The gospel lectionary reading for Epiphany 4 in Year B is Mark 1.21–28, Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It is, like all the early parts of Mark, highly compressed, but it is packed full of fascinating detail which begins to set the agenda for Mark’s portrayal of Jesus.
The episode is striking within the gospels, in that it is the only one which is included in Luke (Luke 4.31–37) but not included in Matthew. Luke positions his account following Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth, which Mark postpones to chapter 6, whilst in Mark it immediately follows the call of the first disciples, which Luke postpones until the miraculous catch of fish in Luke 5. The effect of this in Mark is to suggest that the disciples were immediately thrown into the dynamic of Jesus’ ministry.
Just about every sentence in this narrative begins with ‘And…’ (vv 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27, 28)—this is Mark’s distinctive style of parataxis, where successive actions and events are placed side by side and one after another, in contrast to Luke’s developed style of hypotaxis, in which there are often quite complex subordinate clauses. This gives Mark’s narrative a kind of breathless immediacy, as the events tumble out from the text and upon the reader in a rapid cascade—and this is reinforced by the use of ‘historic present’ tenses (‘And they come to Capernaum…’) as well as the frequent use of the adverb euthus ‘immediately’ (in vv 21, 23, 28). There is a nice grammatical pun here, illustrated by the AV’s translation ‘straightway’ for euthus; John has come to make a ‘straight way’ for Jesus and his ministry, and ‘straightway’ Jesus comes and teaches and ministers. (Curiously, Luke’s parallel version follows Mark’s almost word for word, including most of the parataxis, so slightly stands out within Luke’s narrative.)
But there is another dimension to the repeated use of ‘and’, which is included in more word-for-word translations (the AV and ESV) but omitted in most others: it replicates the vav-consecutive grammar of the Hebrew Old Testament. The letter vav on its own means ‘and’, but when added to a Hebrew verb it simply turns the verb into a past narrative. By replicating this construction, Mark is making his narrative sound ‘biblical’ to his first readers.
Capernaum is on the north-western shore of Galilee, on the Jewish side of the entrance of the Jordan into the lake. It was settled in the Hasmonean period, a century or two before the NT era, and by the first century was a town of around 1,500 with a thriving fishing industry. The houses were modest, the roads were unpaved, and the harbour was basic, and there is no evidence of any Greek or Roman architecture from the period. But Capernaum was on a major road heading north-east to Syria, so was positioned well for trade.
Galilee was known in the ancient world for the clearness of its waters and the variety of its fish. Though Luke implies it from the shape of his narrative, only Matthew tells us that Jesus made his home in Capernaum (Matt 4.13, in another of his ‘unnecessary’ fulfilments of the OT, since Nazareth itself is in the region of Naphtali, so Jesus didn’t need to move to Capernaum for this to be true). It appears as though Jesus is practising what he will later preach, so accepts hospitality from those who receive his message, in this case Simon Peter’s family. There are remains in the town of an octagonal building traditionally known as Peter’s house, on which an early church was built and above which a modern, also octagonal, church has been built in the last 30 years.
The narrative itself is the first example of Mark’s ‘sandwich’ technique, sometimes called narrative intercalation: he begins with one story (Jesus teaching) and this is interrupted by another (the exorcism) but the narrative concludes by returning to the first, the issue of teaching. The most obvious (and best known) example of this is the combined stories of the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with the issue of blood in Mark 5, where the second story interrupts the first which is then returned to and concluded. (In the old days, form critics took this as evidence of the combining of two sources—but this can only be concluded from the imposition of arbitrary limits on the competence of an author.)
The synagogue (a building for meeting, literally a ‘coming together’) appears from both the gospels and the archaeological records to have been a well-established institution by the first century. After the destruction of the temple in AD70, the later synagogue layout developed temple-like features, with a sanctuary at one end where the Torah scrolls were kept, and access was limited. But the building would have been used as a general meeting place on the sabbath for social as well as religious activities. (The wooden features in James Tissot’s picture here are unlikely, not least because wood for building was scarce in the region.) The impressive remains in Capernaum today are of a later fifth-century building, but there is evidence of a simpler, earlier building beneath it.
It is striking that teaching is Jesus’ priority; consistently throughout this gospel, teaching is Jesus’ first aim (‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things’ Mark 6.34) and healing and exorcism is only ever his response to an emergency need. At the end of this episode, the dynamic power of the exorcism is subsumed under his teaching, which is seen to ‘have authority’.
The reaction to Jesus’ teaching is dramatic—the people listening are astonished to the point of being completely overwhelmed. We might translate the term ekplesso as ‘they were completely blown away’. It is a favourite description of Mark’s, occurring here and at Mark 6.2, 7.37, 10.26, and 11.18, but is also used at Matt 19.25 when the disciples can hardly believe Jesus’ teaching, and in Luke 2.48 when Jesus’ parents cannot comprehend why Jesus left them to stay in the temple when he was 12. A perfect visual illustration of the term comes at the end of the film version of Prince Caspian, when Trumpkin the dwarf is almost knocked over by the blast from Aslan’s roar.
The term translated ‘scribes’ in some ETs actually refers to those who were literate and learned, and thus has authority as ‘teachers of the law/Torah’ (TNIV) rather than people who were copyists (as we would normally assume from the word ‘scribe’). The contrast between Jesus and this learned group is echoed a little in the criticism of Peter and John in Acts 4.13 (they were agrammatoi, in contrast the grammateis in this passage) but is also amplified in Matthew’s (and Luke’s) depiction of Jesus as the one who is the authoritative interpreter of Torah (‘You have heard it said…but I say to you…’), in contrast to his contemporaries who only quote previous authorities and commentators.
And now comes the interruption—both in the narrative and in Jesus’ teaching. The intrusion of the man seems provocative, as if the spirit resents Jesus coming into territory that it would have claimed for its own. Mark’s use of ‘unclean spirit’ is distinctive (see Mark 3.11, 3.30, 5.2, 8, 13, 6.7, 7.25, 9.25—note, almost all the first half of the gospel) but is also interchangeable with ‘demon-possessed’ (see Mark 5.18); such spirits were thought not to be supernatural beings so much as ghosts of the dead. As with others who are ritually unclean, Jesus has no fear that the presence of this spirit will contaminate him; on the contrary, it is the spirit which appears afraid of him.
As later in Mark 5 and the Gerasene demoniac, it is the spirit rather than the man who initiates the conversation. The semitic phrase ‘What to us and to you?’ is found both in the OT (Judges 11.12, 2 Sam 16.10, 19.22, 1 Kings 17.18) but is also the phrase used by Jesus to discourage his mother in John 2.4, which indicates the strength of the rebuke there. The use of Jesus’ name suggests an immediate power play—it was believed that to be able to name someone indicated having power over them. The spirit appears to speak on behalf of all its kind, using a collective plural.
The title ‘Holy One of God’ is only found here and in the parallel in Luke 4.34. There is no evidence that this was a messianic title in the period, and it only hints at Jesus’ true identity and pre-existence in the presence of God, rather than making either of these explicit. (See, though, the language of ‘holy man of God’ for Elijah in 2 Kings 4.9, and the language of ‘man of God’ used of prophets and angelic messengers in the OT). Ordinary sick individuals address Jesus as teacher (Mark 9.17), Son of David (Mark 10.47) or master (Mark 10.51); only God, supernatural beings, or those with special revelation know who he is, and demons address him as Holy One, Son of God (Mark 3.11) or Son of the Most High God (Mark 5.7). All this contributes to the gospel’s quite careful differentiation between sickness and disease, and demon possession, which are are characterised quite differently.
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.
It is not accidental that Mark presents an exorcism as the first miracle in this gospel. He wishes to make evident that Jesus has come to destroy the powers of darkness. His ministry involves waging war on these powers (Witherington The Gospel of Mark, p 90).
Mark does not tell us the matter of Jesus’ teaching, only the manner of it—we will have to wait till chapter 4 to discover some of the content. But if it relates to his announcement that ‘the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mark 1.15) then it is no surprise that Jesus’ hearers connect the action of the exorcism with the content of Jesus’ message. His teaching now has two dimensions to its authority: Jesus speaks on his own behalf, as an authoritative interpreter of the scriptures and of the present moment; and his claims are confirmed by his authoritative action to which powerful spiritual forces submit.
As part of the ‘sandwich’ structure, Mark again emphasises the drama of their response—they are amazed, startled, and astonished. Altogether Mark uses six different words to describe the reaction of the crowds to Jesus’ teaching:
They connote not just incredulity but the kind of panic associated with the disruption of the assumed order of things [Chad Myers]…Jesus constantly filled people with a mixture of wonder, awe, and fear at what he said and did [Donald English]’ (Witherington, p 92).
And yet the reaction is not belief in the claims Jesus makes about himself, but debating amongst themselves (Mark 1.27).
The wonders in themselves neither force a faith response nor clearly indicate the character of the one performing them. The latter comes only through a word of revelation (Witherington, ibid).
The debate amongst the people here anticipates the division between those who will accept Jesus and his claims, and those who (like the unclean spirit) see Jesus’ authority as a threat to their own power. But the slow development of true understanding also sets up the only gradual growth in understanding of the disciples themselves.
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(James Tissot’s illustration of this event, of which I have taken an excerpt above, captures well the emotional dynamic of the incident. But the construction of the synagogue itself is a projection from a later time, and Jesus’ use of a whip is not at all found in the narrative, and rather runs contrary to it.)