This final introductory post will be longer than the others, but bear with me. It must be longer because in it we are laying what, in my opinion, is the most important introductory foundation for understanding Mark on his own terms. And in my view, this is the most exciting introductory topic, as it gets at the fundamental theology of Mark’s Gospel. So join me on the ride!
Intro: Our Most Formative Moments…
I want you to think about something with me. Answer this in your own mind: What do you consider the most formative moment or event for how you understand yourself? Let me explain with my own life. I was in bondage to sin for many years, and God set me completely free and I’ve been free to this day. For me, that deliverance is the most formative moment in how I understand myself and my relationship to God. When I find myself in a spiritual rut, I look back to that moment and, in my prayers and hopes, ask God to transform me with a similar experience. I don’t ask him to repeat what he did then, but I ask him to do something even greater. I ask for a deeper level of freedom, a deeper faith. God is not in the business of repetition, but he is in the business of recapitulation. Repetition is doing the same thing again. Recapitulation is following the same pattern, but doing something with added significance. What is the most significant event or memory for our nation’s self-understanding? The Revolutionary War perhaps? The Declaration of Independence? Pearl Harbor or 9/11? We still look back on that history as we move forward, not to repeat the past, but to recycle and recapitulate our values, ideals, and essence as a nation so we can grow into greater times.
Transition: Israel’s Most Formative Moments…
What do you think was Israel’s most formative moment in its self-understanding? I’ll give you a clue—it was Israel’s “founding moment” as a nation. You guessed it—the Exodus from Egypt. These were the ingredients of the Exodus event: Israel cried out in distress, God heard, He fought as a Warrior on their behalf, defeated their enemies, led them on the way through the Wilderness, and brought them to the place of his special dwelling in the Promised Land and, eventually, in Jerusalem. So when Israel found themselves in the middle of their greatest crisis ever, the Babylonian Exile, God promised a grand “New Exodus.” So at this point, Israel took their memory of the first Exodus and transformed it into hopes and prayers for a glorious New Exodus from Babylon (See Watts 49). The basis for this recapitulation is God’s consistency—He will act in the future as he has acted in the past. So then, as we would expect, in the parts of the Bible written during the Exile, we find profound promises of God to lead his people in a Second/New Exodus out of Babylon by recapitulating the pattern of the first Exodus: Deliverance, guiding on the way to his holy place, and arrival in his holy place, Jerusalem. More than any other book, Isaiah displays “New Exodus” language, particularly in chapters 40-55, which was the section of Isaiah written during Exile.
Eventually, Israel get to go back into the land of Israel by permission of King Cyrus of Persia. This in view, had Israel just experienced the New Exodus? Interestingly, the answer is no. Even though they’re back in their land, they still see a need for a New Exodus—they still see themselves as exiles. Here’s why:
- Reconstructed Jerusalem, including walls and temple, were pathetic
- No national repentance had happened, as was necessary for restoration to God
- As a result, God’s presence had not returned to his represented dwelling in the temple
- Israel was still under foreign rule
For all intents and purposes, Israel was still in physical exile from the land, and even more, spiritual exile from God. I’ve heard this called “ameliorated exile”…we may call it “remodeled” or “enhanced” exile, but still exile nonetheless. Their situation has improved a little bit, but they’re still in exile.
So, New Exodus was still a future hope for the pathetic nation of Israel by the time we reach the conclusion of the Old Testament. In the time between the testaments, Israel fought for and regained her independence, only to lose it again to the Romans.
What’s All This Have to Do With Mark?
Why am I telling you all this, you ask? What does it have to do with Mark? Mark (and all the Gospels) portray Jesus’ ministry as the climax of Israel’s history. Sometimes we think of a deep divide between OT and NT, but the Gospels know of no such thing. So if Mark is presenting Jesus as the climax of Israel’s history, what do you think that climax involves? You got it…NEW EXODUS!!! (You’ve heard that the “Sunday school” answer is “Jesus”…well for our study of Mark, it is “New Exodus”!) Jesus proclaims and brings into effect the long-awaited New Exodus, and Mark organizes his entire Gospel around this theme.
On this note, may I commend the work that brought the pervasiveness of this Marcan theme to my attention: Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark, by Rikki Watts. The following schematic comes from his book, and he suggests (quite correctly) that Mark has structured his Gospel in the following way as a deliberate echo of the Exodus / New Exodus scheme! This will shed light on much of our further studies in Mark.
|Exodus / New Exodus Pattern (Exodus/Isaiah)||Mark’s Structure|
|God “as Warrior and Healer delivers his people from bondage…||“Jesus’ powerful ministry in Galilee and beyond…|
|…leads the ‘blind’ along the New Exodus way of deliverance…||…his leading of his ‘blind’ disciples along the ‘Way’…|
|…and arrives at Jerusalem”||…and arrival in Jerusalem”|
Again, to quote Watts’ summary statement, the “schema of the Exodus is
- …Journey, and…
- …Arrival at Yahweh’s dwelling (whether Sinai or Jerusalem/Zion)” (Watts, p. 50).
Much in line with Watts, R. T. France (Gospel of Mark) sees Mark as a three-act drama, each act based on a geographical location:
- Act One: Galilee (1:14-8:21)
- Act Two: On the Way to Jerusalem (8:22-10:52)
- Act Three: Jerusalem (11:1-16:8)
No matter who you ask, whether they know of Rikki Watts’ book or not, this geographic arrangement is clearly meant to pack a rhetorical-theological punch because it is artificial. Note that in John’s Gospel, for example, Jesus makes frequent trips to Jerusalem (mostly for Jewish festivals), but in Mark he makes only one, and it is a culmination toward which the narrative is moving “southward.” John’s chronology is likely more in line with how it actually happened, but that does not mean Mark is historically inaccurate…only that his interests lie somewhere other than presenting Jesus in a historical-chronological manner (not that this is John’s chief interest either). There is even evidence within Mark that Jesus had been in Jerusalem prior (i.e. familiarity religious authorities had with him, his acquaintance in Bethany, etc).
So, to conclude, we’ll ask the obvious question: What is Mark’s reason for arranging his gospel in this contrived geographical order? Remember our new “Sunday School” answer? NEW EXODUS! We will develop this more in future posts.