In this post I resume what I began yesterday, an explanation of how the Gospel of Mark can be read as a biography of Jesus, with the “character” of the main subject shown in the stories told about him at the early part of the account. I’ve pointed out that Jesus is portrayed in a very Jewish light as the messiah, the Son of God (and I have said a few words about what that would mean to a Jewish audience). And then, in Jesus’ first actions, we learn more about who he is – specifically, what kind of Son of God.
Again, the following is taken from my textbook on the New Testament.
Jesus the Authoritative Son of God
The reader is immediately struck by the way in which Jesus is portrayed as supremely authoritative. At the outset of his ministry, he sees fishermen plying their trade; he calls to them and without further ado they leave their boats and family and hapless co-workers to follow him (1:16-20). Jesus is an authoritative leader; when he speaks people obey.
He enters into the synagogue to teach and astonishes those who hear. Mark tells us why: “He taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22). Jesus is an authoritative teacher; when he gives instruction, people hang onto his every word.
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He immediately encounters a man possessed by an unclean spirit, who recognizes him as “the Holy One of God” (1:24). Jesus rebukes the spirit, and by his word alone, drives it out from the man. Those who witness the deed declare its significance: “With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (1:27). Not only does he drive out the evil spirits, these embodiments of the opposition to God, he also heals the sick, whether relatives of his followers (1:29-31) or unknown townsfolk (1:32-34). Soon he is seen healing all who come, both the ill and the possessed. Jesus is an authoritative healer; when he commands the forces of evil, they listen and obey.
This portrayal of Jesus as an authoritative Son of God sets the stage for the rest of the Gospel. Throughout his public ministry, Jesus goes about doing good, healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead (5:1-43). His fame spreads far and wide, as rumors of his fantastic abilities reach the villages and towns of Galilee (1:28; 1:32-34; and 1:45). Moreover, he attracts the crowds by his inspired and challenging teaching, especially when he tells parables, brief stories of everyday, mundane affairs that he endows with deeper spiritual significance. Interestingly enough, most of those who hear his words do not understand what they mean (4:10-13).
Given the incredible following that Jesus amasses, the amazing teachings that he delivers, and the miraculous deeds that he performs, one would think that he would become immediately and widely acknowledged for who he is, a man specially endowed by God, the Son of God who provides divine assistance for those in need. Ironically, as the careful reader of the Gospel begins to realize, nothing of the sort is destined to happen. Jesus, this authoritative Son of God, is almost universally misunderstood by those with whom he comes in closest contact. Even worse, despite his clear concern to help others and to deliver the good news of God, he becomes hated and opposed by the religious leaders of his people. Both of these are major aspects of Mark’s portrayal of Jesus. He is the opposed and misunderstood Son of God.
Jesus the Opposed Son of God
A good deal of Mark’s Gospel shows that despite Jesus’ fantastic deeds the leaders of his people oppose him from the outset; and their antagonism escalates until the very end, where it results in the catastrophe of his execution. It is important for the reader to realize, however, that despite this hostility between Jesus and the leaders of Israel, Mark does not portray Jesus as standing in opposition to the religion of Judaism (at least, to Judaism as Mark sees it). Recall what we have already seen: Jesus is said to be the Son of the Jewish God; he is the Jewish messiah, come in fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures, preceded by a Jewish prophet. He teaches in the Jewish synagogue and works among the Jewish people. Later we will find him teaching in the Temple, observing the Jewish Passover, and discussing fine points of the Jewish law with Jewish scholars. Indeed, even though Jesus’ understanding of the Law will come to be challenged, Mark maintains that he was himself faithful to the law. Consider the account of the leper in one of the opening stories (1:40-44): after Jesus heals the man, he instructs him to show himself to a Jewish priest and to make an offering on behalf of his cleansing, “as Moses commanded” (1:44). Jesus is scarcely bent on subverting the Jewish religion.
Why then do the Jewish leaders oppose him, the “scribes” and “Pharisees” in Galilee and the “chief priests” in Jerusalem? Do they not recognize who he is? They do not, in fact, recognize him, as we will see momentarily. Even more seriously, they are gravely offended by the things that he says and does. This is evident in the accounts recorded in 2:1-3:6, a group of “conflict stories” that show a crescendo in the tension between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, the scribes and Pharisees. At the first, these leaders merely question his actions (2:7); they then take offense at some of his associations (2:16) and his activities (2:18); they then protest the actions of his followers (2:24); they finally take serious exception to his own actions and decide to find a way to put him to death (3:6).
In particular, these authorities take umbrage at Jesus’ refusal to follow their own practices of purity. He eats with the unrighteous and sinners, those thought to be unclean, who pollute the pure. For Jesus, these are the ones who need his help (2:15-17). Nor does he follow the Pharisees’ prescriptions for keeping the seventh day holy (2:23-3:6) but puts human needs above the requirement to rest on the Sabbath. In Jesus’ view, the Sabbath was made for the sake of humans and not humans for the Sabbath; it is therefore legitimate to prepare food or heal a person in need on this day (2:27; 3:4). From the Pharisees’ perspective (as portrayed by Mark), these are not honest disagreements over matters of policy. They are dangerous perversions of their religion, and Jesus needs to be silenced. They immediately take counsel with their sworn enemies the Herodians (see Box 2) to have him killed (3:6).
After these opening stories of conflict, Jewish authorities are constantly on the attack; in virtually every instance they are the ones who initiate the dispute, even though Mark consistently portrays Jesus as getting the better of them in dialogue (see esp. 11:27-12:40). In the end, however, the chief priests triumph, convincing the Roman governor that Jesus has to die. But why, ultimately, do they do so? The short answer is that they find Jesus threatening because of his popularity and find his words against their Temple cult offensive, words that are manifest in his violent and disruptive actions in the Temple itself (11:18). But in the larger picture painted by Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish authorities do not seek Jesus’ death merely because they are jealous or because they disagree with him over legal, theological, or cultic matters. For in another sense they oppose Jesus because he is God’s unique representative on earth — God’s authoritative Son — and they, the leaders of Israel, cannot understand who he is or what he says. In this, however, they are not alone. For virtually no one else in Mark’s narrative can understand who he is either.