The gospel lectionary reading for the so-called Last Sunday after Trinity (or Trinity 21) in Year B is the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10.46–52. (Apologies to my regular readers for the lack of comment on the previous two weeks of readings.)
This reading has an appeal at two levels. First, it is in Mark’s usual lively and direct style, and has a similar feeling to some of the very personal accounts in Luke; it bears comparison with the other story set in Jericho, the call of Zacchaeus in Luke 19.1–10, since both stories offer a concise but vivid characterisation of the main character in the story, and both are named. This is the only healing story in Mark where the one healed is also named.
But it also forms a satisfying end to this section of Mark’s gospel, completing the journey to Jerusalem that began in chapter 8, and will reach its denouement in the coming chapters. In his chapter on Mark 10 in Reading Mark in Context, John Goodrich highlights the place of this story in the overall shape of this section:
So this healing forms a closing bracket with the gradual healing we read of in chapter 8.
The story is included in all three Synoptic gospels, and even a brief comparison raises some issues. Matthew’s version is quite abbreviated, at only two-thirds the length. Like Mark, it is set in the context of leaving Jericho, though Matthew never tells us that Jesus has entered Jericho, so this comes as a surprise! Matthew agrees on the form of the story, including the address to Jesus, Jesus’ call and question, the request, and the healing—but he records two unnamed people as the recipients, rather than the one named man.
Luke sets the story at Jesus’ arrival to Jericho, not his departure, and follows it with the story of Zacchaeus. He agrees more closely with Mark than Matthew, so his account is only slightly shorter; as happens elsewhere, he reports Jesus’ comments rather than including direct speech as Mark does, and he emphasises the wonder of the crowds at the healing.
The change in detail of location in Luke is not particularly significant; both accounts agree that the blind man is at the entrance to the city (depicted in the painting above as a classical gateway). The discrepancy with Matthew warrants a little more reflection.
Two things need noting from the outset. The first is that whether this is a case of Matthew ‘doubling’ the number of people, or Mark halving it, depends on your theory about the relationship between the gospels. If, with the majority, you believe in Marcan priority, then Matthew is making the change; if, however, you take the minority view of Matthean priority (which has often been more widely believed by Catholic scholars), then it is Mark who is being selective.
The second thing to note is that, from a practical and historical point of view, Bartimaeus is unlikely to have been alone. The entrance to a town is the place to beg, since this is where the traffic is, and a blind person in the first century could not survive without help. And we have repeatedly seen how carefully the gospel writers select their material and choose the episodes they relate to communicate the meaning of Jesus and his actions.
See the end of this piece for a more detailed exploration of the ‘doubling’ in Matthew.
Mark includes one of his common geographical references, and in doing so makes it clear that he is abbreviating and being selective; he tells us nothing of the events that happened in Jericho, but notes this one as Jesus is leaving Jericho to start the 1,000 m climb from the lowest inhabited city on earth (400m below sea level) up to the hills of Judea and the city of Jerusalem. Some commentators suggest a symbolic significance to this location: Bartimaeus is in every way at the lowest point he could be—a social outcast, outside the city, and at the lowest point on earth. Mark, though, appears to make nothing of this symbolism, and within the shape of the narrative its importance is in its proximity to Jerusalem.
In contrast to the style of the parallel in Luke 18.35–43, Mark once more deploys his repeated use of parataxis—’And they came…and many rebuked…and Jesus stopped…’ The main exceptions to this are in the participles ‘as he was leaving…when he [Bartimaeus] heard…and Jesus stopped…’ But the overall style is the one of slightly breathless action that we encountered in the early chapters.
Jesus is accompanied by both his disciples and a ‘good sized crowd’, most likely those who are journeying with Jesus to Jerusalem for the pilgrim festival, and it is this crowd who cheer him on his non-triumphal entry into the city. Mark is the only one who mentions Bartimaeus by name, suggesting that this person, and his father, were known to the early Jesus community. Slightly unnecessarily, Mark translates the Aramaic bar- into Greek, reminding us (as the Fourth Gospel does at John 1.38) that sharing the good news about what Jesus has done always involves an act of translation.
Luke includes detail of the dialogue between Bartimaeus and the crowd, his enquiry about the noise eliciting the information of who has come to town, but Mark goes straight to the result: this is Jesus of Nazareth. ‘Jesus’, the English translation of the Greek version of the Hebrew name we translate as Joshua, was one of the most popular names in first-century Israel, and it is interesting that Jesus is not known patronymically (by the name of his father) but toponymically, by his place of origin, which would support the idea that Nazareth was a centre of messianic expectation. Jesus being from Nazareth, or (as here) being described as ‘the Nazarene’ only features in Mark 1.9, 24, here, and at Mark 14.67 (where Peter is accused of being with Jesus by his northern accent) and by the angels at Mark 16.6.
Bartimaeus cries out, and in doing so is the first in this gospel to use the title ‘Son of David’ for Jesus. Ernest Best suggested that this apparently nationalistic title illustrated the spiritual blindness of the disciples that ran parallel to his physical blindness. But in fact this would have been understood as equivalent to the title ‘Christos’ that Peter has confessed in Mark 8.29, and anticipates the acclamation of the crowds who welcome Jesus to Jerusalem as the Davidic king in the next chapter. Bartimaeus, though blind, sees more clearly than either the disciples or the rich young man who Jesus really is, and contributes to the unfolding clarity in this gospel who Jesus really is.
Just as the disciples rebuked those who brought the little ones to Jesus in Mark 10.13, so ‘many’ (including the disciples and the crowd?) rebuke Bartimaeus for drawing attention to themselves. There is a nice pun here; the word ‘rebuke’ is ἐπιτιμάω, which includes the tim- root we find in the name Timaeus. The implication is that the crowd are urging him not to dishonour his honourable family by making a scene. But the man is persistent, and when Jesus hears, stops, and responds the crowd become as energetic in their calling of him as they were in their rebuke—a detail suggesting the authority of Jesus in directing their affections.
The three-fold repetition of ‘call’ (the command of Jesus, the action of the crowd, and their word to the man) introduces once more the theme of discipleship; each person who embarks on the journey of being a disciple has been ‘called’ by Jesus to follow him.
The detail that Bartimaeus ‘threw off his cloak’ and ‘sprang up’ have been interpreted symbolically, the second action reminding us of the story of Peter and John healing the lame man at the Beautiful Gate in Acts 3. But they are more likely the kind of eye-witness detail that Mark includes all through this gospel, and simply add a vividness to the story (neither detail is mentioned in Matthew or Luke).
All three accounts record Jesus asking the question, which might seem obvious and unnecessary to us, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Here, Jesus is treating the blind man as an individual and as a moral agent—contrary to some readings of disability and healing, Bartimaeus is no mere narrative cipher for demonstrating the healing power of Jesus, but a real, three-dimensional character whom Jesus treats with autonomy and respect.
We are now into the full-blown parataxis of Mark’s breathless narrative: ‘And he said…and he said…and he said…and immediately…’. Some English translations obscure Bartimaeus’s term of address: ‘Rabbouni’, ‘my teacher’. It only occurs in one other place in the gospels, in Mary’s cry of recognition of the risen Jesus in John 20.16.
The man wants to see once more; without any symbolic action, Jesus’ word enacts the healing. Unlike Matthew, the focus for Mark (which Luke follows) is the man’s faith; just as for the woman with the issue of blood, it is his recognition of who Jesus is, and his trust in what he can do for him, that opens the way for his power to flow in healing.
Although Jesus says ‘Go your way…’, we need not take this as a direction to do anything in particular. But Bartimaeus uses his new-found freedom to do the only thing he is now interested in: following Jesus. Mark emphasises this by the double use of the vocabulary of discipleship: he ‘followed’ and joined Jesus ‘on the way’.
In this account, Bartimaeus is presented as a model of discipleship. Unlike the rich young man, he has nothing to lose, but sees the importance of who Jesus is. And unlike the disciples, as someone who has known life on the margins, he is not interested in what he can gain. And, as has happened before in this gospel, an episode of teaching is followed by a narrative that brings the teaching to life; having talked of humility, and Jesus’ focus on service in Mark 10.45, we now meet someone of humility, and Jesus taking time to serve him in the exercise of his healing power.
In preaching on this passage, it might be tempting to focus on Bartimaeus, his attitudes and his actions, his spiritual perception and his response as a model disciple (there is a rather engaging alliterative example here). But perhaps a better focus would be on the person of Jesus—the one who, though followed by a crowd, is ready to attend to individuals; the one who preserves dignity and does not make a show; the one who brings healing and purpose; and yet again the one for whom it is worth leaving everything that we might follow him.
So as the pilgrim group sets off again up the Jerusalem road, with one additional member, the reader is prepared to witness the coming of the Son of David to ‘his’ city, and challenged to join hi on the road (R T France, NIGNT, p 425).
Mark’s contrast between Bartimaeus and the brothers Zebedee, between the new disciples and the older ones who thought they deserved privileged positions in the dominion, could hardly be more clear or provide a more devastating critique of those who think that longevity in discipleship entitles one to certain perks from the Lord (Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, p 293).
Additional note: the ‘doubling’ of Matthew’s blind man. If the historical reality is that Bartimaeus was unlikely to have been alone, and Mark mentions only him, though there were others with him, the question then becomes more one of style than substance. Three times in his gospel, Matthew includes narratives where two people are healed—two demoniacs in Matt 8:28-34, two blind men in Matt 9:27-31, and the pair here in Jericho in Matt 20:29-21:27—and he also mentions a donkey and a colt in the triumphal entry account in Matt 21:2. This is often enough to be aware of, but hardly a consistent feature (not all incidents involve such ‘doubling’).
Careful reading of Matthew shows that he is much more interested in cardinal numbers than the other gospel writers:
|The calling of Simon and Andrew
|Mark 1.16: Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.
|Matthew 4.18: While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.
|The calling of James and John
|Mark 1.19: And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets.
|Matthew 4.21: And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.
|Number of thrones
|Luke 22.28: You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
|Matthew 19.28: Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
|Two sons of Zebedee (first mention)
|Mark 10.37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
|Matthew 20.21: And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
|Two sons of Zebedee (second mention)
|Mark 14.33: And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled.
|Matthew 26.37: And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.
|Two false witnesses
|Mark 14.57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ”
|Matthew 26.60: At last two came forward 61 and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’
|Two release candidates
|Mark 15.9 And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”
|Matthew 27.21: The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.”
It is also striking that Matthew is very fond of pairing, both in his use of language and in his portrayal of narrative characters.
Pairing is both the most common and the weakest evidence of dual structure in the Gospel of Matthew. While there are no fewer than 450 examples of the pairing of two nouns, two adjectives, or two verbs, it is hard to tell to what degree these are merely coincidental. After all, how significant is it that the Pharisees “went out and conspired against [Jesus]” (Matt 12:14), or that “the tax collectors and the prostitues are going into the kingdom of God” (21:31), or that Jesus “got up and rebuked the winds and the sea” (8:26)? Isn’t this just completely incidental? Could Matthew possibly be trying to draw our attention to pairings and the number two in so subtle a way?…
[T]here is a recurring group of characters that pop up from time to time to question and pester Jesus. Matthew does not name them consistently, but their name continually shifts throughout the gospel. What is interesting, though, is that their name is almost always a pairing: “the chief priests and the scribes of the people” (2:4), the “scribes and Pharisees” (5:20), the “Pharisees and Sadducees” (3:7), the “chief priests and the Pharisees” (21:45), and “the chief priests and the elders” (27:3). In all, there are 32 references to a dyad of this sort of people. Compare that to not more than ten references when they appear either singly or in triplicate…
Another example of when the propensity for pairing in Matthew seems conspicuous is in The Commissioning of the Twelve (Matt 10:2-4). Matthew goes to special effort here to create pairings…
In addition to pairing, Matthew is also full of examples of parallelism. We have noted that Matthew not only borrows heavily from Hebrew Scriptures, but also has a tendency to write in the same style…It would appear that Matthew doesn’t just borrow parallelistic passages from attested sources, but either has his own storehouse of such parallelistic sayings or is perfectly capable of coming up with them on his own…
Parallelism is not just a passing fancy for Matthew, but a technique that permeates the gospel. In fact, Matthew seems to use parallelism just about every chance that he gets. It occurs so frequently that it is quite noticeable in a cover-to-cover reading of the gospel. Several students have noticed how much it sounds like Hebrew Scripture and how often Jesus sounds like a prophet. Matthew, of all the evangelists, seems to have a mastery of parallelism.
If Matthew is concerned with cardinal numbers, especially the number two, and if his style of writing is permeated with identifying pairs and making use of parallelism, then if there were indeed two blind men, and Mark focuses on one of them, we should not be surprised to see Matthew making mention of two.