Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
|1: And he said to them, "Truly, I
you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they
see that the kingdom of God has come with power."
2: And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them, 3: and his garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them. 4: And there appeared to them Eli'jah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus. 5: And Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli'jah." 6: For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid.
|7: And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is my beloved Son; listen to him." 8: And suddenly looking around they no longer saw any one with them but Jesus only. 9: And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead. 10: So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. 11: And they asked him, "Why do the scribes say that first Eli'jah must come?" 12: And he said to them, "Eli'jah does come first to restore all things; and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13: But I tell you that Eli'jah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him."|
|1: And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power."|
|v1: Price argues (2003) that this verse indicates a much later period when most of the disciples had died. While that is reasonable, there is no reason that Jesus could not have uttered this during his own life time.|
chiastic structure of the previous pericope indicates that Mark 9:1
does not belong here, but to the previous pericope. Perrin (1999) noted
its affinities to Mk 8:30 and 8:38. He argues that Mark produced this
saying to serve its current function in the pericope that runs from
Hatina (2005) argues that the 9:1 is not a promise to followers but a
threat against those who reject Jesus:
|2: And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them,|
"After six days?" From what? The writer doesn't tell us. Has something
McNeile (1927) sees a close relationship with Exodus 24:13-18:
|4: And there appeared to them Eli'jah with Moses; and they were talking to Jesus.|
Elijah plays an important role in Mark's gospel. Heil
way to interpret this is to observe that Moses and Elijah represent Law
and Prophecy, respectively.
should also be pointed out that the disciples have no way to recognize
Elijah or Moses. This comment is clearly aimed at the reader/hearer of
|5: And Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli'jah." 6: For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid.|
Timothy Wiarda (1999) has argued that the writer of Mark here shows
Peter as an individual, explaining from the inside what his feelings
|9: And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead.|
|v9: As Thomas Sheehan (1986, p281) observes, in Mark Jesus never tells his disciples that he is the Christ, and when God announces the fact to Peter, James, and John during the heavenly vision in v9, Jesus enjoins them to silence, as he did in Mark 8.|
|10: So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.|
|v10: The RSV has smoothed over an embarrassing passage here, where the Greek clearly indicates that the disciples are pictured arguing amongst themselves over what Jesus' words might mean. Tolbert (1989, p207), points out that once again the writer is poking fun at the disciples. The disciples question each other, instead of Jesus. Further, the absurdity is heightened as Peter, James, and John have already seen Jairus' daughter rising from the dead, and so have some idea of what Jesus might mean. In other words, the reason for the 3 disciples accompanying Jesus to see the daughter raised from the dead has now become apparent. It is so that, once again, the writer can skewer them for being clueless. Tolbert drives this home by pointing out that Peter, James, and John have even witnessed Moses and Elijah raised, and still haven't the foggiest notion of what Jesus might mean. The author's portrayal of the disciples' stupidity is merciless.|
|11: And they asked him, "Why do the scribes say that first Eli'jah must come?" 12: And he said to them, "Eli'jah does come first to restore all things; and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?|
Romans 11:2-3 has a very similar passage:
This scene is both
and a riff on the OT based on the ascension of
Another possible origin is in Josephus' description of Moses'
to heaven in Antiquities of the Jews, where Moses goes to the
of Abarim and is taken up to heaven in the presence of the seventy
of Israel, Eleazar and Joshua (Joshua is the Hebrew name represented by
Crispin Fletcher-Louis (1997) has pointed out that the
Transfiguration may also represent Jesus' ascension as High Priest, a
position connected to the Son of Man imagery. The "booths" would then
suggest New Years holiday, three separate holidays, among which was the
Day of Atonement, on which one denies oneself (Mark 8:34).
This pericope consists of parts of three chiasms. The first one extends into Mark 9:1-2, the second two cover the rest of the periocope.
Here is the second chiasm:
It contains the usual Markan redactive themes, such as the messianic secret (v9) and the cluelessness of the disciples. Some exegetes reconstruct this as originally a story of a post-Easter appearance (Crossan 1991, p396). Regardless of origin, it is clearly entirely supernatural and therefore cannot support historicity.
|14: And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd about them, and scribes arguing with them. 15: And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed, and ran up to him and greeted him. 16: And he asked them, "What are you discussing with them?" 17: And one of the crowd answered him, "Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; 18: and wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able." 19: And he answered them, "O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me." 20: And they brought the boy to him; and when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21: And Jesus asked his father, "How long has he had this?" And he said, "From childhood.||22: And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us." 23: And Jesus said to him, "If you can! All things are possible to him who believes." 24: Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!" 25: And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, "You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again." 26: And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse; so that most of them said, "He is dead." 27: But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28: And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?" 29: And he said to them, "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer."|
|14: And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd about them, and scribes arguing with them.|
|v14: the scribes disappear immediately.|
|17: And one of the crowd answered him, "Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit; 18: and wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able."|
|v17: Pesch (1977) pointed out that this passage does not contain the typical motifs of an exorcism in antiquity, instancing the failure of the disciples to cure the boy shown in v17. However, in the healing of the Shunnamite woman's son (2 Kings 4) Elisha's disciple Gehazi fails to heal the boy.|
|19: And he answered them, "O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.|
yet another of the endless examples in Mark of disciples who
are clueless. In this case, Mark piles on a further polemical attack:
disciples cannot do miracles either. The verse echoes Deut 32:5
and Harrington 2002, p279):
This is the second possible pointer to Deut 32:5 in the gospel (see also Mark 8:38). Going back to Deut 32, we find one of only two references to demons in the OT. The other is in Psalm 106, which refers to the events of Deut 32. In other words, the writer of Mark appears to have created a pointer to the source of the demons that appear in his Gospel.
21: And Jesus asked his father, "How long has he had this?" And he said, "From childhood. 22: And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us."
|v21-22: The writer probably has Jesus ask this in order to supply the reader with this piece of information.|
|29: And he said to them, "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer."|
|v29: many manuscripts add "and fasting" but this is generally seen as a spurious addition of a later era when fasting became popular.|
|v29: As Tolbert (1989, p188-9), if the demon can only be driven out prayer, and the disciples cannot drive it out, the logical conclusion is that the disciples do not pray. Tolbert points out that aside from customary blessings of food and children, Jesus makes a point of going off to pray by himself on several occasions during the gospel.|
Koester (1990, p280; 2000, p173) also
point out that
text has probably been heavily and clumsily redacted, for large
of v25-29 are missing from the other two Synoptics. Both Matt and Luke
have a simple exorcism story here. Additionally, "were
greatly amazed" in v15 appears to have been added as well. v14
is without the definite article the writer of Mark invariably gives it.
Arguments have been made for insertions of v22-23, v21-24, and v28-29,
or some combination, on the grounds that they help explain failures in
exorcism in the later Church. Koester also points out that the
exorcism, a formula, is actually for a deaf-and-dumb child, not an
The chiastic structure of this pericope is beautifully balanced.
The A brackets once again have a shift of location. The B brackets have an amazed crowd paired with a raised boy. The D brackets pair Jesus' ability to rebuke the spirit with the disciples' inability. The E brackets are comments on the theme of faithlessness.
The strong presence of the supernatural and typical Markan themes, as well as conventional miracle formulae, indicates that there is no support for historicity in this pericope.
|30: They went on from there and
Galilee. And he would not have any one know it; 31: for he was teaching
his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of man will be delivered into
hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after
days he will rise." 32: But they did not understand the saying, and
were afraid to ask him. 33: And they came to Caper'na-um; and when he
in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the
||way?" 34: But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. 35: And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, "If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." 36: And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."|
|30: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he would not have any one know it; 31: for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise." 32: But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him.|
are Markan redaction. Some exegetes have seen Isaiah 53 (LXX)
in v31 "the hands of men." Others see Daniel 7:25 and 12:2. Daniel 7:25
Note that early Christians often referred to themselves as "the Saints" or "the Elect." Daniel 12:1-2, referring to the resurrection of the Just, says:
Note again the simple chiastic structure that underlies so many of the
verses of Mark.
|33: And they came to Caper'na-um; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the way?"|
|v33: supplies a hint that Jesus had a house in Capernaum, although it may also be Peter's house (1:29)|
|v33: "the way." The Way is a common motif in Mark.|
|v33-5a: also Markan redaction. v35b "If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all" may come from a source, according to some exegetes.|
|34: But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest.|
Once again, the writer depicts the disciples as self-aggrandizing,
callous, and ignorant, for they react to Jesus' prediction of his
coming death by discussing amongst themselves which one is the
|36: And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."|
Note again that Jesus refers to himself as sent, apparently by God, a
position consistent with a Christology of Adoptionism.
Thompson (2005) relates a Samaritan tale that brings together the
elemnts of children and the image of God. Alexander the Great visited
Shechem and demanded that the Samaritans place an image of him atop
their holy mountain, a great sacrilege. The image had to be there by
the time of his return from Egypt. The Samaritans were stumped. How to
avoid either committing blasphemy or getting killed by Alexander? When
Alexander returned, there was no image of himself on top of the holy
mountain, and he was beside himself. The high priest of the Samaritans
patiently explained that the Samaritans did not build lifeless statues
like lesser nations, but made images of Alexander that could move and
talk. He assembled all the children of Samaria and as each one passed
by Alexander in review, asked him his name. The child proudly replied
"Alexander!" The king was delighted and everyone lived happily ever
Weeden (1971) compares this passage to the heretics of 2 Corinthians,
who also want to know who is the greatest of all. He goes on to note
that the next pericope also can be seen as a commentary on 2
Corinthians, for the dispute is over how the members of the community
relate to each other, a question that Jesus resolves with an ethic of
This is Jesus' second passion prediction. Note the parallel with the third passion prediction in Mark 10:
In addition to the doublet, the pericope is also a set of chiasms.
Jesus answers the disciples' implicit question Who is the greatest? with a typical chreia response: If you want to be great, you first must serve. The chreia structure, the inherently supernatural prediction, and the location of Jesus' sayings in the OT indicate that there is no support for historicity in this pericope.
|38: John said to him, "Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us." 39: But Jesus said, "Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me.||40: For he that is not against us is for us. 41: For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.|
|38: John said to him, "Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us."|
Probably taken from Numbers 11:26-29 (Price 2003, p197,
1993, p511, Donahue and Harrington 2002, p286, Myers 1988, p261):
Note that the name "Jesus" is the Greek form of "Joshua." Looking at it intertextually, Moses' remark illuminates Jesus': "If only all of God's followers were prophets!" Myers (1988, p262) notes the irony: Peter, who has done miracles in Jesus' name, will deny Jesus later.
|v38: John's solo role is unique in this gospel.|
|v38: The disciples once again fail to understand the meaning of the Kingdom of God.|
|40: For he that is not against us is for us.|
|v40: paralled in traditions outside the Gospels, for example, in Cicero Speeches 41: "For us, all are opponents except for those who are with us; for Caesar, all are his own in so far as they are not against him." This does not mean that the author of Mark read Cicero, but rather that the idea might suggest itself in many situations independently, and need not go back to a source or to Jesus.|
|41: For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.|
|v41: A clear anachronism. "Christians" as a term for the followers of Christ does not show up until late in the first century. Paul never refers to "Christians" when describing his Church. Instead, he calls it the "Church of God" and its people "saints" or "the Elect" (Ellegard 1999, p20,27).|
The close links to the OT, as well as the clear anachronism,
indicate that there is no support for historicity in this pericope.
|42: "Whoever causes one of these
who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great
were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43: And if
hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life
maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45:
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to
enter life lame than
||with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47: And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48: where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. 49: For every one will be salted with fire. 50: Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."|
|42: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.|
|v42: "to sin." The Greek verb skandalise (literally closer to to offend rather than to sin) is used here, echoing Paul in several places in 1 Corinthians, including the famous passage in 1:23, as well as 8:13. The appendix to McCracken (1994) lists this word and its appearances in the NT, including 8 times in Mark (4:17, 6:3, 9:42, 9:43, 9:45, 9:47, 14:27, and 14:29). The verb means both "to stumble" (fall away from the right) and "to offend." In the Septaugint translation of the OT, it is used to translate the Hebrew word for "snare."|
|44 & 46...... [spurious].....|
|v44, v46: considered interpolations by the majority of scholars. There are simply sayings without context, and unhistorical. Chilton (1984) has argued that they should be reinstated, since they accord with an Aramaic targum.|
|43: And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45: And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47: And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell,|
|v43-47: recalls Paul's construction in 1 Cor 12 as a community with hands, eye, and feet.|
|48: where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.|
|v48: quotation of Isaiah 66:24|
|50: Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."|
Fledderman (1981, p73) observes that in the OT "salt" is a symbol of
the covenant. Leviticus 2:13 says:
Similarly, Numbers 18:19 (paralleled in 2 Chron 13:5) offers:
Ludemann (2001, p66) and Donahue and Harrington (2002, p287) see the reference to body parts being cut out as actually a reference to the community and individuals in it who do not hew to community norms: they should be cut off. Note that self-mutiliation is forbidden in Judaism (Deut 14:1, for example). That may in turn link back to Paul's crudely sarcastic remark about "cutting off' certain parts of his opponents. The verb for "cutting off" is the same in both cases.
Funk et al (1997) note that the Jesus Seminar sees Mk 9:42 as a proverb that had become Christianized.
The links to the OT, and probably to 1 Corinthians as well, indicate that there is no support for historicity in this pericope.
|Excursus: Was Mark meant to be Performed?
For more than a century scholars have noticed how the structuring of the Passion Narrative (arrest, trial, and death of Jesus) resembles a play. Livio Stecchini and Jan Sammer have even proposed a reconstruction of the Passion Narrative as Nazarenus: Seneca's Lost Play. While there is no evidence to link the Passion to Seneca, their reconstruction does offer many possibilities for thinking about how Mark is constructed.
In her study of Mark 4:11-12, Mary Ann Beavis (1989, p128-9) proposed that the Gospel of Mark is patterned after a model of Greek tragedy that became standardized in Hellenistic times. This five act pattern is clear in the tragedies of Seneca, but may also be found in the most complete surviving Hellenistic tragedy, the Exagoge of Exekiel. Her reconstruction of Mark follows the basic program of prologue, episode, and chorus, laid out by Aristotle in his Poetics. In her reconstruction, the writer of Mark varied this model by substituting teaching sections for the chorus. John Dart (2003, p158-171), also reconstructs Mark as a five act presentation with a prologue and a conclusion.
John the Baptist would then play the role of the actor in a Greek play whose job it is to set up the scene and explain some of the plot and details. Similarly Tolbert's interpretation of the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Tenants argues that they function as synopses of the action and characters to help the audience understand the performance. Vernon Robbins (1991) has also focused on the Gospel as oral performance. Whitney Shiner (2003) points to a tell-tale passage in Paul in which he describes the "public exhibition" of the Gospel:
Joanna Dewey (2004, p497-8) writes:
Mark Goodacre (2004b) has suggested that the timing of the Passion Narrative indicates that the audience was meant to experience or perform it. He observes:
There is no reason that this suggestion should not be applied throughout the Gospel. The fivefold structure of many Markan features -- two sets of five conflict stories, two sets of fivefold miracle stories, a fivefold identification of Jesus in Mark 15, and so on, may relate to the fivefold structure of Attic drama. Viewing Mark as a performed liturgy may help us think about why the author chose to present certain stories in certain ways. Stephen Smith (1999), however, points out that five-fold models may be too rigid, and the five-act pattern one that was a convention which was often ignored or altered in antiquity. He proposes a seven-fold structure for Mark.
One of the writer's signature features is the "intercalation" in which one story is sandwiched inside another. Such intercalations include:
One interesting aspect of these intercalations is that they all involve a change of either state or location that demands time for the actors to re-arrange something or someone. In Mk 2:1-12 the paralytic comes in, there is an argument, and then he stands up, healed. Similarly, in Mk 3:20-35 Jesus' family heads out to look for Jesus. He's talking, then next they find him. The change of scene represents the passage of time while they search. In the healing of Jairus' daughter, the healing of the bleeding woman gives the set crew time to change the set from the place beside the sea where the crowd listens to Jesus, and Jairus meets him and informs him of the daughter, to the scene of Jairus' house. In Mk 6:7-31 Jesus sends out disciples. As time passes, we get the long telling of Herod's murdur of John the Baptist. Now that time has passed, the disciples can return with the results. In Mk 11:12-25 the set crew needs time to clear out the living fig tree and substitute a dead one.
Mk 14:1-11 sandwiches Jesus' annointing between plans to have him killed. First the writer presents the authorities' goal of finding a way to do away with Jesus. Next, Judas' betrayal occurs. The scene could have started out with Judas' betrayal, but that still would have demanded an intercalation, because Judas is a disciple and must be with Jesus. Thus, the writer would have had to intercalate Judas' leaving and rejoining, as well as a plausible story. Here too the impetus comes from the Jewish leadership rather than from Judas, and Judas need only leave once instead of leave and return. Finally, the intercalated denial of Peter Mk 14:53-72 requires in and out movement of individuals. People come in and accuse Peter, while Peter changes location to move out to the gateway. Intercalations make sense as a simple way of solving the problem of location and set changes.
Another problem solved by viewing Mark as something to be performed is the lack of lines relating to movements of individuals. For example, the writer does not tell us exactly how Jesus was crucified. If the Gospel was meant to be performed, the audience would have that problem solved visually. Similarly, the writer never narrates Judas sneaking off in Mk 14:1-11 to betray Jesus. Nor does he provide any lines relating to Judas leaving during the Last Supper, though Judas had to have left, because he shows up at Gethsemane at the head of a mob to arrest Jesus, and no one on Jesus' side expresses any surprise to see Judas there. In a performance the audience would be able to see Judas leave, and perhaps offstage, assemble a mob to arrest Jesus. In Mark 3:13 Jesus calls "those he desired" but from where? The audience, seeing a group of actors, would see some thread their way out of the group. or perhaps out of the audience itself. It also helps to inform the meaning of "immediately" in Mark: Jesus debouches from a boat and immediately people surround him. Difficult to imagine in reality, but easy to show on a stage or set. One could even read Jesus' remark in Mark 7:6 that the Pharisees were hypocrites as a sly pun, for the term hypocrite originally meant "stage actor."
Seeing the Gospel of Mark as a performed text may also explain some other aspects of the story. For example, the writer's vague geography and lack of geographical description and detail may reflect the expectation that those items would be presented visually. All the writer had to do was give some general idea of the location of incidents: a synagogue, a lonely place, the other side, in the house, and so on. The set crew would do the rest. Further, none of Jesus' miracles represent actions that would have been physically difficult or materially complicated and expensive to portray on stage. Jesus doesn't fly, move mountains, cast lightning, or transform one object into another. Instead, the blind see, the lame walk, demons leave their hosts, and a fig tree wilts. Clearly, the Gospel of Mark could easily be staged by a non-professional cast and crew on short notice, with a minimum of sets and equipment.
One could easily imagine sitting on a railing or a balcony overlooking a cleared space, on a warm evening on the Tiber, the smell of frying olive oil filling the air, and an overpowering voice cutting across the chatter in the rickety tenement houses: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I send my messenger before thy face....." Slowly curious locals come to their windows and spill out of their homes. What is going on down below?
Commentary on the Gospel of Mark
|Chapter 1||Chapter 9||Home|
|Chapter 3||Chapter 11||Topical Index|
|Chapter 4||Chapter 12|
|Chapter 5||Chapter 13||References
|Chapter 6||Chapter 14|
|Chapter 7||Chapter 15||Contact Author
|Chapter 8||Chapter 16|