Chapter 3 The Ministry Outside Galilee

The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton

Chapter 3 The Ministry Outside Galilee

1. Herod's fears, and the murder of John the Baptist, 6:14-29

Mark uses this section as an interlude to fill up the time during which the disciples arc out on their mission. Of course, the death of John the Baptist probably was deeply significant to Jesus, and may have underscored his own forebodings about the future.

Herod hears of the mission of Jesus, and asks about him. (He is not technically a king, but tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, ruler of one-quarter of the realm of his father, the late King Herod the Great.) With a murderer's superstition, he fears Jesus as John the Baptist come to life again. After an introduction, Mark recounts what is doubtless a popular legend about John's death. The historian Josephus, writing some sixty years after the event, gives a number of different details. Here John has been imprisoned because of his opposition to Herod’s adulterous marriage to his brother's wife Herodias. (We do not know if the brother was alive or dead; or, if alive, divorced from Herodias or not.) Herodias wanted to kill John, hut the prophet apparently exercised a sort of fascination for Herod, and he merely imprisoned him. But Herodias seizes a chance at a party to trick herod ( probably in his cups) into decreeing John's death. Salome is the name given to the daughter by Josephus, hut there is no name here. The note of remorse in verse 26 is interesting, but he keeps his promise and orders the execution.

2. The feeding of the 5,000 and its sequels, 6:30-7:37

a. The feeding of the 5,000, 6:30-44

The twelve now return from their mission, and Jesus takes them away to a quiet place for a rest. But the crowds follow along, and Jesus speaks with them until it is time for the evening meal. The disciples ironically ask Jesus if they should go into the village and buy forty dollars' worth of bread for the crowd. He takes the food he and the disciples have brought along for their meal, blesses it, and distributes it to the crowd. They are all filled, and there are twelve (symbolic number?) baskets of food left over.

The story, as Mark received it, was clearly a miracle, in spite of the absence of any note of astonishment or wonder in the narrative. But it is more than a creative miracle of God as it stands. It is also a sign, a pointer to a deeper truth (see Mark 6:52). When John writes up this incident in the fourth gospel (Chapter 6) he follows it with a discourse about the bread of life. The kingdom of God is, in other places, likened to a feast: Luke 14:16-24 and Matthew 22:1-14. And there are hints here that remind us of the last supper, so that this can be read as a kind of preview of that (compare 6:41 and 14:22).

So we cannot know whether the original event was miraculous or not. There is a note of mystery here, and it is best not to be sure of any conclusion. However, almost anything is better than the explanation one sometimes hears: that this is a lesson in sharing -- Jesus began to share his food, and everyone else decided to do the same!

b. Crossing the lake, 6:45-52

Jesus asks the disciples to leave the site of the feeding and after he has dispersed the crowd he retires into the hills for prayer. A storm blows up, and the disciples in the boats see Jesus apparently walk-ing on the water. He quiets their fear and enters a boat, but the disciples still do not understand.

We have some grounds for attempting to rationalize this story, for there is no particular meaning to the story if read as a miracle. The disciples were in trouble, and what frightened them even more than the storm was the ghostly figure of Jesus himself. The picture of Jesus in the story is somewhat unreal. It may be that the disciples were some time in getting under way against the wind, that Jesus unexpectedly waded out into the shallow surf to meet them, and that be took them by surprise. The word of comfort in verse 50 is the significant part, and Mark adds his favorite idea about the disciples' slowness and immaturity.

 c. Landing on the other side, 6:53-56

Notice the growing popularity described here.

d. More controversy with the Pharisees, 7:1-23

This whole section concerns the nature of religious defilement, and verse 15 is the key to the whole. The passage can be conveniently broken up into three sections.

1. On the washing of hands, 7:1-8

The Pharisees, along with some visiting observers from Jerusalem, question Jesus' rejection of the fairly recent Jewish practice of ceremonial washing before meals. As is so often the case, Jesus does not directly respond to the question, but goes straight to the real issue at stake, which he rightly sees to be the authority of scribal tradition. (Mark remembers he is writing for Gentiles unfamiliar with Jewish practice, so he adds verses 3 and 4.) The quotation from scripture in verses 6 and 7 gives Jesus' position.

2. "Corban" 7:9-13

Again he gives an example of how human traditions can take false precedence over the commandment of God. The fifth commandment of Moses is this: Honor your father and mother. But you scribes, he says, fully approve when an unscrupulous son makes a vow to dedicate all his income to the temple, depriving his poor parents of their only means of support. "Corban" means "dedicated to God." So, a perfectly valid human vow of dedication can be used in an irresponsible way which breaks a far more basic commandment of God.

3. More sayings on defilement, 7:14-23

Verse 15 is the summary here, and it is a very significant passage for personal ethics. This is a decisive blow against all legalism: things or places cannot be unclean, only persons. Persons are not defiled by other things, but by themselves and their own disobedience to God. There is no inherent evil in nature, the world, or material things in the Christian ethic. Sin lies in man, and in his misuse of himself and the good things of God's creation. Compare this passage with Jesus' more detailed analysis of man's relation to material possessions in Matthew 6:19-34. Verses 18-19 are a rather unimaginative interpretation of the first half of verse 15, perhaps reflecting the ethical teaching of the early church. Verses 20-23 are a somewhat better interpretation of the second half of verse 15.

c. Two healings, 7:24-37

1. Meeting a Greek woman, 7:24-30

Again Jesus' search for privacy is interrupted. The harshness of the reply in verse 27 to the woman's request for help is the main difficulty here. Some find here a reflection of the early Christian (that is, Jewish-Christian) prejudice against Gentiles. Some find a genuine tension in Jesus' own mind between the claims of the Jews and Gentiles. Some find in Jesus' words merely a half-playful testing of the woman's faith. Jesus is impressed, in any case, by her clever and bold reply, and the cure is effected. This is a fairly rare instance of a cure done at a distance. But the real issue here is not healing so much as it is the relation of the Jew and the Gentile in the kingdom of God.

2. The deaf man with a speech defect, 7:31-37

The unusual gestures and the use of spittle (a traditional habit of ancient exorcists) can perhaps be explained by the man's deafness: he is unable to hear the usual word of command and healing.

The sighing in verse 34 is a trace of Jesus' profound compassion for the sufferer, and perhaps also of anger at the infirmity itself. Mark doubtless has in mind the passage describing the messianic age in Isaiah 35:5-10. So the evangelist here invites us to look beyond the relief of human suffering to a mighty act of God's chosen Servant, bringing the kingdom into history and dethroning the rule of evil in the world.

 3. the feeding of the 4,000 and its sequels, 8:1-26

a. the feeding of the 4,000, 8:1-10

Many scholars believe that this feeding is not a second incident of a miraculous feeding, but a variant account of the same event. Perhaps Mark intended the first feeding to symbolize the salvation of the Jews, and this one that of the Gentiles, since it takes place on Gentile soil. It is difficult to explain the disciples' question in 8:4 if there had been a recent incident similar to this.

The parallelism between the contexts of both feeding stories is interesting to note:

6:34-44, feeding the 5,000

6:53-56, crossing the Gennesaret

7:1-23, controversy with Pharisees and scribes on defilement

7:24-30, the Greek woman (throwing bread to the dogs)

7:31-37, healing a deaf stammerer

8:1-9, feeding of 4,000

8:10, crossing the sea to Dalmanutha

8:11-13, controversy with Pharisees about signs

8:14-21, sayings about bread

8:22-26, healing a blind man

There are also a number of differences between the accounts. Here we have seven loaves instead of five, 4,000 instead of 5,000, compassion because of the people's hunger here, compassion because they are like sheep without a shepherd in the earlier narrative.

b. The Pharisees ask about a sign, 8:11-13

Paul said (I Corinthians 1:22) that the Greeks seek after wisdom and the Jews look for signs. Here the Pharisees want some visible proofs of Jesus' claims; a tangible, and possibly supernatural, portent. Jesus refuses to give this sort of proof, though Mark clearly believes that as the supernatural Son of God he could have done so had he wished.

c. The mystery of the loaves, 8:14-21

In reading this section, regard verse 15 as a footnote: a warning to beware of the evil influence of the Pharisees and of Herod. It is probably an independent saying that was dropped in here because of the relationship of the ideas of leaven and bread.

The disciples have forgotten to bring along food for their boat trip across the sea. Jesus uses this incident to censure them for their forgetfulness about the meaning of the bread in the miraculous feeding. Here we have an interpretation that approaches the kind of thing the author of the fourth gospel does regularly. Mark shows us here how these feeding stories were understood by the early Christians. The feeding was a sign that the kingdom of God was in their midst and that God was sufficient for their needs. This story reminded the early church readers that not even the disciples understood what was happening in their midst. Perhaps, Mark is saying, some of us today do not yet understand the mystery of the loaves.

d. A blind man is healed, 8:22-26

Here is a cure much like that of the deaf stammerer; it is done in private, and spittle is used. It seemed to be a difficult cure to effect, for it required a second laying on of hands.

There is real artistry in Mark's placing this story here, following the one before. He has just told us of the disciples' blindness to the meaning of the loaves. Now he tells us here that even the blind can be made to see. The blind man saw; the disciples would come to see clearly; and Mark's readers will come to see as well.