The Marcan Controversy Sequence: 2:1-3:61


1 And when he came back to Capernaum a few days later, the news spread that he was at home 2, 2 and so many people gathered there that there was no vacant space, not even near the doorway 3as Jesus was proclaiming his message4. 3 So when people arrived bringing a paralytic on a four-bearer litter5, they couldn’t get him to Jesus because of the crowd, and so they took the thatched roof off of the chamber where Jesus was and lowered through the opening the litter on which the paralytic lay6

5 And when Jesus saw the extent of their faith7, he said to the paralytic8, “My son, you are being forgiven9 your sins.”

6 Some of the scribes10seated there observing11 were wondering 7 why Jesus would talk like that, blaspheming, since surely only God can forgive sins.12

8 And right away when Jesus realized13that this was what they were thinking, he said to them, “Why are you concerned about what I am saying and doing? Tell me whether it is easier to tell the paralytic, ‘You are being forgiven your sins’ or to tell him, ‘Get up, pick up your litter and start walking’? 10 “But just to let you realize that the Son of Man is authorized to forgive sins on earth14 …,” he said to the paralytic, 11 I’m telling you now:15 Get up, pick up your litter, and go on home.” 12 And the paralytic got up and right away,16picked up his litter and went out in front of everybody, whereupon they were astounded and began to praise God, and say, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”17

13 And again he went out along the lake-shore and the whole throng kept coming to him, and he was teaching them.18

14 And as he moved on he noticed Levi, Alphaeus’ son, seated at his tax-stall19, and at Jesus’ command, “Follow me!” Levi rose and followed him.20 15. Later Jesus was dining at Levi’s house and there were several tax-collectors and sinners.21 dining together with him (there were a lot of them and they were following Jesus).2216 And when the Pharisaic teachers of the Law saw23 that he was dining with tax-collectors and sinners, they put the question to Jesus’ disciples: “Why does he dine with tax-collectors and sinners?”24 17. And when Jesus heard that, he told them, “It’s not people who are healthy who need a doctor but those who are sick. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners.”25

18 At a time when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, people came and asked him, “Why is it that John’s disciples and the Pharisees’ disciples fast but your disciples do not?26 19 And Jesus asked them, “How can the bridal party fast while they have the bridegroom with them?27 They cannot fast while they have him with them. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them: that is the day and time on which they will fast.28 21 Nobody ever patches old clothes with a patch that’s not pre-shrunk; else the new cloth will shrink and tear away from the old and the tear will get worse. 22 And nobody puts new wine into old wine-skins; else the fermenting wine will burst the skins and both wine and skins go to waste-No! New wine into new skins!29

23 And on another occasion30, on the Sabbath day, as he was faring through grain-fields, his disciples started beating a path as they plucked ears of grain. 24 And the Pharisees tried to tell him, “Look here! Why are they doing what should not be done on the Sabbath?”31 25 Then he asked them, “Haven’t you ever read what David did when he and his followers were in need and hungry? How he went into the house of God (this was when Abiathar was High Priest) and ate the consecrated loaves which none but the priests are supposed to eat, and he gave them to his followers? 27 Then he told them, “The Sabbath was created for humanity’s sake, not humanity for the sake of the Sabbath;32 28 The Son of Man therefore is sovereign even over the Sabbath.”33

Mark 3

1 And once again he went into the synagogue,34 where there was a man who had a withered hand. 2 And they were keeping an eye on him to see if he would heal the man on the Sabbath.35 3 Then to the man with the withered hand he says, “Get up here in our midst.” 4. And to them he said, “What may we do on the Sabbath? do good? or do evil? save life? or put to death?”36 But they kept silent. 5 And he glanced about angrily at all of them, upset at their thick-headedness,37

and then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” And when he had done so, his hand was as good as new.38 6.At that the Pharisees left right away and began planning together against him with the Herodians39 to find a way to destroy him.40

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Mark 2 Notes

1 The sequence extending from Mark 2:1 through 3:6 consists of five so-called “Controversy-stories,” accounts of disputes between Jesus and opposing interpreters or interpretations of the Jewish law. The sequence as a whole is very artfully constructed to reveal the chasm between ways in which God’s will is understood by Jesus in the dawning new age and by those of older institutions now threatened by Jesus. At the same time, the conflict between Jesus and the defenders of the old order intensifies in this sequence and climaxes in the first indication that what the defenders of the old order want is to destroy (ἀποκτεῖναι) Jesus.

2 “At home,” (ἐν οἴκῳ): while no particular house in Capernaum is explicitly indicated, we assume that it is Simon’s house, where Jesus had previously healed Simon’s mother-in-law and had, on that same evening, healed many people and exorcised many demons.

3 Recurrent theme: the great throng pressing tightly about Jesus after his reputation has spread; the crowd now bars the way to a small group determined to bring a paralytic to Jesus to be healed–but their faith finds a way past the obstacle.

4 We are not told what “the word” was, only that so many are listening to him in so small a space that the way to Jesus the press of people there is closed.

5 Superficially this once seemed to me a strange Greek construction, ἔρχονται φέροντες πρὸς αὐτὸν παραλύτικον αἰρόμενον ὑπὸ τεσσάρων, lit. “they come bringing to him a paralytic being carried by four (persons).” In fact, however, I think that the phrase αἰρόμενον ὑπὸ τεσσάρων is simply a way of designating that this is a litter or stretcher of some sort of canvas on two poles requiring four persons to bear it. The subject of the verb is never identified in the story for the reason that the center of gravity of this story is not the healing but the remarkable claim to legitimate authority made by Jesus.

6 The Greek text says simply, “they unroofed the roof,” but we must assume a roof that is easily removed to permit lowering the paralytic on his cot.

7 “… the extent of their faith”: their total assurance that Jesus could and would make the paralytic whole again if only they could bring him to his attention.

8 Marcan Triptych: The careful reader of verse 7 may recognize here the seam between Mark’s framing narrative and a different story that has been sewn into the fabric of the old. The original tale of the healing of the paralytic continues with Jesus’ command in verse 11. This intricate story-within-a-story is what I call a “Marcan triptych”: a narrative that has been split into two parts to frame an inner imbedded story. Here the framing story is that of the healing of the paralytic; Mark could have told that story simply for its own sake, but instead he made it the frame for an account of a conflict between traditional Jewish interpreters of the Law and Jesus over authority to forgive sins; by combining the healing story with this second story, he also links together two themes: (1) healing or making whole (σώζειν in the fullest sense) and (2) forgiving sins. Mark uses the verb σώζειν 14x (3:4; 5:23, 28, 34; 6:56; 8:35 {2x}; 10:26, 52; 13:13, 20; 15:30, 31 {2x}, excluding 16:16 which belongs to the later-added ending), most frequently in the sense of (a) “save/preserve life/rescue from death” or (b) “make healthy/heal.” One may argue that in 10:26 (καὶ τίς δύναται σωθῆναι;) the passive infinitive must have the sense of “be saved for eternal life.” I am not convinced, however, that the sense is limited to healing in these expressions, even where the primary sense must be of healing of a physical ailment or preservation from death. I think this is a fundamental notion given expression by Mark in his formulation of the present story: the healing of the paralytic’s affliction is not simply in this one instance accompanied by forgiveness of sins, but rather it is Jesus’ intention as Son of Man to “make human beings whole.” That notion finds expression again in the saying of 2:18 where again he links the notions of health/sickness and righteousness/sin. As one who comes to establish the reign of God on earth, Jesus intends not simply to tend particular afflictions but to make persons whole. Further dimensions of this linkage between Sin and Illness are explored on the separate page, “Marcan and Pauline Accounts of Alienation: Mark 5:1-20, Romans 7:4-25.” A fuller discussion of the “Marcan Triptych as a distinct literary device employed by the evangelist is accessible on a separate page, “Mark 2:1-12 as a Marcan Triptych.

9 The Greek verb translated here and in verse 9 is in the present tense: ἀφίενται; we might expect an announcement that forgiveness has now been granted to the paralytic, and indeed , some manuscripts, including Codex Bezae (D05) do display the perfect tense, ἀφέωνται) in both places. The consensus of the editors who have established the standard text is that the present-tense reading is better attested in the MSS, and that later scribes probably “corrected” it to the perfect-tense form. Yet perhaps the present-tense form of this verb, rather than misused, was intended by the evangelist to reflect the principle enunciated by Jesus in verse 10: not only does the Son of Man have authority on earth to forgive sins but he is exercising that authority at this moment.

10 “Scribes”: interpreters of the Mosaic Law, generally associated with the Pharisaic sectarian Jews–the very ones pejoratively referred to in Mk 1:22 as not teaching “with authority.”

11 While “observing” is not explictly present in the Greek text, the narrative clearly indicates that they were indeed doing so. Their presence and their attitude is first indicated here; they are evidently curious about this now-notorious miracle-worker and exorciser who also “teaches with authority.” They will continue to play a leading role in the remainder of this sequence culminating in 3:6; their observations of Jesus and his disciples exemplary failure to observe ritual prescriptions bring them to conclude that Jesus is a threat to the religious establishment of Israel and that he must somehow be eliminated.

12 The Greek text presents their thoughts in direct quotation; I believe that English idiomatic style better conveys their inner thoughts indirectly. What disturbs them is, of course, that Jesus seems to be claiming divine authority.

13 The interaction between the inner thoughts of the scribes and the inner discernment of Jesus is represented by the evangelist as instantaneous.

14 Son of Man: Jesus readily employs this title for himself repeatedly throughout the gospel, while at the same time he seems to reject or repress suggestions that he is the Messiah. While volumes have been written by scholars regarding the various senses in which this title was used during Jesus’ time and by himself, the consensus view (which I believe to be valid) is that “Son of Man” in Mark’s gospel refers to the figure named in Daniel 7:13 and described in Hellenistic Jewish apocalyptic as the God’s designated appointee who will come down upon the clouds to inaugurate the Age-to-come, raise the dead, exercise judgment over all, and establish God’s reign upon the earth. Later in the course of his narrative Mark associates the destiny of execution and resurrection also with this title. At present, however, the focus of Jesus’ utterance is that he is exercising here and now the authority which the Son of Man is to have at the last tribunal–authority to judge and to assign to life or death in the Age-to-come.

15 “Get up …”: the original narrative that was broken off at verse 5 after “he said to the paralytic …” is here resumed.

16 We note Mark’s characteristic εὐθύς indicating the immediate consequence of Jesus’ commands.

17 While the phrasing differs from that of 1:27, the observing crowd reacts very much the same, expressing awe at a power and authority deemed unquestionably to derive from God and to be efficacious in Jesus.

18 This is a transitional sentence linking the story of the paralytic to an account of dinner-partners deemed scandalous by Jesus’ opponents. Again we note that where Jesus goes, the crowds keep coming to him, and he makes use of the opportunity to teach.

19 Levi has traditionally been identified with the evangelist Matthew because in Mt 9:9 it is Matthew rather than Levi of whom this story is told; in Luke (5:7) it is Levi, as here in Mark’s gospel. But in Codex Bezae (D05) the name given to this tax-collector is James the son of Alphaeus. Apart from the four, Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, the Synoptic gospels do not present an altogether clear indication of exactly who constituted “the Twelve.”

20 As did Simon and Andrew and James and John earlier, so Levi here too responds immediately to Jesus’ call.

21 “Sinners” (Greek ἁμαρτωλοί): this is a contemptuous term for those who take no pains to observe conscientiously the prescriptions of the Torah as understood and taught by the Pharisaic scribes and rabbis;

22 As no foundation has been laid for this story, the account seems a bit contrived; Form-critics might argue that the story was created as a framework for a sermon focused upon the saying of Jesus in verse 17. That saying, rather than the banquet at Levi’s house, is unquestionably the center of gravity here. Yet we need not doubt there were tax-collectors in Jesus’ entourage: in Luke’s gospel publicani and Pharisees are almost caricaturized as anti-types publicanus as repentant sinner, Pharisees as hypocrites observing the letter but not the spirit of the Law (cf. Lk 18:10-14).

23 Our narrative implies that this banquet at Levi’s (Greek “his” (αὐτοῦ ) house is the occasion upon which the Pharisees observed and commented as here reported. Surely we must understand these scribes to be the same who in the previous story faulted Jesus’ claim to forgive sins; these figures are present cocontinuously from story to story in the entire sequence of 2:1-3:6. They are guardians of the traditions of the establishment and see themselves threatened by the authority and acclaim won so quickly by Jesus in Galilee.

24Undoubtedly Jesus was notorious for associating with persons and classes scorned for one resaon or another by the priestly aristocracy and respectable law-observant Jews. I suspect, however, that preservation of this tradition may be related also to the controversy reported in Paul’s letter to the Galatians– in particular to the dispute between Simon Peter and Paul over table fellowship of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul in Gal 2:11ff. complained that Peter was violating the spirit of Jesus, who “ate with sinners and tax-collectors.”

25 “Healthy … sick, righteous … sinners”: As in the preceding story of the paralytic, so here Jesus points to linkage between health and fulfillment of God’s will. σωτηρία may be, in one sense, restoration to an original or “Adamic” state of humanity that is physically as well as morally as healthy as God originally created it.

26 the artificiality of the composition is again discernible; the question is: why do members of the Jesus-community not fast or observe the rituals of other Jewish sectarians? But Jesus’ response implies much more than is made explicit, and one may suspect the story has been created to provide a setting for the response. Perhaps too the phrasing of the response has been crafted by the story-teller for this particular story-sequence.

27 While Hebraic terminology (“sons of the bridal chamber” = “groomsmen”) is evident in the Greek text, the symbolism here goes deeper than the equation of Jesus to bridegroom and disciples to groomsmen. Clearly suggested is the traditional OT imagery of the marriage-covenant between Yahweh and Israel which was taken over by the primitive church in its own association of Christ with bridegroom and Church as bride; so too the Messianic feast at the arrival of the Kingdom (Parousia) is celebrated in anticipation by Jesus and his disciples (Mk 14) and elsewhere in the NT the imagery of the wedding feast is heavily charged with overtones of the Messianic banquet, and Jesus’ call (καλεῖν) assumes overtones of invitation to the wedding feast to be celebrated in the Age-to-come. Thus Jesus’ phraseology here suggests that the behavior of his followers now anticipates the joy of that celebration yet to come and for that reason gloomy ritual behavior is inappropriate for them.

28 This is the first hint in Mark’s narrative that Jesus foresees his destiny, although Mark noted explicitly that Jesus began his public career only after seeing that John had already met his doom, implicitly marking the ripe time for Jesus to set out on his own ὁδός. Jesus’ followers will mourn him when he is taken away from them.

29 These two verses need to be understood here in their Marcan context, and not as they are applied in different senses in the other Synoptic gospels. The absence of any conjunction in Mark’s Greek indicates that these two proverbial expressions are intended to follow immediately upon Jesus’ response about the bridegroom and members of the bridal party. In this context these proverbial statements indicate the impropriety of continuing to observe rituals of the perishing world-age in the newly-dawning New Creation. Understanding these proverbs in their context requires recognition of the radical character of what belongs to the New Age and its incompatibility with the institutions and observances of the perishing world-age. Jesus and his followers belong to the New Age; they cannot be expected to pay homage to the institutions or observe the ritual practices of the perishing age. The focus is sharply upon what is newabsurd to think of putting what is new into an old vehicle! And that is why the final truncated exhortation clearly belongs to and climaxes this whole section of verses 18-22.

30 As earlier in 2:15 the transitional formula, derivative from LXX representation of Hebrew narrative style, γίνεται + infinitive, really indicates temporal discontinuity along with logical continuity from the preceding story, which accounts for the phrasing of my idiomatic version.

31 The Pharisees appear suddenly, unexpectedly, in the grain-fields, as if they have been following along behind Jesus and the disciples since they first appeared in the Capernaum synagogue to observe his behavior and teaching which defy and repeatedly violate what they insist is strictly-ordained in the Law. The behavior which violates the law in this instance is fundamentally non-observance of the Sabbath, not usurpation of the rights of priests. It is violation of the Sabbath that his critics call to Jesus’ attention, as stated explicitly in verse 23 and 24.

32 Jesus cites the behavior of David and his followers on a particular occasion, not as an example of violation of the Sabbath and also not, I think, as an example of what God’s anointed king may do, but chiefly as an example of human need that overrides any ritual obligations; this is the principle which the dictum of verse 27 will express in direct generalized form.

33 The Jesus-sayings of verses 27 and 28 strangely complement each other; perhaps the author/redactor meant the word ἄνθρωπος to link them to each other and to suggest a link between God’s intention in the original creation to prescribe rituals to serve the needs of humanity and the authority held by the designated regent of the New Creation to heed or ignore the ritual ordinances as he sees fit. The dictum of verse 28 thus resumes and develops themes stated earlier in the dictum about the authority of the Son of Man to forgive sins on earth and in the wisdom-declarations of verses 21-22 insisting that new patterns are appropriate to the new age dawning.

34 The sequence began in a synagogue with a sharp clash between Jesus and the Pharisaic champions of the strict moral code of the perishing world-age, a clash that came into focus because of a healing miracle. Now the sequence comes to a climactic end with another such sharp clash that focuses from the outset upon a healing miracle; this clash throws a bright light upon antithetical visions of God’s will: to make life whole (ψυχὴν σῶσαι) rather than to kill (ἀποκτεῖναι).

35 While the subject of the verb παρετήρουν never becomes explicit in verse 6, the champions of strict ritual observance are again prepared to take offense at Jesus’ readiness to break the Sabbath. The reader is never in doubt about who they are.

36 Jesus’ questions sharpen the antithesis of attitudes beyond the matter of what the Law permits one to do on the Sabbath and so expose antithetical attitudes towards God’s will. Of course there was never any interpretation or hint in the traditional teaching about the Sabbath that “doing good or doing evil” or “saving life or killing” are real alternatives regarding what is appropriate on the Sabbath, but Mark’s Jesus pierces to the core of what is implicit in the scribes’ rigid legalistic notions of what activities are appropriate for the Sabbath day. So earlier in 2:24 they had asked Jesus why the disciples were doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath, and he replied that satisfying human hunger can be no violation of the spirit of the Sabbath. Since the concern of the Pharisees has focused upon Sabbath observance, the meaning of Jesus’ dictum in 2:2, “The Sabbath was created for humanity’s sake, not humanity for the sake of the Sabbath,” becomes all the more explicit. Does the Sabbath serve to restrict human well-being or was it intended to enhance and promote it? A political-moral slogan might serve to give this point a sharper edge in English: Jesus’ question, “What may we do on the Sabbath? do good? or do evil? save life? or put to death?” means, “Is the Sabbath as established for humanity ‘pro-life’ or ‘anti-life’?”

37 “thick-headedness”: the Greek phrase is “hardening/hardness of the heart” (πώρωσις), a recurrent OT phrase for stubbornness or wilful failure to discern and heed God’s will; it is interesting that Codex Bezae (D05) displays “deadening” (νεκρῶσις) rather than “hardening.” That is probably not the original reading, but is an astute appreciation of the sense called for here.

38 “As good as new”: the Greek says simply “was restored” (ἀπεκατεστάθη) indicating that it was made wholly healthy and serviceable; clearly what is intended here is an object-lesson on the meaning of ψυχὴν σῶσαι–not simply “preserve life” but “make life whole.” This point was more fully set forth in note 8 above

39 Herodians: those concerned to promote the continued or expanding political authority of the family of Herod, whose members functioning as tetrarchs or as “client-kings” provided a measure of autonomy to Jews in Palestine; while not natural allies, Pharisees and Herodians both might recognize Jesus as a threat to the political status-quo and be desirous of removing him.

40 “Destroy him”: this is the climax of this story as it is of the whole sequence 2:1-3:6: Jesus holds forth God’s will for the Age-to-come as restoration–on the Sabbath itself–of life to wholeness, while his opposing defenders of the establishment are plotting–on the Sabbath day–to kill.