The Use of Conflicts in the Gospel of Mark

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus responds unevenly to the opportunities he has to engage in conflicts. There is an easy way to demonstrate this, although I am sure it would not persuade anyone who wasn’t willing to be persuaded. You simply array the conflict situations Mark describes and note when Jesus chose to engage and when he didn’t. Then you plot them out from mild to severe and see how they line up.

I’ve done that twice recently, once in a secular setting and once in a religious setting, and found the question thoroughly engaging. The situations were mostly familiar, but the approach—how did Jesus choose how to engage in these conflicts and for what reasons—was unfamiliar. There is something of a “gentle Jesus meek and mild” aura that seems to persist from week to week, even as we dismembered it week to week. For that reason, and perhaps for some others as well, it continues to be a surprising study.

As I looked for a way to convey what appears to be a series of strategic choices, I happened on the notion of a manager choosing the series of opponents for his young boxer. The idea that Mark is the manager gives room for us, as readers, to imagine the strategic choices Mark made in assembling the gospel. He can’t use all the materials he has, even if he wanted to, and he needs to turn these materials into a narrative that will make sense to readers. There is, therefore, an order these conflicts must have. It would be unsettling to have the intensity decrease markedly as Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover conflicts.

So the fantasy that Mark serves as Jesus’ “manager” allows us to look for the strategy in his choices. Also, as in the stories, the manager would choose just the fights his fighter needed to build his skills. This stretches the metaphor just a little, but it is clear that some of the conflicts feature challenges to the power Jesus has; others to the authority he has. Some pit Jesus against the Pharisees, some against the scribes, some against the Sadducees. Some conflicts require Jesus to define his ministry, others to define his nature.

So overall, seeing Mark’s account as a boxer’s manager’s choice of conflicts—though fanciful—offers some very sensible choices to the reader.

Some Examples

For instance, in Mark 2, the Pharisees challenge Jesus about his disciples’ refusal to engage in fasting. Why is that? Jesus responds by saying that this is a special time.

19 Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot fast while the bridegroom is still with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then, on that day, they will fast.

The claim this makes is among the mildest of Jesus’ responses. The disciples behavior is related to the time they are with their master and when that time is over, they will again pick up the valuable practices of observant Jews.

But three verses later—in this metaphor, “three verses later” refers to where Mark places these two conflicts in relation to each other, not to any fixed elapsed time—the Pharisees criticize the disciples for violating the Sabbath and Jesus responds much more robustly. He does not appeal to the differences among the various rabbis about just how strict to be. He appeals first to the practice of David, later King David, who took liberties with the Sabbath.

Then he crowns that conflict with a very powerful reference—no less powerful for being puzzling:

27And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; 28so the Son of man [many translations have Son of Man] is master even of the Sabbath.’ [1]

There is no question, however, that in this conflict, Jesus moves from less controversial claims to more controversial ones.

Examples could be multiplied. We dealt with twelve of them, all from Mark, in these sessions. In some, Jesus simply refused to be baited. In Mark11, Jesus asks his opponents—chief priests, scribes, and elders, in this instance—a question they dare not answer in public. When they refuse to answer, Jesus says:

‘Nor will I tell you my authority for acting like this.’

When the opponents ask a question like ones they have been asking—why don’t your disciples….?—Jesus simply explodes. (Mark 7:6—8)

6He answered, ‘How rightly Isaiah prophesied about you hypocrites in the passage of scripture: This people honors me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. 7 Their reverence of me is worthless; the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments. * 8You put aside the commandment of God to observe human traditions.’

There is nothing remotely like an answer to the question in that response. Imagine that Mark, the Manager, calls for a shift from defense to offense, sensing that the time is right. In this metaphor, we cannot judge whether the metaphor treats Mark as the “manager” of the career of Jesus or as “manager” of the needs of the narrative. In either case, the shift into attack mode is dramatic.

There is no need to multiply examples. If you build an array of the least offensive of Jesus’ responses to the most offensive, you find that the conflicts fill up the whole scale. We cannot tell from Mark’s account alone whether this is a well planned ministry or a well planned narrative, but the range is impressive and it gives a new and interesting perspective on Jesus.

[1] What does Mark want us to understand here? “Son of Man” is used in Mark’s gospel to mean several different things (see Mark 17:62 for a very high claim).

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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