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Cliché, Binary Readings of Jesus in Mark

June 6, 2014

Reading through Mark’s Greek gospel, I’ve tried to resist some of my own tendencies to read it through those well-worn cliché tropes. For me anyways, in Southern Baptist Sunday School, I got little summaries of the books of the Holy Bible. There was the rationalization of the substantial variations in and between the four canonical gospels, for example. “Mark wants to show us Jesus as the Miracle Working Christ. It emphasizes His Divinity.”

More often than not, the method of reading, the interpretive method, the “Hermeneutic,” is Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction. The middle is excluded. It’s the “either / or” binary. Once a “book” can be summarized, and classified, it can be distinguished from the other books. The questions of the canon, then, can be dealt with. “The Gospel of Thomas”? Definitely NOT canonical, unless you’re going to be one of those Jesus seminar types, who includes the unincludable. (Well, the Jesus Seminar scholars don’t get a pass from playing Aristotle’s game. “This is EITHER something Jesus said OR it’s not. Now, tabulate the votes and grade with colors.”)

So is Jesus in Mark Divine? Or is Jesus in Mark Human?

Greek readers have a problem from the get-go since there are different texts to choose from. Either “that one” is the original and right and correct reading. Or “that other one” is. And we see this in Chapter 1. Verse 41 has this verb for Jesus (depending on the text you correctly choose):





The context has Jesus responding to another Human being who has what Mark seems to be describing as leprosy. The narrative has Jesus stretching out his hand and touching this unnamed person. The text also has Jesus doing this action with some sort of emotional motion.

Either it’s

gut-wrenching compassion

or it’s

raging indignation

Fair enough. We have two sets of Greek variant texts we must choose from. This results in two different text meanings,two different translations. Either the one or the other.

What I don’t get when reading how some readers read these variants is why one seems more human and the other must seem less human and therefore more divine. Can you guess which tends to be interpreted which way? The one way or the other?

A quick googling gets us this pattern of “either / or” reading:

Maybe Jesus was angry, indignant, annoyed. We might rather not think so, but the theology of the church is that he was not only fully divine, but also fully human. And the man was not dispassionate, he did have a temper, remember how angry


No doubt, he was tired of the crowds and of the exercise of power without any authority so that in a very human moment, Jesus was angry. I think that this reading helps to solidify the humanity of Jesus in this first half of Mark whereas the variant would only gloss over his humanity.

The cliché here seems to be that the human Jesus gets angry, that flying off the handle in indignation is not something God would do. Humans are emotional this way. Gods are more dispassionate.

And so the syllogism follows the major premise (Humans are given to weak shows of emotion). There’s the minor premise (Jesus was fully human). Here’s the conclusion – the Mark text original surely has ὀργισθεὶς since it does not “gloss over his humanity” but rather flaunts it.

I’m not trying here to protest this argument. Rather, I’m just trying to present it as based on binary thinking.

But what if our tight categories leaked a bit? What if gods and goddesses and perhaps even the G-d of the Universe were able to be annoyed by others or by situations? And what if human beings, even those created in God’s image, albeit a little lower than the angels, were able to have divine gut-wrenching compassion for one another and perhaps even for a Deity? What if the historical accident of our having different texts to interpret helps us to open up to possibilities of interpretation that are not so tightly binary? What if the original writer of the gospel of Mark had both phrases, the two verbs, together for the one Jesus? Now wouldn’t that have been something?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. krwordgazer permalink
    June 7, 2014 9:55 pm

    Compassion and anger do so often go together. Compassion for the victim, the marginalized, and anger at those who have treated her or him so cavalierly. Surely Jesus could have had gut-wrenching compassion for the diseased man who knelt at his feet, and raging indignation at those who used the law to turn him into a pariah.

  2. June 8, 2014 8:11 am

    Compassion and anger do so often go together.

    Thanks for your observations on this, Kristen. The manuscript variants do seem to oppose one another, at first glance only. As you point out, there is a plausible reading of both that has the two not contradicting but rather elaborating somehow on the richness of the human experience. And how sharp is Mark’s contrast between humanity and divinity here anyway?

    Then in the very next chapter, the gospel has something very like what you’ve written of Jesus here. (It’s what I tried to get to in the next post.)


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