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The Theology of Mark

Posted on: February 21, 2015

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The whole theology of the Gospel of Mark is evident in the outline of the Gospel.

Introduction: Words and Deeds (1:1-8:21)
Central Section: Identity of Jesus (8:22-10:52)
Jesus and Authorities: Controversies (11:1-12:44)
Temple Vision: Apocalypticism (13:1-37)
Death of Jesus: the Passion (14:1-16:8)

The introduction, chapters 1 to 8, shows the power of Jesus in miracle and the authority. Between chapters 3 and 8 (with one miracle in chapter 9), Mark used a standard list of five miracles that he had either in written or oral form. The tradition of orally retelling these five miracles meant that, over time, they were modified and doubled into ten stories basically similar. The list consisted of 1) a miracle involving water, 2) a miracle involving a woman’s daughter, 3) a miracle involving multiplying loaves, 4) a miracle involving a man, and 5) a miracle involving the casting out demons. Mark inherited this list already in the duplicate form of ten, which is why Mark has two multiplications of loaves (6:35-44 and 8:1-10), two casting out of demons, two women with daughters, two healing of men, and two nature miracles involving water. They are all from the original list of five miracles, which was doubled by the time Mark got a hold of it. All these stories were designed to show the “power” (in Greek, the dynamis) of Jesus.

In addition to the miracles, the opening chapters also have the teaching of Jesus. In particular chapter 4 of Mark has three parables involving seed. There is the sower parable, the growing seed parable, and the mustard seed parable. This list of parables was also put together in oral tradition due to seed being a common item. Mark used the parables and had Jesus explain them to the disciples (and consequently to the reader). Mark explained the parables as allegories - things to decode as if a cryptic message. This is wholly wrong, but that is what Mark did.

This introduction is impressive. We see Jesus as a miracle worker and as a wise person who know secrets about the ways of God. Yet, Mark has set us up. If we only looked at the opening, we might want to say that Mark was convinced that Jesus was powerful. He had authority over demons and could raise people from the dead. He was also as smart as the great Solomon, seemingly capable of directing human affairs as wisely as Plato’s philosopher-king. But these opening stories and lessons are designed to test our understanding. Mark threw these stories out as if pieces of candy to see if the reader will take the bait.

The disciples do take the bait. In this gospel, they consistently think that Jesus is about power. They relate Jesus to earthly authority but do not recognize the real authority is of a different order. The disciples want the glory of Jesus, but they never understand that Jesus is about suffering and weakness. There is no glory to be found here. The identity of Jesus is given to us in the middle of the gospel at chapter 8. Jesus is the “Son of Man” who must suffer. Peter, the disciple, thinks this is wrong, and Jesus tells Peter to “shut up.” Then Jesus calls him Satan.
As we go through the rest of the gospel and read about the controversies with Jewish leaders and the vision of the destruction of the temple, we are again impressed with the authority of Jesus. He just seems to know stuff that no one else knows and do things that no one else does. Still, all along the way, leading up to his death, the disciples are mesmerized by the authority, even arguing among themselves about who is the greatest, but they never understand that authority is not the point. The authority is really only a sign that the mission of Jesus is true. However, the mission is about suffering and weakness, not about gaining glory.

Remarkably in this gospel the only people who understand that Jesus is about suffering and death are the very ones involved in putting him to death. Only his executioners, it seems, understand him. A woman anoints the body of Jesus with oils. She is symbolically burying him. Her act recognizes metaphorically that he is dead, as he soon will be (14:8). The disciples think this act is a waste of good money, but Jesus indicates it is a prophetic act. She understands what he is about.

When the Jewish council meets in chapter 14, they vote unanimously for the death penalty. Mark tells us that “all of them condemned him” (64). A bit later we learn that among them was Joseph of Arimathaea, the man who takes and buries the body of Jesus. He is described as a “respected member of the council” who knew about “the kingdom of God” (15:43), yet he voted to put Jesus to death.

Finally, the Roman centurion who oversaw the whole crucifixion, for that was a centurion’s job (15:39), is the one who confesses that “surely this man was a son of God” (15:39). It is a strange thing that in Mark only those who put Jesus to death understand him while those with him in his life do not.

What are we to make of this peculiar gospel? Why is Mark so insistent that anyone looking for glory in relation to Jesus is looking in the wrong place? Mark ends the gospel with an empty tomb, with a scene that shows us Jesus is not among the dead. But Mark has no resurrection appearances. It is up to the reader to “see” Jesus out there in the world and not among the dead. The figure of Jesus in this sense is transformed in the gospel (not really raised from the dead but transformed in death) from the one who suffers to the one who lives in the communities that “see” the meaning of his life. The gospel indicates this because in the story only those involved in the death (the woman, Joseph of Arimathaea, and the centurion) see or understand what Jesus is about. Only those who see that his death is transformation get what his life is about.

What can this mean for modern people, especially if we relate our identity to the tradition of Christianity? I think this is hard to answer. Mark might have been criticizing a type of emerging Christianity in his day that he completely disagreed with. We might call it a Christianity of glory. Mark was definitely against that. But the other element is that Mark saw suffering and saw in the suffering of Jesus a vision of transformation. This makes Mark a political gospel. If we are correct in this reading, the theology of Mark is that in human suffering is the call for change. Wherever there is suffering, change or transformation is necessary. We might call this Mark’s social imperative, and it certainly remains a politically charged message.

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