Why does Mark put two long stories of feeding the multitude into his short Gospel? There also are two long exorcism stories? Why? It may be that Jesus performed the same miracles more than once, but that doesn’t answer the question. Mark doesn’t include everything Jesus did in his story. He has a purpose beyond historical accuracy. Ched Myers argues that the point of these duplications is to illustrate the presence of Gentiles alongside Jews in the Kingdom of God.
Eleventh in a series on “The Worldly Spirituality of Mark’s Gospel” with help from Ched Myers’ Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. The Introduction and, looking ahead, a Table of Contents are HERE.
In Chapters 1 to 4 Mark has brought the myth of combat between good and evil down from heaven to “the concrete political geography of Palestine.” (Myers, page 181-2) There a new kind of polity is taking shape in the midst of the old. The next three chapters use symbolic, miraculous actions to show what the new Kingdom of God will be like and the kind of enemy it engages.
Jesus will deal with two challenges to the lifestyle of the Kingdom. One, Jews and Gentiles are estranged from each other. Two, Jewish society isolates the poor in their midst. A third estrangement is building in Mark’s account. Jesus’ ideological distance from the powers that be will extend gradually to his own followers.
Here in order is a list of Jesus’ many actions in this section. I will consider the ones in italics in this post, the rest in the next post. The first group deals with Jews and Gentiles, the second with rich and poor. The disciples’ lack of understanding, their growing isolation from Jesus, figures in both.
- Calming the storm at sea
- Healing the Gerasene demoniac
- Curing the woman with hemorrhages and the synagogue official’s daughter
- Teaching and being rejected at Nazareth
- Sending the twelve on mission and later hearing their report (these two sandwiched around the account of the Baptist’s death)
- Feeding the five thousand
- Walking on water
- Arguing with the Pharisees about fasting and other traditions
- Losing an argument with the Syrophoenician woman
- Healing a deaf man
- Feeding the four thousand
- Refusing to give a sign from heaven
- Remonstrating with his disciples about loaves
The disciples don’t understand about Gentiles
From first to last in this section the disciples’ lack of understanding is prominent. Jesus calms a storm at sea. In this first scene the disciples wonder who Jesus might be, whom “even the winds and the sea obey.” In the last scene Jesus reviews with his disciples the two episodes of feeding the multitudes and says, “Have you still not understood.”
I always figured the disciples should have understood what I understood quite well. Jesus is God incarnate or something very close to that, at any rate a person with God-like power. All those miracles sounded to me like something really powerful going on. Myers digs deeper, clearing up my misunderstanding, and showing what the disciples still have to understand. It turns out to be more than Jesus and his powers. Two concerns in particular are foreigners and poor people. To get started on the first of these, Jesus enters the territory of the Gentiles.
The Gerasene demoniac. (Mark 5:1-21; Myers, page 190)
Jesus and the disciples are on “the other side of the sea,” Gentile (non-Jewish) territory. There a man is possessed and so strong that not even chains can contain him. He cries out in a loud voice and identifies Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” That’s a Hellenistic (non-Jewish) title. When Jesus asks for his name, he replies, “Legion is my name. There are many of us.” “Legion” calls to mind a division of Roman soldiers (definitely non-Jewish). We’re seeing a pattern of here that has something to do with Gentiles.
The devils’ military name prompts Mark’s readers to look for other military imagery in the story. The demons ask to be sent into a “herd” of pigs. Pigs don’t travel in herds, but that word in Greek often refers to a band of army recruits. When the legion of devils asks to be sent into the pigs, Jesus “lets” them. “Lets” is my bible’s translation, but better is “dismisses” them, an army command. The pigs “charge” like troops rushing into battle and are swallowed by the hostile waters of the lake. Now we recall Pharaoh’s army, whom Yahweh cast into the sea.
In a previous exorcism in the synagogue, the Jesus identified the demon with the scribal class. Here the identification is with the Roman occupiers. First Jewish power, then power of the Gentiles comes under Jesus’ authority. Again Jesus proves to be the “stronger one,” able to command even Rome’s military might.
The villagers send Jesus away.
The villagers marvel, seeing the formerly possessed man now in full possession of his faculties. Oddly they beg Jesus to leave that country.
Jesus has exposed a common sociological fact. Demon possession is often a symptom of and an unconscious protest against occupation. The power of the occupiers is too frightening for conscious protest. These Gentiles are not ready to enter into open defiance of Rome. They certainly are not ready for Jesus’ kind of defiance, without army or arms.
Jesus, with this second exorcism, has opened up a second front in the exercise of his Kingdom ministry. He will engage on behalf of Gentiles as well as Jewish oppressed people. The next miracles powerfully express the same theme.
Feeding the multitudes twice
I could never figure out the two feeding miracles (Mark 6:34-44 and 8:1-9). That there are two is puzzling enough. But if there are going to be two, why is the second one less impressive? It starts with more loaves (7 instead of 5) and feeds fewer people (4000 instead of 5000) with fewer baskets of leftovers (7 instead of 12). You’d think with practice Jesus’ power would be growing.
Scholars have wondered if the same event was perhaps being handed down in two different traditions. But then why did Mark include both of them in his rather short Gospel, devoting plenty of time to each, and later recapping both but none of Jesus’ other amazing deeds? And, stylistically, shouldn’t he have put the bigger miracle second?
Myers explains the symbolism of the two feeding miracles and why there are two of them (pages 205-210 and 225-26). Together they reveal the shape of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom which will include both Jews and non-Jews. Later Jesus reviews the two feeding miracles in a stern remonstration with his disciples. Jesus repeats all the numbers of loaves, people, and baskets; and the numbers tell the story.
In the first feeding, fives loaves, 5000 men, and 12 baskets represent Jewish concerns—the five books of the Law and the 12 tribes. In the second, the numbers – seven loaves, seven baskets, and 4000 people – belong to Greek symbolism. Driving the point home, Mark uses different words for basket. The first miracle gets the Hebrew word for basket; the second, a Greek word. The first occurs in Jewish territory; the second where Gentiles predominate.
The duplication with their respective numbers, names, and locations reveal Mark’s point. Jews and Greeks belong equally in God’s Kingdom. If the disciples had understood the symbolism, they would have found the second miracle really mind blowing, even if less impressive quantitatively. Perhaps they did understand and couldn’t accept it. Gentiles on equal footing with Jews?
Conclusion and looking ahead
Two reconciliations will characterize the Kingdom of God. In one, Jews will reconcile with non-Jews and both enjoy equal status in the Kingdom. In the second, poor and rich will sit together at table, and no one will know the shame or the pride of varying degrees of honor. The second reconciliation will be the theme of the next post. Both moves put the Kingdom in danger. Both seem to be too much for the disciples, who become more and more estranged from their leader.