Monday, November 04, 2019

Mark 5 21-43

The opening chapters of Mark's Gospel show an escalation of Jesus' power and popularity. Bigger and bigger crowds follow him. His enemies become more and more hostile. His miracles become more and more impressive. This chapter marks the culmination of that process. Jesus has shown himself to be Boss of the weather. His power over the spirit realm is so absolute that an army of six thousand demons has grovelled and begged for mercy. There really is only one enemy left.

and when Jesus was passed over again by ship unto the other side,
much people gathered unto him:
and he was nigh unto the sea

Yesterday, Jesus left a huge crowd of people on the Capernaum beach. Today, he has come back: and the crowd is still there. Perhaps they had been waiting all night. Maybe some of them had set off on foot to intercept him when his boat reached Garderene country, and had to turn back half way there. 

and, behold,
there cometh one of the rulers of the synagogue,
Jairus by name;
and when he saw him, he fell at his feet,
and besought him greatly, saying,
"My little daughter lieth at the point of death:
I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her,
that she may be healed;
and she shall live."

"My little daughter is at the point of death". What Jairus actually says is something like "she is holding at the end". ("The end" is eschatos, a word sometimes used to talk about the end of the world.) "She is near the end," would be perfectly good colloquial English. The Good News Bible opts for "my daughter is very sick", and I wish it wouldn't.

Jesus seems to have been avoiding crowds, preferring to teach those who will properly listen to him. But today, someone asks him very graciously to do a special favour, and Jesus agrees. Probably "ruler" means something like "director" or "chairman": not necessarily a rabbi or a teacher, but someone whose job it was to keep the synagogue running in an orderly way. Jairus is an important person in the local Jewish community, at any rate. The lawyers from Judea are planning to kill Jesus; but the Galilean synagogue bosses are begging favours from him on their hands and knees.

and Jesus went with him;
and much people followed him
and thronged him.
and a certain woman
which had an issue of blood twelve years,
and had suffered many things of many physicians
and had spent all that she had
and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse,
when she had heard of Jesus
came in the press behind,
and touched his garment.
for she said,
"If I may touch but his clothes,
I shall be whole."
and straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up
and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.
and Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him
turned him about in the press, and said,
"Who touched my clothes?"
And his disciples said unto him,"
"Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou,
Who touched me?"
And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.
But the woman fearing and trembling,
knowing what was done in her,
came and fell down before him,
and told him all the truth.
And he said unto her,
"Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole;
go in peace, and be whole of thy plague."

The people are "thronging" Jesus: crushing or squashing him. We have to picture him forcing his way through the crowd. He is on his way to save a girl's life, but the rubberneckers still won't let him move. Maybe the disciples are in front, trying to make a path for him. And suddenly, while time is apparently of the essence, he stops and says "Who touched my clothes?" You can see why the disciples would be surprised by this. It is just about the least sensible thing anyone could possibly have said under the circumstances.

Someone has touched Jesus' robe, or maybe his cloak. We're not talking about anyone grabbing his sleeve or his collar; just the edge of a loose fitting garment, from the back, as it swishes past.

It's a woman. We aren't told anything about her name or social status. "A certain...." is an English filler word the translators like to add. It doesn't mean "one particular woman" or "a person you may know." She's just someone in the crowd.

The woman suffers from long term bleeding: some translators say "hemorrhaging" and a lot of people assume that she must have had some kind of embarrassing Woman's Problem. But a "flux of blood" could just as well be dysentery. Either way it's a disgusting illness, an illness which makes you unclean and unable to participate in the Jewish rites.

Way, way back many centuries ago I saw the English Thespian -- actor is too short a word -- Sir Alec McCowen performing the entirety of Mark's Gospel as a theatrical piece. It looks a little dated now, all English vowels hurled to the back of dress circle. But one of things I took away from his performances was how much humour there is in Mark's Gospel. This story contains one of Sir Alec's laugh lines. You have to deliver it deadpan, with British intonation. Here is a woman. She has been to lots of doctors. They have humiliated her, and charged her for the privilege of being humiliated and it hasn't done any good.

"She had suffered many things of many physicians…"


"And spent all that she had…."


"But was nothing bettered...."

(Long pause.)

"But grew rather worse...!"

(Audience laughs.)

Jesus feels that "virtue" has gone out of him. Several times, Mark uses the same word -- dynamin, power -- as a synonym for "miracle". So perhaps we should say that Jesus could feel that a miracle had gone out of him; or perhaps we should say that people were always asking Jesus to "do a power" or a "perform a virtue". We are talking about energy; what a player of role-playing games would immediately recognize as mana. My highly inaccurate paraphrase would translate it is a miracle-juice.

It's the miracle-juice that cures the woman. Mark does not say that when Jesus pays attention to the women, other people pay attention to her as well, and feel bad about how they have treated her and say that she can come back to synagogue even though she is bloody and smelly, and that's why we should welcome people who don't really seem to fit in with our church communities. And Mark does not say that Jesus has lived such a holy life that when he asks his God to heal someone, God is specially disposed to do so and if we could aspire to to that special state of grace, then God would answer our prayers as readily as he answered Jesus's. Jesus's unique supernatural nature -- an energy insider him -- has the power to cure. And it's involuntary. Jesus doesn't will it. He heals because the miracle-juice is in him.

Jesus says that the woman has been healed by her own faith. I have heard people say that this is Faith in the Wizard of Oz sense. The power to heal herself was inside her all along. The hem of Jesus garment was only ever a placebo. If you stop believing that you are passing blood then you will find you are not passing blood any more. I have also been told that Faith is a supernatural conductor. Everyone is touching Jesus: the miracle-juice only went into this particular woman. So mere physical contact is not enough: faith is necessary as well. Neither explanation does justice to the story. "Faith" here is simply trust: confidence or cheek or chutzpah

The reason you got healed is that you had the audacity to touch me without my permission. And instead of being cross, I am proud of you.

while he yet spake, 
there came from the ruler of the synagogue's house certain which said,
"thy daughter is dead: why troublest thou the Master any further?"
as soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken,
he saith unto the ruler of the synagogue,
"Be not afraid, only believe."

Things looked pretty hopeless on the boat, when Jesus told his disciples to have faith and not be afraid. But things must look entirely hopeless here. Jesus has been trying  to get to the house in time to save the man's daughter. A dirty smelly woman grabs his cloak. He could have ignored her, but instead he pauses, and singles her out, and listens to the story of her life, and praises her....and someone comes out of the house and says, don't bother, you're too late, she's already dead. Synagogue-guy would have had every right to be angry at this moment. But Jesus says the same thing to him that he said to the disciples when they thought the boat was going down. "No fear. Only faith."

and he suffered no man to follow him,
save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James
and he cometh to the house of the ruler of the synagogue,
and seeth the tumult,
and them that wept and wailed greatly.
and when he was come in, he saith unto them,
"Why make ye this ado, and weep?
the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth"
and they laughed him to scorn
but when he had put them all out,
he taketh the father and the mother of the damsel, and them that were with him,
and entereth in where the damsel was lying.
and he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her,
"Talitha cumi"
which is, being interpreted,
"Damsel, I say unto thee, arise."
and straightway the damsel arose,
and walked;
for she was of the age of twelve years
and they were astonished with a great astonishment.
and he charged them straitly that no man should know it
and commanded that something should be given her to eat.

I have often wondered why Jesus didn't invite Andrew to come into the house with the others. I suppose Andrew had be given some special important task that Jesus couldn't quite trust Peter with.

Jesus touches the dead girl, and she returns to life. Mark has already told us that physical contact with Jesus can allow for this mysterious virtue stuff to go out of him. The girl, being dead, presumably can't have faith in Jesus; he brings her back just by being there, holding her hand. (I suppose you might say that it was her father's faith that facilitated the miracle.) 

When Jesus did his very first exorcism, everyone was stunned. The people who witness this resurrection are "overcome with great ekstasei". They are hysterical; literally in an ecstatic state -- almost going into trances. We have to imagine a crowded noisy house, full of people ostentatiously hollering and singing dirges, while the five in the bedroom are freaking out and Jesus is calmly saying "Won't someone get her some food?"

The little girl is twelve years old. The older woman had suffered from bleeding for twelve years. There is probably some significance to this, but I am darned if I know what it is. 

Mark writes in Greek. So why does he lapse into Aramaic at this moment? Why does he think it is important that we know the exact words that Jesus spoke? Perhaps he thinks that there is a verbal component, as well as a physical one, to Jesus's magic. To call someone back from the dead, he has to utter words of power, so Mark records those words exactly. A bit later on he will tell us the exact Aramaic word that Jesus used to heal a deaf man. When Jesus asked for the demon Gardarene demon's name he was following standard exorcist procedure. In Luke's Gospel, Jesus brings a dead man back to life, a few minutes before his funeral, and he uses the exact same formula: "Young man, I say unto you, arise!"

Perhaps this is such a significant moment -- almost the climax of Jesus's career so far -- that Mark wants to bring us as close to it as we can possibly get. Only three disciples were there: Peter, James, John. Years later, Peter told Mark what happened. Now Mark is telling us. It's part of the great big Secret. The mourners don't see what Jesus did. Neither does Andrew, or the other eight disciples. The multitude certainly don't. But we are hearing Jesus's exact words. We are part of the special inner group.

Or perhaps it is simpler than that. Hebrew was the holy language; and Greek was the international language; but Aramaic was the language Jesus's people spoke among themselves. So maybe Jesus talked Hebrew to the synagogue-leader; maybe he even preached in Greek. The New Testament certainly seems to take the Greek translation of the Old Testament for granted. But here he is doing something normal and kind: shifting from formal public speech to common, intimate speech.

Hey kid. Time to get up.

Seventeenth century English happened to use the same word "suffer" to mean "endure" and "permit". The sick woman has "suffered" at the hands of doctors, and Jesus "will not suffer" anyone to follow him into the little girl's sick-room. But "endure" and "permit" are two quite different words in Greek (pascho and aphiem, respectively). You can apparently be the sub-editor of a national newspaper and still think that "suffer the children.." means "inflict suffering on children".

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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Mike Taylor said...

"Way, way back many centuries ago I saw the English Thespian -- actor is too short a word -- Sir Alec McCowen performing the entirety of Mark's Gospel as a theatrical piece."

I sought this out, and found it on YouTube: it begins at and is really rather good: it's both relaxing, easy to listen to; and dramatic. I suppose that's what you hire a Proper Actor for.

When was this, by the way? You know, relative to when the Bible began?

Andrew Rilstone said...

He first did it in 1978. I think he performed it on and off for a decade; I am not sure when I saw it.

Eric said...

It says on yootoob that the recording was in 1990.
Here it is nn its entirety:
and thank you very much for making me aware of it :)