Teaching the Disciples; Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative

Mark 9:2-50; Mark 10

Chapter Eight, verse 22 is the beginning of a major section pivotal to the Gospel of Mark. The focus in this section, which goes through the end of the tenth chapter, is on Jesus’s relationship with the twelve disciples. There is a change in geography:  Jesus will leave Galilee and head south toward Jerusalem.  There will be no more teaching from boats or trips across the lake. The stakes for Jesus will rise as he tries to explain to the Twelve what the immediate future holds for him, and for them.  Tensions escalate.  The reader is given additional glimpses of the coming kingdom of God, but glimpses still shrouded in riddles that we cannot be certain we understand.

Three times in this section, Jesus will tell the disciples that the Son of Man will suffer, be rejected by the elders and chief priests, be killed, and then rise from the dead.  Three times the disciples will show no sign of comprehending what he is talking about.  Three times Jesus will try to teach about the demands of discipleship.  There are two interludes in this section in which we get glimpses of the kingdom.  The section begins and ends with Jesus’s healing of blind men.

In session five, we discussed Jesus healing a blind man at Bethsaida, and the first cycle of predictions, misunderstandings, and discipleship teachings.  In a watershed moment, Peter first claimed Jesus to be the Christ.  Session six began with the first (Christological) interlude (Mark 9:2-29).  Jesus took Peter, James and John to the top of a high mountain where Jesus was transfigured (Mark 9:2-8). Elijah and Moses appeared and conferred with him.  A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.”  Reminiscent of Jesus’s baptism, God is proclaiming Jesus, not Elijah or Moses, to be His Son, and God is telling the disciples to listen to him.

Coming down from the mountain, Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone what had happened until he has risen from the dead (Mark 9:9-13).  Confused about this “rising from the dead” thing, they avoided the issue entirely by asking about Elijah.  In turn, Jesus talked around their question, without seeming to directly answer it.

The second half of this interlude involved a father whose son was possessed. The spirit physically abused the boy and rendered him speechless (Mark 9:14-29).  The disciples had been unsuccessful in casting out the spirit, so the father approached Jesus.  (Is there a relationship between the speechless boy and the disciples, who from fear, now seem to clam up and avoid asking Jesus questions?)  Jesus decries the lack of faith of the generation.  The father claimed to have faith, but asked for help with his lack of faith.  Jesus drove out the spirit and responded to the disciples’ concern that they had been unsuccessful, “Throwing out this kind of spirit requires prayer.”  In this story on lack of faith, Jesus claimed lack of prayer to be the culprit.

We have previously seen Jesus pray, but Mark has yet to describe the disciples in prayer. So while it may be a surprise to the reader that prayer pops up as the cause of the disciples’ failure to cast out the spirit, it may still be a reasonable explanation. However, Mark never told us that Jesus prayed in this episode either. Once again, Mark surprises and confuses.

The second cycle of predictions, misunderstandings, and teaching about discipleship (Mark 9:30-37) takes place on the road to Capernaum.  This time Jesus’s prediction is concise and emphasizes betrayal, “The Son of Man will be given up … “ Again, we are told the disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask (speechless?).  On the road, the disciples discussed who of them was the greatest.  When they arrived, Jesus turned the traditional ranking system on its head.  The first shall be last.  Whoever receives the lowly child, receives God.

The second interlude (Mark 9:38-10:31) consists of five stories that address various facets of discipleship and describe how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of heaven.  In the first (Mark 9:38-41), the disciples complain about someone else casting out demons in Jesus’s name.  Given that the disciples have been quarreling about their own pecking order, and just failed to cast out the demon from the boy who was speechless, Jesus is not predisposed to support their complaint, “… who is not against us, is on our side …”   Further on in Mark, Jesus takes the opposite side to warn about those who would mislead in Jesus’s name.  We can’t get too comfortable in our expectations of what Jesus will say or do.

Jesus proposed shock treatment for those stumbling in the faith, perhaps as a guide for how the church should treat its members (Mark 9:42-50).  He dealt with the question of marriage, going beyond the requirements of Jewish or Roman law to substitute a divine imperative against divorce.  He changed the rules to suggest a man can commit adultery against his wife – a situation not covered in Jewish law (Mark 10:1-12).  The tenor of Jesus’s discussion of children shifts to being like a child (Mark 10:13-16). After meeting with a wealthy young man (Mark 10:17-31), Jesus discusses how difficult it can be for the rich and powerful to enter God’s kingdom.  God can do the impossible.  Where the power of a self-sufficient rich man fails, the helplessness of a child allows for dependence on God.

The third cycle of predictions, misunderstandings, and teaching about discipleship occurs on the road to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32-45).  We are halfway through the Gospel and traveling to Jerusalem where Jesus is to be crucified.  This is the most detailed of Jesus’s three prophecies.  Again, the disciples either don’t understand, or they don’t believe him.  James and John, ignoring everything Jesus has said, ask the ultimate favor of him.  Yes, they will indeed drink from His cup and be baptized by His baptism, but they did not know the implications of what they were asking.  Once more, Jesus tried to teach the Twelve about authentic discipleship.

In Jericho, Jesus met blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52).  Jesus asked the same question of the blind man that he had asked of James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man responded, “I want my sight back.”  Unlike James and John, the blind man understood what he was asking.  The blind can be made to see, but can the disciples ever be made to understand?

In a brief digression, we returned to the question of Mark’s source material.  It is generally accepted that both Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a primary source.  But what was Mark’s source?

It is widely assumed that much of the material in Mark was from oral tradition.  Some traditions are based on Papias of Hierapolis’s claim that Peter was Mark’s primary source.  Often left open has been the question of literary structure.

Adam Winn has proposed that the Gospel of Mark has a literary dependence on the Elijah-Elisha narrative.  While many other scholars have noted similarities between the two, literary dependence is not an established or even widely accepted theory.  Winn’s research is recent, having been done in 2008-2009, and published in 2010.

Winn provided an example in Virgil’s “Aeneid”.  Aeneid’s literary dependence on Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” € has been universally and historically recognized. Homer’s poems were written between 760 and 710 b.c.e.  Virgil’s “Aeneid” was written some 700 years later – about 29-19 b.c.e.  The evangelist Mark would likely have been familiar with the works of both Homer and Virgil.

Both dealt with heroes going home after the Greek-Trojan war.  Both included hardship-plagued sea voyages, and both protagonists had to fight again when reaching home.  Aeneas’ landing at Libya seemed to imitate Odysseus’ landing at Thrinacia.  Games in honor of Anchises imitated games in honor of Patroclus.  A similar boxing match occurred in each narrative.  Virgil often combined details from two or more of Homer’s stories into a single narrative unit.  He also took a single episode and divided it into several episodes.  The pattern of imitation was overwhelming, even though the outcomes were often different.  In coming weeks, we will look for a similar relationship between Mark and the Elijah-Elisha narrative.


Primary Text:  Mark (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), by C. Clifton Black

Other Sources:

Mark, Images of an Apostolic Interpreter, by C. Clifton Black (University of South Carolina Press, 1994)

Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative: Considering the Practice of Greco-Roman Imitation in the Search for Markan Source Material, by Adam Winn (Pickwick Publications, Eugene, OR, 2010)

Coming in Session 7:  Mark 11; Mark 12