Monday, January 11, 2021

The Gospel of Mark and the Way, a Sect reported in Acts

Luke reports that some early followers of Jesus were referred to as members of a sect called “the Way” (o odos [ο οδος], Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).1  The name likely comes from their description of themselves as following the way of the Lord or God (Acts 13:10; 18:25-26) or the Way of life or salvation (Acts 2:28; 16:17). Luke describes a Jew (Ioudaios) named Apollos “who had been instructed in the Way of the Lord.” After hearing him speak in the synagogue, Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18; Rom 16:3) took him aside and “expounded to him the Way of God more accurately” (18:25, 26). That Luke describes Apollos as a Jew well-informed about the scriptures but as needing further instruction (he knew only the baptism of John) suggests that his initial introduction to the “way of the Lord” was independent from the group represented by Priscilla and Aquila. Luke even has Paul claim to be a follower of the Way (24:14; cf. 13:10), describing him as a persecutor of the members of the sect (9:1-2) before his conversion (9:1-19). In short, Luke seems to suggest that the Way is a very early description of a nascent “Christian” movement growing out of Israelite traditions.2 That being the case, might there be some evidence in our earliest gospel (Mark) about this group?

I have elsewhere described Mark’s gospel narrative, which includes the gospel Jesus proclaimed (Mark 1:14-15a),3 as “the official ‘gospel’ statement of Mark’s church.” Mark’s gospel is “the proclamation of the public career, death, and resurrection of Jesus ‘in behalf of many’” (Mark 10:45).4 The question becomes does Mark reflect any awareness of an incipient movement or message, reflecting the brief reports in Acts?

Using the Way passages in Acts as background, there are several statements in Mark’s narrative that may reflect an awareness of the Way as a particular religious movement. Mark uses the same terminology as Luke to describe that religious lifestyle: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3; cf. Acts 13:10); Way of the Lord (Mark 1:3; Acts 18:25); Way of God (Mark 12:14; Acts 18:26). Mark has one story (12:13-17) in which the Judean religious authorities try to trap Jesus. The authorities describe him as “teaching the Way of God in accordance with truth” (12:14), presumably an ironic contrast with their own understanding of “the way of God.” While the authorities are insincere in the statement as the rest of the story shows, their statement does present a contrast between the Way (that is the religious lifestyle) taught by Jesus and that of the Jewish authorities.

Mark’s narrative begins with quotes from the Septuagint (Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3). Mark changes the statement in Mal 3:1 from me to read thy: “Behold, I send forth my messenger, and he shall survey the way before me.” Mark 1:1: “Behold I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy Way. In Malachi the speaker is God referring to himself; in Mark the speaker is Mark referring to Jesus/the Lord. In Malachi the way is the way of the Law (Mal 1:8-9 LXX), but in Mark the Way is the “Way of the Lord,” Jesus (1:3).

Finally, Mark frequently uses the image of travel in the narrative in a literal sense, referring to people in travel mode as being in the road, or on their way to some destination (2:23; 4:4, 15; 6:8; 8:3, 27; 9:33, 34; 10:17, 32, 46, 52; 11:8). At least, one of these common expressions for travel could be metaphorical. There are already several other metaphorical uses of o odos in Mark (1:2, 3; 12:14). The story of Blind Bartimaeus seems be another instance of a metaphorical use.5 This use of o odos (10:52) turns the Bartimaeus story into an account of a lifestyle change. Jesus restores his blindness by saying “Go; your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus did not leave, however, but followed him in the Way (10:52). The question is: might this be an allusion to the Way [of truth] taught by Jesus or is it a statement that Bartimaeus travelled along behind Jesus on the road for a bit?

How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1J. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Macmillan, 1965), s.v. “the Way”: “This usage does not appear elsewhere and has no known antecedents.”

2Mackenzie, Dictionary, 924.

3Mark says Jesus proclaimed the following gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” or “Time is up; God’s sovereign rule is about to begin!” “Repent and believe the gospel” (1:15b) is the response demanded by Mark’s community to the gospel Jesus proclaimed.

4Hedrick, “Parable and Kingdom. A Survey of the Evidence in Mark,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 27 (Spring 2000), 180-82 or Hedrick, Parabolic Figures or Narrative Fictions? Seminal Essays on the Stories of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Cascade. 2016), 27-30.

5See McKenzie, Dictionary, s.v. “Way,” for the metaphorical use of “way” in the Bible.