“I Can See People But They Look Like Trees Walking”: Seeing Jesus in Mark’s Gospel

A while back Julie and I had a brief discussion about The Gospel of Mark during which I half-heartedly suggested that Mark produced a sort of “Reader’s Digest” gospel later improved upon by Matthew and Luke (Mark is missing “Q” after all) and she begged to differ, maintaining Mark is a concise literary masterpiece. I basically agreed with this assessment, being personally impressed with Mark’s vigorous, gritty account, but I still found it a bit too “pamphlet-like.” Julie also said Mark should be heard rather than read, the process no doubt experienced by the author’s original audience. So I took Julie at her word and recently listened to Mark on cassette in the car. She’s right. And what did I hear this time around? Loud and clear: the disciples are depicted as clueless about who Jesus was and what he was teaching [1], sometimes humorously so.

Here’s my favorite example of apparent comic relief resulting from such cluelessness in Mark 8 (RSV) [2]:

14: Now [the disciples] had forgotten to bring bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.
15: And [Jesus] cautioned them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”
16: And they discussed it with one another, saying, “We have no bread.”
17: And being aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?

This scene is right out of a Monty Python movie or Simpson’s episode. Here’s how I imagine it. The disciples sitting in the boat hear Jesus say: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod!” Tilting their heads sideways and arching their eyebrows in an attempt to look shrewd (think John Cleese here), they quickly huddle together to discuss this, at least to them, enigmatic statement, to see if anyone else knows what the heck Jesus is talking about before they commit themselves to a response. Rummaging through their baggage, someone says, “Aha!. We’re out of bread! That’s what he’s talking about.” Another disciple says, “Note to self: never, never, never buy bread from any Pharisee or Herodian.” I don’t know much Greek, but I’m pretty sure verse 17 can be translated as follows: “Then Jesus said: ‘D’OH!’”

Which brings us to the quote in the title to this post. Here, in the middle of Mark’s Gospel, the next scene after this bread incident is the curious healing of a blind man that didn’t “take” at first. Jesus puts saliva in the man’s eyes, lays hands on him, and the man says “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” (Mark 8:24, NRSV) Then Jesus lays hands on him again, the man looks “harder” and he can see. Matthew and Luke [3] are apparently embarassed by this episode and edit it from their “version” of Mark’s story, thinking, I guess, that Jesus shouldn’t be shown as having insufficient power to heal this man.

While I see no reason to doubt this story happened exactly this way, I think it’s more than that. Authors pick and choose what scenes they include for a reason. This healing narrative is a symbolic expression of how Jesus’ disciples will gradually “see” who Jesus really is. In fact, this miracle is immediately followed by Peter’s initial “seeing” that Jesus is the Messiah (“You are the Messiah,” Mark 8:29 NSRV). That Peter’s insight was blurred is shown in the next scene when Jesus says the Messiah must suffer and die and Peter rebukes Jesus–the Messiah was not expected to suffer and die, but bring the kingdom in power. Jesus responds: “You’re on the wrong side [Get behind me Satan]!” Peter’s unclear perception of Jesus still needs additional healing.

A few verses away Jesus is even transfigured before Peter, emphatically revealing his glory. Yet again, Peter is confused, blabbering about pitching tents or tabernacles at this event. “He did not know what to say,” says the author (Mark 9;6 NRSV). Mark ends his Gospel with Peter and the disciples fleeing Jesus, Peter even denying him. Only the women remain to visit his tomb in Mark’s account. Some of the most ancient manuscripts end earlier than the KJV at 16:8 without any appearance of Jesus from the tomb, although Peter and the other disciples are told to go to Galilee, since “there you will see him ….” (Mark 16:7)

At the end of Mark, the disciples still only vaguely glimpse Jesus, this stem of Jesse, like a tree walking. But they are given assurance that they will yet see him more clearly in Galilee, risen from the dead. Mark likewise seems to suggest we, the disciples who walk in Galilee by reading his gospel, will see him more clearly as well. [4]

[1] See, for instance, Mark 6:51-52; 8:21.

[2] This is one of many such episodes, some of the best of which are found in John. My favorites: (i) Nicodemus thinks Jesus says he must literally assume the fetal position again (John 3:4); (ii) Jesus says Lazarus is “asleep” and the disciples think he’s just taking a nap (John 11:12); and (iii) Jesus says “I have food you don’t know about” and the disciples think someone has been sneaking Jesus food on the side (John 4:33). Other examples from Mark: 5:31; 6:52; 7:18; and 9:2-8..

The twelve aren’t alone in their misunderstanding. Jesus’ family think he’s crazy (Mark 3:21). His hometown considers him a simple carpenter (Mark 6:1-6–I understand the Greek here is more like “day laborer”). The Jewish leaders think he’s possessed of a demon (Mark 3:22). What’s striking here is that until the middle of the Gospel, when the twelve get an inkling of who Jesus was, the only people who have a clue are (i) God (Mark 1:11); (ii) demons (Mark 3:14); and (iii) well, okay Mark. At the end, surprisingly, a centurion sees Jesus for who he is (see Mark 15: 39, RSV): “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’”

[3] Luke’s intended improvement of Mark’s Gospel is not only attested in his edits of the Markan “spine,” but also in his intent “to write an orderly account” for Theophilus, suggesting Mark’s prior account in Luke’s eyes was less than “orderly.” (Luke 1:1-3)

[4] As sources for some of these ideas see the chapters on Mark in R. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament; B. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction; and L. T. Johnson, Writings of the New Testament.

Comments

  1. D. Fletcher says:

    A great British actor, Alec McCowen, has memorized the Gospel of St. Mark in the KJV, and presented it onstage, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award in 1979.

  2. Ed Snow says:

    I’d like to get my hands on a recording of that. The one I used was the LDS KJV version, circa 1989, and it was great but for the fact that the chapter headings were also recorded! Ugh! I had to focus on ignoring the narrated Correlation Committee prepared headings written in McConkiease while trying to listen to Mark’s text.

    Re McCowen’s production, did someone stand up after him and, in broken English, stammer his way through Mark but bring tears to everyone’s eyes? No wait, that was a violin performance. Never mind.

  3. Ed Snow says:

    Wait! I’m getting my Especially for Mormons object lessons mixed up. A beat up violin is only worth something when artistic hands are laid upon it. The Lord’s Prayer (not in Mark!) loses value in the hands of an artist. Or something like that.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    If I take my contacts out, I know exactly what that guy means about it looking like trees walking. Interesting point about how that describes the gradually improving vision of the disciples as to who Jesus was. (I actually like the imperfect first attempt; to me it conveys an air of verisimilitude and plausibility.)

    I wouldn’t push “day laborer” or “construction worker” too much as a translation of tektOn. I think what Ehrman and others are doing there is trying to give a modern cultural feel to what people would have thought of his occupation. But he was more than an unskilled day laborer; he was a craftsman, in either wood, metal or stone, or some combination. This would have been the equivalent of blue collar, but honorable, work today.

    Interestingly, there has been a lot of angst over Jesus’ occupation. Celsus was incredulous that a common builder/worker would be the Son of God, and a lot of Christians seem to have been embarrassed on that account. This may well account for why the simple carpenter of Mark becomes son of the carpenter in Matthew (with harmonizing variants in the Marcan text) and son of Joseph in Luke, perhaps reflecting an effort to distance Jesus from that occupation.

    There have been more modern attempts to rehabilitate what Jesus did for a living. Vermes points out that the Aramaic word for a carpenter, naggar, could be used metaphorically for a scholar. The Greek tektOn in classical sources usually means a worker in wood, but could mean any craftsman or workman, and came to mean a master in any art. So it is attested of a gymnast, a poet, and a physician. I’ve actually read an argument that Jesus was a physician on this basis.

    The word in the LXX is usually translatig a Hebrew word that refers to an artificer in wood or stone (usually wood).

    I personally like the relatively humble nature of Jesus’ occupation, and resist attempts to elevate him to some sort of acceptable white collar profession.

  5. Kevin, thanks for the comments.

    Based upon his parables, I get the impression Jesus was more like a subcontractor. He understands foundations on stone v. sand, the work involved in computing a project’s cost, the annoyance of having sawdust fall in your eye (a mote) and the incongruity of a beam (a beam) in your eye, the problems of paying day laborers, agents who act beyond their authorization, etc.

    Thank goodness he wasn’t an accountant, otherwise just think of what kind of parables we’d have. “The Kingdom of God is like a cash flow statement and you are its footnotes!” Or, “You are a balance sheet in God’s hands. Your liabilities are greater than your assets, but God is willing to invest some capital in you.”

  6. Julie M. Smith says:

    Ed, I’m glad you had a good experience with listening to Mark. If you want more, I’d recommend Robert Fowler’s _Let the Reader Understand_. He does some amazing reader-response criticism on Mark, and you’ll have plenty of your own ‘d’oh!’ moments as you realize how Matthew and Luke have shaped our reading of Mark–contrary to a plain reading of Mark.

    And: To the extent that the male disciples end up looking like oafs, the women in Mark look even more amazing. For the life of me I cannot figure out why people think of Luke’s Gospel as women-friendly; Mark is where it is at.

  7. Julie, thanks for the note. I’m all about biblical narrative criticism/reader-response criticism. Incidentally, more of that should be done for the BoM.

    Although I’m still knee deep in historical Jesus readings, I find I’m leaning again more toward Luke Timothy Johnson’s recent literary reading of the gospels which, oddly enough, takes me back a scholarly generation earlier to CH Dodd’s The Founder of Christianity, still my favorite book on Jesus.

  8. Does anyone ever wonder if the other disciples wrote their own accounts that just didn’t make it into canon?

  9. Ed Snow says:

    FHL, I wonder, but doubt it.

    The earliest proclamation of the kingdom seems to have an urgency to it that did not require a more permanent written record of the sayings and acts of Jesus. “Uh, should we be writing this stuff down–do we need a memo?” “No, the end is upon us–just get the word out.” Also, the earliest disciples don’t appear to have been literary people. Not that they weren’t literate, they just weren’t … bloggers.

    Paul’s letters are no different here–there’s nothing systematic to them (other than Romans, perhaps–another topic another day), just forms of communication that Paul never envisioned would become a manual of Christian belief and practice.

    Whether Matthew and John are works by those apostles or not is itself an interesting question. The 4 NT gospels themselves are actually anonymous works–authorship is later attributed to them. There must be something to this attribution, but how would we know?

    So, at best we’ve got accounts from early (but not the earliest) disciples who likely never heard Jesus but who relied on annecdotes and sayings they heard in early Christian preaching, perhaps as companions to Paul or Peter (ie, Luke and Mark), perhaps as literarily minded early Christians who took initiative to preserve what they had received.

    If the question is whether the other disciples would have defended their actions in their own writings, that’s a good question too. Luke and Matthew seem to have tried to do just that by editing some of the more unpleasant apostolic actions out of their “version” of Mark.

  10. D. Fletcher says:

    I have read that the epistle of James is actually the earliest writing in the New Testament, predating Paul’s letters. The tone of the letter is different, and may have been written by someone that knew the apostles.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_of_James

  11. Ed Snow says:

    D. Fletcher, yes, some think James was written by James, the brother of Jesus, and that it represents the earliest beliefs about Jesus. This argument usually says, though, that (i) the earliest beliefs about Jesus were that he was a mortal who God basically adopted as his son/messiah, perhaps at the baptism of John and (ii) that Paul changed this into something different. I’m not sure I buy into this argument.

    I’m also not sure about ideas that the letter itself predates Paul’s letters, or why that necessarily matters. It certainly appears to compete with some of Paul’s ideas, no matter how hard Mormons or Protestants try to harmonize them. I’d say they were contemporary. Paul and James participated in the same debates about doctrine and both influenced the directions of early Christianit(ies).

  12. ElouiseBell says:

    Edgar,

    Your entire piece gives us wonderful stuff to think about, with a generous sprinkling of wit as salsa.
    I am especially glad your most recent comment speaks of “early Christianit(es).” It seems crucial for serious NT students to understand that concept: that there was never a single faith in those early days, never a canonized “denomination” from which heretical groups then “fell away.” A fine guide to understanding this situation is Bart D. Ehrman’s The Lost Christianities: the Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.Thanks for this piece, Edgar!

    Elouise

  13. Ed Snow says:

    Thanks for the note Elouise. In addition to Ehrman’s wonderfully readable books, I also like Elaine Pagels’ work and discussion of her personal discovery that early Christianity was not a monolith (which she expected at first), but that there were a multiplicity of approaches from the “get go”.

    It puts the whole Evangelical/Mormon debate (whether Mormons are Christian) in an interesting light too. I’m confident one could show Baptists and Mormons are a lot closer in theology and practice today than were several early Christian groups and no one ever claimed their early Christians competitors weren’t Christian, just that they were mistaken.

  14. An interesting interpretation of the walking trees reference: Dr. Oliver Sachs, neurologist, felt that this could be an example of “visual anosognosia.”

    Sachs had a patient whose lifetime blindness was corrected in adulthood…but to his dismay remained unable to interpret the world visually b/c his brain had never “learned” to process visual stimuli. (A wretched movie version of this case study was made a few years ago with Val Kilmer). The patient was blown away that a whole flight of stairs appeared simultaneous. When he was blind they always presented themselves sequentially, so seeing all of them was like time travelling.

    According to Sachs’s suggestion, Christ might first have healed the person’s eyes and then subsequently healed his brain to be capable of interpreting the messages all those rods and cones were sending.

  15. Damn, I meant “visual agnosia”

    “Anosognosia” is something else entirely…something I’m studying a bunch right now and it stuck on my brain. Sorry.

  16. Ed Snow says:

    I dunno Rick. I think you’re denying your inability to spell “visual agnosia.”

  17. LOL!

    “Our friend Ed is an educated man; now I really hate him”

    : )

  18. Rick, I’ve never been accused of that, so don’t start now.

    No need to hate me, I’ve just got a pretty good dictionary, and, the need to poke some fun at psychiatrists whenever the opportunity avails itself.

  19. Given his frequent failure to communicate, the idea of Jesus as a model teacher seems not well founded. He appears to have had other priorities than being plainly understood.

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