Jesus of Nazareth’s public life and ministry were burdened with an absurd amount of conflict because of his incredible commitment to an ideological view of God and God’s place in a life wherein social, political, and religious aspects were inseparably fused. The final climax of this conflict - Jesus’ crucifixion - can be seen in all four canonical Gospels (Matt. 27.35; Mk. 15.24; Lk. 23.33; Jn. 19.18). The multiple layers and deep dynamics characteristic of the conflict leading up to this quadruple Gospel attestation are, however, most vividly displayed in the Gospel of Mark.
The Simple Emphasis on Struggle in Mark
Mark’s Gospel is rich with dynamic illustrations of the conflict and struggle Jesus of Nazareth endured during his itinerant proclamation of his Gospel. Mark, unlike the later Synoptics and John, lacks the supernatural birth narratives and instead begins immediately with conflict and struggle in the wilderness (1.12). There is no sense in this introduction of a divine Jesus better suited for spiritual battle or struggle. Jesus seems to enter Mark’s desert to battle spiritual evil as a human being relying totally upon his Father God. The struggle, immediately in Mark, is a realizable struggle, or a human struggle. This human struggle is no more vivid than in Mark 6.1-6. Jesus struggles, in this pericope, against a twisted version of the universal triad of earthly power (i.e. social, political, and religious power). Jesus is also shown here to be much more human then in Matthew, Luke, and John, or at least somewhat limited in his divine abilities. Jesus, in this pericope, can not perform powerful deeds or healings. The pericope presents a reader with a very human Jesus who is forced into a dynamic struggle involving a powerful and dangerous alliance of social, political, and religious elitism. This is a battle of colossal proportions. It is one in which the Supremacy of God is pitted against idiosyncratic norms powered by social, political, and religious injustice. The pericope reads:
Mark 6:1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. 2 On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about and among the villages teaching.
Structure, Form, and Context
The internal structure of Mark 6.1-6 is centered upon a straightforward narrative created by abrupt scene changes within the Gospel. These swift scene changes situate the story between a Marcan sandwich containing the accounts of Jarius’s daughter and the hemorrhaging woman (5.21-43) and the sending of the twelve (6.7-13). The pericope is then substantiated by a fairly balanced literary relationship between character dialogue and direct authorial narration.
The story tracks along the author’s third person/limited point of view. The author is not intrusive upon the story and does not appear to know everything about the characters’ thoughts, feelings, or actions. The author is, it seems, more of a reporter than an omniscient third-person novelist, and carries the reader through a well designed plot consisting of the proper literary devices required by an independent story, such as: 1.) Exposition: the overarching scene of the pericope is set by “He left that place and came to his hometown,” and “his disciples followed him” (6.1.); 2.) Rising Action: the complication of the story is introduced “On the Sabbath,” when “he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him” were both astounded and confused regarding his biological lineage (6.2-3); 3.) Climax: the turning point in the text is delivered in the form of a direct statement from Jesus who says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (6.4); 4.) Falling Action: the story begins its close with Jesus’ inability to perform any “deed of power” within the village (6.5); 5.) Denouncement: the mystery of the conflict is understood and/or solved within the story in the declared “unbelief” of Jesus’ hometown clan. Jesus marvels over the depth of this unbelief as he moves on to other villages (6.7).
The characters within the story are also important to the overall internal structure of the pericope. There are basically three groups of characters in this story. The first is Jesus of Nazareth, of course, and his disciples. The disciples - let’s call them the “Disciples Group” - who followed him (6.1.) appear in this story as stock characters in the periphery of the story itself. However, their presence as a group - periphery or not - is important, especially in relation to the larger Gospel. Jesus is, on the other hand, an obviously round character. He is presented as complex, surprising, and emotional. He appears very human in that he risked self-esteem by announcing himself in the manner he chose (the synagogue?); he lost esteem by being rejected. His was a harsh and very public rejection; he was unable to perform afterwards. Jesus also announces himself as a “prophet” (6.4), rather than a special messianic figure. The story’s second group of characters is the worshipers at synagogue. Once again, this group is composed of round characters. The synagogue group may be faceless but it exhibits complex and surprising deductive skills and emotions nonetheless. The group’s initial reaction to Jesus’ teachings and wisdom abruptly secedes to their knowledge/questions concerning his biological lineage. This group is quick to change emotional courses. The third and last group within the story is those who actually were - or could be - beneficiaries of Jesus’ “deeds of power” (6.5). This group, much like the disciples who followed Jesus, speaks loudly through its silence. They too, like the disciples and synagogue groups, are as faceless as they are voiceless. Yet, the group speaks volumes concerning the overarching theme of power and struggle so relevant to the context. So, while this group - let’s call them “the beneficiaries” - seem peripheral, they are not. They are, like the “Disciples Group,” central to the overall idea of the story. The Beneficiaries Group is composed of stock characters, albeit very important ones.
The overall developmental theme of the pericope can be discerned via a critical look at the pericope’s stratagem and character arrangement. What is initially obvious is the lack of individuals in this story’s setting and scene. Jesus of Nazareth is the sole individual in the story; as such he is seriously vulnerable. He is the lone voice amidst a Synagogue Group, a Disciples Group, and a Beneficiaries Group; all which seem somewhat volatile. These groups are virtually faceless and nameless and seem to represent ideological positioning within Jesus of Nazareth’s 1st century social, political, and religious context. In that case, these groups are more than personally threatening to Jesus, they are externally dangerous. They tangibly represent the possibility of God’s supremacy and/or the dangerous culmination of an antithetical antagonism directed towards this divine supremacy. Jesus announces his devotion to the Kingdom of God in a radically dangerous manner, in spite of this very obvious danger (6.2).
The external structure - or literary context - of Mark 6.1-6 is the larger Gospel of Mark. The Gospel of Mark is rich with deep and dynamic conflict between empires - the empire of man or God. The pericope, within this setting, is not at all out of place, but complimentary.
It only takes Mark fifteen verses before h’ basilei,a tou/ qeou (the kingdom of God) is declared (1.14-15). The supernatural birth narratives of the other canonical Gospels are not important in Mark. This “Kingdom,” and more specifically the God who reigns within it, is the Markan priority. The struggle and dynamic conflict which will accompany the narrative about this Kingdom is a natural by product of God’s empire clashing with those social, political, and religious empires ruled and powered by humanity. The Gospel of Mark is all about empire.
The struggle and conflict Jesus endures for the sake of God’s Kingdom and its annunciation is strewn throughout the entire Gospel. Jesus is depicted as constantly struggling against the Devil/Demons (1.13; 3.11; 4.15; 8.33; 5.1-14; ); his own disciples lack of understanding: (4.13-25; 4.35-41; 6.45-52; 7.17-23; 8.17-21; 8.32-33; 9.14-19; 10.35-41; 14.6; 14.32-42; 16.8); societal norms (2.14-15; 3.31-35; 4.13-34; 5.40; 6.1-6; 10.1-12; 10.13-31); religious leaders (2.6-13; 2.16-28; 3.1-6; 3.22-30; 7.1-13; 8.11-13; 11.15-18; 11.27-33; 12.12; 12.15-40; 14.53-65); and political powers (5.14-17; 6.14-32; 11.15-18; 15.1-15; 15.24; 15.26). Jesus, throughout the Gospel, is consumed by conflict as a result of his proclamation of the Kingdom of God. This proclamation culminates with Jesus being murdered by those who have the most to lose if this Kingdom ever was realized. The challenge of Mark’s social, political, and religious message should not be taken lightly, it is dangerous. The original ending of the Gospel (16.8) emphasizes this fact by leaving us with a picture of the bravest of disciples (women) overcome with fear and subsequent silence regarding this Kingdom of God.
Mark’s plot is also pushed forward by the idea of action - particularly travel. Jesus as itinerant messenger is the crux of the Gospel of Mark. If Jesus and his inner circle of companions did not travel there would be no Gospel.
It is not difficult to discern the pericope’s contributions to the Gospel of Mark, given the external characteristics into which it is situated. The motif of social, political, and religious struggle is continued within the pericope. This motif, in fact, may be epitomized in this particular story. Jesus is, in the story, forced to endure conflict on almost every imaginable level of his human being and ministry. Jesus endures conflict socially in the form of negativity directed toward his biological lineage and his public embrace of the stratified; he endures political and religious conflict as corporate disenfranchisement is poured upon him thus making him ineligible to hold prophetic office. Jesus, in his own hometown, and among his own clan, had to be suffering deeply from this rejection/conflict. He, however, moves forward throughout the Gospel in-spite of insurmountable odds and the never ending conflict pouring in from all sides. He will also move forward in this story, for the sake of the God who is King and provides Kingdom. This is, as has already been mentioned, what the Gospel of Mark is all about.
The pericope’s genre and form is, of course, Gospel and biographical narrative, respectively. It is a biographical story recounting Jesus of Nazareth’s itinerant visit to his home town and the incredible conflict he was faced with at every turn of this journey. The story’s literary host - Mark, a Gospel - is an encapsulation of the ‘Good News’ of God. Jesus’ edict laden travels were an extension of this ‘Good News.’
The historical, social, and religious context of the pericope can be summarized with one word: ‘instability.’ Jesus of Nazareth was from Nazareth, obviously. Nazareth’s position between two burgeoning urban centers Sepphoris and Tiberias would not have benefited the Synagogue Group in this story at all. In fact, it would have reduced the inhabitants of Nazareth to peasants. A synagogue full of marginalized peasants would probably not be the best audience to announce the “Good News of God” in such a matter-of-fact manner. This becomes especially true when Jesus’ biological lineage is so obviously murky in the minds of listeners. Political tensions are fused with extreme social definitions and tension. The proverbial kettle’s lid begins to rattle off as a combined political and social pressure boils inside. The lid is blown off as Jesus announces his “Prophetic Office” to the Synagogue Group who has already deduced his ineligibility through a combination of political and social pressures. Religious pressure is now added and the pot over-boils as social, political, and religious frustration and anger heat up.
The urbanization of agrarian peoples has never been accomplished without a lot of stress and a bit of revolution. People living under these circumstances are perpetually living between stability and instability and are normally ready for confrontation. Jesus, and his Kingdom of God, just handed it to them.
Text and/or translational issues within the pericope are limited, but very important when they appear.
In 6.2 kai. ai’ duna,meij toiau/tai dia. tw/n ceirw/n auvtou/ gino,menai: and such power through his hands is being produced || variant readings (articles moved or eliminated; participles morphed into finite verbs) have been produced as a result of the “grammatically difficult reading of the Alexandrian text” (Metzger and United Bible Societies 75).
In 6.3 some divergence exists within ancient witnesses as to (…the carpenter, the son of Mary). P45 reads tou te,ktonoj o’ ui’o.j th/j Mari,aj ( [the son] …of the carpenter and the son of Mary). Metzger, however cites o’ te,ktwn( o’ ui’o.j th/j Mari,aj as “existing in all uncials, many minuscules, and important early versions” (Metzger and United Bible Societies 75). The latter disagreement seems to be the result of early polemic maneuvering concerning Jesus as can be witnessed in Mt 13.55. What is at stake here is Jesus’ social standing within the pericope. In those days, being socially identified as “the son of a mother (woman),” rather than “the son of a father (man),” carried with it the stigma of questionable biological lineage. “In Jewish sources the father’s name is normally used to identify the son even when the father is dead” (Grant 374). In other words, one’s very existence was, if not substantiated by the father’s name, branded as illegitimate. Jesus, under such circumstances, would have been considered a bastard child, or man. This sort of social stigma was never outgrown in this culture.
Overall, the pericope does not seem to have undergone redaction by the author. Tradition also seems to have been kept separate, save the weak polemic based attempts to “clean up” Jesus lineage. The phrase, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house,” is probably historical. “The earliest form of the saying has been preserved by the Gospel of Thomas (31.1): “No prophet is accepted in his own village” (Funk and Hoover 63). The saying is also attested to in Matthew and John; substantiating the historicity of the saying even further.
Mark 6.1-6 is an addendum to the Gospel’s declaration concerning the Kingdom of God. This message - made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth - was simple, revolutionary, and dangerous. It, simply, was: God’s reign is active, present, and available for those who have been marginalized by social, political, and religious powers and norms, but - this is the proverbial big but - it is an ideology leading whoever enters into direct conflict with these powers and norms which will probably result in an ever increasing conflict and death. In other words, the Kingdom is available, but are you sure you want it? If you take hold of it, you become the message in the flesh and must agree to endure conflict for those who have yet to enter.
Jesus, of course, embodied the offer and became the message in the flesh and endured conflict on a monumental scale within the Gospel of Mark and specifically - especially - in this pericope.
Socially, Jesus endured racial and biological epitaphs directed at not only his lineage, but also his very being. The phrase “… isn’t this the carpenter,” carries with it the social stigma of filling an itinerant occupational role in a society (agrarian) wherein traveling to work would have placed the one who did so in a social class beneath that of the ‘regular’ peasantry, i.e., artisan/undesirables. 2 This punch is quickly followed by accusation laden “… Son of Mary” barb, which is nothing but a social right hook to quickly compensate the previous left jab. Combine the two and Jesus is seen as being called an undesirable, worthless, bastard. He takes the punches - and probably knew they were coming - as he fulfills his call to announce God’s Kingdom.
Religiously, this announcement is not accepted because Jesus as an undesirable, worthless, bastard could definitely not be a prophet for his people. The confusion within the story is a direct result of the Synagogue Groups recognition of the wisdom and power Jesus exhibits and inability to accredit such wisdom and power to an undesirable, worthless, bastard. The Synagogue Group, in the end, places their hopes in their societal norms, rather than the God who is proclaiming his reign through Jesus.
Politically, Jesus is attacked on all previous fronts. In this culture, religion, society, and politics were one and the same. Therefore, when Jesus is maligned socially, and religiously, his message is stunted politically - and it was a very political message. Jesus, as an undesirable, worthless, bastard cannot be accepted as Prophet by his clan and consequently lacks political influence (he could do no deeds of power there).
This incredible personal conflict Jesus of Nazareth endured as he proclaimed God’s reign is summarized within the story in groups, rather than individuals. The groups are literary simulations of the various and vying ideological forces with which the Kingdom of God clashed. The story also illustrates the benefits and detriment involved in one group’s acceptance of God’s reign, and another’s refusal to abandon social, political, and religious norms. The Synagogue Group represents the group who failed to enter God’s Kingdom. The Disciples Group represents those who would take on the task of Jesus and proclaim God’s reign in-spite of the obvious social, political, and religious conflicts any and all heralds of it will have to undoubtedly endure. Those few who were healed by Jesus represent a Beneficiaries Group and encapsulate the downtrodden and marginalized who would enter into God’s perpetual reign on earth. All three groups combined represent a world full of ideological conflict and power struggles. Empire is the goal of all involved. However, in this story, and the larger Gospel of Mark, Kingdom is God’s alone. It is the point - even more so then Jesus. Jesus is the herald of God’s reign and example of the inevitable personal conflict involved in the selfless proclamation.
Two thousand plus years have passed and nothing has really changed. Ideological powers still vie for power, for empire. God’s reign has yet to be realized on this planet. Jesus of Nazareth was detrimentally made the sole point of the story. What he pointed towards has been ignored. God’s reign was pushed aside and Church was made Kingdom. The Synagogue Group has changed its name, locale, and language; yet remains. The Disciples Group has dealt with the conflict by systematically eliminating it by shifting the focus off of the Kingdom and Jesus’ ethical example to his mode of death (i.e., the cross). The cross is suddenly a symbol of rescue. In reality - historical reality - the cross is the most incredible challenge this world has ever seen. The Beneficiaries Group - today’s have-nots - go on living and dying beneath the suffocating blanket of injustice, marginalization, and stratification on every social, political, and religious level imaginable. We need Jesus; the Jesus within this story. God’s Reign, for those who can see it, requires great sacrifice if it is to be announced to this world and its powers vying for Empire. Conflict is inevitable, as the story illustrates.
Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus : The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. 1st ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.
Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus : A Revolutionary Biography. 1st ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.
Funk, Robert Walter, and Roy W. Hoover. The Five Gospels : The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus : New Translation and Commentary. New York: Macmillan Pub. Co. ; Toronto : Maxwell Macmillan Canada ; New York : Maxwell Macmillan International, 1993.
Grant, Fredrick C. and Halford E. Luccock. The Gospel According to St. Mark. The Interpreter’s Bible: The Holy Scriptures in the King James and Revised Standard Versions with General Articles and Introduction, Exegesis, Exposition for Each Book of the Bible. Ed. George Arthur Buttrick. Vol. 7. 12 vols. New York,: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951.
Lenski, Gerhard Emmanuel. Power and Privilege : A Theory of Social Stratification. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Metzger, Bruce Manning, and United Bible Societies. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament; a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (3d Ed.), by Bruce M. Metzger. London, New York, United Bible Societies 1971, 1971.
1 See John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus : The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, 1st ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991) 15ff.
2 See John Dominic Crossan, Jesus : A Revolutionary Biography, 1st ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) 23-26. Also see Gerhard Emmanuel Lenski, Power and Privilege : A Theory of Social Stratification (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984) 73-296.