The taming of Mark’s unruly faithful

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by Neil Godfrey

So much in the Gospel of Mark is opaque that I tend to suspect that the author deliberately spoke in riddles, and that his gospel was intended from the beginning to be a symbolic or allegorical mystery of some sort. Who can claim to understand what this author meant when he wrote that the disciples of Jesus, after having been initially terrified at seeing Jesus walking on water, remained “greatly amazed”, having “not understood about the loaves” (6:50-2)? What is it, exactly, about the miracle of the loaves that has to do with the disciple’s reaction to Jesus walking on water? Or what are we to make of this Gospel’s famous inconclusive and ambiguous ending (16:8)? Why did Jesus curse a fig-tree for growing the way all fig trees were made to grow? There are other riddles, too. These are some of the most obvious ones. Its Jesus appears suddenly from nowhere, is possessed by the spirit of the Son of God, speaks in parables and acts incomprehensibly to his followers, then disappears as suddenly and mysteriously as he came. We can speculate and maybe even guess the answers to some of these riddles, but that does not deny how this Gospel appears to have been written as a cipher of some sort.

Image by Steffe via Flickr

Later evangelists stripped the Gospel of Mark of its riddles when they co-opted it in their attempts to write more blunt theological (Matthew) or historical (Luke) narratives. I’ve discussed specific examples before, and it’s time for another now.

Why dig out a hole in the roof?

And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was : and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. (Mark 2:4)

I’ve left the hyperlinks in there from the biblestudtools.com site so one can check the force of the two key Greek words used.

I’m not the only one who has sometimes wondered if the author was in some strange way influenced here by the story of King Ahaziah falling through a lattice (roof) of his upper room and ending up unable to move out of his bed: 2 Kings 1:2-17. He sent messengers to a local god for advice, but they were met with a servant of a jealous God who ensured he died for this snub.

If this was in the back of the mind of the author of Mark, it would probably have been one of a cluster of inspirations from the Jewish scriptures. After all, healing paralytics was part of the job description of any Messiah announcing the Kingdom of God (Isaiah 35:5-6):

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.

(I wonder how the Jesus story and modern healing sessions would have turned out if Isaiah had thought to say something like: “and the one-legged man will grow another leg in an instant; and those who are barren on top will sprout luxuriant growth”.) Continue reading “The taming of Mark’s unruly faithful”