4. All in the Family
If one of Mark’s themes is the nature of discipleship in the Christian community, then his words about the disciples take on special importance. He has chosen the twelve previously. They are seated around him as he teaches. He points to them as his authentic family. That description intends to draw Mark’s first listeners, and us, into that intimate circle as partners in the family business.
Hurtado observes that even though the Twelve have been given privileged seats in the circle, they are not mentioned specifically in verses 31-35. Instead, the family circle is left open to Mark’s first listeners, and to us. “The Christian readers are to identify themselves with those who do God’s will,” he writes, “and so are to see themselves included among those given this special closeness to Jesus” (page 67).
Note Jesus’ words about the potential loss of one’s given family in Matthew 10:34-39 and Luke 12:49-53. Swanson reminds us that we should not underplay the power of this incident in Jesus’ life and ministry. “Honoring family is the first commandment in the second table of the Commandments,” he writes, “and it is the commandment that sets the context for all other faithful observance. When Jesus’ mother arrives,” Swanson notes, Jesus “ritually disowns her” (page 168).
“In ritual and family terms,” Swanson continues, “it does not matter whether Jesus meant to raise the status of his followers to something like fictive family status. Even if such an action were altogether good,” he argues, “he still leaves his mother alone as she watches him turn away from her. The offense of this action,” he concludes, “is essential to the development of Mark’s story” (page 168).
“It is remarkable that this somewhat negative treatment of Jesus’ family survived,” Hurtado suggests, “in view of the veneration of the mother of Jesus and the general high respect for his family in later church tradition” (page 67). In fact, this description created discomfort among Christian scribes and copyists very early in the process of textual transmission.
The original reading in verse 21, translated in the NRSV as “his family,” is the Greek phrase “hoi par autou” which means “the ones from or of him.” Metzger notes that this could be translated either as his “friends” or his “family.” The context in verses 31-35 makes a strong case for translating the phrase as “his family.”
A group of manuscripts have the phrase “huper autou” which could mean something like “those on his side.” A few manuscripts found the original reading “so embarrassing,” according to Metzger that they transcribed it as “when the scribes and others had heard about him” (pages 81-82). Hurtado argues that this change was “designed to remove the idea that Jesus’ family or friends might have tried to seize him and might have thought him to be mad” (page 68).
“This text is almost programmatic for Mark (as it is for the other Gospel writers), who sees the good news creating a new household of those accepting Jesus’ proclamation and thus becoming loyal to the Father,” suggest Malina and Rohrbaugh (page 201). “It is a sharp move away from the Temple or the biological family as well as the social networks on which they depended,” they note.
“Loss of connection to the family meant the loss of these vital networks as well as loss of connection to the land,” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue. “But a surrogate family, what anthropologists call a fictive kin group, could serve the same functions as the family of origin, and thus the Christian community acting as a surrogate family is for Mark the locus of the good news. It transcends the normal categories of birth, class, race, gender, education, wealth, and power.” (pp. 201-202).
“Of course,” Hurtado argues, “this information about Jesus and his family was not preserved for curiosity’s sake but to demonstrate by Jesus’ example the cost of discipleship and – by Jesus’ words in 3:35 – its reward” (page 67).
“The Greek term here translated “restrain,” suggests strong and forceful action” according to Malina and Rohrbaugh. “Since all members of a family had to be constantly concerned lest the behavior of one member damage the honor of all, the comment about Jesus’ family seeking to retrieve him suggests their perception that the honor of the family was indeed threatened” (page 199).
It is also interesting that in that latter paragraph Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters, are mentioned. The mention of the sisters is contested in the manuscript evidence. However, a majority of the committee behind the authoritative Greek text are fairly certain that this mention was found in the earliest manuscripts and was deleted from later copies.
Metzger himself, however, holds a dissenting opinion – that the shorter reading is to be preferred. “From a historical point of view,” he writes in a bracketed comment, “it is extremely unlikely that Jesus’ sisters would have joined publicly in seeking to check him in his ministry” (page 82).
This argument seems circular to me, however. Women were not generally part of such interactions, Metzger argues. Therefore, they should not be part of this one. Since they are not part of this one, it is clear they were not generally part of such interactions. Perhaps sticking to the mechanics of the text would have been the wiser course in this regard. Hurtado notes that Jesus’ sisters are clearly mentioned in Mark 6:1-3 in addition to four brothers.
We Protestants tend to read this directly as evidence that Jesus had full siblings. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, in maintaining dogmas about the Virgin Birth and Mary’s perpetual virginity, assert that these are half-siblings from Joseph’s previous marriage (which left Joseph a widower) or that these “siblings” were really Jesus’ cousins. Hurtado points out that the “cousin” argument reduces the power of this text, since cousins are not as close to us as siblings. Well, maybe (or maybe not).
Swanson cautions us against assuming that Jesus gets it all right here when it comes to his given family. “What if his family is right?” he wonders. “One of the things impetuous young people learn as they become adults is that their parents get smarter and smarter,” Swanson notes. “If you take the doctrine of the Incarnation seriously and hold that Jesus is fully and completely human,” he proposes, “then you ought to expect that his mother knows more than he thinks she does” (page 169).
I think this growth on the part of Jesus during his ministry is one of the subtexts in Mark’s gospel. I’m not inclined, for example, to give Jesus some kind of theological escape hatch in his difficult conversation with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7. She teaches him things he needs to learn on his journey just like the rest of us. I think this deepens our understanding and appreciation of the Incarnation, just as Swanson proposes.
It is also the case that this need not be an either/or binary – either Jesus or his mother is “right.” Swanson notes that each side of the equation must be considered. “So, what if she is correct in being concerned that he might be a danger to himself or others?” Jesus’ mother was clearly right in this matter. After all, the drama of the gospel puts her at the foot of his cross soon enough.
Swanson lists the evidence for such a parental worry – mostly abandoning Sabbath observance, taking up with disreputable characters, staying out all night, disrupting other’s families. “If the main result of his independent activity was to fracture the basic locus for faithful and productive life,” Swanson muses, “then his mother might well be concerned and find it to be her responsibility to tend to her child” (page 170).
“The integrity and truth of this scene depend on giving Jesus’ family the benefit of the doubt,” Swanson argues. “If they think Jesus may have lost his mind, truthful tellings of the story will contain evidence that could be read that way,” he notes (page 172).
Just because Jesus’ mother is right, however, doesn’t mean that Jesus is wrong. Swanson suggests that Jesus’ imagery conveys a couple of points. First, the battle is for the life and death of God’s people. This is not a mid-level theological debate. This is a war with Satan and his armies.
Second, this battle is for the soul of the cosmos – what Mark calls “the kingdom of God.” Jesus is fighting for all to have a place in the community. “No one will be shut out from the community feast because of a withered hand,” Swanson writes, referring to the previous context, “and no demons of any sort will harass the people” (page 171).
Tom Wright has a somewhat different view of the situation. He suggests that Jesus is relativizing the major institutions of Jewish piety, including Sabbath observance and family allegiance.
“Despite what pious Christian traditions have sometimes said about Mary, Jesus’ mother, at this stage at least she clearly didn’t have any idea what he was up to,” Wright declares, “She had brought the rest of the family down to Capernaum from Nazareth to find him and take him away, to stop him behaving in such an outrageous fashion, bringing dishonor to the family name. They thought he was mad (see verse 21)” (Kindle Location 867).
Well, there are families…and then there are families.
In our culture we continue to divinize “the family” and demonize “alternative” family systems and structures. That imposed and artificial hierarchy does violence to millions of people in numerous ways. While it may not be popular with some, we should note with clarity and conviction that Jesus does not allow us to blaspheme by using the family as a prop for our prejudices and a proxy for God.
That will be a shock to some and very good news to others.
References and Resources
Guijarro, Santiago. “The Politics of Exorcism: Jesus’ Reaction to Negative Labels in the Beelzebul Controversy.” https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/30239993/1999__Guijarro__Exorcism-Beelzebul.pdf?1353730298=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DThe_Politics_of_Exorcism_Jesus_Reaction.pdf&Expires=1622209905&Signature=ZVadoEoDb-kqMkfEwrdxjnnTeCLdTtkU0MwKpTCy4G3iEZGNcYSXFAZL033OpQBtWTr69blZOLxZ7wyOs4BY2TE7~QMjbhMb6uu9M~3NwS81Hj9cw2lOsOTrf8GilWS5CGAIclR9ntJHzpI39PohmVXeY3nNp~1TwkhxNif1-yPQjcM8cKbzTJpymVxvYGMyY4hMTOM4fkArz2qE7fEBaaSJit4QjhCBUB9-HBDd04-9JeU7dP57KYZYZQ8eUkVt5XH7jlgSDVbrOTdWf4MvVV04kaT-OoSdbqm-34EFO7JqSmNmq2ol-ur5PeVl2zpwyCbmJLEFzP4iSvTx82GGMw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA
Holland, Drew S. “The Meaning of Exesthe in Mark 3:21.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4/1:6-31 (Winter, 2017).
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Griggs, Linda Mackie. “Gaslighting Jesus.” https://relationalrealities.com/2018/06/10/gaslighting-jesus/.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.
Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.