Monday, February 22, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Mark 8-12

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 8 through 12.

Chapter 8

  • Verses 14-21 - Mark's version of a story we talked about already in Matthew.  I find it interesting that the gospels set up the story by telling us that "the disciples had forgotten to bring bread" before Jesus makes his confusing (to them) statement (Matthew did this, too, but for whatever reason it didn't stand out to me then as it does this time).  Perhaps Jesus specifically used this instance of forgetfulness as an opportunity to teach something (which on the surface, seems wholly unrelated to the issue of bread, and indeed Jesus does get frustrated when the disciples make that obvious connection between yeast and bread...)?  I'm still not sure.
  • Verse 24 - I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the blind man being healed here hasn't been blind his entire life.  If he had, how would he know enough what trees look like to say that the people he (thinks he) sees look like walking trees?  At least as noteworthy, of course, is the fact that Jesus performs this particular miracle in two stages.  Why not have it accomplished all at once?
Chapter 9
  • Verse 1 - This strikes me as yet another odd place to put a chapter break, as the sentence seems directly attached to the preceding passage.  However, the fact that the chapter break is here may at least be an indication that the early church (or, at least, that portion of it responsible for the chapter breaks) considered the upcoming Transfiguration passage as the coming of the kingdom of God foretold by Jesus here.  Hooker acknowledges this connection, but suggests that "it is not obvious how the transfiguration can be understood to be the coming of the Kingdom in power," and reflects on the possibility that Jesus was mistaken--a possibility which has obviously been difficult for Christians to accept.1  It is certainly known that many first century Christians expected an eschatological event to occur sooner rather than later, and this would account for how such a statement could be attributed to Jesus in a document written by the end of the first century, even though we in the 20th century do not view such an event to have occurred.  Other explanations for Jesus' statement have been considered, and one of them may well be right, but this is clearly a passage which is considered difficult to interpret.
  • Verse 4 - I didn't mention this when going through Matthew's version of this story, but one does wonder how the disciples could know the identities of Moses and Elijah in an age before photographic records.
  • Verse 10: "They kept the matter to themselves" - This passage is difficult to interpret.  Hooker suggests that this translation is less likely than "They seized on this saying" (as with the NASB).2
  • Verse 10: "discussing what 'rising from the dead' meant."- Clearly, the disciples have been listening to Jesus' teachings about his own resurrection, but they just as clearly still don't understand.  The disciples can seem pretty dense, can't they?  (Of course, we have the advantage of 2000 years of hindsight) 
  • Verse 23 - I continue to wrestle with the implications that Jesus' power is dependent on our belief.  Is Jesus' own power and ability insufficient if a mere mortal has insufficient faith?
  • Verse 24: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" - My favorite verse for attempting to respond to this conundrum.  It acknowledges the importance of our own belief while putting the power back upon Jesus to help us out.  Whatever the father's faith limitations, Jesus was still able to heal the son.
  • Verse 29 - This is a bit different than the version of this story in Matthew.  In that version, Jesus tells the disciples that they couldn't drive out the demon because of their insufficient faith.  Here, Mark (perhaps because he's already addressed the faith issue) depicts Jesus as requiring prayer (which, itself, is an act of faith).  But are we therefore to assume that the disciples haven't been praying over their would-be exorcisms?
  • Verse 40: "whoever is not against us is for us" - I've already commented on this verse in contrast to a verse in Matthew which says the exact opposite.  Hooker suggests that Jesus is telling the disciples not to put too much emphasis on "whether someone belongs to the right party (as opposed to) whether he acknowledges Jesus as lord."3  In this light, I imagine Jesus would be especially critical of the zealous denominationalism in our time (and, more to the point, the attitude we often have the Christians that don't espouse certain specific--often denominationally-based--doctrines are suspect as to truly being followers of Christ).
  • Verse 42-50 - When I listened to this passage this week, I got the sense of a disjointed sequence of sayings that have a word or phrase in common, yet did not flow especially well from one thought to another.  "Don't cause to stumble" leads to "if something causes you to stumble, lest you be thrown into fire" which leads to "everyone will be salted with fire" which leads to stuff about salt losing it's saltiness.  It seems a bit like the Wheel of Fortune category "Before and After," where a common catchword is used in two completely unrelated contexts: "Star of David Beckham," for example.
Chapter 10
  • Verses 1-12 - It is perhaps significant that, although there is a valid sense in which Christians talk about not being bound by the law (a sense which itself comes from the teachings of Jesus), that we here are given an example of where Jesus calls followers to a life more stringent than the law itself does.  For Jesus, the concern should not be the adherance to rules (thereby allowing oneself to do no further than the requirements of the law once met) but seeking to please God.
  • Verses 17-22 - The "rich young man" perhaps understands that Jesus teaches that following the law is not enough.  Even though he proclaims that he has kept the commandments Jesus names, the fact that he came asking what (more?) he must do is telling.  Hooker suggests that Jesus' response to the man is, in essence, he must do "everything." He must be totally committed.4
Chapter 11
  • Verses 1-6 - When I read through the version of this story in Matthew, I considered the possibility (but apparently did not mention it in this blog) that Jesus had made a previous arrangement with the owner of the colt (and donkey, as Matthew has it) for borrowing it.  That seems less likely in this version.  As Hooker puts it, "the instructions (to the disciples) could, of course, have been the result of a private agreement between Jesus and the owner of the animal; but if so, why should the story be told in this detail?"5
  • Verses 12-14, 20-26 - The story of the fig tree is an odd one.  Mark goes to the trouble to tell us that "it was not the season for figs" as if to say that Jesus shouldn't have expected to find any on the tree.  The fact that Jesus curses it, then, comes off as petty and vindictive--condemning a life for failing to grant his momentary hunger.  While it is certainly true that many people do see God in this way, it is unusual in the extreme for even non-believers to grant such attitudes to Jesus.  Yet here it is.  Hooker sees an answer in the fact that this tale is sandwiched around the story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple.  Thus, the fig tree represents Israel, which has fallen under the judgment of God for failing to recognize Jesus as the Messiah foretold by the Scriptures.6  I've certainly heard this interpretation before, and it's moderately better than accepting a petty Jesus, but I definitely wonder how readily the original readers of Mark (who at least did have the context of witnessing God's judgment via the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) would have understood this interpretation.  It seems far from "obvious" to my two-millennia-removed eyes.  And, even so, why did Mark go to the trouble of telling us that it wasn't the season for figs?  Why not make it look like the fig tree's demise was truly its own fault?
Chapter 12
  • Verses 34-37 - The antecedent for "no one dared to ask (Jesus) any more questions" is markedly different here than it was in Matthew.  Indeed, it was Jesus' making the Messianic claim re: David, which comes after that line here in Mark, that was the cause of that reaction in Matthew.  An exact reversal.
  • Verse 42: "But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny" - There is some variation among translations on this one.  For example, the ESV says that the two coins are worth a penny, rather than a fraction of one, as here.  Of course, the widow was not putting in anything quite like our American penny, or 1/100th of a dollar.  The "coin" in question here is a λεπτον (hereafter transliterated as "lepton").  The widow gave two lepta.  The "penny" Mark is actually referring to is a Roman "quadrans" (which was indeed worth about two lepta).  Like our American penny, the lepton was indeed the lowest-valued coin in circulation in Palestine.7  For those who are curious about how much the widow gave in American equivalence, I can confirm that the lepton was 1/128th the value of the contemporary denarius.  A denarius was the amount commonly given to a laborer as a day's wages.  So, in modern terms, if we argue that a day's pay for a laborer would be about $100 (and this may not be the best standard with which to judge.  Another method would be purchasing power, at which point the denarius is closer to only $20.  This kind of interpretation is not an exact equivalence, anymore than translating from one currency to another is an exact science even today.), the widow would be argued to have donated about 78 cents (or, even using the $20 figure, about 16 cents), which is considerably more than a single American penny.  Of course, all this pedantry really does miss the point of the widow's sacrifice.

1Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Black's New Testament Commentaries), Hendrickson Publishers, 1999. p. 212.
2Hooker, p. 219.
3Hooker, pp. 229-230.
4Hooker, p. 242.
5Hooker, p. 258.
6Hooker, pp. 261-262.
7Hooker, p. 296.

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