Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
| 1: In those days, when
again a great
crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his
to him, and said to them, 2: "I have compassion on the crowd, because
have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat; 3: and if I
send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way; and
of them have come a long way." 4: And his disciples answered him, "How
can one feed these men with bread here in the desert?" 5: And he asked
them, "How many loaves have you?" They said, "Seven." 6: And he
the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and
having given thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set
before the people; and they set them before the
||crowd. 7: And they had a few small fish; and having blessed them, he commanded that these also should be set before them. 8: And they ate, and were satisfied; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9: And there were about four thousand people. 10: And he sent them away; and immediately he got into the boat with his disciples, and went to the district of Dalmanu'tha. 11: The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. 12: And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation." 13: And he left them, and getting into the boat again he departed to the other side.|
|8: And they ate, and were satisfied; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.|
|v8: Jan Sammer suggested on the XTALK list in March of 2003 that no one was fed in this miracle; the broken pieces were collected represented all the bread created, and that the crowd was fed on the true doctrine of Jesus, as opposed to the false doctrine of the Pharisees (next pericope).|
|10: And he sent them away; and immediately he got into the boat with his disciples, and went to the district of Dalmanu'tha.|
|v10: Dalmanutha. No such district is mentioned in any ancient source, including the OT. Exegetes have proposed numerous solutions to this problem. The problem is complicated by the fact that some manuscripts read "mountains" instead of "region." This appears to be either an invention or misunderstanding of the author of Mark, and thus, another indicator of unhistoricity. Exegetes are not even certain on which side of the Sea of Galilee the location lies.|
|11: The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him.|
|v11-13: There seems to be a clear contradiction between the miracles earlier in Mark, the Resurrection, and the statement in v12.|
|12: And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation."|
|v12: The reconstructed Greek is actually nonsensical. It reads "if a sign will be given to this generation" and is probably part of an oath formula (Donahue and Harrington 2002, p248).|
Note that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:22-23:
Draper (1993) argues that the "sign" is not a miracle, but a banner,
totem, or token of the Davidic messiah, associated in various ancient
Jewish texts and the Old Testament with a holy war.
Two chiastic structures make up this pericope. The structure of the first one is tricky but appears to be Markan, now that I have unravelled it. However, the opening A bracket is wordy and very unMarkan. In most of the pericopes where there is a serious action, the writer opens and closes with concrete location changes. Here the redactor substituted Jesus explaining a miracle to his disciples before he actually did it, quite unusual in Mark. For example, in Mark 5 he raises the dead girl but does not explain to his disciples that he will attempt such an act. Additionally, the location is not specified, and the phrase "in those days" is used, which seems to put some distance between the writer and the time of the action, something that the writer of Mark does not normally do either. In short, while the rest of the structure is Markan, the A bracket has been extensively tampered with.
The second structure seems quite normal for Mark, a typical ABBA chiasm with a saying in the center.
Also taken from the Elijah-Elisha Cycle (see discussion on
and unhistorical. Some exegetes see 8:12 as evidence of later
interpolation as it
appears to contradict
the miracle tradition in the Gospel, although its source seems to be
Paul, and thus, in accord with the normal practices of the writer of
Mark. There is no support for historicity anywhere in this pericope.
|14: Now they had forgotten to bring bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15: And he cautioned them, saying, "Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." 16: And they discussed it with one another, saying, "We have no bread." 17: And being aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18: Having eyes do you not||see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19: When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" They said to him, "Twelve." 20: "And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" And they said to him, "Seven." 21: And he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?"|
|15: And he cautioned them, saying, "Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod."|
a reference to spies of Herod and the Pharisees? The "Herodians" are
mentioned in Mark
8:15, and Mark
12:13. Mark 3 and 12 appear to be parallel sets of 1 parable and 5
conflict stories, while Mark 8 is the center of the Gospel of Mark.
|v15: Camery-Hoggat (1992, p153) points out that in the OT (Exodus 12:18, for example), food laws specify that ritually prepared food may not contain leaven.|
note the ongoing importance of the "bread" motif here.
Paul warns in 1 Cor 5:8
|16: And they discussed it with one another, saying, "We have no bread."|
|v16-17: the disciples are so clueless that they have seen this miracle twice, but still do not understand.|
|17: And being aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18: Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?|
|v17-18: Beavis (1989, p111-115) discusses the similarities between this and the equally enigmatic verses of Mark 4:11-12, including the allusion here to the same passage, Isa 6:10.|
Myers (1988, p225), argues that the
sequence of heart, eyes, and ears points to Deuteronomy 29:2-4:
The thematic link should also be evident. Just as Moses is exasperated that the Hebrews do not believe in YHWH even though he brought them out of Egypt by his miraculous power, so Jesus is exasperated at the disciples for their unbelief desipte the constant presence of miracles and other evidences of Jesus' status.
perhaps a reference to 1 Cor 2:9 (which cites Isaiah 64:4):
However, the context does not fit very well.
|18: Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?|
A cite of Jer 5:21:
|19: When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" They said to him, "Twelve."|
the sequence of numbers here, 5, 12, and 7, offers much
for speculative interpretation. For example, 5 might stand for the five
books of Moses, while 12 might be related to the disciples or perhaps
tribes of Israel, and 7 could be a reference to the gentiles, or
perhaps the 7 deacons mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, or the
7 Churches in Asia. Another possibility is the seven great angels who
appear in both the Book of Tobit and 1 Enoch.
Malbon (1993) points out that this passage actually forms a
tryptich of three events that take place on the sea, the Stilling of
the Storm, a Water Walk, and a Conversation.
A chiasm can be constructed, but it makes no sense at all,
merely an artistic arrangement of the sentences. The less said about
it, the better. The writer of Mark never had a hand in this one.
The pericope is invention based on fictional events in Mark 6
in this chapter. It is entirely unhistorical, being derived from
supernatural events. There is wide disagreement on how to
this parable, which Donahue and Harrington (2002, p253-54) describe as
"enigmatic." For historical purposes, nothing in this pericope supports
|22: And they came to Beth-sa'ida.
people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him. 23: And
he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and
when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him,
"Do you see
||anything?" 24: And he looked up and said, "I see men; but they look like trees, walking." 25: Then again he laid his hands upon his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and saw everything clearly. 26: And he sent him away to his home, saying, "Do not even enter the village."|
|22: And they came to Beth-sa'ida. And some people brought to him a blind man, and begged him to touch him.|
|v22: Meier (1994, p694) argues that this story must have a historical core due to, among other things, the fact that the motif of faith is missing from the story. However, the statement "and begged him to touch him" would seem to contradict that claim.|
|23: And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the village; and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands upon him, he asked him, "Do you see anything?"|
|v23: spittle was defiling in Judaism. See Lev 15:8 and Num 12:14. As Kee points out (1989): "...blind persons were not permitted to approach the house of Yahweh (Lev 21:18, 2 Sam 5:8). Yet the prophets had announced that in the day of redemption, the blind would come into the renewed land..."(p137).|
|v23: There is no other parallel in this gospel to Jesus asking the recipient of his power whether it has been effective.|
|v23: another of the geographical strangenesses in Mark, as Bethsaida was upgraded to a polis (city) by Herod the Great, long before Jesus' time.|
Book of Tobit also talks about a magic cure for blindness:
|26: And he sent him away to his home, saying, "Do not even enter the village."|
|v26: manuscripts differ on the final sentence, though the basic idea remains the same.|
This account shares many similarities with the healing of the
man in Mark 7:31-7. Not only is spitting and touching common to both,
opening and closing are similar. Both make a common reference to Isaiah
35:5-6 (Donahue and Harrington 2002, p258). The vocabulary is also
(Meier 1994, p691). The overall context of healing and reversal of
(ill) fortune is associated with the kingdom of justice in many ancient
Near Eastern traditions (Thompson, 2005).
A number of apologetic magazines have claimed that this is a proven miracle, based on v24, which they argue reflects a real experience of recovered sight. One version of this can be found in "Modern sciences helps us understand a puzzling miracle" (Russell Grigg, Creation 21(4):54-55). Unfortunately this is a classic example of mistaking detail for evidence of historicity. Case studies of agnosics show that there is no way that newly-recovered sight could express itself as men looking like trees walking, unless one wants to postulate a second miracle, in which the man's visual processing system was also completely updated (that would invalidate the argument that the 'men like trees walking' is a naturalistic sign of historicity). The pericope does not in fact state that the blind man was blind from birth, and Donahue and Harrington (2002, p256) point out that the fact that he could tell the difference between humans and trees indicates that he was not. The ancients could heal certain types of blindness, and treat glaucomas by surgery, and were familiar with the idea of recovered sight. The presence of this detail is a signal that, contrary to the thinking of many, a high level of detail does not indicate historicity.
The story has been redacted and may even be an addition to the
text; there is a high concentration of unique vocabulary in the central
three verses (Meier, p741-2). Taylor (1996, p368-9) and Beavis (1989,
p123) are among many who have argued that
is a doublet of the earlier healing of the deaf-mute in 7:31-37. Not
only is the
of the two stories similar, but both stories take place in great
spittle is used, hands are laid on, the cure takes place in stages, and
the healed person is told to keep it a secret. Additionally, this
closely parallels the next pericope as well. Beavis (1989) lays out the
structural similarities between this pericope and the next one:
I have constructed a tenative chiasm for this pericope. The center is arguably Markan.
This pericope contains signs of Markan redaction ("Do not even
the village"), magical procedures common in Mediterranean magical
(Aune, cited in Crossan 1991, p325, see also Morton Smith).
the healing of the blind man serves to set off the next pericope, in
the disciples' "blind" eyes are opened to the real identity of Jesus as
the Messiah. An interesting note is that Jesus is never mentioned in
Denis Nineham (1963) identified a parallel in an inscription
to the Greek healing god Asclepios at Epidaurus, which says that after
a certain Alcetas of Halice was cured of blindness, the first thing he
saw were trees. There is no way to demonstrate that the writer of Mark
was aware of this inscription.
The Bethsaida section (see notes to Mark
6:45) ends here. See the Excursus
on Mark without Bethsaida for further information. Paul
proposed set of 5 parallel miracle stories also terminates here. A
of exegetes have noted the constructed nature of this passages. Not
are there five parallel miracles, but one set occurs on Jewish soil and
the other on Gentile. F. F. Bruce (1943) observes:
Due to the presence of the supernatural, literary structures
on several levels, and conventional magical formulae, nothing in this
pericope supports historicity.
|27: And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesare'a Philip'pi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" 28: And they told him, "John the Baptist; and others say, Eli'jah; and others one of the prophets." 29: And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ." 30: And he charged them to tell no one about him.||31: And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32: And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. 33: But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men."|
|27: And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesare'a Philip'pi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?"|
|v27-30: Robert Price (2000, p109) has argued that Mark has set the discussion of 8:27-30 here in Caesarea Philippi in order to "blast what he deemed inadequate local Christologies of the region."|
|v27: the verse speaks of the "villages" of Caesarea Philippi, but Caesarea Philippi is a single city.|
|29: And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ."|
|v29: this is the first time in the gospel a human being recognizes Jesus as the Christ.|
|30: And he charged them to tell no one about him.|
|v30: this is the only place in the whole Gospel where the title "Messiah" is joined to an injunction to silence.|
|31: And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.|
"After three days..." Koester (1990, p280) points out that, strictly
speaking, this contradicts the writer's own dating, which has Jesus
rising not after three days, but on the morning of the third day.
Koester (2004) points out that Jesus switches titles at this point: it
is not the Messiah who will die, but the Son of Man.
|32: And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. 33: But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men."|
(1988, p244) calls attention to the dialectical nature of the exchange
between Peter and Jesus:
Note how this comes back to Mark 4:14-5 and the typologies of the Parable of the Sower.
Koester (2004) argues that Peter is depicted as rejecting Jesus'
statement that he will suffer and die not because he has strong
feelings for Jesus, but because he knows that the Messiah isn't
supposed to suffer and die.
|v33: In some of the rabbinical writings (Gen. Rabbah 56), Satan rebukes Abraham in an attempt to convince him not to execute Isaac.|
According to most exegetes, structurally, the Gospel makes a transition to a new part with this pericope. Hence, in most exegetical schemes, this is one of most important pericopes in the Gospel.
Davies and Johnson (1996) write:
By the embarrassment criterion one can see that Jesus' insult
should be historical. But Davies and Johnson (1996) point out:
Mary Tolbert's (1989) analysis of the Parable of Sower
explains why Jesus condemns Peter as Satan. Returning to Mark
4:1-20, where Satan is mentioned for the only other time in the
Gospel of Mark:
By opposing the plan of God, Peter has
made himself as one who becomes the victim of Satan's attempt to take
away the word that has just been sown in them.
Paul Danove (2003) discusses how the Greek here reveals the way in which the writer of Mark has constructed this passage:
Looking at the Gospel as a whole, 8:27-33 parallels the trial
before the Sanhedrin in important ways.
Smith (1999) points out how this pericope constitutes a
recognition scene, a type scene from Greek drama.
An important difference, observes Smith, is that while in
Greek tragedy it is the hero who accidently discovers his own identity,
in Mark it is Jesus himself who initiates the recognition scene by
asking the disciples who he is.
Weeden (1971) observes that in the entire Gospel prior to this
moment, the disciples have no idea who Jesus is and exhibit a complete
inability to understand Jesus. Suddenly they have a moment of insight,
fleeting, as it becomes apparent that the disciples and Jesus have a
totally different idea of what messiahship might mean. Weeden also
notes that until this moment there has been no clue that the Messiah is
supposed to suffer and die. Mark 3:6 warns of the plot against Jesus
only. It contains nothing about his messianic role.
The presence of literary structures, redactive elements, and
supernatural prophecy, all indicate that there is no support for
historicity from this pericope.
|34: And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35: For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.||36: For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? 37: For what can a man give in return for his life? 38: For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."|
|34: And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.|
this is the first mention of the "Cross" in the Gospel.
|v34: Epictetus the Cynic philosopher (~50-125. quoted in the second century): "If you want to be crucified, just wait. The cross will come. If it seems reasonable to comply, and the circumstances are right, then it's to be carried through, and your integrity maintained." (cited in Price 2000, p160).|
David Seeley (1991), writing on the relationship between Cynic
philosophy and Jesus' death, states:
Eric Thurman (2002) further elaborates on this theme of the honor of
the slave sacrificed, noting the place of the gladiator in the
John D. Crossan (2002) notes a tradition of noble death in Jewish
literature, which later becomes atoning death.
Jesus' injunction to deny oneself recalls the demand in Lev 16:29 to
deny oneself on the Day of Atonement (Fletcher-Louis 1997).
Dewey (2004b) points out the chiasm here:
Funk et al (1997) explain that the Jesus Seminar rejected this as an
authentic saying of Jesus because it shows a later Christian
understanding of the cross, and may reflect a later period when the
community was threatened by persecution.
|35: For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.|
|v35: the text tradition is unstable here; some manuscripts omit "my sake," though Matt and Luke both have it. However, neither has "the gospel" (Donahue and Harrington 2002, p263).|
|v35-37: Similar sentiments were commonplace in the ancient world. Epictetus again: "Socrates cannot be preserved by an act that is shameful...It is dying that preserves him, not fleeing." (cited in Price 2000, p160).|
|38: For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."|
|v38: Segal (1991) speaks for many when he argues that the apocalyptic image of the Son of Man "could not have been invented as a pious wish by the later Church, for they talk about an apocalyptic end which never happened, and they rely on the imagery of an apocalyptic past" (p210). Once again we encounter the same back projection of the Church into earlier history. Mark was not written by the Church but by the author of Mark. The second reason is utterly illogical, as references to the OT are common in Mark and the phrase "Son of Man" is found not only there, but also in other Jewish writings.|
also echo Deut 32:5:
I have constructed a chiasm for this pericope:
Note that it contains Mark 9:1-2. Mark is wrongly pericoped; let the discussion over 9:1 end here. The B bracket here is especially interesting. If you read Mark 9:1 against its opposite, you get another take on the identity of the "some" standing there who will not taste of death. The center is classic Markan style, where a pithy comment recapitulates or remarks on a prolix one. The long speech in the C bracket is itself a chiasm, as is so often the case in the sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:
Note too that each of the sayings is a chiasm as well, a brilliant work of art. I've already noted Dewey's comments above on the verse in the opening bracket.
This pericope is filled with supernatural prophecy and Hellenistic/Cycnic philosophical concepts. There is nothing in it that supports historicity.
|Excursus: What is the Historical Yield of the
Gospel of Mark?
In my opinion that short answer is: precious little. The events of Jesus' life in Mark are most likely drawn from the Old Testament, Jewish writings, popular philosophies of the Roman empire, and similar sources. Here is a quick assessment of the historical events in the life of Jesus, with links to the longer explanations. The judgments are entirely my own based on the information and assessments in the Commentary above; as with all NT historical judgments, take with large grain of NaCl.
Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
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|Chapter 3||Chapter 11||Topical Index|
|Chapter 4||Chapter 12|
|Chapter 5||Chapter 13||References
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