Jesus and his Team of Traveling Exorcists

Reading the gospels can be a bumpy ride
It would be cool to throw down this challenge to the folks who are sure the Bible is God’s Wonderful Word: See how many chapters you can get through without having to make excuses for what seems to be the plain meaning of the text. We commonly hear, “Well, you can’t take that literally,” or “It’s not as strange/bad/silly as it sounds…” There are plenty of on-line apologist commentaries to help knock off the rough edges and ‘make straight the way of the lord,’ so to speak. Of course, one can breeze through the gospels on the hunt for the familiar, comforting texts, but a careful, thoughtful reading sometimes can put strains on faith.

For discerning readers who are under no obligation to make the story ‘come out right’—with Jesus sane and intact—Mark, Chapter 6 has too many rough edges. There are 56 verses in this second longest chapter in this gospel.

This in another article in my series on each chapter of Mark’s gospel. The last one, on Chapter 5, is here. The Introductory article, “Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot,” is here.

There are six discreet episodes in this chapter, each with its own problems.

It’s easy to assume that Mark just wanted to ‘tell people about Jesus,’ but that’s not quite the whole story. Imagine what he was up against, probably a few years after 70 CE when Jerusalem and its temple had been destroyed by the Roman army. The Christians remained a breakaway Jewish sect, tiny and scattered. The world had paid little attention to its claim that Jesus was the lord, messiah, Son of God.

Mark needed to explain how this could have happened. When he describes Jesus’ baptism, he reports that a voice from heaven said, “You are my beloved son…” Did Jesus alone hear this? Maybe this was Mark’s way of saying that it was not a public announcement. Matthew changed the wording to, “This is my beloved son…” In Mark 4 we’re told that Jesus taught in parables to keep people in the dark, to prevent them from repenting (4:10-12); only the disciples were supposed to know who he was. In chapter 5, when demons shouted out who he was, Jesus banished them into pigs that ran off a cliff and drowned. When we healed people, he sometimes told them not to tell anybody. Mark was building his case for his unrecognized messiah—although this really doesn’t work. He wasn’t too good with plot consistency.

After killing the pigs in chapter 5, Jesus moves on, at the opening of chapter 6, to his ‘home town,’ and teaches in the synagogue. We find here his famous saying that “prophets are not without honor, except in their home town.” The folks who had known him since he was a kid were stumped: “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”

If his message had been the imminent Kingdom of God and the role he predicted for himself, can we blame them for being skeptical? Hadn’t they heard it all before? Richard Carrier has pointed out: “Palestine in the first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism. There was an evident clamoring of sects and individuals to announce that they had found the messiah. It is therefore no oddity or accident that this is exactly when Christianity arose. It was yet another messiah cult in the midst of a fad for just such cults.” (On the Historicity of Jesus, p. 67)

There is no hint here, by the way, that Mary had shared with the townsfolk her stores about the famous ‘O holy night’ when Jesus was born; wouldn’t that have helped them appreciate who Jesus was? But Mark knew nothing of that tale. Moreover, the skeptical locals put Jesus in his place: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” Catholic theologians, committed to protecting Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, try to nullify the clear meaning of the text: these were actually cousins of Jesus, they claim, or children from Joseph’s first marriage! Theologians assume they can get away with pulling the wool.

In verse 5 we find an admission that Jesus was powerless, or nearly so. “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Can we infer that Jesus’ “deeds of power” depended on people believing he could do them? This raises questions about his skills as a showman, and the gullibility of those who were eager to see “deeds of power.”

In the chapter’s second episode (vv. 7-13), Jesus focuses again on demons. According to the resurrected Jesus in Mark 16, one of the signs of being a baptized Christian is the ability to cast out demons (along with picking up snakes and drinking poison). Yes, the last few verses of Mark 16 (vv. 9 -20) are the forged ending, but the guy who wrote it was certainly in tune with Mark’s mindset: “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits,” and they did as they were told: “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” I suspect many Christians would prefer a savior who isn’t an exorcist. Indeed, how many Christians today put their exorcism skills to good use? Do their pastors ask them on Sunday morning, “How many demons did you cast out this week? Did you meet your quota?”

But by far the most embarrassing item in this text is Jesus’ hard-heartedness. Like other cult leaders, he had no patience for those who balked at his message (v.11): “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” When Matthew copied Mark’s text, he made Jesus even meaner (10:15): “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” The apostles, so says verse 12, “…went out and proclaimed that all should repent.” Presumably some of the folks they accosted, being devout Jews, felt no need to ‘repent.’ But if they turned away these itinerate preachers they deserved destruction. How does Jesus come off as the good guy? I don’t know how Christians can overlook this arrogance; their hero is seriously flawed. If you meet Christians who are okay with this kind of vengeance…well, those are the kinds of Christians to stay away from.

The end of this episode actually comes at verse 30: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” There is a break between verses 13 and 30, in which Mark tells the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. It breaks the flow of the narrative, so Mark has spliced the story into his text, no doubt modifying it as he saw fit. Scholar Joel Marcus has stated that the account “…contains numerous traditional and folkloristic elements, which is one of the reasons for questioning its historicity.” (p. 402, Mark 1-8: A New Translation)

At Herod Antipas’ birthday party—so the story goes—he promised his wife Herodias’ daughter that he would give her anything, “even half of his kingdom,” for dancing. Prompted by her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist, which shortly thereafter was brought in on a platter. No doubt this is a piece of urban legend. Those who want it to be history have to explain convincingly how the details of the birthday party came to be written down, where the account would have been archived, and how Mark found access to an archive after the destruction of Jerusalem.

In the remainder of this chapter, Mark presents three more episodes, but these can be tucked away in the file called ‘fantasy literature.’

After their return from curing and exorcising, Jesus suggested that they all get away for a rest: “And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” But it was not to be: “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.” And here we find one of the popular, feel-good verses about Jesus: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

Once again, Mark declines to say what Jesus taught. His focus was elsewhere: coming up with a meal for the huge crowd. He reports that Jesus, now exercising his skills as a magician, created enough food from five loaves and two fish to feed “5,000 men.” There have been countless sermons linking this story with John 6:35, “Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry…” Mark has written theology, to impress and convince his first century readers: The leader of his cult, his messiah, has matchless powers. After this feat, Jesus dismissed the crowd, put the disciples back in the boat, and went to a mountain to pray.

Why should this story be filed as ‘fantasy literature’? Because this is not how the world works, as we can infer from God’s failure to act elsewhere to rescue people from hunger. The Great Irish Famine alone killed about a million people. The God who knows ‘when a sparrow falls to the earth’ and can ‘feed the 5,000,’ but doesn’t intervene to stop famines, cannot be taken seriously.

In the next episode (vv. 47-52), Jesus noticed from his place of prayer on the mountain that the disciples “…were straining at the oars against an adverse wind.” He set out to reach them, simply walking on the water. Mark strangely remarks that Jesus “…intended to pass them by.” They were terrified, thinking it was a ghost. “But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.”

The end of the story seems a bit harsh: “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Perhaps Mark is pursuing his theme of the unrecognized messiah: even the disciples didn’t grasp who Jesus was—“they did not understand.” If even their hearts had been hardened, it was no surprise that the world at large failed to believe the Christian message.

Yet, ironically, Mark wants us to believe that local crowds at the time were eager to see Jesus. In the final brief episode of the chapter (vv. 53-56) we read: “When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.” In Mark 5:25-34 we found the story of the woman who was healed by touching Jesus’ clothing, and here Mark reports that a lot of people did the same thing: “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

It’s no surprise that the Jesus cult recruited new members by the repetition of such fables. In the Book of Acts (5:14-17), even Peter’s shadow did the trick:

“Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.”

So, let’s add to the challenge to Christians that I mentioned at the beginning. Not only how many chapters can they get through without having to make up excuses; but how many gospel verses—be honest now—should be filed under The Messiah’s Magic Tricks? If a ‘miracle’ verse could just as easily fit into a fairy tale, a Disney animated fantasy, or even a Marvel Comics adventure (are there other superheroes who walk on water?), then, fess up, the gospel writers have indulged their weakness for magical thinking.

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.

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