This is the twenty-first installment, comprising Act 3. Scene 9, chapter 8: 1-9, Scene 10, 8:10-21, and Scene 11, 8:22-26, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the twentieth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
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).
Scene 9, 10, 11: 8:1-9; 10-21; 22-26
1 In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, 2 "I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. 3 If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance." 4 His disciples replied, "How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?" 5 He asked them, "How many loaves do you have?" They said, "Seven." 6 Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. 7 They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. 8 They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha. 11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation." 13 And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side. 14 Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, "Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod." 16 They said to one another, "It is because we have no bread." 17 And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" They said to him, "Twelve." 20 "And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" And they said to him, "Seven." 21 Then he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?"22 They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, "Can you see anything?" 24 And the man looked up and said, "I can see people, but they look like trees, walking." 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Then he sent him away to his home, saying, "Do not even go into the village." (NRSV)
These final scenes of Act 3 created the most difficulty in terms of division. In many respects I see verses 8:1-26 as one scene, the A2 as a whole, which comments on and makes sense, ultimately, of the A1-B in the Markan sandwich. This second feeding miracle, in fact, gives us clues to the whole of the drama of Jesus’ life and his intentions for his ministry, not just the dénouement and cryptic explication of the previous two chapters. I break it up, however, into three scenes, however closely related they are, because each scene represents the camera moving to a new locale, a new group, a new insight, each of which builds on the other. While all of these scenes are interwoven and tightly connected to each other, each reveals a new perspective, a new piece of the puzzle.
The first question that needs to be considered in Act 3, Scene 9 is why is there a second feeding miracle? It is similar in style and structure to the first feeding miracles, though some details even if small will prove to be significant. It is probable that even if Jesus has healed a Jewish man amongst a group of Jews in Act 3, Scene 8, he still remains in a Gentile region, the Decapolis, or “Ten Cities.” We might assume then that the crowd is Gentile. Jesus has compassion on this crowd, though, just as on the previous crowd (6:34; 8:2). The disciples remain, once again, rather clueless about the situation - "How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?" (8:4) – even though Jesus just did the same thing a day ago. In fact, they have a couple of more loaves (7 as compared to 5; and “a few small fish” as compared to two: 6:38; 8:5, 7), but do numbers matter when a few fish and loaves feed thousands of people? Each possible miracle seems to leave the apostles unable to remember even the prior miracle, or those miracles prior to that! Do they recall seeing a ghost on the sea? They seem to have faith, as they continue to follow Jesus everywhere and anywhere, but it diminishes or becomes clouded as time passes, only to have them reminded of Jesus’ power over and over again.
Nevertheless, Jesus takes the bread and fish, and breaks and distributes them to the crowd, without, as in chapter 6:37, asking the disciples to feed the crowd. In this case Jesus feeds 4,000 (8:9) instead of 5,000 (6:44). He gives thanks prior to breaking the bread and distributing it (8:6-7), using the Greek word eucharisteo, which is not used in chapter 6, and which imbues Mark’s feeding miracles with a “sacramental” or “ecclesial” character. This is an important detail, but I think the most important details are those of the number 12, which is how many baskets were left in 6:43, and the number 7, which is how many baskets of food are left in 8:8. The number 12 matters, as I have argued earlier here and here, as the fulfillment of Israel, the 12 tribes brought back together in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, the Messianic banquet in the Kingdom of God (Isaiah 27:12-13). But what about the four thousand people just fed and the 7 baskets full whom Jesus sends away (8:9)? That it matters who they are becomes apparent at the end of Act 3, Scene 10.
In Act 3, Scene 10, Jesus leaves for “the district of Dalmanutha” (8:10), a region unknown apart from this reference, and in a flashback to Act 3, Scene 5, the “Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him” (8:11). It is obvious that apart from plotting against Jesus, there is some measure of consideration as to whether he might be the Messiah or some sort of prophet. Jesus rejects their request for a sign, which is intriguing in light of the miracles Jesus has already performed and which have drawn their attention. What sign would be sufficient? What are they looking for in particular? As Jesus travels in the boat with his disciples, Mark gives us an interesting little detail that the disciples had only brought one loaf of bread with them, and as Jesus warns them to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod" (8:15; see also Act 1, Scene 9). The apostles remain clueless about Jesus’ speech, interpreting it as a scolding for their lack of bread – as if they have not seen Jesus take a few loaves and feed thousands of people – and not as a warning about spiritual danger and the way in which temptation(s) pervade the spiritual journey (8: 16).
Now, however, Jesus does scold them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to 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 collect?" They said to him, "Twelve." "And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?" And they said to him, "Seven." Then he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?" (8:17-21).
It is with the final question, "Do you not yet understand?", that Mark makes it obvious that we, too, those who are eavesdropping on these scenes, the auditors, are also disciples travelling along with Jesus. It has been easy, with the omniscient view of the narrator Mark, to mock the disciples, just a few verses prior, for their lack of understanding, but now Mark is asking us too: "Do you not yet understand?" But what are we to understand? What does the 12 mean? What does the 7 mean? Mark is asking that we come up with an answer; Jesus’ questions are directed to us: do we have eyes and fail to see, ears and fail to hear?
What should we see and hear? There are only a couple of options. The bread is more than just physical food – it must represent the spiritual food, free from the purity laws, free from the “yeast” of the Pharisees – by which Jesus can feed all people, even a Syrophoenician woman with some of the crumbs, of which basketfuls have been picked up at both feeding miracles. So the 12? The 7? If the 12 represents restored Israel, which the Messiah will feed with his messianic banquet, the 7 must represent the Gentiles, those who have been beyond the reaches of the covenant, those who are now, Mark is hinting, being welcomed in by Jesus. Whether the 7 represents the traditional 7 enemy tribes of the Israelites as a model for all the Gentiles or the completion and perfection of all the peoples, Mark wants us to know that Jesus will feed all people, with more leftover than we could imagine.
But Mark does not end his Act 3 here, he introduces us to a strange scene in Bethsaida, in which a blind man is brought to Jesus, who heals him with a physical act of putting saliva in his eyes (8:22-23). The man can see, but only partially and he says to Jesus, "I can see people, but they look like trees, walking" (8:24). The man has partial sight only, a miracle that is only partly fulfilled; so Jesus does it again and then the man can see all things clearly (8:25). The man is sent away and told, "Do not even go into the village" (8:26). Here is the secrecy motif, but this can be left for later, as I think the whole of the secrecy motif has to do with Jesus’ destiny, not his Messiahship, and this will be unpacked in Act 4. But the double healing of the blind man: what does it mean? Does it mimic the double feeding miracle? Spiritual sight is not complete until all people can see who Jesus is.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @BibleJunkies