Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Declaring Jesus: Mark 8:22-26 as the Interpretive Lens for Proclaiming a Messiah

Brandon J. Walsh

Mark 8:22-26

And they went into Bethsaida and they brought to him a blind man and asked that he touch him.
And taking the hand of the blind man he brought him out of the village, and spit into his eyes, put his hands on him and asked him.
“Do you see?” And looking up he said I see humans which are like trees, I see them walking around.
Then again he put his hands upon his eyes and looked intently and was restored to sight and he saw clearly all things.
And he sent him to his house saying : into the city you must not go.
(person translation)


The healings of Jesus have been a cause for hope for many Christians throughout history. The power of God to reach into the hopeless and stir renewal is gripping. In Mark 8:22-26 the reader, or listener, finds an odd account where Jesus seems unable to heal a blind man initially. I will argue that this account foreshadows Peters proclamation that Jesus is the Son of God, and is purposely written to draw attention to itself.

Overview of The Gospel of Mark:
The Gospel of Mark is thought to be the earliest written Gospel by the majority of New Testament Scholarship. This is due to its length; theological content and other factors influenced by redaction criticism. While some have postulated that the Gospel of Mark is a rough stringing together of various anonymous oral traditions, the Gospel’s coherent story and layers of potent narrative necessitate literary unity and purpose. The audience of Mark would have been living in a time of bitter persecution and political unrest after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. The Gospel of Mark is written to affirm this community’s faith and reassure them that their sacrifice was in direct continuity with the suffering of Christ and the Kingdom of God.
The basic outline of the Gospel narrative is as follows:
1. The Baptism and Ministry within Galilee. (1:1 – 8:22)
a. Jesus as Prophet/ miracle worker announcing the Kingdom of God.
2. Moving from Miracle Worker to Messiah. ( 8:22- 10:52)
a. Jesus reinterprets the meaning of Messiah and prepares the disciples for the passion. This section is begun and ended by two healings of blind men, including the pericope dealt with in this exegesis.
b. Includes Peters declaration that Jesus is the Christ, predictions of Jesus’ death, as well as healings and the Transfiguration.

3. Ministry and Death of Jesus in Jerusalem (10:53 – 16:8)
a. This includes the Passion, and the culminating declaration that Jesus is the Son of God by a Roman Centurion.
The pericope that this paper exegetes is highly significant within its placement. It is the introduction to the new section, and the precursor to the proclamation of Jesus as Christ by Peter.

This passage is the story of a miracle. Jesus is walking through a town when his disciples bring him a man who is blind, so he takes the man outside of the city and spits into his eye. Jesus then asks the man if he can see. Yet the man sees only in part, he sees men walking around like trees. Jesus then lays his hands on man once again and the blind man is completely healed. Jesus instructs him not to go back into the town.
This pericope is of paramount importance, revealing the social implications of the Kingdom of God, while providing a metaphorical forecast of the events to follow. To understand how this episode functions within the greater narrative world of Mark it must be examined as a unit. It follows, or is rather a derivation from a formula that has been developed in Mark. This formula is what David Rhoads calls a healing “type scene.” This type scene is a formula that is developed throughout a narrative and uses repetition to instill certain character functions. A simplified healing type scene as developed in the Mark’s gospel is as such.
A) Jesus enters a new place (town, region or setting)
B) Jesus is presented a sick/ lame/ demon possessed person and
C) The person is healed by Jesus immediately.
D) Jesus tells those around him to remain silent about his deed.
We see this pattern exemplified in a narrative that closely precedes this healing in chapter 8. Jesus heals a man who is deaf and mostly mute in chapter 7 and this account follows this type scene. Jesus A) goes to the sea (7:31) then B) is presented a deaf man (7:32). C) Jesus heals the man by spitting on his fingers and placing them in the man’s ears (7:33-35) then D) Jesus commands people not to say anything (7:36.) There are several variations on Mark’s basic type scene model, but since this healing account is closest in proximity to the healing account in chapter 8 I will argue that it is the best healing narrative by which to draw contrasts.
The healing, or double healing of the blind man in chapter 8 diverges from this type cast in several ways. Primarily when Jesus attempts to heal the blind man he fails to do so completely at first. Instead Jesus does something uncharacteristic, he asks the man “can you see?” In chapter 7 Jesus simply pronounces the man’s ears to “be opened.” The man recounts a strange mangling of perception where he sees men like trees walking. Jesus then touches the confused man and heals him completely. Then tells him to not go into the city, which could be to keep the healing a secret.
The importance of this pericope’s divergence from the typecast is that it emphasizes its importance.
“ On the one hand the type scene sets up a pattern of repetition for the reader. On the other hand, variation in a type scene introduces new elements into the story.”
These variations in this case become unique entities within the passage, and thus through their apparent discontinuity call for special attention to be paid to this specific text. Yet because it retains its referential structure from this healing type scene it also retains the motifs that accompany this structure; namely the rejection of social cleanliness.
Within second temple Judaism there was an ethic of holiness and cleanliness. This structure was built upon Torah as a defensive mechanism. In exile the Jews experienced what Dr. Steve Dintman calls a crisis of narrative. The Jews thought that God would never let his chosen people be over run by pagans, yet when this occurred they sought after an explanation for their loss. Much of the Deuteronomistic writings in the Old Testament deal with this very question, and conclude that the basis of their exile was due to their cultural assimilation and national impurity. As a result during the second temple period the Pharisees sought to fight defend Israel from impurity and to push the “unclean” elements out from the society. This understanding was only intensified by the onslaught of Hellenism during the inter-testamental period, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes spilt the blood of a pig in the temple.
To understand the healings of Jesus within Mark, including the healing of the blind man in chapter 8, a cursory understanding of cleanliness and purity is necessitated. As previously mentioned the hierarchy and economy of purity was a defensive mechanism devoted to maintaining the holiness of the Temple and the people of God. According to anthropologist Mary Douglas , the Leviticus laws were representations of order versus chaos. The world of God was orderly and those things that broke out of given classifications were impure due to their neglect of “normality.” Pigs were thus unclean because they do not have cloven hooves. In like manner people who were either born with a deformity or sick were deemed sinners, unclean and thus excluded from the framework of Judaism. This is seen in John 9:1 when Jesus encounters another blind man and his disciples ask "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” To have eyes, but not be able to see was a categorical disconnect from society and God. Bodily fluids were also deemed impure when they were out of the body, because they were not in their classified location.
As Jesus touches the lame and sick, he is essentially rejecting the economy of purity set up by the Pharisees. In the case of the blind man in chapter 8 there is a particularly poignant irony in the fact that Jesus actually spits on this man. This misplacement of a bodily fluid would have made the man even more unclean, yet the action is vindicated as the purity system is rejected in these miraculous healings. These miracles in Mark are a major vehicle by which Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God. “Each healing reinforces, enriches, and expands our understanding of the power of the kingdom.”
This passage from Mark 8 maintains this rich proclamation of the Kingdom of God. But unlike the other healings in Mark this particular account is designed to draw attention to itself. If taken out of the co-text and context this pericope is almost humorously strange and it is meant to be.
To interpret this text out of the co-text could be likened to understanding the purpose of a finger without examining the hand and person that it is attached to. This text opens a hinging section of the Gospel, and these notable changes from the type cast are markers for new section.
In the first eight chapters of Mark Jesus is established as a prophet who is proclaiming the Kingdom of God and miracle worker who inaugurates it. Yet this is by no means necessitates the title Messiah. In Mark there is a motif commonly known as the “messianic secret.” Even though Mark lets his readers/ listeners know that Jesus is the “Son of God” in the beginning of chapter one, the characters within the narrative are on a journey of discovering Jesus’ role within the narrative of Israel. As Jesus is healing people throughout the first chapters of Mark he continually tells them to be quiet because the he must first redefine the characteristics of Messiah. As this story is placed directly before Peter’s confession that Jesus is Messiah, this seemingly confusing story of the blind man’s double healing can be viewed as a forecast of what is to come in the next half of Mark’s Gospel.
According to Elizabeth Malbon’s 1993 article, “Mark's Gospel presents its hearer/reader with echoes and foreshadowing -to use both an aural and a visual metaphor…” This passage in Mark 8 provides a subtle microcosm for the hearer for what was about to transpire in the proclamation of Peter.
Jesus asks his disciples who they say that he is, and in what is possibly the most famous line in the Gospel of Mark, Peter replies, “ You are the Christ” (8:29). This moment is a false climax, an incomplete revelatory moment, and is shown as such when Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he must be killed. Just as the blind man sees trees walking around, in his initial “healing” so Peter sees Jesus as the Christ. Labeling Jesus as Messiah without redefining the understanding of who Messiah is as useful as the blind mans warped perception of reality. The Gospel author has made this story stick out so harshly so that it may be used as an interpretive tool for the coming event.
For Mark the death of Jesus is also that which validates his anointing as Messiah. To Peter the Messiah was the one who was going to overthrow Rome, and would take the control by conquest in terms of the already presumed power structure. However, just as Jesus was rejecting the economy of purity within second temple Judaism, so he was also rejecting the power and honor economy within the Roman Empire. The Messianic Secret is not that Jesus is messiah, but rather what Messiah’s role would entail.
The Apostles remain within this state of half vision or misunderstood reality until the end of the Gospel. Joel B. Green states of the disciples that,
“They have continued to operate with an unreconstructed view of the world; that is, they have not yet fully embraced the new view of the world… and the meaning of suffering in relation to God’s redemptive purpose…”
The fullness of sight is only restored by the proclamation of an unlikely person. In Mark 15, as Jesus dies on the Cross, naked and humiliated, the Roman Centurion declares “surely this man was the Son of God” (15:38)
This is the point of full sight. When there is a total recognition of an inverted value system within the Kingdom of God. So much so that the one who is called Son of God, is the one who is most shamed and tortured within the power economy of Rome. The only true understanding of Christ includes, and in fact makes central, the suffering and Crucifixion.
Thus the plurality of the healing account in Mark 8 is made manifest. It serves as a marker to the new section to come, as an announcement of the inclusion of those called unclean. All the while revealing, through its discontinuity to the type scene, a microcosm of how the Messianic Secret is disclosed.
This secret has bloody implications. By the end of this narrative the implication is death, as Jesus has told his disciples: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (8:33-35.) To the earliest Christians this was not a vague platitude for moral rigor, but rather a literal call to destruction. To the persecuted community of Christians in the latter part of the first century, these words would have would have found resonance. After the War with Rome had destroyed the Temple, there was a period of tremendous political unrest. The emperor Nero had ordered for the brutal persecution of Christians in Rome, and the early martyrs such as Polycarp and Theclea had become near bedtime stories for the early church. To the hearers of Mark the Gospel’s call to destruction is seen theologically only insofar as it is denying the power structures of the roman patronage system.
Those encountering the Gospel in the first centuries would have actually have been walking through the understanding Messiah in their own lives. In this context it is not inappropriate to associate the blindness of the man in Mark 8 with that of the first hearer of the Gospel. It would have been an introduction to a new way of understanding messiah, not just to the characters within the narrative, but also to the audience that is following their journey. As they begin to see that Jesus may be messiah, they are shown that they are still blind and must be healed both of their blindness to Jesus’ Identity, as well as their inaccurate presumptions associated with Messiah. When at the end of the Gospel of Mark Mary and her companions flee the empty tomb in fear, they essentially bring the Message of Jesus directly to the audience, who too is running in fear. Yet this fear is subdued in the understanding that in death to this world’s authoritarian structure, there is birth and life into the Kingdom of God.

Canonical Context:
This text does two main things. 1) Affirms the inclusion of the weak into the Kingdom of God via miracle, and 2) alludes to a Cross-centered Messiah and subsequent discipleship. There are many other texts within both the Old Testament and New Testament that perform similar function.
The miracles themselves are echoes or allusions the prophets such as Elijah, Jeremiah and Moses. Graham Stanton asserts that both Mark and Luke make clear allusions to these prophetic traditions by modeling healing accounts after well known miracles performed by the Prophets. A good example of this is found in Luke 4 where Jesus raises the widow’s son back to life, closely paralleling 1 Kings 17:8-24 where Elijah raises the son of a widow.
When the Prophets performed these miracles it was a sign of Gods anointing, but was also a sign for the people of Israel to repent from their sins and turn to God. In like manner the healings of Jesus show both his anointing and are a sign for Israel to repent and turn from the kingdom of this world and accept the Kingdom of God. John also uses these miracles as evidence pointing towards the Kingdom of God, in fact he calls them (σημειον): signs. They lead to faith in Christ and manifest his Glory.
The purpose of this healing in Chapter 8 is also a forecast to a need for real sight, one encompassing a cross centered Messiah. The correlation between Christ’s death and Messianic title are also drawn within the writings of Paul. In Galatians 2:20 Paul writes: “ I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” This reveals his understanding that the Cross is the cornerstone to Jesus’ title of Christ.

This pericope is designed to stand out by not following Mark’s established type scene. The story of Jesus having to heal a man twice makes the reader inquisitive. When examined carefully this passage illustrates the spiritual significance of the proclamation to come. When Peter declares that Jesus is the “Son of God” he does not fully understand what this entails, just as the blind man is not fully healed when he sees men walking around like trees.
To understand the real meaning of Messiah one must accept the horrible torture and death of Jesus. It is only when the title of Son of God is together with this horrible suffering do we see fully.

I lost the official Bibliography for this work, and footnotes do not work for this setting, but I will provide one by request.

Acts of Theclea -http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/maps/primary/thecla.html
David Rhoads, “Jesus and the Syrophenician Woman” pp. 69-70.
David Rhoads “Crossing Boundaries,” pp. 154.
Graham Stanton; “Healings and Exorcisms,” 234.
Elizabeth Malbon “Echoes and Foreshadowings in Mark 4-8 Reading and Rereading,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 112, No. 2, (Summer, 1993), pp. 211.

Joel B. Green “Death of Jesus and the Ways of God.”
Robert H. Stein “Studying the Synoptic Gospels Origin and Interpretation,” pp. 141.

Keith F. Nickle “The Synoptic Gospels : An Introduction” pp. 76. Even if Mark were written pre -70 the primary audience would have read this gospel in light of post 70 events.


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