefits enjoyed by this in-group of disciples are often read out of v. 12 by reversing what is said there: the disciples must ‘understand’. Perhaps too, taking into account v. 34 , the disciples have been privileged to receive ‘interpretation’ of the parables which is denied to the crowds. This is sometimes then contrasted with the picture elsewhere in Mark (e.g. 8:17–21 ), and also in v. 13 here, where it seems that even the disciples fail to understand: hence, it is argued, perhaps vv. 11–12 are a pre-Markan tradition which Mark has radicalized by making even the disciples fail to understand.

This however makes Mark into something of an authorial idiot, including verses with which he apparently patently disagreed and which he immediately had to correct. In fact it is not said in v. 11 (or indeed in v. 34 ) that the disciples actually understand Jesus. In one sense of course they do, as indeed do the crowds: they ‘understand’ parables (cf. 3:23; 12:9 ) in that the latter are not unintelligible nonsense. Nevertheless, they do not lead everyone to faith: in that sense they do not lead to (deeper) ‘understanding’. The disciples are in a different position, which is somewhat ambivalent. They do not yet fully ‘understand’, indeed perhaps they cannot (in the story-world) yet understand—prior to the cross. Yet they are in a uniquely privileged position. They have been given the ‘mystery’ of the kingdom. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who both talk of ‘knowing mysteries’ (plur.) here, Mark talks only of a single mystery. Perhaps the reference is primarily Christological: Jesus himself is the mystery, and the disciples are privileged by being called by Jesus to be ‘with him’ (cf. 3:14 ). Their understanding can only—but will—come later.

There is thus no need to drive a wedge between vv. 11–12 and the rest of Mark, even though Mark is maybe trying to say more than one thing here. The crowds' failure to understand—a mirror of the rejection experienced by later Christians—is the result of God's will. The disciples' privileged position is also the result of the same will; yet their failure to understand at this stage in the story is not minimized.

( 4:14–20 ) Interpretation of the Parable of the Sower

Mark now gives a detailed, allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower. Jeremias (1963) has shown that the vocabulary here is almost exclusively language characteristic of the early church, not of Jesus. Hence the interpretation is unlikely to be dominical, even though, as argued above, it is likely that the parable did have an inalienable ‘allegorical’ slant originally, with the different soils all having significance. Some have tried to correlate the different descriptions with characters in the story (Tolbert 1989 : e.g. the first group are the Jewish opponents; the rocky ground represents the disciples, etc.). This may, however, read too much into the details; in any case, the warnings implied in the descriptions of the different soils seem to be more directly related to Mark's Christian readers who could only with some difficulty identify with, say, the Jewish opponents in Mark's story. The longest description of the poor soil concerns the rocky ground and those who have ‘no root’ (vv. 16–17 , corresponding to the longest description in Mark's version of the parable itself: vv. 5–6 ). Perhaps this is the danger Mark feels most acutely: the detailed explanation refers to ‘trouble or persecution’ threatening initial commitment. It is possible that one sees here a reflection of (part of) Mark's own situation of a community facing the threat of persecution and leading to some followers giving up their Christian commitment. Perhaps too the warning against ‘the cares of the world and the delight in riches’ reflects other problems within Mark's community (cf. 10:17–22 ). In this interpretation of the parable in Mark, relatively little space is given to the description of the good soil (v. 20 ): the aim of the interpretation is thus not so much to give assurance that all will in the end be well, but to warn people of the dangers of the present. As noted on the parable itself, the aim is more that of warning than encouragement.

( 4:21–5 ) Collected Sayings

Mark now collects together a series of what originally were almost certainly isolated sayings in the tradition. (They appear scattered in widely different contexts in Matthew and Luke.) vv. 21–2 continue the theme of secrecy and openness. The opening of v. 21 is in Greek literally ‘Does the lamp come…?’ The unusual personification of the lamp, and the significant way in which, for Mark, Jesus has ‘come’ (cf. 1:38 ), suggests that Mark sees Jesus himself as the lamp. The aim of Jesus' coming is not in the end permanent secrecy or hiddenness. Rather, any secrecy will in the end result in openness. Exactly when this will happen is not specified precisely here; but the purpose of the sayings seems to stress the inevitable end of any secrecy surrounding Jesus and his person. vv. 24–5 strike a rather different note, with warnings as well as encouragement. Human response is also required in full measure. Perhaps what is in mind is the preaching of the gospel by later Christians. Those who respond positively will be rewarded abundantly; those who do not will forfeit even what they have.

The section as a whole thus combines assurance and exhortation with warning. As with the previous parable of the sower and its interpretation combined with vv. 10–13 , there are both encouraging and warning elements in the Christian gospel. But if the warning side has been stressed so far, the encouragement is not forgotten, as the next two parables show.

( 4:26–32 ) Two Seed Parables

Mark gives two parables, very closely related to each other and probably (in his view) with very similar meanings. The first, the parable of the seed growing secretly (vv. 26–9 ), is peculiar to Mark; the second, the parable of the mustard seed (vv. 30–2 ) is shared with Matthew and Luke who probably also know a Q version of the parable (cf. Lk 13:18–19 ). Both parables are said to be parables illustrating the reality of the ‘kingdom of God’. Both imply that the kingdom is present in minute, hidden form as a ‘seed’, but that it will be shown in its full glory in the future. The parable of the seed growing secretly (vv. 26–9 ) uses the image of the harvest, perhaps alluding to the final judgement (cf. Joel 3:13 ). The parable of the mustard seed (vv. 30–2 ) uses the image of the birds flocking to nest in the branches of the tree, perhaps alluding to the Gentiles coming into the kingdom (cf. Dan 4:12; Ezek 31:6 ). The stress in both parables is on the divine miracle and lack of human influence in the process of growth. There is no hint of any long period of time, nor of any idea of the kingdom ‘growing in the hearts of men and women’, an idea popular in nineteenth-century liberal theology. Rather, all the emphasis is on the divine initiative and the assurance of the end result.

This might be thought to contradict the emphasis in the earlier part of the chapter on human responsibility and involvement. In one sense, this is true. But perhaps Mark is emphasizing the other side of the coin here: the kingdom will come in its fullness, and of this the followers of Jesus can be assured. Moreover, the kingdom is something which is present already in hidden form (as a seed) now. The reference may again be to the person of Jesus himself: Jesus in his ministry brings God's kingly rule into the present as a reality now. As noted before, eschatology for Mark is both futurist and realized. However, the idea of the presence of the kingdom in an institution such as the church, after Jesus and before the Eschaton, seems foreign to Mark.

( 4:33–4 ) Jesus' Use of Parables

The conclusion of the discourse takes up the division outlined in vv. 11–12 . v. 33 is often taken as the tradition used by Mark, apparently implying that parables were used to be understood; this was then glossed by Mark in v. 34 , suggesting that only the privileged in-group of disciples are allowed to receive the interpretation of the parables, so that everything remains enigmatic to outsiders. As we saw in vv. 11–12 , there is a division between disciples and others, Mark in part reflecting on the mixed responses to the Christian message which have been experienced. And the disciples are in a privileged position. But the division is not clearly one of understanding: even though the disciples have had Jesus explain ‘everything’ to them, they still fail to understand at a deep level who he is and what he is about. The next story will illustrate this. In the narrative, the time for openness is not yet.

( 4:35–5:43 ) Nature Miracles

Mark now gives a series of three stories of Jesus' miracles, showing his power over the forces of nature as well as his ability to heal and to exorcize. Although modern interpreters might wish to distinguish between healing/exorcistic powers and claims to be able to change the course of nature, such a distinction would be foreign to a first-century reader or writer. Both alike show the divine power at work in Jesus. But equally, it is clear from these stories that miracles alone have little evidential value: they cannot create faith where none is present.

( 4:35–41 ) The Stilling of the Storm

The story is somewhat artificial: fishermen used to the lake and its ways are terrified by a sudden storm, a storm so severe that they panic, and yet through which Jesus sleeps. But Mark is not interested in such niceties; for him, the story shows Jesus' ability to deal with the primeval forces of chaos. The ‘sea’ in the OT sometimes stands for the primal chaos which God alone can order and calm (cf. Ps 65:7; 74:13 ), as well as being used often as a symbol for the sufferings endured by human beings (cf. Ps 107:23–32 ). Mark's verb in v. 39 , referring to Jesus ‘rebuking’ the wind, is the same as that used in 1:25 where Jesus ‘rebukes’ a demon. Perhaps it is implied that the ability to control the storm shows a victory over the demonic powers of chaos and evil.

The disciples' reaction is not presented positively. Their question in v. 38 (‘do you not care that we are perishing?’) suggests a harsh accusation against Jesus. Jesus' reply is to still the storm and then address them with the rhetorical questions ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ By implication they do not. They are as yet blind. They ask ‘Who then is this?’ (v. 41 ) and cannot provide an answer. They have not yet reached any insight into who Jesus is, despite their privileged position. The negative portrait of the disciples in the story is thus developed a stage further; and even a stupendous miracle such as this has not created any ‘faith’.

The note about the ‘cushion’ in v. 38 has sometimes been seen as a vivid life-like feature, perhaps indicating an eyewitness account. This seems difficult to prove one way or the other: but the detail could just as easily be invented precisely in order to create a vivid narrative and to make it seem life-like.

( 5:1–20 ) The Gerasene Demoniac

Mark follows with a story of a further exorcism by Jesus. The story is told with a wealth of circumstantial detail, designed above all to show Jesus' great power in overcoming such massive opposition in the forces of evil. However, a number of details and inconsistencies within the present narrative suggest that Mark may be combining more than one tradition here into a single story. (v. 6 is awkward after v. 2; v. 8 seems an awkward interruption; v. 15 seems odd after v. 14 , since the latter presupposes a considerable time lapse.) But whatever the prehistory of the story in its present form, Mark's narrative serves to highlight the terrible initial state of the man, and hence to magnify the significance of the cure effected.

Some details of the passage remain obscure. v. 1 states that the action takes place as Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee to the country of the ‘Gerasenes’ (so most MSS), although Gerasa is c.30 miles south-east of the Sea of Galilee: perhaps this simply indicates Mark's lack of detailed knowledge of Galilean geography. Probably Mark does intend that the incident take place in the partly Gentile territory of the Decapolis.

The battle about the names of the protagonists is similar to that seen before (cf. MK 1:22–7 ). The name given to Jesus by the demon (‘Son of the Most High God’) uses a description of God often used by, or in relation to, non-Jews (cf. Gen 14:18; Dan 3:26; 4:2 ). Jesus does not here explicitly silence the demon, perhaps because in the story there are no bystanders at this point. The significance of the name of the demon as ‘Legion’ is not quite clear: it is possible that this is an attempt to evade giving a name. However, for Mark, such niceties are probably lost: for him, the giving of the name may simply show that the demon cannot resist Jesus' demand for a name, and the name itself indicates the huge power of the demon, equivalent to a Roman legion in number, i.e. 6,000 men. The details of the pigs and their destruction grates on some modern sensibilities in relation to animal welfare, though in a Jewish context pigs were regarded as unclean animals. Their destruction would therefore be seen as appropriate. Trying to discover possible natural causes for the pigs' sudden flight is probably a fruitless exercise.

The story ends with Jesus' refusal to accept the man as an immediate follower (v. 18 ): Jesus' authority here is absolute. Jesus commands him to tell his friends what has happened (v. 19 ). It is not quite clear if this is intended as implying an element of secrecy (i.e. tell your friends and no one else). Certainly the sequel suggests otherwise: there is no adversative in v. 20 , and it implies that the man obeys Jesus in proclaiming publicly what has happened. (Alternatively, one could interpret v. 20 as implying that the man disobeyed Jesus, as in 1:45 .) Either way the net result is the same: Jesus' power as an exorcist is publicized freely and everyone is amazed. There is then no hint of any critique of Jesus' activity in this respect.

( 5:21–43 ) The Haemorrhaging Woman and Jairus' Daughter

The final unit in this section comprises two miracles: the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage and the raising of Jairus' daughter. The former is sandwiched in between the two parts of the latter story, a Markan technique already noted. Mark clearly wants the two stories to interpret each other. Both focus on the theme of faith as the important precondition for any miracle to occur (vv. 34, 36 ), as well as being linked to the number twelve (vv. 25, 42 ; though whether there is any significance in this is not clear).

The condition of the woman with the haemorrhage is described in terms very similar to Lev 15:25 LXX. The woman's condition rendered her unclean, and also anything or anyone she touched would be unclean. Her action in explicitly touching Jesus' clothes thus brings Jesus into the realm of the unclean. Quite as much as dealing wiht the disease itself, the miracle thus serves to break down the social and religious barriers created by the purity laws (cf. MK 1:40–5 ). In an aside, the disciples are shown to be somewhat lacking in insight (v. 31 , cf. MK 4:38 ). By contrast, the woman comes forward and confesses publicly what she has done. Jesus' reply is to commend her ‘faith’, which is the necessary prerequisite for the miracle to happen. The miracle does not generate faith; rather, faith must be present for the miracle to occur.

A similar point is made in the story of Jairus' daughter: news of the death of the child (v. 35 ) leads Jesus to address Jairus and exhort him to ‘believe’, have faith (v. 36 ). Jesus tells the crowd that the girl is not dead but sleeping, a statement which produce mocking laughter (v. 40 ). They show no faith. Perhaps this can then explain the strange feature of the story which follows, i.e. the otherwise inexplicable secrecy command in v. 43 : Jesus takes a small group of his disciples together with the girl's parents with him, and raises the child to life; but then he commands secrecy about what has happened! For many such a command is impossible historically (how could such an event be kept secret?), but also difficult to fit into any consistent Markan pattern: elsewhere in Mark commands for secrecy after miracles are regularly broken ( 1:45; 7:36 ). Should one assume the same here and see the motif as highlighting by implication Jesus' success (cf. 1:45 : so Luz 1983)? But this is not what Mark says. Perhaps the point is that the crowds outside have shown no faith at all in their mocking laughter (v. 40 ). By implication they already have a very superficial explanation of what will inevitably be the public knowledge of the girl's health: she was simply asleep and not really dead at all. The true nature of the action of Jesus, in rescuing the girl from death itself, is only open to the eye of faith and publicizing it in a context of unbelief will not by itself create faith.

Jesus' words to the girl are given in v. 41 . Mark uses the Aramaic words talitha cum, even though he is writing in Greek. Some non-biblical healing stories do use ‘magical’ formulae, often a jumble of unintelligible words. Here, however, the works are not unintelligible but simply in a foreign language and Mark does translate them. Cf. too 7:34 .

( 6:1–6a ) Jesus Rejected in his Home Town

The themes of faith, and the growing opposition faced by Jesus, are continued in the story of the rejection of Jesus in his home town. Jesus has come into conflict with the authorities ( 2:1–3:6 ) and with his own family ( 3:21–35 ). Now the opposition seems to spread to his own home town (not explicitly stated here to be Nazareth, though cf. 1:9 ). As in 1:22–3 , the occasion is Jesus' teaching (v. 2 ), and again Mark seems more interested in the negative reaction this provokes than in the actual contents of the teaching. This reaction is articulated in the rhetorical questions about Jesus' origins and his family (v. 3 ). At one level, all that is said is that Jesus' origins imply that he is a very ordinary person. Whether anything more is implied is not clear. It was very unusual to refer to a Jewish man as the son of his mother, rather than his father. Various possible interpretations of this have been suggested: is this a hint of doubts about the legitimacy of Jesus' birth (Joseph was not really his father)? Is this a hint that Jesus has no human father because he is the Son of God? It is doubtful though if Mark sees any great significance in the words here: any hints of the type suggested are at most extremely allusive. Likewise the mention of Jesus' brothers and sisters (v. 3 ) is probably to be taken at face value and can only with difficulty be interpreted as referring to, say, half-brothers and half-sisters. The notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary comes from a much later period of Christian history, and Mark shows no awareness of it. Jesus' reply in v. 4 implicitly compares his own position with that of a prophet. The saying may be traditional: Mark nowhere else makes much of the idea of Jesus as a prophet. If anything, the saying is more at home on the lips of the historical Jesus.

The story concludes with the note about Jesus' inability to do any miracle because of the unbelief of the people. (The apparent reference to Jesus' impotence here is toned down by Matthew.) This is the negative side of the positive correlation between faith and miracles seen already in Mark: miracles can and do take place in a context of faith (cf. 2:4; 5:43, 36 ); conversely, where there is no faith, miracles cannot occur.

( 6:6b–13 ) The Mission of the Twelve

Mark records the tradition (probably also found in Q: cf. Lk 10:1–16 ) of Jesus giving instructions for a ‘mission’ by the disciples, commanding them to take only the barest minimum by way of clothing or supplies, and with instructions about what to do when they are not accepted. The widespread nature of the tradition suggests that it is old (i.e. pre-Markan), though whether it goes back to Jesus himself is not certain. It seems likely that some Christians did take these instructions to the letter (cf. G. Theissen's suggestions about the existence of ‘wandering charismatics’ in the early church: Theissen 1978 ). However, Mark does not make much of it. For him, the story further develops the mixed portrait of the disciples in his story. We have already seen the beginnings of the negative picture that will come more strongly from now on (cf. 1:36; 4:38 ). But this negative picture is always the counterfoil of a positive side which should not be forgotten (cf. 1:16–20; 3:13 ): here too the disciples are instructed by Jesus, and they obey his instructions fully and without demur.

Some details remain obscure. Mark allows the disciples to wear sandals (v. 9 : Q does not: cf. Lk 10:4 ). Perhaps Mark is easing an almost impossibly ascetic earlier version to make it more practicable. The significance of shaking the dust off one's feet against unresponsive places (v. 11 ) may allude to the practice of Jews shaking the dust off their feet when they entered the land of Israel to avoid contaminating the holy land. Does this gesture then imply rejection from the (new) people of God by the disciples? This may have been the case in the tradition. However, Mark seems to know virtually nothing of what may actually have happened on the mission except in the most general terms, and the gesture is not expanded here. So too it seems that Mark envisages the mission as taking place in Jesus' lifetime, and he gives no indication that these instructions are to apply to Christian missionaries in his own situation.

( 6:14–29 ) Herod and the Death of John the Baptist

Between the sending out of the twelve on mission and their return (v. 30 ), Mark inserts the note about Herod's views on Jesus, which leads into a retrospective account of the death of John the Baptist. In literary terms, the insertion serves to fill a gap in the story of the mission (about which Mark seems to have had very little information); but it also serves to intensify the general theme of the fate that awaits Jesus. John is the forerunner of Jesus, and here his violent death is recalled. The reader cannot fail to be reminded of the similar fate that awaits the one to whom John has pointed (cf. too 9:12–13 ).

The opinions about Jesus echoed in vv. 14–16 may reflect views held by some at the time, though it is unclear whether anyone would have seriously thought that Jesus could be an executed John brought back to life. The structure of the story in the overall narrative (as in 8:28 where very similar opinions are also recorded) suggests that Mark thinks that these opinions are at best inadequate (Jesus is ‘one of the prophets’), at worst quite clearly wrong (Jesus is John returned).

The story of John's death itself has a number of bizarre features and is quite unlike Josephus' account of John's death, where John is executed because Herod fears an insurrection. Mark has probably confused personnel in identifying Philip as the (first) husband of Herodias: Philip was in fact Herodias' son-in-law. However, the relationships of the Herod family were so incestuous and tortuous that anyone could be forgiven for being somewhat confused! The picture in Mark's story of Herod as full of respect for John, but feeling morally bound to agree to honour a ‘blank cheque’ offered to his/Herodias' daughter, strains credulity. The account in Josephus seems far more plausible. For Mark though, the function of the story is to point to the similar fate awaiting Jesus. Thus the note about the burial of John at the end of the story (v. 29 ) is reminiscent of the note of the burial of Jesus ( 15:45–6 ). Even in the midst of the apparent success of the mission, the shadow of the cross falls.

( 6:31–44 ) The Feeding of the 5,000

This feeding story has a doublet in the account of the feeding of the 4,000 in ch. 8 . Several commentators have pointed to a possible parallel structure in the two sequences of events in 6:31–7:37 and 8:1–26 : a feeding story ( 6:35–44; 8:1–10 ) is followed by a journey across the lake ( 6:45–52; 8:10 ), a dispute with Pharisees ( 7:1–23; 8:11–13 ), a discussion about bread ( 7:24–30; 8:14–21 ) and a healing involving some kind of ‘magical’ techniques ( 7:31–7; 8:22–6 ). However, too much should probably not be made of this. Mark is certainly aware of the duplication in the feeding narratives (cf. 8:17–21 ), but not of the other parallels which in any case are at times rather weak (there is no miracle in the crossing of 8:10 , unlike 6:45–52 ; the dispute with the Pharisees in 8:11–13 does not concern the law as in 7:1–23 ). The sequence may be in part traditional (cf. Jn 6 , where the feeding story is also followed by the walking on the water: unless one posits John's dependence on Mark, the parallel structure indicates a common tradition available to both evangelists). For the possible significance of the doublet in the feeding story, see MK 8:1–10 .

What actually happened is probably impossible to say, though many have tried to do so. The famous ‘lunch-box’ theory—everyone had brought their own supplies and were encouraged to share what they had brought—can gain a little support from the fact that there is no report of an acclamation from the crowd that a great miracle has occurred. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that Mark himself regarded the event as a miracle. It is probably more fruitful to ask what the evangelist made of the story.

The account is full of many reminiscences, from both Jewish and Christian tradition. The story recalls the giving of manna in the desert, and perhaps the miraculous feeding by the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42–4 . Likewise the note about ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (v. 34 ) reminds one of David as the shepherd and the people of Israel as the sheep; since too by implication, Jesus fills the role of the missing shepherd, one recalls various OT passages which speak of the future Davidic leader as a shepherd (Jer 23:1–6; Ezek 34:23 ).

But the strongest parallel for Mark is probably the Christian tradition of the eucharist: Jesus' actions in v. 41 of blessing, breaking, and giving bread are the same as at the Last Supper ( 14:22 ), and bread and fish very soon became eucharistic symbols. Jesus' feeding the crowds here is no doubt seen by Mark as a symbol of the feeding of the new people of God through the Christian eucharist in his own day in his community's worship. This is probably also the relevance of the note about the grass being ‘green’ (v. 39 ). This is sometimes taken as an indication of an eyewitness account (and is of course by no means trivial: grass in Palestine would not often be green, but very quickly became scorched and brown in the heat). It may though be a symbolic hint: grass is green in the spring, and for a Christian reader this evokes ideas of Jewish Passover, Christian Easter, and everything associated with them, including (for Mark's readers) the institution of the eucharist. Hence the greenness of the grass may be a further subtle allusion to the eucharistic symbolism and significance of the story.

The gathering of the fragments (in itself a miracle, since more is collected than distributed) no doubt had symbolic significance for John (cf. Jn 6:12 ), though Mark makes nothing of it. For the possible significance of the numbers involved, see on 8:1–10 .

( 6:45–52 ) The Walking on the Water

This story was probably already connected with the feeding story in Mark's tradition (see MK 6:31–44 ). The historical basis for the account, as with the feeding miracle, is probably irrecoverable, though some have again sought to solve the problem of the miracle by a natural explanation (e.g. Jesus was on solid ground in very shallow water and the disciples thought he was actually walking on water). As before, this is certainly not the view of Mark, who doubtless regarded the story as a genuine miracle. God's power to subdue the sea and its forces (see MK 4:35–41 ) is well attested in the OT, and sometimes described in terms of walking on or through the sea (Job 9:8 ); so too the miracle of passing through the Red Sea at the Exodus attests to YHWH's power (Ps 77:19; Isa 43:16 ). The latter motif may provide some link with the feeding story in so far as the latter is redolent of the manna incident: both stories may then show Jesus as a latter-day Moses, feeding people miraculously and passing on/over the sea. This is however more likely to be characteristic of the pre-Markan tradition than of Mark himself who does not generally make much of Jesus as a Moses figure (such a typology is more prominent in Matthew). For Mark, the story may simply illustrate Jesus' power over the forces of nature once more.

Jesus' words to the disciples in v. 51 (NRSV ‘it is I’) are literally ‘I am’ (Gk. egō eimi). It is just possible that this is an allusion to the divine name of YHWH himself (the Greek LXX renders the divine name ‘YHWH’ as egō eimi). However, the Greek is ambiguous (NRSV's translation is perfectly possible) and Mark does not clearly take it as a claim to divinity as such.

A typically Markan motif comes at the end in v. 52 . After the general note of astonishment in v. 51 (the expected end of a miracle story), Mark records the inability of the disciples to understand ‘about the loaves’. In general terms this portrays the now increasingly negative portrait of the disciples in the narrative: they fail to understand almost everything about Jesus from now on. With ‘their hearts … hardened’, they are almost in as bad a position as the Pharisees of 3:5 (but see further on 8:17–21 ). What it is about the loaves which they should have understood here is not spelt out explicitly. Clearly Mark sees the two stories as closely linked: both show Jesus' power and authority to act in sovereign freedom and in the power of God.

( 6:53–6 ) General Healings

The same power and authority are exhibited in the summary statement which now follows, Mark recording general healings by Jesus in the area. Again there is no hint of a critique by Mark of the miracles performed by Jesus.

( 7:1–23 ) Dispute about Purity

Mark now gives a long section of Jesus' teaching, delivered apparently in relation to a dispute raised by Pharisees and some scribes. The section is almost certainly composite: the repeated introductory phrases (vv. 9, 14, 18, 20 ) and changes of venue or audience (vv. 14, 17 ) suggest that different traditions are being brought together, a view supported by the fact that some of the traditions do not cohere very well with the wider context in which they have been placed here by Mark.

The initial issue raised is why Jesus' disciples eat with unwashed hands. The ‘washing’ refers here to ritual purity, not to simple hygiene. Mark then seeks to explain the practice of hand-washing for his (almost certainly Gentile) audience in vv. 3–4 . Unfortunately, his explanation is, by universal consent, confused and erroneous: Mark says that hand-washing was incumbent upon ‘all Jews’, whereas we know that such ritual cleansing was only required of priests at this time. (Such hand-washing was practised by all Jews at a later period, after 100 CE.) Clearly Mark is unaware of some of the details of Jewish Torah observance. There is though the question of why this practice should be expected of Jesus' disciples. It is possible that the story is wholly artificial; alternatively, the implicit assumption made here—that Jesus' disciples would obey such rules—may indicate that Jesus and his disciples were closely connected with the Pharisaic movement and hence were expected, at least by other Pharisees, to adopt the Pharisaic way of life which may well have involved the voluntary taking on of such extra purity requirements. Cf. MK 2:16, 18 .

Jesus' first reply in Mark comes in vv. 6–8 . He cites Isa 29:13 to reject the Pharisees' complaint, claiming that their human tradition is jeopardizing the obeying of the Torah itself. The ‘reply’ is scarcely apposite. It is not said, for example, how the practice of hand-washing has actually led to any abandonment of the written law. Moreover, it is not clear how the Pharisees' behaviour justifies the charge of their being ‘hypocrites’ (v. 6 : generally this refers to saying one thing and doing another, but it is not said that the Pharisees themselves have not washed their hands.) Further, the version of Isa 29:13 cited here is that of the LXX, which differs markedly from the Hebrew text, and which can only make the relevant point (about the human, as opposed to divine, origins of the commands) precisely at the points where the LXX differs from the Hebrew. The saying can thus scarcely go back to the historical Jesus, and the connection with the present context is very artificial. Nor are the sentiments expressed here (maintaining the written law and simply rejecting the later tradition) Mark's last word on the topic. Perhaps Mark simply uses this tradition to castigate Jesus' opponents.

The second reply is even harder to integrate into the context. Jesus refers to the apparent practice of people evading their responsibilities to parents as set out in the Decalogue by appealing to the inviolable nature of an oath which dedicates an offering to the service of the temple. Such practice is condemned here in forthright terms. But other Jews would be equally forthright and would have—and did—stress the primacy of filial obligations. Further, it is not at all clear how this relates to any antithesis between written law and human tradition, since the inviolability of oaths was also part of the written law (Num 30:2 ). Once again, a separate tradition seems to be incorporated here, somewhat clumsily. For Mark, the prime point again seems to be the polemic against the opponents of Jesus.

Jesus' positive reply to the initial charge, at least in Mark's story, comes in v. 15 . However, the extra introduction in v. 14 , and the summoning of the crowd, may indicate a further seam in the tradition. Moreover, the question of hand-washing seems now to have been left far behind and the issue is now one of the purity of food on its own. Jesus' saying in v. 15 has been extensively discussed, above all because of its possible implications for determining Jesus' attitude to the law. At first sight, the saying appears to deny that any food in and of itself can be unclean, and hence calls into question all the food laws of Leviticus. Those who see the saying as authentic, but find such a radical claim hard to credit to Jesus, have argued that perhaps the negative statement in the first half of the saying is not to be taken too literally but only comparatively: the antithesis (not A but B) means that one thing (B) is much more important than the other (A), not that the other (A) itself is to be rejected. This is possible, though it is not what Mark's Greek says, and Mark himself clearly understands the saying as implying that Jesus has abrogated the food laws of the OT (cf. v. 19 ). Others accept this meaning of the saying, but then deny that Jesus could ever have said it, claiming in part that the subsequent controversies in the early church on the food laws are unintelligible if Jesus had ever said anything as clear as this (Räisänen 1982 ). It seems hard to deny that in some ways Jesus did play free with the law and claimed the right to do so. As such, it may explain part of the opposition and hostility he clearly aroused in the Jewish establishment and also amongst the Pharisees. It may be therefore that Mark's understanding of the saying is not so far removed from Jesus as some have claimed.

But whatever the meaning of the saying on the lips of Jesus, Mark is in no doubt: his explanatory gloss in v. 19 says explicitly that Jesus' saying, backed up by an explanation in v. 18 (which is in fact little more than a restatement of the saying) has ‘made all foods clean’. Certainly by now Mark has gone far beyond the claims of vv. 6–8 or 9–13 , that the issue is simply one of human tradition over against a valid written law. The written law itself is now questioned.

The positive side of what is required of men and women is spelt out in vv. 21–2 . This list of inner thoughts and actions is typical of many Hellenistic ethical instructions. The ethic propounded here would thus be at home in the wider Hellenistic world. But en route to this, parts of the Jewish legal system, especially the purity laws and the social and religious barriers they create, are radically called into question by Mark's Jesus by the end of this section.

( 7:24–30 ) The Syro-Phoenician Woman

It is surely no coincidence that Mark follows the controversy with the Pharisees, where Jesus has implicitly claimed to pull down the barriers separating Jews and Gentiles, by showing Jesus explicitly crossing those barriers himself. Jesus goes to the region of Tyre, i.e. to an area which was at least partly non- Jewish. There he meets a Syro-Phoenician woman who is explicitly said to be a Gentile (lit. ‘Greek’, v. 26 ). The woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter. The ensuing dialogue creates many difficulties. Jesus' first statement (v. 27 ) seems rude and offensive, apparently refusing to help and referring somewhat abusively to the woman and (by implication) other non-Jews as ‘dogs’. It seems highly likely that in fact Jesus himself did restrict his ministry almost exclusively to Jews and saw himself as primarily involved in addressing, and restoring, Israel. A saying such as v. 27 is not impossible in general terms on the lips of Jesus. (How offensive the reference to ‘dogs’ is is not certain: it is possible that the dogs concerned are pets and not thought of as distasteful.) Or perhaps the saying is intended to try to evoke a response from the woman.

No doubt for Mark, the woman simply exhibits the necessary response of faith and trust in Jesus. Her initial address of Jesus is in Greek kyrie—which can be translated as simply a polite form (NRSV, ‘Sir!’), or as ‘Lord!’, expressing a much higher Christology. Mark does not elsewhere make much of the idea (common in Hellenistic Christianity) of Jesus as ‘Lord’, but it may be alluded to here. Thus the woman makes an exemplary response. Again it is noteworthy that a woman responds in a way that the male disciples have failed to do (see MK 1:31 ). Moreover, despite any apparent initial reluctance by Jesus to act, the woman's response does create the necessary preconditions for a miracle to occur: hence the girl is healed, and Mark's Jesus has put into practice what was implicit in his teaching about purity immediately prior to this story.

( 7:31–7 ) The Deaf Man Cured

There is uncertainty as to whether Mark thinks that the next story, the healing of the deaf mute, concerns a Gentile or not. The route taken by Jesus according to v. 31 (from Tyre through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee) is very circuitous: Sidon is well to the north of Tyre, which in turn is north of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps Mark does not know very much about Galilean geography (cf. MK 5:1 ). It is also not clear if Mark realizes that the region of the Decapolis, where the story is sited, is well away from the Sea of Galilee and also predominantly Gentile. Mark's story seems to suggest a return from Gentile territory. Certainly little in the story itself suggests a Gentile milieu.

The description of the man's condition, having ‘an impediment in his speech’ (v. 35 ), uses a very rare Greek word mogilalos. This occurs only once in the LXX, in Isa 35:6 . The allusion then seems to be clear: Jesus' action in healing the man is the fulfilment of Jewish eschatological hopes as articulated in such passages as Isa 35 . The word Jesus speaks to the man here is given by Mark in Aramaic, as in 5:41 . But as in the other context, there is no idea that this word can act as a quasimagical formula. There is an element of secrecy about the healing: Jesus takes the man aside privately (v. 33 ) and orders him to be quiet afterwards (v. 36 ). But this results in even more publicity (v. 37 ). Rather than trying to impose any real secrecy, the motif here probably simply serves as a means of highlighting the success and popularity enjoyed by Jesus as a result of the cure. (See MK 1:44–5 .) We should probably distinguish between a ‘miracle secret’ and the messianic secret proper, and see here only an example of the former.

Jesus here uses a technique which could be conceived of as magical (using spittle). Mark shows no embarrassment about this, but it may be the reason why Matthew and Luke both omit the story.

( 8:1–10 ) The Feeding of the 4,000

The story is clearly a duplicate of the earlier story of the feeding of the 5,000. A few details disappear here, but the overall structures of the two accounts are so similar that one is forced to conclude that both reflect the same original tradition. Why then does Mark include both accounts?

Much has been made of the possible symbolism in the numbers involved in the two stories, whereby the story of the 5,000 may reflect the gospel going to the Jews, that of the 4,000 reflecting the gospel going to the Gentiles. Thus, 5,000 and twelve baskets may allude to the five books of the Pentateuch and the twelve tribes of Israel; 4,000 may reflect the four corners of the earth, and the seven baskets the seventy nations of the world. Possibly too the different Greek words for the ‘baskets’ used to collect the fragments in the two stories may be relevant: it is sometimes said that the word used in the story of the 5,000 implies a more Jewish kind of basket, that in the 4,000 a more common Hellenistic basket. However, the most one can say is that this is possible but by no means certain. The symbolism makes at times for a bizarre set of parallelisms. (Surely ‘twelve’ would be better as parallel to the number of people, and ‘five’ to what they are fed with, if the above symbolism were in mind.) Moreover it is not at all clear that Mark thinks that Jesus is among Gentiles (see MK 7:31 ). There is nothing in the story itself to indicate that the crowd here is Gentile.

More directly, the story serves in Mark to underline the obtuseness of the disciples. The very fact that the two stories occur so close together in the gospel, and the accounts are so closely parallel, makes the disciples' initial reaction here all the more pointed. They have just witnessed Jesus feed 5,000 people miraculously; exactly the same situation recurs and yet the disciples again ask ‘How can one feed these people with bread in the desert?’ (v. 4 ). What they have just experienced should surely tell them how! The duplication in the story thus serves to highlight the growing incomprehension of the disciples. (See Fowler 1981 .)

( 8:11–13 ) Request for a Sign

The story highlighting the obtuseness of the disciples is followed by a short incident showing the total blindness of the Pharisees. Immediately after Jesus has performed a clear sign of his credentials, the Pharisees come and ask for a sign from heaven! In the present Markan context, the very existence of the request shows the failure of the Pharisees to grasp anything at all about Jesus. Jesus' blanket refusal to give a sign inevitably follows.

Matthew and Luke (and hence probably Q) have a different version of the incident: here Jesus' refusal is qualified by the phrase ‘except the sign of Jonah'. Mark may have omitted this (perhaps because it was unintelligible to his audience); but the Markan account is almost certainly pre-Markan: the words of Jesus' refusal are literally: ‘if a sign shall be given’, reflecting a Semitic oath formula ‘May I be cursed if God gives a sign’, a feature which Mark is very unlikely to have created himself. Hence Mark's version is not simply due to Mark's own redaction of the Q version. In any case it is likely that the Markan and Q versions mean similar things: both deny, more or less implicitly, that any sign will be given beyond Jesus' own present activity. Once again in Mark, the story shows that miracles cannot engender a positive response to Jesus if no such response is already present.

( 8:14–21 ) Discussion about Bread

The section brings to a climax the theme of the disciples' growing obtuseness. They are in a boat with Jesus and worried about lack of food. In general terms the story is clear: they obviously should have realized what Jesus can do by way of feeding large masses, and yet once again they show their lack of trust and faith (vv. 14–16 ). Some details are, however, not quite so clear. The significance of the ‘one’ loaf the disciples do have with them (v. 14 ) is disputed. Some have seen this as a eucharistic allusion to Jesus as the one bread, others more generally as a Christological allusion to the person of Jesus, others to the one bread sufficient for Jews and Gentiles. Mark, however, gives no direct hint. It may simply be another way of highlighting the disciples' obtuseness: they do have one loaf with them and so, since Jesus has fed 5,000 people with twelve loaves, feeding twelve people with one loaf should be relatively easy; the fact that they still worry brings out their total lack of faith.

The warning of Jesus against the ‘leaven’ of the Pharisees and of Herod (v. 15 ) seems at first sight out of place. It is not picked up in the ensuing dialogue which focuses only on the issue of lack of food. Again many possible interpretations have been suggested as to what the leaven symbolizes here. Luke takes it as hypocrisy (Lk 12:1 ), Matthew as teaching (Mt 16:14 ). Leaven in Jewish tradition symbolizes evil (1 Cor 5:6–8; Gal 5:9 ). The saying may not, however, be out of place in Mark. The Pharisees and Herod have been shown to fail to recognize who Jesus is on the basis of what he has done ( 6:14–16; 8:11–12 ); moreover, supporters of Herod have joined with the Pharisees in plotting to kill Jesus ( 3:6 ). The ‘leaven’ of Herod and the Pharisees is thus probably the unbelief that refuses to recognize Jesus and hence rejects him.

Jesus' reply to the disciples in vv. 17–21 highlights all the details (right down to the numbers of baskets and the Greek words used in the two accounts) of the feeding stories. The disciples have failed to understand; as a result they show themselves to have hardened hearts, eyes which do not see, and ears which do not hear. By implication, they are similar to the outsiders of 4:12 to whom Isa 6:9–10 is applied. (The language is very similar here, though the allusion is in fact closer to Jer 5:21 .) Yet the situation of the disciples is not quite the same as that of the crowds. Jesus gives only a series of rhetorical questions, rather than any blanket statements of their rejection; and the warning of v. 15 remains as a warning: they are not yet in the position of Herod and the Pharisees. This ambivalent position of the disciples comes to the fore in the next two stories.

( 8:22–6 ) The Blind Man at Bethsaida

Jesus' cure of the blind man here has some affinities with the story of 7:32–7 in that both involve use of a ‘magical’ technique (use of spittle). However, the closer parallel is probably with the story of the cure of Bartimaeus ( 10:46–52 ). The two stories of healing blindness form an inclusio round a long section of Jesus' teaching devoted to the meaning of discipleship ( 8:31–10:45 ). Probably then Mark intends both stories to illuminate and illustrate Christian discipleship so that the coming to sight of the two men symbolizes the new life and salvation that is available to those who follow Jesus. It is widely agreed that the story here is integrally related in Mark's narrative to the next story of Peter's confession: the man receiving his sight serves as an acted parable for the disciples' coming to insight about who Jesus is. One notable feature of the story is the fact that the man needs two stages in which to be healed. For the possible significance, see MK 8:27–30 . The text at the end of the story is uncertain: many MSS add an explicit command to secrecy, though even the shorter text (implied in the NRSV's translation) suggests an element of secrecy. The explicit command in 8:30 , and the close parallelism between the story of the blind man and Peter's confession, suggests that a secrecy charge is intended by Mark at v. 26 ; however, it almost certainly gains all its meaning from 8:27–30 , the story that it introduces and that provides for Mark its true significance.

( 8:27–30 ) Peter's Confession

This section is often seen as a watershed in Mark's narrative. Whether it is a watershed in the ministry of Jesus himself is quite another matter. The work of the form critics suggests that we can place little if any reliance on the chronological sequence of the stories in the gospels: rather, the arrangement of the individual stories is due to later editors. Hence we cannot know where, if anywhere, this story might be placed within the life of Jesus himself. In fact the historicity of the whole story must be somewhat questionable. There may be an underlying tradition: e.g. the reference to Caesarea Philippi, a town well to the north of Galilee, is unlikely to have been invented de novo. However, the present story, focusing as it does explicitly on Jesus' identity, with Jesus himself provoking the question of who he is, seems very strange in the life of Jesus: elsewhere Jesus points away from himself to God as the principal actor and focus of concern. The exclusive focus on the explicit Christological question looks more characteristic of Mark than of Jesus.

At the level of Mark, the proper interpretation of the story is much debated. Especially the significance of the secrecy charge in v. 30 is disputed. Does it indicate that, in Mark's eyes, Peter's confession is right, or wrong, or half right and half wrong? Some have argued that the secrecy charge, together with the following remonstration by Jesus against Peter, indicates that, for Mark, Peter is quite wrong: Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah on the basis of the stupendous miracles that have happened so far in the story—hence for Peter Jesus qua Messiah is the wonder worker; Mark's Jesus then rejects such a view by putting forward his own view of himself as the suffering Son of Man (so Weeden 1971 ). Others, however, have pointed to the positive way Mark uses the term ‘Messiah’/Christ elsewhere, including the title to the gospel ( 1:1 ): hence Peter's confession must be viewed by Mark positively.

There is strength in the latter argument. Mark nowhere else indicates any reserve about the term ‘Messiah’, and indeed uses it quite positively in 1:1 . There is moreover little indication that Mark positively disapproves of Jesus' miracle-working activity. Indeed verses such as 8:17–21 suggest precisely the opposite. Further, the structure of the present story would seem to support the view that Peter's confession is certainly not regarded by Mark as wholly wrong: Peter's confession is set in clear contrast to the views of other people, which the disciples report in v. 28 (and which in turn echo the views expressed in 6:14–15 ); by implication these views are wrong and Peter's view is therefore not mistaken.

However, there may be a real sense in which Peter's view is not regarded by Mark as expressing the deepest truth about Jesus. At the level of nomenclature, it may be significant that Mark does not have Peter use the term ‘Son of God’ here, and for Mark it is that term that expresses the most fundamental truth about Jesus (cf. 1:1; 1:11; 9:7; 15:39 ). Further, whatever words, or title, Peter uses to describe Jesus, the sequel does make it clear that Peter has not understood the most important thing about Jesus—that he must suffer and die. There is much therefore to be said for the view that, in Mark's eyes, Peter gets things only half right here. Peter is thus perhaps in the intermediate state of the blind man of 8:22–6 . He has come to some insight about Jesus, and it is a genuine and valuable insight. Unlike some with mistaken views, he recognizes Jesus as Messiah. But whatever Mark thinks of the title itself, words are not enough. Peter evidently does not yet appreciate the proper significance of who Jesus is and what his role in life (and death) is to be. Thus to reach the deepest insight about Jesus, Peter has to be led further: a need which is met by Jesus' further teaching in vv. 31–8 .

This then may also be the significance of the secrecy charge in v. 30 . For Mark secrecy is imposed not because others without Peter's faith are not to identify Jesus. Rather, in Mark's story, people cannot come to the full realization of who Jesus is until the story is complete and Jesus' full role as the one who dies on the cross has been finally disclosed (see MK 1:34 ). Quite irrespective of the correctness of any words or titles used, Peter has not yet come to the deepest insight and understanding, and indeed prior to the cross he cannot. Hence Jesus' identity cannot be divulged—yet. If it is, it will be misunderstood, and precisely such misunderstanding is immediately shown by Peter.

( 8:31–3 ) The First Passion Prediction

More details about Jesus' future role are now spelt out by Jesus in the prediction of the coming passion. This prediction is the first element in an extended section of the gospel ( 8:31–10:45 ) where Jesus predicts his passion and elaborates on the implications of that suffering not only for himself but also for any would-be followers. The passion itself is predicted three times in Mark's story in relatively quick succession ( 8:31; 9:31; 10:33–4 ), which gives added emphasis to the motif; and on each occasion, Jesus follows this up with further teaching on the relevance of this for discipleship. Correspondingly, in this part of the gospel, the stress on Jesus' miracles is reduced and more weight is now placed explicitly on the cross and its significance.

The passion predictions themselves probably owe a lot to later Christian creativity. It is unlikely that Jesus predicted his own trial and death with quite such accurate detail as is recorded here: if he did, the apparently total confusion of the disciples when the events occurred is harder to explain. Jesus may have foreseen in a more general way the opposition his ministry was provoking, and may have realized—and said—that this could lead to violence and even death. Nevertheless, the detail of the predictions, corresponding so precisely to the later passion narrative, is less likely to be genuine.

The passion predictions are all predicated of Jesus qua Son of Man. The stress on the necessity of the suffering of the Son of Man is thoroughly characteristic of Mark. The background of the use of ‘Son of Man’ in the gospels is much disputed, but if one accepts that it lies in Dan 7 , with its twin foci of suffering and vindication, there is no need to see any artificiality in the use of the term here in Mark: Jesus quite appropriately talks of his coming destiny involving suffering and vindication (the predictions are all of suffering and resurrection) in terms of his role as Son of Man (see MK 2:10 ).

Peter's rebuke, and Jesus' stern counter in v. 33 , are widely regarded as based on firm tradition. (It is unlikely that such a negative view of Peter would be invented by later Christians.) Nevertheless, the picture closely matches Mark's progressive story as well: Jesus' role involves suffering, and denial of that is effectively denial of God and of God's chosen way—hence it is demonic. Whoever opposes God is Satanic, whoever that person may be.

( 8:34–9:1 ) The Cost of Discipleship

Mark follows Peter's rebuke with teaching by Jesus about the implications of his suffering for any who would join his cause and ‘follow’ him. Mark is probably using a variety of sayings which come from various origins: certainly the parallels in Matthew and Luke appear in scattered contexts—almost certainly many of the sayings belonged to Q as well, and were preserved in different contexts. The present arrangement of the sayings is thus probably due to Mark himself. The kernel of the collection concerns the physical dangers which will face any would-be follower of Jesus. Just as Jesus' destiny is to suffer and to die, so any disciple of Jesus must be prepared to do the same. The fact that Mark has this teaching addressed to the ‘crowd’ (v. 34 ) as well as the disciples may suggest that Mark deliberately intends this message to be taken to apply to a wider audience than just the twelve as contemporaries of Jesus. The same may be implied by the reference to the ‘gospel’ in v. 35 (in a phrase omitted by Matthew and Luke, and probably due to Mark). The ‘gospel’ here is parallel to Jesus himself, so that suffering for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of Jesus are virtually synonymous. Mark has in mind the later Christian community preaching the gospel, warning them that they too must be prepared to suffer.

The saying about cross-bearing (v. 34 ) has been much discussed. It is very hard to locate this saying with such vocabulary in the ministry of the pre-Easter Jesus. Crucifixion was a punishment administered by the Roman authorities for political rebels. It is very unlikely that Jesus could have foreseen his own crucifixion, even if he might have realized that his conflicts with the Jewish authorities would lead to death. It is even more improbable that Jesus foresaw crucifixion as being a real possibility for his followers. It is more likely that the detailed imagery is the language of the post-Easter community, looking back on the manner of Jesus' death and claiming that would-be disciples must be prepared to follow in his footsteps. How literally the saying is meant is also not clear. The very finality of death suggests that some metaphorical element is present: if every disciple literally took up his or her cross and was crucified, the movement would die out immediately! Probably what is intended is a vivid and stark metaphor of the call to give up all security and claims to look after one's own interests, even, if necessary, to the point of death itself.

What these sayings tell us about the situation of Mark's own community is not clear. It is often assumed that sayings such as this imply that it was suffering violence and persecution, with martyrdoms taking place (possibly in Rome under Nero). On the other hand, there is little here that seems to address such a situation with any note of comfort or help. These sayings give little if anything by way of explanation or interpretation for any suffering. Rather, there is only the somewhat bleak and stark call to be prepared to suffer. It may therefore make more sense if Mark's community were in a situation of relative peace and security, and Mark feels that it needs to be roused out of possible complacency and warned of the dangers that can befall any who claim to be followers of the crucified one.

The saying in v. 38 is couched in wholly negative terms as a warning. (The Q parallel has both a positive and a negative element: cf. Lk 12:8–9 .) The Son of Man here is a figure exercising a key role in eschatological judgement. This saying and its Q parallel have provided the strongest evidence for the theory that Jesus looked forward to the coming of a Son of Man figure other than himself. However, Mark clearly regarded the two as identical and saw no difficulty in taking Jesus' reference to the Son of Man in the third person here as a self-reference. The eschatological role of the Son of Man may be the other pole in the twin theme of suffering and vindication as in Dan 7 : Jesus qua Son of Man is a suffering figure in v. 31 ; here Jesus qua Son of Man is the one who will exercise judgement (cf. Dan 7:14 ).

The final saying in this section, in 9:1 , is also much debated. It seems to suggest that the final consummation of all things, and the arrival of the eschatological kingdom of God in power, will come within the lifetime of the bystanders of Jesus. If that is what is meant, the promise has clearly failed to materialize. Precisely for that reason, many have seen here a genuine saying of Jesus, on the grounds that such an unfulfilled prophecy would not be invented by later Christians. Attempts to explain the saying away (e.g. by referring it to the cross, or even the transfiguration story immediately following) seem unconvincing. So too C. H. Dodd's famous attempt to interpret the saying as one of realized eschatology (people will realize that the kingdom has already come, i.e. in the ministry of Jesus) has also failed to convince others. As far as detailed time-scales are concerned, the saying has indeed been an unfulfilled prophecy. Yet Mark himself (and probably Jesus too) is not concerned with detailed time-scales (cf. 13:32 ). Quite as much as expressing a time limit, the saying also expresses the ultimate certainty of the establishment of God's kingly rule. It is that belief and that faith which is perhaps in the end more important than any detailed chronologies.

( 9:2–8 ) The Transfiguration

The possible historical origins of this story are probably irretrievably lost. Whether anything like this might have happened we simply do not and cannot know. Attempts have often been made to see this as a misplaced, or displaced, resurrection appearance story; however, the differences between this and the gospel resurrection appearances are considerable. Mark's understanding of the story is not much easier to determine. In one way it is clear that the account gives a proleptic anticipation of Jesus' future glory, and thereby serves to give the reader assurance of the claim made in 9:1 . So too the heavenly voice's declaration of Jesus as God's Son serves to reinforce the true nature of Jesus' identity, the issue explicitly raised in 8:27–30 . In one way, the heavenly voice confirms the truth of Peter's confession, since Messiah and Son of God can be, and are, used in parallel in Mark ( 1:1; 14:62 ); and indeed the words of the heavenly voice simply repeat (though in a third-person statement rather than in a second-person address) the words of the voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism ( 1:11 ). But perhaps the use of ‘Son of God’ here also serves to deepen the meaning of Peter's confession of Jesus as (just?) Messiah. For Mark, Jesus' sonship is seen supremely in his obedience which leads to death (cf. 15:39 ); thus the declaration of Jesus as Son of God here serves to reinforce the passion prediction of 8:31 which has just been given.

The precise significance of Moses and Elijah in the story is not certain, and it is noteworthy that Elijah here precedes Moses. (Matthew and Luke both revert to the more ‘natural’, or certainly chronological, order of Moses followed by Elijah.) Perhaps both appear here as witnesses to Jesus: Elijah as the anticipated forerunner of the Messiah, Moses as the representative of Scripture.

There may also be an element of mild polemic in the story, seeking to counter any claims that Jesus is on a par with Moses and Elijah. This may be the thrust of the implied rebuke of Peter's suggestion that he build three ‘booths’ for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. In one way this is another feature of the general incomprehension of the disciples, but it may be implied more specifically that what Peter has failed to understand is that Jesus is so much greater than Moses or Elijah (perhaps reflected too in Peter's address of Jesus as just ‘Rabbi’ in v. 5 : Jesus for Mark is far more than just a Jewish teacher). Elijah was also famous for not having died; and some Jewish tradition also claimed the same for Moses: in such a tradition, both figures were thus translated to heaven without experiencing death. Jesus' path to heavenly glory is, however, via a different route: he must suffer and die first, and the supreme title or term expressing this is his identity as Son of God. By treading this road, he is so much greater. But equally, any follower of his must tread the same road: hence the command of the heavenly voice to ‘listen to him’ (v. 7 ), especially to the teaching which he has just given in 8:34–9:1 on the meaning of discipleship.

( 9:9–13 ) Coming Down from the Mountain

These enigmatic verses contain a number of exegetical problems. The section is probably composite: vv. 9–10 deal with the theme of secrecy and resurrection, vv. 11–13 with Elijah. v. 9 is the clearest statement in the gospel that the secrecy surrounding the person of Jesus has a temporal limit, and provides the strongest support for the interpretation of the messianic secret adopted here: until the cross, Jesus' identity remains a secret, but after that all will be revealed, for then its true nature will be clear. (Mark probably conceives of the cross and resurrection as a single point in time for these purposes.) The disciples' response in v. 10 seems to imply that they do not understand what resurrection in general means. This seems incredible in historical terms: resurrection was a well-known idea in Judaism of the period. v. 10 is thus either a highly artificial note by Mark to bolster his motif of the disciples' lack of understanding, or it refers specifically to the resurrection of the Son of Man: resurrection was generally thought to be a corporate affair (of all, or of all the righteous): an individual resurrection prior to the End is not so easy to parallel in Jewish thought of the time.

vv. 11–13 focus on the person of Elijah. What seems to be reflected is the expectation that Elijah would reappear at the End (cf. Mal 4:5–6 ). In Malachi, Elijah appears before the Day of the Lord itself; Christian tradition appears to have taken this schema over and modified it so that Elijah appears as the forerunner of the Messiah, Jesus, though such a twofold expectation cannot be found in non-Christian Judaism of this period. In this Christian modification, Elijah is identified as John the Baptist. The full schema is clearly present in Matthew's parallel to this passage; it is probably present in Mark here as well, though the language is more cryptic. John the Baptist, for example, is not mentioned explicitly, though the allusion seems clear. Whatever the precise background, Mark uses the verses to focus again on the coming passion of Jesus. Elijah's role as a forerunner is made more specific by the claim that ‘Elijah’ has suffered. In terms of the implied identification of Elijah with John, this suffering has led to violent death: hence a similar fate awaits Jesus. (That such a fate was predicted of the returning Elijah in Scripture (cf. v. 13b ) is otherwise unattested. In mind may simply be the suffering the first Elijah endured: cf. 1 Kings 19:2–3 .)

( 9:14–29 ) The Epileptic Child

This very long story in Mark may represent the coming together of two stories, or of two versions of the same story: cf. the double description of the child's illness (vv. 17–18, 22 ), and the apparent assembling of the crowd in v. 25 , even though the crowd is already assembled in v. 14 . The first half of the present story focuses on the failure of the disciples, the second on the faith of the boy's father. Yet fundamental to both parts of the story is the importance of faith—faith not shown by the disciples (v. 19 ) and the stuttering faith of the father elicited by Jesus (v. 24 ).

The story has some features of a ‘miracle story’ in formcritical terms, though the cry of astonishment does not come at the end but at the start of the story (v. 15 , in response to the crowd seeing Jesus, perhaps implying that some vestige of his transfigured form still remains). The stress is not so much on the power of Jesus the miracle worker as on the response of the disciples in the story and hence of any would-be disciple in the Christian community. The disciples have been unable to perform the miracle, and their failure leads to Jesus' cry about them and the crowd as a ‘faithless generation’. Miracles in Mark can only take place in a context of faith (cf. 2:4; 5:43; 6:5 ).

The second half of the story focuses on the man's father. The plea to Jesus evokes an almost contemptuous response by Jesus (v. 23 ) about his ability. It is, however, not quite clear who ‘the one who believes’ in v. 23 is meant to be. It appears to be Jesus, and yet Jesus is never portrayed elsewhere in Mark as having ‘faith’, and the sequel focuses on the father's faith. Perhaps it is impossible to be precise and the ambiguity is intentional. ‘Faith’ in relation to miracles in Mark is not necessarily the faith of the recipient, nor necessarily the faith of the would-be healer alone. Rather, it is a description of the total human context in which a potential miracle might take place. The man's famous reply (v. 24 ) shows that faith is both a human response and a gift from outside. Cf. 4:11 . Human response is essential, but in the end, for Mark, such response is itself a matter of divine grace.

The final two verses are sometimes thought to be an appendix, not closely related to the rest of the story in that they focus on prayer, rather than faith. However, the motif of Jesus explaining privately to his disciples in a ‘house’ the deeper significance of what has just happened is typically Markan (cf. 4:10; 7:17; 10:10 ). Moreover, the difference between prayer and faith as the principal focus can be overstressed: faith for Mark is the absolute trust and dependence on God which can be and is reflected precisely in the activity of prayer.

Mark's vocabulary in vv. 26–7 , where the boy appears to be dead and Jesus ‘raised him’ and he ‘arose’, is similar to other language in the NT used of resurrection. The words can be used quite naturally here, but Christian readers probably saw deeper significance in them: Jesus' action foreshadows the new resurrection life that is available through Jesus to believers in the new age.

( 9:30–2 ) The Second Passion Prediction

This is the least detailed of the three passion predictions in Mark, and has the greatest claims to historicity: certainly the very general language has been least explicitly influenced by the details of the passion narrative. However, the key element of the fact that it is as Son of Man that Jesus will suffer and be vindicated remains constant through the three predictions. In v. 32 Mark once again emphasizes the disciples' failure to understand what is said.

( 9:33–50 ) Further Teaching

As after the first passion prediction in 8:31 , Mark follows the second prediction with more teaching about discipleship, much of it somewhat disparate and linked by catchword connections. The first unit, in vv. 33–7 , concerns the importance of humility and the meaning of true greatness. As in ch. 8 , the teaching is provoked by a brief note indicating the disciples' failure to grasp the true significance of what it means to be a follower of the crucified one (vv. 33–4, cf. 8:33 ). This motif may well reflect Mark's own concerns in developing the negative portrait of the disciples, though the reference to Capernaum in v. 33 , which scarcely fits the wider context in Mark of Jesus passing through Galilee to Judea ( 9:30; 10:1 ), may imply the presence of a tradition here. The kernel of the section is the saying on the first and the last and the supreme importance of becoming a servant of all (v. 35 ). The saying is a popular one and recurs elsewhere in the tradition (Mk 10:43–4; Mt 23:11; Lk 22:26 ). For Mark, its significance is further developed in 10:41–5 . The word for ‘servant’ here is perhaps better translated as ‘slave’. The saying thus advocates a total reversal of the values of contemporary society: all that is regarded as valuable and honoured in human society is here called into question, and the Christian must adopt the role of the lowest and most despised member of the social community.

This is then illustrated by the saying about the child (vv. 36–7 ). The saying here is a doublet of the similar saying in 10:15 . The interpretation is disputed. Matthew clearly takes the child as an example to be imitated, in particular as an example of humility (cf. Mt 18:3 ). This suffers from some problems: children are not necessarily always humble; further, children in the ancient world were not necessarily as highly valued as they have become in contemporary Western society. Rather, children were considered to be of very low status and of little value. Hence it is more likely that v. 36 sets up the child as an example of the object of the disciples' action: in their role as servants, they are to be slaves of all, even to the most lowly and least esteemed members of society, i.e. children. In so doing they will be serving Jesus, and by implication, God Himself (v. 37 ). The last saying is developed elsewhere in relation to Christian missionaries (cf. Lk 10:16; Mt 10:40–2 , and perhaps Mt 25:31–46 ), but the idea that in helping the poor, one is helping God is well rooted in Jewish tradition (cf. Prov 19:17 ).

The small pericope about the strange exorcist follows (vv. 38–40 ). The story may well reflect problems experienced in the later Christian church (cf. Acts 19:13–17 ). The reaction of Jesus portrayed here is surprisingly open, and diametrically opposed to its Q parallel (cf. Lk 11:23 ) in its attitude to the neutral and those not explicitly committed to the Christian cause: here anyone who is not an active opponent is regarded as ‘one of us’; in the Q version, neutrality is condemned fiercely. The story condemns any factionalism or triumphalism within the body of those who would be followers of Jesus. Just as faith is ultimately a gift and not an achievement (cf. 9:24 ), so what in the end matters is not church allegiance but allegiance to Jesus: the exorcist still carries out his exorcisms in the name of Jesus. Mark thus has a much more open-ended ecclesiology than, say, Matthew does. For Mark, what is crucial is the issue of Christology, the person of Jesus. Everything else is subordinate to that.

The story is followed by a series of sayings, at times only loosely connected by means of catchwords. The first saying (v. 41 ) may have continued after v. 37 originally, though there is also a catchword link with vv. 38–40 via the use of the word ‘name’. But the saying here does represent a shift from v. 37 in that the recipient of the action is no longer the child but the Christian disciple or missionary (as in the parallels to v. 37 ). The word ‘Christ’ here seems to be used as virtually a proper name, with all idea of its titular sense (cf. 1:1 ) forgotten. In its present form, therefore, the saying must reflect the vocabulary and thought of early Christians and not Jesus. For Mark, the saying perhaps continues the thought of vv. 38–40 : any positive service, however small and insignificant, will be rewarded. Plaudits cannot be reserved for an in-group of privileged ‘church’ members.

The reverse side of the idea of reward is that of punishment and this is developed in the series of sayings in vv. 42–8 , linked by the common use of the verb ‘cause to stumble’ (Greek skandalizo). The first saying (v. 42 ) picks up from v. 41 the motif of treatment given to Christian disciples: the ‘child’ from before has become a ‘little one who believes’, clearly a Christian disciple. (Some, but not all, MSS have ‘believe in me’ here: this would then be one of the very rare occasions in the synoptics, and the only instance in Mark, where Jesus is the object of faith. More typically for Mark, Jesus points away from himself to God as the important object of faith.) Here the threat of judgement is probably directed at other Christian disciples (rather than, as some have suggested, persecutors of the Christian movement): the saying is a warning to followers of Jesus, not comfort for disciples threatened by opponents. In vv. 43–8 the attention shifts from the danger of causing others to stumble to the dangers of causing oneself to stumble (i.e. to threaten one's Christian commitment). In a series of vivid metaphors (which are only metaphors!), Mark's Jesus stresses the extreme nature of the self-sacrifice to which the would-be disciple is called. The thought is in general similar to 8:34–7 : the true ‘life’ of the Christian is far greater than the old life, or even physical life itself, and can call for the ultimate in self-sacrifice at the physical level. The alternative is to be ‘thrown into Gehenna’ (vv. 43, 45, 47 ), a valley near Jerusalem used as a rubbish dump which became a symbol for the place of the future destruction of the wicked. The unquenchable fire of v. 48 (several MSS repeat v. 48 in vv. 44, 46 ) is probably that which destroys: there is no idea of eternal torment and punishment.

The last two verses of the complex (vv. 49–50 ) are obscure and the connection of thought (beyond the catchwords ‘fire’ and ‘salt’) not clear. The image of v. 49 (‘salted with fire’) is notoriously uncertain. It is possible that both fire and salt are seen as images of purification. Elsewhere in the NT, fire is seen as a process which can be destructive but also purifying (cf. 1 Pet 1:7 ). The same may be implied here: the physical dangers to which the Christian disciple is exposed can also act as a purifying agent. The appended sayings about salt in v. 50 defy clear exegesis. The general thought may be that Christian disciples must continually show their true nature as followers of Jesus, otherwise they will be rejected. The final exhortation to live at peace with each other recalls the original occasion of the whole complex: disputes about relative superiority within the community are no part of the life of followers of Jesus who must live harmoniously (‘at peace’) with one another.

( 10:1–12 ) Divorce

The next section is somewhat loosely appended and might appear a little out of place in a wider context dealing with specifically Christian discipleship. Some have even suggested that 10:1–31 constitutes a small preformed household code on the themes of marriage, children, and possessions (cf. Col 3:18–4:1; Eph 5:21–6:9 ). However, this is not necessary: what is presented here is in some ways the ideal for the Christian disciple and the section is not out of place within the broader context of 8:34–10:45 .

Jesus is asked about the legitimacy of divorce. The question is in many ways an artificial one coming from Pharisees, since Jewish law clearly assumed that divorce was legitimate, the only discussion being what were the proper grounds for divorce. (The divorce legislation in Deut 24:1–2 is very vague as to the grounds for divorce and deals more with the procedures of the divorce itself.) Yet if, as seems likely, Jesus did express himself very negatively about the whole principle of divorce (it is very deeply embedded in the tradition: see 1 Cor 7:10 , as well as what is probably a Q tradition in Lk 16:18/Mt 5:32 ), some such question must have arisen in Jesus' own ministry. Jesus' reply goes behind the divorce legislation of Deut 24 to the principle of creation itself. He claims that divorce was only instituted as a concession to human failure and that the ideal is life-long, monogamous marriage. Although this could be interpreted as an attack on the law, it is not presented as such here. Nor is it necessarily an attack to demand greater strictness than the law technically presupposes. (Further, some of the Qumran texts adopt a position very similar to that of Jesus here, and no one could accuse the Qumran sectarians of playing loose with the law!) Nevertheless, an important part of the law is here relativized, and this shows the great authority implicitly claimed by Jesus. Yet it is important too to note what is proposed. Jesus' saying is not necessarily a legal ruling which brooks no exception (as it has frequently been taken). Rather, it sets up an ideal, and puts forward the divine purpose in marriage. It is an ideal for the Eschaton. (In Jewish thought the end-time was often conceived as representing a return to the primeval conditions of the creation period.) But in a fallen world, that ideal is frequently not met. To apply Jesus' sayings to this situation as a legal ruling forbidding divorce under all circumstances is probably the worst kind of legalism: in the teaching of Jesus, any ideals of the eschatological kingdom would always have to be tempered by the overriding concerns of compassion and love.

In an ‘appendix’, Mark's Jesus spells out to the disciples further implications of what he has said. In one way the teaching here is strange, since the issue no longer seems to be that of divorce as such, but of remarriage after divorce. Here any such remarriage is branded as adultery. (Further, the parallel formulation in v. 12 , placing a woman's action in divorcing her husband alongside a man divorcing his wife, presupposes the conditions of Roman law: in Jewish law a woman had no such right to institute divorce proceedings.) We may have here a saying of the early church, seeking to interpret the Jesus tradition in relation to the concrete problems faced by Christians in the world. The NT generally does appear to ban remarriage after divorce (cf. Lk 16:18; Mt 5:32 ). Again, whether that should be taken as rigid and eternal legislation for a fallen world seems rather doubtful.

( 10:13–16 ) The Children

This small section is often taken as composite: vv. 14c + 15 seem to interrupt a story about the importance of receiving children with a saying requiring being like children. This pericope was also used later in the early church to justify the practice of infant baptism. Such an application in a later situation is quite natural, but is not hinted at explicitly by Mark, and would clearly be totally anachronistic at the level of Jesus. The saying in v. 15 forms a doublet with 9:37 and many have regarded the latter context as more appropriate. As noted there, the idea of a child as an example to imitate is not easy to interpret. Children in the ancient world were of the lowest status in society (see MK 9:36–7 ). Perhaps though this is precisely what Mark (unlike Matthew) has in mind. The Kingdom is for those who are like children in the ancient world, i.e. the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed, those without rights and without any esteem amongst their contemporaries. Followers of Jesus can only receive the kingdom, i.e. accept God's rule as king, if they too become like this: they too must recognize their radical dependence on God for all that they have and all that they are, and they must give up all claims to rights over others in the world, a theme which will be developed further in vv. 35–45 . Taken in this way, the saying in v. 15 is not so out of place within vv. 13–16 : only if disciples become like children in this sense can they be ‘received’ by Jesus, i.e. become true followers of the crucified one. As such, the pericope is also firmly in place within the broader context of the general teaching on discipleship in 8:34–10:45 .

( 10:17–31 ) Riches and Possessions

The section is again composite. The story of the rich young man (vv. 17–22 ) has been expanded by further sayings about wealth and/or the difficulty of entering the kingdom (vv. 23–7 ), followed by promises about the rewards due to disciples (vv. 28–31 ). However, the sayings are so closely related in one way (though significantly different in another) that it is hard to envisage totally independent traditions being used here: more probably, Mark has expanded the earlier tradition in his own way to develop the themes of particular concern to him.

The kernel of the section is the story of the rich young man. The evident embarrassment caused to later Christians (e.g. Matthew!) by the story in which Jesus appears implicitly to reject the notion that he himself is ‘good’ suggests that we have here a genuine tradition. (Matthew, for example, rewrites the story to have the man ask Jesus ‘what good thing must I do?’) The man asks about how to ‘inherit eternal life’, probably meaning the same as to enter the kingdom. (The vocabulary of ‘eternal life’, or life of the age to come, is rare in the synoptics, though it is greatly developed in the fourth gospel.) Jesus' first reply cites the second half of the Decalogue (but replacing ‘Do not covet’ with ‘Do not defraud’), focusing on those commandments which concern human relationships. The young man's reply indicates that he realizes that obeying the letter of the law is not enough, but his further question (‘What more must I do?’) perhaps suggests that he is still thinking in terms of a measurable human achievement. Jesus' reply indicates that no such measuring is appropriate: the demand of discipleship is total and absolute.

In the case of the young man, the barrier to his total commitment is evidently his wealth. However, the further development in the teaching now extends the difficulty experienced by rich people in responding to Jesus' call to the difficulty experienced by all. Hence v. 24 says how hard it is for anyone to enter the kingdom. This is then illustrated by the hyperbolic (and perhaps partly humorous) image of the camel and the eye of the needle—though now reverting to the question of riches again. (The slight confusion—is it hard for the rich, or for all, to enter the kingdom?—is what has probably led to some scribes adding a phrase in v. 24 to make it apply only to those ‘who trust in riches’.) Entry into new life is thus ultimately not a matter of any human achievement or merit at all. It is in one way impossible for anyone with their own resources to enter the kingdom. In the end, it is all a matter of divine grace (v. 27 ).

Yet the consequences of the commitment required of the disciple are not lost. Those who give up everything will be rewarded. And indeed Mark's Jesus here implies that there will be reward both in this life and in the age to come. The reference to the rewards in this life indicate that, even though Christians have given up family and possessions now, they will experience a new family and a new social community, i.e. in the church. Mark thus paints a rather different picture from the Q tradition where (at least some) Christians appear to give up all social ties and adopt a wandering life-style with no settled community existence (the so-called ‘wandering charismatics’: cf. the mission charge in Matthew and Luke). In Mark, Christians are assured of a place in a new social community. However, two features of this new existence are notable. The list in v. 30 of people/things which will be repaid to the disciple largely repeats the list in v. 29 of things surrendered; but (a) no ‘father’ reappears in v. 30 , presumably because God is Father and cannot be duplicated; (b) v. 30 adds a reference to ‘persecutions’. This may reflect the situation of Mark's community; alternatively, it may be a warning to them of things that may come. The final promise of ‘eternal life’ provides an inclusio with the start of this whole complex in v. 17 and the question of the young man about what he should do to obtain eternal life.

( 10:32–4 ) The Third Passion Prediction

This is the most detailed of all the predictions and seems to have been written in the light of the details of the passion narrative (a Jewish trial preceding a Roman trial, followed by a mockery involving spitting etc.). As before, the ‘Son of Man’ reference, and the inclusion of a prediction of ‘resurrection’, remain constant. v. 32 is a little obscure: how are the amazement and the fear related? And are there two groups of people intended here, or one? Jesus is ‘on the way’, ‘going ahead’ of his disciples. In one sense he is simply on a road, but in a deeper sense he is also on the ‘way’ that leads to Jerusalem which for Mark is the place of suffering and death. Jesus is thus on the way of the cross, and this perhaps is part of the reason why those who ‘follow’ in this way where Jesus ‘goes ahead’ are ‘afraid’.

( 10:35–45 ) True Service

Once again the passion prediction is followed by a feature showing the failure of the disciples to understand the full implications of Jesus' teaching about his future suffering (cf. 8:32; 9:33 ). Here it is a more extended pericope, the story of the request of James and John for the chief seats in the coming kingdom. The two disciples ask for positions of glory. Jesus' reply is at first a question, asking if they can share his cup and baptism. The image is not explicit but probably refers to intense suffering and death. The ‘cup’ is used in the OT to refer to divine punishment (cf. Ps 75:8 ), though such ideas are probably too specific here, and the image may simply refer to great suffering (cf. 14:36 ). The verb ‘baptize’ can refer to being overwhelmed or flooded with catastrophes (cf. Ps 42:7; Isa 43:2 for a similar idea, if not the word). James and John's first reply is ‘we can’, perhaps an indication for Mark's readers of their (past?) martyrdoms. (James was killed very early: cf. Acts 12:2 ; John's fate is less certain and the traditions vary, some having him live to an old age, other having him martyred, though the latter are admittedly very late.) However, Jesus' reply to them puts their apparent acknowledgement into another light. They perhaps have accepted suffering as simply a temporary prelude to more assured glory. Jesus tells them that suffering will indeed await them, but future glory is not, and cannot, be assured: it is a matter of God's grace. There may indeed be an element of savage irony here too: James and John have asked to be at Jesus' ‘right’ and ‘left’—for Mark's readers there is perhaps an echo of the two robbers, one on Jesus' right and one on his left, on their crosses. That in some sense is Jesus' glory. (Cf. the fourth gospel where this is more explicit.) Perhaps then they really ‘do not know what [they] are asking’ when they make their request!

As before, the motif of the disciples' failure to understand leads on to further teaching by Jesus. Here it is on the significance of service. True greatness lies not in having a position of authority over others, but in being the slave of all, a theme that has dominated all Jesus' teaching about discipleship in this section of the gospel. And as a final clinching argument, Jesus adduces himself as an example in his role as Son of Man: the Son of Man himself came not to be served but to serve. By implication, any follower of the Son of Man can do no less.

The final half-verse ( 10:45b ) comprises the famous ransom saying and has given rise to intense debate. It is one of the very few verses in the synoptics where Jesus gives any kind of interpretation of his death. Its authenticity is much disputed, as is the precise meaning of virtually every word in the saying. The saying is almost certainly pre-Markan: it assumes that Jesus' death is unique, and yet Mark uses it in a context where Jesus sets himself up as an example to be imitated by others. The background is often taken to be Isa 53 , with Jesus here setting himself up as the suffering servant of this Servant Song, offering his life as a sin offering for others. This is, however, unconvincing. The linguistic parallels between this verse and Isa 53 are virtually non-existent. Jesus is not here called ‘servant’; nor is the language of ‘ransom’ the same semantically as that of ‘sin offering’. The present verse does not even mention ‘sin’ as such. The word ‘ransom’ (Gk. lutron) is in fact used very widely, sometimes in relation to prices being paid, e.g. as the price paid to compensate for a crime, as the money equivalent to the sacrifice of the first-born child, as the money paid to buy back prisoners of war. Hence the idea in later Christian theology of Jesus' death as some kind of price that is paid (e.g. for sin). But the word is also used without any idea of a specific price paid: thus God's deliverance of his people in the Exodus is frequently referred to as his ‘ransoming’ or ‘redeeming’ the people of God, with no idea of any price being paid. This may be the underlying idea here: Jesus' death is presented as in some way the rescue, or redemption, of the new people of God. Why this needs a death is not spelt out. Strictly speaking, the preposition translated in the NRSV as ‘for’ (Greek anti) means ‘instead of’: hence ideas of substitutionary atonement which have been read into, or out of, this verse. But this is by no means necessary. The word may simply mean ‘on behalf of’, ‘for the benefit of’ (like the Greek preposition huper, which is the most commonly used NT word in this context). Jesus' saying here thus evokes the idea of a new people of God to be created and formed as a result of his life and death. Further, it is by virtue of his role as Son of Man, as the one who must suffer but who will then be vindicated, that this will be achieved. The saying coheres well with a number of other elements which are firmly embedded in the tradition (e.g. Jesus' choice of exactly twelve disciples, perhaps symbolizing the new Israel), and hence may well be genuine.

( 10:46–5 ) Blind Bartimaeus

Mark finishes this long section of teaching about discipleship as it started, with a story about the healing of a blind person. As with 8:22–6 , this story here almost certainly represents an acted parable: the granting of physical sight to Bartimaeus symbolizes the true ‘insight’ which is necessary for any disciple of Jesus. Thus the consequence of the miracle is presented in language that is almost certainly deliberately evocative: the miracle is due to Bartimaeus' ‘faith’ which is said to have ‘saved’ him, i.e. not only healed him physically but also brought a much deeper and more profound ‘salvation’; and Bartimaeus then ‘follows’ Jesus ‘on the way’: this is the language of discipleship, and Mark's wording is almost certainly meant to suggest that Bartimaeus becomes a full disciple, ‘following’ Jesus on the way which Jesus treads, i.e. the way of the cross. It may also be significant that, before he is healed, Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus as ‘Son of David’ (v. 47 ). This is a rare term in Mark (used elsewhere only in 12:35–7 , and there somewhat negatively), and may be intended to be synonymous with Messiah. The latter is the term Peter uses in 8:29 , and Mark may by his story indicate that this is partly correct, but does not express the fullest truth about Jesus. (See MK 8:29 .) Similarly here, Bartimaeus when blind addresses Jesus as Son of David. As such he is partly correct, and certainly shows a sufficient degree of faith to enable Jesus' miracle to take place. But the fuller sight—and the deeper insight into who Jesus really is—follows as a divine gift. Only then does Bartimaeus become a full disciple, ‘following’ Jesus ‘on the way’.

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