St Mark’s subversive Jesus

As I mentioned in my previous post, Boris Gunjević’s final essay in God in Pain looks at the Gospel according to St Mark, which Gunjević describes as “the first text in Antiquity written by someone from the margins about someone on the margins and for marginalised readership.”

Gunjević argues that Mark’s purpose in his gospel is to challenge the preconceived notions of “Messiahship” held by his first readers – and by us today. To do so, Mark uses a variety of techniques, “characterised by irony, repetition, and understatement”, including:

  • the dramatic irony of Jesus’ being known as the Son of God only by the demons – and by Mark’s readers;
  • the “good news” announced in verse 1 being news of the crucifixion of an innocent man;
  • the subversion of “family”, with Jesus’ relatives thinking he is out of his mind and his opponents insinuating that he is a bastard, while Jesus in contrast points to “the community of the radically equal, the Messianic emancipatory collective”;
  • the urgency of Mark’s account, with repeated use of the word euthys: “immediately thereafter, quickly, that same moment”;
  • Jesus’ use of questions directed at “his disciples, his opponents, and, in fact, his readers”: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath days, or to do evil? Who is my mother, or my brethren? Whom say ye that I am?”, and so on;
  • the irony seen, for example, in blind Bartimaeus’ being the only person who can see who Jesus is;
  • the depiction of women as “paradigmatic models of Messianic practice”; and
  • the disciples being not only those who “literally” follow Jesus without understanding him, but those (“sitting by the way”, like Bartimaeus) who understand Jesus without following him.

Why does Mark do all this, in the first half of his Gospel? He is preparing the reader for the second half, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. He needs to ensure that his readers will understand that story correctly:

Mark’s readers need to be convinced that Jesus is the apocalyptic Son of God, and not an apolitical charismatic, merciful healer.

Which, of course, is how most people outside the church see Jesus today. As Dick Lucas is fond of pointing out, a crucial text for this is Mark 8:27-30:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

As Lucas points out, the highlighted words show us that the one thing that people who witnessed Jesus’ ministry did not say about him was that he was a “great moral teacher” or a “charismatic healer”. It was as if he had landed from another planet: people were struggling to find a way to categorise him. The one thing he couldn’t possibly be, given his refusal to follow the appointed script for the role, was the Messiah.

Gunjević continues:

With their miracle-working, the healers of Antiquity legitimised the political and social status quo, and in doing so secured for themselves economic and political privileges.

(and wouldn’t it be awful if the church did this…?)

This is altogether the opposite of the Messianic practice on which the carpenter from Nazareth insists. If Jesus had been an apolitical charismatic, a wandering healer, of whom in Antiquity in the Middle East there were far too many, there would have been no reason whatsoever for the unprincipled coalition of Herodians and Pharisees to conspire against him.

In short, Mark is helping us to follow Slavoj Žižek’s call, in the preceding essay, to:

focus on what a strange beast, what a scandalous monstrosity, Christ must have appeared to be in the eyes of the Jewish ideological establishment.

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