Making sense of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

Jesus’ words often make contextual sense only if his acts to which his words refer are viewed as allegory. They make no sense, and open him to false charges, if his acts are read literally. Mark did appear to say that Jesus did not speak without his words being a parable.

But without a parable he did not speak to them (Mark 4:34)

Yet readers generally take his sayings at face value and his healings as literal events. What if we look at both as parables? That is, his healings are parables and his words explain them as parables. Otherwise, the reader falls into the trap of siding with the enemies of Jesus and seeing him as a lawbreaker, even if they excuse him, unlike his enemies.

The example in the last post was borrowed from John Carroll’s (Existential Jesus) discussion on Lingua Franca: When Jesus says to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven, the scribes interpret his meaning in the spiritual sense, while his actions show that his words are more aptly translated along the lines of something closer to, Go free from your deformity. The word for sin meant “missing the mark”, failing to get something right, and in this case can refer to the paralytics failure to be whole. The word for Forgive can also mean to Set free. The scribes (like most readers today) interpret Jesus’ words to mean “spiritual forgiveness” but Jesus shows by his actions that he means to make someone “whole”. His miracle belies his words. He is not talking about spiritual forgiveness at all, but making someone whole. Now that only carries weight if the physical is allegorical of perfection. So recall that Mark does say that everything Jesus spoke he spoke in a parable.

But if this is the case, what is the point? Carroll stresses that Mark’s Jesus is not an ethical teacher. I partly agree, insofar as righteousness is lawkeeping. See the story of the rich man for this explained. Commandment keeping is the way to enter the kingdom, but not enough. One must be perfect, or give up one’s life totally in this world. And this comes from losing one’s life by taking up the cross, or by death (spiritually and physically).

So what has this to do with the paralytic? Jesus makes him perfect, or whole, physically. But is the gospel of Mark really about physical healings? The symbolism in the paralytic story carries strong shadows of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Both are lowered “dead” into a space that has been dug out, with a massive blockage at the door that does not let anyone else in. But it does let the dead to rise and depart!

Why the stress in both stories on others not being able to enter this place? The women worry they will not be able to enter because of the massive stone, just as the paralytic’s friends are unable to enter the house through the door because of the massive crowd. I think the answer has to do with Jesus’ teachings elsewhere that the only way to life is through death — through the cross, or the “dug out” grave. The whole story — including those who cannot find Jesus and wondering how they will move the stone — is allegory. I’ll expand on this point (again) in another post, since that is moving on making sense of the characters other than Jesus. (Meanwhile, let it rest at the point that it makes no sense as told that they would go to a tomb to anoint a body inside knowing they could not enter!)

To take another story of Jesus where Jesus’ sayings do not sit with a literal reading of his action, the healing of the man with the withered hand, in Mark 2:

1 When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home.
2 Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them.
3 They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
4 Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”
6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
7 “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
8 Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’?
10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”–
11 he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.”
12 He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”

Jesus sees the man with the withered hand and the Pharisees suspect he’s going to violate the law by healing him on the sabbath. Jesus’ reply is only partly sensible on the literal level. He says:

Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil? To save life or to kill?

Well it’s obviously not lawful to do evil or kill as opposed to saving life, Sabbath or no Sabbath. And why should we presume there is any question in the Pharisees’ minds that healing someone is a good work as opposed to an evil work? As far as they are concerned the good and evil has to do with Sabbath observance, not the act performed per se. And Jesus could surely make peace and offend no-one by healing the man after the sabbath f it was going to cause offence to others. And as for saving life? Why does Jesus bring that thought into the dispute? The act of healing a withered hand is not an act of saving a life. And the only ones who have killing in their hearts are the Pharisees themselves.

So Jesus’s words are setting up an opposition that does not relate to the literal situation facing the reader. The words speak rather or an opposition between doing good and doing evil (thus sidestepping the issues as it exists in the minds of the Pharisees), and between saving a life and killing. Jesus is the saviour of lives, and he achieved that through enemies killing him. That is, we can understand Jesus’ death that way if we take our cue from his sayings about taking up the cross and following him to find life.

So what does the saying about saving life have to do with the man with the withered hand?

The answer is plainly Nothing, if we see the man as simply nothing more than a man with a withered hand. But if he is a metaphor, like the blind in this gospel are metaphors of the spiritually blind, then maybe Jesus’ words make sense.

With a withered hand, he is not whole, or “perfect”. Keeping the sabbath does not save one or enable one to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus made that plain to the rich man who knew he had kept all the commandments. Jesus said that wasn’t enough. Close, but not close enough. Ditto with the scribe who asked what was the greatest commandment. Jesus said he was not far from the kingdom re the righteousness of the law. Not far — which means there’s still a way to go. He’s not there yet. (Mark 12:34)

Jesus told the rich man that there was just one more step to take to get there. Then his life would be saved. And he elaborated this further to mean that one must give up one’s life in this world to enter the life of the next. (Mark 10:21, 29 — cf 8:34-35). Matthew may well have understood Mark’s intent with this saying here when he had Jesus speak less cryptically:

Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have . . . ” (Matt.19:21)

Matthew was blunt. He was not interested in Mark’s esotericism. He spoke plainly for all, initiates and outsiders. (The difference between Matthew’s idea of perfection and Mark’s is profound, however. Matthew sees perfection in terms of keeping the “spirit of the law” (Matt.5:48). Mark sees it in (more Pauline?) terms of losing one’s life totally “in Christ” (Mark 8:

The healing of the withered hand, I wonder at this moment, was about making a man whole, perfect, — and in the allegorical meaning represented by this physical act, Jesus words make sense. He is saving life — but the Pharisees in that scene do not comprehend that, because they are only looking at the literal act of an otherwise unnecessary healing on the Sabbath. But Jesus is teaching and acting out for them a parable. They do not understand the parable, so they plot to kill him. They plot to kill him because they can only see the literal story in front of them, not its parabolic nature and intent.

They are foils set up by the author who is teaching with a parable. History has nothing to do with it.

The parable teaches that Jesus makes one perfect, whole, complete, saved. Seen this way, the healing comports with the words of Jesus. It is only the Pharisees — and most readers ever since — who do not understand.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Making sense of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark”

  1. That’s a little unfair. Quoting the whole verse might not quite support that argument as much.
    “He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”

  2. My guess: A parable is a story used to teach a moral or spiritual lesson or truth. Jesus would only communicate to the watching crowds through stories, instead of giving direct answers to any questions or volunteering propositional statements. His disciples wanted to know what he was talking about.. presumably since like the crowds they weren’t quite sure what he was getting at, so he explained the point/lesson to them.

    I guess we see this today i our children’s fairy-tales. The frog and the princess could be interpreted by some as ‘you should kiss frogs’ but when properly explained become ‘don’t judge on first impressions’. That might not be quite right but you know the point I’m making… I don’t remember my children’s fairytales very well. We’ve just had a daughter so I’ll need to brush up on my children’s stories!

  3. Mark 4.34 may mean no more than your guess, but it is a redundant and apparently generic statement that lends itself to questions and thought in its context there.

    When one studies the structures of the miracles in the rest of the gospel one begins to see patterns emerge that strongly suggest they are intended to be parabolic or figurative statements on the theological message of the gospel. For example, the episode of Jesus needing two attempts to heal a blind man is in striking contrast to another time he could restore sight in one attempt, and the position of these miracles interestingly matches the double-blindness (spiritual) of the disciples. Mark’s readers can see what the disciples cannot — it is they who are having their eyes opened, not the disciples. There are many passages throughout the gospel that appear out of joint but that appear to make coherent sense when we view the entire gospel not as literal history but as an allegory or parable of a theological message. Werner Kelber has written much that has persuaded many scholars that the entire gospel was written as a parable.

    My guess, if you like, is that Mark 4.34 contains one such phrase that makes coherent sense (is not redundant) if the entire gospel is viewed as a parable — and that all of Jesus’ words to outsiders are indeed “parabolic” statements whose deeper or symbolic meaning was known only to the original audience.

    But the regular view that the author of this gospel somehow struggled with basic Greek, was not overly literate, does not let many accept this view. Rather, I am often persuaded that the author was far more subtle than we often have given him credit for. See my notes on Kelber.

  4. I’ll have a look at them.

    To make sure I understand you though:
    Are you saying that the whole of Mark is just a fictional story about Jesus (created by Mark)? OR Are you saying that most events in it are actually stories told by Jesus (and recorded by Mark)?

  5. I suspect Jesus himself is a parabolic or symbolic character, or a heavenly figure transposed into an earthly setting by Mark for the purpose of writing a figurative story with hidden meanings for initiates into the faith. This is my suspicion based on piecing together the many studies of Mark that I have encountered, and I may well be wrong and revise my view in part or in whole in the future.

    Kelber would not go so far as that. I know of few mainstream scholars who would admit openly they doubt the existence of Jesus. And I am sure Kelber himself believed Jesus was historical and Mark was placing a spin on his story.

    I have mentioned Kelber and Kermode, but another influence (there are many) on my views is Ted Weeden’s “Traditions in Conflict” in which he argues that Mark is an anti-Petrine polemic.

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