Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mark's First Evangelist?

I just can't get past that intrepid leper in Mark 1:40-45. The guy approaches Jesus, kneels in his path (depending on your assessment on a significant text problem), and challenges him: "If you choose, you can cleanse me."

I've written before about the ways in which this guy's behavior provokes Jesus. Begging and kneeling are aggressive acts, and his speech -- If you choose -- places quite the claim on Jesus' attention. One might add that the description of Jesus reflects the tension in the scene. Jesus is angered by the leper (another text problem, but I'm highly confident this is the best reading); the "touch" Jesus extends is hardly a gentle word (haptō); Jesus' command that the man not relate what happened to him carries the force of a scolding; and Jesus "casts away" the poor guy (ekballō).

Nevertheless, the leper goes out and preaches (kēryssein) the word about Jesus. This contributes to the growing role of crowds in Mark's narrative. Crowds eventually determine the shape of Jesus' ministry in many of Mark's stories.

But there's one thing about the leper's behavior that has my attention for now. Jesus warns him to "say nothing to nobody" (mēdeni mēden eipēs), an emphatic double negative. Both forms, mēdeni and mēden, occur elsewhere in Mark, but never together as a double negative. Yet we encounter one other double negative at the very end of the story. Having seen the empty tomb and received the commission to tell the disciples about the resurrection, the women "say nothing to nobody" (oudeni ouden eipan), another emphatic double negative connected with the same verb (16:8). Again, both oudeni and ouden occur elsewhere in Mark, but never together as a double negative.

Let's compare. The leper is commanded to say nothing to nobody, but he tells everybody. The women are commanded to tell the disciples, but they say nothing to nobody. One story occurs almost at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, immediately before it becomes controversial; the other at the very end.

Could it be that Mark is contrasting the leper as first evangelist with the women, whose witness occurs despite their fear? (Otherwise, how would the story have been told?)

One more thought. Mark is entirely capable of constructing such extended echoes of its own story. Consider the tearing (schizomenous) of the heavens at Jesus' baptism ("You are my beloved Son"; 1:10-11) with the tearing (eschisthē; same verb) of the temple veil at the moment of his death ("Truly this one was the Son of God"; 15:38-39). These are the only two occurrences of schizō in Mark.

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