Is This a Call Story?
If the center of the Bartimaeus story is about discipleship rather than healing, then is this a “call” story? Just by asking that question we can get lost in the weeds of form criticism, never to emerge. I don’t want to do that. But I do want to work at a deeper understanding of what the Markan composer is up to in this part of the script. So, let’s see what we can do with this question.
I have needed to remember the historical situation of the first Markan audiences. Whether they were in Rome or in Galilee, many of the dynamics would have been the same. Some of the earliest leaders of the Way were killed in the forties and fifties in Jerusalem. James is one of those leaders. Peter, Paul, and others fell during the Neronian persecutions of the early sixties.
Now, Jerusalem itself was in ruins. Palestine was fully occupied by the Romans. The Christians had fled to refuge in the city of Pella. Christians were worried about their survival and about what exactly God was up to in these events. As we can understand when we hear the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13, it looked to them like the world was ending.
The communities that first heard the Markan composition needed the encouragement of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And they needed to know that they could continue on the journey, even if their leaders had faltered, failed, disappeared, or died. Do you remember how often in the Markan composition it’s the “little people,” the outsiders, even the foreigners, who get it right? The disciples are often clueless, and yet the Good News is still good. In a time when people are looking around for leaders, the Markan composer is saying, “Look in the mirror.”
The Christian movement, the Way, seemed to be leaderless and perhaps floundering in the chaos. I imagine that a number of “leaders” attempted to fill the void. Some of them certainly took advantage of the disorder and benefitted personally. It may be that there was some heavy nostalgia for the “old” leaders and a certain romanticizing of who they were and what they were like. The Markan composition gives some reality to those romantic pictures and tells the community that they can go forward without the old leaders. They have Jesus.
So, we come to Bartimaeus. His story is the climax and conclusion of the Markan “Way of Discipleship” section of the composition. The leaders we need are perhaps not leaders at all. When the human heads are chopped off (in some cases, quite literally), the body of Christ does not die. In fact, anyone who trusts in Jesus can pick up a cross and follow him. Remember how many times in the Markan composition Jesus says, “Whoever does x can be my disciple”?
The Bartimaeus story has things that are not in common with the calls of the earliest disciples in the Markan composition. Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus as Jesus is passing by. The first four disciples are minding their own business, engaged in their daily work. Jesus initiates the conversation and extends the invitation. “Follow me,” he says to Simon and Andrew, “and I will make you to be fishers of people.”
Jesus went a little father along the seashore and found James and John, in their boats, repairing their fishing nets. “And immediately he called them,” the Markan composer reports, “and leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, they departed behind him” (Mark 1:20, my translation). In this report, the word for “called” is used in the text, the aorist form of the verb kaleo.
That verb is not found in the Bartimaeus story. On the one hand, Bartimaeus “cries out” to Jesus (krazo). When Jesus hears the commotion, he tells the crowd to call Bartimaeus over to him. The verb used there is phoneo. It can indeed mean to call to, to summon, or to invite. The crowd does call to Bartimaeus, and they tell him that Jesus is “calling” him (same verb).
So that verb, phoneo, shows up three times in one verse. Based on our past experience with the Markan composer, we should be on the lookout for something interesting when we get that sort of repetition. Menken, along with a number of scholars, finds this difference in vocabulary insignificant. I’m not at all convinced, given the extreme care the Markan composer exercises in the use of other words in the script.
That being said, phoneo is used in call stories in John and Luke. I don’t think that’s compelling evidence, however, It would not be the first or last time that the other gospel writers either missed something important in the Markan composition or sought to clarify or correct something they thought Mark may have gotten wrong. I find the vocabulary argument to be mostly an argument from silence in this regard. And I rarely find such arguments convincing.
Unlike in the call stories in Mark 1, Jesus tells Bartimaeus to “go.” This is more in line with obvious healing and exorcism accounts in the Markan composition. It is the case, for example, with the woman who suffered the twelve-year hemorrhage. Jesus told her to go in peace. Jesus told the Gerasene demoniac to return to his home and share the story. In both cases the imperative verb is the same as here in Mark 10 – “hupage”.
Beavis does not wish to label this scene a “call story.” She notes that withholding this title “is no slight to Bartimaeus, in view of Mark’s uncomplimentary depiction of the Twelve…” She argues that Bartimaeus is literally blind and still sees Jesus. He follows Jesus when the disciples are not long from fleeing. He is portrayed, in fact, as “superior to the Twelve,” and “a paradigm of faith.” Bartimaeus, in Beavis’ estimation, is not a disciple of Jesus. Instead, he’s a hero of the faith. She sees the story not as a call to discipleship but rather to a prophetic role.
The Bartimaeus story has things in common with the calls of the earliest disciples in the Markan composition. The story seems to be a chance encounter with huge consequences. Jesus’ invitation means a complete change in life – leaving behind the safe and familiar and embracing the challenge and adventure of following him. The response is immediate and results in following Jesus on the Way.
Menken refers to the elements of a “call story” typically identified by form critics. Jesus passes by. Jesus sees the potential disciple, who always has a name and sometimes a family identification. The prospect is minding his (always his) own business. Jesus calls the prospect. The prospect abandons business as usual and follows Jesus. This pattern is not limited to Mark, according to the form critics but can even be found in John’s account (page 276).
In the Bartimaeus story, Menken argues, the following elements are present. Jesus is passing by. Bartimaeus is named and a brief family identification is offered. He’s about his daily business as a beggar. The crowd reports that Jesus is “calling” him. Bartimaeus abandons his spot, his cloak, and his “job” without hesitation. The response happens, in typical Markan fashion, “immediately.” And Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the Way (pages 277-278).
Menken notes that both Matthew and Luke have partially obscured some of these details. This indicates that they would each prefer to see this as a healing story rather than a call story. This is indirect evidence that the Markan composer intends this as a call story. Otherwise, why would the redactors feel a need to change it?
Menken concludes that this is mostly a call story with a little bit of a healing story added in. If the Bartimaeus story is most about calling a disciple, then Jesus’ Galilean ministry, as Menken notes, has been framed by call stories at the beginning and the end.
The Bartimaeus story has things that are not in common with other healing stories in the Markan composition. Bartimaeus is the only person who receives healing from Jesus and is also named. Simon is named, but his mother-in-law is healed. Jairus is named, but his daughter is raised. Bartimaeus is the only one healed in the Markan composition who gets to have a “job” – he’s a beggar.
And Bartimaeus is the only one healed in the Markan composition who also follows Jesus personally and physically on “the Way.” Other beneficiaries go out and tell the story or go home. But they don’t go with Jesus on the journey, at least not in the report we have in Mark. Menken notes that the report of the healing itself is unusually brief. The audience reaction is missing. The lead-up to the event is extensive.
What if it is a “call” story, but not a call to be one of the Twelve? I think that’s what is really going on here. Discipleship isn’t just for the Inner Ring. It’s not just for the chosen few. It’s for anyone, including every blind Bartimaeus along the way. Tossing aside cloaks and scattering coins is not something best left to the professionals. It’s for anyone and everyone.
In a time when leaders disappoint, disappear, and die, hope is not lost. The Church is filled with “little people” who can carry on the struggle. Anyone can take up a cross and follow Jesus on the Way. Just because there’s a shakeup in the hierarchy, that’s no reason to stop walking forward. Who knows, the next Bartimaeus may be…me?
Well, then. Just when I thought I had an out.
References and Resources
Beavis, Mary Ann. “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14, no. 1, [Indiana University Press, FSR, Inc], 1998, pp. 19–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002323.
Culpepper, R. Alan. “Mark 10:50: Why Mention the Garment?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 101, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 1982, pp. 131–32, https://doi.org/10.2307/3260446.
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.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Foerster, TDNT VII:989-992.
Menken, Maarten JJ. “The call of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46-52).” HTS: Theological Studies 61.1_2 (2005): 273-290.
Robbins, Vernon K. “The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 92, no. 2, Society of Biblical Literature, 1973, pp. 224–43, https://doi.org/10.2307/3262955.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.