Sunday, July 11, 2021

From 'He' to 'They' ... then back again

Below is a rough translation of Mark 6:30-34 and 53-56, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 9thSunday after Pentecost. At the bottom is a reflection on what I believe is happening in the 6thchapter of Mark’s gospel. Your comments are welcomed and helpful. 

30 Καὶ συνάγονται οἱ ἀπόστολοι πρὸς τὸν Ἰησοῦν, καὶ ἀπήγγειλαν αὐτῷ 
πάντα ὅσα ἐποίησαν καὶ ὅσα ἐδίδαξαν. 
And the apostles are gathered to Jesus, and proclaimed to him all the things they did and which they taught. 
συνάγονται : PPI 3p, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather
ἀπήγγειλαν : AAI 3p, ἀπαγγέλλω, 1) to bring tidings (from a person or a thing), bring word, report  2) to proclaim, to make known openly, declare
ἐποίησαν : AAI 3p, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc.
ἐδίδαξαν: AAI 3p, διδάσκω, 1) to teach 
1. Today’s reading begins with the culmination of a story that began in verses 7-13, when Jesus sends the twelve out two by two. Almost every Bible subtitles this story a “mission,” although Mark does not. In between the beginning and this end of this story is the account of John the Baptist’s death (vv.14-29). I think it is not coincidental that as John the Baptist is laid in a tomb, the disciples are participating in the Reign of God so powerfully. That seems to be a Markan pattern that I read as a death-and-resurrection pattern. 
2. It is important to note that “doing” and “teaching” have been descriptions of Jesus’ ministry (e.g. the crowd’s astonishment in 6:2 is over Jesus’ wise teaching and his deeds of power) and was the purpose for which Jesus calls the twelve: “And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message,and to have authority to cast out demons (Mk. 3:14-15). While the twelve are present with Jesus throughout his ministry, this story is a rare moment when the twelve are actually participating in the doing and teaching that signify the Reign of God. 

31 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Δεῦτε ὑμεῖς αὐτοὶ κατ' ἰδίαν εἰς ἔρημον τόπον καὶ ἀναπαύσασθε ὀλίγον. ἦσαν γὰρ οἱ ἐρχόμενοι καὶ οἱ ὑπάγοντες πολλοί, καὶ 
οὐδὲ φαγεῖνεὐκαίρουν. 
And he says to them, “Come you yourselves by yourselves into a deserted place and be restored briefly.” For many were the comers and the goers, and they were finding no opportunity to eat.
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀναπαύσασθε : AMImpv 2p, ἀναπαύω, 1) to cause or permit one to cease from any movement or labor  in order to recover and collect his strength
ἦσαν : IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
φαγεῖν: AAInf ἐσθίω, 1) to eat
εὐκαίρουν: IAI 3p, εὐκαιρέω, 1) to have opportunity  2) to have leisure  3) to do something  4) to give one's time to a thing 
1. This notion also, of having to go away to a deserted place, is characteristic of Jesus’ need to escape the crowds and get restored. This is a great text to connect to the commandment to remember the Sabbath. 
2. The passive verb “be restored” (εὐκαίρουν) is often used in the LXX to describe Sabbath rest. In that sense, it is more than taking a nap, because it has a restorative quality to it. That is evident in this verse, because it would include eating. 
3. It should not go unnoticed how enormously popular Jesus is in these first few chapters of Mark. The disciples are participating in that part of Jesus’ ministry as well. 
4. “The comers and the goers” – I know that sounds awkward, but these are nouns and not verbs. The word “were” is the verb in that phrase. I’m reading “comers and goers” as the nominative predicates of the verb ‘to be.’ 

32 καὶ ἀπῆλθον ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ εἰς ἔρημον τόπον κατ' ἰδίαν. 
And they took off in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 
ἀπῆλθον : ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart

33 καὶ εἶδον αὐτοὺς ὑπάγονταςκαὶ ἐπέγνωσαν πολλοί, καὶ πεζῇ ἀπὸ πασῶν 
τῶν πόλεων συνέδραμον ἐκεῖ καὶ προῆλθον αὐτούς.
And many saw them departing and knew, and on foot all of the city dwellers ran together there and arrived before them. 
εἶδον: AAI 3p, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
ὑπάγοντας: PAPart apm, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under  2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart
ἐπέγνωσαν: AAI 3p, ἐπιγινώσκω, 1) to become thoroughly acquainted with, to know thoroughly 
συνέδραμον: AAI 3p, συντρέχω, 1) to run together  1a) of the gathering of a multitude
προῆλθον :  προέρχομαι, 1) to go forward, go on  2) to go before
1. “Many saw them departing” This too is characteristic of how the crowd often saw Jesus, only now they see “them.” 
2. “… and knew” This is kind of tricky. The Greek texts have either ἐπέγνωσαν or έγνωσαν, a slight difference. Both verbs typically mean ‘to know.’ The problem is that Mark does not supply an object for the verb, so we ask “know … what?” The KJV says “knew him”, YLT says “recognized him,” ESV, NIV, and NRSV say “recognized them.” 
3. Not to beat this drum silly, but vv.30-33 are repeatedly describing the twelve in ways that are characteristic of Jesus: Proclaiming, teaching, powerful over demons, needing restoration, traveling away by boat, and now being pursued by the paparazzi. Notice that Mark is using the plural pronoun “they” (either as a pronoun or implied in plural forms of the verbs), instead of the typical singular “he” to signify Jesus. In my mind, this is exactly what Jesus intended when he originally called the twelve and named them as Apostles. However, after this verse, the pronoun “they” disappears and “he” returns.  To me, that is the most significant element of this pericope. 

34 καὶ ἐξελθὼν εἶδεν πολὺν ὄχλον, καὶ ἐσπλαγχνίσθη ἐπ' αὐτοὺς ὅτι ἦσαν 
ὡς πρόβατα μὴ ἔχονταποιμένα, καὶ ἤρξατο διδάσκειν αὐτοὺς πολλά.
And having come he saw a large crowd, and was moved with compassion about them because they were as sheep having no shepherd, and he began to teach them many things. 
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
εἶδεν: AAI 3s, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes  2) to see with the mind, to perceive, know
ἐσπλαγχνίσθη: API 3s, σπλαγχνίζομαι, 1) to be moved as to one's bowels, hence to be moved with compassion, have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of  love and pity) 
ἦσαν : IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
ἔχοντα: PAPart npm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold
ἤρξατο: AMI 3s, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule
διδάσκειν: PAInf, διδάσκω, 1) to teach  1a) to hold discourse with others in order to instruct them,  deliver didactic discourses
1. The verb for “having compassion” (σπλαγχνίζομαι) is literally a very visceral word. Just saying it sounds almost like someone is vomiting or erupting: Splagitzomai. Is it an onomatopoeia? Have fun with it.
2. Now, instead of “they,” the focus is back on Jesus. What are we to make of that change? Perhaps the story of the feeding of the 5,000 and the story of Jesus walking on water will show us why Mark is changing the language. In the feeding story, Jesus tells the twelve, “You give them something to eat.” These folks, who just participated in the Reign of God with deeds of power and insight, respond with what appears to be a sarcastic question of whether they are supposed to go and buy enough bread for all these folk. Jesus then asks them what they have on hand, which is what he multiplies and gives them to distribute to the crowd. While an extensive exegesis of the feeding story will have to wait until another day, it seems to me that the focal shift from “they” to “he” is due, in part, to the fact that the twelve still do not quite grasp that the Reign of God is truly at hand and that they are both able and called to participate in it. In the feeding story, we’re back to Jesus doing the amazing stuff and the twelve (not “the Apostles,” significantly) participating on a much more limited scale. 
3. The story of Jesus walking on the water is a continuation of the feeding story and is even starker in describing the disciples as being “terrified,” “astounded” and still not getting it. 6:52 has this heartbreaking verdict: “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” It’s Mark who connects the story of the feeding and the fear of water-walker.
4. Their hearts were hardened! The same verdict is rendered against the disciples after the next feeding story of the 4,000 (see 8:17). How quickly “the Apostles” fell from teaching and doing, from needing restoration, from crossing the sea to escape the crowds, to failing to understand, to being terrified at the sight of Jesus, to ridiculing Jesus’ proposition that they feed the masses, to having callused hearts. The same dynamic takes place when Peter makes his confession, then quickly becomes “Satan.” It happens when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to pray in the garden and they fall asleep. It happens when they all forsake him and flee. 
Mark is relentless in demonstrating how the twelve failed their calling to understand and to participate in Jesus’ good news about the Reign of God. 

53 Καὶ διαπεράσαντες ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν ἦλθον εἰς Γεννησαρὲτ καὶ 
And having crossed over to the land they came into Gennesaret and were anchored.
διαπεράσαντες: AAPart npm, διαπεράω, 1) to pass over, cross over, i.e. a river, a lake
ἦλθον: AAI 3p, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons  1a1) to come from one place to another, and used both of  persons arriving and of those returning 
προσωρμίσθησαν: API 3p, προσορμίζω draw to the shore, to bring a ship to anchor at or near a place; to cast anchor, land at.
1. The verb “anchored” (προσωρμίσθησαν) is only used here in the whole NT, perhaps because they had just experienced every seaman’s worst nightmare – a storm at sea, the ultimate experience of chaos where everything is in flux and nothing is stable. 

54 καὶ ἐξελθόντωναὐτῶν ἐκ τοῦ πλοίου εὐθὺς ἐπιγνόντες αὐτὸν 
And when they had exited out of the boat immediately they knew him.
ἐξελθόντων: AAPart gpm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of  1a) with mention of the place out of which one goes, or the  point from which he departs
ἐπιγνόντες: AAPart npm, ἐπιγινώσκω, 1) to become thoroughly acquainted with, to know thoroughly  1a) to know accurately, know well 
1. While it was Jesus and the twelve who landed and anchored, the crowd now immediately knows … Jesus. This almost a parallel to v.33, except for the singular “him.” 

55 περιέδραμον ὅλην τὴν χώραν ἐκείνην καὶ ἤρξαντοἐπὶ τοῖς κραβάττοις 
τοὺς κακῶς ἔχοντας περιφέρειν ὅπου ἤκουον ὅτι ἐστίν. 
All that region ran around and began to carry by the mats those having illness where they were hearing that he was. 
περιέδραμον: AAI 3p, περιτρέχω, 1) to run around, run around about 
ἤρξαντο: AMI 3p, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule
ἔχοντας: PAPart apm, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
περιφέρειν: PAInf, περιφέρω, 1) to carry round, to bear about everywhere with one  
ἤκουον: IAI 3p, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
ἐστίν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 

56 καὶ ὅπου ἂνεἰσεπορεύετο εἰς κώμας  εἰς πόλεις  εἰς ἀγροὺς ἐν ταῖς 
ἀγοραῖς ἐτίθεσαν τοὺς ἀσθενοῦντας, καὶ παρεκάλουν αὐτὸν ἵνα κἂν τοῦ 
κρασπέδου τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ ἅψωνται: καὶ ὅσοι ἂν ἥψαντο αὐτοῦ ἐσῴζοντο.
And whenever he was entering up into a village which or into a field or into the market they were placing the enfeebled ones, and were summoning him so that even if they might touch the hem of his garment; and whoever touched was made whole by him/it.
εἰσεπορεύετο: IMI 3s, εἰσπορεύομαι, 1) to go into, enter 
ἐτίθεσαν: IAI 3p, τίθημι, 1) to set, put, place 
ἀσθενοῦντας: PAPart apm, ἀσθενέω, 1) to be weak, feeble, to be without strength, powerless
παρεκάλουν: IAI 3p, παρακαλέω, 1) to call to one's side, call for, summon
ἅψωνται: AMSubj 3p, ἅπτω, 1) to fasten to, adhere to  1a) to fasten fire to a thing, kindle, set of fire
ἥψαντο: AMI 3p, ἅπτω,v  \{hap'-to}
1) to fasten to, adhere to  1a) to fasten fire to a thing, kindle, set of fire
ἐσῴζοντο: IPI 3p, σῴζω, 1) to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction  1a) one (from injury or peril)  
1. Everything about vv.53-56 speaks to the ministry, popularity, and power of Jesus. I would argue that the twelve – having once been fulfilling their calling as apostles – have now lapsed back into ignorant and fearful followers. They are followers, one must give them that much credit. But, they are not participating in the way that they had been called and empowered to participate. They are now more ‘hangers on’ than ‘co-workers.’ I find that very significant and, as I have argued before, that seems to be Mark’s beef with the twelve. Even in the original ending of Mark (16:8), the twelve are not to stay in Jerusalem and set up church there. They are to go back to Galilee and continue this village-based ministry that Jesus began. Jesus only goes to Jerusalem to die, not to set up shop there. However, other witnesses (primarily Luke-Acts) describe the twelve as being based in Jerusalem following the resurrection, a direct violation of what Mark’s resurrection story says they should do. Perhaps that is why Mark ends his gospel, for better or worse, with no ending. 

A Retreating Glimpse of the Reign of God

Below is a brief description of what I understand to be the dynamic behind Mark’s sixth chapter, particularly as it is expressed through the pronouns that Mark uses. 

My perspective of the flow of Mark’s gospel has been influenced partly by Werner Kelber’s argument, in Mark’s Story of Jesus, that from Mark’s perspective, the disciples are depicted as having failed in their calling. At key is Jesus’ message to the disciples to meet him in Galilee and the curious abrupt original ending of Mark’s gospel in 16:8. If that ending actually ends the story, the disciples did not meet Jesus in Galilee after the resurrection. We are accustomed, of course, to Luke’s description of the disciples and their Spirit-empowered ministry that begins in Jerusalem and radiates out from there. But, that is Luke’s story, not Mark’s. 

I’m further influenced by Richard Horsley’s argument in Hearing the Whole Story, that Mark’s gospel shows Jesus’ ministry to be a Galilean-based ministry that is quite distinct from a Judean-based ministry and is grounded in a village-based Galilean piety that is different from the Jerusalem-based Judean piety. 

Finally, I have wrestled with a well-known concept in Markan studies, of the so-called “messianic secret” in Mark’s gospel. Here is an excerpt from my blog regarding Mark 6:1-13, the gospel reading from two weeks ago: 

The ‘messianic secret’ attempts to name a motif that certainly is central to Mark’s gospel – the repetitive ‘don’t say anything’ moments right where we don’t expect them.  For me, however, it is not so much a secret as a re-direction. By attempting over and over to make him ‘the Messiah,’ people were missing the point of his message, which was that the Reign of God was present and that they all were invited to participate in it. As long as they had the Messiah to embody the reign, they were missing the participation part. To ‘follow’ is less to point, observe, marvel, or coronate and more about joining along, taking up the message, and doing the deeds. My point is, I don’t think the “messianic secret” is a literary device by Mark, but a theological point, that Mark saw Jesus trying to re-direct his message away from himself and toward the participating followers. The message in Mark’s original ending, “Go to Galilee and there he will meet you” is a way of sending the followers back to this village-based activity-message.

Rather than “messianic secret,” I see these moments throughout Mark’s gospel as “participatory redirections.” When I put all of these perspectives together – and I dearly hope that I am not misrepresenting either Kelber or Horsley – I see Mark 6 as showing the best and worst of the disciples. 

The best moments are when the disciples are doing as Jesus does. When Jesus proclaims that the Reign of God is at hand, it is an invitation for others to turn around and to participate in it. When Jesus heals, exorcises demons, and even brings life from death, the point is not to show how magical Jesus was, but to demonstrate what it means to participate in the Reign of God here and now. The “participatory redirection” from a group of Jesus’ fans to a group of Jesus’ co-workers, from those marveling as Jesus does great things to those who are likewise participating in the Reign of God at hand, is realized when the twelve go out, vulnerable with regard to possessions but empowered, and do what Jesus has been doing. The “mission of the twelve” (Mark does not use the term ‘mission,’) is the story of disciples being participants. It shows how they cast out demons and heal and proclaim, and it concludes with the disciples needing Sabbath rest and restoration, needing to elude the crowd, not being fully able to do so – all of which are the precise way that Jesus’ ministry is described in the first five chapters of Mark. (It is all framed around the arrest and death of John the Baptizer. At his arrest, Jesus’ public ministry begins. The story of John’s death is sandwiched between the beginning and end of the story of the twelve in mission.) 

In verses 12-13, then 30-33 (interrupted by the story of Herod and John’s death), the pronouns are plural “they” pronouns. Every instance of “they” is an echo of something that has been said about Jesus prior to this story. During these best moments, the “ministry of Jesus” has become the ministry of the twelve. The hero has become the empowering model. 

However, the pronouns and the demeanor shift again, beginning in 6:34. Jesus invites the disciples to feed the crowd and they answer with incredulity. It is Jesus who goes alone to pray. The disciples do not recognize him as he walks on the water, mistaking him for a ghost. Even though Jesus had delivered the abundance of bread through the disciples’ own hands, they did not understand. Mark circles back to the bread story and the disciples’ lack of understanding what was happening there to explain why the disciples were frightened in the boat (16:52). Sadly, Mark says, “their hearts were hardened.” 

The disciples’ cardio sclerosis was not just a momentary fright. Mark 8:14-21 is a story of how Jesus is frustrated with the disciples because, after being instrumental in TWO feeding stories, they still do not understand. The glory of the mission, when the disciples were full participants in Jesus’ ministry, seems to be a receding vision in the rearview mirror, an exception to the rule of the disciples’ failure to embrace the present Reign of God. 


  1. I'm intrigued by the words in the last passage meaning touch or fasten, which have additional meanings of igniting or flame. When I read through that, I am reminded of the Holy Spirit coming down as tongues of flame and I perceive the healing grace of Jesus the Christ as a power similar to the appearance of the Spirit - as energy, perhaps, or a purifying flame.

  2. Kathryn, that's an excellent point. I, too, found the language very intriguing, although I ran out of time to dwell on it. Thanks for lifting it up and making the Pentecost connection.

  3. Thank you for this. It's a lot of work, but I love the "rawness" of it. Haven't got time to do this myself anymore and I really miss it. So thank you very much.

  4. Thanks, Roger. Just join in when you can, especially if there is something amiss.
    Thanks again,

  5. I appreciate the reminder of how the disciples "get it" and then actually "do it"...but then in the end actually don't get it, at all. It places them, and all of us, squarely on the side of the folks in need of a shepherd. Lest we forget. Thank you.

  6. Thanks, Kurt. It gives hope to me in my own failings, that for sure.

  7. This does come through as ministry in the church, then and now. At times we are juiced and charged, and at other times "tag a longs." At times we are willing to go to the Galilee, with its calling of life and ministry. Othertimes we gather with the others in Jerusalem, needing the Holy Spirit to drag us into the world. Thanks, Mark.

  8. Just thought; were the people as sheep without a shepherd because the shepherd they had known (John) had just been killed? Is this the point at which Jesus properly takes over from John? So the Kingdom of God is more emerging than bursting forth...

    1. Hi Ruth,
      That's as good of an explanation of that tender verse as any I've ever read. And your conclusion seems strong to me. Thanks.

  9. Wow! This is really helpful. The Messianic Secret has bugged me for a long time because I never thought it was--what I was told--if too many people knew Jesus could heal, then they'd be bugging him all the time and coming to him for healing and not for his teaching which is what he really wanted. I really think your approach and point is more accurate. And it reminds me of some of Harold Kushner's writings about the Messiah--that some of the Jewish faith--believe the Messiah has come in each of as as we do God's will and bidding. That certainly fits in with some things Jesus said and how when someone showed faith or obedience, he was say the Kingdom of God was near.
    Thanks so much.

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      Thanks for the note and especially for the Kushner reference. I had not made that connection with his writings, so that is very helpful.
      Thanks again,


If you want to leave a comment using only your name, please click the name/url option. I don't believe you have to sign in or anything like that by using that option. You may also use the 'anonymous' option if you want. Just be nice.

Blog Archive