Monday, February 15, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Mark 3-7

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Mark, chapters 3 through 7.

Chapter 3

  • Verse 2 - I want to take a step back and reconsider what the Pharisees are thinking about.  Clearly, they consider it unlawful to heal someone on the sabbath.  It is considered "work" to do so, and the commandment against working on the sabbath is well-documented.  But, for Jesus, how much "work" can he really be said to be doing when he heals a person?  He says "be healed," and the person is healed.  It's not like he's having to perform physical labor to achieve the healing, nor even a more minor action like listening to the patient's heartbeat or taking the person's temperature.  I'm wondering not just how petty the attitude about sabbath observance has gotten, but just how common such an effortless healing "work" was as performed by others, that the Pharisees would have been able to adopt such an attitude against it that they're so actively looking for it to happen, even before Jesus has actually done the deed.
  • Verse 18 - Notice that Matthew is still listed among the Twelve, just as in Matthew's gospel, despite the previously-mentioned story starting in Mark 2:13 naming the tax collector Levi, instead.  A quick note re: "Simon the Zealot."  Hooker says that the word for "Zealot" was not actually used to describe the nationalistic political movement of that name until after the time of Jesus.1  This is news to me.  The word therefore may simply refer to the passion of Simon's faith, rather than his political affiliation.  In any event, it does seem likely the this word is properly translated as "zealot" rather than "Cananaean," as some translations have it (the Greek for both words is very similar).
  • Verses 31-35 - I'm curious about the fact that Jesus' sisters (referenced later in Mark 6:3) are omitted in verse 31, although am quick to note that Jesus himself puts a reference to "sisters" into his response to the observation that his family is looking for him.
Chapter 4
  • Verse 24-25 - Verse 24 sounds a lot like Matthew 7:2, which is put in the context of forgiveness, and verse 25 sounds like Matthew 25:29, which is the ending of a parable of how servants use money entrusted to their care.  It seems strange to see these verses placed here, in completely unrelated contexts, where Mark seems to be using them simply as a way of saying "pay attention."
  • Verse 34: "He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything." - Verse 12 repeats a teaching I commented on when Matthew used it, but when I listened to Mark, in particular around verse 34, I thought about a possible explanation for why Jesus might have taught in this way.  Most of us have seen commercials where we are shown just the first part of story, or a small bit of information, and at the end of the commercial, we are told to "go to for what happens next/for more information."  Now, I don't actually want to go so far as to suggest that Jesus would have used the Internet in this way if his earthly ministry was happening today, instead of 2000 years ago.  But it does seem to me that the parables to have a bit of a "teaser" nature about them, as if they're saying "do you want to know what this means?  Follow me and you'll find out."
Chapter 5
  • Verses 1-17 - This account is (ironically) longer than the one in Matthew, which didn't give us the demon identify of "Legion."
  • Verse 19 - Why doesn't Jesus allow the man to join as one of Jesus' followers?  Hooker, noting the setting of this particular story, suggests the possibility that this man may have been a Gentile, and that Jesus may have been limiting his ministry to the Jews (suggested elsewhere in the gospels), and thus did not allow the man to join him.2  However, Jesus did tell the man to spread the word of "how much the Lord has done for [him]," which is obviously a mission of evangelism. 
  • Verses 21-43 - I've always been struck by how this passage contains two stories, not obviously related to each other, except for how one embeds itself within the other chronologically.  While Jesus is setting out to perform one miracle, he ends up performing another on the way.
  • Verse 41: "talitha koum!" - We get a few snippets of Jesus' speech in it's original language (Aramaic), which must then be translated into Greek (and, of course, other languages such as English for modern readers) so the reader may understand it.  I've always wondered at why these particular examples are chosen.  I'll have a bit more to say after another example in chapter 7.
Chapter 6
  • Verse 1-3 - Whatever the people of Jesus' hometown (not named here, curiously) thought of Jesus, I see that at least they thought to mention that he has sisters (unlike in chapter 3), although they don't bother giving the sisters' names, as they do with the brothers.
  • Verses 5-6 - Why "couldn't" Jesus perform healings here?  Is he actually powerless/impotent if a person has no faith?  I find this troubling, because it implies that the power of a miracle lies not in God (nor in Jesus), but in the person having faith.  While I want to emphasize the importance of faith, this seems to make God too small....  Hooker suggests that Matthew had this theological problem, as well, but not Mark.3
  • Verse 8 - Unlike in Matthew (and in Luke), a staff is one of the few things Jesus does allow the disciples to have as they go out on their mission.
  • Verses 17-19 - Apparently there are some discrepancies between Mark's account of the family and marriages of Herod and the account of the historian Josephus (among other things, Josephus has Herod's brother Philip married to Salome, not to Herodias, who was apparently married to another half-brother of Herod).  Whoever's right, it's safe to say that the Herod family tree was quite complicated, and more than a little incestuous.4
  • Verses 47-52 - The familiar tale of Jesus walking on water.  Two things that stood out to me: 1) Peter is not mentioned (and thus he never walks on water himself, even for a little bit), 2) Mark takes the opportunity to comment on the disciples amazement at this feat of Jesus' by saying "for they had not understood about the loaves" (that is, in the feeding of the 5000, detailed in verses 30-44, just previous to this story).  I'm not especially clear on how, if the disciples had understood about the loaves, they wouldn't be so amazed at Jesus walking on water.  The two miracles are utterly dissimilar, aren't they?
Chapter 7
  • Verses 3-4 - Apparently, Mark is writing to an audience not immediately familiar with Jewish customs.  However, he may be overstating the case.  There is some dispute about how widespread ritual hand-washing customs were in Jesus' time, and how much these practices became more widespread in the century to follow.5
  • Verses 21-22 - Hooker notes that the first six acts are all plural nouns (indicating repeated offenses) while all the ones at the end of the list (from "deceit" onward) are all singular, denoting particular vices.6  Make of that what you will.
  • Verse 34: "Ephphatha" - Another word from Jesus' mouth, apparently transliterated from the original Aramaic, and then translated for the benefit of the reader.  Like the example in chapter 5, verse 41, this example is used in a miracle narrative.  Despite historic Biblical prohibitions against the use of magic, there is a sense in which this sounds a lot like magic, and apparently this formulation is common in miracle narratives throughout the ancient period.  However, despite Mark's insistence on retaining the original words (and I'm still not quite clear as to why he makes this choice), the fact that he translates them demonstrates one clear difference between these gospel passages and other miracle narratives: while other miracle stories would include "foreign formulae," the words were foreign to the characters in the narrative, as well as to those who might be reading the story.  Here, the words were almost certainly in the common language used by the other characters alongside Jesus, and they would have understood "ephphatha" as "be opened" without assistance.  Thus, Mark is demonstrating that the words are not a "magic formula" in the way that contemporaries would have understood such to be used in the original context.  (Imagine if Harry Potter shouted "Disarm!" instead of "Expelliarmus!")7

1Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Black's New Testament Commentaries), Hendrickson Publishers, 1999. pp. 112-113.
2Hooker, p. 145.
3Hooker, p. 154.
4Hooker, p. 160.
5See Hooker, pp. 174-175.
6Hooker, p. 180.
7See Hooker, pp. 150, 186.

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