Category Archives: Mark

Exploring Jesus’ Question in Mark 3:4

By Julie M. Smith

             In Mark 3:4, Jesus asks if it is acceptable to save life or to kill on the sabbath as part of a response to those who would criticize him for healing a man’s withered hand on the sabbath. Jewish tradition permitted breaking the sabbath in order to save a life,[1] so the Pharisees would have readily agreed that one can save a life on the sabbath no matter what rules have to be broken to do so. But the man’s hand is unlikely to cause his death in the next day, which raises questions about how this saying would apply here and leads to several different interpretations of Jesus’ statement:

  1. Jesus is alluding to Deuteronomy 30:14-19 (where the Lord sets out two paths, one of life and the other of death) which implies that this situation has two paths: one where the man’s full life, including temple worship, is possible, and one with a wooden examination for sabbath violations, ending with the goal of killing Jesus. Because the Deuteronomy text mentions cursings, Jesus is suggesting that the Pharisees have chosen to curse themselves by choosing (Jesus’) death over (the man’s) life. Jesus’ allusion makes clear that the Pharisees are on the side of the wicked, a truly remarkable accusation. Deuteronomy 30:14 mentions the mouth, heart, hands, and doing, all four of which are also mentioned in this story in Mark.[2] In the Hebrew Bible text, references to the hand are prominent in the context of the violation of covenants as a result of failing to act; if this is paralleled to Mark’s text, it implies that the man with the withered hand is literally suffering the consequences of the curses of inaction, from which Jesus rescues him by his own action. As is typical in Mark’s healing miracles, atonement theology comes into play as Jesus exchanges roles with the man.
  2. The passage implies that withholding healing is a form of killing: “Jesus makes withholding the cure of the man’s paralyzed hand, even for a few hours, tantamount to killing him, and performing the cure immediately tantamount to saving his life. For Mark’s Jesus, the [last days] war is already raging, and on that battlefield every human action either strikes a blow for life or wields one for death; the cautious middle ground, upon which one might wait a few minutes before doing good, has disappeared.”[3]
  3. Jewish tradition held that if there is any doubt concerning whether life is in danger, it is acceptable to heal on the sabbath—and the example offered is a sore throat![4] Since there is at least a hypothetical chance that the withered hand could cause the man’s death before the sabbath is over and it would show callous disregard for the man’s life to take the risk, healing him constitutes saving a life. And the objectors’ actions are all the more venal since Jesus’ healing was permitted under the law.
  4. “Life” is to be understood as “quality of life.” The man’s withered hand would have prevented him from participating in temple worship.[5] So Jesus is not merely restoring a hand, but restoring his ability to engage in temple worship. This reading links this story to Mark 2:1-12, since restoring the man’s hand makes worshiping possible, just as the forgiveness in Mark 2:1-12 restores the man’s spiritual wholeness.
  5. “Save” can have a theological meaning in Mark.[6] This would imply that Jesus’ miracle will increase the man’s faith and therefore “save” his soul—an action most appropriate to the sabbath. This reading creates a nice link to this controversy story’s chiastic partner (Mark 2:1-12), where the issue is forgiveness of sins.
  6. This statement is an example of exaggeration to make a point.[7]

Regardless of which interpretation is correct, Jesus’ reference to taking a life applies to the plot against his own life (see Mark 3:6). Obviously it is a violation to kill someone on any day of the week, and yet they are closely watching Jesus so they can level an accusation that will result in his death. In this sense, the contrast between his actions and theirs is clear: to any extent that Jesus is guilty of violating the sabbath, they are guilty of much, much worse.

One implication of Jesus’ statement is that the categories that they have adopted (“do” and “don’t do”) create horrifying outcomes since the man can be left disabled on the sabbath but it is permissible to plan a murder.

[1] See Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New York:  Doubleday, 2002), 248.

[2] See Kurt Queller, “‘Stretch Out Your Hand!’ Echo and Metalepsis in Mark’s Sabbath Healing Controversy,” Journal Of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (December 1, 2010): 737-758. The parallel to “doing” is found in the man’s action of stretching out his hand.

[3] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New York:  Doubleday, 2002), 252.

[4] See Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark:  A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 2007), 209.

[5] See Leviticus 21:16-23.

[6] See Mark 5:34, 10:26, and 13:13.

[7] See N. T. France, The Gospel of Mark:  A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2002), 150.

Palm Sunday

By Eric D. Huntsman
This post is excerpted from Dr. Huntsman’s blog, http://huntsmanseasonal.blogspot.com.

Palm Sunday is not a regular part of Latter-day Saint observance, and not even all Christian churches celebrate it.  Nevertheless, recounting Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem has a long history in the Christian tradition, and it plays an important in the liturgies of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestant churches.  For me celebrating Palm Sunday truly opens Holy Week, setting it apart from other weeks by focusing my thoughts and faith on Christ my king. Continue reading

Anointing in Bethany in Mark 14:3-9

By Julie M. Smith

Structure of Mark 14 This lengthy chapter contains some of the most significant events of Jesus’ story: his anointing, his observance of Passover, his prayer in Gethsemane, his abandonment and betrayal by his disciples, his arrest, his examination by the Jewish leaders, and Peter’s denial of him. While other options are possible, this is one option for understanding the structure of this chapter:

  1. Death Plot (14:1-2)
  2. Anointing of Jesus (14:3-9)
  3. Death Plot (14:10-11)
  4. Preparation of the Passover (14:12-16)
  5. Prediction of Judas’ Betrayal (14:17-21)
  6. Last Supper (14:22-25)
  7. Prediction of Peter’s Betrayal (14:26-31)
  8. Preparation for the Passion (=Gethsemane Prayer) (14:32-42)
  9. Jesus Is Arrested (14:43-52)
  10. Peter Positioned to Deny Jesus (14:53-54)
  11. Jesus Is Examined by the Sanhedrin (14:55-65)
  12. Peter Denies Jesus (14:66-72)

The chapter has three main scenes (14:3-9, 14:22-25, and 14:55-65); each one focuses on the topic of Jesus’ identity (see the commentary below). Each is bracketed by reference to the betrayal of Jesus (14:1-12, 10-11, 17-21, 26-21, 53-54, 66-72). In between the three main scenes are scenes focused on the idea of preparation: first, the preparation for the Passover (14:12-16) and then preparation for the Passion (including Jesus’ arrest; 14:32-52). The framing of the Gethsemane scene in Mark’s story of Jesus as noteworthy: it prepares Jesus to face his suffering and death and it should have prepared the disciples as well (see the commentary below). Continue reading

Allusions to Isaiah and Exodus in Mark 3:1-6

by Julie M. Smith

Mark 3:1–6 reports Jesus healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath and provoking the anger of the Pharisees. Words in this passage bring to mind two passages from the Hebrew Bible.

Isaiah 56:1-8. This passage from Isaiah has several resonances with this story in Mark, including references to the sabbath, the hand, and being dried up. If Mark wrote with that story in mind, it suggests the following:

  1. In the Isaiah passage, the main concern is the exclusion of a physically imperfect man (a eunuch) from being counted among the people of the Lord. In Mark’s passage, the man with the withered hand would have been excluded from temple worship. So the topic at hand is not so much working on the sabbath but the inclusion or exclusion of people from the house of God. Mark’s story makes the point that restoring this man to the blessings of full participation in the house of Israel was a most appropriate act for the sabbath. Isaiah 56:3 emphasizes that the Lord’s ministry will not and must not exclude anyone, so by analogy, Mark’s story implies that Jesus will not allow this man to be excluded from the blessings of full participation.
  2. The Isaiah text is focused on the will and actions of the Lord, who is the one who restores the eunuch. Thus, Mark’s text focuses attention on Jesus as the Lord who reveals righteousness (see Isaiah 56:1).
  3. Immediately after issuing the command to promote justice (Isaiah 56:1), the Lord commands the people to keep the Sabbath. This parallel ensures that Mark’s story is not interpreted as encouraging lawlessness, but rather as promoting honoring the Sabbath by saving a life.
  4. The Isaiah passage ends with a reference to the Lord gathering all people who will follow him. In the Markan context, the withered man is one of those people (at least literarily if not literally). The position of the Pharisees is that it is acceptable to exclude this man; Jesus’ position is that including this man supersedes the need to follow the Sabbath rules. Because the prevailing interpretation of Sabbath rules permitted violations when life was at stake, Jesus’ point here is that exclusion from the temple rituals constitutes a sort of living death.

Exodus 14. The following points of contact between this story and Exodus 14 have been identified:[1]

  1. “Stretch out your hand” (Mark 3:5) is the same phrase as in LXX Exodus 14:16. This parallel puts the man with the withered hand in the role of Moses and Jesus in the role of the God of the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus, the stretched hand introduces plagues, but in Mark’s story, it ends one; this inversion speaks to Jesus’ power to right wrongs and perhaps even subtly alludes to the Atonement. Much as the plagues were a witness to Pharaoh, the ending of the man’s plague should be a witness to the Pharisees of Jesus’ power. (One of the most remarkable—and yet rarely remarked upon—aspects of Mark’s story is that the scribes seem completely unaffected by witnessing a miracle.) Just as Moses and Aaron stretch forth their hands to enact plagues that condemn Pharaoh, the man’s stretching out of his hand seems like it will condemn Jesus (to the death plot) but, ironically, ends up condemning the Pharisees.
  2. The word for “restored” (Greek: apokathistemi) is the same word used in LXX Exodus 14:27, where the waters are “restored.” There are two possible ways to understand this parallel: First, much as the restoring of the water resulted in the death of the Egyptian army, the restoring of the man’s hand results in Jesus death (as a result of the Pharisees’ plot). Unlike Pharaoh’s army, however, Jesus is innocent of wrongdoing, a fact which encourages the reader to draw some conclusions here about the atonement, mainly that Jesus’ suffering is unjustified. Second, the restoring of the waters is what made it possible for the children of Israel to be free. Similarly, the restoring of the man’s hand frees him to fully participate in life and worship. (And in a typical example of Mark’s irony, it has precisely the opposite effect on Jesus since it will ultimately lead to his death.)
  3. “In the midst of the sea” (LXX Exodus 14:16, 22, and 23) might explain the odd phrasing in Mark 3:3 inviting the man to appear in the middle (Greek: meson, midst). Much as the focus in Exodus 14 is on the miraculous action that affects the sea, the focus in Mark’s story should not be on the watching Pharisees or the death plot but on the miracle that happens to the man.
  4. The reference to hardness of heart parallels Pharaoh’s hardness of heart (despite the fact that the LXX uses different language to describe it).
  5. The “withered” (=dried out) hand might allude to the Red Sea, which also becomes “dried out,” although the same word is not used. In both cases, the “restoration” points to miraculous powers and divine care.
  6. Just as Pharaoh’s plot to enslave the Hebrews failed because of divine intervention, the Pharisees’ plot to kill Jesus will ultimately fail because of the Resurrection.

 

[1] See Kurt Queller, “‘Stretch Out Your Hand!’ Echo and Metalepsis in Mark’s Sabbath Healing Controversy,” Journal Of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (December 1, 2010): 737-758.

Is There a Mistake in Mark 2:26?

by Julie M. Smith

And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?”

             Many manuscripts omit the phrase “in the days of Abiathar the high priest,” presumably because in 1 Samuel 21, the priest in question was Ahimelech and not Abiathar. (Some variant readings state that it was during the lifetime of, not during the high priesthood of, Abiathar.[1]) There are many theories to explain the reference to “Abiathar” in this text:

  1. It did not refer to the time of the high priest but rather to the section of the scroll where the story about the bread could be found.[2] (Most are not convinced by this theory.)
  2. The phrase meant “in the lifetime of Abiathar.”
  3. It originally read “the father of Abiathar” but “the father of” dropped out because the beginning of the words “father” and “Abiathar” were similar.[3] (But why would Jesus refer to “the father of Abiathar”?)
  4. The whole phrase is a later addition. Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the text is that it is difficult to understand why Jesus would have made reference to any high priest, as it is not relevant to the story. So perhaps this phrase was an early (and incorrect) gloss. This would explain why the line is missing from Matthew and Luke: it was not included in their copies of the Gospel of Mark.
  5. The earlier reading, referring to Abiathar, is a textbook example of “the mistakes of men”[4] that can occur in a record: either Mark (or his source) erred in naming Abiathar here.[5] Because Abiathar was associated with David as the high priest during his reign,[6] it is an understandable mistake.

Most scholars agree that the text is in error; the other theories come mostly from those committed to the inerrancy of scripture. While the error is not terribly significant, it does raise an interesting question:  does the mistaken referent stem from Jesus or from Mark (or his source)? If it was Mark’s or his source’s error, then we have an instance where Mark did not correctly record Jesus’ words. If it was Jesus’ error—an option most LDS would not find acceptable, although perhaps some readings of Luke 2:52 (“and Jesus increased in wisdom”) would permit such a position—then that would speak to the nature of his mortal limitations.

[1] See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart:  United Bible Societies, 2001), page 68.

[2] See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 116.

[3] See Robert H. Stein, Mark (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2008), 146.

[4] Title Page, The Book of Mormon.

[5] Note that both Matthew and Luke omit any reference to the high priest.

[6] See C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St Mark (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1959), 116.

Exploring Mark 2:17

by Julie M. Smith

 “When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

 When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them. Note that Jesus is answering a question that was directed not to him but to his disciples.

There may be a contrast between the scribes who see and Jesus who hears:  the scribes are reacting to Jesus’ actions but Jesus is reacting to their words. Later in Mark, the distinction between words and deeds will become more pronounced.

They that are whole have no need of the physician but they that are sick. Because a similar sentiment can be found in other ancient writings, it is likely that Jesus is quoting a proverb here.[1]

Note that Jesus’ statement not only permits eating with sinners, but casts it as a requirement of his ministry:  “it is ridiculous to imagine a doctor who refuses to meet his patients; so any effective ‘healer’ must expect to get his hands dirty.”[2]

Allusion:  Exodus 15:26. In that passage, the Lord announces “I am the Lord that healeth thee.” If that text is alluded to here, then it is an important piece of self-revelation as Jesus identifies with the God of the Hebrew Bible.

I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. “To repentance” is missing from the oldest manuscripts. It may have been added to harmonize with Luke 5:32; Luke may have added it to explain why Jesus did not call the righteous.

  “I came” probably does not refer to Jesus’ presence near the Sea of Galilee but rather to his mortal mission; even some non-LDS scholars think that it points to Jesus’ awareness of and teaching about the pre-existence.[3]

There are at least two ways to understand Jesus’ statement that he did not come to call the righteous:

  1. Jesus is doing the ancient equivalent of putting air quotes around “the righteous,” meaning that he is not claiming that there is a group of people who can be called righteous, but rather gently mocking the scribes’ (incorrect) use of the word. Jesus’ statement “satirizes the Pharisees’ claim to have achieved righteousness by separation from sin.”[4] It is even possible to translate this word as “self-righteous.”[5] So this would not imply that there were people to whom Jesus offered nothing, but rather that there were people who did not respond to his call because they considered themselves to be righteous. This statement is a subtle but provocative way for Jesus to get his audience to consider whether they are completely righteous.
  2. The statement can be read as dialectical negation, a form of speech meant to emphasize the positive half of the statement.[6] Thus no great emphasis should be placed on whether Jesus was calling the righteous; the point is that his ministry gives more emphasis to sinners.

While the previous verse has multiple references to publicans and sinners, publican drops out of Jesus’ statement here. This breach of the pattern may be Jesus’ subtle commentary that the tax collectors were not sinners of a special class, but no different from any other sinner.

Several important truths can be gleaned from Jesus’ answer:

  1. Jesus is teaching that sin in another person is not a reason to separate from that person. Because everyone sins, a separatist mindset would either require withdrawing from all human society or ignoring some sins.
  2. The Pharisees’ focus is on what effect the sinners will have on Jesus; Jesus’ focus is on what effect he will have on the sinners.
  3. Jesus presents an analogy between sin and sickness; this is part of a theology of the atonement that develops gradually throughout the Gospel. The analogy subtly teaches that forgiveness for sins is outside the reach of any human; it points to the need for a mediator (a doctor, one who can atone).
  4. Jesus’ statement puts an entirely different spin on the calling of the disciples: they were called not because they were (already) perfect or (already) excellent leaders, but because Jesus called the sick who needed him to heal them so that they could become perfected.

The Hebrew Bible develops the idea of the messianic banquet–a future time of harmony and celebration between God and humans that is symbolized by a feast.  It is possible to see this meal as a foreshadowing of the messianic banquet, which makes the presence of “sinners” all the more meaningful because it teaches that they also have a seat at God’s table.

[1]See N. T. France, The Gospel of Mark:  A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 135.

[2]See N. T. France, The Gospel of Mark:  A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 135.

[3]See C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St Mark (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1959), 106.

[4]Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (New York:  Doubleday, 2002), 231.

[5]See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), 228.

[6]See Robert A. Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary:  Mark 1-8:26 (Dallas, TX:  Word Books, 1989), 104.

Comparing Mark 2:13-17 and Mark 1:16-20

By Julie M. Smith

There are many similarities between Levi’s call in Mark 2 and the two call stories (of Peter and Andrew and James and John) in Mark 1 (see full text below):  the seaside setting, the description of the future disciple going about his daily tasks, Jesus’ abrupt command to follow, and the disciples’ instant obedience. There are no similar call stories after this one; we can either assume that all disciples received similar calls but Mark saw no need to record them after the pattern was established, or that they were not called as Simon, Andrew, James, John, and Levi were.

Levi has a very different occupation and social role than the four fishermen. While Jesus was able to make symbolic allusions to the Hebrew Bible by calling fishermen, calling a tax collector was a shocking thing to do: it made him look sympathetic to the Romans and would have offended Jewish sensibilities. In fact, this story isn’t so much about the call of Levi per se as it is about who Jesus thinks is fit to be a disciple—and his answer would likely have stunned just about everyone.

It is possible that Levi knew the four fishermen and had collected taxes on their catch (and kept some as his own payment). If so, one can only imagine the dynamics among the disciples as Levi is welcomed into the circle of brotherhood.

In a sense, the call of Levi represents a heightening of the previous call stories: while it would have been possible for the fishermen to return to their fishing, either occasionally or full time, it would not have been possible for Levi to resume his post after abandoning it.[1]

[1]See C. S. Mann, Mark:  A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1986), 129.

christ-calling-fishermenMark 1:16-20 

16 Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.

17 And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.

18 And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.

19 And when he had gone a little further thence, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets.

20 And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him.

Mark 2:13-17

13 And he went forth again by the sea side; and all the multitude resorted unto him, and he taught them.

14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphæus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.

15 And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him.

16 And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat withpublicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?

17 When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that arewhole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

 

Who is “Levi the son of Alphaeus” in Mark 2:14?

By Julie M. Smith 

And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphæus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.”

When a relationship is mentioned (“son of Alphaeus”), it is normally either because:

  1. The relative (in this case, Alphaeus) was known to Mark’s audience.
  2. Mark wants to distinguish the person from others with the same name. (While there is no other Levi in Mark’s Gospel, there could have been another Levi known to Mark’s audience.)

We do not know which is the case here. Either way, this phrase presents a bit of a puzzle since Levi is not mentioned elsewhere in the NT[1] and since there is no “Levi” on the lists of the Twelve.[2] There are several possibilities for what has happened here:

  1. Mark 3:18 refers to James as the “son of Alphaeus.” So:
    • Levi might be the brother of James (which is a helpful data point, but doesn’t solve the problem).
    • “Levi” might be another name for “James.” (Some manuscripts read “James” instead of “Levi” here, but that is almost certainly a later reading.) It was not uncommon for people to be known by more than one name; we know that Jesus himself renamed a disciple on at least one occasion although, unlike with Simon Peter, there is no story in the text describing a renaming of Levi.
    • It is possible that this might not even be the same “Alphaeus;” there could be no relationship whatsoever between Levi and James.
  2. The reason that Levi is not mentioned on any of the lists of the Twelve is because Levi was not one of the Twelve. This story states that Jesus called Levi to follow him but does not mention a specific calling; it is certainly possible that Jesus called Levi to a different role.[3]
  3. Matthew 9:9-13, which is parallel to this story, has a toll collector named Matthew (although he is not called the son of Alphaeus). Because the name Matthew appears on the apostolic lists and he was also a publican, perhaps Levi was another name for Matthew. (This seems to be how the Gospel of Matthew understands this story, but this does not necessarily mean that Mark understood the situation in the same way.)
  4. The word “Levi” could be a tribal marker (“the Levite”) and not a proper name. The idea of a Levite tax collector would be most ironic, since tax collectors were regarded as particularly unclean while Levites needed to be clean to perform the temple rituals. But most scholars do not accept reading “Levite” here since it would be odd for Jesus to call someone without his name being included in the story.

Regardless, the emphasis here is not on Levi’s identity, but the fact that he was a tax collector.[4]

[1]Save the parallel account in Luke 5:27.

[2]See Mark 3:16-18.

[3]Compare Luke 10:1.

[4]See Ben W. Witherington, The Gospel of Mark:  A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 120.

Healing Women

By Eric D. Huntsman. Cross-posted at New Testament Thoughts

In a culture and time period that were so male-centric, the attention that Jesus paid to women was noteworthy.  All four of the gospels, and especially Luke, contain stories of Jesus healing women, teaching them, including them in his parables, and even allowing them to become part of his ministry.  In addition to three individual stories about Jesus healing women, Luke also includes a summary that notes how Jesus was accompanied in his Galilean ministry by a group of women “which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities,” including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, “and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance” (Luke 8:2–3).  All this is particularly striking in the cultural context of the gospels, in which Jewish men would be wary of interaction and especially any kind of physical contact with women to whom they were not related.[1]  The fact that none of these women are directly named allows them to serve as types of all women whom Jesus invites to come to him and be healed.  Continue reading