Reading Backwards Part 2 (Mark)

September 2, 2014 — 3 Comments



I am continuing my series on Richard Hays forthcoming book “Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness.” The first post covered the introduction and the first chapter honing in on the distinction between prospective and retrospective readings.

After the introductory chapter, Hays turns to the four Gospels and how they employ Israel’s scripture. He first looks at Mark. The reason he chooses Mark is obvious, due to the widespread consensus that Mark was written first. However, I think a strong argument can be made for starting with Matthew because of the canonical form with which we have received the Gospels. Matthew stands at the head of the NT canon for numerous reasons. First, Matthew echoes Genesis with the genealogy, the theme of the new creation, and the opening words. Second, Matthew most clearly of all the Gospels presents Jesus as the fulfillment of the Torah. Third, Matthew directly speaks to 2 Chronicles, the last book of the Hebrew canon. Fourth, Matthew held pride of place in the early church.

Nevertheless, Hays decides to start with Mark. The Gospel does fit his “echo” theme better than Matthew and also provides a good contrast to Matthew’s use of OT Scripture.

Hays asserts that many of the key images in Mark are drawn from Israel’s Scriptures and a reader who fails to discern the significance of these images can hardly grasp Mark’s message (17). But Mark’s way of drawing upon Scripture, like his narrative style, is indirect and allusive.

Mark for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions, giving just enough clues to tease the reader into further exploration and reflection…for the most part his scriptural references are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the story. The story is intelligible, at one level, for readers who do not hear the scriptural echoes. But for those who do have ears to hear, new levels of complexity and significance open up.

Let the Reader Understand

Hays’s subtitle of the chapter is “let the reader understand” which comes from Mark 13:14. This phrase is one of those rare occasions where he steps out from behind the curtain, but it also gives clues to how Mark is using Scripture. The reader needs to understand! In other words he is not going to make is at plain as Matthew who says, “This happened to fulfill Scripture.” Hays gives the example of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a colt without any authorial comment about scriptural fulfillment, but for those who have ears to hear will perceive the symbolism of Zechariah 9:9.

His remarks about Mark are divided into two parts. First he explores a few passages in March which allusively draw on Scripture to shape his narration of the identity of Jesus. Then in the second part he steps back for a broader reflection on Mark’s hermeneutical strategy.

Remember that the book is about Christology and how Mark uses Israel’s Scripture, therefore Hay’s focuses on the passages that show Jesus’ identity through Israel’s Scripture.

I will not cover each intertextual note, but one is noteworthy. In Mark 6:45-52 Jesus walks on the sea. Hays argues this alludes to Job 9:8 where it speaks of God “who alone stretched out the heaven and walks upon the sea.” But in verse 48 there is the cryptic remark of “he intended to pass them by.” Interpreters have been troubled by the comment, even Matthew deletes the clause (Matt 14:25). But Hays argues that if you look at the entire context of Job 9 there is a clue to what this means. Job 9:11 says the following:

Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him; he moves on (LXX: παρέλθῃ με “he passes by me”), but I do not perceive him.

Thus, in Job 9, God’s passing by is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power. Hays says, “This metaphor accords deeply with Mark’s emphasis on the elusiveness of the divine presence in Jesus.”

Hidden in Order to Be Revealed

Hays then steps back to reflect on Mark’s strategy.

If the scriptural intertexts in Mark are ignored, a diminished Christology inevitably follows. The full impact of Mark’s Christology can be discerned only when we attend to the poetics of allusion imbedded in Mark’s intertextual narrative strategy.

Like in the parables, Mark hides the message but at the same time the hidden communication become instruments of revelation. Mark 4:22 states the masking somehow belongs to the revelatory purpose, or even promotes the revelation. Hays therefore concludes:

Mark’s hermeneutical directive, however uncongenial for modernist interpreters accustomed to seek a single clear and explicit “original sense” in texts, is in fact precisely attuned to the way that figurative language actually works….Metaphors do not deal in direct statement; rather, they intensify the meaning precisely by concealing it, by speaking in an indirect mode and saying something other than what is meant. (30)

As Hays notes in passing the indirect and allusive use of OT Scripture fits with the “messianic secret” of Mark.

Brevard Childs rightly asks why Mark should have continued to recount the pre-resurrection tradition in which Christ’s true identity was hidden at a time in which the secret had been revealed. He argues the form of Mark’s presentation makes it clear that the avenue which the first hearers had gone through to understand the resurrected Christ was one of initial hiddenness.

According to Mark, the relation between the hidden and revealed savior is not simply chronological, but ontological. The two forms of revelation are inextricably bound together. The shape of Mark’s Gospel thus establishes an analogy between the first generation of disciples who experienced Christ in his hidden revelation and every successive generation of hearers which confronts a similar challenge. (Childs, 85)

In other words the allusive and indirect use of Scripture recreates the experience of not having everything spelled out, but one where you stumble towards the answer and finally see the light.

In some sense then, is the entire Gospel of Mark a masal–intended to both reveal and conceal the true meaning.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

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