READING BETWEEN THE TEXTS: MINOR CHARACTERS WHO PREPARE THE WAY FOR JESUS
Gardner, A Edward
In a book titled Other Followers of Jesus: Minor Characters as Major Figures in Mark’s Gospel, Joel F. Williams examines analogous episodes of minor characters “who come out of the crowd and come into contact with Jesus.”1 For example, the episode of the poor widow and the episode of the woman who anoints Jesus are similar in that the episodes are about the gifts of women. They frame the account of Jesus’s apocalyptic discourse-that is, the episode of the poor widow is placed just before the apocalyptic discourse (Mark 13), and the episode of the woman who anoints Jesus just after its conclusion. Likewise, the woman who anoints Jesus and the three women that come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body frame the passion account. They have in common the motif of anointing by women.
Williams holds that in the first part of the Gospel, the minor characters like the woman with hemorrhages and the Syrophoenician woman are exemplifiers of faith. Blind Bartimaeus is a transitional figure because not only is he an example of faith, but he also follows Jesus and reflects his values, unlike James and John, who brashly ask for seats of honor in Jesus’s kingdom. Contrasted with the rich young man, the following characters-the scribe, the poor widow, the woman who anoints Jesus, Simon of Cyrene, and the centurion-continue character development that reflects positively Jesus’s values. With the three women at the tomb, however, a series of exemplary figures ends surprisingly with fear and failure, according to Williams.
While I agree with Williams’s thesis that minor characters are major figures and followers of Jesus, I would like to focus on an additional motif that he misses: the fact that these figures prepare the way of the Lord. Mark suggests this motif himself. Mark 1:2-3 is the lead quotation from the Hebrew prophets. It is meant to help the reader interpret the roles of John the Baptist, Bartimaeus, other minor characters, and Jesus himself. It says, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'” The minor characters are not only major figures because they are exemplars of faith and/or values, but also because they prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.
I will discuss what Mark 1:2 might mean after I discuss issues of methodology.
Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig published in Berlin in 1936 a book translated as Scripture and Translation, which brought together a variety of their articles and lectures dealing with the nature of the Hebrew Bible and problems of translation.2 Everett Fox, the translator, considered the “leading-word” (Leitwort) technique “one of Buber’s enduring contributions.”3 Buber defines the meaning of the “leading-word” technique in the following way:
By leitwort I understand a word or root that is meaningfully repeated within a text or sequence of texts, those who attend to these repetitions will find a meaning of the text revealed or clarified, or at any rate made more emphatic. As noted, what is repeated need not be a single word but can be a word root; indeed the diversity of forms often strengthen the overall dynamic. I say “dynamic” because what takes place between the verbal configurations thus related is in a way a movement; readers to whom the whole is present feel the waves beating back and forth. Such measured repetition, corresponding to the inner rhythm of the text-or rather issuing from it-is probably the strongest of all techniques for making a meaning available without articulating it explicitly.4
The means for “making a meaning available without articulating it explicitly” is by paronomasia or word-play. Word-play, including punning, may exist “within the individual syntactic context.” It may mean word-play more generally, including alliteration and assonance. However, the word-play that Buber’s exegesis looks for is word-play at a distance, “working not in immediate juxtaposition but over an extended stretch of text.”5 Word-play may include play upon synonyms and metaphors of motion. The title “Between the Texts” is meant to remind one of the idiom “between the lines,” which the dictionary defines as “by implication: in an indirect way.” As a reader compares and contrasts analogous narratives, word-play at a distance becomes evident and opens up additional interpretations of the text. Some of the literary characteristics of the Gospel of Mark include repetition of key words and phrases, word-play at a distance, framing, and narrative analogy.6 Multiple and ambiguous meanings are implicit and not overtly stated, but are hinted at by means of word-play.
Narrative episodes may be compared or contrasted regarding repetitions of like characters, situations, or motifs, as well as key word parallels that illumine their recurring patterns and motifs (I use the terminology of “key word” rather than leading-word).
PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT
While Mark mentions only Isaiah as a source, he has brought together Malachi 3:1 with Isaiah 40:3. Malachi proclaims that the Lord will send his messenger to prepare the coming of Yahweh in judgment. It was likely that during Mark’s time, this quotation was interpreted as referring to the eschatological Day of Judgment. Malachi 4:5 identified the messenger as Elijah, the prophet who will come “before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Immediately after the quotations from the prophets, Mark identified John the Baptist with the figure of Elijah by implicitly describing John as “clothed with camel’s hair,” having a “leather girdle around his waist,” and eating “locusts and wild honey” (1:6).
Isaiah 40:3 echoes or repeats the words “who shall prepare thy way” with the words “prepare the way of the Lord.” One reason for bringing them together is the repetition of these key words. Isaiah’s “a voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…” is rendered after the Septuagint: “the voice (phone) of one crying (boao) in the wilderness…” John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus in Mark 1:4-11 by proclamation, by acting out, and by foreshadowing. He announces to the people a baptism for the repentance of sins, appears clothed in dress like Elijah, proclaims One who is to come after him and baptizes that One-Jesus. Later, John will anticipate or foreshadow Jesus’s death upon the cross with his being beheaded by King Herod, Baptism itself becomes a foreshad-owing of being taken down from the cross, laid in the tomb, and rising out of the water.
While John may be said to prepare Jesus’s way, other followers do so as well. The Interpreter’s Bible gives additional meaning to Isaiah’s metaphor. Regarding the metaphor of preparing the way, it says, “The practice of preparing roads for the victorious advance of a conqueror or king by clearing them of obstacles is not unknown.”7 We are dealing with several senses of the metaphor. “The way of the Lord, God’s purpose, which the prophets proclaimed, is fulfilled in Christ.”8 Jesus removes one obstacle after another to fulfill God’s saving purpose-overcoming temptations, healing the sick, casting out demons, forgiving sins, confronting religious and political authorities, defeating Satan, and rolling away the last obstacle of death. Characteristically, Jesus does not claim credit for healing someone, but he says to the woman with hemorrhages and blind Bartimaeus, “your faith has made you well” (5:34, 10:52). I suggest that minor characters, by faith in Jesus, help remove obstacles from his way and carry out the purpose of God. (Conversely, there are minor characters like Herod, Herodias, her daughter, and Pilate, who present obstacles to the saving purpose of God.)
BLIND BARTIMAEUS PREPARES THE WAY OF THE LORD
The motif of preparing Jesus’s way can be seen plainly in comparing the episode of the healing of Blind Bartimaeus with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and the quotations from the prophets at the beginning of Mark. There is a pattern of repetition or recurrence among Mark 1:3 (the voice of one “crying” [boao] in the wilderness), 10:46 (he began to “cry out” [krazo]), and 10:48 (he “cried out” [krazo] all the more). The word krazo is repeated by the crowd in Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem in 11:9: “And those who went before and those who followed ‘cried out’ [krazo], ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!'” Bartimaeus’s cry, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (10:46, 48) is connected to and finds its continuation in the cry of the crowd. Jesus calls Bartimaeus and Bartimaeus springs up, throwing off his mantle, and comes to Jesus. Jesus asks him the same question that he asks James and John (10:36): “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:50). Instead of seeking places of honor at Jesus’s left and right hands, “Bartimaeus [which means Son of Honor, a play on his name] asks Jesus, ‘Master, let me receive my sight.’ Jesus answers, ‘Go your way [hypago]; your faith has made you well.'” Then the text continues with some key words: “Immediately [euthys] he received his sight and followed [akoloutheo] him on the way [hodos]” (10:52). Hodos refers back to 1:2-3: “Prepare the way [hodos] of the Lord.” This repetition suggests that Bartimaeus, although a minor character, plays a major role in preparing the way for Jesus in entering Jerusalem and also in entering upon the way to the cross and resurrection as the Son of David, the Messiah. In 1:3, “make his paths straight” (euthys) has, in the prologue, set the stage for the frequent use of the word “immediately” (euthys), which is used pointedly in 10:52. It suggests that one divine providence happens after another, as though in rapid succession, to prepare the way of Jesus and fulfill the purpose of God. The key word “followed” appears again in 11:8 as “those who went before and those who followed [akoloutheo] cried out, ‘Hosanna!” The key word “follow” is used of the disciples of Jesus and it is used appropriately of Bartimaeus, who has seen by faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, and prepared his way and made his paths straight. Bartimaeus is more than an example of faith and values; he is a divine messenger who prepares the way for Jesus by replacing the obstacle of the disciples ‘ blindness with his ability to see who Jesus is. Notice that while Bartimaeus “followed Jesus on the way,” it is also true that he is the one “who went before” to prepare Jesus’s way.
There are two Greek words for “cry” or “cry out.” The key word “cried out” (boao) is used of “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (1:3) and of Jesus when he “cried out with a loud voice” (15:34). I find it significant that the key word “cried out” (krazo) is used only in episodes that involve minor characters and in one summary unit. I believe this repetition and play upon “cried out” establishes their connection. Krazo then is found in the following episodes: the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20), healing of an epileptic child (9:14-29), healing of Bartimaeus (10:46-54), entry into Jerusalem (11:1-10), and the releasing of Barabbas (15:6-15). (The summary unit is 3:11: “And whenever the unclean spirits behold him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.'”) The occurrence of krazo only in these episodes of minor characters connects them to the leading quotations from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.9 Let us proceed by examining the episode about the Gerasene demoniac and its context.
THE GERASENE DEMONIAC
The episode right before the Gerasene demoniac, in which the disciples are also blind to the real identity of Jesus, is Jesus’s stilling of the storm. The disciples and Jesus sail across the Sea of Galilee. The text says that while Jesus was asleep on the cushion in the back of the boat, a storm of wind arose, threatening to swamp the boat. The disciples awake Jesus and urgently complain, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” Jesus awakes and commands the wind and the sea in a fashion that reminds us of his exorcizing a demon: “Peace! Be still!” The obstacle in the path of Jesus is that the disciples lack faith and do not seem to know, “Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”
In the next episode (5:1-20), they reach the other side of the sea, the country of the Gerasenes. They meet an outcast demoniac called Legion who knows Jesus’s real identity and cries out (krazo) in a loud voice (phone) (in a manner like Blind Bartimaeus), “What have you to do with me, Jesus Son of Most High God?”10 Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of him. He asks his name. The demoniac says, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Jesus sends the demons to be carried away by the swine and drowned in the sea. While the disciples had questions about Jesus’s identity, this man has prepared the way for Jesus by calling him “Son of the Most High.” Mark 5:20 says, “he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.”
Both the demoniac named Legion and Bartimaeus cried out the real identity of Jesus: “Son of the Most High” and “Son of David.”
PILATE AND BARABBAS
The pattern of someone crying out, naming the identity of Jesus, finds an ironic twist in the releasing of Barabbas (15:1-15). Pilate states the identity of Jesus first as “King of the Jews,” and then the crowd cries out what to do with him: “Pilate again says to them, ‘Then what shall I do with the man whom you call King of the Jews?’ And they cried out [krazo] again, ‘Crucify him.’ And Pilate said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted [krazo] all the more, ‘Crucify him.'” (Compare 10:48, where Bartimaeus “cried out all the more.”) This is an ironic variation on the pattern of “crying out” and variations upon Jesus’s identity.
The immediate problem is whether Pilate will use his power to release or condemn Jesus to death. But the deeper obstacle is the problem of how God’s saving purpose is to be achieved with Jesus now facing death. God’s saving purpose is not achieved by avoiding death, but by the very event of Jesus being sent away to the cross. How does Barabbas (which means “son of the father,” a play on his name) help in this manner? Jesus is the scapegoat substituted and punished for Barabbas’s crimes. Jesus is dying for Barabbas and his sins. He is the ransom, to put it another way. Jesus has tricked Satan, who was intent on destroying Jesus, but, in destroying Jesus, Pilate lets the sinner (Barabbas) go free. The episode represents wisdom and love and irony at its best. The minor character of Pilate has been foreshadowed in the Temptation as a type of “wild beast” now in league with Satan, who rules the world through its political leaders. The minor character of Barabbas represents the sinners for whom Jesus will die, and so achieve the saving purpose of God.
The pattern of someone crying out Jesus’s identity finds its culmination in the minor character of the centurion with another ironic twist. On the cross, “at the ninth hour Jesus cried [boao] with a loud voice [phone] in Aramaic, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'” (15:34). Just before he dies, “Jesus uttered a loud cry [phone], and breathed his last” (15:37). At the climax of the Gospel, the curtain of the temple is torn in two, and a centurion confesses Jesus’s identity: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” The way of the Lord, the saving purpose of God, has been fulfilled in Jesus’s death. The writer of Mark has chosen the Greek boao (not krazo) and phone to come full circle to the prophecy: “the voice [phone] of one crying [boao] in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (1:3). If the obstacle or scandal (or stumbling block) is the death of the Messiah on the cross, the centurion lets the reader know this is the climactic work of the Son of God: the defeat of Satan by the Son of God. Minor characters have given the reader variations upon Jesus’s real identity: Son of David, Son of the Most High God, the King of the Jews, and the Son of God.
I propose that, with awesome courage, wisdom, love, and trust in God, Jesus has set a trap for Satan, giving himself as a ransom and offering himself as a scapegoat, upon whose body the Prince of Demons is exorcized and cast out (ekballo) like a common demon-like the Legion-possessed man, a minor character, whom Jesus exorcised by having the demons enter swine to bear them away to their death as they drown (type of baptism) in the Sea of Galilee (5:1-13). In baptism, Satan’s power is broken; the sinner is made clean and set free.
THE WOMEN AT THE TOMB PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD
As developed in my thesis for the Master of Sacred Theology degree at Christian Theological Seminary, the abrupt ending of the Gospel of Mark is a riddle – a chiasmic riddle.” Does fear and failure have the final say at 16:8, the close of the Gospel? Do the women flee out of fear and say nothing to anyone? The answer to these riddles is that the end of Mark implies its beginning. In fact, fear suggests not human fright but holy awe.12 The answer to the riddle is an unstated, new proverb. That new, split proverb that implicitly frames the entire Gospel of Mark is “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark is a mega-chiasmus whose ending joins the beginning to form a circle of stories-perhaps better, a necklace of stories. It is curious that scholars who argue for multiple meanings for polyvalent language assign only one meaning each to “flee,” “say nothing to anyone,” and “were afraid.” I suggest that fleeing when “the sun had risen” (16:2) is qualitatively different than the fleeing of the disciples at night when Jesus was arrested (14:50). The word-play here depends upon a difference in context and a difference between night and day (no pun intended). The narrator comments that the women “said nothing to anyone” as they hurried directly to the disciples to tell them of Jesus’s resurrection and that they would see him in Galilee. The phrase “said nothing to anyone” can suggest an idiom for a limited circumscribed silence as they fulfilled the mission on which they were sent. “Were afraid” suggests not only human fright but holy fear of God. The Gospel writer has not fallen into a trap that causes the deconstruction of Mark;13 rather, many readers have fallen into the trap of Mark’s riddle because of their expectations of the text. Scholars have certain expectations of a text, and while these expectations sometimes help us understand the text, sometimes our expectations make us blind to its implicit meaning. Consistent with the motif of obstacles in the way, the author of Mark has put an obstacle in the reader’s way by making his ending a riddle.
Mark is a circle of stories in which “the far is near,” when the ending is joined to the beginning. If one sees the concept of framing as a literary device that Mark uses, then Mark 1:2-3 are framed by the stories of John the Baptist and the three women who are messengers of the good news. They play a major role as messengers who prepare the way for the good news that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has risen from the dead. The obstacle or scandal that they overcome is the bad news of Jesus’s suffering and death. Their faith and love compelled them to go to the tomb, even though they did not know how to overcome the obstacle of the stone rolled against the tomb. God took their faith and made bad news into good news, fulfilling God’s divine purpose.
The two accounts of the three women hurrying from the empty tomb and the ministry of John the Baptist evidence parallel key words and phrases and metaphors of motion. Whereas John the Baptist marks the beginning of the Jesus’s preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God, the three women mark the beginning of the good news to the disciples and to the whole world that God has raised Jesus from the dead and ratified his proclamation of the Kingdom of God, his triumph over Satan, and his achieving the saving purpose of God.
I have found that in the parallel stories of John the Baptist and the three women who come to anoint Jesus’s body, the key words “went out” and “enter in,” “stoop down” and “risen,” “baptize” and “laid down,” “heavens opened” and “roll a stone against,” “Spirit descending” and “take him down,” involve the repetition of motion that serve as metaphors for power and for weakness.14 The opening or tearing apart of the heavens is an event of great power. Burial by rolling a stone against the door of a tomb may symbolize the weakness of mortality. Likewise, the Spirit descending from the opened heavens suggests an event of great power, while taking Jesus’s body down from the cross in one sense suggests his utter defeat, but in another sense represents the saving power of God that defeated Satan and set human beings free. That Jesus has risen signifies God’s almighty power to raise Jesus to life and vindicate him and his ministry, fulfilling his purpose as foretold by the prophets. The baptism of Jesus is inversely parallel to Jesus’s burial and his being raised up, making baptism a sacrament of the believer being buried with Christ and raised to a new life.
Let us now look at some other minor characters who prepare Jesus’s way.
THE WOMAN WITH HEMORRHAGES
The healing of the woman who had hemorrhages for twelve years is framed by the two parts of the healing of Jairus’s daughter (5:25-43). Jairus, the leader of a synagogue who is named explicitly, falls at Jesus’s feet and begs him to heal his daughter.15 As Jesus goes to heal Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter, the woman with hemorrhages overcomes her fear and touches Jesus. When Jesus experiences power proceeding from him, he asks who touched him. The woman falls at Jesus’s feet and tells him the whole truth.
The first obstacle facing Jesus is the healing of the woman. The deeper obstacles are, in a religious culture of purity, how the woman as a woman can approach and touch Jesus and how a woman whose illness is hemorrhaging blood can touch a holy man. By her courage and faith, this woman has overcome deep cultural prejudices in order that Jesus might heal her. As a human being, Jesus is learning and growing as he encounters persons who believe in him. The reader realizes that Jesus’s way is prepared not only to go first to the children of Israel but also to those the culture deems untouchable. He says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Jesus’s compassion overcomes the prejudices of a culture of purity.
Immediately, Jesus meets another challenge. “While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (5:35). On one level, the obstacle facing Jesus is how to respond to someone who is apparently dead. Like the episode of the woman with hemorrhages, the deeper obstacle in a culture of purity is how a holy man can approach and touch a dead body. The woman with hemorrhages who touched Jesus has prepared him to touch Jairus’s daughter: “Taking her by the hand he said to her, ‘Talitha cumi’; which means ‘Little girl, I say to you arise'” (5:41).
THE SYROPHOENICIAN WOMAN
In a parallel episode (7:24-30), Jesus leaves Israel to journey to Tyre and Sidon. An unnamed Syrophoenician woman falls at his feet and begs Jesus to heal her daughter, a daughter of a Gentile woman. The woman with hemorrhages had touched Jesus first. In the healing of Jairus’s daughter, Jesus goes to her and raises her up. In the parallel episode of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus does not go and physically raise up the child of the Gentiles, nor does he touch her. Mark 7:14-23 deals with what makes a person unclean. What defiles a person comes from the heart-evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, and so on. In the Jewish culture, a Gentile-a Syrophoenician woman and her child with an unclean spirit-were just that: unclean. The initial obstacle is the healing of the girl. The deeper obstacle again is the culture of purity that excludes Gentiles. The faith and pluck of the unnamed Syrophoenician woman has prepared Jesus’s way to the Gentiles, who, though they have been excluded by Israel and are at a distance, will be reached by Jesus’s power.
HEALING OF A DEAF AND MUTE MAN ANOINTED WITH SPITTLE
The episode of the raising of Jairus’s daughter comes paired with the woman with hemorrhages. The healing of the Syrophoenician woman comes paired with the healing, in the region of Gentile Decapolis, of a deaf and mute man. Some unnamed persons seek Jesus out for his healing touch. Jesus takes the deaf and mute man aside privately. (In the raising of Jairus’s daughter, Jesus put everyone out of the room but Peter, James, and John.) The spittle of a holy man was believed to have healing powers. Jesus puts his spittle on the man’s tongue and in his hears, looks up to heaven, sighs, and says in Aramaic, “Be opened.” The man’s ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. When paired with the episode of the persistent Syrophoenician woman, I suggest that Jesus’s ears have also been opened to the speaking of God, even through Gentiles. The obstacle in the episode about the healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman was that Jesus was so intent upon going first to Israel that he needed some prodding to see a wider vision for his ministry. Jesus could hear God in the ordinary people around him and see God in the events as they occurred.
A BLIND MAN ANOINTED WITH SPITTLE
The episode of the blind man whose eyes are anointed with spittle (8:22-26) is a parallel in motif with the episode of a deaf and mute man anointed with spittle. Some unknown people bring to Jesus a blind man and beg Jesus to touch him. As in the episode above, Jesus leads the man outside the village to anoint his eyes and lays hands on him privately. The fascinating thing about this healing is that it takes “a second touch” for the man to be restored to clarity of vision. After the first touch Jesus asks, “Do you see anything?” He looks up and says, “I see men; but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus touches his eyes again and his sight is restored.
The contexts on both sides of the episode are helpful. In 8:14-23, the disciples had forgotten to bring bread as they set out across the Sea of Galilee. They brought only one loaf. Jesus is reflecting about the Pharisees and Herod and says, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” The disciples discuss this, miss the point, and say they have no bread. Jesus asks if they do not perceive or understand and if their hearts are not hardened. He asks them to remember how many broken pieces of bread were taken up after the feeding of the five thousand and then how many after the feeding of the four thousand. They answered, respectively, twelve and seven. This leads one to the possibility that, like the blind man in the next episode, the disciples are blind and hardly see at all.
In the episode following the healing of the blind man, Jesus queries the disciples about his identity, “Who do men say that I am?” The people in general are unclear as to who Jesus is-some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others one of the prophets. Peter thinks he has the answer, “You are the Christ.” But as the story unfolds, there is some question as to whether Peter’s vision of what it means to be “the Christ” is the same as that of Jesus. So the argument goes that the episode about the healing of the blind man with a second touch helps the reader reflect on the clarity of vision of the disciples and Peter.
I’ll take a different tack. The episode is not just about the disciples coming to clarity; it is about Jesus coming to clarity about how he is to proceed after the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod. John’s death is the major obstacle in the way of God’s saving purpose. So in 8:31, after healing both a deaf and mute man and a blind man with spittle, Jesus clearly sees that, in order to overcome the obstacle of John’s death, “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priest and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus turns around from the way to the Gentile city of Caesarea and heads to Jerusalem to fulfill the saving purpose of God. Again, Jesus could hear and see God in the events and ordinary people around him and read between the lines.
AN UNNAMED WOMAN ANOINTING JESUS AND HEROD, HERODIAS, AND HER DAUGHTER
In line with previous arguments, I will interpret the unnamed woman’s anointing of Jesus as a major obstacle or stumbling block set before Jesus. This point of view may go against the usual interpretation. The ointment and the extravagant love of the woman for Jesus have the quality of eras about it. First, it would correspond in an opposite sense to Herodias’s extraordinary hatred of John. Second, the dancing of Herodias’s unnamed daughter proved to be a temptation for Herod and led to John’s beheading (6:14-29). Courtiers and the leading men of Galilee were guests at Herod’s all-male birthday party. Two thousand years may have elapsed, but males today more than ever use and exploit women for pornographic purposes. It is no stretch of the imagination to suppose that the dance of the young girl was erotic. By contrast-and comparison-we are told that, while at Bethany, Jesus was in the house of Simon the Leper. The point is made that Jesus “sat at the table” or, more strictly, “reclined.” What kind of implicit statement is Mark making by inviting the reader to compare and contrast the scenes of Herod’s banquet with the men and of Jesus’s table fellowship with outcasts and his disciples? The plot of the beheading of John and the anointing of Jesus’s head is repeated with likenesses and differences. Is Jesus reclining at a male party? Is the woman who enters entirely virtuous and pure in her extravagant love for Jesus? Does Jesus find the woman a temptation? If so, how does he handle the temptation? I propose that Jesus rejects Satan’s temptation, calling it “an anointing beforehand for his burial.” He does not turn aside from the way to the cross. In fact, the occasion of Jesus’s anointing as temptation becomes the occasion of Jesus’s anointing as the Messiah, the Anointed One (chrio, christos), anointed for the cross and for burial. King Herod succumbs to Satan’s temptation; Jesus makes the temptation an occasion for a triumph over Satan. Jesus, who does not criticize the woman or her love, is greatly pleased with this unnamed lover, saying “she has done a beautiful thing to me…wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she had done will be told in memory of her” (14:6, 9).16
Scholars may discount the allegory claimed for the Song of Solomon: that it is an allegory of the love of Israel for Yahweh, who is the beloved. The reason, however, that the Song of Solomon was admitted to the Hebrew canon at Jamnia in 97 CE was because the rabbis considered it to be an allegory of divine love. If we consider how the early church viewed Song of Solomon as an allegory, how does this perspective help us interpret the anointing of Jesus?
Mark 14:1 lets the reader know that the chief priests and scribes seek to destroy Jesus. Implicitly, the reader may infer that the chief priests and scribes hate Jesus, and that, as the representatives of Israel, they reject Jesus’s message and see him as a threat. The unnamed woman, therefore, takes Israel’s place as the lover of the beloved Lord. It would be premature to claim that the woman represents the church. I propose she is a general type representing the outcasts of Israel’s society; those excluded from participating in the system of purity. She stands for the ritually impure, who are driven out from the community of the ritually clean. Mark 14:3 signals this idea by using the name of the place where Jesus is “at table” as Bethany, which means “house of the poor, or afflicted.” The reader is told the meal is at “the house of Simon the Leper.” Jesus is having intimate fellowship with the people the priests and scribes would consider sinners. Into this company of sinners comes a woman to anoint Jesus, who was reclining, with very costly fragrant oil or nard (14:3).17 She has not come intentionally to anoint Jesus as the Anointed One, the Messiah, but surely she has come to anoint Jesus as “the beloved” of this company of sinners. But, by comparison, the voice to Jesus at the baptism (and to the disciples at the Transfiguration) declares that Jesus is also “God’s beloved Son.”
The connection between John and Jesus could not be closer: the head of John is cut off; the head of Jesus is anointed, not for worldly glory, but for burial, for as John was laid in a tomb (6:29), so Jesus will be laid in a tomb. John’s baptism of Jesus anticipates the unnamed woman’s anointing of him for burial. The baptism of water and Spirit and the anointing with oil correspond to the same type. Jesus coming up out of the water of baptism foreshadows Jesus’s coming out of the tomb and rising from the dead. Ironically, in Mark, King Herod first mentions resurrection in connection with John: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” The reader may wonder whether Jesus took his cue from Herod after Jesus heard the bad news of the death of John. The death of John is the key crisis or obstacle that Jesus must overcome in the plot. The death of John must have been received by Jesus as terrible news. It takes a while for Jesus to deal with the death of John and the fear of his enemies. After fleeing to Sidon, to the wilderness (as Moses fled from Pharaoh and Elijah from Jezebel), and after taking the road to Caesarea Philippi outside of Israel, Jesus at last turns toward Jerusalem, knowing that, like John, he would suffer; like John, he would die; and like Herod said of John, he would be raised. He has, astoundingly, overcome the obstacle of John’s death in Galilee by confronting his enemies in Jerusalem, by laying down his own life, and by trusting his Father (Abba) to vindicate him in raising him from the dead. Mark’s riveting story of Jesus’s extravagant love, immense courage, and steadfast faith in God is aimed at inspiring readers with awe, wonder, devotion, and love.
It is certain the minor characters prepare the way for Jesus and make straight his paths. In some instances, the minor characters declare Jesus’s identity as the Son of David or the Son of God, while the disciples remain blind to his significance. In some instances, the minor characters help Jesus deal with the legalism and cult of purity of the Jewish culture. In the anointing of Jesus, a woman anoints Jesus as the Anointed One for burial while Jesus overcomes the obstacle of her love as a temptation and turns it into a victory. The centurion declares Jesus’s identity at the climax when Jesus cries out with a loud voice and dies, having met and overcome every obstacle, every stumbling block, and every temptation, and having fulfilled the saving purpose of God. The women at the tomb, by faith and love, find the stone of death rolled away and deliver to the disciples the good news of resurrection. John the Baptist, his baptism of Jesus, and his beheading are central to the plot of the story and foreshadowing the events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
In the text, we can catch a glimpse of Jesus’s direct relationship to God, whom he called “Abba.” God’s voice is only referred to twice in the Gospel of Mark, at Jesus’s baptism and at his Transfiguration, but one gets the feeling that Jesus communicated with Abba through the immediacy of events and his experiences with people. His prayer life may have been spent reflecting on the implications and connections between the events and people of his ministry and how Abba was speaking through them. Believers have done well to contemplate Jesus’s ministry, death, and resurrection, and how God speaks to them through his life, but this contemplation of Jesus’s life leads to his Way: looking for God in minor events and listening for God in ordinary people. His Way is an outward-looking communion rather than an inward-looking mysticism.
There are minor characters not included in this case study. I am confident that the motif of “preparing the way for Jesus by being the occasion for removing obstacles” also applies to them. In the healing of the paralytic (2:1, 12), four men overcome the obstacle of the crowd to uncover the roof and let down the man on a pallet to Jesus. The deeper obstacle facing the man was a culture that considered sin the cause of sickness. It was believed that the sick deserved their plight because they had sinned. Jesus addresses this belief by saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus runs into the brick wall of religious leaders who believe that it is blasphemy for anyone but God to forgive sins. Jesus proceeds, however, that they may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin and says, “rise, take up your pallet and go home.”
Jesus’s riddle that, in the Kingdom of God, “many that are first will be last and the last first” (Mark 10:31) can be applied to the role of minor characters. By their faith, “the last” (minor characters, sometimes outcasts, demon-possessed, and unnamed people) prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his paths by being the occasion for removing obstacles in the way. The converse, “the first” (religious and political leaders, the rich and the powerful, and even the disciples) are “last” in the Kingdom of God because they resist the saving purpose of God. In terms of pastoral care, it is to the ordinary, unnamed, and marginal persons, in and out of our congregations, that the Kingdom of God belongs.
What has been proposed in this paper is that, in terms of literary criticism, the style of the Gospel of Mark does not simply unfold its story in the explicitly narrated context; rather, for the careful reader, it supposes a synchronic comparison of analogous episodes and of word-play that offers additional implicit meanings that enhance the reader’s understanding of the text. The possibility of “implicit meanings” can open the interpreter to the charge of “subjectivity.” However, the reader-exegete must refer his or her interpretation back to how adequately it illumines the text. These insights may be conceived as existing between text and text.
Finally, literary criticism may look directly at the text, the story, the plot, the settings, the characters, and literary devices. Another form of criticism may look behind the text. Historical criticism seeks to establish the “real” events as they happened behind the text. Still another form may look in front of the text; that is, the reader-response criticism looks at how the person who reads the text may be persuaded or influenced by the story. I have argued that meaning exists for the careful reader by comparing text and text. As the writer of Ecclesiastes put it, “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter [or method] under heaven” (3:1).
1 Joel F. Williams, Other Followers of Jesus: Minor Characters as Major Figures in Mark’s Gospel, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement, vol. 102 (England: Sheffield Academic Press, Ltd., 1994), 36.
2 Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Scripture and Translation, trans. Laurence Rosenwald and Everett Fox (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).
3 Ibid., xxi.
4 Buber and Rosenzweig, Scripture and Tradition, 114 (emphasis added).
6 Discussion of literary devices found in the Gospel of Mark may be found in A. Edward Gardner, “The Abrupt Ending of the Gospel of Mark as Chiasmic Riddle” (master’s thesis, Christian Theological Seminary, 2001). Also see A. Edward Gardner, “The Power of God: The Stories of Joseph and Jesus Compared Using the Metaphors of Motion,” Sharing the Practice: InternationalJournal of Parish Clergy 21, no. 2 (1998): 10-15; idem, “The End of the Age: The Coming of Christ, Jesus’ Death, Resurrection, and Wisdom Thinking,” Encounter 60, no. 1 (1999); and idem, “Patterns that Connect: The Transfiguration, the Providence of God, and the Chiasmus,” Encounter 60, no. 3 (1999).
7 George Artus Buttrick, éd., The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956), 427. Other sources cited for this idea are Robert Lowth, Isaiah: A New Translation (London: J. Dodsley and T. Cadell, 1779); and John Skinner, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, rev. ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1915), 4.
8 George Artus Buttrick, éd., “Way,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 818.
9 Jesus’s first exorcism (1:21) uses the same root in “a man with an unclean spirit…cried out [anakrazo], ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?'”
10 See also Mark 3:11 : “And whenever the unclean spirits beheld him, they fell down before him and cried out (krazo), ‘You are the Son of God.'”
11 Gardner, “The Abrupt Ending of the Gospel of Mark as Chiasmic Riddle.” A key word outline of the Gospel of Mark as a mega-chiasmus may be found in Gardner, “Patterns that Connect,” 372-391.
12 Robert H. Smith argues that the coming face to face with a heavenly messenger caused the women to react with trembling and astonishment, “which always overtakes sinful mortals when faced with the holy and divine” (Robert H. Smith, Easter Gospels: The Resurrection of Jesus according to the Four Evangelists [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1983], 43).
13 Stephen D. Moore, “Deconstructive Criticism in the Gospel of Mark,” in Mark and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Janice Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 85.
14 “In the story of Joseph in Genesis, I have found that the key words ‘bow down’ from Joseph’s dreams are repeated with variations in each of the narrative units of that story. The basic issue is about power-power in the family, power in the empire, and the power of God. The metaphors of motion are expressed as a pattern of up and down in space by such key words as bow down, stand up, arise, lift up, go down, lie down, set you over, etc. Likewise the story of Jesus speaks of baptism, coming up out of the water, the descent of the Spirit, being taken down from the cross, burial, and being raised up. It also includes other metaphors of motion, such as opened heavens, curtain torn in two, stone rolled away from the tomb, and the breaking of the bread. These patterns suggest the power of God” (Gardner, “Patterns that Connect,” 366-67). See also Gardner, “The Power of God,” 10-15.
15 Minor characters often humble themselves in a posture of submission to power by falling down at Jesus’s feet or kneeling before him. In the episode of the women with hemorrhages (5:33), “the woman…came in fear and trembling and fell down before him.” In the episode of the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s child (7:25), “immediately a woman…came and fell down at his feet.” In the episode of the healing of a leper (1:40), “a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said…” see also the rich young man in 10:17, and in 3:17, the unclean spirits who fall down before him.
16 Notice the play on the motif of please. God is “well pleased” (eudopeo) with his beloved Son in the baptism; Herod is “pleased” (aresko) with the dancing of Herodias’s daughter; Jesus, though he doesn’t use the word “please,” commends the women who expressed her love by anointing him. Finally, when Judas agrees to betray Jesus to them, the chief priests and scribes are “glad” (chairo, rejoice) and promise to give him money. Whether he was scandalized by the expense of the perfumed oil or the erotic nature of the anointing of Jesus or both, Judas succumbed to the temptation of Satan. He then, like a wild beast alluded to in the temptation of Jesus, seeks an opportunity (eukairos) to betray Jesus (14:11b).
17 The Septuagint version of Song of Solomon 1:12 reads, “So long as the king was at table, my spikenard gave forth its smell.”
A. Edward Gardner
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