Oh Mark—where have you been, with your dynamic directness, your parataxis and imitation of Old Testament narrative, your puns on ‘straightway’ and your dense biblical allusions? We have missed you! And yet—it is we who left you, whilst you have been waiting patiently all this time. We were seduced by the Beloved Disciple, with his dense spirals of recollection, his ambiguous language, and his exalted claims about Jesus. Forgive us for preferring his movement from the literal to the figurative, to your careful intercalation of pairs of stories. We loved his incidental historical observations (about him reaching the tomb ahead of Peter)—but we know that you have yours as well! We are back now—will you continue to teach us about what it means to follow Jesus as we journey with you once again?
The gospel lectionary reading for the First Sunday after Trinity in Year B is Mark 3.20–35, which consists of two stories of opposition to Jesus’ ministry, intercalated—that is, one story is split to form the outer frame, with another, related, story at the centre. The frame story is his (biological) family going to ‘seize’ him (Mark 3.21) because he has clearly been carried away with fame and popularity of his ministry, whilst the core story is the accusation by the Jerusalem scribes that Jesus is an ally rather than opponent of the devil. Although the two accusations appear to be quite different, and coming from different parties, Mark wants us to see the connections by intercalating them in this way. (Note that Matthew and Luke disentangle the two issues, with Matthew adding in other elements of Jesus’ teaching in Matt 12, and Luke separating and reversing the two in Luke 11.14 and Luke 8.19.)
This passage comes near the end of Mark’s opening section describing Jesus’ dynamic and controversial ministry in Galilee, spinning out of his baptism and testing in the desert, and opening with the brief summary of his proclamation of the kingdom. Everywhere he has gone, he has healed and delivered people, drawn the crowds, and sparked controversy with the Jerusalem authorities. Two brief interludes interrupt this: his ‘praying in a solitary place’ in Mark 1.35; and his withdrawing to call the Twelve in Mark 3.13. After this passage, we finally hear the content of Jesus’ preaching in Mark 4.
Our passage begins with Jesus going εἰς οἶκον, literally, ‘into a house’ (see TNIV), but the parallel with the phrase in Mark 2.1 suggests that this was the house he had made his home, in Capernaum, hence ESV ‘he went home’. This is, of course, not the home of his birth family in Nazareth, but the home of his new ministry family, including Peter who is one of the Twelve he has just called to himself.
There is such a crowd that ‘they could not even eat bread’, a curious and intriguing Marcan detail that Luke and Matthew omit. According to Luke 6.12, Jesus prayed overnight before calling the Twelve, so that they would have been expecting to come home to share breakfast together—but this would also signify and cement their newly formed relationship.
Mark spares no blushes in describing the response of Jesus’ biological family to what is going on. In Matt 12.46 they desire to ‘speak’ with him; in Luke 8.20 they ‘desire to see you’. But here, they want to ‘seize’ him, believing he is ‘out of his mind’, a common accusation about those who are themselves demon possessed (note the later contrast with the Gerasene demoniac, who after his deliverance is in his ‘right mind’, Mark 5.15). This language sets up the connections of this opening part of the frame narrative with the core story that comes next.
Mark is not as careful as Matthew in identifying the particular groups of opponents to Jesus, and he appears to use ‘the scribes’ in quite a general way. We have already seen the contrast with the crowds who welcome Jesus’s ministry enthusiastically, and the authorities who view him with suspicion, and there is now an emphasis on the opposition of Jerusalem, which will give a shape to the whole gospel—the first half, dynamic and successful in Galilee, the second half, with increasing opposition and the shadow of the cross looming large. Mark is correct in his topography (as we saw the Fourth Gospel was too) when he says they ‘came down’ from Jerusalem, which is in the central hill country, to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee.
The language of ‘Beelzebul’ as a name for Satan is unattested elsewhere outside the New Testament. It appears to be a variation on Beelzebub, which might mean ‘Lord of the Flies’, and is a parody of the name of the Canaanite storm god Baal (see 2 Kings 1.2). The accusation that Jesus was in league with Satanic forces was not unusual as a charge against those practicing magic and sorcery, and there is independent attention of this accusation (in a different form) in John 7.20, 8.48, 52, 10.20. But, as we noted previously in relation to the deliverance recorded in Mark 1.25:
In contrast to magicians and exorcists of Jesus’ day, there is here no use of spells, incantations, or physical manipulations. And contrary to the impression of James Tissot’s illustration, there is no sense in which Jesus is offering a performance for the sake of the onlookers. Even more striking, Jesus does not pray to God, but offers a simple word of powerful rebuke on his own authority. If there is an echo here of Zech 13.2, then this is a sign of the eschatological (end-times) cleansing of the land of ‘the unclean spirit’, and also hints at the identity of Jesus.
The scribes have not accused Jesus to his face, but behind his back, and, as with those witnessing the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.6, he knows what they are saying. It is striking that Jesus ‘calls them to him’ in order to confront them; he wants the accusation to be addressed, and whilst he called the Twelve to him to be with him in Mark 3.13, he now calls his opponents to him to rebuke them.
Jesus responds to the accusation first with a threefold saying ‘Kingdom divided…house divided…Satan divided’, a saying that is pithy and memorable enough to have found many uses in contemporary culture. But its truth depends on the observation that Jesus does not parley with the forces of evil, entering into some kind of negotiation as an equal, but seizes what is theirs by spiritual force—a reality expounded by his second saying. The only person who can bind a strong man is a man who is stronger, and Jesus is here claiming greater power than the power of Satan. This is a striking and slightly disturbing image; Jesus is depicting himself as, in some sense, a violent burglar, breaking and entering and seizing the occupants to tie them up. This is no ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’! It is not possible to read this as a mere projection of an agonistic masculinism; Jesus is telling us that there is a real spiritual battle, and he engages in it with violence against the forces of darkness to bring peace and liberty to those he delivers.
The language of ‘binding the strong man’ has been interpreted as having strong political overtones, most notably by Ched Myers in his political reading of Mark. But it is more convincing to see this language as belonging within Second Temple eschatological hope—whilst noting that the political and spiritual were not then separated as they are in modern Western thinking.
Two chapters in the excellent Reading Mark in Context reflect on the contrast here with parallels in contemporary Jewish literature. Elizabeth Shively compares this passage with the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, which (despite the Christian interpolations) offers evidence of Second Temple Jewish thinking about the connection between deliverance and eschatology.
The removal of Beliar’s reign over human beings functions as a watershed in the restoration of God’s reign…This shows that Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry as a cosmic conflict is at home in the thought world of Second Temple Judaism, and reinforces the suggestion that Satan’s end is fundamental to Jesus’ establishment of the kingdom of God (p 65).
Michael Bird explores the parallel in the Testament of Solomon to the later episode of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5, and notes:
One key element of the Gospel of Mark is that Jesus is described as a divine agent with a unique sense of authority and power. The Markan Jesus teaches with unprecedented didactic authority, he forgives people their sins with seemingly divine authority, he has a supernatural ability to control nature, he has the power to heal illnesses, and he has authority over unclean spirits (p 77).
And in relation to the binding of the strong man specifically, Witherington (The Gospel of Mark) asks:
Again, one must ask, who is strong than Satan? Surely the answer is God, and so once again Jesus is depicted as one with a plenitude of divine power and authority (p 156)
So much for the idea of a ‘low Christology’ in Mark!
The saying about the ‘unforgivable sin’ comes, not as a third response to his critics, but as an aside, commenting on the phenomenon of the criticism itself. Despite being so brief, it has provoked disproportionate comment and consternation amongst both theologians and ordinary readers all through Christian history (see the helpful exploration in Mary Ann Beavis Paideia on Mark, pp 70–71). Three things are worth noting.
First, the introductory phrase ‘Amen I say to you…’ (which should really be translated this way, with ‘Amen’ transliterated, just as are other Aramaic intrusions into Greek such as ‘Abba’ and ‘talitha cum’) appears to be characteristic of Jesus, and is present in every strand of the gospel tradition, including the Fourth Gospel where is has the double form ‘Amen, amen…’ Outside the gospels, it is always used to attest to the truthfulness of someone else’s words (1 Cor 14.16, 2 Cor 1.20, Rev 5.14, 7.12) but Jesus here claims authority for himself for what he is about to say.
His authority was charismatic, in the sense that it was immediately received from God, or rather was the immediate authority of God…It is a style of speaking expressing a consciousness of transcendent authority…When others in the tradition in which Jesus stood expressed immediacy of their authority, they prefaced their words with “Thus says the Lord”. But Jesus said “Amen I say to you…” (James Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, p 79, cited in Witherington p 158).
Secondly, this saying is primarily one of great hope and reassurance; ‘people will be forgiven all their sins and all the blasphemies they utter…’ is the larger statement before the qualifying ‘but…’.
Thirdly, the main debate in its application is whether this saying refers to insiders or outsiders (since the scribes are leaders of the people of Israel but not part of this new movement following Jesus) and whether it can be applied beyond its immediate context. Beavis attributes its wider use to Augustine and his ‘non-literal’ reading of the saying, which was picked up by Ambrose, Aquinas and Calvin. Yet Jesus is not making a general statement about people who respond to the gospel message in later ages, but about the particular accusation of him by the scribes—something that Mark emphasises by adding ‘He said this because they were saying, “He has an evil spirit”, a comment omitted in the parallel in Matt 12.32.
Clearly this whole discussion is about something which could only be true during Jesus’ ministry, for we are not talking about blasphemy against the risen Lord, but rather against the Spirit who empowered Jesus to act whilst on earth (Witherington, p 159).
We come, at last, to the closing section of the frame story, Jesus’ mother and brothers who have been waiting outside during the altercation with the scribes. ‘Brothers’ is later used metaphorically for fellow believers (particularly in Paul) arising from this story; some have claimed that the term can extend to refer to other male relatives such as cousins, based on the equivalent Hebrew term ach (see Gen 13.8) but there is no attestation for such use in Greek. Mark is unembarrassed to believe that Mary had other children, and that these are Jesus’ actual brothers.
Mark notes that they were standing ‘outside’, and this physical description gains additional significance when we realise in the next passage the difference between those who are ‘outside’ and the ‘insiders’ (including the disciples) to whom has been given the ‘secret of the kingdom of God’ (Mark 4.11). At this stage, Jesus’ family are in every sense ‘outside’, failing to understand his ministry and not attending to his teaching. They were introduced as those par’ autou in Mark 3.21, those associated with Jesus (hence ‘his friends’ in the AV), contrasted both with those in the house sitting peri autou at his feet listening to his teaching, and with those called met’ autou, to be with him in Mark 3.14.
In wrapping the two stories together, Mark appears to be telling us that Jesus’ mission and teaching can be opposed and obstructed not only by those in vocal opposition to him, who mistake the work of God for the work of Satan, but also by those who should be in close association with him, but who have not understood what he is about.
Redefining his family as those who accept the message of the kingdom of God ahead of those to whom he has blood ties would be deeply offensive in a patriarchal culture where clan and family honour was supreme in social relationships. Joseph Henrich (in The WEIRDest People in the World) has identified this shift, from kin and clan loyalty to some shared, external truth as the measure of reality, as the thing undergirding the development of Western civilisation, and his ideas have been picked up by Jonathan Haidt and others in their analysis of Western culture. We need to note, though, that this did not constitute an absolute rejection of the importance of family; Paul states categorically that ‘whoever neglects the needs of their family is worse than an unbeliever’ (1 Tim 5.8), and it is clear that the gospel spread through family networks as much as in other ways. And yet,
Jesus forms a new family that will be constituted by those whom he explicitly calls (the disciples) as well as those who are gathered around him to hear his teaching and are summoned to do the will of God (Donahue and Harrington, cited by Beavis p 69).
Given that it is his ‘mother and brothers’ who are waiting outside, it appears to be a deliberate addition when Jesus refers to those listening and ready to ‘do the will of God’ as his ‘brother and sister and mother’, thus explicitly asserting the place and importance of women as his disciples.
(The image is a colourised version of a woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1794–1872)