The Gospel of Mark is a carefully contrived work of art that is intentionally enigmatic in nature because it addresses itself to the spiritually ready. Its aim is to foster the process of self-transformation ritually acted out in baptism and “historically” manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is a process in which the psyche dies and the Child of Humanity is again born.1
By Jay Williams
Walcott D. Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies
The Gospel of Mark, like Soviet foreign policy to Churchill, seems to be a “mystery wrapped in an enigma.” Despite the efforts of some of our very best scholars, the Gospel regularly appears to elude satisfactory elucidation. The perplexities are legion. For example, the gospel writer speaks of the “Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) yet Jesus himself seems to downplay if not reject both these titles in favor of the enigmatic “Son of Man,” (huios tou anthropou) (or, as I would prefer, “Child of Humanity”)2 the meaning of which to this day is not universally agreed upon. Jesus begins his ministry proclaiming that the kingdom of God (basileia tou theou ) is at hand (1:15); yet neither the kingdom (or reign) nor its nearness is readily definable. Also troubling for orthodox Christian theology is what the Gospel omits. There are no birth or childhood narratives, little by way of developed ethical or theological teaching on the part of Jesus, and, if we look at the earliest manuscripts3, no resurrection appearances. The text is episodic, breathless, and, it would appear, without clear argument. One wonders what meaning could possibly have been derived from it by early, non-Christian readers. As a work taken by itself, the Gospel seems cryptic, enigmatic, and frustrating.4 This may be one reason why Mark, over the centuries, has received considerably less attention than Matthew, Luke, and John. Moreover, much of Mark is contained in Matthew and Luke and therefore does not seem to need separate treatment.
Recently, however, more scholars have turned their direct attention to Mark, seeking to ferret out its particular mysteries. Biblical scholars have, since modern scholarship began, employed a variety of methods to study Mark’s relation to the other synoptic gospels. Source critics labored for years on this synoptic problem, trying to ferret out the relation between Mark and Q, and the special sources of Matthew and Luke. Unfortunately, after decades of effort, scholars still cannot agree as to whether Mark preceded and was employed by Matthew or is a synopsis of Matthew or whether there was another, earlier gospel upon which all of the synoptics depended.5 Form critics have most imaginatively picked Mark apart, locating and defining various forms supposedly employed in the oral tradition, but this very speculative work has, to this reader, left only a pile of bones rather than a living, coherent gospel. The same may be said of redaction criticism that may offer us theories as to how the Gospel was put together but provides (to this reader at least) few clues as to the Gospel’s meaning. The message of the work somehow always escapes.
There are, of course, scholars who assume a more-or-less orthodox approach. C.S. Mann in his Anchor Bible commentary begins by saying:
The Gospel . . . is the message that God’s righteous purposes for Israel have reached both goal and climax in and through the ministry and person of Jesus, viewed as messiah and harbinger of a New Age, the Reign of God is declared to all people willing to submit to its demands.6
That sounds reasonable enough until you consider that Mark does not even mention “God’s righteous purposes for Israel.” Moreover, Jesus in his parable of the sower seems to make very clear that what he is sowing is not meant for everyone. It is not just a matter of personal choice.
Suzanne Watts Henderson, in her Christology and Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark ,7 also takes a fairly orthodox approach, assuming that there is Christology in Mark. But is there? The word Christos is used only a few times in the book and then not always very positively. One could argue that either Mark meant to discredit the word entirely or radically reinterpret it.8 Certainly Mark does not accept the usual Jewish idea of the Messiah, that is a “Son of David,” who would drive out the Romans and establish the nation of Israel again on a free and independent basis. Jesus in Mark rejects the title “Son of David “ and accepts the Romans as having legitimate authority. From a Jewish point of view, he is not and does not claim to be the Messiah as they understood him at all.
Today one trend is to try to place the Gospels in their socio-economic and political context and to attempt a description of the “community of Mark.” Truth to tell, however, we cannot be sure exactly where or when or why Mark was written. Hints about the community drawn from the Gospel itself can lead only to the most speculative results about which only a few agree.9 Once the testimony of Papias is declared suspect, and indeed it is, what is there really left to depend upon?10 To write about the community of Mark without any certainty about whether that community existed in Rome or Egypt or Asia Minor or whether Mark wrote before or after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. seems to this author quite futile. Another approach is in order.
During the last several decades there have been a variety of somewhat new departures in Markan studies. I think particularly of the socio-political analyses of Mark by scholars such as Ched Myers and Herman Waetjan and the mythic approach of Burton Mack.11 Douglas W. Geyer has offered us a look at the eerie, anomalous side of Mark in Fear, Anomaly and Uncertainty in the Gospel of Mark.12 Most promising to me is the rhetorical analysis of David Rhoads who studies particularly the way in which the narrative of Mark is constructed to produce an impact upon the reader or hearer.13
Like Rhoads, I believe a literary rather than an historical treatment to be most promising. I would therefore like to suggest, quite modestly, that we begin with the book itself as it is found in its apparently earliest edition, that is, without 16:9-20.14 We will not speculate about Urmark or about the history of the oral tradition. We will not try to date the Gospel or place it in a particular location in the Roman Empire. I am not even interested in who wrote the book or whether, in any sense, it is historical. This is not a contribution to the quest for the historical Jesus. Neither is it an attempt to justify my own or anyone else’s theology. I propose that we look at the book itself, drawing our principles of interpretation from Mark rather than from our own scholarly preconceptions. My basic assumption is simply that Mark is a very subtle and evocative work of art and like every other work of art pleads to be judged on its own basis, according to its own standards.
The question then is: What are Mark’s inherent principles of interpretation? I would suggest that the first and perhaps most important principle is voiced in Mark 4:10-12:
When he was alone, the Twelve, together with the others who formed his company, asked what the parable meant. He told them “the secret of the kingdom is given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables, so that they may see and see again, but not perceive; may hear and hear again but not understand; otherwise they might be converted and be forgiven.”
For Jesus, who here paraphrases Isaiah 6:9-10, the secret of the kingdom is not to be revealed to everyone. It is for those “in the know.” His teaching, therefore, conceals as much as it reveals. It is not meant to be plain.
I would like to argue that the reason why scholars have had so much difficulty with Mark and cannot agree about the meaning of his narrative, is that Mark adopted Jesus’ (and Isaiah’s) approach as his own. The Gospel is not meant to be a clear and comprehensible exposition of Jesus’ life and teachings. It is rather intended to conceal and only to hint at the secret, the mysterion of the kingdom (4:11). Moreover, that mysterion cannot be penetrated by even the cleverest scholarly mind if, in fact, that mind is not “spiritually ready.” Mark essentially denies that the Gospel can be understood “objectively,” as a set of ideas to be intellectually grasped and understood. Understanding demands spiritual insight.15
Does this mean, then, that Markan scholars must abandon their task entirely and turn to other, more exoteric documents? No, not at all. Scholars must not pretend to penetrate the mystery through scholarly sleight-of-hand; that would be to desecrate the holy. But we can at least examine the structure and themes of the Gospel carefully in order to illumine the hints of meaning that Mark gives for those who do have “ears to hear.” The search for structure leads us to a second principle, this time found in the first chapter of the book.
The Gospel according to Mark opens with the following words: “The Arche (beginning or principle) of the Good News (euaggeliov) about Jesus Christ, the son of God.” What is this arche? Clearly, it is to be found in the passage that follows. It is significant that Mark says nothing of Jesus’ birth or infancy or genealogy. He has no apparent interest in Magi or shepherds. Instead, he takes us immediately to the key event: the baptism of Jesus by John.
To understand Mark’s Gospel as a whole, therefore, we must pay careful attention to the opening scene at the Jordan River. The passage begins with a quotation attributed to Isaiah but which is, in fact, composite in nature, deriving from Exodus, Malachi, and the Septuagint version of Isaiah 40:3. John is cast in the role of “preparer of the way,” a function which he fulfills as baptizer. Little in Scripture, however, prepares us for baptism as a ritual or symbolic act. It is true that Jews eventually developed a proselytes’ bath for non-Jews entering the tradition as converts, but it is by no means certain that such a ritual was in use in the first decades of the first century. It is also true that the Qumran community may well have made use of baths for ritual cleansing, but it is doubtful that these were thought of as in any sense for the forgiveness of sin. In ordinary parlance the word baptisma was still used as a common verb meaning “to dip.”
From the little we can learn from this passage, we can say that baptizing was used by John to wash away the uncleanness associated with sin (hamartia). The ritual involved repentance, metanoia, a turning from the old path of sin to a new way of life. This was not just feeling remorseful but rather a 180o reversal of life. Baptism was an acting out and confirmation of this spiritual and behavioral turning. Although nothing concrete is said, the metanoia may also be conceived as a passing through death to new life. The confessor was plunged into the water and then brought up again, clean, purified, and reborn.
John knows that what he performs is, after all, a ritual. He prophesies, however, that someone else will come to baptize, not with water, but with Holy Spirit. Clearly, this prophecy is seen as applying directly to Jesus. Indeed, much of the rest of the Gospel, as we shall see, pictures Jesus as “baptizing” in just such a way.
Jesus, without introduction, appears in the narrative to be dipped by John and to arise out of the water a new human being. For Jesus, this is no mere exoteric ritual, for the occasion becomes a cataclysmic event. This is, indeed, one of the very few times when Jesus’ own “religious experience” is described. First, he sees the heavens ripped apart and the Spirit (pneuma) descending upon him in the form of a dove. From heaven a voice, using the words of the Psalmist, declares him Son or Child, (huios), the beloved (agapetos). This experience of the descent of power from heaven is crucial for the Jesus of Mark. Several times in the Gospel, he speaks of the huios descending in clouds from heaven (8:38, 13:26, 14:62).
Mark’s account of the temptation of Jesus that follows is brief, but evocative. The Spirit literally expels Jesus, driving him out into the wilderness where he is tried by Satan, the tester. Mark adds that Jesus lives with the wild animals and is served by angels. Although cryptic, this passage is highly reminiscent of the shamanic experience through which the human personality is transformed dramatically. Typical of this experience is the divine “madness” which forces the person from his normal haunts into the wilderness where, transformed by the denizens of the spiritual world, he becomes master of the animals and eventually a psychopomp.16 Important in this transformation is often the experience of the tearing apart of the initiand’s body and its reconstitution, a process perhaps later alluded to in the breaking of the bread.
This complex of symbolic themes found in Mark 1:2-11 is underlined and deepened by the conclusion of the Gospel. As Mark begins, so it ends, that is, with his final death and resurrection, an event that Jesus himself identifies as his baptism (10:39). This identification helps to confirm our own initial suspicion: that baptism indicates not only cleansing but death and renewed life. So the circle is complete; Jesus comes out of the tomb as he comes out of the water, clothed with power from above. Each baptism is, in effect, an explication of the other. One understands the ritual through the final act of crucifixion and return and the final act through the ritual.
In the center of the Gospel (ch. 8) is its central turning point, an event of special significance for Mark’s structure. Jesus goes away with his disciples to Caesarea Phillipi and there, in a famous scene (8:27-30) asks the disciples how he is identified by others and by themselves. When Peter calls him the Christ, Jesus immediately commands of them silence about that and begins to speak of the Child of Humanity as suffering many things, being put to death, and after three days rising. When Peter protests, probably because the Messiah is predicted to be militarily victorious, Jesus rebukes him and identifies him as Satan.17 Jesus then proceeds to explicate the implications of the Child of Humanity for his followers:
And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man (sic) also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
This is a complex passage deserving special attention. Jesus says that to be his follower one must deny (aparnesastho)—that is, fail even to recognize—one’s own self. The psyche (here translated life) must be killed in order to be restored, for if one wants to save the self, the self must be destroyed.18 Although it is possible that this is a call for physical martyrdom with the promise of reward in the afterlife (in the ancient world it was sometimes taken as such) the final sentence of the passage seems to indicate that the taking up of the cross and the death of the psyche are spiritual rather than corporeal, unless, of course, Jesus was simply wrong about the coming of the kingdom.
Jesus here points to the critical moment of transformation that is necessary for all followers. The ritual death of baptism and the historical death of Jesus both find their “heart” in the psychic death and rebirth that makes a human being a disciple. The life of the follower must be characterized by a radical transformation in which, if we can use Jesus’ baptism as a prototype, the psyche perishes in order that the Child of Humanity can be born. To hold onto the old psyche and attempt to heal it is futile, for the old self can only perish. Jesus concludes positively, with the forecast that, in fact, some will experience this wrenching transformation and therefore, before physical death, see the huios come with his holy angels.
This elucidation of the central meaning of the book is then followed by what is usually referred to as the transfiguration. Jesus and three of his disciples ascend to a high mountain. There the disciples see Jesus clothed in dazzling white raiment conversing with Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the prototype of all prophets. When Peter wants to honor all three, it is made evident that Jesus supersedes both of the others. A cloud covers them and a voice from heaven again proclaims Jesus “huios.” When the clouds leave there is only Jesus. Moses and Elijah have disappeared.
This story obviously parallels the account of the baptism. What had happened coming out of the depths of the water now happens on the heights. Jesus is transfigured so that his “Sonship” is made manifest. The huios comes in a cloud with his holy angels. Both the baptism and the transfiguration then point together to the final event when Jesus acts out in his own death the radical transformation and is heralded by the young man in the white robe at the empty tomb.
In the light of this central motif revealed in ritual, in psychic change, and in mytho-historical events, the parables of the kingdom found in chapter 4 now begin to make some sense. The central stories are of seeds that are sown and, after the radical transformation of germination, subsequently grow. These parables emphasize three themes that are central to understanding the kingdom:
That the growth of the kingdom demands good soil. The word (logos) will not germinate everywhere and even when it germinates it will not bear grain unless the conditions are right.
That the process is, in a sense, out of our hands. We benefit from it; yet the essential mystery of the death and rebirth of the seed is beyond the control of both the sower and the seed. He sows, goes about his business and then, quite miraculously, the seed becomes a plant and bears grain.
That there is no correlation between the size of the seed and the size of the plant that matures. Small mustard seeds can produce very large plants.
The other two brief parables, in effect, emphasize the paradoxicality of Jesus’ teaching. In the parable of the lamp, Jesus seems to say that even though his parables are, by design, mean to conceal, at the very same time they are like a lamp that illumines the whole house. Moreover, says the second parable, the knowledge that seeds can only grow in the right soil should not lead to complacency, for every person is rewarded according to his or her work. The kingdom only comes to those who are willing to exert some effort.
In any event, the process of the seed dying and being reborn to bear fruit is seen as homologous with the ritual process of baptism and with Jesus’ own death and resurrection. The rebirth adumbrated in the ritual is mysterious, dependent upon the nature of the person being baptized and yet totally out of proportion to the seed-faith which initiates the movement. Parenthetically, it is also interesting that the mystery of the heavenly charisma bestowed through a rent heaven is equated with the mystery of the earth and her powers of fecundity. The Son (Child) of God is equivalent to the Child of Humanity.
The symbolism of baptism not only gives a key to the parables; it also illumines the meaning of the so-called miracles that dominate the first half of the book. Although there are bits of teaching and other narrative interspersed, chapters 1-8 are very largely a collection of miracle stories connected by what appears to be only the thinnest thread. In fact, however, they are all examples of the cleansing of the unclean through baptism by Holy Spirit.
The first such incident occurs at the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus is confronted by a man possessed by an unclean spirit. Like other such spirits mentioned in Mark, this one recognizes Jesus’ spiritual power and so calls him “the Holy One of God.” Jesus simply commands the spirit to come out of the man, and it does. What John did ritually, with water, Jesus does spiritually, with Holy Spirit.
Whether or not Jesus’ subsequent cure of Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever has symbolic significance is difficult to determine. Perhaps the story is no more than an historical recollection. It is interesting, however, that the only times fever is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (Lev. 26:16; Deut. 28:22), it is described as a punishment laid upon Israel for the breaking of the covenant. To cure fever, according to this symbolism, is to cleanse Israel and restore the covenant.
It is noteworthy that all of Jesus’ other physical cures are of a rather specialized nature. Never does he cure, for instance, heart disease or cancer or emphysema. Rather he eliminates through the baptism of the Spirit those conditions such as leprosy, an issue of blood, or death that make persons unclean and hence separate them from the community. (Num. 5:2; Lev. 13:45-46, 15:31-33, 22:4-5) The other physical disabilities cured (paralysis, a withered hand, deafness, and blindness) are all problems which would prevent a member of the priesthood from entering the house of the Lord (Lev. 21:16-21).
In other words, Jesus heals those maladies that separate humans from God. The same can obviously be said of his treatment of those possessed by unclean spirits. Baptism by Holy Spirit drives out those demonic forces that separate humans from the divine. The cures are images of the way the Spirit prepares the psyche for death and rebirth. And, of course, as with John’s baptism, they involve the forgiveness of sins and faith. Faith in Mark, however, always implies a desperate dependence, never merely an intellectual affirmation. What is ironic is that while there seems to have been no problem concerning John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the religious leaders are incensed by Jesus’ offer of forgiveness (2:7).
After the great turning point in chapter 8, the theme of the Gospel becomes transformation through suffering and death; there are only two more miracle-cures mentioned in Mark. The first is of the epileptic-demoniac whom the disciples cannot cure. Jesus finally drives out the unclean spirit, leaving the boy “like a corpse” (9:27) so that those around him think him dead. Thus, this story links the themes of the first half of the book with those of the second. The cleansing leads directly to the experience of death and rebirth, themes which now become ever more prominent.
The second miracle story (10:46-52) is that of the cure of a blind man, a story that parallels and needs to be considered with the cure for blindness in 8:22-26. Both of these stories have a special, obvious function in the text. In the first (8:22ff) Jesus, to produce his cure, puts spit on the man’s eyes. When he first begins to see, his vision is distorted; people look like “trees walking.” Then, when Jesus lays his hands on him again, his eyesight is completely restored. What is significant is that this passage immediately precedes Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Christ. When Peter blurts out his understanding, Jesus obviously thinks his vision still distorted, for he immediately tries to correct it by explaining about the suffering of the Child of Humanity. In other words, the cure of the blind man foreshadows the “cure” of Peter. It is an outward and visible sign of the inward change that must take place in Peter and the other disciples. It should be noted that only in 14:61 does Jesus positively identify himself as the Christ and even then, he quickly shifts to speak about the Child of Humanity.
The second cure of blindness takes place in Jericho, with a man who, while still blind, identifies Jesus as the “Son of David” (10:46-52). After a brief conversation with Jesus he is cured. Significantly, this miracle is immediately followed by Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where the crowds, like the blind man, cry out to the Son of David to save them. The final chapters of the Gospel are designed to open the eyes of the reader to the truth, that this Messiah does save, but not as the crowd apparently expected. That is, to think of Jesus primarily as a Son of David (or Messiah) in any traditional sense is to remain blind.
Two other so-called miracles of the first half of the book relate, not to sickness, but to water itself. The water of baptism is, indeed, a cleansing agent, removing all uncleanness, but it is also an agent of suffering and death. Jesus, after his baptism, proves himself to be master of the waters of darkness.19 In 4:35-41, he calms the sea, while in 6:45-52 he walks on water. In each case, Jesus demonstrates that he is lord of the waters of death in which he was baptized and where he experienced spiritual death and rebirth. The rebirth of the psyche brings power over the forces of darkness through which the old psyche has had to pass. Both these miracles point backward to the rite and forward to the resurrection. While the two water miracles recall the rite of baptism, the two feeding miracles point forward to the mysterion of the breaking of the bread in the last supper. The first of these (6:35-44) tells about the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves of bread and two fish. This story is immediately followed by the account of Jesus walking on the water. This passage concludes enigmatically:
And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
What is there about the loaves that provides a clue to Jesus’ water miracle? The author of Mark does not explain, but it is obvious that he (she) regards the two miracles as interconnected.
In the second story (8:1-10), Jesus feeds 4000 people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. There are seven baskets of food left over. After he refuses to give the Pharisees a sign, he gets into a boat with his disciples who subsequently realize that they have only one loaf of bread to eat.
And he cautioned them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “We have no bread.” And being aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
Clearly, we have returned to our first principle of interpretation, for Jesus here speaks so enigmatically that neither the multitude nor the disciples nor the reader understands readily. What, in fact, is the leaven of the Pharisees? And what does the relation between numbers fed and number of baskets left over reveal? The mystery of the bread broken and shared is the key to Jesus’ triumph over the waters and explains why he is at odds with the Pharisees, yet it is precisely this mystery that seems intractable and impenetrable to the unenlightened.
After the great turning point at Caesarea Phillipi, Jesus returns again and again to the theme that the Child of Humanity must suffer, die, and eventually rise. Along with this new theme come other motifs, among them Jesus’ attack upon possessions (particularly 10:17-31) and his championing of children (9:35-37, 42, 10:13-16). It is not difficult to see the connection. The Child of Humanity acts out the movement of the psyche from death to new and eternal life (10:30). This old psyche that must die is not just a separate thing, easily divorced from the world, but involves a whole series of relations that have been built up. Its family, its possessions, its commitments define it. Psychic death involves stripping ourselves of all or most of those defining characteristics. We must give up house, brothers, sisters, father, children, and land (10:29); we must give up our possessions if we are to enter through the needle’s eye into the kingdom (10:17-27). To enter the kingdom, one must become again a little child, free from those things we think we possess but which, in fact, possess us. To corrupt the little child, therefore, is the most heinous of crimes and will send us straight to the fires of Gehenna (9:42ff). It is comparable to blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is the same thing.
The way to the new life, then, is to cast off all those possessions that define us and bind us to become again simple and innocent. It is in this child-like state that one finds eternal life and is able to express love for God and neighbor.20 The unclean self has been cleansed; the old psyche, supplanted by the Child of Humanity.
There are, to be sure, some limitations about what the follower should forsake. For instance, marriage vows, says Jesus, may not be broken (10:1-12). Although in the perfect world to come there will be no marriage (12:25), in this world God intends there to be no divorce at all. Moreover, Jesus is willing to admit that followers owe something to civil government; he is not an anarchist. Nevertheless, he leaves the line between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God undefined (12:13-17).
Not only does the experience of baptism define the life of the individual, its archetypal pattern is a clue to history. In chapter 13, in the famous “little apocalypse,” Jesus describes the death pangs of the old age, as symbolized by the destruction of the temple, and the rebirth through the coming of the Child of Humanity. The lesson is the same: We must not lament or attempt to hang onto the old era. The Temple and the social psyche it represents must be destroyed in order to make way for the coming of the new age.21 This transformation, like the transformation of the individual, will be painful and harsh. Death cannot be taken lightly, but hope is there, after the disaster, in the coming of the huios.
Whether Jesus meant his words to be taken historically or as another series of metaphors pointing toward the transformation of the individual is an open question. At the very least one can say that the inner experience of death and rebirth gave new meaning to an old age that had lost its center (i.e., Jerusalem and its Temple) and seemed plunged into total darkness. The arche of death is, at the same time, the arche of good news.
To enter Mark’s Gospel is to enter a hall of mirrors. On every side, we see in the ritual of baptism, in the call to psychic death, in the vision of the earthly tumult and destruction, and in the crucifixion itself, the archetype of death leading to new life. The waters drown, but, as one emerges, the Spirit descends and the radiant one, the Child of Humanity, is born. And the meaning of all that is somehow made evident in the breaking of the inexhaustible bread, the bread, born from expired seed, that is finally identified as Jesus’ own body.
The kingdom, Jesus says, is at hand; the Child of Humanity, he says, will descend. The deaf are made to hear, and the blind are made to see. The demons say “Holy One” and “Son of God.” The crowds shout “Hosanna, Son of David,” but Jesus speaks of the Child of Humanity who comes when death and destruction have done their worst. Somehow, for those who have ears to hear, this is the meaning of the kingdom.
Throughout Mark, Jesus uses the language of the old psyche, the old kingdom, the old aeon; yet, like the old Temple, that language is torn down stone by stone, concept by concept, until not one stone remains upon another. The language of theology itself experiences death—and rebirth. But to understand that reborn language, psychic death is a prerequisite. The logos seed must perish to be reborn. Thus, for those of us who still await the transformation, the kingdom will remain an enigma and the Gospel of Mark, though no longer a congeries of stories strung together without apparent logic or argument, still eludes us.
If our analysis of Mark’s thematic structure is correct, the Gospel’s proclamation is far more radical than usually supposed. Although the opening sentence indicates belief in Jesus as Christ and as Son of God, such a belief is qualified severely by the text itself. Jesus clearly prefers to identify himself as the Child of Humanity, the new being who appears when the power of spiritual death has done its worst rather than as Christ or Son of God. Most important, Mark suggests that none of the language of the Gospel will make sense until the radical, spiritual transformation has taken place. Tracing the history of the concept “Kingdom of God” or “Son of Man” will do little good. To understand, to open the eyes, one must first take up the cross and follow.
The emphasis throughout Mark is upon spiritual cleansing, death, and rebirth. If this reading of the Gospel is correct, the aim of the Gospel is to communicate neither the “facts” of Jesus’ life nor theological doctrine. Rather the aim of the Gospel is to intimate the process whereby the saved pass through death to new life. Ritual act, exhortations to psychic change, and mytho-historical resurrection all point toward the central mysterion, a mysterion that must be experienced to be understood.
1 I am keenly aware that the interpretation of a whole Gospel is much too vast for a brief article of this sort. Every sentence could be made a paragraph and every paragraph a chapter. I, however, wish to offer it in such abbreviated form precisely because I would like the reaction of others before proceeding further. This, then, is an exploratory essay that begs for comment and criticism.
2 Anthropos is clearly a generic term with no implication of gender. Hence, it is much better rendered “humanity” than “man.” Huios admittedly does normally, though not always, imply a male offspring. Because sonship seems to have involved being the heir (a role women can now hold) and because “Son” has such different connotations today than it did in the first century, I think it is better for the translator to avoid all hints of sexism and render the word as simply “Child.”
3 C. S. Mann, Mark: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1986), pp. 672-679.
William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 591-592.
4 Cf. Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979), passim.
5 Compare, for instance: B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (London, 1953), pp. 151-198; William R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem (New York, 1964); R. L. Lindsey, “A Modified Two Document Theory of the Synoptic Dependence and Interdependence,” Nov. Test. 6 (1963), pp. 239-263; Mann, op. cit, pp. 47-66.
6 C.S. Mann, op.cit, p. 3.
7 Suzanne Watts Henderson, Christology and Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
8 Christos is used seven times in Mark. After the identification of Jesus as Christos in 1:02 in a phrase that could have been added to make the Gospel appear more orthodox, it is not used again until Peter, in chapter 8, identifies him as such and Jesus tells him to be silent about that. Once the author speaks of the “name of Christ.” Once it is used to argue that the Christ ought not to be thought of as the Son of David. Once it was used to question Jesus and once jeeringly as Jesus hung on the cross.
9 See Dwight N. Peterson, The Origins of Mark, the Markan Community in Current Debate (Boston: Brill, 2000).
10 The Testimony of Papias (ca. 140 A.D.) as cited by Eusebius (4th C.) informs us that an elder told Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, that Mark’s Gospel was derived from Mark from the testimony of Peter himself. Many scholars have identified that Mark with the John Mark of the Book of Acts and have dated and placed the Gospel accordingly. We must remember, however, that a) Papias did not write until some seventy to eighty years after the presumed time of Mark’s writing; b) by the mid-second century the Church desired very much to trace its scriptures back to the apostles; and c) works were often spuriously attributed to the apostles by orthodox and heterodox alike. My own guess is that second-century Christians, with the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles in hand, searched their contents for likely candidates for authorship of the Gospels. Matthew, presumed to be the earliest and written in Aramaic, was ascribed to Matthew the tax collector who is mentioned in the Gospel that now bears his name (9:9). Mark found a likely author in the Book of Acts (12:12, 25; 15:37, 39) while Luke is mentioned in Colossians 4:14, 2 Timothy 4.11, and Philemon 1.24. Cf. Mann, op. cit, p. 60.
11 Cf. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis Books, 1988).
Herman Waetzen, Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia Augsburg Fortress, 1989).
Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia Augsburg Fortress, 1987).
12 Douglas W. Geyer, Fear, Anomaly and Uncertainty in the Gospel of Mark (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002).
13 David M. Rhoads, Mark as Story (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).
14 We will not consider in this article the discovery of another extra-biblical Marcan story Morton Smith claims to have made at Mar Saba in Israel. My own interpretation, however, fits very well with the story of the young man who was raised from the dead and initiated by Jesus in a cave at night. Is this person the same young man who lost his only clothing in 14:51 and then reappears at the tomb of Jesus in 16:5?
15 I speak of “spiritual” here for lack of a better word in English. By “spiritual” I mean a dimension of self-transcendence and world-awareness that goes beyond mere perception and intellection. “Spiritual people,” as I understand the phrase, have entered a higher level of consciousness and that level of consciousness pervades their whole way of existing in the world.
16 Cf. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. Willard Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 33-66 et passim.
17 One of the underlying themes of the Gospel is the struggle between Jesus and Satan. It is noteworthy that although Satan often appears as the enemy, it is Satan who initiates Jesus in the wilderness and it is his minions who recognize him as the Holy One. Here it is Peter who is identified as the tester.
18 Psyche in Greek has rather broad connotations and can well be rendered “life.” Certainly to translate it “soul” would be to misunderstand. When the psyche is crucified and then restored, it is a process that involves the whole being and its relations to the world. Psychic changes inevitably involve changes in behavior.
19 Cf. Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “The Jesus of Mark and the Sea of Galilee,” Journal of Biblical Literature (1984) 103, 3 363-377.
20 Curiously, Jesus never explains in Mark what he means by eternal life (10:30) but says only that it will be received in “the age to come.” One may guess that it lies beyond that wrenching and transforming death that Jesus experienced at the beginning and then the end of the Gospel.
21 Is the new age related to the age of Pisces that was dawning? Certainly many knew about this astronomical phenomenon, and this may have, in turn, made the sign of the fish central for early Christianity.