A common meaning behind Gospel of Mark’s cornplucking and divorce controversies

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by Neil Godfrey

Though Crossley and Casey have written many thousands of words to show how these two episodes (sabbath cornfield dispute and divorce controversy) can be used to date Mark before 40 c.e., I find their arguments circular, convoluted and ultimately speculative. If I thought they had a widespread impact I would take the time to address them in more detail than I did in my earlier post on their early dating of Mark.

Meanwhile, I find if I read these passages as they are worded now, and within the broader context of the gospel’s message itself, and try very hard to avoid reading them through third century rabbinic writings or speculative Aramaic sources or other gospels written later than Mark, I can see something in them that I think is very interesting.

They both share the theme of a call for disciples to return to how things were at the very beginning of creation. In this they share a message found in certain gnostic type writings. (Mark also shares the syzygies or paradoxes found in some gnostic type sayings (e.g. the blind see, the dead live, etc), although Mark fleshes them out into narrative form.)

Example: In the sabbath cornfield dispute, Mark has Jesus pronounce that “the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath.” This is in response to Pharisees accusing Jesus’ disciples of violating the sabbath by plucking corn, and as a follow-up to the analogy of David being allowed to eat the shewbread sacred to the priests. It seems to me as if this is suggesting that for all the Mosaic or other rules that might have come to historic or contemporary importance, what Jesus wants is for people to accept things how they were meant to be, and how they were, back at the beginning. God gave the sabbath for mankind, and the Son of God had come now and wanted everything how it was meant to be from the start.

It also helps to read this in context. This is where the form critical method sometimes falls over on its face. It doesn’t look at the surrounding context nearly often enough. Jesus had just been speaking about new wine and old wineskins. Let the old wineskins of shewbread rituals and sabbath do’s and don’ts fall by the wayside when they meet and no longer accommodate the new order.

The gospel begins, after all, with the images of a new creation. Just as the waters were parted at the creation of the world, so now the heavens had been parted at the baptism to allow the Son of God to enter. At the transfiguration God advised his disciples, in the presence of Moses and Elijah, to hear him, not them.

Then when the divorce discussion enters on cue, Jesus again tells people that Moses’ instructions allowing for divorce were a necessary evil because of the sinfulness of the people. But Jesus’ followers are a new Israel and are not to be like their sinning forefathers. Jesus tells them how it should be amongst them — and that is just the way it was at the creation. Just like the sabbath. At the beginning God joined them together. Let this original order be the new wine. Don’t mess with it by trying to preserve it in the old wineskins.

Now all this seems to me to make sense of the broader contexts — new wine/old wineskins and hear the Son of God/not Moses. It is also plausible given the little we know of Mark’s place in the broader map of Christology and early Christian doctrines.

It does not rely on interpretations guided by speculations about the thoughts of subsequent gospel authors, later rabbinic texts, flimsy reconstructions of the beliefs and practices in the early first century Palestine, or presumptions of faulty Greek being an indication of a bad translation of an Aramaic text saying something else.

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Neil Godfrey

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