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.
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?
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.
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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