Baker Academic

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Who Started the Conflict in Mark's Gospel? - Le Donne

Over at Mark Goodacre's blog, he asks for a bit of input about online resources for teaching Mark. After commenting there, I thought I'd expand my suggestions here.

One of the points that I try to make in Jesus among Friends and Enemies (eds. Hurtado and Keith) is that as the plot of Mark unfolds, the Jewish leadership is revealed as adversaries of Jesus. This much is old hat. But if one looks more closely, these supposed "enemies" are narrated as asking questions about Jesus' peculiarities. I.e. it is not necessary to read these early exchanges as charged with animosity. As these "controversies" escalate, it is Jesus who provokes the conflict.

Here is an excerpt from my chapter, titled "The Jewish Leaders":

Mark introduces the Jewish leaders to readers with a story about Jesus at home, eating with tax-collectors and sinners. We are told that ―scribes of the Pharisees‖ question  Jesus‘s disciples about his dinner company. The implication here is that, compared with other rabbis, Jesus might be less attentive to dietary purity (Mark 2:15–17).

It is also noteworthy, at this early stage in the narrative, that there is no apparent hostility between these leaders and Jesus. We are simply told that they have asked Jesus a question. Jesus answers by comparing himself to a physician who comes not for the healthy but for the sick. The story-teller gives us no indication that these Jewish leaders were unsatisfied with the answer. … [To answer questions about fasting] Jesus answers again with an analogy. He compares his ministry with a wedding party and himself with the groom (i.e. the guest of honor who requires celebrating). The story-teller includes two other analogies to justify the actions of his disciples (2:21–22). Again, Mark gives no indication of hostility…. 
From the Pharisees‘ perspective (one might imagine), Jesus‘s claim to be master of the Sabbath would have seemed outlandish. The Pharisees begin an argument concerning sabbatical law (this was a common argument if rabbinic literature is any indication) and they end up with a statement tantamount to megalomania! Who was this backwater revivalist to associate himself with King David? 
In Mark 3:1–2 Jesus enters a synagogue (a local place of study and worship) and ―a man was there who had a withered hand. And they [presumably the Pharisees] watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.‖ According to the story-teller, the key divide between the Jewish leaders and Jesus involves sabbatical interpretation. Jesus then instigates an even bigger argument: 
And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ―Come here.‖ And he said to them, ―Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?‖ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ―Stretch out your hand.‖ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, [about] how to destroy him. -Mark 3:3–6
 This is a crucial turn in Mark‘s plot and characterization. The Jewish leaders are shown to be quietly observing Jesus‘s behavior and wary of his sabbatical antics. In contrast, Jesus is shown to be intentionally provocative. He begins the argument and publicly heals (recall Jesus‘s medical analogy in 2:17) a man with a ―withered‖ hand to provoke the Jewish leaders.
Notice that Mark‘s portrait is not of a passive, live-and-let-live Jesus who was simply minding his own business. By publicly healing on the Sabbath, and starting the argument in the synagogue, Jesus is picking a fight. Indeed, we are explicitly told that he is angry. 

When teaching students, it might be helpful to ask a few close-reading questions like: what sort of tone do you imagine? Why? What in the narrative suggests hostility?

I think it is also helpful to explain how such conflicts have bled into Jewish-Xn relations over the centuries. Questions like: if you traced your spiritual and physical ancestry to the Pharisees, how might you read these exchanges differently.

So a question to my readers: when reading Mark's narrative, do you imagine a hostile Jesus?



  1. That's how I read the narrative. But I think Mark set the tone from the beginning with his conflated quotation (Is. 40.3; Ex. 23.20; Mal. 3.1). Most pickup on the 'strong man' leading a new exodus. But the shadow of Mal. 3 doesn't get the 'play' in the narrative I think it should. So when Mark explains the hostility via the Beelzebul parable (Mk. 3.23-27), there is more implied than just the cosmic battle between Jesus and Satan (the ἰσχυρός).
    Elizabeth Shively's, Apocalyptic Imagination in the Gospel of Mark: The Literary and Theological Role of Mark 3:22-30, is a good example. Her work is well worth reading (she demonstrates that the Beelzebul parable is the interpretative lens for Mark's gospel), but I was disappointed that she didn't it seem to notice how Mark uses it to setup Jesus at Jerusalem.
    Only Mark notes the obscure detail σκεῦος (Mark 11:16) during Jesus' demonstration in the temple. And Mark's only other use of the term is in the Beelzebul parable (σκεύη (Mark 3:27)). I think, as a reader, it sets an ominous, dark tone to what follows; and Mark just lets it sit there for the moment. I think we should be reading Mark in that suspenseful way; wondering what on earth is going on.
    It is during the 'trial' that Mark lets the sun shine in. The issue for Mark is the temple; χειροποίητον vs. ἀχειροποίητον (Mark 14:58). Where the former has only sinister echoes to idols in the LXX.
    But the bizarre twist in mark is that the 'strong man' of Is. 40, comes to the temple (Mal. 3), not to save it, but to condemn it. And that in the struggle between the two temples (one made with hands vs. the one made w/o hands) both will be destroyed; but one will be raised up (perhaps in the imagery of Is. 2).

    At any rate, I am appalled when I hear it said that Mark is a second class to Matthew.

  2. Hi Anthony,

    If you take into consideration the social dynamics of the agonistic Mediterranean context, the Pharisees’ question to Jesus' disciples is actually very aggressive. To begin with, simply raising the question in a public setting (dinner at Levi's house with many guests presumably) constitutes a challenge. But the mode of the challenge is even more vitriolic since they do not ask Jesus directly, but his disciples instead. The Pharisees' question (which implies Jesus is doing something wrong) is an attempt to initiate a gossip event since they are inviting the disciples to evaluate Jesus' behavior along with them. Moreover, it is imagined in the story as talk intended to be overheard by the subject, Jesus, and of course everyone else present, who then wait to see how Jesus will respond to the challenge. Of course, as he usually does, Jesus responds brilliantly.

    So, by paying attention to the dynamics of social interactions, rather than solely (as well as) the content of what is said or brought up in the discourse, we get plenty of clues that the Pharisees are being quite aggressive at Mark 2:15-17. Of course, this is not to say that Jesus was not himself a hostile dude. By-and-large, he is portrayed in the Gospels as being quite aggressive, even hostile, engaging in all sorts of agonistic social behavior – name calling, deviant labeling, gossip, lying. But, of course, behavior considered “bad” by one group, was often considered honorable to another.


  3. Yes, I think Jesus was hostile, beginning with the presentation of the angry Jesus in Mark 1.

  4. I don't think any portrayal of Jesus in the Bible is of a of a "passive, live-and-let-live Jesus who was simply minding his own business."

    I particularly see your understanding of Jesus in Mark from your excerpt as being paralleled in John. Especially in regard to Jesus confronting and challenging his listeners and the Jewish leadership.

  5. “… if you traced your spiritual and physical ancestry to the Pharisees …”

    Hey! That’s me! I do that!

    Do I read those exchanges “differently”? Perhaps. Here, my reading is not so much a “close” one as it is a “fast” one, as Mark’s Gospel is short and quick. We get the message of John the Baptist in two sentences, Jesus’ message in one sentence (1:15). We have Spirit “immediately” driving Jesus into wilderness, Jesus “immediately” calling disciples and disciples “immediately” following him, Jesus’ fame spreading “at once”. Jesus is a man in a hurry, and he’s surrounded by a whirlwind of disciples, healing-seekers, unhappy family members and amazed on-lookers. Jesus is seemingly always in a crowd. It’s first-century Beatlemania. Read Mark slowly, and it’s like watching the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” with too many commercial interruptions. You can miss the big picture. Read Mark quickly first, to get the overall impression.

    The Jesus I encounter in the culture of the present day is a calm and measured guy, who speaks patiently and slowly, and (perhaps excluding his last day) is in ultimate control. But that’s not Mark’s Jesus. Mark’s Jesus is buffeted. He is a guy who “could no longer go into a town openly”. Crowds followed him and pressed in on him (5:24). Jesus attracted crowds so large that even he could not enter them, so large that they sometimes prevented his eating, and those who needed to reach Jesus had to be lifted through rooftops. In Mark at least, what Jesus inspired he could not control. “The more he ordered them [not to tell people about his miracle working], the more zealously they proclaimed it” (7:36).

    What’s worse for Jesus is that while he came to proclaim a message (1:15), that’s not what drew the crowds. Morton Smith puts this very well in “Jesus The Magician”: in the first century (as now), crowds do not mob teachers, or prophets. But “when a healer appeared – a man who could perform miraculous cures, and who did so for nothing! – he was sure to be mobbed.” I differ from Smith in that I don’t see Mark’s Jesus as a miracle worker who performed a little teaching on the side. I read Mark to say that Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, but that this was almost lost amidst the hysteria inspired by his miracle cures. Even his disciples, who Jesus teaches in relative calm and private, didn’t understand Jesus’ message. Again, Beatlemania provides a useful analogy. Talk to anyone who attended a Beatles’ concert – you could not hear the music for all the screaming (in 1964, as in 30, sound amplification was not what it is now).

    From this context, what I pick up from Mark’s Jesus is not so much hostility directed at Pharisees, but general exasperation directed at just about everyone. The gentle, patient Jesus of the movies is not here for me. Mark’s Jesus rebukes the wind (4:39). He rebukes his disciples (8:32). He rebukes the crowds he speaks to, calling them an “adulterous and sinful generation” (8:38). He issues stern warnings, not just to evil spirits, but also to his disciples (8:30) and to cured lepers (1:43). The spirits heed Jesus’ warnings; seemingly no one else does. No wonder Jesus is exasperated. I picture Mark’s Jesus in a near-perpetual face palm.

    I was not and am not surprised by the conflict Mark reports between Jesus and the Pharisees. This is the way Jews talk to each other. I see nothing sharper in these exchanges than what I see in the exchanges between the Rabbis in the Talmud. What I find surprising is when Mark’s Pharisees fall silent (3:4) – something that never happens in the Talmud! As for when the Pharisees conspire to kill Jesus (beginning at 3:6 I think) … well, that’s a discussion for another day.

    FWIW, I very much like Mark’s Jesus. He’s sympathetic, in large part because his exasperation is so justified.

    1. Thanks for bringing up the silence motif, Larry. This is something that I emphasize in the chapter mentioned above too.


  6. Well, as a layman I think Mark was doing the best he could, decades after the fact, far away from Palestine, and with (probably confusing) oral tradition alone to guide him. (I agree with Prof. Donald Akenson that whatever documents may have been archived by the Jerusalem Church in the decades after the crucifixion undoubtedly disappeared during the Great Jewish Revolt.) Clearly, painting with a broad brush, Jesus was a provocative figure who gained a high enough profile to merit execution by the Romans (with Sadducee collaboration) for sedition, so it was probably necessary for Mark to "punch up the narrative" so to speak.