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The Role That Miracles Play In The Mark’s Gospel

The miracle stories narrated by each of the four evangelists arguably form one of the most famed aspects of the story of the life of Jesus Christ, and it is clear that for the writers of the Gospels, as well as for the earliest Christians, the miracles encompassed great significance. However, the ways in which these miraculous events are depicted differs between Gospels generating a variation in the way that we, as the reader, might perceive their function. In this essay, I will seek to sustain the line of argument that the miracle stories within the Gospel of Mark fulfil many potential functions; the authentication of Jesus’ identity and message, a catalyst for profound teaching and a method through which the writer of Mark could speak directly to the worries, fears and questions of his own community, to name just few. Though it is unclear which, if any, of these functions the writer of Mark actually intended when narrating the miracle stories, these roles are, ultimately, even if accidentally, fulfilled.

It is worth outlining the distribution and arrangement of the miracle stories in the Gospel of Mark. Within Mark, we see eighteen accounts in which Jesus is depicted as a miracle-worker or exorcist[1]; as Boring observes, ‘ Depending on whether or not one includes the Markan summaries and such stories as finding the colt and cursing the fig tree, miracle stories comprise between 20 and 30 percent of 1:1-16:8 and 40 percent of chapters 1-10[2].’ Notably, almost all of the miracle stories are located towards the first half of the narrative with most of them having been performed prior to Peter’s confession following the transfiguration, and prior to the first passion prediction. Talk of Jesus’ miraculous work virtually silences after his entrance into Jerusalem. I think that when discussing the ‘function’ of the miracles in Mark, it is important to recognise the extent to which what we find in his text is a result of individual interpretation. It is widely accepted that Mark simply served to maintain and uphold the use of the miracle story tradition which he, himself, would have been familiar with; as Richardson argues, ‘it is a reasonable hypothesis to suppose that St. Mark found miracle-stories already in use by the church’s teachers for the same purposes as those to which he has himself applied them in his Gospel… We cannot look upon St. Mark as in any sense as innovator; he is rather the preserver and scribe of the tradition in which he himself has been instructed[3].’ It seems then, that the writer of Mark adopted the miracle story tradition and continued it as an effective way to talk about Jesus; we cannot be sure of the extent to which the stories we see related in the Gospel remain as Mark received them but taking into account Mark’s own sitz im leben and his desire to angle the Gospel towards the struggles and questions of his community, I think it most likely that the writer inherited the tradition and utilized them for his own theological purposes; as Best notes, ‘The Gospel was written not only for a Christian community but for a particular Christian community at a particular time and intended to meet its needs[4].’ It is impossible to know the exact intended function of the miracle stories for Mark, but we can see that certain functions are undoubtedly being fulfilled; in the remains of the essay, I will attempt to explore some of these potential functions.

The miracles serve to demonstrate Jesus’ connection to God; he acts with an authority which is seemingly new to his contemporaries: ‘…they were all amazed and glorified God saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this![5]’, ‘…and everyone was amazed[6].’ Historically, healings and exorcisms were not entirely unusual; the public would certainly have been aware of others who performed similar cures. The astonishment seems, then, to rest in the way that Jesus heals- his authority and response to faith signals that he is from God. Additionally, in many cases, Jesus heals through his word alone perhaps reminiscent of God’s creative activity in Genesis. From a narrative perspective, the miracle stories testify to the claim Mark has already made at the opening of his Gospel, of ‘Jesus Christ, the son of God[7].’ The fact that Mark’s readers are already privy to Jesus being the son of God creates a sense of dramatic irony in that the audience knows the secret to Jesus’ miracles whilst those around him are still questioning.

Perhaps the most obviously fulfilled function by the miracle stories is the revelation of aspects of Jesus’ nature; after establishing his identity as the Son of God, the miracles elaborate on what this title entails. Mark achieves the disclosure of Jesus’ dual nature as both a divine man and a suffering Messiah; two Christological viewpoints which many believe were brewing within the Markan community at the time the Gospel was composed; Mark may have wished to reconcile these stances. As already noted, the first half of the Gospel contains the majority of Jesus’ miracles with virtually no mention of them as the narrative moves closer to the passion, Boring concludes from this that ‘the first half of the Gospel thus represents a kind off ‘theology of glory,’ with Jesus’ power to perform miracles dramatically in the spotlight. The second half of the Gospel represents a kind of ‘theology of the cross,’ in which God’s power is revealed in weakness[8].’ Mark accentuates the remarkableness of Jesus’ miracles in order to reinforce his power before his weakness, his nature as a suffering Messiah, is revealed through the crucifixion, ‘ Jesus is primarily the one who dies on the cross and rises again and not the one who works miracles. The cross might suggest he was powerless, but the miracles show him as the one who can and does come in his risen power to the help of the community.[9]’ Alongside the accentuation of Jesus as a suffering Messiah, the juxtaposition of the miracles with Mark’s secrecy theme demonstrate a modesty to Jesus’ ministry, he is here to serve as opposed to gain personal gratification. For example, Jesus heals Jairus’ daughter and ‘strictly ordered them that no one should know this[10].’ The idea that, often, people cannot help but proclaim how Jesus has healed them also demonstrates the astonishment of his power

Alongside gaining a deeper understanding of Jesus’ personal nature through the miracle stories, we are perhaps, more significantly, provided with insight into the nature of Jesus’ ministry, his purpose for humanity and what humanity can gain from him through faith. Best alludes to this idea when he observes that ‘the lesson which the miracles teach also relates to the person of Jesus; if he saves from disease or the devil or storm, we learn something about his nature, but the primary emphasis lies on what they tell us about his activity for and on behalf of men[11].’ Perhaps most obviously, Jesus is presented as the one with the power to spiritually heal demonstrated most blatantly through his exorcisms. The Gerasene Demoniac, for example, is severely possessed yet Jesus cleanses him. Juel observes how the detail given by Mark as to the severity of the situation increases the sense of Jesus’ power in being able to save him: ‘ The situation is desperate. The signs of possession are painfully obvious to everyone. The man is totally out of control and incapable of living within society. Symbolic of his expulsion from human fellowship, he lives beyond the boundaries of civilization, in a state of ritual uncleanness (from a Jewish perspective), among the dead[12].’ Within the society in which Jesus performed his miracles, sickness in a bodily sense would be deemed a physical manifestation of spiritual sickness; when Jesus heals physically, he heals spiritually also. When speaking of ‘spiritual healing’ I refer to the redemptive power of Jesus which Mark highlights. This is particularly explicit when Jesus cleanses the leper at 1:40-45. For a Jewish audience, the fact that the man was stricken with leprosy would signal that he was sinful since the disease was, in the Old Testament, a punishment for sinful behaviour[13]. Since ‘leprosy is a type of sin[14]’, when Jesus heals the man physically he is seen as forgiving his sins and re-introducing him into society. This also establishes, once again, the connection between Jesus and God since Jesus is endowed with the authority to do that which only God has the authority to do, forgive sins.

Throughout the miracle stories, Jesus can be seen as transgressing numerous boundaries with regards to society and laws of cleanliness. As Rhoads explains, ‘these notions of clean and unclean have nothing to do with our modern ideas of sanitation. Rather, they are unseen forces capable of making things pure or polluted, holy or defiled, clean or unclean[15].’ Jesus can be seen ignoring these laws on numerous occasions: he heals a leper, he heals on the Sabbath, he heals the haemorrhaging woman who would be deemed ritually unclean by the laws of Leviticus, and he heals on gentile land a gentile woman’s daughter. Collectively, these demonstrate the universal nature of Jesus’ salvation; he rises above any restrictions which might be imposed by society and offers salvation all to all those with faith. Jesus brings a new covenant which transcends social boundaries and welcomes all people, not just those who are of Jewish heritage and abide by Jewish religious laws. Jesus brings a new law: ‘…from inside, from the hearts of people come the evil designs: fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, acts of greed, acts of malice, deceit, licentiousness, envious eye, blasphemy, arrogance, reckless folly. All these wicked things come out from within and defile the person[16].’ Commenting on this passage, Rhoads notes that ‘Mark eliminates ritual purity or defilement as a demarcation. In its place, he draws a line between moral and immoral behaviour as that which determines purity or defilement. Mark honours moral behaviour coming from the inside rather than guarding against unclean things from the outside[17].’

Although the messages of the miracle stories in Mark translate to a modern audience, it is widely accepted that many of these messages would have taken on additional significance for the members of Mark’s own community. Within a community constantly suffering persecution, stories of Jesus’ miraculous work would have provided vindication of Jesus’ power to redeem and to transcend death; ‘ The Christians need help; they face persecution and have to meet the temptations of the world, the desire for riches, security, popularity. They go the hard way of the cross, but it is not a lonely, unsupported following of Jesus, but one in which they have his presence. The miracles indicate some of the ways in which his support is offered[18].’ Through their struggles, the miracle stories also highlight the importance of faith; they might suffer greatly in their efforts to follow the way of Jesus but, as long as they maintained faith, they too could achieve salvation. With regards to this persecution, it is quite possible that Mark’s own community would have read further into the exorcism of Legion, in particular. Horsley maintains that the demons name is explicitly suggests that its identity is the Roman army; the attacks of the Roman army are what drove the man to violence, ‘this means, however, not only that the demon’s name is symbolic, indicating that the Roman army is the cause of the possessed man’s violent and destructive behaviour, but that the man also is symbolic of the whole society that is possessed by the demonic imperial violence to their persons and communities[19].’ Horsley suggests that the vanquishing of Legion is evocative of the release of Israel from under Egyptian rule. In the same way, Jesus is establishing order, ‘establishing God’s rule[20].’ Mark reassures his community that Jesus is greater than and can transcend and vanquish evil. Within an early Christian community, the church would potentially be comprised of converts from a variety of backgrounds; the universal nature of Jesus’ salvation demonstrated through the miracle stories would be a great comfort to many in Mark’s community who were previously unable to share in a relationship with God.

It is clear that the miracle stories within the Gospel of Mark fulfil many potential functions; the authentication of Jesus’ identity and message, a catalyst for profound teaching regarding Jesus’ soteriological relationship with humanity and a method through which the writer of Mark could speak directly to the worries, fears and questions of his own community. As will always be the case with biblical criticism, it is unclear how much of the miracle story tradition Mark inherited and how much of what we read can be attributed to his own theological interpretation. However, regardless of Mark’s intentions, he, even if inadvertently, uses the miracle stories to fulfil a number of different functions which ultimately feed into the way in which we read the Gospel. Mark’s presentation of the miraculous events are deeply theological, to the extent where, as Best concludes, ‘The miracles are not merely far-off events in the past life of Jesus but part of the present life of believers.[21]’

[1] G. Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, Chapter 14, P.232 [2] Boring, M. Eugene. Mark. Louisville, KY, USA: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. [3] A. Richardson, The Miracle Stories of the Gospels, P.100 [4] E. Best, Disciples and Discipleship, P.177 [5] Mark 2:12 [6] Mark 5:20 [7] Mark 1:1 [8] Boring, M. Eugene. Mark. Louisville, KY, USA: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2006. ProQuest ebrary. Web. [9] E. Best, Disciples and Discipleship, P.182 [10] Mark 5:43 [11] E. Best, Disciples and Discipleship, P.195 [12] D. Juel, A Master of Surprise, p.66 [13] E. Best, Disciples and Discipleship, P.188 [14] ibid. [15] D. Rhoads, Reading Mark, Engaging the Gospel, P.153 [16] Mark 7:21-23 [17] D. Rhoads, Reading Mark, Engaging the Gospel, P.170 [18] E. Best, Disciples and Discipleship, P.184 [19] R.A. Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel, p.140 [20] ibid. [21] E. Best, Disciples and Discipleship, P.196

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