Click to donate today!
by Peter Pett
The Gospel was written by John Mark who, as a young man, had probably himself known the Lord Jesus Christ personally for a brief time on His visits to Jerusalem (inferred from Acts 12:12), and had spent some considerable time with all the Apostles and especially with both Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and Paul (Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11), listening to their preaching and especially to their testimony to Jesus. During this time he would have heard Peter and other eyewitnesses again and again describe events and teaching from the life of Jesus. And this not in some informal way, but in a deliberate formatting of events in such a way as to be remembered and repeated, for this kind of information was the life blood of the early church.
Papias in the second century AD tells us that, ‘Mark, who was Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, all that he (Peter) recollected of what Christ had done’. Indications can regularly be found in Mark’s Gospel suggestive of an eyewitness, although in such a way as to suggest that it was simply writer’s licence. Rather it was in a way which suggests that it was almost unconscious. Paul also would have made himself familiar with such things and would have passed them on to him, and we should note that Paul is always careful to distinguish what is based on the Lord’s words and what is not (1 Corinthians 7:12; 2 Corinthians 11:17). What the Lord had specifically said was considered as divine truth, as the equivalent of Scripture, and was remembered as such.
We must remember that from the moment that three thousand people from around the Empire had been converted on the day of Pentecost, accurate teaching about ‘the Testimony of Jesus’ would have been demanded and required. All the new converts would have needed to know something about His life and teaching, and those with minds like Paul’s would not have been satisfied with just anything. And the further the message spread the more accurate information would continue to be required, for it was from this that men would come to know more intimately the Jesus in whom they had come to believe. As Papias makes clear the very words of the Apostles were eagerly sought after for this reason.
Thus from the very beginning incidents in the life of Jesus would have become described in a form that would soon become standardised and deliberately preserved, following early Rabbinic pattern, to be memorised and accurately passed on, and to be proclaimed alongside the (Old Testament) Scriptures. For they would already be seen as ranking alongside the Scriptures and as having at least equivalent value to Christians as the Teaching of the Elders had to the Pharisees. And the fact that they were mainly to begin with passed on in oral form would mean that they were put in such a form as to be easily remembered (as Jesus had put His words in the same way). There would be great concern for the accurate passing on of His life and words. The people did not want to know interesting stories, they wanted to know the truth. It is also inconceivable that some of these standardised forms were not written down (Luke 1:1), even if this were only in order to communicate it to others at a distance. So Mark would have plenty of material to work with, and could check for accuracy with Peter himself.
Mark was cousin (or nephew) to Barnabas. His Gospel is written in the common Greek of the area and bears evidence of a Jewish background. We can hardly doubt that the collection of the materials, their recording in writing and their putting together in a reasonably consecutive narrative took place over a number of years, and this was almost certainly at times in discussion with Peter and other eyewitnesses. But they would not necessarily be (and were not) chronological in every detail - what mattered was presenting the material and getting over the message indicated in them. Exact chronology was of less importance except where it was necessary to preserve the truth.
The Purpose of The Gospel.
In the Gospel the historical material is brought together with the intention of presenting Jesus Christ in the fullness of His glory. It is not a life story, written out of academic interest, nor, except in general outline, a chronological history, but the reverent recording of truth about Jesus and His teaching that was carefully remembered and passed on by those who knew Him (who were skilled at memorising) because of Who He was, put together in order to present the truth about Him. The purpose was in order to demonstrate that He was what they had come to know Him to be. But there is no extravagance in the descriptions (this lack of extravagance is a distinctive feature of the four Gospels), they are sensible, deliberate, and even under-stated.
As the Apostles spoke they would be aware that others who knew the facts were listening to, and judging, what they said, and in view of the importance attached to the exact words of Jesus, as demonstrated by Paul’s letters, it would have been important to remember them exactly. This was aided by the fact that Jesus had deliberately taught in such a way as to assist the memory. As John expresses it elsewhere, ‘what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have gazed on and our hands have handled concerning the Word of life -- we declare to you’ (1 John 1:1-3).
The World Into Which Jesus Went Out To Proclaim the Kingly Rule of God.
The commencement of Jesus’ ministry was in Galilee. Galilee was a smallish mountainous conclave set on its own to the north of Palestine surrounded on all sides by Samaritans and Gentiles, and separated from Judea by Samaria. It was a self-sufficient and fertile land and its fertility was made full use of by its industrious people. It was from a knowledge of the land and its farmers that Jesus obtained much of His preaching material. It was far from being just a smaller version of Judea. The people were a mixture and more cosmopolitan and many of them had been forced into Judaism a century before Christ when Galilee was ‘liberated’ by Jewish forces. All who had then wanted to remain there had had to be circumcised and live according to Jewish Law. Thus in its own way it had formed its own fanatical Jewish beliefs shaped by its own environment.
Its type of religious orthodoxy was frowned on by Jerusalem, and while the peoples of both spoke Aramaic, the language of these peoples was as distinct from each other as is that of, say, the Southern states of America as compared with UK English, with many variations in pronunciation and meaning. Similarly in a small country like the UK itself we can find many regional variations, even in spite of modern communications, and we only have to compare broad Scots ‘English’ with English as spoken in England to evidence this. To an Englishman broad Scots English is almost impossible to understand, and by some might even be looked down on. And in precisely the same way Galileans would often be jeered at when they visited Jerusalem, which they did regularly for the feasts, and they were instantly recognisable because of their speech (see for example Matthew 26:73). They blurred the distinctions between the guttural pronunciation of certain letters and were seen as being like someone using English who drops his aitches. Thus their speech could sometimes be misunderstood, often causing great hilarity, and no little contempt.
It is easy for us to tend to assume that those who spoke and wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek were all using the same languages, and while true in general, it is in fact far from true in detail, and indeed Mark’s koine (popular) Greek was very different from classical Greek, while Luke used different forms of Greek for different sections of his writings. Speaking loosely we could say that Luke used Septuagintal Greek in Luke 1-2, Aramaic Greek in Acts 1-15 and a form of classical Greek elsewhere. In the same way Galilean Aramaic differed from Judean Aramaic, and we are still far from knowing quite by how much.
We can compare how to a non-English speaker all English might appear to be the same. This reminds me of how, when I was lecturing in Hong Kong, a Chinese student expressed her puzzlement to me over why it was that all Western lecturers, American, English and Australian, all spoke with the same accent! I could hardly believe my ears. Those who have not studied the use of the languages tend to think the same about Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Reading some commentaries (which are trying to be helpful in bringing out meanings) we can begin to wonder why English could not be as specific and exact as Greek and Hebrew clearly were, but in fact they are not always so (ordinary readers of English versions of the Hebrew text would probably be amazed, and often dumbfounded, if they read a translation which was made literally word for word).
In religious matters Galilee was far more liberal than Jerusalem and Judea, and its orthodoxy, while being acceptable in general, was nevertheless viewed with some suspicion by the Jewish authorities. So by being Galilean Jesus started off at a disadvantage as far the Jerusalem Pharisees were concerned. Certainly in some ways Galileans could be laxer with regard to cultic requirements, while in others they could actually be more dogmatic. They did not always see eye to eye with their Jerusalem counterparts. For example, from later Rabbinical sources we know that Hanina ben Dosa, a Galilean Rabbi, was criticised for walking alone in the streets at night, and Yose the Galilean, another Galilean Rabbi, was rebuked by a woman for engaging in too long a conversation with her when he was asking the way. Both these acts would have been frowned on in Jerusalem.
But we must not overstate the differences. It is noteworthy that with rare exceptions Jesus was never Himself criticised by the Pharisees, even the Jerusalem Rabbis, about His general observance of Pharisaic requirements, even though His disciples were. He may have been willing to eat with tax gatherers and ‘sinners’ (ordinary people who were laxer with regard to ritual and laws of ‘cleanliness’ and did not tithe sufficiently) but that did not mean that He was lax Himself in observing the proper requirements. It was only some (although not all) of His disciples who were accused of not ritually ‘washing their hands’ (Mark 7:2). He was clearly well aware of Pharisaic requirements and in most cases scrupulously sought Himself to avoid unnecessary offence. Had He been constantly criticised for it there was no reason why the Gospel writers should have hidden the fact. Indeed it would have been a powerful weapon against the Judaisers. (But see Luke 11:38, which may, however, have had specific intent, for He knew that on the whole they were there to test Him out).
The truth is that He had regard for the religious feelings of others. And when He was criticised on certain points He always cited a Scriptural reason, and it was always for the good of people generally, for He would not allow cultic requirements to cause people unnecessary suffering and He had little time for over-exactness with regard to interpretation especially when accompanied by glaring misbehaviour in other spheres (Matthew 23:24). It was not therefore that He totally condemned the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, but that He subjected it to a criticism and scrutiny for which they were not prepared, and required too much of them by arguing that mercy and compassion were more important than the minutiae of ritual (Matthew 9:13; Matthew 12:7). Assiduously keeping to their ritual (ritual hand-washing, strict Sabbath observance, avoiding what was ‘ritually unclean’, in depth tithing, etc) had become more important to many of them than revealing goodness, kindness and compassion. They thus felt that He was undermining their beliefs and the confidence of the ordinary people in them. But Jesus did not condemn them for their assiduousness. What He condemned them for was their hardness of heart, and their lack of appreciation that what they demanded was not always possible for ordinary people.
Indeed Jesus taught His followers in general to observe basic Scribal and Pharisaic teaching (Matthew 23:3). What He wanted them to avoid was the hypocrisy of many of them, especially the more extreme (Matthew 23:24). For, as even the Pharisees themselves acknowledged, there were a number of different types of Pharisee, and it was probably the more extreme who constantly tangled with Jesus. Thus Jesus defended those of His followers who were criticised because He felt that the accusers were themselves guilty of being two faced and were going outside the intentions of the Law. We must not, however, assume that all Pharisees would have agreed with all the accusations hurled at Him, and indeed many later became His followers. Nevertheless it cannot be gainsaid (except by doubtful methods) that the Jerusalem Scribes and Pharisees as a whole were certainly, with their influence, partly responsible for His crucifixion, the more liberal seemingly bowing to the will of the majority, and that while it was probably an inner group of the Sanhedrin with their adherents who first condemned Him (Mark 14:53), the whole Sanhedrin (no doubt with a few notable absentees) finally passed sentence (Mark 15:1).
Galilee was separately governed, being ruled first by Herod Antipas up to 39 AD (along with Perea across the Jordan ), and then by King Agrippa I (up to 44 AD), as against the Roman procurators who ruled Judea. Yet Galilee was also the fiercest in its opposition to Rome, possibly because it was not held down by such an iron hand. A large amount of Rome’s problems stemmed from Galilee which spawned a number of famous rebels, including Judas of Galilee in 6 AD (Acts 5:37) who gained control of the weapons in the royal armoury and caused widespread trouble, but was defeated by Quirinius. Acts also mentions an early Theudas (Acts 5:36), but our knowledge of Jewish history about this time is limited. From this time on Galilee was a hotbed of trouble and was always on the verge of rising up. The others we actually know of, (mainly from Josephus), included another later Theudas (a fairly common name), an ‘Egyptian’, and a Samaritan prophet, and there were probably others who certainly caused trouble, but were after the time of Jesus. The roots, however, of their rebellious attitude must be seen as going back to earlier revolutionaries, of whom there would have been a constant stream, even if they were waiting quietly but impatiently for some opportunity to arise and someone to lead them. For Galilee had few Sadducees and no chief priests to maintain the status quo, even though they were probably ruled under Herod by a council of seventy, which would include Herodians, Pharisees and important lay people. It is not therefore surprising that a Galilean wonder-worker who gathered large crowds should be looked on with suspicion by the Romans and by the authorities when the crowds began to gather round Him. The Romans especially were always wary of mass movements. Nevertheless Pilate took no action against Him until it was forced on him by the Jewish authorities, for he clearly did not see Him as a threat, while also seeing Him as being in the main under Herod’s jurisdiction.
Into this world Jesus came, His ministry centred on the proclamation of the Kingly Rule of God (Mark 1:15). For while He healed large numbers of people (Mark 1:34) He never portrayed Himself as a healer except in so far as it supported His central message (Matthew 11:4-6), and sought to prevent healing taking over from His other activities (Mark 1:38). He did not want to be seen as a wonder-worker. It is true that He did emphasise more the casting out of evil spirits as evidence of Who He was and what He had come to do (Mark 1:39; Matthew 12:28), but He made a clear distinction between that and healing. What there can be no doubt about was that He portrayed Himself, and was portrayed by others, as One uniquely chosen by God (Mark 2:10; Mark 2:17; Mark 2:19-20; Mark 2:28; Mark 3:22-27; etc), and that Mark’s purpose was to highlight this fact and bring it home to his readers. But if we are to assess Him rightly it must be on the basis of what He taught, and His claim that as the suffering Servant He had come to die in order to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). This is especially brought out by the fact that the last part of Mark’s Gospel centres on that death. He was as unlike other ‘wonder-workers’ as it was possible to be, nor did He want to be seen as a wonder-worker. He wanted recognition that what He taught and what He had come to do was of God.
Excursus On Other Wonder-workers.
We include this excursus because in recent times Jesus has been compared by some with other Jewish religious healers and wonder-workers of the 1st century BC and AD, although the case has been greatly exaggerated. If there were such, and the information is scanty, His ministry was very different from theirs. For example:
· They healed or did wonders indirectly through prayer, He healed and did wonders by laying on of hands or by command.
'b7 They cast out evil spirits using mysterious plants and incantations and the name of some great person from the past such as Solomon (or some even in Jesus’ Name - Mark 9:38-39; Acts 19:13). Jesus did it in His own name by a word (He never laid hands on a demon-possessed person).
· They regularly related disease to the work of evil spirits, whereas Jesus generally distinguished disease from spirit possession (Matthew 10:1).
· Their ministry was limited. He set out to establish a movement which would carry on His work (Mark 8:34, compare Matthew 16:18).
· They pointed to God and made no special claims for themselves. He revealed Himself as God’s chosen One, pointing to Himself and bringing out that He was on the divine side of reality, although at the same time aligning Himself closely with God the Father.
Thus Jesus stood head and shoulders above all His contemporaries, and even those who were remotely contemporaries.
The general background for such exorcists is described by Josephus. Speaking of traditions concerning Solomon he says, ‘and God granted him knowledge of the art used against demons for the benefit and healing of men. He also composed incantations by which illnesses are relieved and left behind forms of exorcisms with which those possessed by demons drive them out, never to return’ (see Antiquities 8:45-48). This tells us nothing about Solomon, but a great deal about the beliefs circulating in Palestine in 1st century AD.
Indeed mysterious roots, incantations and forms of exorcism, together with the name of Solomon, do appear to have been used against disease and evil spirits. That there were Jewish exorcists at work in 1st century AD it is true (see for example Mark 9:38; Luke 9:49; Acts 19:13-17 - in both cases using the name of Jesus) and Simon Magus is said to have ‘used sorcery and amazed the people of Samaria’ (Acts 8:9) although, it should be noted, himself amazed at the wonders done by the Apostles, but there is no account anywhere else of anyone who continually healed large numbers of people. The significance of these people has been highly exaggerated.
One rare example which has been cited as that of a wonder worker was Honi or Onias, later called ‘the circle drawer’, who operated in 1st century BC. Josephus, writing in 1st century AD, said of him, ‘Now there was one named Onias, a righteous man and beloved of God, who, in a certain drought, had once prayed to God to put an end to the intense heat, and God had heard his prayer and sent rain. Now seeing that this civil war would last a great while, he had hidden himself, but they took him to the Jewish camp and desired that just as by his prayers he had once put an end to the drought, so he might in like manner call curses down on Aristobulus and his supporters. And when, having refused and made excuses, he was nonetheless compelled by the mob to supplicate, he said, "O God, king of the whole world! Since those that stand now with me are your people, and those that are besieged are also your priests, I beseech you, that you will neither hear the prayers of those others against these men, nor to bring about what is asked by these men against those others." Whereupon the wicked Jews that stood about him, as soon as he had made this prayer, stoned him to death. But God punished them immediately for their barbarity, and took vengeance on them for the murder of Onias --- He did not delay their punishment, but sent a mighty and vehement storm of wind that destroyed the crops of the entire country, until a modius of wheat at that time cost eleven drachmae.’ (Josephus, Antiquities 14:22-24).
Josephus thus sees Onias (Honi) as having received one great answer to prayer, but he apparently tells us nothing about any other wonders, apart from what followed his death. And his interest in him is not the wonder itself, but in the fact that it led to his political embarrassment. He was then put to death for refusing to curse the enemies of his murderers, or to allow their enemies to curse them.
A hundred or so years later the Mishnah says of him, "Once they said to Honi the Circle-Drawer, 'Pray that rain may fall,' He said to them, 'Go out and bring in the Passover ovens (made of clay) that they may not be softened.' He prayed, but rain did not come down. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before God, 'Lord of the universe, Your sons have turned their faces to me, for I am as a son of the house before You. I swear by Your great name that I will not move from here until You have mercy on Your sons.' Rain began dripping. He said, 'Not for this have I prayed, but for rain (that fills) cisterns, pits, and caverns.' It began to come down violently. He said, 'Not for this have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and plenty.' It came down in moderation until Israel went up from Jerusalem to the Mount of the House because of the rain. They came to him and said, ‘Just as you prayed for the rain to fall, so now pray that it might stop.’ He answered them, ‘Go and see if the Stone of Strayers has been washed away.’ Simon ben Shetach sent to him saying, ‘If you had not been Honi I would have pronounced a ban of excommunication against you. But what could I do since you are petulant before God and He performed your will as a son who importunes his father and he does his will.’ ” (m. Ta’anit Mark 3:8).
Even if we were to take this account literally, and it bears all the signs of a tale told with embellishments, (and total lack of control of the wonder), it will be immediately apparent that even two hundred or so years after his death Honi was not portrayed as a continuing wonder-worker but as having received one great answer to prayer in respect of rain. And his God was revealed as somewhat endowed with a sense of humour, to put it in the nicest possible way. Furthermore it is clear from the final comment that Honi’s wonders did not always enhance his prestige. It was only hundreds of years later that this was embellished by the Rabbis into his being a wonder-worker, of which nothing was heard apart from the above in the three hundred years after his death. This view of him as a rain-bringer is in fact confirmed by the tradition that his grandsons were also approached in time of drought to pray for rain.
The later Babylonian Talmud says of Hana ha-Nehba who was the son of the daughter of Honi the Circle-Drawer. “When the world was in need of rain, the Rabbis would send him children and they would take hold of the hem of his garment and say to him, Father, Father [Abba, Abba], give us rain. Thereupon he would plead with the Holy One, Blessed be He, [thus], ‘Master of the Universe, do it for the sake of these who are unable to distinguish between the Father [Abba] who gives rain and the father [abba] who does not’.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanith 23b).
A further story in the Babylonian Talmud demonstrates how Honi’s life became the grounds for fantasy. ‘One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, how long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: seventy years. He then further asked him: are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [grown] carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted for me so I too plant for my children. Honi sat down to have a meal, and sleep overcame him. As he slept, a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight, and he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree, and he asked him, are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied: I am his grandson. Thereupon he exclaimed: it is clear that I have slept for seventy years. He then caught sight of his donkey, who had given birth to several generations, and he returned home. He there inquired, ‘is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?’ The people answered him, his son is no more, but his grandson is still living. Thereupon he said to them: ‘I am Honi the Circle-Drawer’, but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the Bet Hamidrash and there he overheard the scholars say, ‘the law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer’, for whenever he came to the Bet Hamidrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty they had. Whereupon he called out, ‘I am he’, but the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honour due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [ for death] and he died. Rava said: “hence the saying either companionship or death”.’ (Babylonian Talmud Ta'anit 23a).
It should be noted that unlike the Gospels there is no serious attempt to portray in these stories historical facts. There is unquestionable embellishment and two differing accounts of Honi’s death are given. The stories are told so as to emphasise certain points and illustrate teaching rather than to be taken literally. This was typical of Rabbinic stories and parables, and the Rabbis themselves did not take them too seriously.
Another example cited is Hanina ben Dosa who came later than Jesus (mid first century AD) who was a Galilean Rabbi. M. Sotah Mark 9:15, describes him as one of the “men of great deeds” (although the question as to whether this indicated wonders or simply a righteous man is strongly disputed and unanswerable); m. Berakhot Mark 5:5 describes him as famous for his prayers resulting in healing; b. Berakhot 33a, describes how a poisonous reptile bit his heel and died, at which he said “See, my sons, it is not the poisonous reptile that kills, it is sin that kills” (cf. t. Berakhot Mark 3:20, “Woe to the man bitten by a snake, but woe to the snake which has bitten Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa.”); b. Berakhot 34b tells how he prayed for the son of Gamaliel at a distance, and because his words came fluently he knew his prayers were answered the boy was healed at that very hour (an echo of Jesus’ own previous activity); b. Pe’ah 112b, tells how he met the “ queen of the demons,” and banned her from passing through inhabited places; b. Ta’anit 24b, b. Yoma 53b, tell how he prayed and rain stopped; b. Ta’anit 25a, tells how he prayed and short beams lengthened in building a house; b. Ta’anit 24b, b. Berakhot, b. Hullin 86a, say “ Each day a heavenly voice came [from Mount Horeb] and said: ‘The whole universe is sustained on account of my son, Hanina’ ” (another echo of Jesus).
Again we have portrayed here (written at least over a hundred years after his death) a man who was highly respected, whose prayers were successful in bringing about cases of healing and of whom a few ‘wonder’ stories were told, but he is in total contrast to Jesus and some of the accretions may well have been the response of the Rabbis to the stories about Jesus which were spreading. It is noteworthy that one dignitary by whom he was said to be healed, said, so that he might not lose his dignity, ‘he (Hanina) is like a servant before the king, and I am like a prince before the king’. There was in all this no thought that Hanina was some great one, but that he was a man of God around whom stories grew centuries later. We need not doubt that truth lay behind some of the incidents but they appear to have been isolated ones and not have been given special significance other than as indicating that he was a godly man.
(We should possibly note that these sparse references, spread over two centuries, and only one set of which refer to a Galilean Rabbi, simply do not justify the picture of a merry band of charismatic healers running around Galilee in the days of Jesus which is favoured by some commentators. Thus Mark 9:38 may well have been an exceptional case).
End of Excursus.
As with the other Synoptic Gospels Mark is built on chiastic structures (i.e. following an abcba pattern) which divides it up into sections, with a pivotal point being found in Peter’s confession of Jesus as ‘the Christ’ (Mark 8:29) followed by the revelation of Him at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8), from which point on emphasis is laid on His coming suffering, which will result in death and resurrection (Mark 8:31; Mark 9:9; Mark 9:12; Mark 9:30-32; Mark 10:33-34; Mark 10:45).
the First Week of Advent