Wednesday, June 23, 2010

291: Why Was That?

Mark 8-9
"Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, 'Why couldn't we drive it out?' He replied, 'Because you have so little faith...' " - Matthew 17:19-20

"After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, 'Why couldn't we drive it out?' He replied, 'This kind can come out only by prayer.' " - Mark 9:28-29

Mark 8 starts out with the feeding of the four thousand. Again, like the other 3 times we've heard about this kind of miracle, the description of how Jesus actually accomplishes this is completely lacking. If his other miracles are any indication of how he performs this miracle, then he probably had to spit in the food and shout random words to the heavens.

Next we hear about Jesus telling his disciples to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees. This time, instead of Jesus eventually explaining this parable like he did in Matthew, he decides to leave his disciples in the dark. Don't get me wrong, he still calls them faithless idiots. But he just chooses to leave them that way instead of trying to educate him.

Then we get to hear the details about Jesus healing a blind man. This time he spits in the man's eyes. When Jesus asks the man if he sees anything he says that he sees people, and they look like trees walking around. What? First of all, they're alone, so he shouldn't be seeing anyone walking around. Second, you're probably still blind if you think people look like trees. Jesus has to put his hands on the man one more time for his sight to be completely restored. Did Jesus just fail? I thought Jesus had to just think about healing someone and they were immediately healed. Now he has to spit on people, and shout incantations, and he still fails the first time? Maybe he's losing his touch.

The chapter ends with Jesus predicting his death.

Chapter 9 is a mix of extreme (almost to the word) accuracy (the transfiguration) and shocking inaccuracy (healing of a boy).

First of all, we hear a lot more about how Jesus gets the demon out of the boy. Jesus again has to shout at the demon (as opposed to his usual nonchalant healing abilities). At the end of this exorcism the boy's father thinks he's dead. That part is not necessarily the contradictory part, but when Jesus's disciples ask him why they couldn't heal the boy, he gives them a completely different answer. If you'll recall, in Matthew Jesus said that it was because the disciples had so little faith. In Mark, however, he replies, "This kind can come out only by prayer." Not only is this a completely different answer (I see no way in which those two answers have the same meaning) but Jesus never actually prayed! Jesus shouted for the demon to come out. At no time during that exorcism did he pray.

What happened to the bible having no contradictions? We have two very clear contradictions in this one sentence.

There is one paragraph toward the end of Mark 9 that I don't recall from Matthew. Jesus's disciples come to him and say that they stopped a man from casting out a demon in Jesus's name. Jesus says that they should not stop people from doing things in his name. Because, Jesus says, if anyone does anything in his name they will not lose their reward (I presume this means going to heaven). Why wouldn't Matthew have included this? Oh, that's right, because he says the exact opposite:
Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' [Matthew 7:21-23]
Either Jesus's disciples are wildly misquoting him, or Jesus is a walking contradiction. Either way, biblical inerrancy is not looking good.

According to a recent AP poll, 41% of Americans expect Jesus's return within the next 50 years.
The 41 percent who believe in Jesus’s imminent return are the adherents to a fundamentalist kind of Christianity – a literal interpretation of the Bible. Everyone else is either a moderate or liberal Christian who doesn’t believe the Bible should be read literally, or are otherwise folks in other religions who have no reason to believe Jesus is God’s Son sent down to Earth as a sacrifice for our sins.
Whoa, slow down. First of all, nowhere in the bible does it say that Jesus will return between 2010 and 2050. Second, a literal interpretation of some verses (namely Matthew 24:34) would lead me to believe that Jesus (and the end of the world) was supposed to have already come. But at the same time, the observation holds that it's mostly fundamentalists who expect the imminent return of Jesus (this was actually a part of the poll). Why?

I'm sure there is some verse that I haven't read yet that says Jesus will return sometime in the future. But isn't that turning a blind eye to the verses that say he should have already come? Not to mention that there is no reason to expect Jesus's imminent return. If he hasn't come in 2000 years, why would he come now? There have been much more precarious times for Christianity than the present, and Jesus hasn't returned. Maybe it's just "wishful thinking"?

The survey also mentions that if you don't have a college education, you're three times as likely to believe that Jesus's return is imminent. Maybe I've confused "wishful thinking" with "not thinking".


  1. Bryan,
    It's nice to see you paying more attention to the differences between the Gospels, instead of just skimming over Mark since it seems to be a rehash of Matthew (maybe the CliffsNotes?).

    Mark 8:4: "But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?" Weren't the disciples paying attention when Jesus fed the 5,000 earlier?

    There have been several theories put forth as to why Mark included 2 virtually identical miraculous feeding stories in his Gospel. One is that he had 2 slightly different accounts of this from 2 different sources, and not being able to tell whether they were the same story or not, or not being able to tell whether one was more correct than the other, decided to include both. Another theory is that Mark intentionally included the second story to show how dense the disciples were (a common theme of his, for some reason), as one can see in Mark 8:14-21. In any case, both stories are based on Elisha's feeding in 2 Kings 4:42-44 (which even includes the line "For this is what the LORD says: 'They will eat and have some left over.'").

    Mark 8:11-13 vs. Matt 16:1,4. Note that Matthew added the bit about Jonah, because he realized how odd it would be to have Jesus say no sign will be given to this generation, when the whole point of the Gospel is that his resurrection is a sign of God's purpose.

    Mark 8:17-18. Unlike in Matthew, here Jesus doesn't accuse the disciples of being faithless (idiots, yes, but not faithless). Rather he says that their "hearts were hardened" (like the Pharaoh?).

    Mark 8:19-21. It's hard to shake the feeling that there was originally some sort of numerological significance in the numbers of loaves, people, and baskets of retrieved food in Mark's Gospel, but whatever it was, even Matthew had no clue so he dropped it.

    Mark 8:22-25. Again, Jesus using magic tricks to heal. Only this time, he even fails on the first attempt. Is it any wonder the Matthew and Luke dropped this story, too?

    (Bryan, maybe those tree-like people he saw walking around were the disciples.)

    I wonder where the blind man's home was, if not in the village where Jesus found him. How far could a blind man travel from his home anyway? (The alternative wording found in some manuscripts, "Don't go and tell anyone in the village," makes more sense in this context, and also is in line with Jesus' ubiquitous secretiveness in Mark's Gospel. But if he had gone back to the village, even if he didn't say anything, someone was bound to notice that this formerly blind man could now see, so maybe that's why some scribe changed it.)

    Mark 8:27-30 (vs. Matt 16:13-20). First note that, as with the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, some people thought that Jesus was Elijah, one of the prophets (such as Jeremiah, according to Matthew), or even more incredibly, John himself! More evidence that John and Jesus really weren't contemporary with each other, or perhaps that Jesus and John were really the same person, with the story of Jesus developing out of older ones about John.

    Note also that Jesus does not acknowledge whether or not Peter's theory of him being the Christ is true (unlike in Matthew, where he as grafted on an endorsement of apostolic succession from a much later time period). Evidence in Mark that Jesus actually claims to be the Messiah is weak.

  2. I'm going to play a little fast and loose here with some ideas, but bear with me.

    To the ancients, myth, history and tradition were all kind of tied together and could all be taken as 'knowledge'. We don't think this way any more. We've had time to separate these ideas and cut them into understandable morsels.
    Same goes for prayer, ritual and thinking. To the ancients, people were wise if they seemed to have their prayers down pat, their rituals perfect by rote, and their problem-solving methods surprisingly effective (examples: past prophets like Elijah or whatever). But once again, we separate these things now. Our understanding changes.

    So the messages of the stories of the two passages (from Matthew and Mark) are a lot like your last line in this post -- Jesus (the character in the narrative) could very well have been saying, "Look guys, you're confusing 'wishful thinking' with 'not thinking', and really neither will do you any good here."

    Nothing supernatural here other than a few storytellers' usual exaggerations and personal motivations and limited knowledge. Nothing more than literary devices being used to justify the convictions or agendas of the Christian community of the time.

    Meh? You're beginning and end bookends in this post were a nice touch and so I wanted to expand on them...

  3. "First of all, nowhere in the bible does it say that Jesus will return between 2010 and 2050."
    Try 2060. I thought computer geeks were supposed to be good at math.

    "I'm sure there is some verse that I haven't read yet that says Jesus will return sometime in the future."
    Not really. It is said that he will come when you least expect it, and it is also said that there must be enough time for gospel to be preached to all nations (which surely has happened by now), but it is never stated that this wasn't going to occur by, say, the end of the 2nd century.

  4. What if Jesus' referral to his second coming simply refers to his resurrection three days after crucifixion? If that's the case, it could explain why Matthew chose to add the bit about the saints coming out of their graves; perhaps he was trying to reconcile the prophecies of the second coming by saying that it already happened.



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