How Come Jesus Didn't Know Better?

Mark, Chapter 3: Jesus and the demons
Even the most devout Christian believers have to admit that human imagination has been hyperactive in the creation of all other gods (but, oh not, not theirs). Thousands of gods have been invented throughout the millennia, and apologists for theism—well, the one true Christian theism—sometimes try to deflect suspicion by saying that all the other gods can be respected as symptoms of the human quest for God (capital “G”).

It’s even sometimes said that “we worship the same god”—but that is clearly a lie, a poorly designed dodge. The god that the Jews worship didn’t require the sacrifice of his son, and Allah is clearly not Trinitarian. Nope, these are different gods.

But human imagination didn’t just stop with the gods. Many other beings were thought to swarm in the spiritual realm: angles, demons—malevolent spirits of all sorts—and a generous allotment of benevolent Catholic saints. For most of human history, causation was not well understood, so everything from headaches to hurricanes could be blamed on the unseen agents that hovered over human affairs.

Even though the current faux-modern pope has a staff of exorcists and Kirk Cameron believes that hurricanes are a deity’s retribution for [fill in the blank: anything Kirk thinks is bad], we can be grateful that a significant portion of humanity has outgrown blatant superstitions. They know how the world works, i.e., there are people who believe in god(s), but who don’t go along with angels and demons, satan and devils, witches and ghosts—or kindly dead saints.

Which means that Mark chapter 3 is a major embarrassment to devout Christians who have learned to think like citizens of the 21st Century (well, for the most part). In this chapter we find their Lord and Savior fully into demonology; he would make pope Francis proud. But this is awkward: How can a book supposedly inspired by God have gotten something so wrong?

This is an article in my series on each chapter of Mark’s gospel. The Introductory article can be found here. The preceding article, on chapter 2, is here.

There is one way for Christians to avoid this dilemma. Rather than assuming that Mark is a historical account of how things “actually happened,” it’s best to acknowledge that the gospel is a novel governed by a theological agenda, and is thoroughly grounded in the first century mindset; this included full-blown belief in demons. Of course, it would be no surprise whatever if the “real” Jesus shared these beliefs.

But on the assumption that Mark is history—which most folks in the pews fondly assume—these are the most embarrassing verses in chapter 3:

• “And whenever the unclean spirits beheld him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’ And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.” (11-12)

Since the unclean spirits and Jesus are beings from the spirit world, the former know his rank. Part of novelist’s agenda is to account for failure of the population to recognize Jesus; ordering the unclean spirits to shut up about him serves this plot device. Moreover, Jesus needed help dealing with them:

• “And he appointed twelve to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. “ (vv. 14-15)

In another context completely, Abraham Lincoln made use of the famous “house divided” verse (no. 25), but this was part of Jesus’ self-defense, i.e., that he was not an ally of the Prince of Demons:

• “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’ And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” (vv. 22-25)

Perhaps the most regrettable part of this pronouncement comes at the end: You’re not allowed to insult one of the big shots in the spirit world:

• “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” (vv. 28-30)

We have to assume that the Christians who ‘love their Jesus’ don’t pay much attention to this text—or are as heavily into magical thinking as the guy who wrote it. Everything else can be forgiven, but not blaspheming the holy spirit? Of course this makes no sense whatever from the standpoint of rational ethics.

If Mark is history, then the observation of Bart Ehrman applies: “Jesus was mistaken about a lot of things. People don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. Jesus was a man of his own time. And just as all men and women of their own time are wrong about so many things, so too was Jesus.” (Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, 2013)

Another Plot Theme of the Novel

Mark declared at the opening of his gospel that Jesus was the son of God, so the hushing of the demons helped explain why this status wasn’t as well known as it could have been. Furthermore, Mark needed to explain why Jesus came to a bad end; yes, it was necessary theologically (Mark 10:45: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”), but how was the bad end plotted?

In chapter 3, Mark introduces this theme. After Jesus had once again (as at the end of chapter 2) challenged the religious bureaucrats on Sabbath rules, we read in v. 3:6: “The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodias against him, how to destroy him.”

This simple statement reflects the omniscient perspective that novelists enjoy; they can tell the reader what characters are thinking—or in this case, conspiring. Those who want to believe that Mark is history have the burden of explaining how the author could have known what he reports in verse 3:6. Of course, the novelist can write what he wants, but the historian has to gather the facts. If the gospel was composed 40 or 50 years after the death of the protagonist—and after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE—it’s hard to conceive how the author could have documented the plotting of the Pharisees and Herodians. Did they even keep written records of what they were up to? Did such records survive? How would he have had access to them?

“Oh, this tidbit is based on eyewitness accounts and/or reliable oral tradition.” So say those who want Mark to be history. But that is conjecture, wishful thinking—actually it is a ‘faith’ statement—for which there is no evidence. We have no idea where such information could have come from; it is based on the omniscient perspective of the novelist. He is introducing another component of his plot.

For those who want to explore the motivations and methods of the gospels writers—and disabuse themselves of the notion that these authors were historians as we understand the word—these two books are important homework:

• David Chumney, Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts

• Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions

Yet More Embarrassment

Mark 3 ends with another text that many Christians would like to wish away, and has generated apologetic rationalization. It makes it hard to ask What Would Jesus Do?

• “…they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.’” (vv. 32-35)

On the most generous interpretation, Jesus is here expanding his understanding of family—but it still sounds like a rebuff of this kin. We wonder how well Jesus and his family got along, based on these verses, also in chapter 3 (vv. 19-21):

• “Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, ‘He is beside himself.’”

Never forget this while reading the gospels: they are theological tracts meant to advance the Christ cult at the time of their composition. It wanted followers who would not put family first. This ‘rebuffing’ text in Mark thus aligns well with the infamous verses, Luke 14:26-27:

• “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”

This text is quite a challenge for believers who want to revere Jesus as a great moral teacher, but it fits perfectly with the cult mentality of the time. By the way, if you hear Christians say, “Well, Jesus couldn’t have meant that,” please refer them to Hector Avalos’ book, The Bad Jesus, which includes a 39-page chapter on this text; the word ‘hate’ cannot be watered down. It means exactly what it seems to mean.

We can assume that the cult propagandist who wrote Mark’s gospel knew his target market; he created a Jesus figure that would resonate and win converts. And Yes, his work has stood the test of time—certainly in terms of influencing the gospels that followed and Christian theology in the long run. But regrettably his focus on Jesus and the demons has given permission for believers—up to and including the pope—to embrace nonsense in explaining how the world works.

There’s more to come in Mark’s account of demons messing with Jesus…and it only goes downhill.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.