Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
|1: Again he began to teach beside
And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat
sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the
2: And he taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he
to them: 3: "Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4: And as he sowed, some seed fell along the
the birds came and devoured it. 5: Other seed fell on rocky ground,
it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no
of soil; 6: and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no
root it withered away. 7: Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns
up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8: And other seeds fell into
good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and
thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold." 9: And he said, "He who
ears to hear, let him hear." 10: And when he was alone, those who were
about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. 11: And he
said to them, "To you has been given the secret of
the kingdom of God, but for those outside
||everything is in parables; 12: so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven." 13: And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14: The sower sows the word. 15: And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them. 16: And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; 17: and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18: And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word, 19: but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.20: But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold."|
|1: Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2: And he taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:|
|v1-2: Redactional from the author of Mark. No historical content. This is generally recognized as the first parable in Mark.|
|2. And he taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:|
Myers (1988, p172) is among a number of exegetes who argue that the
writer of Mark appears to have adopted his parable (which Myers
interprets as political criticism) from Ezekiel's use of the term
parable (mashal) in Ezekiel
Additional parable verses in Exekiel include 20:49:
Stephen Moore (1992) has a beautiful
of the function of parables in Mark:
Mary Ann Tolbert (1989) points out:
|3: "Listen! A sower went out to sow.|
whether the parables are historical to Jesus is debatable.
Schmithals (1997) writes:
this may be suggested by Isaiah 40:24, where God appears as
sower, though in a different context:
May also be a reference to Isaiah 61:11, a chapter in the background to
many of the healings in Mark.
Hoskyns and Davey (1931) discuss the relationship between
|v3-8: the use of parables by Jews long predates Jesus; see, for example, Judges 9:7-15 or 2 Sam 12:1-4.|
|v3-8: Many scholars see the parable discourses as having a fixed pattern found elsewhere in other Jewish writings, that of public teaching, questioning by disciples, and private explanation (Beavis 1989, p135).|
Marvin Meyer (1992) writes:
Gerd Ludemann (2001) observes:
Instruction as sowing of seeds was a stock metaphor in Hellenistic
culture, and there are many exemplars. Seneca, for example, wrote:
|5: Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil;|
Donahue (1995) notes that phrase "rocky ground" may be wordplay
on the nickname of Peter. Mary Ann Tolbert (1989) develops this into
one of the major themes of the Gospel of Mark:
Peter's faithlessness, a theme of the Gospel of Mark, is also
seen in Paul's Letter to the Galatians, where Peter is roasted for
being a hypocrite and dishonest (2:11-14). One can regard both
Galatians and Mark as evidence that not everyone in the Christian
community accepted the disciples as the authentic representatives of
Jesus, at least on some issues.
|9: And he said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."|
Ludemann sees this phrase as a floating call that could be
anywhere (2001, p26). It may be a creation off of Psalm 135:17,
20:12, or Isaiah 30:21 or other, similar passages, but the most likely
candidate is Isaiah 32:3
the bit of Markan irony -- Jesus no sooner says "He who has
let him hear!" then the disciples ask about the parables. The author of
Mark denigrates them by showing they did not understand Jesus. The
of the disciples is a common Markan theme, indicating that the
is an ahistorical creation of the writer of Mark.
to a minor "common sense" argument against historicity, arguing that
situation is historically absurd as presented, for this is Jesus' first
parable. Therefore how could the disciples be asking about "parables?"
But that is a very weak argument, as the writer indicates Jesus taught
in parables in v1.
Mack (1988) notes:
|10: And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables.|
|v10-12: The pattern here is that of a typical chreia of the type well known in antiquity. Beavis (1989, p140-1) lists several examples of chreia that follow the model of setting and response. For example, the King Eumenes visits Rome, where he was welcomed by the highest men of the city. Cato, however, looked upon him with suspicion. Someone remarks that the King must be an excellent fellow, and a friend of Rome (setting). Cato agrees, but adds that "the animal known as king is by nature carnivorous."(response). Beavis warns, however, that the writer of Mark has gone one better: 4:11-12 contains an oracle.|
Philip Sellow (1989) describes how the teaching scenes in Mark were
composed. They typically begin with public instruction from Jesus,
which is followed by a change of location,
in which his close followers question him privately, triggering a
sarcastic complaint from the Teacher, and concluding with a decisive
explanation from Jesus. A number of exegetes have pointed out how the
disciples function as foils who draw out explanations from Jesus,
presumably so the reader or hearer could understand.
the only time in Mark when he uses the phrase "those who were
him" (Gundry 1993, p199).
Michael Goulder (1999) points out, this location is ambiguous. Are they
still in the boats?
|11: And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; 12: so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven."|
Koester (1990, p279) points out that both Matt and Luke have "To you is given to know the mysteries...." in their
respective parallel passages. Koester argues that Matt and Luke
preserve the more original version of the passage, which contained to know and the plural mysteries. The fact that Matt and
Luke agree against Mark in parallel passages seems to indicate that our
modern version of Mark is not the same one that Matt and Luke used.
is based on Isaiah 6:9-10 from the Septuagint:
The modern Bible has the following for Isa 6:9-10:
are probably from the writer of Mark, although Koester
(1990, p53) is among the numerous commentators who have argued argued
they are based on a source or even interpolated. This is
unlikely, since the writer
Mark quotes Isa 6:9 in v12 in the usual Markan style. Chilton (1984,
p91) has drawn
to the fact that the quote resembles a targum on Isaiah more than it
the verse itself. Weeden (1971) argues that this passage is Markan
and that the first half of Mark is aimed at parodying the positions of
the inner circle of the Church, which maintained it had a secret
In this view, the messianic secret, which is constantly contrasted with
crowds around Jesus, is thus parody whose function is to deny that
the inner circle has a secret teaching by showing how silly it must
been in the context of a public mission by Jesus. Others (Price 2003,
argue that this may be a reference to Jesus as the member of a sect,
Nazarenes, who possessed esoteric knowledge. However they are
Mk 4:11-12 are among the most controversial verses in the gospel,
generating, as Beavis (1989) noted in her book-length study of these
two verses, more secondary literature than any other two verses in
Donald Juel (2002) notes of the multitude of attempted interpretations of 4:11-12:
the reference to Isa 6 is another example of the Temple
of Mark's hypertextuality, for the voice is heard in the Temple.
|v11: While scholars have emphasized the link between Jesus' teachings and previous Jewish literature, A. E. Harvey has pointed out that the word "secret" here (better translated as "mystery") is used exactly the same way it is in Hellenistic circles for the centuries prior to the Gospel of Mark. For the centuries leading up to the Gospel of Mark "Mystery" is invariably used to express a secret only a few are qualified to know. It is never used in the sense we know it today, of a puzzle needing to be solved, until the first century CE. Further, the phrase here "the mystery of the Kingdom of God" has a verb inserted between the noun "mystery" and the modifier "of the kingdom of God" in Greek, an idiom impossible in a Semitic language. The writer must have been thinking in Greek. In other words, the use of the word "mystery" conjures up the vision of initiates learning esoteric knowledge familiar to any educated Hellene, while Jesus could never have uttered the words as the writer of Mark reports them (Harvey 1983).|
|v11-12: Several scholars have suggested that these verses can be read ironically, something like "...lest they turn and be saved (and they wouldn't want that to happen, would they?)" or sacastically "lest they turn and be saved (and we wouldn't want that to happen, would we?)."|
Tate (1995) points out that thematically this may also be linked with
Moses, for while the Lord speaks to other prophets in riddles ("dark
speech") Moses hears the Lord's word clearly:
Paul writes of a "mystery" in 1 Cor 2:6-7:
|13: And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?|
|v13-20: contains vocabulary found nowhere else in the Synoptic gospels, but are present in other NT writings. These include "sow" as a metaphor for preaching (1 Cor. 9:11), "root" as a metaphor for inner steadfastness (Col 2:7, Eph. 3:17) and above all, the "word" which grows and spreads, found in many places in 1 & 2 Thess, II Tim, and other early Christian writings (Ludemann 2001, p 27).|
Note that although 4:11-12 emphasizes that the disciples are getting
the inside story, the writer makes it clear throughout the Gospel that
the disciples just don't get it. This pattern will be repeated
throughout the Gospel.
Thomas L. Thompson observes:
The context of this parable, v1-2 and v9-20, is clearly
invention of the writer of Mark. The most important verses are 4:11-12.
However one interprets the controversial verses 11 and 12, they are
clearly not historical. The hypertextual habits of the writer of Mark
are strongly Temple-focused, meaning that often in Mark when an OT
reference occurs and the reader returns to the OT to view the context,
the passage will either take place in, or be about, the Temple in
Jerusalem. In this case, the words in Isa 6:9-10 are uttered by a voice
in the Temple. This is a signature habit of the writer of Mark.
Another sign of the hand of the writer of Mark is the signal
of a later date. Verses 9-20 appear to refer to a much later time
"when tribulation or
arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away." There were
no persecutions during Jesus' lifetime. Additionally, those verses
contain vocabulary found nowhere else in the Synoptic
but present in other NT writings. These include "sow" as a metaphor
for preaching (1 Cor. 9:11), "root" as a metaphor for inner
(Col 2:7, Eph. 3:17) and above all, the "word" which grows and spreads,
found in many places in 1 & 2 Thess, II Tim, and other early
writings (Ludemann 2001, p 27). This interpretation of the context as
much later is widely
(Kee 1990, 68-9).
Yet another problem with the parable is that it appears to discuss the Jesus movement from a later perspective. The parable assumes that the hearer knows about Christianity as a movement.
The final, and by far the most important, reason this parable is from Mark's hand is that the author of Mark used it as the key literary structure for the first half of his Gospel. Mary Ann Tolbert (1989) has give the richest and most detailed reading of the way the parable functions as an introduction to the first division of the Gospel, which in her interpretation runs from 1:14 to 10:52. In her reading, the key focus in Mark is not on the seed, but on the kind of ground onto which it falls. Thus, the Parable of the Sower introduces the typology for each of the major groups in the story:
In addition, the Parable functions as a synopsis of the next section, a common structure in Hellenistic popular literature, a genre which has much influenced the Gospel of Mark. Because the parable and the context seem to be tightly linked in more than one way, it appears likely that the writer of Mark invented this parable. However, this parable is found without interpretation or Markan redaction in the Gospel of Thomas, and some scholars believe that the author of Mark used Thomas as a source. Given the way the parable is used in the Gospel of Mark, as well as the signals of Markan style, it seems that the writer of Mark invented this parable, and that Thomas has somehow taken it from Mark (see Excursus: Mark and the Gospel of Thomas at the end of Chapter 12).
Burton Mack (1988) points out that the parable has a nice trifold structure:
This pericope contains two separate chiastic structures.
Although it looks like there is no relationship here, the first three brackets all revolve around the sea, the second three brackets, around parables. The writer appears to be making a connection between the Sea of Galilee and parables.
As many scholars have pointed out, the Parable of the Sower draws on images of planting, harvesting, and education, that were common in both Hellenistic culture and in Judaism. Given that, the Parable of the Sower and its explanation are most likely from the hand of Mark. Nothing in this pericope may be used to support historicity.
|21: And he said to them, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not on a stand? 22: For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. 23: If any man has ears to hear, let him hear."||24: And he said to them, "Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25: For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away."|
|21: And he said to them, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under a bushel, or under a bed, and not on a stand?|
|v21: The parable of the lamp
may well be a reference back to 2 Kings
8:19 (as well as several other passages in which the promise to David
presented in lamp terminology, such as 2 Chron
Jesus is perhaps making a subtle self-reference, by claiming that he is the Lamp that God gave to David. The verse occurs in the middle of the Elijah-Elisha Cycle, an important one for creation in Mark. In any case, it was originally a common proverb with parallels in Jewish wisdom literature (Ludemann 2001, p30). Sayings about light in dark places are found in ancient Judaism.
|22: For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.|
Note the miniature parallels (Dart, 2003). The Gospel of Mark is full
of such structures:
|23: If any man has ears to hear, let him hear."|
It may be a creation off of Psalm 135:17, Proverbs 20:12, or
30:21 or other, similar passages, but the most likely candidate is
which occurs in the context of Isaiah's description of the "Kingdom of Righteousness." The motif of ears, hearing, and the Lord's message is a common one in the OT.
|24: And he said to them, "Take heed what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.|
|v24: A common Jewish saying (Ludemann 2001, p30, Chilton 1984, p123). No way to demonstrate historical content.|
|25: For to him who has will more be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away."|
|v25: A common Jewish saying (Ludemann 2001, p30). No way to demonstrate historical content.|
Dewey (2004) writes:
Vernon Robbins (1991) notes:
This short pericope offers a dense grouping of sayings that
are paralleled either in the Old Testament or in Jewish tradition. For
example, v24-5 are both common Jewish sayings for which there is no way
historical content. Because of this relationship, there is no support
for the historicity of these sayings.
|26: And he said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, 27: and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how.||28: The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29: But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."|
|26: And he said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground,|
|v26-29: This parable is not found in either Matthew or Luke and may be a later interpolation (Koester 1990, p276)|
Hoskyns and Davey (1931) observe that this parable appears
be related to Hosea, 2:21-23 and other OT passages:
Jezreel means "God plants." Jeremiah 31:27 is also suggested:
and Psalm 126:5-6:
|28: The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.|
|v28: Wilker (2004, p99) points out that the phrase "full grain in the ear" is unstable in the text tradition and that there must have been an original phrase containing an unusual term, now gone, that spawned all the variants.|
|29: But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."|
|v29: is taken from Joel 3:13 (Davies & Johnson, 1996). The harvest has eschatological overtones in Joel.|
After laying out the typology of the Gospel, dividing its characters into 4 groups, Jesus next utters a group of parables on the theme of the Kingdom of God. It should be noted that not only is sowing a metaphor for instructing, but seed may have a double meaning. It may refer to the message, but in both Jewish and early Christian discourse, it also referred to the resurrection, through analogy. For example, one ancient rabbi noted:
Funk et al (1997) note:
Perhaps this is because the parable describes the resurrection, and not any process of growth or the kingdom of God. In that case, the double meanings encoded here are due to the author's hand, not the voice of Jesus.
The tight relationship of this parable to to the previous parable and similar passages in the OT indicates that there is no support for historicity for this parable.
|30: And he said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31: It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32: yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air||can make nests in its shade." 33: With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34: he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.|
|30: And he said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?|
The language here, which echoes rabbinical sayings (Donahue and
Harrington 2002, p151), is similar to Isaiah 40:18:
The writer of Mark refers to this passage several times in his gospel.
|31: It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;|
Price (2000), observes that it also has Cynic parallels. Seneca
Crossan (1991) writes:
Funk (1997), recording the Jesus Seminar's conclusions, notes:
Note the underlying assumption that colors the Seminar's methodology: whenever there is anything interesting in a parable, it must somehow go back to Jesus. The source-critical tradition depends on some highly questionable assumptions about the intelligence and creativity of the Gospel writers. Dumbing down the creativity of the writer of Mark is essentially a move made to favor an historical apologetic.
|32: yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."|
Compare Ezekiel 17:23
Compare also Dan 4:
|33: With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34: he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.|
|v33-34: Redactional from the writer of Mark, containing his themes of secrecy.|
Note the irony of "he explained everything to his disciples" in
conjunction with the author's presentation of the Twelve as confused,
ignorant, hard-hearted, and anxious for personal aggrandizement.
Numerous exegetes have argued that v34 is an insertion (Sellew 1990).
The "sowing" metaphors recall Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians about being "sown in weakness" and "raised in power."
After laying out the typology of the Gospel, dividing its characters into 4 groups, Jesus next utters a group of parables on the theme of the Kingdom of God.
The chiastic structure for the parable section must be regarded as tentative. The exterior AB - BA brackets are sound, but the center brackets cover areas with many textual variants, and suspected interpolations, including whole parables (for example, 4:26-9). I have divided them into brackets simply to illustrate the divisions. The center, however, seems to work nicely, suggesting that 4:26-9 has been reworked rather than inserted.
Many exegetes argue that these parables go back the historical Jesus. Sellew (1990) notes that parabolic material with "sowing" as a metaphor is found in several different ancient texts, and the Parable of Sower is known from the Gospel of Thomas as well as the Dialogues of Justin Martyr. Sellew also notes that it is found in 1 Clement, and perhaps Hermas as well. The first three retain the pattern of the seed falling on three unproductive soils, while 1 Clement gives an abbreviated form of the Parable of the Sower. Much scholarly attention has been focused on identifying "Markan" expansions of the original material, although no reliable metholodogy exists for doing that. Sellew (1990), discussing one of the sayings, gives a good example of how a tradition of transmission for such sayings can be constructed out of reasonable-sounding speculation:
Needless to say, there is no evidence for such a pattern of transmission. Sellew's account is entirely speculative and imaginative. Rather, the proven habits of the writer of Mark in developing material out of the Old Testament and Hellenistic thought most likely account entirely for the presence of the parables in this section.
The tight relationship of this parable to the previous parable and similar passages in the OT, as well as the presence of themes from both the OT, Pauline letters, and Hellenistic tradition, indicates that there is no support for historicity for this pericope.
|35: On that day, when evening had
said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." 36: And leaving the
crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other
were with him. 37: And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves
beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38: But he was in the stern,
||on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care if we perish?" 39: And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40: He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?" 41: And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"|
|35: On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side."36: And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.|
|v35-36: is Markan redaction, appearing to connect to previous events, and contains Markan motifs of lakes, crowds, and boats.|
|37: And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.|
|v37: Jonah 1.4 "There arose a great storm on the sea."|
|38: But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care if we perish?"|
|v38: Jonah 1.5. Jesus, like Jonah, sleeps. The Greek word for "rebukes" mimics the Greek of the Septaugint Psalm 105:9 (107 in modern bibles), showing a clear affinity. The writer's hand is also evident in the disciple's rude remark to Jesus; "Hey, don't you care if we die?" showing how quickly they lost their faith and became cross with Jesus.|
|v38: Tolbert (1989) observes that in Mark the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear.|
|v38: If they do not have faith that Jesus can still the storm, why did they wake him? Camery-Hoggat (1992, p131) argues, based on Synoptic parallels, that the disciples awakened him because they wanted him to do something mundane, like help bail out the boat.|
|39: And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.|
|v39: Supernatural and therefore not historical. Ludemann is among several exegetes who argue that this is actually a form of exorcism, where the wind is implied to be driven by demons (2001, p33).|
|40: He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?"|
|v40: Markan redaction, containing motif of disciples' inability to understand. Another common Markan theme is that of faith.|
|41: And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"|
Markan redaction. The witnesses are filled with awe.
Note that the disciples do not know who Jesus is, although the demons
have identified him several times.
This miracle is entirely based on source creation and is not
Randel Helms points out that this miracle is based on the story of Jonah, which in turn is based on Psalm 107: 25-30, which has many close parallels with it (1988, p78). Dennis MacDonald has argued in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark that this passage is originally based on Odyesseus' experience with the bag of winds, with which it has several parallels . Whatever its origin, it is clearly not historical. Hoskyns and Davey (1931) also note parallels in the ancient Jewish literature, writing:
As they note of this miracle and the following one of the Gerasene Demoniac:
The chiastic structure of this pericope is quite straightforward and the pericopes clear.
Due to the presence of the supernatural, the rich array of motifs common to the writer of Mark, such as the disciples' inability to understand Jesus, boats, the sea, and crowds, and the presence of numerous allusions and links to the OT, there is no support for historicity in this pericope.
the Miracles Historical?
which the writer cites later in the Gospel, as well as Isaiah
have noted, many of Jesus' miracles appear to be drawn from the
cycle in the Old Testament. Several other miracles appear to parallel
Numbers 5. "Narratives about Jesus performing miracles
writes Helms (1988, p62), "given first-century Christianity's
of the Old Testament." Helms points out that Matthew 11:2-5 cites these
passages, as does the writer of Mark later on.
Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
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