The Besorah of Mark is considered by a wide consensus of scholars to be the earliest account we possess of the life of Yeshua the Messiah, underlying the later accounts of Matthew and Luke. Nevertheless, from my perspective as a veteran Messianic Jewish student and teacher, Mark is often overlooked. John is commonly presented, especially in an evangelistic context, as the introductory text for the whole New Testament. In the Messianic Jewish world, Matthew is often favored. But Mark has its own, unique value, and its pervasive treatment of the question “Who is Yeshua?” which scholars across a wide spectrum recognize as a theme in Mark, has particular relevance to Jewish readers. At the same time, Mark has unique features that ensure its relevance to all readers.
One of these features is the abundant appearances of “unclean” (1:23–26; 3:11–12; 5:2, 13; 6:7; 7:25–26; 9:25) or “demonic” (1:32–34; 5:15–18; 6:13) spirits throughout the first half of Mark, especially in contrast with the rarity of such appearances in the Tanakh. Equally striking is the essential role that these supernatural forces play. Mark employs irony in numerous ways, and one of its great ironies is that the spiritual forces that oppose Yeshua play a crucial role in answering the question of his identity that underlies the entire account.
The sudden proliferation of demonic spirits in Mark may reflect—and thereby ironically confirm—the sudden appearance of the kingdom of God, which Yeshua announces at the outset: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15 ESV). In contrast with this forthright declaration, a sense of “the messianic secret” pervades Mark’s account, as many scholars note. Yeshua silences demons who recognize him as Son of God (1:24, 3:11, 5:7); he tells those he heals not to make him known (1:44, 3:12, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26); refuses the Pharisees’ request for a sign (8:11–12); and even warns his disciples “not to tell anyone about him” (8:30). Yeshua’s goal is not to deny his Messiahship, or to hide it indefinitely, but to reveal it in his own time and with its full implications made clear.
Ironically, the spiritual opposition has a crucial role not only in this strategy of revealing Yeshua’s identity, but also in advancing Yeshua’s messianic mission itself. It’s not just that the mission is fulfilled despite demonic opposition, but rather, as Mark hints, that the opposition, human as well as demonic, becomes the means by which the mission is fulfilled. In the final chapters of Mark, Yeshua’s execution at the hands of Rome in collusion with the Jewish authorities is the essential element in fulfilling the redemptive purpose for which God sends Yeshua. This ironic twist has unique implications for Jewish readings of Mark.
In another irony, the issue of Yeshua’s identity is reflected in another question, the extensive scholarly debate over the text of the first verse in Mark: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (ESV). Some of the earliest manuscripts lack the final phrase, Son of God, so that the question of Yeshua’s full identity is reflected in questions about the very text itself. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore this issue in depth, but we will follow Lane, France, and Bock and most contemporary translations (NIV, NASB, ESV, NRSV 1989 ed., as well as the Messianic Jewish CJB and TLV) in including “the Son of God” in Mark 1:1. This lofty title, however, after being first pronounced by a heavenly voice (1:11), is articulated only by demonic voices (1:24, 3:11, 5:7) throughout the first half of Mark’s Besorah.
This article will trace these key encounters with demonic spirits and another with Satan himself, as well as significant mentions of Satan in Mark 1–8, to demonstrate how such confrontations serve God’s purposes in sending the Messiah. It will also offer an Excursus on theological implications of parable of the sower in Mark 4, to explore how those purposes apply specifically to Israel.
Immersion at the Jordan
A clear declaration of Yeshua’s identity as Son of God comes amidst his immersion by Yochanan:
And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (1:10–11 ESV margin)
Yeshua is marked as the chosen one in language reflecting God’s election of Israel in Isaiah 42:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him . . . (42:1–2a)
Isaiah’s use of the term “servant” is famously nuanced, but this instance comes shortly after Isaiah’s introduction of the servant terminology, which applies specifically to Israel:
But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off.” (41:8–9)
As Yeshua receives the servant designation, he does not replace Israel-as-servant, but rather embodies and carries forward that role. Like, and as, Israel, he will be tested in the wilderness, for forty days paralleling Israel’s forty years. Mark doesn’t describe the outcome of this testing, except to note that afterwards Yeshua comes into the Jewish region of Galilee and announces the approach of the (Davidic) kingdom of God—a central part of Jewish hope and expectation.
The voice from heaven removes any ambiguity that might remain from the text of Mark 1:1 and validates the title “Son of God,” but it is not evident whether anyone besides Yeshua hears it. The text says “he [not they] saw the heavens being torn open,” and the voice says, “You are my Son, my beloved,” in contrast with “This is my Son, my Beloved” as in Matthew (3:17 ESV margin). Mark’s portrayal suggests that only Yeshua heard the voice that came through the torn-open heavens. As chapter one unfolds, the human actors seem unaware of this designation, and the meaning of this title—Son of God—remains to be discovered.
In Mark’s unfolding revelation, “Son of God” in verse one is reiterated as “my Son, my beloved” in verse 11 and later as “Holy One of God” in verse 24, in the words of an “unclean spirit”: “I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” Yeshua’s status as Son of God has a supernatural or cosmic dimension, initially only recognized by supernatural beings. But before we consider in detail Yeshua’s encounter with the demonic realm in 1:23–24, we need to visit an earlier scene of spiritual conflict, the encounter with “Satan” (capitalized in the Greek) in the wilderness.
Encounter in the wilderness (1:12–13)
The Ruach drives Yeshua out to the wilderness and there the Adversary (the meaning of “Satan” in Hebrew) tempts him. This temptation in the wilderness echoes Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness after emerging from the waters of Yam Suf, as Yeshua has likewise emerged from the waters of baptism. But there’s another echo here in 1:12–13, an echo of events in the creation account that provide a backdrop for Mark 1:1 and 1:10–11.
The creation described in Genesis 1 involved establishing order amidst chaos. Humankind is assigned a role in this process as God instructs them: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion . . .” (Gen 1:28). What need is there for subduing and dominion if the creation is perfect from the beginning? Instead, creation in Genesis 1 is a process of bringing order out of the primordial chaos. This idea is reflected in Genesis 2, when Hashem God plants a garden. What need is there for a garden if the creation is perfect from the beginning? A garden is a protected enclosure, separated from its untamed surroundings. Accordingly, the man is instructed to work it and guard it, implying that there are forces outside the garden that might break in . . . and, sure enough, the serpent, as an embodiment of chaos like his big brother Leviathan (Psa 74, Job 41), shows up and sows chaos.
Readers of Scripture through the ages have asked why Hashem allows the serpent to gain access to Adam and Eve (or why he created him) in the first place, but the encounter with the serpent reflects the primordial contest against chaos. In Genesis 3, this contest is not one of mere force, but of deception versus truth, and the serpent is the great deceiver seeking to undermine the loyalty and obedience of Adam and Eve. In the same way, after the new creation of his baptism and the descent of the Spirit, Yeshua faces the deceiver, Satan, not in a garden, but in the wilderness, where the rest of humankind is struggling against (or submitting to) the spiritual forces of chaos that pervade the world.
Yeshua’s temptation after his immersion enacts another scene early in the Torah, hinted at in the language of 1:12. The Spirit drives Yeshua out into the wilderness: τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον. This contrasts with Matthew and Luke, in which Yeshua is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Rather, this terminology may connect this scene with the creation/re-creation theme in Mark 1. The Greek ἐκβάλλει appears in Mark generally to describe the driving out of demons, but it also appears (in the aorist tense) in the Septuagint of Genesis 3:24: καὶ ἐξέβαλε τὸν ᾿Αδὰμ, “and he drove out the man.” Thus, Mark describes Yeshua’s temptation scene in a way that again brings us back to the beginning of Genesis, specifically to Adam’s expulsion from the garden. Adam and Eve were tested in the garden, and failed, and will afterwards be tested outside the garden by the harsh circumstances that Hashem God decreed in Genesis 3:16–19. The Spirit drives Yeshua out of the Edenic conditions of 1:10–11, but Yeshua is tempted after his departure, not before as were Adam and Eve, revealing that Yeshua joins with humankind in the wilderness of life that all human beings share.
Yeshua is tempted by the Adversary (“Satan” in Greek, reflecting the Hebrew of Job 1–2, Zech 3), but he is in the wilderness under the impetus of the Ruach. He is with the wild animals—perhaps reflecting Adam with the animals in Genesis 2—not in Eden, however, but in the non-garden conditions of human life. There “the angels took care of him,” in a reversal of the closing scene of Gen 3 in which the cherubim block the way back to the tree of life. The opposing forces of Satan and Spirit/angels highlight the dimension of spiritual conflict in this scene, setting the stage for Mark’s following chapters, where the Spirit-empowered Yeshua is continually confronting and driving out the forces of spiritual opposition.
In this temptation scene, Mark does not record a decisive victory over the Adversary as do Matthew and Luke. Rather, he emphasizes Yeshua’s presence within the post-Edenic world, sharing in its struggles, and returning in power to his Galilean homeland. His victory is muted, but nonetheless, as Yeshua takes on the conditions of human life that all share, he prevails on behalf of the descendants of Adam.
The reference to wild animals here may also reflect the striking language of Mark 1:10: “he saw the heavens being torn open” (ESV). “Torn open” is a form of schizo in Greek, dramatic terminology absent in Matthew and Luke, which appears in the LXX of Ezekiel: “In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, while I was among the exiles by the K’var River, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God” (Ezek 1:1). The highlighted phrase here does not employ the schizo terminology in the LXX, but its notion of the heavens opened up is reflected in Mark 1:10. Furthermore, “wild animals,” as in Mark 1:13, is chayot in Hebrew, a term Ezekiel uses repeatedly to describe his vision of heaven opened up. Ezekiel introduces the chayot in 1:5—“there appeared to be four living creatures that looked like human beings”—and mentions them repeatedly in describing his vision (1:13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22). In the Hebrew Bible, the Adversary or Satan appears as a participant in the heavenly court (Job 1–2, Zech 3, as noted above). Now, he is afoot upon the earth, tempting the Son of God, and opposed by other forces from the heavenly realm, the chayot and the angels.
As noted, Mark doesn’t record a decisive victory over the adversary. Rather, he portrays Yeshua in the midst of the post-Edenic world sharing its struggles, but returning in power to his own homeland to announce the kingdom to his own people (1:14–15). In whatever way the Adversary sought to tempt Yeshua, he has failed, and now Yeshua can announce:
The time has come,
God’s Kingdom is near!
Turn to God from your sins
and believe the Good News! (CJB)
“Kingdom” in this instance, of course, doesn’t signify an institution or a location; rather, as most modern scholars recognize, it is the reality of God’s dominion, his sovereignty, which has drawn near through the arrival of God’s chosen king/Messiah, as announced at the waters of the Jordan. Mark will progressively reveal the nature and extent of this dominion, but Yeshua’s declaration of the kingdom here makes it clear that his wilderness encounter with the adversary was only the opening scene of a spiritual conflict that will inevitably end in God’s victory.
First encounter with an evil or impure spirit (1:21–28)
After prevailing through temptation and announcing his besorah, Yeshua calls his first four disciples, ordinary Jewish fishermen who will abandon their daily pursuits to “follow him into battle in the eschatological war that was inaugurated in 1:13 by his one-on-one combat with Satan. These same four disciples now become witnesses to the first extensively reported encounter in that war, a powerful exorcism.” The scene of this exorcism is the synagogue in Capernaum, where Yeshua is visiting on Shabbat with his new followers and teaching (1:21). His teaching is amazing to the congregants because he teaches as one having authority and not as their scribes (1:22) and it is apparently triggering to an unclean spirit present within one of the congregants. The spirit’s outburst in the midst of a synagogue teaching must have been shocking and, as Marcus notes:
The terror of the scene is increased by the description of the demoniac as “a man in an unclean spirit.” This phrase is usually interpreted as a Semitic idiom meaning “a man with an unclean spirit.” But a literal interpretation has a great deal to commend it: the man’s personality has been so usurped by the demon that the demon has, as it were, swallowed him up.
The spirit cries out, “What do you want with us, Yeshua from Natzeret? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God!” (1:24 CJB). This fearful declaration of Yeshua’s identity mirrors the heavenly declaration in 1:11. And it is ironic: A spirit that is unclean announces the presence of holiness, its opposite quality; this unholy voice confirms the holy words, “You are my Son, whom I love,” and it says “I know who you are,” when the synagogue worshipers are left wondering, “What is this?’” (1:27). The congregants may be impressed with Yeshua, but they don’t seem to know who he is and what he is doing among them. The unclean spirit, on the other hand, knows exactly who he is—and his words might enlighten the folk of Capernaum if they could stretch their imaginations. Supernatural beings (whether good or evil) can see Yeshua for who he is in a way that human beings cannot. But the supernatural, and especially Yeshua’s conflict with the supernatural, will provide a key to human understanding, at least for those who have eyes to see.
The notion of two levels of reality, spiritual and earthly, appears as early as the Book of Genesis. When our father Jacob returned from Haran and approached the land of Canaan, “the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God’s camp!’ So he called the name of that place Mahanaim—two camps” (Gen 32:1–2 ESV). Translator Everett Fox comments,
As if to portend something momentous, Yaakov’s first act upon setting out for home is an encounter with “messengers of God.” From this starting point everything is subsequently a matter of “two camps” (v.8) or two levels: the divine and the human.
If we understand “divine” in Fox’s comment as comprising supernatural forces both good and evil or in rebellion, the two-camp encounter applies to the drama in Mark’s Besorah. Two different camps are at play—natural and supernatural, what is visible to human eyes and what is hidden but evident to spiritual powers, both godly and demonic. In the early scenes of Mark, the divine camp, which entails the demonic as well as the heavenly, recognizes Yeshua for who he is, as in 1:11 and 1:24. Meanwhile the human encampment is left wondering.
Rather than alleviating this wonderment, Yeshua leaves it in place by silencing the spirit that has just revealed his identity as the “Holy One of God,” rebuking him and casting him out of the man. This is the first instance in Mark of the “messianic secret” theme mentioned above, and it leads us to ask why Yeshua would silence the unclean spirit who has just stated rather accurately who he is. As noted above, Yeshua may be postponing an announcement of his full identity as Messiah and Son until he can reveal the element of suffering as essential to that identity. He is the suffering servant foretold in Isaiah 52:13–53:12, as will become evident in the second half of Mark’s narrative, especially in 10:45 and 14:24.
This strategy of gradual self-revelation makes sense of Yeshua’s repeated instructions to silence in the variety of settings already noted (1:24, 44; 3:11–12; 5:7, 43; 7:36; 8:26, 30; 9:9). In Yeshua’s encounter with evil spirits, however, an additional factor is at play. In the spiritual realm naming entails power, and Mark 1:24–25 pictures a power struggle between spiritual forces:
Confronted by this eschatological power of God’s “holy one,” the demon fights back; its invocation of Jesus’ name and disclosure of his status (“Jesus of Nazareth . . . the holy one of God”), and . . . its use of biblical language, are probably attempts at magical counterattack. . . . Seen in this light, the narrator’s repetition of Jesus’ name in 1:25 may represent his symbolic reclamation of it after the demon’s attempted manipulation.
As Marcus notes, the demon names Jesus in 1:24 and then Mark names him again in 1:25, putting the demon in his place: “But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’”
Marcus goes on to argue that this power struggle is apocalyptic in nature. When Mark writes that Yeshua “rebuked” the unclean spirit, he is echoing the notion of God’s rebuke of primordial powers of chaos as in Job 26, where God’s rebuke or reproof (v. 11) is followed by his striking Rahab (v. 12) and slaying the fleeing serpent (v. 13), mythic creatures of chaos and resistance to God. This theme arises later in Jewish apocalyptic texts—“the idea that at the end God will rebuke the chaotic evil powers ranged against him and his people in order to usher in the new age (e.g. Isa 17:13; Nahum 1:4).” In Mark, Yeshua’s encounter with demonic forces reveals the cosmic nature of his mission. He appears in the earthy and everyday setting of the land of Israel under Roman occupation, but his appearing has implications far beyond its earthly scene.
This truth has already been stated at Yeshua’s baptism as the heavens are torn open and the Spirit descends on him like a dove and a voice from the open heavens declares Yeshua to be the Son. But Mark pictures this as a veiled rather than revelatory event. Yeshua—not the gathered crowd—sees “the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him,” and the voice from heaven is directed to him, not to those around him: “You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased” (1:10–11). In contrast, Matthew 3:17 reports the same divine utterance as “This is my beloved Son,” implying a declaration to the attendant crowd. In Mark’s ironic rendition, it is an unclean spirit that makes the first public declaration of who Yeshua is—a declaration that Yeshua rebukes and silences. Mark notes this same response in his summary of Yeshua’s ministry in Capernaum: “And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (1:34). The phrase “They knew him” may be broader than the demon’s utterance in 1:24, “I know who you are.” The demons not only know Yeshua’s identity—who he is—but they know his power and authority and his intention to mobilize them against the forces of darkness.
This visit to the Capernaum synagogue is the inaugural scene of Yeshua’s ministry in Galilee and it sets a pattern for the first half of Mark’s Besorah, with Yeshua visiting the synagogue, teaching in an authoritative tone that amazes the crowds, and performing an act of power—specifically here driving out an unclean spirit. Mark summarizes this pattern: “And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:39). As news of the synagogue exorcism spreads,
people begin to bring their sick and demon possessed to Jesus, and he heals illnesses and drives out demons (Mark 1:32–34). . . . Jesus also travels all over Galilee proclaiming the kingdom and casting out demons (Mark 1:39). When he encounters the demon possessed, the impure pneumata fall down before him and identify him as the son of God (3:11). He even casts out demons from afar (Mark 7:25–30). And the holy one of God empowers his disciples, giving them the authority to cast out demons as well (Mark 3:15; 6:7).
Clearly, this extended confrontation is a major, and not an incidental, element in Yeshua’s ministry and, in Mark’s narrative, a significant validation of this ministry and its cosmic, apocalyptic nature. Just as Yeshua’s calling of his first four followers provides sandals-on-the-ground reality to his opening proclamation of God’s Kingdom, so does this initial public contact with the demonic realm. Because Yeshua is present in the synagogue, “God’s Kingdom is near,” and this presence flushes out unclean spirits that had been lurking unseen. The clash of spiritual forces introduced in Yeshua’s encounter with the Adversary (1:12–13) continues throughout Yeshua’s Galilean ministry (1:23–26, 32–34; 3:11–12; 5:15–18; 6:7, 13; 7:25–26; 9:14–29). This dynamic helps explain why demons and unclean spirits are so much more prevalent in the Gospels than in the rest of the Bible—the incursion of the Kingdom draws out the opposing forces that had previously been content to operate behind the scenes.
Readers of Mark might naturally think of the adversary, Satan, as lord of the evil spirits that proliferate in the account of Yeshua’s early ministry. But this connection hasn’t been made explicit yet. The name Satan appears in two scenes following chapter one that make this connection clear, and reveal more about the dynamics of spiritual conflict in Mark.
Prince of demons (3:22–30)
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.”
Scribes come down from Jerusalem, the religious-political center, to the Galil, where Yeshua is ministering, with some new talking points: “He is possessed by Beelzebul” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” Yeshua’s supernatural healing power and his evident authority over the demonic realm reveal his anointing by the Spirit and validate his self-identity as the Son of Man (2:10, 28). These scribes, however, have come up with a way to invalidate Yeshua’s works of power, and thereby his entire ministry. Yeshua’s response to their accusation reveals much about the spiritual conflict raging around him. First, this conflict is not random but led and presumably coordinated by the “prince of demons,” whom Yeshua’s critics call Beelzebub, but Yeshua identifies as Satan, the same being he encountered in his initial temptation scene (1:12–13).
This hint of a coordinated effort is reinforced when Yeshua refers to the forces of evil as a “kingdom,” which is by definition unified under its king. If the kingdom were divided, or if its own king were to attack it, it would quickly fall. But, Yeshua notes, it is self-evident that this kingdom is still standing and operating, which leads to another revelation about the nature of the spiritual opposition. Satan remains in charge of his intact kingdom, but Yeshua renders Satan unable to resist his incursions into his domain. Yeshua can drive out demons not because he is cooperating with their chief, as the scribes claim, but because he has overpowered their chief. It will become clear as Mark’s account continues, however, that this overpowering is not yet conclusive. Evil spirits will continue to be driven out, as in 5:1–13, 6:13, 7:26–30, and 9:14–28. The binding of the strong man allows Yeshua (and his disciples as in 6:13) to dismantle his kingdom piece by piece, but the kingdom, however impaired, remains standing for now.
Yeshua defines the accusation that he is operating by the power of an “unclean spirit” (3:30) as blaspheming the Holy Spirit—a most serious counter-charge, reflecting Exodus 22:27  and Leviticus 24:10–16. Later in Mark, when the high priest falsely accuses Yeshua of blasphemy, the council of chief priests, elders, and scribes condemns him as worthy of death (14:53–64). Ironically, in the current scene, it is Yeshua’s accusers who are guilty of blasphemy, specifically blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and by implication worthy of death, as Thiessen notes.
While Jesus’ mission purifies and gives life, the scribes have mistakenly associated it with impurity, and ultimately deceit and death. For this reason, Jesus warns his audience that those who blaspheme the holy pneuma, by equating the holy pneuma’s work with impurity, make a fatal mistake.
Why is blaspheming the Holy Spirit “fatal”—a uniquely unforgiveable sin? Commentator William Lane offers a helpful explanation:
Blasphemy is an expression of defiant hostility toward God. The scribes were thoroughly familiar with this concept under the rubric “profanation of the Name,” which generally denoted speech which defies God’s power and majesty. The scribal tradition considered blasphemy no less seriously than did Jesus.
Lane joins many scholars in assuming that “the scribal tradition,” which is recorded in later rabbinic writings, may be rooted in the time of Yeshua and earlier. Accordingly, he goes on to cite a comment from the third-century Sifre on Deuteronomy: “The Holy One, blessed be he, pardons everything else, but on profanation of the Name he takes vengeance immediately,” and continues,
This is the danger to which the scribes exposed themselves when they attributed to the agency of Satan the redemption brought by Jesus. The expulsion of the demons was a sign of the intrusion of the Kingdom of God. Yet the scribal accusations against Jesus amount to a denial of the power and greatness of the Spirit of God.
Spiritual confrontation in Mark reveals the power of the Holy Spirit over all evil and impure forces, and validates Yeshua’s mission of purifying and giving life. In Mark, confrontation with the satanic forces reveals the Holy Spirit as palpably real and actively engaged in this world through the deeds of Yeshua, and his followers as well (3:15, 6:13), regardless of the mounting opposition of the gatekeepers.
Devourer of the Word (4:3–4, 14–15)
3 “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. . . .”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”
Yeshua’s ministry in Galilee has drawn huge crowds and created popular acclaim, but has also stirred up mounting resistance among the religious gatekeepers. Equally troubling is the growing sense in Mark that the big crowds don’t really understand Yeshua’s message of the nearness of God’s kingdom and the need to repent and believe. The crowds are attracted to Yeshua’s evident power over disease and demonic infestation. They are amazed by it, but puzzled as well (1:27; 2:12), and we don’t hear anything about their repentance. In the final scene of Mark 3 (31–34), Yeshua’s family represents those who might be close to Yeshua, but fail to respond at all to his call to repentance and belief.
We can understand the institutional resistance to the message of the kingdom, but what is behind this failure to respond in depth even among those drawn to Yeshua? Yeshua’s “parable” about Satan’s kingdom in Mark 3 revealed that Satan is the organizing force behind the unclean spirits opposing Yeshua. The well-known parable of the sower in Mark 4 reveals that Satan’s activity goes beyond the obvious level of spiritual conflict, that is, demonic manifestations, to have impact upon the whole mission of Yeshua. Satan is the one who steals the word from the hearts of those who are unprepared to receive it. The word isn’t sown into a benign, or even neutral, setting, but into a setting actively patrolled by the adversary. The first major component of Yeshua’s ministry, preaching the word of the kingdom (1:14–15, 38–39; 3:14; 6:12) entails confrontation with spiritual evil as surely as does the accompanying component of casting out demons.
France notes that the different types of soil represent different types of people, different ways of hearing the word that is being sown (4:14). He terms the soil along the path “the worst type of soil,” which the seed fails to penetrate at all, and continues:
Such ineffective hearing is attributed to the activity of ὁ Σατανᾶς [Satan], who, as the focus of the opposition to the purpose of God and the ministry of Jesus, is naturally determined to prevent the knowledge of God’s kingship from being grasped. In 8:33 he will similarly be found promoting a concern for τὰ τῶν ἀνθρώπων [that which is of man] in opposition to τὰ τοῦ θεοῦ [that which is of God].
We’ll turn to Mark 8:33 shortly as the final appearance of the name “Satan” in Mark’s account, but for now we note France’s emphasis on Satan as “the focus of the opposition” to Yeshua’s mission. Yeshua’s parable reveals that malignant spiritual forces are resisting the spread of his word. He confronts this cosmic evil not only in casting out unclean spirits, but throughout his whole ministry.
This sense is heightened by Yeshua’s remark to “the twelve” (4:10) as he begins to explain the parable to them: “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (4:13). The number twelve, of course, reflects the twelve tribes of Israel, and some scholars have taken their appointment in Mark 3:14–15 to indicate a replacement of the twelve tribes, as the core of the “new Israel.” But the twelve are better understood as an affirmation of the original twelve tribes of Israel, as Bauckham notes:
Israel in its beginning in the wilderness was taken as prototypical for the restored Israel of the messianic age. Jesus’ appointment of the Twelve symbolized the claim that in his own ministry this messianic restoration of Israel had already begun in nucleus. The appointment of the Twelve constituted, as several scholars have argued, a prophetic sign of what God was doing in Jesus’ ministry.
What God was “doing in Jesus’ ministry” included the fulfillment of his promises to Israel. In addition to representing the twelve tribes and their restoration, the twelve are being sent out to the twelve tribes of Israel of their day to preach and expel demons, that is to inaugurate the Davidic kingdom, which entails defeat of the spiritual opposition.
Yeshua’s question to them—How then will you understand all the parables?—“suggests that the parable of the four soils is the key to all other parables and thus the key to understanding the paradox of the presence of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ ministry, which is accompanied by resistance and hostility.” The priority of this parable rests at least in part on its depiction of spiritual opposition to the word. Yeshua’s explanation of the parable goes on to reveal that this very opposition is somehow part of God’s overriding purpose, as Yeshua has already hinted to those around him and the twelve:
And he said to them: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that
“‘they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.’” (4:11–12)
This saying has long puzzled readers of Mark. Yeshua appears to be saying that he speaks in parables to deliberately veil his message to “those outside” in order to prevent them from turning and being forgiven. But this interpretation would seem to contradict the simple imperative of Yeshua’s message, repent and believe in the besorah, and his assurance that “all sins will be forgiven the children of man” (3:28). Furthermore, it is the normal function of a parable to reveal, not to conceal, as we saw in Yeshua’s parable about Satan and his kingdom in 3:23–27. The parable of the lamp, which appears a few verses down (4:21–22) teaches that what is now hidden or secret must be brought to light.
To explain his use of parables, Yeshua cites the heavenly court scene of Isaiah 6. There Isaiah is told that judgment must come, despite the efforts he must make to warn the people, but a remnant will remain after judgment, with the potential to respond. Such an interpretation would be consistent with Yeshua’s words about “the elect” to be preserved through the apocalyptic events that lie ahead (Mark 13:20–23, 27; cf. 3:13). More to the point, perhaps, is Yeshua’s own conclusion to the parable, spoken before he takes his followers aside to explain it to them: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (4:9). In the climate of spiritual hardness—seeing but not perceiving, hearing but not understanding—are some who can see and hear, and Yeshua exhorts them to do so.
Nonetheless, God’s purpose of hardening Yeshua’s audience, or a good portion of it, at least for a time, remains, as does the irony that God uses the Adversary to advance that purpose, by “devouring” the word sown upon the hard and impenetrable path. As a further irony, the involvement of Satan in this process is mentioned only as if in passing, even though Satan was introduced in the opening scene of Mark as a primal cosmic adversary. Mark recognizes Satan’s role in resisting the proclamation of the Kingdom, but doesn’t exalt that role, thereby keeping the adversary in his place. And within the scene of hardening and the vulnerability of God’s word, the possibility of repentance remains, so that Yeshua’s opening declaration stands: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Final encounters with unclean spirits
Mark records three more encounters with the demonic realm in 5:1ff, 7:24ff, and 9:14ff, and also mentions the authority of the twelve over demons in 6:13. Before turning to Satan’s final appearance in Mark, we’ll consider the first of these final encounters, in the country of the Gerasenes (5:1–20). There, upon arrival, Yeshua is accosted by a man coming out from “among the tombs” who had been bound with chains, which he tore apart. One commentator calls this encounter “the supreme exorcism in the Gospel of Mark,” as a fulfillment of the “parable” of the (other) strong man in 3:27, who was also bound in chains, but didn’t break free.
By means of these allusions to 3.27, the subjugation of this unbindable strong man suggests another dimension to the readers: Jesus’ riddle is finding an answer and the strong man is being subdued. As Jesus banishes the legion of daimones and delivers the man from the tombs, the “prince of the daimones” [3:22] suffers a major defeat.
The answer to Yeshua’s “riddle”—“How can Satan cast out Satan? (3:23)—is enacted in the most concrete fashion: this unchained strong man is subdued by a word of command, freed from the powers of the evil one, and left “clothed and in his right mind” (5:15), as an archetype of the deliverance entailed in the kingdom of God. In stark contrast with Yeshua’s initial encounter with an unclean spirit in a synagogue on Shabbat (1:23), this one takes place in a scene of multiple impurities, among tombs in Gentile territory, with “a great herd of pigs feeding there on the hillside” (5:11). This change of scene reveals that Yeshua’s confrontation with the demonic is not a matter of a local holy man contending with localized spirit-beings, but a matter of cosmic proportions. The kingdom of God is rooted in Israel but not limited to the land or people of Israel; its Messiah-king is the Son of Man, who is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan 7:13–14). Thus, the encounter with the Gerasene demoniac hints at the coming ministry to the Gentiles (cf. 3:8; 7:24–30; 15:39).
As part of “the supreme exorcism” in Mark, the defiant words of the demonized man are revealing. In 5:7 we hear the final demonic confession in this Besorah; there will be further encounters with demons, as noted above, but this is the last time Mark lets them have a voice. “And crying out with a loud voice, he said, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’” The language here reflects that of the first demonic encounter, in 1:21–28, which ends with Yeshua’s reputation spreading “everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.” Our current encounter ends with the liberated man going off to proclaim in the predominantly Gentile region of Decapolis, how much Yeshua had done for him, so that “everyone marveled” (5:20). In this scene, “Already the foundation has been laid for the extension to the Gentiles of the ministry and mission of the Jewish Messiah (13:10; 14:9).”
Mark enhances this preview of the Gentile mission to come by noting the title the demoniac uses for Yeshua, “Son of the Most High God,” which reflects El Elyon, God Most High, a name that first sounds on the lips of the Gentile priest-king Malki-Tzedek and is then affirmed by Abraham (Gen 14:18–24). The use of this title both strengthens the suggestion of a Gentile mission here and links that mission to the legacy of Abraham, in whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). It also suggests a more militant theme, as Marcus notes:
The “Most High God” in OT and Jewish texts is associated not only with Gentiles but also, more particularly, with the sovereignty of the God of Israel over the whole earth, even Gentile realms (Deut 32:8; Dan 4:17). This sovereignty was already established by a primordial triumph over anti-God powers (Isa 14:12–15; cf. Deut 32:7–8), but it was reasserted by subsequent divine defeats of those powers’ human exponents, i.e. the armies of the Gentiles, in holy war (Gen 14:10; Pss 9:3; 47:2; 83:18; 3 Macc 6:2; 1QH 6:33). Our passage may reflect this background: by casting out the legion of demons, the “Son of the Most High God” is subduing a hostile Gentile territory through a saving act of holy war.
Encounters with the demonic realm throughout Mark reflect this triumph of the Son of the Most High God in Israel and beyond.
Notably in this scene, Yeshua does not invoke the messianic secret, but instead forbids the demoniac from following him (back to Galilee) and directs him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (5:19). Perhaps the secret applies specifically within Israel and not to the Gentile mission, because the secret is inherent to the fulfillment of the vision of Isaiah 6, and the formation of a remnant within Israel, as cited in Mark 4:11–12 and discussed in the Excursus below. Israel remains at the center of the plan of redemption, even if the fulfillment of that plan on Israel’s behalf must be delayed. A more immediate—but partial—fulfillment is at hand for the Gentiles, and in Mark’s unrelenting irony it advances here through the expulsion of unclean spirits in an unclean place into unclean creatures.
Yeshua reveals and rebukes (Mark 8:29–32)
Mark 3 and 4 provide a picture of the role of the chief adversary, Satan, in the confrontation between spiritual forces that prevails throughout the Besorah. As we’ve seen, a final mention of the name Satan comes at the turning-point of Mark’s whole account.
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
The supernatural forces surrounding Yeshua, both the holy and the unclean, have acknowledged him as Messiah and Son of God, with some variation of terminology. Only now is Yeshua able to elicit that same sort of recognition from his followers, or at least one representative follower, Peter—“You are the Messiah” (8:29). Yeshua’s initial response is familiar enough: “he strictly charged them to tell no one about him” (8:30). What follows is not so familiar, as Yeshua tells the twelve what awaits him in Jerusalem, not in veiled language, but explicitly, so explicitly, indeed, that Mark notes: “And he said this plainly” (8:32).
Peter steps forward to resist this whole idea, and Yeshua rebukes him—or the one who inspires his resistance: “Get behind me, Satan!”
The use of the name for a human being has no parallel, not even as a term of ultimate abuse. Jesus’ point is that since Peter’s rebuke reflects merely human concerns, in particular concerns that are opposed to God, his thoughts are “so much at odds with the thoughts of God as to be attributed to a more supernatural source” (France, p. 338). Peter has temporarily become a “Satan” because he sides with God’s ancient opponent who wants to thwart God’s redemptive purposes.
Yeshua’s use of “Satan” here has disturbing implications: the adversary has infiltrated the very core of Yeshua’s followers. As if to counter such infiltration, Yeshua will repeat his explicit description of what awaits in Jerusalem in 9:31 and 10:32–34. The final statement is the fullest of the three, and the only one that implicates Gentiles as well as Jewish religious authorities in his death. And, of equal significance, it’s the only one addressed to “the twelve” rather than more generally to his disciples, as before (10:32; cf. 8:27, 33; 9:31). Mention of the twelve here foreshadows its repeated use in the account of Yeshua’s betrayal by Judas, “one of the twelve” (14:10; see also 14:17–20, 43). All of this suggests that even among those closest to Yeshua, those privy to the details of his passion and resurrection, the enemy has succeeded in planting his seed.
The supernatural being who tests Yeshua at the very inauguration of his ministry, who has a whole realm of demonic powers serving under him, and who snatches the word of the Kingdom away from hearts that are unprepared, has infiltrated Yeshua’s own ranks. The one who steals the seed of God’s word has sown the seed of deception among the disciples, which will in the end bear fruit as Judas, one of the twelve, betrays him.
Yeshua’s rebuke of Peter includes the final mention of Satan by name in Mark’s account, and encounters with demonic spirits also cease after chapter 9. How do we explain this absence of spiritual opposition as Mark reaches its climax? Perhaps Satan’s strategy (a term suggested by the use of “prince” and “kingdom” in chapter 3) shifts as Yeshua nears Jerusalem, from demonic harassment to direct assault culminating in crucifixion. This outcome seems increasingly inevitable as Yeshua and his band approach the holy city, a center of both ecclesial and secular power, where those powers collude in his execution. Satan and his demonic minions leave the stage in the second half of Mark as human powers complete their task of opposing Yeshua and his redemptive mission.
But if Satan is behind these events, that’s never stated in the text, and in our current passage he’s trying to convince Yeshua to avoid his coming crucifixion. There’s another, perhaps more plausible, explanation for the withdrawal of Satan after chapter 8 and the final demonic showdown in 9:14ff.
Yeshua’s rebuke of Peter reflects Zechariah 3:2—“And the Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!’ ” In this scene, “in the presence of the High Priest Joshua—Jesus in Greek!—God rebukes Satan with similar language. Peter cannot imagine a messiah who suffers and dies, and Jesus’ sharp response defines this passage as a central, defining moment in the Gospel.” In this construal, Yeshua’s rebuke of Peter is the turning-point, sealed by the three-fold announcement of the plan that he will indeed suffer and die in Jerusalem. The intense spiritual confrontation of the first half of Mark ends with the decisive renunciation of Satan and his anti-God value system. Satan’s absence in the final chapters of Mark may reflect Yeshua’s utter rejection of the satanic suggestion to avoid the cross. Satan is not inspiring the events leading up to the crucifixion, as in the first explanation, but has already withdrawn in defeat when it becomes apparent that the crucifixion (and resulting resurrection) will indeed take place.
The crucifixion, which might appear to be a triumphal outcome for Satan, will turn out to be his decisive defeat, and triumph for the kingdom that Yeshua inaugurates, for “after three days he will rise,” as he declares three times on the way to Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31; 10:34). The spiritual conflict portrayed throughout Mark is resolved through Yeshua’s humble submission to the cross, which opens the way for his resurrection. And the disciples, despite not understanding this three-fold declaration, continue to follow Yeshua to Jerusalem and, despite abandoning him in his suffering (14:41, 50, 66–72), will be summoned to rejoin him in Galilee after his resurrection. If Yeshua’s closest followers can be restored after being deceived by the adversary, we can hope for restoration for all who have been led astray.
Excursus: The mysterious—and temporary—hardening of Israel
The parable of the sower (4:3–9) reveals Satan snatching away the word that is sown on hard, inhospitable soil by the roadside. His activity isn’t limited to demonic harassment, but is directed against the proclamation of the word itself. In unfolding this parable to the twelve, Yeshua cites (or paraphrases) Isaiah 6 to explain the sort of roadside hardness he is encountering among his own people, who
“. . . may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.” (4:11–12 // Isa 6:10)
Yeshua had ended the parable itself with the words, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (4:9)—providing hope that the outcome pictured in 4:11–12 is only temporary or partial, since some may hear and understand. The resistance Yeshua describes may be, as in Isaiah, a means of advancing a broader prophetic agenda.
This interpretation of Mark 4 suggests that the outsiders “need not be permanently written off, that the division between insiders and outsiders is not a gulf without bridges.” These words are especially poignant when we remember that at this stage of Mark’s account, the “outsiders” are Jews—including the “very large crowd” gathered around him by the sea to hear these parables (4:1–2), and indeed his own mother and brothers in the preceding scene (3:31–32). Satan’s snatching-away of the word is not sufficient to frustrate God’s plan of redemption, and may indeed serve to advance the plan. Furthermore, Yeshua’s revealing the secret of the kingdom of God to “the twelve” suggests that the twelve tribes continue to have a place within that plan.
Reading Mark with such a hope is consistent with the vision of Isaiah 6, in which the prophet sees “the Lord sitting upon a throne” (6:1), and responds, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (6:5). An angel touches Isaiah’s unclean mouth with a burning coal, saying “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for,” and Isaiah responds to God’s call for someone to send to Israel, even though the people will not understand and be healed (6:9–10). Isaiah 6 ends with mention of a “tenth” that remains after judgment, a “stump,” and the concluding line: “The holy seed is its stump” (6:13). We can recognize an inclusio here, with Isaiah as a one-man remnant at the beginning of the chapter, and the tenth/stump/holy seed as a remnant at the end.
Is it possible that Mark here is treating the same issues that engage Paul in Romans 11:25–29? In Mark, Yeshua remains with his own people, announces the kingdom of God they have long awaited, and finds substantial support among them, along with substantial resistance. In the end, as he foretells, he will be handed over to the Gentile authorities for crucifixion. How might we understand this pervasive Jewish resistance to one bearing the promise long awaited by the Jews, and demonstrating it through mighty acts of mercy and deliverance? How do we explain the apparent failure of the message of the kingdom of God, especially among the people most invested in that kingdom, and despite the positive response of a remnant within Israel?
The parables of Mark 4 go a long way in addressing these questions, especially if we pay heed to Yeshua’s introductory words: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God” (4:11a). “Secret” translates the Greek μυστήριον, “mystery,” which appears in the synoptic gospels only here and in the parallel passages in Matthew (13:11) and Luke (8:10). It’s significant that Matthew and Luke, despite some changes of terminology in the sentence in which μυστήριον appears, retain this specific term. The word has a rich background and usage in second-temple literature, but for our current purposes, we can stick with its simple sense of hidden meaning, a secret that is revealed to some. That the kingdom can arrive in power and remain unrecognized is a mystery, as is the nature of that kingdom as present and yet still awaited. The parables portray and help to explain this mystery.
Μυστήριον also appears in Romans 11:25: “Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” As noted above, Paul seems to be dealing with questions here similar to those underlying Mark 4: How do we explain the apparent failure of the announcement of the restored kingdom of God among the people most familiar with these promises? How do we understand what appears to be a failure of these promises of restoration?
In describing this mystery, Romans 11:25 employs another word, πώρωσις, hardness/hardening, which reflects the picture in Mark 4/Isaiah 6. “Hardness” doesn’t appear by word in those texts, but it certainly describes the condition of the soil along the roadside, and the obdurate response of Israel in Isaiah 6:9–10. Furthermore, Mark employs πώρωσις at three points to describe hardness or hardening of heart, first among Yeshua’s critics in 3:5, where hardness of heart “calls to mind the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. At Ex 4:21 God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, while at Ex 8.15,32 Pharaoh hardens his own heart. At 4.12 Mark quotes Isa 6.10–11 in a way suggesting that God controls the hardening.”
Yeshua also encounters hardness of heart among his own followers (6:52; 8:17). In 8:17–18 he cites Isaiah 6 again: “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” Again this hardening may not be final. “Do you not yet understand?” implies that the disciples might later understand, which is particularly significant as this passage leads into the scene in which Peter declares Yeshua to be Messiah, a sure sign of understanding, although Peter goes on to display ample misunderstanding as well (8:27–33).
Paul doesn’t cite Isaiah 6 directly in Romans 11, but he does cite later passages in Isaiah that reflect the outworking of the Isaiah 6 introduction.
What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,
“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes that would not see
and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.” (11:7–8)
In this citation, “Paul draws heavily on Isa 8; 28,” which echo the language of Isaiah 6. Following the description of Israel’s mysterious hardening in Romans 11:25, Paul goes on to cite, with some modification, Isaiah 59:20–21:
And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
when I take away their sins.” (Rom 11:26–27)
In other words, the outcome of the mystery in Romans is Israel’s salvation; might the similar terminology in Mark reflect hope for the same outcome?
Moreover, the role of the outsiders in Mark may be essential to God’s strategy of redemption, as in Romans 11. Alongside the irony of demonic spirits revealing the secret identity of the obscure preacher from Nazareth is the irony that God is somehow behind the obduracy that Yeshua encounters among his own people and will channel it into his own redemptive purposes. In Romans, Israel’s partial hardening until the fullness of the Gentiles arrives is essential to the overarching purposes of God. Perhaps the resistance Yeshua encounters among his own people in Mark is also essential to God’s purposes of redemption. Mark’s understanding of Israel’s ultimately redemptive role may underlie his more positive portrayal of the Jewish “opposition,” relative to Matthew and John, as noted by Marcus. In Mark, bitterness toward the Jews “is directed primarily against the Jewish leaders rather than the people as a whole.”
Throughout the Gospel, the leaders’ negative reaction to Jesus is contrasted with the people’s positive one, an opposition that becomes explicit in 12:12, where the leaders refrain from arresting Jesus for fear of the crowd, and in 14:1–2, where they plot to take him into custody secretly, lest there be a disturbance among the people. It is only at the very end that they succeed in manipulating the crowd into colluding in their plot to put Jesus to death (15:11–13).
Does Mark’s nuanced portrayal of the Jewish people reflect a hope for Israel in line with Paul’s words in Romans 11:1? “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!”
Mark reveals the intensity of spiritual opposition to the kingdom of God through a series of confrontations in the first half of his account. But Messiah’s paradoxical victory through crucifixion means that we don’t live in a dualistic, embattled world, but one in which the God of Israel is clearly sovereign even amidst what appears to humans as defeat.
In Mark, the kingdom of God advances not just despite the opposition of contending forces, but by means of that very opposition. Just as the opposition of Satan and his hosts is not only overcome but becomes a means of advancing Yeshua’s messianic mission, so the opposition of the Jewish authorities is not only overcome, but becomes a means of bringing Yeshua’s mission to its fulfillment. There is, however, an essential difference. The demonic hosts will be destroyed in the end (1:24; 3:23–26). But Mark repeatedly draws upon the writings of the Prophets, especially Isaiah, which foretell Israel’s restoration in the end. Mark concludes with a summons to Yeshua’s disciples, who have failed and even denied him, to meet him in Galilee after his resurrection. This open-ended conclusion provides hope that Messiah’s own people, also failing and denying, will meet him in the end as well.
We cannot truly engage Mark’s message—and cannot authentically respond to its call to follow Yeshua—without coming to terms with the reality of supernatural conflict. And this conflict is not just a matter of exorcisms and resisting Satan’s blandishments. Rather, it provides a description and explanation of the world in which we live—broken, unfinished, and yet headed for redemption. Mark’s paradoxical account suggests that the corporate Jewish response to Yeshua as Messiah, rooted as it is in events going all the way back to the days of Yeshua’s earthly sojourn, is itself part of the brokenness of our world, and is destined to be healed in the end.
Russ Resnik is a veteran rabbi, teacher, counselor, and writer, currently serving as Rabbinic Counsel of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) and editor-in-chief of Kesher. Russ and his wife, Jane, have four children, eight grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter and live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he leads Adonai Ro’i chavurah.
1 For an exposition of the term “Besorah” in place of “Gospel” or “Good News,” see Mark S. Kinzer, Russell L. Resnik, Besorah: The Resurrection of Jerusalem and the Healing of a Fractured Gospel (Eugene: Cascade, 2021), 11–21. Besorah as a title is capitalized, and left uncapitalized in other applications.
2 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 100; I will at times speak of “Mark” not only as the name of this Gospel, but also as its author. While I hold this to be the case, I’m not dogmatic about it. Employing Mark as the author’s name provides for a simpler and less cluttered exposition, and my statements will stand even if one questions personal Markan authorship.
3 France, 31–32; Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 27, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 525; The Jewish Annotated New Testament (JANT), Second Edition, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 68.
4 William L. Lane, The Gospel according to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 41 fn. 7; France, 49; David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Matthew and Mark, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2005), 404.
5 This notion doesn’t preclude the idea of creation ex nihilo, as reflected in Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, / and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (ESV). The primordial chaos itself is created by the word of the Lord.
6 For a recent treatment of the serpent theme in Jewish texts, see Joshua Brumbach. “Leviathan and Exegetical Imagination.” Kesher Issue 42 (Winter/Spring 2023).
7 The classic Hebrew translation of the Gospels by the German scholar Franz Delitzsch uses “chayot” in Mark 1:13, and defines the term as “wild animal; a type of angel” in the margin; The Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels: A Hebrew/English Translation (Marshfield, MO: Vine of David, 2011), 124.
8 Marcus, Mark 1–8, 190.
9 Marcus, Mark 1–8, 192.
10 The Five Books of Moses, A New Translation with Introduction, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox. The Schocken Bible, Volume I (New York: Schocken, 1995), 150.
11 France, 420–21.
12 Marcus, Mark 1–8, 193.
13 Marcus, Mark 1–8, 194.
14 Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021), 142, cross-references to Matthew deleted. Thiessen’s use of pneuma terminology for “spirit/spiritual” avoids preconceptions attached to “spirit” terminology. See especially 140–47.
15 Thiessen, 46. Chapter 6 (123–48) portrays “demonic impurity” as one of the “forces of death,” along with the three “forces” of tzara’at or “scale disease” (as in Mark 1:40), genital discharges (5:25), and corpse defilement (5:35, 41). Thiessen’s notion of demonic impurity is consistent with Mark’s frequent use of the term “unclean spirit” (1:23–27; 3:11, 30; 5:2–12; 6:7; 7:25; 9:25).
16 Lane, 145.
17 Lane, 145.
18 France, 205.
19 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 95.
20 Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 2, ed. Eckhard J. Schnabel (London: Inter-Varsity, 2017), 104; France, “it is the key to all the rest,” 204; see Marcus, “in explaining the Parable of the Sower, Jesus unlocked ‘all the parables,’” 310.
21 We’ll explore implications of the divine strategy alluded to in Isaiah 6 and Mark 4 in the Excursus below.
22 Peter Bolt, Jesus’ Defeat of Death: Persuading Mark’s Early Readers. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 125 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 146–147. Cited in Thiessen, 146.
23 France, 233. The Decapolis is “a federation of ten predominantly Gentile cities east of the Sea of Galilee,” JANT, 80.
24 “. . . moreover, the man uses a term for God that was typically employed by Gentiles when referring to the God of Israel,” Marcus, Mark 1–8, 342.
25 Marcus, Mark 1–8, 344
26 Even here, with his usual irony, Mark refrains from reporting use of “Son of God” until it’s voiced by the Roman officer at Yeshua’s crucifixion.
27 Schnabel, 201.
28 JANT, 87.
29 France, 201.
30 Accordingly, ESV, NRSV, and many others use “secret” here for μυστήριον. See Schnabel, 102.
31 JANT, 76.
32 Rashi plausibly takes Isaiah 6 as the beginning of the whole book, with the first five chapters placed out of chronological order.
33 JANT, 309. The JANT commentary on Romans is by Mark Nanos.
34 Joel Marcus, Mark 8–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Yale Bible, vol. 27A (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2009), 930.