Jesus the Magician Does it Again

…and the disciples still don’t catch on

“Professor McGonagall raised her wand again and pointed it at Snape’s desk. A large plate of sandwiches, two silver goblets, and a jug of iced pumpkin juice appeared with a pop…when Harry and Ron had eaten as many sandwiches as they could (the plate kept refilling itself) they rose and left the office, treading the familiar path to Gryffindor Tower.” J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

“Then Jesus ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full… Now there were about four thousand people.” The Gospel of Mark, Chapter 8

In the 21st century J. K. Rowling has put magical thinking into an appropriate context; a master storyteller, she has created fantasy literature that entertains. She presents settings in which spells, miracles and amazing feats appear matter-of-fact.

In the first century, for a far more gullible audience, the author of Mark’s gospel wrote fantasy literature to enhance the stature of his cult hero. It’s no wonder that some evangelicals condemn Rowling’s monumental epic. They want their cult hero to be taken seriously—and that’s an uphill battle when 21st century readers understand that rival miracles are fantasy.

In this article we’re tackling the 8th Chapter of Mark. The Introduction to my series of articles on each chapter of this gospel is here. The article on Chapter 7 is here.

There’s a lot going on in Mark 8, and careful readers—at least those who are under no obligation to worship the text—can discern what the author was up to; at least we can figure out some of it. All of the gospel writers were propagandists for the Jesus cult; they wanted their readers to keep the faith—and they had to make the plot come out right. After all, isn’t that what novelists do?

Just a couple of chapters earlier, in Mark 6, Jesus had miraculously fed an even larger crowd of 5,000. That would have been worth swapping stories about for years, right? After all, as scholar D. E. Nineham has observed, this was a “nature miracle of stupendous magnitude.” (Saint Mark: The Pelican New Testament Commentaries, 1963) Yet, in chapter 8, when Jesus suggests doing it again, the disciples are at a loss: “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” Nineham felt that it does not “seem humanly possible that the disciples could have behaved with quite such stupidity.” In fact, this is part of the ‘dense disciples’ motif that Mark pursues; in fact he hammers it home in this chapter.

Why would he do that? Perhaps it was part of the author’s agenda to explain why Jesus wasn’t hailed as the messiah by his own generation. This was so, in part, because Jesus ordered them to keep quiet about it: “He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” (8:29-30) The throngs who followed him didn’t care too much about theology anyway. Jesus attracted the large crowds because he was the healing hero. No surprise that the common rabble didn’t get it, and even the disciples failed to understand what Jesus was up to.

Later in the chapter, when Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees, he scolds the disciples. After all, he had pulled off two major feeding miracles (the 5,000 and the 4,000):

“Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’”

But let’s not be too hard on the disciples. Scholars have debated at length about what all these numbers might symbolize.

“Another clue that Mark is writing historical fiction,” Richard Carrier has noted, “is the way he structures his narrative to suit literary aims rather than historical ones. The ceaseless incomprehension of the disciples, for example, is wholly unrealistic. No real human being would ever be that dense or take so long to understand what Jesus was saying and doing.” (On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, p. 411)

A crucial part of Mark’s theology is found at 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Even those who accepted that Jesus was the son of God might have trouble wrapping their minds around “give his life,” and indeed here in Chapter 8, Jesus finds pushback:

“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’”

Once again, a key disciple didn’t get it, and received a stinging smackdown; this same disciple was the one who would later deny him. We’re tempted to say, “Well, Jesus sure knew how to pick’em.” Mark has Jesus repeat this grim prediction two more times, in chapters 9 and 10.

But, of course, Jesus’ recruiting skills are not an issue here. This gospel is theology masquerading as historical narrative. Mark does not mention his sources—which historians must know and evaluate—because that method was unknown to him. David Chumney, in his book, Jesus Eclipsed: How Searching the Scriptures Got in the Way of Recounting the Facts, explains how the gospel writers worked, and it wasn’t by digging through archives and libraries for letters and diaries—or any other kind of preserved testimony.

Barbara Tuchman won two Pulitzer Prizes for history, and at the very beginning of The Zimmerman Telegram she states the basics of writing history:

“Nothing in this book has been invented. All persons mentioned are real persons, everything they said or did, as reported in the following pages, is based on documentary (or, in one or two instances, on verbal) evidence, which will be found in the Notes at the end of the book.” Documentary evidence. There are 23 pages of detailed notes about her sources.

None of that—absolutely none—can be said of the gospels; they are literary creations. Pious scholars—and apologists in general—insist that ‘history’ in the gospels derives from trustworthy oral tradition and accurately preserved eyewitness accounts, for which there is no evidence at all.

Some scholars have puzzled over the duplication of the ‘feeding of the thousands” miracle. If nothing else, Mark was probably driving home the extraordinary powers of the cult hero—and, as was commonly the case—he was playing one-upmanship: “Anything you can do, I can do better.” Jesus is doing better that Elisha’s Old Testament miracle described in II Kings 4: 42-44:

“A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat.’ But his servant said, ‘How can I set this before a hundred people?’ So he repeated, ‘Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’’ He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.”

There is even a note of skepticism in Mark 8 that we can appreciate. The holy bureaucrats wanted evidence that Jesus actually was who he claimed to be—we can sympathize! “The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him.” Jesus had no patience: “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” Preachers rarely want to provide proof of their claims.

Okay, Bible readers, pay close attention. Scholar Louis Ruprecht has referred to the “howling conflict between Mark and John,” and here’s an example. In John 2:11, we read this (after Jesus had changed water into wine): “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” Mark 8:12 and John 2:11: in both verses we find the same Greek word for sign. In John, Jesus uses signs to reveal his glory, but in Mark, he insists that no signs will be given. Two different gospel writers, two different agendas.

In 8:22-26 we have another excursion into magical thinking—this might have been intended as a metaphor for the dense disciples. People beg Jesus to touch a blind man, but he goes one better: he puts saliva on the man’s eyes, and on the second try the trick works, “…his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly.” From the very beginning of the gospel, Jesus has been positioned as the Son of God, so why wouldn’t the folks in Mark’s cult be impressed? Of course, the use of saliva is a nice touch—and belief in the healing power of saint body parts or fluids carried over into the veneration of relics.

In the final section of chapter 8, moreover, we are fully into cult thinking. Mark puts these words on Jesus’ lips—of course he would, as one of the cult’s big promoters:

• If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

• For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed.

• …when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

This is the kind of yada, yada, yada that Christians have heard in the background for centuries, typical of white noise coming from the pulpit. How many of the rank and file in the pews deny themselves all that much? At the beginning, however, the Jesus cult was looking for this kind of devotion. That’s how they survived; notice especially the promise at the end, about the Son of Man coming in glory with holy angels. This is straight out of the apostle Paul’s delusional playbook.

But it’s my guess that, if many (most?) Christians today heard a street preacher yelling these sentences, they would cross the street to get away.

Nothing in Mark 8 compels us to give it a high rating. If your brain is still functioning at a na├»ve Sunday School level; if it has escaped notice that J. K. Rowling fantasy stories are make-believe, then a fable about an ancient hero feeding 4,000 people might be awesome. But we’re hoping to find substance in the holy book, aren’t we?

In my article last week I suggested that Christians make a couple of lists as they read the gospels, i.e., sort verses into ‘Good Jesus’ and ‘Bad Jesus’ columns. One of the Plodding Apologists who haunts the DC Blog wondered what the criteria would be for deciding which is which. Gee, I really didn’t think that would be a tough call. For example, the verses about hating your family (Luke 14:26) go into the Bad Jesus column. And at the end of Mark 8, the cult hero warns that people who “are ashamed of him”—well, he’ll return the favor when the time comes. These verses, reflecting ‘get-even theology’—and an easily bruised ego, it seems to me—also should get dumped there.

Of course, Mark 8:2 sounds pretty good, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.” We can’t fault Jesus for that, but then—heavy sigh—we get a miracle. Dazzling tricks have been the stock motif of religious folklore—pushing a wide variety of gods—forever. But when they’re grafted onto the Jesus story, we’re supposed to be impressed?

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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