The narrative in Mark 7:1-23 mentions at least four “audiences” for Jesus’ teaching on the purity rules of the elders. In verses 1-13, the audience is the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem. In verses 14-15, the audience is the crowd (verse 16 is excluded from modern translations, but that’s another story). In verses 17-23, the audience is Jesus’ disciples, who receive additional instruction in private, based on their question.
The fourth audience is those who are listening as the gospel account is performed orally. The narrator turns to the “real” audience in verse three and explains the handwashing practice of “the Pharisees and all the Jews.” Never mind for now that not all the Jews, even among those present, behave in this way. The narrator turns once again to the “real” audience to offer a brief explanation of the rules of Corban. And the narrator turns a final time to declare that Jesus, in this conversation, has “declared all foods clean.”
We can draw several insights from these simple observations. First, there is a “real” audience assumed by the author of the Gospel according to Mark. Malbon notes that these dramatic asides function to both acknowledge the distance between the “real” audience and the internal audiences and to increase that distance. It’s clear that the “real” audience doesn’t know the significance and procedures of the traditions of the elders. It’s also clear that the gospel account wants to move the identification of the “real” audience toward the disciples.
If the proposals of performance criticism are correct, and I think they are, this gospel was performed over and over again for audiences in the decades following the Resurrection. In fact, Joanna Dewey argues that the gospel of Mark was composed orally. What we have is one transcript of that oral composition.
That presumed fourth audience is invited to identify with each of the audiences inside the narrative. It’s not that they were required to pick one of the three and stick with that one. Instead, each of the three internal audiences portrays a possible response to Jesus and his teaching in this narrative. Each of those three responses is possible in the same person – sometimes, perhaps, all at once.
Dewey writes, “the audience at a performance of Mark’s gospel, insofar as the narrative came alive for them, would identify sequentially with the various characters and events of the narrative” (page 102). In an oral setting, the audience would be taken along on the journey with all of the characters in the drama. She notes that oral/aural texts are “additive” and “aggregative” rather than exclusive and binary. There’s something to be learned from each of the three audiences here.
The author of Mark’s gospel certainly wants us to be clear that the Pharisees and some of the scribes, from Jerusalem, do not accept Jesus’ teaching in this regard. The question they offer may have been innocent enough – an attempt to diagnose Jesus’ theological position on the relatively novel “traditions of the elders” in Jerusalem. Jesus sees beneath the question to how it works out in daily life. Those traditions can be used to undercut the very intentions of God’s commandments.
The center point of the chiasm in Mark 7 is addressed to the crowd. “And calling again to the crowd, he said to them, ‘Listen to me, all [of you] and understand! There is nothing outside of a person when it enters into that one which is able to profane that person; rather, the things which profane a person are those which come out of a person” (verses 14-15, my translation). This is the theme of the address in this chapter, but it is opaque to the disciples.
The disciples then request additional instruction. We might hear Jesus’ question to them as a critique, but that’s not necessarily the only way to hear it. Dewey argues that in an oral context, the critiques of the disciples “would probably have been taken much less seriously by a first-century listening audience than by modern scholars accustomed to printed texts” (page 78). Jesus’ question here may have been more of an observation than a criticism.
Instead, oral presentations were and are far more adversarial in presentation than we might expect from a written text. This is part of the drama of the presentation. In fact, the first audience might have expected this sort of highly charged language but would not have evaluated the disciples with nearly as much negative judgment as we do with our written document biases “The negative portrayal of the disciples,” Dewey writes, “may well have seemed to audiences merely part of a normal story” (page 100).
“The hearers enter a world in which the courage to move forward in following the Markan Jesus,” Dewey writes, “in spite of and through human failure as experienced through the disciples—becomes a possibility, even a reality. The oral/aural story does not primarily convey historical information,” she argues, “it gives meaning and power to a way of life, to a cosmos become real in performance” (page 101).
In light of this analysis, we can experience the disciples in the depth in which they are presented. Lay people who hear and read Mark’s gospel get this quite easily, in my experience. They don’t experience the text as a way to evaluate and then exclude the disciples in some way. Instead, they hear the stories of these enthusiastic bumblers and feel an immediate empathy and identification. If those clods can be central to the mission of Jesus, then I can as well!
That being said, the disciples don’t define faithfulness. Jesus does. “The audience is indeed called to imitate Jesus’s life and death but perceives Jesus, not the disciples, as the authority,” Dewey argues. “In the narrative, the disciples provide a means to teach about discipleship and illustrate for the listening audience both successes and failures in following Jesus” (pages 111-112).
The disciples, here and elsewhere in Mark, teach the “real” audience what following Jesus looks like and what it doesn’t look like. Their questions are not reasons for embarrassment. The questions create the opportunities for Jesus to teach them more. That’s certainly the case here in Mark 7.
This can be encouragement for every timid lay person who is sure that one must have a theology degree before coming to a bible study class. If the disciples didn’t ask questions, our gospel accounts would be much shorter and far less informative. We are invited to be people who love the questions at least as much as, and probably more than, the answers.
But what is the question here? The question really is something like this: what allegiance do we owe to a system that protects the status quo of power, position, privilege, and property? After all, that’s how this system really works out in practice. Jesus points precisely to and critiques this reality. The only ones who can really stick with the Traditions of the Elders are those folks who don’t have to work for a living – the Jerusalem aristocracy. Everyone else is just out of luck.
The Pharisees and some of the scribes from Jerusalem come to police Jesus on his boundary-breaking. The gospel account notes that it is the Pharisees and all the “Jews” who are able to observe these traditions. There are no punctuation marks in the original Greek of the text, so we have to supply them. And the written text gives very few indications of the “tone” of a sentence.
I propose that in this passage we put scare quotes around “Jews” as a way to indicate that it’s a highly self-selected crew that has the leisure to observe the finer points of the Tradition and to regard themselves as the only “real” Jews. This is, therefore, one of the many ways that the elites maintain their privileged status and continue their profitable accommodations with the Imperial administration. The Pharisees – at least some of them – are the agents of the aristocracy in the outlying districts such as Galilee.
Jesus is resisting this oppressive, collaborationist regime and the system it supports. He equips the crowd with a set of slogans to begin to analyze and question their own situation. Some of them may become radicalized as their consciousness is changed. Others won’t notice and will go looking for whichever populist hero bakes the best bread.
Disciples are those who have been called into the resistance campaign Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. The question before the disciples is always the same. Are you in? More to the point, are you all in? Will you move from being an “ally” to being an “accomplice” in the resistance movement? Part of the drama of the Gospel of Mark is that we don’t know quite how it turns out, even at the end of the story.
I would transpose our text into this anti-racism key as one way to bring some application to the text. As a white person, I am prone to the default of white supremacy and the privileged status that I can simply take for granted as a result. It takes effort to maintain that default, but I’m so used to it and so ready to believe this is the “natural” state of affairs that I don’t even notice the work I’m doing.
Or I can begin to grow in awareness and start to resist this system of the status quo. I’m not going to do very well in that resistance — just like those disciples. I’m not going to get it right in this life, but I can’t let those failures deter me from continuing the struggle. The disciples kept looking for the big payoff for their investment in the Jesus program. Jesus kept telling them that resistance is its own reward. They didn’t get it until after the Resurrection, and even then it was with halting steps at best.
White male supremacy is our best contemporary example of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep our traditions. We white people really do believe that we have always been superior, and we act as if that has always been the case. We don’t want to hear that white male supremacy is a fabricated story designed to undergird our systematic exploitation of other human beings made in the image of God. I suspect the Pharisees and scribes didn’t want to hear the critique Jesus offered either.
Are we making void the word of God through our traditions, our habits, our systemic structures, and unconscious assumptions? There’s a way to rile up a congregation, eh?
References and Resources
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Kenny, Andrew. “Surprise, Colorado: The guy who sold all those ‘NATIVE’ stickers is a transplant.” https://denverite.com/2018/05/25/surprise-colorado-natives-inventor-beloved-bumper-sticker-utah/.
Malbon, E. (1989). The Jewish Leaders in the Gospel of Mark: A Literary Study of Marcan Characterization. Journal of Biblical Literature,108(2), 259-281. doi:10.2307/3267297.
Malina, Bruce. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology 3rd Edition. Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Malina, Bruce; Rohrbaugh. Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
McGhee, Heather. The Sum of Us. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Oswald, Roy M., and Friedrich, Robert E. Jr. Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach. New York: Alban Institute, 1996.
Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.