“Question Mark,” Episode 5: Is Seven Greater Than Twelve?
In the last post, we explored how the Mark author wove together allusions to older Hebrew prophecies about destruction in order to frame his own narrative about the sins of the people of Jerusalem.
Some of those sins seem to have been a concern for traditional Jewish laws and customs, such as circumcision and food restrictions.
In this, the author was wading into a controversy that had raged within early Christian communities for some time. Should followers of Christ follow Jewish laws or not?
Everyone knows that Christianity was originally an offshoot of Jewish culture. Yet over time, the movement expanded beyond Judea and into the wider Roman Empire, and eventually it came to be dominated by Gentile converts.
For the Christians with a Jewish heritage, this situation imposed a real dilemma. Should you spread the word of Jesus in the most efficient way, and risk cultural erasure? Or should you work to preserve your identity and risk the movement’s stagnation, if not annihilation by the Romans?
There was no easy answer, but most felt compelled to pick a side.
Obviously, the Mark author sided with the more laissez-faire, cosmopolitan factions. Not only does he have Jesus declare obsolete the laws of kashrut (dietary laws, i.e., what is and is not kosher), he tells his followers to embrace anyone who evangelizes in his name:
“Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
“Do not stop him.“
“For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.
Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”Jesus: Mark 9:38-41
And yet, in the wake of Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem, that advocacy for openness over staunch legalism seems to have curdled into a cold contempt for those who had fought for Jewish traditions.
The author thinks that those Christians had set their minds on human concerns, not the concerns of God. And so in his gospel, he depicts the Jews and Jewish Christians of Jerusalem as inviting their own destruction, crucifying the messiah in the process.
Not only that, but he peppers his story with several indications that the good news of Jesus has or will pass from the Jews to the Gentiles.
Think back to the pig herder (a decidedly un-kosher trade) in a land outside of Judea: this is the one person he instructs to spread the story of his healing. Family and home are portrayed negatively several times throughout the story. While a Jewish Simon denies Jesus three times despite having been instructed to carry a cross for him, a Gentile Simon literally carries a cross for Jesus.
Then there is the Greek woman, whose daughter Jesus heals after she points out that the dogs (the Gentiles) eats the crumbs that the children (the Jews) do not.
This scene is bookended by two miraculous feeding scenes: the first with 12 bread baskets and the second with 7 baskets.
Jesus suggests to his disciples that the number of baskets has some deeper meaning, but he leaves it unexplained.
The best guess is that the baskets represent the 12 tribes of Israel and then the 7 hills of Rome.
The children were fed first, then the dogs. And while the dogs appreciated what they got, the 12 children did not. Because, as the story indicates, “their hearts were hardened.”
Notably, even with this severe stance against Jewish traditionalism, the author shared some illustrious company. This whole controversy about law and custom in Christianity arguably started when the apostle Paul offered to dedicate his life to converting the uncircumcised to the movement around 50 CE.
Several of Paul’s letters describe heated arguments with rival Christian leaders pertaining to the correct practices of Christians regarding Jewish laws. And Paul could really bring the fire to his rivals in those letters. Just read his Epistle to the Galatians and see how he treats those “esteemed pillars” of the Christian movement: Peter, John, and James.
That one’s more passive aggressive than outright vicious, but it’s far more heated than what I had gathered from church sermons!
Maybe at some point they were all friends, but that friendliness had completely vanished by the time of Paul’s letter.
Speaking of those three apostles, there is actually quite a lot of material from the Mark gospel that may have been inspired by Paul’s letters. Those three individuals are distinguished in the gospel as Jesus’ main disciples, yet they are consistently depicted as foolish, and ultimately fail their messiah. Many of Jesus’ words of wisdom are in perfect harmony with passages that Paul wrote.
And clearly: both men advocated passionately for a pragmatic, open approach to Christian practice, both of them dismissing Jewish law as an earthly concern rather than a heavenly one. Maybe this is all coincidence, but for me it makes sense to conclude that the Mark author was a Pauline Christian, a member of one of the many communities around the land that the apostle himself had helped to establish.
Of course, while quoting and paraphrasing an older work is often a sign of admiration, it’s not always the case.
Especially when someone samples that older work and recontextualizes the content…in order to support the opposing side!
…to be continued…
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