Category Archives: Biblical Studies

Miracles, Parables, and the Kingdom of God

Miracles, Parables, and the Kingdom of God

 

In the Gospel according to Mark, the first words of Christ are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15). The following chapters of Mark lay out the initiation and preaching of this kingdom that is being ushered in through Christ and His work. In their commentary on Mark in the Sacra Pagina series, Donahue and Harrington bring forth the important observation that when speaking of the Kingdom of God, there is a difference between rule or reign vs. mere geographical region.  They rightly note that the connotation present in “Kingdom of God” is one not of stasis and location, but one “that is more active and dynamic, with the nuance of the ‘reigning’ of God as well.”[1] Morna Hooker agrees, noting that this puts an “emphasis on kingship of God”[2] (emphasis mine), not just the Kingdom of God. Therefore, we may take it to mean that Mark gives “Kingdom of God” a particular meaning that is marked not by a region or locality, but the aspect of the sovereignty of God.

Following this proclamation that “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” miracles, then, serve to establish the initiation of the Kingdom of God among men, revealing the authority and power of God over the present occupants: the demons and their lord (1:23-27; cf. Mk. 3:23-27). In an excellent article that reviews much of the history of scholarship regarding Jesus and his miracles and identity, Andrew Kelley sees miracles as being deeply connected to the Kingdom of God as well as being closely linked to Jesus’ identity, saying, “The miracles of Jesus reveal his identity as God himself at work.”[3] Twelftree, he says, “builds a cumulative case that the primary use of miracles in Mark is to reveal the identity of Jesus” largely through the fact that “Jesus seems to act with his own power and in his own authority.”[4] This idea of the identity of Jesus, as well as the relationship of this identity with His authority, will be a theme that we explore often in the coming months here.

This ‘power and authority’ that Twelftree speaks of was both the power and the authority to usher in the Kingdom of God, and it is boldly displayed in the first three chapters of Mark in particular. There we see four pointed displays of authority over demons, sickness, leprosy, paralysis and sin (1:21-27, 29-31, 40-44, 2:1-12), all along accompanied by a constant mention and display of His authority over demonic forces (1:32, 34, 39, 3:15) who might be characterized as the ‘present occupants’ (Mk. 3:23-27) of the ‘current kingdom’ that is soon to be bound and overthrown. Miracles emphasize and establish this new rule, showing the authority of God, the sovereignty of God, the kingship of God in their present situation. Thus miracles both reveal the identity and the authority of Christ as representative of God while giving pronouncement and initiation of rule to the Kingdom of God on earth.

After these four miracle stories display Christ’s power to usher in the new Kingdom (and, one might say, begin the process), the description of the extent and the nature of the Kingdom of God is revealed through Jesus’ response to four questions, followed by Jesus’ teaching in four parables. The questions asked reveal that the extent of the kingdom extends beyond the physical to the spiritual (2:7, 10-11), that this Kingdom is open to even sinners and tax collectors (2:16-17), that it is something new, outside of the current restrictive tradition (18-22), and that it offers a flexibility that used to be present but has since been abandoned (24-27). Then in one final, additional question asked by Jesus Himself, we see how this new kingdom was unlike their rigid interpretation of the law regarding the Sabbath observance which had become restrictive to the point that it prevented them from caring for others and doing God’s good work on the Sabbath (3:1-5). Jesus was introducing a gospel of grace that offered the flexibility of new wineskins for situations that needed flexibility to accommodate ‘new wine.’

This is then followed by four parables (4:1-34) which are Jesus’ teaching concerning the Kingdom of God, its program, and its nature. The Kingdom is grown through the sowing and receiving of the word of God (4:1-8, 14-20), it is meant to be shared and revealed by those who are a part of it (21-25), it is ultimately a work of God who causes the growth (26-29), and it will be successful, grow, sprout, and become a haven for many more than anticipated (30-32). So we see that while miracles pertain largely to the initiation of the Kingdom, the parables that Mark records (primarily in 4:1-34) are the teaching concerning the Kingdom of God, its program, and its nature. Both worked together as complements, as a display and as teaching concerning the Kingdom of God.

 

______________________

 

[1] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 71.

[2] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 55.

[3] Andrew J. Kelly, “Miracles, Jesus, and Identity: A History of Research regarding Jesus and Miracles with Special Attention to the Gospel of Mark.” Currents in Biblical Research, 13 (2014): 82-106. 97. He follows and cites Witmer, the Galilean Exorcist: His Exorcism in Social and Political Context (JHJS, 459; London:T&T Clark, 2012), 2-5.

[4] Kelley, 97, citing Graham Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 343.

Mark: Audience and Purpose

Considering the environment and multifarious plights of various Christian groups throughout the mid-first century, it is safe to say that whatever community Mark wrote for was written for was familiar with some level of suffering. In attempting to hone in on the identity of this audience, one must consider the date of the writing in relation to the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple by the Roman General Titus in 70 AD. Joel Marcus makes the argument for a post-Revolt writing of Mark saying that “it seems likely that the prophecies of false messiahs, war, persecution, and betrayal in vv. 6-13 (cf. vv. 21-22) are part of the present experience of Mark’s community.”[1] However despite Marcus’ bold assertion that he has solidly proven the post-Revolt dating of Mark and that the “decks are cleared,”[2] the matter is hardly resolved, or in his favor. Hengel, in his excellent Studies in the Gospels of Mark, sets forth a decent case of his own for a Markan sitz im leben grounded firmly in pre-revolt Judea, convincingly citing Mark’s apparent familiarity with and proximity to events that were disrupted only after the Revolt,[3] something the later Gospel writers did not have to such a degree as Mark apparently did.

With many scholars recognizing the presence of some sort of suffering within the Markan community, the question of what sort of suffering are they enduring arises. It very well could be suffering at the hands of Nero in a mid-60s Rome, as dramatically relayed by Tacitus in 115 AD. It is also quite possible that the suffering of the Markan audience was due to the warring factions of Jews and Gentiles in the unrest following Nero’s granting Caesarea to Gentiles, which resulted in a slaughter of Jews and a subsequent reprisal against the Gentiles in the region surrounding Galilee. If this is the case, one might cite this as a reason for Mark’s Galilean focus and emphasis. It is also possible that the suffering was that which occurred in the events leading up to the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple, a suffering that also included fear and an uncertainty of the coming events of their time.  It has also been considered that the ‘suffering’ of the audience of Mark might be due to the presence of false prophets and false teachers spreading heresy among the early church, and thus is was of concern to Mark and the major impetus behind his writing (so Weeden[4]). And there are others (Marcus) who consider it a suffering that has occurred because of the Jewish revolt as these Christians are now living lives in exile, in a new world without Jerusalem and the Temple.

While it is my view that Mark was written before the Jewish revolt to a community that was experiencing some form of persecution and experiencing the tumultuous events that led up to the revolt in 66 AD, many points of a post-70 writing are worth considering. On salient one being that if Mark were writing to a post-70 audience, it would be to an audience who was bereaved of a temple and hopes of a Messianic savior figure. Mark’s gospel account, therefore, offered to the Jewish nation a new, different sort of Davidic Messiah that offered them a new, intangible kingdom – the “Kingdom of God” – in the stead of their old, earthly kingdom that had recently passed away. This lends a certain appeal to a post-temple dating, one that would offer hope to the reader despite present helpless and hopeless circumstances. In this case, then, Mark is certainly writing to a suffering community, and is offering them the hope of being part of a heavenly, eternal kingdom.

I believe that we do see that the Markan audience was a ‘suffering community,’ at least in some regard. With this, Mark addresses the plight of his audience quite well, constantly reminding them of the authority of Christ in every encounter and endeavor. At the beginning of his account, Mark reminded his audience that Christ was the one foretold of by the prophets (1:2) and then at the end, reminded his audience that the suffering of the Messiah was part of God’s eternal plan (14:49). Throughout Mark’s account, Christ showed His mastery over every event that caught the disciples by surprise (4:35-41, 6:47-51). He displayed His power and authority over sickness, demonic agents, disease, the laws of nature (6:36-44), nature itself (4:35-41), and even death, the greatest and most powerful of foes (5:35-43; 16:5-7). Christ repeatedly predicted His own death (8:31, 9:9, 9:31), showing mastery over the circumstances of even such an abysmal event as this. Shortly before His betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus confidently rose from prayer and roused His disciples to go out and meet His betrayer head on (14:42). Christ even told His disciples (and by proxy, Mark’s audience) of the sufferings that they, themselves, would endure before the end (chapter 13), preparing them for persecution and for the fall of Jerusalem.

Through such wonderful acts and exhibitions of power and authority, therefore, Jesus displays for Mark’s audience that there is nothing outside of His power and control, that there is nothing that has caught Him off guard, and that He is sufficient to meet their needs and to see them through their trials, as difficult as those trials may be. I believe this is a major theme of Mark, one that influenced his writing greatly to an audience that lived in a world that seemed to be falling apart at the seams. He wrote – and Jesus spoke – to give comfort to the afflicted and to let them know that there is nothing outside of God’s plan and purpose, and to the point that He would even forfeit His life for that same plan and purpose, while being in full command of the entire situation. This theme of God’s continual purpose and sovereignty is one that is pervasive throughout the work, and we will see this as we begin to work through Mark together.

 

 

——

 

 

[1] Joel Marcus, “The Jewish War and the Sitz im Leben of Mark.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 111, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992): 441-462. 447.

[2] ibid, 446.

[3] Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 9-10.

[4] Theodore J. Weeden, “The Heresy That Necessitated Mark’s Gospel.” Zeitschrift die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, (Jan 1, 1968): 145-158.

Let Us Begin – What is Mark?

Lectio Divina 200px

Any study of a book of the Bible must begin by addressing the issue of Genre. One of the most elusive aspects of Mark, and indeed of the Gospels in general, is identifying and assigning to them a specific genre by which they might be best interpreted. Many suggestions have been set forward, including the idea that the genre of Gospel (εὐαγγελίον) was a new, independent invention by the gospel writers. Aside from this idea, however, most of the theories regarding the genre of the Gospels – and Mark in particular – place it somewhere in the realm of biography or narrative history, with the former being the most common.

One of the greater objections to considering the Gospel of Mark to be a biography is that the author has no intention of including a history of Jesus’ birth, childhood, or early adulthood. These aspects appear to be important as per the definition presented by David Aune, that “biography may be defined as a discrete prose narrative devoted exclusively to the portrayal of the whole life of a particular individual perceived as historical”[1] (though he places Mark as a sub-genre of Greco-Roman biography[2]). According to Collins, Vielhauer concluded as well that “Mark is not an example of a Greco-Roman ‘life’ because, unlike the typical ancient biography, it shows no interest in the origins, education, and inner development of Jesus.”[3] So on these two counts (and more), the Gospel of Mark does not appear at first glance to be a simple biography written in the same mode as traditional Greco-Roman biography.

However, many advancements have been made in the comparison of the Gospel accounts with variations of biographies in antiquity, resulting in a broader definition and structure of biography. Burridge took this opportunity to reinterpret Greco-Roman ‘biography’ as βιος, rather than biography, granting more flexibility to this ancient genre.[4] With this reinvention or expansion of possibilities of this genre, one finds many examples which would allow for a more forgiving understanding of biography, one that would allow Mark to be classified as such. Many have therefore begun to understand Mark as a “historical biography,” βιος, or even an “apocalyptic historical monograph” (so Collins).

It is a point of interest, however, that without these elements of early biographical material, Mark has famously been described as a “Passion narrative with an extended introduction.”[5] This description is telling, for it recognizes the purpose of the work as primarily theological, as it is focused on Jesus’ Passion and resurrection, with these things, themselves, being instrumental to the implementation of the Kingdom of God. Mark (as is evidenced not only throughout the book or at its end, but in its very prologue) is theological in nature, with the narrative serving the purpose of 1) establishing the events in a historical context, and 2) driving the story along to reach its theological conclusion. Vielhauer believed the motivation for the writing of this gospel to be based in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ,[6] which we see evidenced through Mark’s special attention to the last week and even more so to the last hours of Christ’s life, as time slows steadily at that point (a rather deft literary device to draw attention the emphasis of the work).

Taking these things into account, then, and with purpose and genre being inseparable, I would argue that Mark’s purpose was to assemble his received material in a way that displayed a particular theological point that he wanted to convey. Mark, therefore, is a collection of events of the life of Jesus constructed around a theological purpose. And so, answering the original question, I would not classify the Gospel of Mark so much as a “life” of Jesus, but as a “theological biography,” for the author’s intent is clearly theological, and at the center of this theology is the person of Jesus Christ. It is truly so much more than the life of a man, but includes what theological and eschatological implications were brought into the realm of humankind through the life of Jesus of Nazareth while constantly challenging his audience to wrestle – alongside the characters in the story – with the identity of who this man really is and with what authority He has to institute this sort of divine kingdom among men.

 

 

—–

[1] David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 1988), 29.

[2] Ibid, 46-76.

[3] Adela Yarbro Collins, Is Mark’s Gospel a life of Jesus? (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1990), 10. Vielhauer also held the view that “the gospel form itself is something new” (ibid).

[4] Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 233-255.

[5] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ, trans. C. E. Braaten (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1964), 80.

[6] Philipp Vielhauer, Geschichte der urchristlichen Literature (New York, NY: de Gruyter, 1975), 350.