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The Gospel of Mark as Theological Allegory

3. Meaning and Purpose of Mark's Gospel

3.1 Promoting Paul's Gospel

Book cover: The Gospel of Mark: A Hypertextual Commentary by Bartosz Adamczewski

A key aim of Mark's narrative is to promote Pauline theology and values. As one scholar put it, 'the gospel of Mark may be described as narrative presentation of the Pauline Gospel' [Svartvik 2000: 34]. Some scholars have gone further by arguing that Mark's gospel, though appearing to be about Jesus, is really a disguised narrative of Paul's apostolic ministry, as he recounts in his letters (see Tarazi [1999]; Adamczewski [2014]). Currently, I am not convinced of this. I am convinced, however, of the more limited thesis that Mark is constructing narrative from Pauline theology.

Mark's gospel suggests deep familiarity and agreement with Paul's letters (see Tarazi [1999]; Marcus [2000]; Dykstra [2012]; Adamczewski [2014]; Price [2014]). In Mark, Jesus promotes Pauline teaching. For example, like Paul, Jesus takes a liberal approach to the Jewish law. Thus, Jesus engages in table fellowship with Gentile sinners [Mk 2: 17; Gal 2: 11–14] and downplays the importance of keeping the Sabbath [Mk 2: 23–8; Galatians 4: 10; Romans 14: 5–6], and observing food laws [Mk 7: 18–19; Rom 14: 19–20]. He teaches that the Jewish law can be summed up with the 'commandment to love' [Mk 12: 28–9; Rom 13: 9–10]. This idea, that the Jewish law can be 'summed up' by the commandment to love, is found nowhere else in the Bible accept Paul's letters.

Mark's narrative also reinforces Pauline theology. For example, Paul's theology is heavily focused on the significance of the cross. According to Paul, God ironically achieved his salvation for humanity through a suffering crucified Messiah. Those who have faith in Christ are also mysteriously united with him, and therefore should expect to share in Christ's sufferings [Rom 8: 17], at least until the end of the age when Christ appears [1 Cor 15: 35–44]. For Paul, 'to live is Christ, and to die is gain' [Phil 1: 21]. Mark shared this view and thus makes Jesus teach that the disciples must 'take up the cross' and sacrifice their own life for the sake of the gospel [Mk 8: 35].

Furthermore, Mark's entire narrative is skilfully designed to climax at the crucifixion (see Marcus [2000]; Dykstra [2012: ch. 5]). For example, the famous messianic secret theme within Mark—in which Jesus insists that people keep his identity disclosed—is probably a literary technique used by Mark to reinforce the centrality of the cross, where Jesus is finally revealed to be the suffering sacrificial messiah (see Dykstra [2012: 95]).

The similarities with Paul extend to common language and grammar, which can only really be explained in terms of a direct literary relationship. To give just one example, in Corinthians Paul says, 'I have made myself a slave to all' [1 Cor 9: 19]. In Mark, Jesus says something very similar: 'whomever wishes to be first among you must be slave to all' [Mk 10: 44]. The common phrase, 'slave to all,' is found nowhere else in the bible apart from Paul and Mark.

Defending the Pauline Mission to the Gentiles

There are many more parallels with Paul,[3] but I want to look more closely at one, which is central to the meaning of Mark's gospel. As I mentioned, Paul preached an inclusive gospel, open to both Jews and Gentiles. Mark promotes this message in several ways (see Dykstra [2012]).

a) Geography in Mark

One way Mark does this is through the use of symbolic geography. Jesus conducts most of his ministry in Galilee. Galilee was known at the time as a region that contained a mixed Jewish–Gentile population. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, Galilee is referred to as a region that was representative of all the nations [Is 9: 1]. In Mark's narrative, Galilee is the region where Jesus interacts with both Jews and Gentiles. Galilee is also clearly contrasted with Jerusalem, the epitome of Jewishness, and the place where the Jews reject Jesus (see Dykstra [2012: 75]). In light of this, some scholars have suggested that in Mark, Galilee is symbolic of the cosmopolitan Roman Empire as a whole (see Tarazi [1999]; Dykstra [2012]).

If Galilee represents the Roman Empire, the Sea of Galilee is a microcosm of the Mediterranean Sea. As many have pointed out, it is very odd that Mark uses the phrase 'sea of Galilee'. No other writer before Mark has ever referred to this small body of water as a 'sea'. Some have therefore suggested that Mark was a poor geographer. A better explanation is that the reference to 'sea' is a deliberate allusion to the Mediterranean, which of course was the central strategic waterway of the entire Roman Empire.

Finally, to complete the symbolic metaphor, the boat that Jesus travels on with the disciples across the 'sea' is meant to symbolize the Christian Church (see Borg [2001: 206–9]). The sea journeys play a crucial role in the middle parts of Mark's narrative. Jesus and his disciples travel by boat from one side of the sea to the other, first to predominantly Jewish areas, then to predominately Gentile areas [Mk chs 4–8]. Here it is significant that the disciples are afraid and fearful of crossing to the other side, despite Jesus calming the 'storms' and leading the way.

The underlying message being conveyed through all this symbolism is that the Church must follow the example of Paul, who fearlessly travelled across the Roman Empire in order to spread the gospel to all, both Jew and Gentile.

b) Feeding Scenes

Another key way that the Mark narrative promotes the Pauline Gentile mission can be seen in the two feeding scenes. Most of us can recall the famous feeding miracle, in which Jesus turns a few loaves into enough food for crowds of people. There are actually two of these feeding scenes in Mark, both of which appear, at first glance, to be almost identical. Many have thought Mark must have gotten confused and reported the same story twice. But this is not likely, firstly, because Mark's source for the feeding scenes is not oral testimony going back to Jesus, but prior literature, particularly the very similar tales about Elisha found in 2 Kings 4: 43–4 as well as the Homeric Epics (see MacDonald [2006]). And, secondly, because when you read the two stories closely you notice several differences. These differences turn out to be crucial for understanding the symbolic meaning Mark wished to convey.

Book cover: Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally by Marcus J. Borg

The first feeding scene occurs in mainly Jewish territory. We know this because we are told it takes place not far from the hometown of Jesus, which in Mark is symbolic of Judea as a whole. In the story, the numbers five and twelve are prominent. There are five loaves and five thousand men and twelve baskets of bread left over. As Dykstra [2012: 80] points out 'the number five recalls the five books of the Torah, and the number twelve recalls the twelve tribes of Israel'. These are very Jewish numbers. There are also more subtle indications in the use of language. For example, the Greek word used for baskets is reflective of a Jewish context. So, this is a miraculous feeding to the Jews.

The second feeding scene takes place a few chapters later after Jesus has journeyed through Gentile territory. The setting is suggestive of a more mixed Jewish–Gentile audience because some of the crowd had 'come from afar' [Mk 8: 3]. Again, the numbers are significant. This time, four and seven are prominent. There are four thousand people, seven loaves, and seven baskets left over. Commentators have interpreted this in various ways (see Tarazi [1999]; Price [2007]; Dykstra [2012]). In my view, the best explanation consistent with Mark's promotion of the Gentile mission is that the number four alludes to the 'ends of the earth', meaning the whole known world (see Tarazi [1999]; Dykstra [2012]). This is confirmed even within the text. In Mark 13: 27, Jesus says, 'he will gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens', meaning the whole known world. The number seven represents divine completeness, calling to mind scriptural texts such as the Genesis story with its seven days of creation.

Mark's ordering of the two scenes is significant: first a feeding to the Jews and then a feeding to a mixed Jewish–Gentile crowd. The message being conveyed is that the disciples (whose symbolic significance I will discuss in the next section) must move from a Church based on Jewish exclusivism to an inclusive Church, as advocated by Paul. The number of fish in each scene further reinforces the point (see Tarazi [1999]). In the first scene, the disciples find two fish, which is symbolic of their misguided attempt to 'preserve two separate communities' [Tarazi 1999: 182]. At the second scene, by contrast, we are told 'there are a few fish' [Mk 8: 7]. This represents 'undifferentiated individuals, since there is no longer a difference between Jew and Gentile' [Tarazi 1999: 182].

Whether or not you agree with my interpretation, there can be little doubt that Mark intended his readers to interpret these feeding scenes symbolically. This is evident from the dialogue that takes place between Jesus and the disciples following the second feeding [Mk 8: 14–21]. Jesus asks the disciples to recall the number of baskets left over at each feeding: twelve baskets at the first, seven at the second. When the disciples predictably fail to compute, an exasperated Jesus cries out, 'Do you still not understand?' Mark gives us no indication that the penny ever drops. But the question is really addressed, to us, the reader. Mark hopes that, unlike the disciples, we will be a little more discerning.

Footnotes

  1. [3] Other parallels with Paul include the requirements, struggles and hardships of Christian missions [Mk 6: 6–9; 1 Cor 4: 11–13; Mk 13: 9–13; 2 Cor 11: 23–4], agreement about sinful deeds or 'works of the flesh' [Mk 7: 20–3; Gal 5: 19–20], a common strategy in dealing with the Roman state [Mk 12: 13–15; Rom 13: 7], similar beliefs about the future resurrection body [Mk 12: 25; 1 Cor 15: 35–40] and the need to keep alert for the coming end times [Mk 13: 32–7; 1 Thess 5: 1–6].

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