Mark 6: 7-29






and he went round about the villages, teaching
and he called unto him the twelve

and began to send them forth by two and two
and gave them power over unclean spirits
and commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey save a staff only
no scrip, 
no bread, 
no money in their purse 
but be shod with sandals
and not put on two coats. 
and he said unto them, 
"in what place soever ye enter into an house
there abide till ye depart from that place
and whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, 
when ye depart thence, 
shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. 
verily I say unto you, 
It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgement, 
than for that city" 
and they went out, 
and preached that men should repent
and they cast out many devils
and anointed with oil many that were sick
and healed them 


Again, lets be wary of assuming that the mission of the twelve follows chronologically from the rejection at Nazareth. It might be that Jesus has temporarily uprooted himself from Capernaum; that he has gone on a circular tour of the villages near his home-town, and then sent the Twelve out from Nazareth. But "he went round the villages teaching" could just as well be another general statement. "Jesus used to travel around from village to village, preaching a lot. One time he came to Nazareth, that was the only place which rejected him. Another time he sent his disciples out by themselves." 


I am trying to read the Gospel of Mark as a story. And I don't know what to do with passages like this. We have been told that Jesus picked out twelve students and called them his Sent-Out-Ones; so I suppose we need to see them being Sent-Out. And we need to be shown that Jesus's mission is spreading out. He's like that sower, scattering seeds at random.

Jesus appoints twelve envoys. Jesus sends the twelve envoys out to preach on his behalf. Jesus becomes even more famous. Even the King gets to hear about him... 

Mark gives the mission of the Twelve a big build up. Jesus calls them together, makes them pair off in twos, and tells them that they are allowed to take nothing with them. A "scrip" is a bag; a "coat" is a tunic: so Jesus is saying something like "don't bother with a suitcase or even a change of underwear". He says that they have to stay in the house of the first person who offers them hospitality; and that each town only gets one chance of hearing the message. I don't know if "day of Judgement" is as apocalyptic as it may sound. Is Jesus really saying "at the end of the world, the villages which aren't nice to my envoys over the next few weeks will be destroyed with fire from heaven"? Or is it more like "in the future, these places are going to have a really really bad reputation." The sin of Sodom was inhospitality, as opposed to, you know, Sodomy. 

I have many questions.

Like: how well did the hardhearted disciples cope with this mission? They don't yet know who Jesus is; they keep missing the point of his message; they have to have even the most basic parables explained to them. So what was their preaching like? Were they giving personal testimonies? "Let me tell you about this fella Jesus. We admit we don't understand everything he says: but I can tell you that since I met him I've totally quit the tax-collecting." Or are we to think more of Jesus franchising his teaching out? "We are here on behalf of Jesus. And he bids us say the following: 'A sower went forth to sow...'" Is the preaching of the disciples, like the preaching of Jesus, couched in riddles, to make absolutely sure that hardly anyone understands? And what about the miracles? The miracles that Jesus doesn't want anyone to talk about under any circumstances? And what about the demons? The demons who blurt out the big secret unless specifically told not to?

And who had to pair up with Judas Iscariot? 

Imagine you are Peter. Or actually, imagine you are Andrew. He probably did most of the talking. You repeat one of Jesus's parables. The person you are talking to doesn't understand it. You know the secret meaning, because Jesus has told you: but you aren't allowed to pass it on. 

"I can't tell you that. It's a secret. The Master says you have to work it out for yourself." 

Very well: but why should I trust this Master of yours with his obscure teaching? 

"Because he controls the weather. But I'm not allowed to tell you about that. Because he purifies lepers. But I'm not allowed to tell you about that either. Because he can literally raise the dead. But I'm definitely not allowed to tell you about that. You just have to, trust him, okay? And if you don't you are literally no better than a sodomite." 

Tough crowd. 

There are no answers to these questions in Mark's Gospel. And (so far as I know) there is nothing about it in the apocryphal literature or the traditional lives-of-the-saints. It's a blank. Jesus sends the disciples out, telling them to preach and heal and do exorcisms. But there is no pay-off to the story. Mark adds, in effect, "so they did". And then moves on to a different story. 

What this probably proves is that I am doing the wrong thing in trying to read Mark "as a story". Very possibly, it is a piece of Christian symbolism back-projected into Jesus's lifetime. Quite possibly, the-Jesus-of-History never sent twelve apostles out to proclaim that men should repent. And if he did it doesn't matter. What Mark wants us to see is a picture of what Jesus says to all his followers, every day. Go out: leave everything behind: tell people that they should repent: and don't worry if they ignore you, just go onto the next place, and keep on preaching. Remember the one about the silly farmer? 

But even on that view; what do you do with the passage? Are you to be completely literal, like St Francis, and say that the only true practice of Christianity is monasticism; renouncing all worldly possessions and dedicating yourself completely to the service of the poor? Or can the passage be moralized? "When it says 'take no bread' it doesn't literally mean that the Vicar can't take a sandwich with him when he goes on a preaching engagement out of town. It means 'don't worry too much about merely physical needs.' When it says 'don't take a spare under-shirt' it means 'don't be over-concerned about comfort'. When it says 'don't take a purse' it doesn't mean that the church can't have a treasurer; it means that you mustn't be too attached to money. Going out in pairs means 'trust your friends rather than your clothes or your cash'. Taking a staff means 'I know you feel you aren't adequate to this task; but it's okay, you will always have something to lean on.'" 

Which seems only to take a forceful passage ("go out and do an unpopular task and take absolutely nothing with you") with some platitudes ("Don't cling too hard to your possessions. Live more simply.") The aforementioned Eugene H Peterson is pretty clear that it applies to modern preachers. I rather like his paraphrase: "Don't think that you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. No special appeals for funds. Keep it simple. And no luxury inns. Get a modest place and be content there until you leave." But it is only a paraphrase. "No special appeals for funds" is a lot softer than "you aren't even allowed to take your wallet." 

My weak answer is that the popular and widespread fame of Jesus is taken for granted in the next story; so Mark needs us to know that Jesus's disciples are taking the message further than one individual could carry it by himself. And that last verse is another example of a narrative space which we have to fill in for ourselves. "And they went out, and preached that men should repent." There are many stories which could be told of the disciples preaching exploits; but Mark is leaving it for us to imagine them. The story doesn't only happen in his text, but also in our imaginations.



and king Herod heard of him; 
for his name was spread abroad 
and he said, that John the Baptist was risen from the dead, 
and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him. 
others said, that it is Elias 
and others said, that it is a prophet, or as one of the prophets. 
but when Herod heard thereof, he said, 
"It is John, whom I beheaded: 
he is risen from the dead." 

This is the first time Mark has taken the spotlight off Jesus and asked us to look at what other people are saying about him.

Like the disciples and like the people in Nazareth, Herod wants to know who Jesus is. He thinks Jesus is a dead guy come back to life. The people think he is Elijah, a prophet from a thousand years ago, come back to earth in a Chariot of Fire or perhaps some other prophet. The Authorized Version gets into a bit of a muddle here, telling us that some people thought that "it is a prophet or as one of the prophets", but the sense is fairly clear. "He is a prophet — like one of 'The Prophets'" 

I don't want to go all Trilemma at this point, but "Maybe he's just some really talented Rabbi" is not one of the options. 

There is a clear structural purpose to this digression. The disciples have gone off on their mission: there is a period of days or weeks where nothing happens. So the spotlight shifts away from Jesus to Herod; there is a long flashback; and we resume the main action after the disciples return.

for Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John,
and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake,
his brother Philip’s wife
for he had married her
for John had said unto Herod,
"it is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife"
therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him,
and would have killed him
but she could not
for Herod feared John
knowing that he was a just man and an holy,
and observed him
and when he heard him he did many things,
and heard him gladly
and when a convenient day was come
that Herod on his birthday made a supper
to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee
and when the daughter of the said Herodias came in
and danced
and pleased Herod
and them that sat with him,
the king said unto the damsel,
"ask of me whatsoever thou wilt
and I will give it thee."
and he sware unto her,
"whatsoever thou shalt ask of me,
I will give it thee,
unto the half of my kingdom."
and she went forth,
and said unto her mother
"What shall I ask?"
and she said
"The head of John the Baptist."
and she came in straightway with haste unto the king,
and asked, saying,
"I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist"
and the king was exceeding sorry
yet for his oath’s sake,
and for their sakes which sat with him,
he would not reject her
and immediately the king sent an executioner,
and commanded his head to be brought
and he went and beheaded him in the prison,
and brought his head in a charger,
and gave it to the damsel:
and the damsel gave it to her mother.
and when his disciples heard of it, they came
and took up his corpse,
and laid it in a tomb.

This is not the Herod who massacred the babies. That King Herod — Herod The Great — was the Roman-backed King of Israel for 40 years before the birth of Jesus. Babies apart, he is widely regarded as a reasonably Good King. When he died, his kingdom was split between his four children. Herod The Tetrach — Herod The One Quarter of a King — was in charge of Galilee. 

Mark is again being very non-linear, wrapping flashbacks around flashbacks. Way back in chapter one he told us that Jesus started preaching after John had been arrested. Now he tells us that John has been dead for some time. So he has to spend a few verses playing catch-up. 

There is a secular account of John's death outside of the Bible: but Josephus the historian thinks that Herod killed John simply because he was a mischief-maker. The story of the vengeful wife, the unwise oath, and the formula "even unto half my kingdom" feels very much more like a folk-legend than the rest of Mark's Gospel. 

The natural sequence of events is: 

1: Herod marries his brother Phillip's wife, Herodias. (Philip is another of the four quarter-kings who succeeded Big Herod.) 

2: John says that marrying your brother's wife is against the law. 

3: Herod gives the order to have John arrested 

4: Herod is afraid of John but likes to listen to him. 

5: Herodias wants John killed. 

6: Herodias's daughter asks for John's head as a party favour. 

7: John's disciples bury him. 

8: Herod thinks Jesus is John raised from the dead. 

But Mark wraps the text around itself: 

(8) When Herod heard it, he said, “He is John the Baptist! I had his head cut off, but he has come back to life!” (3) Herod himself had ordered John's arrest, and he had him tied up and put in prison. (1) Herod did this because of Herodias, whom he had married, even though she was the wife of his brother Philip. (2) John the Baptist kept telling Herod, “It isn't right for you to marry your brother's wife!” (5) So Herodias held a grudge against John and wanted to kill him, but she could not because of Herod. (4) Herod was afraid of John because he knew that John was a good and holy man, and so he kept him safe…..(6) Finally Herodias got her chance. 

This creates a sense of rambling breathlessness: as if someone were bringing you up to date on a piece of news: or at the very least recounting a story which everyone knows. 

One wonders exactly how stupid Herod must have been. He has had John the Baptist in the dungeons for at least several weeks; he has been listening to his preaching and even getting some comfort from it. And John is the forerunner of Jesus: over and over again, he must have told Herod "this isn't about me — I am only clearing the road for the person who is coming next." And then when John is dead, and word comes to Herod that there is a new preacher, performing exorcisms and healing lepers and raising the dead. And Herod's reaction is not "O.M.G! It must be the guy John was warning us about" but "Hot dang! John isn't dead after all." 

One also has to wonder a bit about John's disciples. Loyalty is a virtue. But if John's whole message was "get ready for the coming of Jesus" then it's a bit late in the day to be still thinking of yourself primarily as John's followers. 

This whole section is incredibly awkward. John is meant only to be the forerunner of Jesus; but here is Jesus being identified as the second coming of John. The resurrection of Jesus is a big mystery which the disciples can't get their heads round: but here is a King talking as if "awakening from the dead" is very much the kind of trick you might think any Top Prophet could pull off. 

I am trying to keep my eyes very firmly on Mark's story. And I think that Mark's story makes far more sense if we assume that John died without ever knowing the Messianic secret; that John carried on preaching "Someone greater than me is coming!" to the day he died, without ever knowing who that someone was. And some of John's disciples continued to faithfully keep John's message going, after he was dead, not realizing that the it was already being fulfilled around lake Galilee. That seems to me to be a fine dramatic irony; consistent with a Messiah who speaks in riddles and keeps his identity secret. (And consistent too with the way Mark's story is going to end.) 

People who search for the Historical Jesus sometimes pay special attention to what they regard as Embarrassing passages: passages which the ancient writers might have preferred to omit or suppress.
It is hard to see why Mark would have invented this story. And this may make us think that the idea that people thought that Jesus was John has a strong element of historical factitutde.


FUN FACT: 


The word "testimony" ("for a testimony against them") is martyrion, from whence our word "martyr". 



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

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