There are two accounts in Mark’s Gospel of restoring the sight of blind men. The first one, two-staged healing that took place at Bethsaida, was discussed here. Much of the following is owed to the discussion by Vernon K. Robbins in that linked post, even at points where I do not explicitly state this.
In that first healing it is clear that the placement of the story within the narrative structure brings out the symbolic meaning of the miracle. One can readily recognize the symbolic suggestiveness of the restoration of sight being worked out in two stages, as discussed in the previous post. Here is a recap the structural placement of the Bethsaida healing:
A: First there is Jesus’ reminding his disciples of his two attempts to open their eyes to spiritual understanding
8:17 But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? 18 Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?”
They said to Him, “Twelve.”
20 “Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?”
And they said, “Seven.”
21 So He said to them, “How is it you do not understand?”
B: Then comes the two-stage healing of the blind man at Bethsaida — in secret, away from the crowds
8:22 Then He came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. 23 So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything.
24 And he looked up and said, “I see men like trees, walking.”
25 Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly. 26 Then He sent him away to his house, saying, “Neither go into the town, nor tell anyone in the town.”
C: Next comes the faulty understanding of the perceptions of others beside Peter’s understanding that Jesus is the Christ (although this turns out to be only a partial understanding, too)
8:27 Now Jesus and His disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road He asked His disciples, saying to them, “Who do men say that I am?”
28 So they answered, “John the Baptist; but some say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”
29 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Christ.”
30 Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him.
There is one other healing of a blind man in Mark’s gospel and it is the healing of Bartimaeus at Jericho. Some commentators have pointed out how this healing ties in with the same theological themes laid out in the Bethsaida healing.
Location, location, location
The Bartimaeus episode is placed after a story about James and John asking Jesus to grant them a wish, and that wish is to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus when he rules as a Messianic King in Jerusalem. Jesus tells them that they have it all wrong, and that he has come not to rule but to serve, even to suffer and die as a ransom for many (Mark 10:35-45). It is placed immediately before Jesus enters Jerusalem being hailed by the crowds as the Davidic King (Mark 11:1-11).
A. Jesus asks two disciples what they desire from him, and they want positions of glory as rulers in the Kingdom
10:35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”
36 And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?”
37 They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.”
38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
39 They said to Him, “We are able.”
So Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; 40 but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared.”
41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John. 42 But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. 44 And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
B. Jesus asks a beggar what he would like from him, and he says he wants to “see”. Before a great multitude he does see who Jesus his, the “messianic” Son of David, and follows him into Jerusalem.
10:46 Now they came to Jericho. As He went out of Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road begging. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth [Ναζαρηνος or a variant of this, meaning a Nazarene, not “of Nazareth”], he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Then many warned him to be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be called.
Then they called the blind man, saying to him, “Be of good cheer. Rise, He is calling you.”
50 And throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to Jesus.
51 So Jesus answered and said to him, “What do you want Me to do for you?”
The blind man said to Him, “Rabboni, that I may receive my sight.”
52 Then Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road.
C. Jesus enters Jerusalem as the messianic Son of David to claim his kingdom, with many hailing him as their royal Lord
11:1 Now when they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; 2 and He said to them, “Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it. 3 And if anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it,’ and immediately he will send it here.”
4 So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it. 5 But some of those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, loosing the colt?”
6 And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded. So they let them go. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it. 8 And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:
‘ Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’
10 Blessed is the kingdom of our father David
That comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!”
11 And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Note the startling literary playfulness here. The first healing story depicted Jesus struggling through two attempts to give sight to a blind man. It is a healing that must take place away from the crowds because Jesus does not want his true identity to be proclaimed publicly at that point.
But the second story of a blind man shows him as having “sight” before he is even healed! He sees, even while physically blind, who Jesus really is. The Bartimaeus miracle is the true “second time got it right” follow-up from the suggestiveness of the double-operation on the Bethsaida blind man. With Bartimaeus we find one who “sees” spiritually from the outset. He is the first to do so. And when told to go on “his way”, Mark shows us that “his way” is to follow Christ into Jerusalem where he will suffer and die. The time for Christ to announce his identity has come. Contrast Peter being told that his interest is in the ways of men.
Further evidence is found in the role of the crowd. Whereas it is the crowds who try to silence the blind man just as Jesus had once silenced the demons when they shouted out his identity, now it is Jesus who overrides the crowds and performs the miracle before them all. He is showing his approval of being proclaimed publicly as the Son of David as he is about to enter Jerusalem. Note that the crowd disappears from the narrative once their narrative function is completed. Their task is to draw attention to Jesus being proclaimed Son of David by attempting to silence it, and thus only drawing all the more forceful, and repeated, attention to it. Jesus is twice acclaimed as the Son of David as a result of the function of the crowd. They have no further role after that.
The larger position of the story is also very significant. It joins the two halves of the gospel: in the first half Jesus was the “Son of Man” and healer and raiser of the dead; in the second half he is the “son of David” and the suffering servant who dies. As the Son of Man he proclaims that he must suffer and die. But the disciples cannot accept this. They fail to really comprehend.
Robbins cites scholarly opinion arguing that the Bartimaeus episode closes the first part of the gospel before the Jerusalem adventure begins; he also cites many who argue the opposite, that it introduces the Jerusalem portion of the narrative. So he takes the easy choice:
This division of opinion suggests that this episode has been placed into the narrative in such a manner that it binds the two sections of material together. For that reason it could be treated either as a conclusion to the preceding section or an introduction to the succeeding section. (p. 238)
Robbins expands on this by effectively saying this anecdote is the middle of a narrative sandwich. It fits in the middle of the larger gospel framework in the same way the healing of the hemorrhaging woman is wedged between the two-part account of the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:21-43) and the way the cleansing of the temple is inserted between the narrative about the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-25):
The resolution of this emerges when one realizes that the Bartimaeus story has been inserted into the Marcan materials in a fashion analogous to the evangelist’s insertion of other episodes into the middle of a story or into framework material which has an inner connection. The Bartimaeus story has been . . . inserted at this point, because in that form and place it binds together conceptions which otherwise have no interconnection in the narrative.
The importance of its present position in the narrative is that the evangelist placed it between the teaching about the suffering, rising Son of Man and the Jerusalem ministry.
Marcan . . . placement of the Bartimaeus story integrates the suffering-rising christology with the authoritative Son of David image of Jesus in Jerusalem and correlates this with discipleship.
The bits I have omitted [. . . ] reference Robbins other discussion of a redactional history of this passage. I ignore that for the purposes of this post.
Vernon K. Robbins’ view that the Bartimaeus story is a counterfoil to the recognition scene of Peter at Caesarea Philippi surely has some validity. Robbins points out that in Peter’s recognition that Jesus is the Christ, Peter fails to accept the true meaning and implications of what Christ means for Jesus. It means suffering and death before exaltation through the resurrection. But in the case of Bartimaeus, we have one who recognizes Jesus is the Son of David and embraces all that this means, and so casts off his cloak (leaves everything) and follows him eagerly, but most importantly “knowingly”, to Jerusalem.
The real parallel to the Bartimaeus story in Mark is the Caesarea Philippi pericope in 8:27-33. In that scene the evangelist [i.e. “Mark”] has created a context in which the christological designations of Jesus in the preceding material are brought before the reader, and the unwillingness of a disciple to accept the assimilation of those attributes into one christological title (Son of Man) in which power and authority (rising from death) are fused with rejection and death (suffering many things, being rejected and killed) brings a fierce rebuke from Jesus upon that disciple which is equalled only by the statements of Jesus to Judas in the NT tradition. In the Bartimaeus story the entire force of Jesus’ healing-discipleship activity is declared to be Son of David activity . . . . (my emphasis)
None of this is historical. It is entirely literary and symbolic narrative artistry.
The first account of a true disciple of Jesus, one who not only leaves all to follow Jesus to where he will suffer and die, but one who truly understands who Jesus is, is found here in the account of Bartimaeus.
But what is it that Bartimaeus “sees” in the title “Son of David” that makes his proclamation so significant?
The Son of David was never known as a healer in Jewish literary traditions. Solomon, the original literal son of David, was said in legendary material to have been an exorcist but never a healer. (Exorcism required special wisdom of magic chants and rites to outwit demons, and Solomon was the wisest man of all even in Biblical texts.)
What Vernon Robbins sees Mark as doing here is carrying over into Jesus’ Davidic status in Jerusalem the same authority that the healing gave Jesus in the first half of the gospel.
Maybe a more direct way to put it would be to understand that healing was a sign of the Messiah, as we know from Isaiah 29:18-19 and 35:5-6 —
18 In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll,
and out of gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind will see.
19 Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD;
the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
But what can it mean for the Gospel narrative to have a character break new ground by attributing this power to the Son of David?
I think (I may have picked this up from Vernon Robbins) that the Gospel is showing us that, just as the title “Christ” and “Son of Man” meant something more than authoritative rulership and power, so the title of Son of David means something more than that of a messianic king. The “Christ’s” way to glory is through rejection, suffering and death; the Son of Man’s way is through service, not to be served; the Son of David is more than a King — he is the messianic Christ who has the power to heal and make others whole. The emphasis in all of these titles, as re-created in Mark’s Gospel, is on the reversal of expectations and normal understandings of these terms. They are not about power, conquest and lording it over others. They are about service, mercy, making whole, and even suffering and death as a ransom for others to deliver them into eternal life free from sin.
Thus soon after Jesus enters Jerusalem he confuses his challengers by asking them how the Son of David can be the Messiah if David himself called him his Lord. In Mark 12:35-37 it is clear that for Mark the title of “Son of David” means much more than just the “Son of David” as understood literally in the Old Testament prophets. Mark is packing much more meaning into those. As Robbins says, he is “christianizing” the concept.
35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36 David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared:
“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”’
37 David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?”
The large crowd listened to him with delight.
The answer is, as Vernon Robbins has the wit to see,
that he is David’s son through God’s action, which has made him Son of David and Son of God. (p. 242)
(Such an answer, clearly correct, also has significance for that passage in the opening verses of the Epistle to the Romans declaring Jesus to be both Son of God and Son of David. The interpretation is surely bound up in theological principles and not literal genetic lines or virginal births!)
It is significant that this comes after Jesus has delivered the parable of the unjust tenants of the vineyard (12:1-12) that informs both the characters in the gospel and the readers that the rulership of Jerusalem is to be taken from the then rulers and given to Christ’s kingdom.
Yet Mark has had Jesus acknowledge that he certainly is both Christ (at Caesarea Philippi with the confession of Peter) and Son of David (by hushing the crowd who tried to silence Bartimaeus from shouting out to him by his Son of David title, and then healing him as requested; and immediately afterwards by imitating the humble kings entering Jerusalem on a donkey and accepting the Jerusalem crowd’s acclamation of Jesus as the rightful possessor of the throne of David). Jesus made it clear that this man who could see Jesus was the “Son of David” and healer of the blind was healed because of his faith.
Another indicator that the Gospel is stressing the contrasting spiritual nature of the disciples (as represented this time by James and John) and Bartimaeus lies in the way that in both pericopes, adjacent as they are, Jesus responds to those who wish for something from him with the direct question: What do you wish me to do for you? The disciples wish for glory; Bartimaeus wishes only to see. The disciples want thrones to the right and left of Jesus; Bartimaeus tosses aside his only possession, his cloak, to follow Jesus into the city of rejection and death.
I have not read of any possible link between the challenge made to David when he attempted to take by force the city of Jerusalem. (At least I don’t recall reading this, though I am sure it must be found “out there” in enough places.)
2 Samuel 5:6
And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who spoke to David, saying, “You shall not come in here; but the blind and the lame will repel you,” thinking, “David cannot come in here.”
David responds with hatred of the “blind and lame”:
7And David captureth the fortress of Zion, it [is] the city of David.
8And David saith on that day, `Any one smiting the Jebusite, (let him go up by the watercourse), and the lame and the blind — the hated of David’s soul,’ — because the blind and lame say, `He doth not come into the house.’
But Jesus takes Jerusalem through healing (not killing) the blind, and is welcomed, not resisted, as the Son of David.
Titles of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark
Robbins points out that this Gospel is effectively bringing the many titles attributed to Jesus beneath the one overarching claim to being the Son of God (1:24). Mark speaks of Son of Man (2:10, 28), the Holy One of God (1:24), Teacher (4:35). The title Son of God Most High had already been incorporated into an earlier exorcism story (5:7). In the second part of the Gospel “Mark” sees Jesus’ activity in Jerusalem as primarily a Son of David activity. Hence this title introduces Jesus in this section. But the ambiguity that is also conveyed with this title informs us that for Mark this title is also something far greater than its erstwhile literal meaning and indicates the messianic and saviour Son of God.
And a shadow of a resurrection, too
There are also shadows of a restoration of the lame, and even of raising the dead, with the way Bartimaeus is described as “rising” after Jesus commanded him to “arise”. The word used is transliterated as anistemi and is elsewhere used of the rising of the dead. The casting off of his beggar’s garment, when read alongside the several other images in Mark of garments being discarded (and claimed), makes it hard to avoid seeing here a metaphor of a disciple forsaking his earthly life to follow Jesus in a new spiritual life. Nakedness can be a sign of shame, but leaving one’s garments is a sign of losing one’s life. Thus compare the young man who fled naked in Gethsemane yet presumably reappears at the end in the tomb clothed in a white robe; Jesus on the cross has his garments stripped off and lying at the foot of his cross.
I am sure I will soon notice I have forgotten to include much, here. In one of the comments (I think by Josesph Wallack) in my previous related post (part 1) similar expositions of this passage were presented.
Some die-hard historicists will no doubt object that all of this is going way too far. Completely over the top. We should just read the literal meanings of the words and attempt to assess how much is historical and how much fictional overlay. But that approach cannot be sustained within the context of analyzing the text to understand its nature. This gospel’s nature is a highly structured symbolic narrative, with the structure itself being used to frame and advance the symbolic nature of the narrative and word-image details. Literary analysis of Tacitus’ Histories, or Arrian’s Life of Alexander, cannot deliver anything like the same types of results at all.
Even if a literary analysis did run into some few details that did not comport with this symbolic function, perhaps leading to the conclusion that what we are reading is a story that did not originate as a literary artifice, but perhaps even was based on a true event, then it would still not mean we could read this Gospel as “history”. The Gospels also draw on the real historical person of Pilate. But they so refashion him into a character quite unlike anything we know about him from non-gospel sources, and they clearly do this for tendentious theological and plot-narrative purposes, that we know we cannot possibly use the Gospels as a valid source to write a history or biography of “the historical Pilate”. So even if there were a real blind beggar who happened to have a funny name and who did have some encounter with one called Jesus, we are left with no way of knowing from the Gospel narrative anything about that person, or Jesus. The narrative in which he appears has been totally immersed in symbolic and theological meanings that lie at the heart of the whole point of the Gospels.
All the indications are, however, that Bartimaeus, the very first person in the (apparently earliest) gospel who became a truly comprehending and faithful disciple is a fictional creation. His name, his words and dialogue, his actions, his audience, his healer, as well as his position in between thematically significant pericopes, and in ironic polarity against an earlier restoration of a blind man and the aftermath recognition scene, and sitting as the meat in the sandwich bringing together the fillings from the slices either side, — all of these shout literary artifice.
Bartimaeus is entirely a literary character in this gospel. Whether there were any such person in real life has become entirely irrelevant to the nature of this Gospel and its literary Bartimaeus. And if the first really true disciple of Jesus was a literary fiction . . . .
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