Roger Parvus has posted an intriguing comment about the Gospel of Mark’s narrative of Jesus casting out of the “Legion” of devils (the story where he sends them all into a herd of pigs who then run off a cliff and drown) on Tim Widowfield’s discussion of Wrede’s Messianic Secret. He wonders if the story is in fact a parable or metaphor for Jesus descending to Hell — something we read about cryptically in other parts of the New Testament.
It is a fascinating possibility. Note that the author of Mark’s Gospel claims that Jesus always spoke in a parable of some sort to his disciples (Mark 4:34) and some scholars have even suggested that the entire Gospel narrative itself was written as a “parable” of the Christian’s destiny and way of life — that is, even the acts of Jesus are symbolic. This idea is supported by the clearly symbolic features of a number of the stories, such as Jesus in something of a joint-action healing a woman who had endured a blood-disease for 12 years while raising from a sleep or death a 12-year-old (pubescent) girl. The author also curiously “explains” that the disciples were in shock on seeing Jesus walk on water because they had failed to understand the miracles of the feeding of multitudes with a few loaves and having so many baskets of scraps left over (Mark 6:51-52). There are mysteries in the narratives and sayings in Mark’s Gospel that are lost to us now.
Before I quote here Roger Parvus’s comment, I will quote an extract from another scholar who has broached the same idea that the scene of the exorcism of Legion is a metaphor for Jesus’ despoiling of the demons in Hell:
Eric C. Stewart (Gathered around Jesus: An Alternative Spatial Practice in the Gospel of Mark, pp. 261-2 — a University of Notre Dame thesis) refers to a study that argues Jesus’ voyage to the Gadarenes — where he exorcises the man possessed by Legion — is best read against the Greco-Roman traditions of sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar that were considered the gateways to land of the dead. (I have reformatted the paragraph for easier reading and added hyperlinks to the biblical references.)
Roy Kotansky argues that the story of the Gerasene demoniac is best read against the Greco-Roman traditions of sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar at the edge of the world.837
He first notes that the “other side” in Mark 4:35 has as its antecedent the sea in Mark 3:7.838 This sea is not identified in 3:7 as the Sea of Galilee. Kotansky argues that this sea should be read as the Mediterranean rather than the Sea of Galilee.839 The trip, then, becomes a voyage to the “Other Side,” that is, to the edges of the oikoumene. “Accordingly, all the sea-crossings of both miracle catenae, at least in the mythic imagination, are to be construed as true sea-voyages; their destinations, when recorded, will not tally well with known geographies of the circum-Galilean region.”840
Kotansky notes that the context of Jesus’ landing fits better within the context of a westward journey on the Mediterranean. Sailing past the edges of the earth to the west in Greek mythology, one would arrive at the land of the dead, that is, the house of Hades.841 This context, the realm of the dead, is the one into which Jesus lands in Mark 5:2. Kotansky’s argument relies heavily on the textual variants in Mark 5:1. He supposes that the textual problem indicates that the text was not originally set in a circum-Galilean locale, but rather at Gadeira, the symbolic end of the earth to the west.842
While Kotansky’s argument as a whole contains certain problems,843 the idea that Mark’s text (or its pre- Markan source) alludes to the traditions of seafarers arriving in strange and distant lands seems likely.844 There are many common elements between the stories of sea travel discussed in chapter 4 and this Markan unit.845 The disciples and Jesus are threatened with shipwreck and death (4:37-38) and land on a distant shore in which the “natives” behave in uncivilized fashion—living among the tombs and in the mountains (5:2-5). This wild figure, ironically, is the only one to show Jesus hospitality, treating him with the reverence due to him (5:6—where he “does obeisance” to Jesus). The “civilized” people of the region, upon seeing evidence of the exorcism, ask Jesus to leave their “borders” ( οριων 5:17).
837 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles in Cádiz (τα Γαδειρα): Death, Myth, and Monsters at the ‘Straits of Gibraltar’ (Mark 4:35-5:43),” in Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Bible and Culture: Essays in Honor of Hans Dieter Betz (ed. A. Y. Collins; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), 160-229.
838 Kotansky, Jesus and Heracles,” 165. 839 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 168-70. 840 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 171.
841 See chapter 2, section 1 and chapter 4, section 2.3. Also Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 173-6. Kotansky notes many elements of the sea-crossing and Jesus’ arrival that hint at themes of death and dying in the narrative.
842 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 185-92.
843 For several criticisms see David E. Aune, “Jesus and the Romans in Galilee: Jews and Gentiles in the Decapolis,” in Ancient and Modern Perspectives on the Bible and Culture: Essays in Honor of Hans Dieter Betz, 230-51.
844 Kotansky, “Jesus and Heracles,” 183: “The particular phrase, ‘they came into the land of x,’ carries with it a ring of a far and distant place. We have already met up with it in the epic narratives describing the lands of the Laestrygonians and the Phaeacians, and, in the apocryphal acts, the land of the cannibal Myrmidons. The notion of an entrance into a faraway country signifies the wayfarers have disembarked onto the mysterious shores of fable and not into the familiar territory of history. The expression calls to mind distant and unfamiliar places not belonging to the known geographies of the hero’s frame of reference—for Odysseus, his island home of Ithaca; for Jesus, his Galilean homeland.”
845 See chapter 4, section 4.1.
Stewart then discusses Aune’s criticism of Kotansky’s thesis, but does not dispute the possibility that Kotansky’s identifications could be correct since ancient readers would not bring the same scientifically accurate view of geography that modern readers bring to the text.
Here is Roger Parvus’s comment copied from here:
In regard to the Gadarene episode: I am wondering if it is about something more than an exorcism. The question “He asked him, ‘What is your name?’” is ambiguous. Is the question directed to the possessed man or to the demon possessing him? It is of course always taken as directed to the demon. But would the author of the story have presented Jesus as ignorant, before being informed by the spokesdemon, that there was more than one demon present? And would the author have allowed the spokesdemon to basically refuse to give a name or names, and instead just have him bring Jesus up to speed with his “Legion” reply? Surely the author doesn’t want us to think that demons can refuse to give their names to Jesus as long as they are numerous enough! “Sorry. My bad. I didn’t know there was more than one of you in there.” True, Jesus may have had time constraints, but supposedly it was important to get names in order to effectively eject the little devils. Then too, doesn’t it seem like overkill for a legion of demons to be in a single man?
I am thinking the question was directed to the man. And that by the answer “Legion” the author is telling us that the unnamed man stands for or represents a multitude of people who were being held captive by the demons. If so, what we have here is an allegory about the harrowing (i.e. despoiling) of hell. It is the harrowing of hell in a different setting. The crossing of Jesus over the water is along the lines of the crossing of the Styx. And according to Strong’s Concordance, Gadara means “reward at the end.” Assuming that etymology is correct, it would be fitting code for Hades. The man (or legion of men) running up to worship Jesus would correspond to the many who ran to greet him when he arrived in the Underworld. Until his arrival there they were living — again appropriately — in tombs. According to Marcion’s version of the harrowing there were some who refused to welcome Jesus in the Underworld. They had been tricked so often by the Creator God that they were afraid they were being tricked again. To them would correspond the townspeople who were fearful and asked Jesus to leave (Mk. 5:15 and 17).
Unlike GMatthew, GMark doesn’t have any part of the harrowing of hell at the end of his gospel. GMatthew only has two verses about it: “Tombs were opened and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” (Mt. 27:52-53). This would correspond to the Markan legion of ex-tomb dwellers who “went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done… and all were amazed” (Mk. 5:20)
But there is an element in GMark’s version that makes me think his harrowing episode was gnostic (Simonian?) in origin. The tomb-dweller was naked, crying, and “cutting himself with stones” (Mk. 5:5). This may be intended to convey that man’s body, in gnostic fashion, is alien to him. It was the Creator God who put man in a material body. Part of redemption is escape from it. The man was furiously trying to cut his way out of his body. And after Jesus frees the man from the demons, he clothes him. (Mk. 5:15). This is reminiscent of Paul’s desire to leave his earthly body behind and get something better from the God in heaven: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” (2 Cor. 5:1-2)
So the Gadarene episode may be a Simonian allegory about the harrowing of hell: Jesus crosses over to free a legion of tomb-dwellers from the demons holding them captive. But if so, I have no idea why Gmark located it where he did (i.e., in chapter five) — unless that gospel was intended to be just a very loose collection of allegories without much strict chronology.
Why in chapter 5? I would suggest the answer may not be complicated. Other narratives in Mark’s Gospel, especially those in the opening chapters, are riddled with allusions to the final scenes of the Gospel. This is not unusual in classical writings of the day. The crudely clothed John the Baptist in the wilderness announcing the coming of Jesus is balanced against the young man in the tomb finely dressed announcing the appearance of the resurrected Jesus; the crowds going out to seek Jesus in vain in the early morning foreshadow the women at dawn seeking Jesus in vain at the tomb. There are many others and I have listed them (at least the ones I have noticed up till now) on vridar.info at Mark’s flags for interpreting Mark.
So it is my suggestion that this story appears in chapter 5 and not “rightfully” at the end because it is part of a larger interwoven symbolic framework throughout: it ties in with the symbolic tale following, a narrative of a resurrection from the dead. Compare the narrative of the death of John the Baptist which is another clear foreshadowing of the death of Jesus. “Mark” was not writing a historical biography of Jesus. He was writing a symbolic narrative for the faithful who understood these mysteries. They were the ones who, in Christ, were descending into hell and back and living a new life in Christ.
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