Introduction to the Series:
I think that the Gospel of Mark is a dramatic narrative, by which I mean not simply that the content is dramatic, which it is, but that Mark has constructed a Gospel which is in essence a play, a drama, albeit divine and cosmic in its implications. This does not mean that I think that Mark is ahistorical, only that each Gospel author had to make choices in how their Gospels were constructed and Mark functions as a natural dramatist in how he presents material and how he structures the events in Jesus’ life. As the first written Gospel, and with the oral tradition more apparent on the surface, Mark is sometimes seen as simplistic and even shapeless, but I will argue that the Gospel of Mark is formed with great care, shaped by a series of six Acts, with many scenes, naturally, comprising each Act. Each Act is at the service of Mark’s overall purpose, to explain and unfold not only the identity of the Messiah, but the destiny of the Messiah and his followers. Mark draws the reader into his narrative, so that the reader himself becomes one of the disciples following along the journey with Jesus, a point that will become more apparent as we move deeper into the Gospel.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
This is the eighth installment, comprising Act 2. Scene 1, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I will blog on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the seventh installment here which contains links to the previous installment and from there you can link to all of them.
7 Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; 8 hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. 9 He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; 10 for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. 11 Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, "You are the Son of God!" 12 But he sternly ordered them not to make him known. 13 He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, 15 and to have authority to cast out demons. 16 So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. Then he went home. (NRSV)
Jesus’ death is foreshadowed directly and clearly in Mark 3:6, in which the Pharisees and Herodians plot Jesus’ death, the scene which ends Act 1. Yet, as Act 2 begins, there is no overt sense of danger; it is as if no threat has been made. And, in a sense, no threat has been made to Jesus or his disciples. He is aware of the opposition of some of the religious and political leaders, but that has been clear since Act 1. Scene 6 (Mark 2:1-12). It is the reader, or viewer, who witnesses the plot, but there is no obvious change in how Jesus’ carries out his ministry or how people respond to him.
Jesus calls his disciples to come with him, to leave the synagogue and follow, but even as he begins, Mark lists all of the people who are following him in addition: people from Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. Not only, Mark alerts us, does Jesus have crowds following from the north in Galilee, Jesus’ own region, but his reputation and fame has spread throughout Judea and even to Gentile regions (Idumea, “beyond the Jordan,” and Tyre and Sidon all qualify). With a few phrases, Mark has told us that Jesus’ ministry not only continues, but is quickly becoming international in scope.
Mark does not want to dwell on the specifics of this scene, or scenes, of crushing crowds, yearning for healing, exorcism and hope, so he gives us a précis or summary of Act 1 in three verses: in Mark 3:10-12, Jesus heals diseases, casts out demons and tells them to say nothing about him. All of this we have witnessed in far more detail. Mark does not want to linger on these powers and deeds, already established in the previous Act; he only, I believe, wants to indicate that however and whatever plot is coming to be formed, it will not frustrate Jesus’ mission. It will continue.
There is another, more intimate picture, however, that Mark wants to create. We move from impersonal crowds from all around ancient Palestine, and the neighboring regions and cities, people who press in namelessly on Jesus, to a quiet scene on a mountainside in which Jesus calls “those whom he wanted” (3:13). He chooses some directly and personally “to be with him” (3:14). This is, to my mind, the climax of the mission thus far – not that healings, exorcisms, teachings and conflicts are insignificant – only that it acknowledges the creation of a formal ministry, shared with others, shared with friends. If you announce a kingdom (1:15), it is to expect that people will hear the call and respond to the call and enter the Kingdom, however ill-defined it is to the initial hearers of the word,” as I wrote in Act 1. Scene 1. But a Kingdom also needs, well, a King: does Jesus announce his own Kingship by choosing friends to be with him? By creating an inner circle? They are confidantes, they are “to be with him,” they are his friends. Yet, they also have formal tasks, which they share with Jesus. Yet, his task surpasses theirs without question, so what, exactly, is Jesus’ formal task?
The “twelve” whom Jesus appoints, Mark tells us, are “apostles,” those who are “sent out to proclaim the message” and “to cast out demons” (3:15). They share in Jesus’ work, and also in his authority. The basic meaning of an apostolos in Greek, prior to its Christian usage, might be indicated by one, or some, of these terms: messenger, envoy, delegate, ambassador. They represent Jesus and share in his ministry. Their names are given, which point to their significance to this story; they will not be a part of a faceless crowd, or known as a “paralytic.” Indeed, some of them are given nicknames, true signs of friends and their personalities or characteristics: Simon is Peter (“Rock”); James and John are “Sons of Thunder.” There is one other description of an Apostle, however, which Mark notes for us, and which he leaves hanging: “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.”
In light of the plot to destroy him, even if such a plot is nothing more than a thought in the imaginations of some, the harsh mention of one “who betrayed him” is not easy to miss. It cements the importance of the plot which ended Act 1. More than that, it signals us that the choosing of the twelve was a strategic choice, in response to the plot, to aid or carry on his mission, or perhaps to protect him from the plot which is coming. While Jesus carried on as if there was no danger or concern, his choosing of the twelve now indicates that he is aware and that he wants his friends to know their mission. That this was the ultimate purpose of this scene is obvious, for when he completes it, “then he went home.”
Before leaving, though, we must note the number of twelve apostles, the number of the tribes of Israel. Since the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom in the 8th century BCE, there had been only two tribes remaining, Judah and Benjamin. There was a hope, however, that when the Kingdom of God was established, all twelve tribes would be restored and established. Listen to Isaiah 27: 13:
And on that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem.
Is this what Jesus intends by choosing twelve apostles, a sign of the fulfillment of the hopes of the Messiah who will restore all Israel? We will have to focus carefully on this number throughout Mark’s narrative, but it is the best initial reading.
John W. Martens
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