by Marcus Paul Bach Felde (March / April 2000 — Volume 16, Number 2)
The Jesus of Mark's Gospel is shaped after the early David, says the author. And the dramatic victory that Jesus wins, as he ascends the throne, is a victory over evil powers
When I read the Gospel of Mark these days, Jesus reminds me of someone else. The longer I stare, the more I become convinced that this "someone" is the main figure the author intended for us to be reminded of.
Early David. Anointed but not yet crowned. Not King David, but David Becoming King.
If this is true, then perhaps the whole gospel is supposed to remind us of that other story of a disturber becoming king. Perhaps this is a genre? Campaign History? Anabasis? Succession narrative? Accession narrative? "The Making of the President?"
This story is ironic, of course. A recruiter who runs from his followers. Nonviolent fighting. Winning by losing. "Jesus has slain his two thousands." Guess what! Pigs! (But, oh, the authority he oozes. And very popular?) Mark inverts the 1 Samuel 8 story. Instead of the crown coming down to earth to settle on Saul, the crown goes up, restored to God.
Could we have something here?
Narrative criticism has made a strong case for the importance of identifying the genre of the Gospel of Mark, but has not yet succeeded in doing so. Once we know the genre of a book, we can get the author's point. Both similarities to and differences from earlier writings in the genre will enlighten us.
However, recent books on the Gospel of Mark either leave the question undecided,1 tell us it is a "new sort" of work,2 or offer a vague category.3 We are left helpless before the main question of narrative criticism, the first question of any hearer. Partly for this reason it is said that "[i]n spite of illuminating and ingenious attempts to discover the one theme which provides the unity of meaning for the structure of Mark, none has been found."4
I guess one more attempt won't hurt anybody. If it should prove incorrect, we will be in good company!
Mark and Samuel
Perhaps the answer to the question of genre and even the solution to the riddle of the "one theme" may be found by comparing the Gospel of Mark to the story in 1-2 Samuel of David's ascent to the throne of Israel.
Let us say that Mark belongs to the same subspecies of history. The Gospel of Mark is, like succession narratives, an account of a rise to power. Let us say further that within its genre Mark is distinctive because of the ironically irenic nature of its protagonist, and because Jesus installs not himself but God on the throne. Mark is an ironic accession narrative.
If this judgment on the book is correct, it could shed light on the peculiarities of the book. Why is so much time given to the so-called "passion narrative?" Why is the ending so abrupt? Why is the pace of the book so hard-charging? What about the secrecy motif?
However, first we must give some reason for lumping the Gospel of Mark with histories of takeovers.
Should this be so difficult? After all, Jesus announces at his first appearance that "the kingdom of God has come near." Since Mark is saturated with references and allusions to the Old Testament, should not a phrase that contains the words "king" and "God" remind us of 1 Samuel 8, the controversy over whether Israel should even have a king? "[T]hey have rejected me," God said, "from being king over them" (1 Sam 8:7). The history of Israel from that point is the story of the succession and rule of kings. The archetype, of course, is David.
In Mark, someone shows up and announces that God will be king again. This person gets anointed, and the Spirit descends on him. He spends time in the provinces gaining a reputation and gathering a following. He is challenged, then persecuted.
When he is good and ready, he "marches" on the capital city, where there is a climactic last struggle. He seems at one point to have lost, but in the end walks away unhurt. In doing so, he establishes that the lords of the earth are less than they purport to be, and that what he had already told his disciples about God's rule must be so.
We would be saying nothing new if we were only repeating that Mark says Jesus is the Messiah, or even that Messianic expectations were informed by the community's memory of David's monarchy and dynasty. What we are suggesting is more specific than that. Like young David, Jesus is anointed precisely to displace divinely rejected authority. He attracts a following among the outcasts. He is hated by authority. God succeeds in making a king out of him, anyway.
However, unlike David, Jesus comes to reassert not his own personal authority but God's authority. The Gospel of Mark is "good news" because it announces Jesus' success in accomplishing what he set out to do.
A curious accident first led me to consider a more aggressive reading of the Gospel of Mark. On a long trip, the tape player in my dashboard broke. It started playing every tape twice as fast as normal. I happened to be listening to a tape of the Gospel of Mark. Listening to it very fast gave me, in effect, an aural "snapshot" of the gospel. Because the reader was using a different tone of voice for Jesus' own words, I got a quick overview (overhear?) of what he says and how he says it.
The impression was novel. Jesus sounded impatient, taxed, urgent. Familiar sayings took on fresh color, heard at this frenzied rate. The gospel seemed more together; Jesus seemed to have one driving purpose, as the tape raced to the end.
Soon after, I found myself teaching Mark in adult Sunday School from a book in the Augsburg Adult Bible Studies series. The title, The Gospel of Action,5 made me yawn. So what if the Gospel is "action-packed?" Aside from establishing Mark's enthusiasm for Jesus, or Jesus' enthusiasm for his work, does the action point in some specific direction?
Week by week, I strayed from the study guide to explore the possibility that the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark is supposed to remind the author's audience of David. Not King David. David from the time he was chosen up to the time he became king. During the time he was destined and anointed to be king, but not ascendant. The parallels seemed striking to me.
(It would be possible to separate these two ideas:  that the Gospel of Mark is history — an ironic accession narrative, or something of that ilk; and  that Jesus is intended to remind us strongly of the Early David. For the sake of brevity, and because the two ideas mix rather nicely, I am mixing together the evidence, large and small.)
Assent to Power
The general outline and proportions of the gospel fit with those we would expect of a historical account of a rise to power. A period during which the hero is identified, is anointed, attracts followers, and meets challenges is followed by a final contest for power, in the capital city. (Note: It is then not a passion narrative with an extended introduction.)
Why is the book packed with action? To make it sound like other works of this sort. Deposing authorities and taking a throne are not the mild actions of a guru. This is a "warrior." He commands authority by the way he talks and the way he acts. Sudden movements are typical.
Why the secrecy? David has to hide from the moment the authorities see him as a contender for the throne. After "his fame became very great" (1 Sam. 18:30), his career is filled with fleeing and escaping.
The truth about Jesus' identity as the Messiah is also going to come out in a big way, when the time is ripe. In the first part of the book, attempts to conceal who he is contribute to an atmosphere of conspiracy.
|Reading Mark like this puts the "umph" back in the triumph of Jesus, thus supporting Gustaf Aulén's view that the classical theory of atonement is the dramatic one, not the subjective or objective one.|
The first thing we hear about David, even before we hear his name, is that he is anointed; "and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward." (1 Sam. 16:13). It will be 16 chapters before David becomes king (2 Samuel 2:4). Jesus' story likewise begins with his baptism and John's identification of him.
Jesus is characterized as uniquely powerful and authoritative. Mark presents him, I believe, as being like a king whose teachings are precepts, not as a teacher who acts regal. "What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him" (1:27).
The parable which Mary Ann Tolbert believes articulates Jesus' identity is one that casts him as "heir": Mark 12:1-12, "The Vineyard and the Tenants." We would dispute her claim, however, that this parable "is not intended to illuminate the whole action as is the parable of the Sower but only the particular working out of the recognition sequence."6 Her illuminating reading of the gospel could be even stronger if she allowed that the second half of the gospel contains its real message.
Like David, Jesus attracts followers and moves about with them. "Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him, and he became captain over them" (1 Samuel 22:2). Again, there are similarities and there are differences. But in the light of David's story, one wonders whether the original audience of Mark did not imagine an army when they heard stories of 5,000 followers, particularly when they are told to "sit in groups of hundreds and of fifties" (Mark 6:40).
Jesus also attracts opposition. Satan is the strong man who must be bound first, before Jesus can plunder his house. He is the enemy in the true sense, who must be thrown off the world's throne. But there are also rivals who oppose what Jesus is doing: the scribes and pharisees. All the while, lines (as of battle) are drawn between those who are "for us" and those who are "against us."
David is rueful about the opposition. David to Saul: "Why does my lord pursue his servant?" (I Samuel 26:18). Jesus to the soldiers: "Have you come out against me with swords and spears as though I were a bandit?" (Mark 14:48-49).
Jesus is called "mad" (Mark 3:21); David feigns madness (1 Sam 21:13). And perhaps credulous readers will see a hint of a parallel in David's taking Jerusalem "up the water shaft" (2 Sam 5:8) and Jesus' sending his followers to follow "a man carrying a jar of water" (Mark 14:13). (We wouldn't dare go so far.)
There are two passages in Mark (here we must recite the obvious) in which Jesus plainly identifies himself with David. In 2:23-28, Jesus identifies himself and his disciples with David and his followers. "Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?"
In 12:35-37 he discusses the Messiah's relationship with David, clearly talking about himself: "'David calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?' And the large crowd was listening to him with delight." Jesus is also hailed as "Son of David" in 10:47-48 and 11:10. In every case, the identification seems to be an important part of the story.
Howard Kee points to strong evidence, especially from 4 Ezra, that the term "Son of Man" might have been heard as a reference to the Davidic Messiah.7 In an interesting discussion to which he seems to give less weight than I believe he should, he says that "David as symbol of the eschatological reign of God functioned in a wide range of ways, some of which correspond to the figure of David in Mark and others contrast sharply with it."
For example: "Actually the ground for portraying David as the one who brings light to the nations and who opens the eyes of the blind is laid in the oracles of Isaiah of Jerusalem.8
In Jesus' condemnations of the Jewish leaders there is a parallel to Samuel's rebuke of King Saul: "Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king" (I Sam. 15:22-23).
We should not think of the last chapters as containing a "passion" narrative, since this defines the passage exclusively in terms of what Jesus suffers. Rather, it is a struggle, a contest in which Jesus is active but not violent. Besides, calling this a passion narrative artificially separates chapter 16, which belongs to what goes before and, as its ending, defines it.
Note that at the very climax of the Jerusalem contest, the issue is whether Jesus is "king."
Betrayal and its opposite, faithfulness, figure prominently in the story of David, and in the Gospel of Mark.
There is a covenant meal in Early David's story, 2 Samuel 3:20. Abner and his men share a feast at which David is host, and this feast seals their covenant with him. They will give him the throne of Israel. They even seek to have another meal to which even more of Israel will be invited, "that you [David] may reign over all that your heart desires."
The "short ending" works this way. Jesus walks away from the last battle undefeated, turning his back on Jerusalem. Because it is God who will actually retake the vineyard, Jesus is not to be seen. The author only establishes that he walked away, "as he told you," with his life, his identity, his authority, and his will intact.9
In its plot, its tone, and its characterization of Jesus, Mark should be read like a story about a marked man becoming king. In its differences from a conventional succession narratives, the author reveals various features of Jesus' kingdom: (1) it is not really his, but God's; (2) it doesn't have a capital; (3) it doesn't have geographical boundaries because it is unbounded; (4) it binds people by their hearts; (5) its ideal is service not exploitation.
Reading Mark like this puts the umph back in the triumph of Jesus, thus supporting Gustaf Aulén's view that the classical theory of atonement is the dramatic one, not the subjective or objective one.
In Christus Victor Aulén finds only a scrap of synoptic evidence for his theory that the most ancient understanding of the atonement was as a divine conflict and victory: "Christ — Christus Victor — fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world, the 'tyrants' under which mankind is in bondage and suffering, and in Him God reconciles the world to himself."10
That is what the whole Gospel of Mark is about. A fight Jesus wins.
Marcus Paul Bach Felde is pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Olean, Indiana. He has been a missionary in Papua New Guinea for 14 years, and was dean of Martin Luther Seminary there from 1990-1996. His M.Div. and D.Min. are from Christ Seminary — Seminex, and his Ph.D. in theology is from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
1. David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of the Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), p. 3: "Whatever Mark intended ..."
2. Howard C. Kee, Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark's Gospel (London: SCM Press, 1977), p. 30: "[W]e must agree with the judgment of Amos Wilder: '[The gospel] is the only wholly new genre created by the Church and the author of Mark receives the credit for it.'"
3. Mary Ann Tolbert, in Sowing the Gospel: Mark's World in Literary-Historical Perspective (London: SCM Press, 1977), p. 70, classifies the gospels as Hellenistic popular literature.
4. Kee, 64.
5. Peter A. Sethre, The Gospel of Action (Mark), Augsburg Adult Bible Studies Vol. 31, No. 2 (Augsburg Fortress, 1998).
6. Tolbert, 239.
7. Kee, 130.
8. Kee, 125.
9. While I can't remember the name of the movie, I saw one (which happened to be set in Israel) in which about 15 minutes were devoted to the last battle between a certain rough-hewn Chicago cop and evil forces. The denouement consisted almost exclusively of a shot of him walking away from the camera as the dust settled. Then he boarded an airplane for home.
10. Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, tr. A. G. Hebert (New York: Macmillan, 1969), p. 4.