Thursday, June 30, 2022

Exaggerations in the Gospel of Mark

Do little deceptions in the interest of furthering the kingdom of God matter?

To Exaggerate: “To magnify beyond the limits of the truth; to represent something as greater than it really is.”1 What difference does it make if the author of the Gospel of Mark occasionally overstates the truth? Mark’s exaggerations are most noticeable when Mark uses the Greek words olos (whole, entire, complete), or pas (all). Not all uses of these words are exaggerations, however, but when Mark uses them in connection with incidents or things he could not possibly have known even if he were present, then the statement becomes a clear exaggeration.

            What I consider Mark’s classic instance of exaggeration is Mark 1:5, regarding the popularity of John the Baptizer:

And there came forth to him all (πας) the Judean countryside and all (πας) the inhabitants of Jerusalem and they were baptized by him in the Jordan river.

My response to this statement is: “Now just a minute Mark; are you saying that at that moment even those on their deathbeds or the mother giving birth, or those incapacitated by disease went down to the river to be baptized by John? Did your all include Roman soldiers and the entire priestly cadre of the Jerusalem temple, even the high priest himself?” Even though the Greek verb εξεπορευετο (“were going out” to him) indicates continuing action in past time (meaning that it is not a single event but events happening over time), it is not enough to render Mark’s statement credible.

Here is another example of Mark’s tendency to exaggerate:

Truly, I say to you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole (ολος) world, what she has been done will be told in memory of her (Mark 14:9).

This is not a description of something that has occurred but is an exaggerating prediction that the woman’s actions in the narrative (Mark 14:3-8) will be remembered throughout the entire world. That Mark’s prediction will, at some point in the future, come to pass is not something that Mark can know for certain. Mark believes that it will, and that makes it a faith supposition on Mark’s part.

            Other passages that I would describe as exaggerations are the following: ολος (entire): 1:33; 15:16; 15:33. Πας (all): 1:37; 4:32; 5:20; 6:30; 7:3; 9:3; 11:18; 12:44. Other uses of πας and ολος for comparison to Mark’s exaggerating statements are πας (all): 2:13; 5:33; 6:56; 9:15; 11:32; ολος (whole, entire, complete): 1:28; 1:33; 1:39; 6:55; 8:36; 12:30.

            If the reader is convinced that Mark has in some instances exaggerated, that suggests several things.

  1. An exaggerated history is unreliable.
  2. An evangelist that exaggerates is untrustworthy.
  3. On the theory that God has in some way inspired the evangelist (Mark) raises the following conundrum: is God responsible for the exaggerations, or is God simply forced to work through a flawed writer in this case?
  4. Exaggerations in Mark raise serious questions as to what we think is most reliable in Mark. For example, Did John, the baptizer, baptize Jesus? Even critical scholarship affirms the datum that Jesus was baptized by John.2

These observations prompt the question: Why would Mark exaggerate? Handbooks of literary form say that the “bold overstatement [hyperbole] or extravagant exaggeration of fact or possibility [exaggeration]” “may be used either for serious or ironic or comic effect.”3 Mark is very serious, using exaggerated statements to increase the appeal and effectiveness of his story with the reading public, at the cost of candidness.

Should deceptions in support of the kingdom be considered permissible? What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Oxford English Dictionary, definition #3.

2Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus: What did Jesus really do? (Harper, 1998), 54. Mark 1:9 is printed in a dramatic red. For an opposite view see C. W. Hedrick, “Is the Baptism of Jesus by John Historically Certain,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 44.3 (Fall 2017), 311-22.

3M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (6th ed.; Harcourt Brace, 1993), 85.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Lord our God is One Lord

Mark reports an incident in which a scribe asked Jesus, “What commandment is first of all?” Jesus replied using the words of Scripture, “Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Mark 12:29; Deut 6:4). In Mark this statement introduces the first commandment. The statement is the beginning of what Israelites called “the Shema” (Deut 6:4-9) from the Hebrew word for “hear.”

This part of the answer in Jesus’ response, oddly, is omitted by Matthew (22:36) and Luke (10:26-27), making Matthew and Luke disagree with Mark by their omission of the idea of the oneness of God. This statement (the Lord is one) was voted gray by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar by a mail vote. There were no red votes; 40 persons voted it pink, 53 voted it gray and 7 black (the weighted average of the vote indicated the saying had a 0.44 percent chance of being original with Jesus), which necessitated a gray color in The Five Gospels.1 The color gray signified that “Jesus did not say this but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.”2 The principal rationale for the negative vote is that the saying has singular attestation; that is, it only appears in Mark.3 Singular attestation for the saying, however, should not disqualify the saying, since the Seminar voted numerous sayings with singular attestation as originating with Jesus (for example, Luke 10:30b-35). A second objection to the saying being something Jesus said is that it is an integral part with the dialogue in which it is embedded. But that is also true of other sayings of Jesus approved by the Seminar (for example, Luke 9:59-60, Mark 2:27-28, Matt 22:21).

            Had Jesus grown up in a social context that was even nominally religious he could scarcely have helped being familiar with the Shema or even speaking its words numerous times:

“You shall teach [these words] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be a frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the door posts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:6-9).

That “the Lord is one” became Judaism’s confession of faith; it both stresses Yahweh’s exclusiveness, and emphasizes that Yahweh is “an integral person, not divisible into a number of other Gods or forces.”4 If the Book of the law discovered in the temple (2 Kgs 22:8-13) and that was responsible for the reforms of Josiah in 622 BCE (2 Kgs 23:1-25) was the Book of Deuteronomy, as is generally assumed,5 the Shema subsequently would have played an important role in the religious life of the Israelite. I see no serious argument causing me to doubt that Jesus shared the view of the Shema that “The Lord, our God, is one Lord.”

            Mark 12:29, however, surfaces a serious clash between Jesus (if he actually shared this idea) and contemporary Christianity. Jesus’ statement “the Lord, our God, is one Lord” seems to me to be something very different from Christianity’s the Lord, our God, is three persons in one.6 What do you think?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1“Voting Records,” Forum (6,3-4 September/December 1990), 271.

2Robert Funk and Roy Hoover, eds., The Five Gospels (Macmillan, 1993), 36-37.

3Five Gospels, 104-105.

4J. A. Wharton, “Shema, The” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 321-22.

5 J. Kenneth Kuntz, The People of Ancient Israel (Harper & Row, 1974), 317-27.

6 C. W. Hedrick, “Public Image and a Triune Deity,” Blog: Wry Thoughts about Religion: