Yesterday, my friend and colleague Joel Nichols was the speaker at the Weekly Manna gathering at the Law School. Joel’s subject was Mark’s Gospel, which begins, not with the birth of Jesus, but with John the Baptist appearing in the desert and Jesus appearing as an adult.
Rather than try to give a coherent summary of Joel’s talk, let me highlight a couple of points he made that I think are worth spending some time reflecting on.
First, the central event in Mark’ Gospel occurs in Chapter 8, when Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. When they reply that some say John the Baptist, others Elijah and others one of the prophets, he asks them “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah,” to which Jesus responds by telling them not to tell anyone about him. Why? Why does Jesus warn them to tell no one.
Second, there is only one healing in all of the Gospels that is a “double healing,” so to speak – that takes two tries for a full healing, and that is the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida that occurs immediately before the central event of which I just spoke. In that episode, Jesus lays his hands on the man and asks him if he sees anything. The man says that he “sees people looking like trees and walking.” Only after Jesus lays hands on him the second time is his sight completely restored such that he “could see everything distinctly.” Why? What does it mean that the man saw only partially the first time and required a second touch for healing?
Third, Joel suggested that the original ending of Mark’s Gospel occurs at Mark 16:8. What follows after that was added much later. So Mark’s Gospel ends like this: Mary Magdeline and the other women come to the tomb of Jesus and find it empty. They are told by an angel not to be afraid because Jesus has been raised and instructed by the angel to go tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus is going before them to Galilee. The last line of the Gospel as written by Mark says, “Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Not a great ending. The invitation is to reflect on – is our reaction like theirs?
Joel had a number of good points to make about these passages and others, but hopefully this is enough to encourage some reflection on Mark’s Gospel.
Note re the third point: I don’t have the knowledge to evaluate competing views about where Mark’s Gospel originally ended – see the comment for an alternative view.