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”.)

But a number of details in this Gospel persuade me that the author had more than just a dug-out roof in mind. He had something bigger in mind than a mere emulation of the Ahaziah story. (Faithless Ahaziah fell through the roof and died bed-ridden; the paralytic was raised up from his bed.) The author is a master of inclusio, or bookend or bracketing rhetorical structures. (This device was also used by Virgil in his Aeneid. The storm at sea imagery in the opening of his epic is applied once again in the closing book to the death of Turnus at the hands of Aeneas.) In the opening of the Gospel the Spirit descends into Jesus and unclean spirits are expelled with a shout, in its closing Jesus’ exhales his spirit with a shout; in the beginning disciples follow, in the end they flee; in both the beginning and ending people come looking for him early in the morning but cannot find him (as he wanders around Galilee?); and many more.

So there is some justification for seeing in the story of the paralytic symbolic echoes at the end of the Gospel, too. The body of Jesus was placed in a tomb that had been “hewn out” of a rock.

And he bought fine linen, and took him down , and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre. (Mark 15:46)

Karel Hanhart argues that the Mark image is taken from Isaiah which metaphorically spoke of the Temple as a hewn-out rock tomb:

What hast thou here? and whom hast thou here, that thou hast hewed thee out a sepulchre here, as he that heweth him out a sepulchre on high, and that graveth an habitation for himself in a rock? (Isaiah 22:16 — unfortunately this is the Hebrew; Mark used the LXX)

The paralytic is lowered by four faithful friends through the dug-out roof. He was thus in the house with Jesus, and the door was sealed by such a large multitude that no-one could come near (Mark 2:4). Yet Jesus told him to rise up and go to his home, and he was able to walk through the door just as commanded. The crowds were amazed at the miracle. Jesus likewise amazed all when he rose from the dead and left the tomb.

There are other verbal and imagery allusions linking this pericope with the scenes of Jesus’ death and resurrection, as I have proposed here.

Mark once again embarrasses Matthew, Luke and John

We have seen how other evangelists appear to have been “embarrassed” by the way Jesus is baptized without apology, and even is declared God’s son subsequently, by John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark.

With this popular tale of the paralytic (at least it became very popular in the second and third centuries, being  commonly depicted on Christian sarcophagi et al.) Matthew is the first to show that he is not well pleased with the original tale. If he was aware of any symbolic intent in the original, he was not interested in repeating it.

The evangelist who had his Jesus teach the golden rule was not going to have his disciples set such an atrocious example of queue jumping and wanton vandalism. Get them right away from the house altogether!

Getting into a boat, Jesus crossed over the sea and came to His own city. And they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, “Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:1-2)

Theophilus’s client posited a less extreme remedy, and preferred to narrate a positive example of decorous behaviour:

And some men were carrying on a bed a man who was paralyzed; and they were trying to bring him in and to set him down in front of Him. But not finding any way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down through the tiles with his stretcher, into the middle of the crowd, in front of Jesus. (Luke 5:18-19)

That’s better. No low-life gouging out the roof. Make it sound as if they must have carefully layed aside some tiles for the task.

And if the fourth evangelist knew the story at all, he relocated it to a Jerusalem setting and introduced an angel playing a lottery game with “the multitude of sick” (John 5:1-8).

Once again, even in a small detail such as a breaking up of a roof (not so small to the owner of the house, I’m sure — I could imagine Brian’s mother giving him another chewing out over it) we see reasons to find the gospels of Luke, Matthew and John taking a story that originally appeared to have had a symbolic meaning (or certainly depicted something “unorthodox” in their view) and going their own way with it. They are not passing on “oral tradition”. They are, again, found to be in damage control over the Gospel of Mark.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “The taming of Mark’s unruly faithful”

  1. What most puzzles me about Mark is the way the parables are presented. It’s something Isaiah does too. God makes sure that Isaiah’s preaching is not effective – lest the hearers repent when they should be condemned. I had thought at one time this must be a secondary redaction of a story of preaching that must have been done surely with some hope of success. But having read Thomas Thompson’s books I now see that this was written for later students who could respond and see themselves as the holy remnant.
    Mark seems to say that Jesus preached in parables to make his message more difficult. But to anyone with a modicum of empathy with the poor, downtrodden, and alienated the message is evocative and transparent (and I don’t think this is due to early indoctrination, I have Muslim friends who respond in the same way, though there are some people including Christians who I feel just don’t get it). He who has ears to hear let him hear! I think we are meant to feel this, and that if Jesus’ disciples failed him, at least we will respond.
    But the Parables used, like Isiah’s trophes must first have been written to succeed. Were they written by Mark or taken over from existing stories people borrowed from each other.
    sorry if this is a bit confused, I’m exhausted from a busy week, but if I put off things I sometimes never do them.

  2. A similar rhetoric is continued among the “gnostic” writings. Paradoxes and riddles are the medium of “wisdom” but only for the initiated, or those “called and with the Spirit of Wisdom” (as Paul would say.) It echoes the allegorizing tendencies of the time — wisdom is still found in ancient myths but only allegorically.

    Mark strikes me as a narrative form of some of those gnostic-like mysterious sayings gospels. Matthew and Luke appear to have been undoing this rhetoric of Mark and supplanting it with a “more natural” or “orthodox-caring” Jesus.

    Yes, I see Mark as writing for “a new Israel” — hence his parable of the failure (at least the ambiguity) of “the old”.

    (But everything I say is meant to be read as a question, as someone else said.)

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