Speaker Notes: St Marks Gospel Session 2

St Marks Gospel - Speaker Notes, Session 2, 6th December 2017



1 Princess Elizabeth way, Cheltenham GL51 7RA

Professor Hazel Bryan and Professor Philip Esler
(The University of Gloucestershire)

7.00 pm on Wednesday 29th November and 6th, 13th and 20th December 2017.


Brief follow-up on last week:

Last week we had rich insights from the group on how we understand Christian hope. St Anselm famously defined theology as ‘faith seeking understanding.’ So, theologically speaking, we have Juergen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope (London: SCM, 1964). He argues that hope is not just about looking forward to some future utopia. Rather, Moltmann fixes upon eschatology, the understanding of ultimate things. Moltmann rejects the idea that eschatology only has a role at the end of the theology textbooks under the title ‘Last Things.’ Instead, he makes eschatology central to all Christian theology. ‘…eschatology means the doctrine of Christian hope… Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.’ (p. 16):

Christian eschatology does not speak of the future as such. It sets out from a definite reality in history and announces the future of that reality, its future possibilities and its power over the future. Christian eschatology speaks of Jesus Christ and his future. It recognizes the reality of the raising of Jesus and proclaims the future of the risen Lord. Hence the question whether all statements about the future are grounded in the person and history of Jesus Christ provides it with the touchstone by which to distinguish the spirit of eschatology from that of utopia. (p. 17)



Last week we noted the first two verses after the Prologue (which are Mark 1:1-13):

[14] Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the good news (euangelion) of God,
[15] and saying, ‘The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God (basileia tou Theou) is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news (euangelion).’

V. 15 is critical as it is a summary of the good news preaching of Jesus. It has four elements:

A. The fulfilment of a period of time.
B. the kingdom of God is near.
C. The need for repentance.
D. Belief in the good news.

Tonight we will be focusing on the kingdom of God dimension to this message, but without forgetting the other three, which we will touch upon tonight or return to later in the series.

We should note first that the expression ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is only used by Matthew, and on numerous occasions, never by Mark or Luke (on a few occasions, however, Matthew does say ‘kingdom of God’). The expression ‘the kingdom of God’ does not appear in the Old Testament, although the notion that God was a king with kingly power is very common. Many of the Psalms celebrate the kingship of God (‘the Lord reigns’) and God’s lordship over creation and look forward to all creation confession that God is king.

Also note that the Lord’s Prayer, with its strong link to coming kingdom, is not found in Mark, but in Matthew and Luke (it is a Q passage). Note, however, that there does seem to be an allusion to this prayer in Mark 11:25:

‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’

When you are trying to work out what an expression like ‘kingdom of God’ means in a Gospel, standard scholarly procedure is to look at every instance of it so as to build up a complete picture. The expression ‘the Kingdom of God’ (basileia tou Theou) occurs fourteen times in Mark’s Gospel:

1:15 (as above)

4:11 And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables.’

4:26 And he said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground …. (this is the beginning of the parable of the germination and growth of seed)

4:30 And he said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it?’

9:1 And he said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’

9:47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell.

10:14 But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.’

10:15 ‘Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’

10:23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’

10:24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!’

10:25 ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’

12:34 And when Jesus saw that he (sc. a scribe) answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to ask him any question.

14:25 ‘Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’

15:43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus.

On one other occasion there is a reference to a future kingdom. This is what is said on Palm Sunday (11:9-10):

[9] And those who went before and those who followed cried out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
[10] Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!’

This is probably not the kingdom of God that Jesus has in mind (although he does not correct the crowd); it seems to reflect popular expectation of the sort we saw in Psalm of Solomon 17 last week:

4. You, Lord, chose David as king over Israel,
and you swore to him concerning his seed forever,
That his kingdom would not fail before you.

But clearly this did not exhaust the Judeans’ expectation of the kingdom in Mark’s eyes because, as just seen, Joseph of Arimathea was also looking for the Kingdom of God.

From the fourteen instances of kingdom of God, we can draw some preliminary views:

A. It is something that is hard to describe and to understand: one needs parables to do this.
B. The kingdom is a reality one will be able to ‘enter’; it appears to have a spatial dimension.
C. It will be a scene of feasting and joy.
D. It has a temporal dimension: it will be here soon.
E. It will come with power, and in the lifetime of some of Jesus’ audience.

Basileia can be understood as kingdom in two senses. It certainly can have the territorial sense of ‘kingdom’ or ‘realm’. But it can also mean ‘kingly rule’ or ‘reign.’ In fact this is a better translation of the Aramaic underlying the word basileia, which is malkuth. The malkuth of God is equivalent to ‘God reigns as king.’ It is a very verbal expression.

It appears that among first century Judeans/Jews there was regular prayer for the coming divine kingdom. It is likely that regular prayer in first century AD synagogues was the Kaddish:

Magnified and sanctified be his great name in the world which he hath created according to his will. May he establish his kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, even speedily and at a near time. (ET in Boring 2006: 52).

It is tempting to think that Jesus himself reworked this prayer, which does not refer to
God as a father, into the Our Father.

How are we to understand what Mark and the Marcan Jesus meant by the ‘kingdom of God.’ Here are some possibilities (see W. R. Telford, Mark. New Testament Guides. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995, pp. 131-134):

A. Jesus was an eschatological prophet who expected the kingdom to come as a future, imminent and apocalyptic event, that is, a dramatic irruption of God into the world and its major transformation (see Mark 9:1). This is thoroughgoing or futurist eschatology (Albert Schweitzer). It seems pretty solid for Mark in view of 9:1. This view also seems more in accord with Psalm of Solomon 17.

B. Jesus departed from the eschatological view of his contemporaries in that he saw the kingdom as ‘an order beyond space and time’ (C. H. Dodd). The sayings, like Mark 9:1, are the product of the ‘rejudaization’ of the early Christian message. This is called ‘realised eschatology.’ Telford sees signs of this in 9:47; 10:23-25; 11:10; 14:25 and 15:43, but these are not very compelling evidence.

C. A third, mediating position, states that both future and present statements originate with Jesus. He was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed that the kingdom of God had been inaugurated in his ministry and person but also looked for its consummation in the future (Joachim Jeremias). This is inaugurated eschatology.

Telford concludes that it is difficult precisely to pin down what Mark meant by kingdom of God, but it is bound up with Jesus’ proclamation and presence, it is hidden from those who fail to recognise him as the Son of God, it demands an ethical response now and that, while it is developing in secret, it is moving towards a future consummation.


To base our consideration of the kingdom of God in Mark it will be useful to consider one passage in detail. This Mark 4:1-20, which contains the parable of the sower itself (4:1-9), the statement of Jesus on the purpose of the parables (4:101-12) and the interpretation of the parable (4:13-20).

[At this point, Mark 4:1-9 to be read in class]

At its most general level a parable is a short narrative comparing one thing to another. In this sense, it is an extended metaphor. Successful parables are told in terms which people readily understand and remember.

Until the late nineteenth centuries parables were usually regarded as allegories, where every detail of the story stood for something else in the real world and they had to be decoded term by term. This changed with the inception of modern parables’ research in a book published by Adolf Jülicher in 1886 entitled The Parables of Jesus. He broke with a long history of Christian interpretation of parables in terms of allegory and insisted that they should be taken at face value as Jesus had uttered them, with there only being one point made in each parable. This was his ‘single point of comparison’ idea.

For brilliant work on the parables from this perspective, see C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (James Nisbet and Company, 1935; revised edition 1961) and Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (German original 1954; 1962, reprinted 1972, ET of 6th edition by SCM, London).

From a Jülicher point of view, the single point is the amazing fertility of the Kingdom.
But Jülicher has been challenged:

(i) Craig Blomberg argues that some of the parables do have allegorical elements and this went back to Jesus and that first century audiences were accustomed to allegory (see Paul in Gal 4:24-25: ‘Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children’.)

Note that even in the New Testament period people were trying to allegorise the parables – see Mark 4:10-12 (and Matt 13:10-15).

(To consider this approach, let us consider the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-9; Matt 13:3-9).

[1] Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.
[2] And he taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:
[3] "Listen! A sower went out to sow.
[4] And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.
[5] Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil;
[6] and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root it withered away.
[7] Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
[8] And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold."
[9] And he said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Note the following:

(A) Parables seem to have begun with Jesus; there are no parables recorded in Jewish rabbinic literature from before the time of Jesus.

(B) It is possible that the sower is following a Palestinian practice and sowing land before it has been ploughed. That is why some of his seed fell on the path. But this is not essential; sometimes ploughing did precede sowing. If a farmer ploughed over a path with grain on it, would not the villagers make the path again by use? We are left wondering whether the sowing of grain on the path, rocky ground and amidst the thorns was accidental or intentional. Probably it was accidental: why would a sower sow among thorns?

A Scottish farmer once told me that in a previous time when Scottish farmers broadcast grain by hand onto the earth they had this saying: ‘One for the sparrow, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.’ So they only expected a return on one quarter of their seed.

(C) But there the seed that fell into good soil was productive. Since an average yield in Palestine was seven and a half times the seed sown and a good yield was ten times, to have a yield that is thirty, sixty or a hundred times the seed sown represents miraculous fertility (Jeremias 1972: 150). In short, it ‘symbolizes the eschatological overflowing of the divine fullness, surpassing all human measure’ (Jeremias 1972: 150). So what is the point of the parable? It is directly related to the in-bursting Kingdom of God. In short:

To human eyes much of the labour seems futile and fruitless, resulting apparently in repeated failure, but Jesus is full of joyful confidence: he knows that God has made a beginning, bringing with it a harvest of reward beyond all asking or conceiving. In spite of every failure and opposition, from hopeless beginnings, God brings forth the triumphant end he had promised. (Jeremias 1972: 150)

So, a stunning piece of teaching and almost certainly from the historical Jesus.

But now look like what comes next:

[10] And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables.
[11] And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables;
[12] so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven."

This is one of the most discussed and difficult passages in the New Testament. First, it seems the close disciples did not understand the point Jesus had been making in his parables, including the Parable of the Sower. This will soon be confirmed. Secondly, it seems Jesus is deliberately hiding his meaning from outsiders. The quotation in v. 12 is loosely from Isa 6:9-10. Perhaps Mark 4:11-12 are based on an attempt to explain why the Jews did not convert (a bit like Romans 9-11) when they heard the Gospel. This saying of Jesus makes it part of the divine plan, but it is very harsh.

And now for the continuation:

[13] And he said to them, "Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?
[14] The sower sows the word.
[15] And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them.
[16] And these in like manner are the ones sown upon rocky ground, who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy;
[17] and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.
[18] And others are the ones sown among thorns; they are those who hear the word,
[19] but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
[20] But those that were sown upon the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold."

First of all, what we have here is very clearly an allegorical interpretation of the Parable of the Sower, a decoding of the narrative, detail by detail. It is also offering a meaning different to what appears to be the original meaning of Jesus: to say something about the miraculous and unexpected fruitfulness of the Kingdom. Now we are asked to say it relates to four specific groups of people.

Note also that this interpretation presupposes the message of Jesus has already being around for quite a while. This is particularly true of the second and third groups. We need time for them to hear the good news, accept it but then give it up. The second group do so in the face of tribulation (thlipsis) or oppression (diogmos). The followers of Jesus did not experience any such thing in his lifetime. This seems to involve looking forward to what he had predicted would happen after his death: Mark 13:9-13 (also cf. Mark 10:29-30). The third group eventually find the cares and allurements of the world choking their commitment to the Gospel. Again, this would have taken time to happen, beyond the lifetime of Jesus.

Note what Dodd (pp. 14-15) says about Mark 4:11-20:

Now this whole passage is strikingly unlike in language and in style to the majority of the sayings of Jesus. Its vocabulary includes (within its short space) seven words which are not proper to the rest of the Synoptic record (PFE: musterion; hoi exo; proskairos; apate; these are not found in the Synoptics and epithumia and diogmos and thlipsis are rare). All seven are characteristic of the vocabulary of Paul, and most of them also occur in the other apostolic writers. These facts create at once a presumption that we have here not a primitive tradition of the words of Jesus, but a piece of apostolic preaching.

Mysterion is the most awkward for historical Jesus, who never elsewhere uses this word. It betokens considerable theological reflection after the event.

So, a possible view: the historical Jesus told the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:3-8. Its original meaning concerned the Kingdom of God, that it was growing and that it would produce miraculous fertility. Early Christ-followers failed to understand this meaning and re-interpreted it after the death of Jesus and in the light of considerable experience (of decades perhaps) in an allegorical way to allow it to make sense to them in their changed circumstances, especially in relation to people who had been persecuted for the Gospel and then gave it up and for those whose initial enthusiasm was suppressed by worldly cares and desires. On this view we have in Mark 4:1-20 a precious reflection of the both the original preaching of Jesus in this particular parable and also how the church strove to keep this parable available after his death and resurrection when times had changed. Mark 4:10-12 is an attempt to come to terms with the failure of many to accept the Gospel, Jews above all perhaps, by attributing their refusal to God’s plan.


Final note (see J. R. Donahue and D. J. Harrington, I [Sacra Pagina Series], 2002: 72):

The recovery of Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God was one of the great achievements of theology in the twentieth century. And along with it comes the recognition that this vision demands a response that involves not only a change of attitude (‘place your faith in the good news’) but also a change of heart (‘repent’). Above all it demands hope: the confidence that God is for us, the trust the God cares for us and guides our lives, and the conviction that God wants use to share eternal life with the risen Christ in the fullness of God’s kingdom.