Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Exegesis of Mark 8.14-21

Sorry Folks- a piece of college work for those of you who can be bothered: It was my choice from a selection of passages. It is supposed to be 1500 words long so I will have to do some editing.

We are looking at different ways of reading scripture and I have concentrated on Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism.

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 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?” (NSRV)

This passage takes place towards the end of the first section of Mark’s Gospel – that section which deals with Jesus’ Galilean ministry and prior to his departure for Jerusalem. More specifically it follows the second feeding of a multitude and an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees who demand a sign from Jesus. Both events are significant to this passage.

This is the third detailed account of a sea crossing by Jesus and the disciples1 where the disciples fail to show themselves well: they are fearful and faithless in the face of the storm and Jesus’ subsequent presence at night on the sea; ignorant in response to Jesus’ power and now, blind, deaf, without understanding and hard of heart.

One of the more startling phenomena in Mark is the negative portrait of the disciples. They seem to move through a negative progression from lack of perception of Jesus through rejection of the way of suffering that he predicts to flight and outright denial of him. Donahue and Harrington, p32.

From a source criticism viewpoint the fact that Mark and Matthew both
relate two feeding miracles and both record this exchange would suggest access to a common source. If we were examining Luke’s Gospel here it would be valid to question his motivation for not including this sequence of related stories.

Both earlier events are significant to this short and somewhat exasperated exchange: the disciples had just seen Jesus perform a feeding miracle, and another before that, and their own laxness at having forgotten sufficient food themselves seems to have blinded them to their master’s capacity to provide. What is also clear is that the disciples have been further influenced by the doubts of the Pharisees. In an analogy that takes the theme of bread, Jesus chides them (v17-21 above).

The leaven (yeast) of the Pharisees is their corrupting power and the disciples show themselves to be infected. The leaven of Herod is Herod’s evaluation of Jesus as John risen from the dead which underestimated the significance of Jesus just as the disciples did now. Painter J, p116/7.

Painter goes on to argue that from a narrative point of view the disciples have been set up. In the context of a shortage of bread a symbolic use of “leaven” will inevitably be misunderstood but makes sense of Jesus’ question to them about why they were discussing bread. His subsequent condemnation of them is a heavy critique of their lack of perception and understanding and reflects Jesus’ earlier disappointment: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4.40). This is a technique of ironic misunderstanding, also found in John2 where seemingly superficial comments lead to deeper insights: this would suggest an established literary technique.

It does seem odd that Jesus should persevere with such unpromising characters but we need to remember Mark’s theme of Messianic secrecy. Jesus awaits the time when the disciples will join up the dots as Peter subsequently does in chapter 8.29 with the first glimmers of understanding. “You are the Messiah.” But that point has not yet come and Jesus laments with clear frustration their collective dimness. Determined, seemingly, not to spell it out to them Jesus waits with growing impatience for the penny to drop.

However, is it simply that the disciples are shocking failures or is there another explanation? Theodore Weeden argues cogently

I conclude that Mark is involved in a vendetta against the disciples. He is intent on discrediting them. He paints them as obtuse, obdurate and recalcitrant men who at first are unreceptive of Jesus’ Messiahship, then oppose its style and character and finally totally reject it. Weeden T, p50/1.

The reason for this vendetta on the part of the author, Weeden suggests, is to undermine the disciples. Either way, the hardened hearts Jesus refers to reflect the idea of a wilful resistance to the works of God3 and some translations such as The King James stay with the singular heart to reflect the unified misunderstanding of the disciples. There is serious irony here in Jesus exasperated Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? This rebuke comes at the end of a long passage dealing with Jesus public ministry where everything he accomplished led to acclamation and amazement. The addition of òuπω (not yet) adds extra poignancy. “Do you not yet see after all that?” Yet the disciples seem to have forgotten.

Perhaps there is an attempt to make the disciples appear slow-witted as a literary device: perhaps Weeden is right about a plot or perhaps their slow-wittedness is juxtaposed with Peter’s later confession of faith to make it the more astounding. Of course Mark could also be using these words of Jesus as a wider challenge to the reader. “What do you understand – you who come later?” This would certainly be an approach of the form critic: the reader sympathises with the disciples and learns from their experiences. Mark leads the reader to consider what he or she would do differently to become better disciples. Donahue and Daniel develop this idea in a Christological point:

Due to its location at the end of the first major section of the gospel, the question ranges beyond the misunderstanding over the bread and confronts readers with the question whether a true grasp of Jesus can exist simply on the basis of his powerful teaching and powerful deeds. They must still confront the mystery of the cross. P 35

It is easy to imagine that the two feedings are versions of the same story that had got mangled in the telling and accidentally ended up as a two events. Through Jesus’ questioning of the disciples Mark illustrates that this is not so. Certainly the questioning about the specifics of the leftovers seems laboured and pedantic but, as Canon Jeffrey John points out:
Clearly the numbers are symbolic, intended to point us towards interpreting the first miracle as a feeding for Jews and the second as a feeding for Gentiles. J John, p63.

What had seemed previously to be an insight into the relationship between Jesus and his disciples now takes on the mantle of theological symbolism with overtones of linguistic detective work. Of course historically there might have only been one feeding but what we have here is a theological agenda.

In order to fully understand this passage in Mark we also need to consider the feeding stories that led to this discussion: Jeffrey John argues that the double feeding theory is evidenced by the fact that the first miracle takes place in a Jewish area while the second takes place in a largely Gentile area. In the accounts words of Jewish usage occur and in the other Gentile words are used.

These two stories must have been understood by Matthew and Mark as a prefiguring of the two-stage preaching of the Gospel: “to the Jew first and then to the Gentile” as St. Paul later observed. In Luke’s Gospel, however, the gentile mission is taken for granted and only one feeding is recorded. The bread symbolizes the word of God: a standard association in Jewish thinking linked to the warning in Deuteronomy “You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

But there is more according to Jeffrey John: perhaps the most obvious theological emphasis of the feeding miracles is to tell us that Jesus is the new Moses. Like Moses Jesus crosses the water into the desert, sits the people down in companies and feeds them with miraculous bread in such abundance that there are basketfuls left over. Less obviously, because the relevant story is less well known, Jesus’ actions also recall Elisha. Some of the details of the feeding stories reflect an incident in 2 Kings when Elisha takes an army into the desert and feeds them miraculously with a few loaves.

Taking Moses and Elisha together, the story seems to be telling us in an allusive way that in recapitulating what Moses did, Jesus is fulfilling the Law and in recapitulating what Elisha did, Jesus is fulfilling the Prophets. This feeding miracle is intended to teach us that Jesus is truly the one whom the Law and the Prophets foretold. Ibid. p62.

It is this that the obdurate disciples are being reminded of in this passage. There is also some understanding amongst commentators that these feedings create an obvious link to the Eucharist. The actions of Jesus over the bread in the feeding stories as described by Mark are exactly those of Jesus that he reports at the institution of the Eucharist (14.22)

To the early Christians the whole story would have been strongly reminiscent of their Eucharistic worship, at which they too sat in orderly fashion while deacons brought round to them loaves blessed and broken by the celebrant. D E Nineham, p179.

If this passage is indeed a passage that reveals the blindness of the disciples it is also helpful to see what follows this passage: the story of the healing of the blind man (8.22-26), led into by Peter’s confession of faith, is unlikely to have been placed at this point in the narrative by accident in a random ordering of remembrances. The redaction critic might well argue that Mark intends this passage to be a bookend to the incident with the disciples as the healing miracle is a fulfilment in Jesus of Isaiah’s promise “the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” Like the prophecy this miracle is about the healing of people’s spiritual senses as much as of their physical senses: ears and eyes again as in v 18 above. The disciples are indeed deaf and blind spiritually at this point. It is important in terms of redaction criticism to see that Matthew’s version of this exchange (Mat 16.4-12) is not followed by the same sequence of events. Matthew has his own agenda.

In following the journey of the disciples in Mark the reader seems to be invited to enter personally into the spiritual challenges that Jesus’ words pose to his followers.

Most modern readers of the Gospels have focused on the story level of the narrative – the characters, events and settings …Consequently they have failed to reckon adequately with the discourse level or the rhetoric of the narrative – the ways in which the language of the narrative attempts to weave its spell over the reader. The shift from meaning-as-content to meaning-as-event leads us to understand the workings of the language of the Gospels in new ways. Robert Fowler p2/3.

1 Mark 4.35-41; 6.45-52 and 8.14-21
2 John 3.3-4; 4.10-12; 7.35, 41-42; 11.50
3 Exodus 10-1/20-27, 11.10, 14.8, Ezek 3.7, 11.19, Jer 5.21 (Hear this O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.)

John Donahue and Daniel Harrington: The Gospel of Mark, Liturgical Press, 2002.

John Painter: Mark’s Gospel, Routledge, 1997.

Theodore Weeden: Mark: Traditions in Conflict, Fortress Press, 1971.

Jeffrey John: The Meaning in The Miracles, Canterbury Press, 2001.

D.E. Nineham: Saint Mark, Penguin, 1963.

Robert M Fowler: Let The Reader Understand, Continuum, 2001.

Richard A Horsey: Hearing the whole story, Westminster John Knox Press 2001

William L Lane: The Gospel according to Mark, Eardmans, 1974.