If the function of the Markan composition is more impact than information, then what is that intended impact? It is hard to proclaim faithfully from the text if we can’t come to some modest understanding of that intention. Elizabeth Shively offers this proposal in her article. “My thesis is that Mark’s Gospel functions as persuasive rhetoric by telling the story of Jesus so as to reveal the only world that is reasonable for its audience to inhabit. It does this, in part,” she argues, “by employing apocalyptic language in order to restructure community identity” (page 382).
What does that phrase “community identity” mean? I think many of us would describe our identity as the way we are seen by others. I am a white, male, cisgender, reasonably well-educated (in the European sense), lower middle-class, Christian, Midwesterner. That’s not all that others see about me, but that’s a good start. I get those identifying marks from my communities and often regarded those marks as “given.”
But community identity is much more a matter of how I see than how I am seen. I see my reality from the perspectives of whiteness, maleness, cisgenderness, etc. In this way, my identity (and that of my community) is not so much given to me as I impose it on my experience. Realities outside of my body don’t become “experience” until I interpret them. Interpretation happens through lenses and within a framework. The lenses and the framework are internal to me and my community. They don’t exist objectively out in “the world.”
It is, therefore, no accident that some of the miracle stories in the Markan composition are about changes in perceptual abilities. Blind people are now able to see, because of Jesus. Deaf people are now able to hear, because of Jesus. In the case of Bartimaeus, that change in perceptual capacity makes it possible for him to follow Jesus on the way to the cross. Identity shapes perception.
And identity describes position. I perceive through my lenses which begin to shape the experience. I interpret that experience from my position in life. Identity both shapes and responds to my perspective. My perspective is my view of the world – my worldview. It’s no surprise that following Jesus means “changing my mind,” that is, accepting a different view of the world.
I notice, therefore, how many times words for “seeing” show up in the Little Apocalypse. Do you see these big buildings? Watch out for yourselves (twice)! When you see the desolating sacrilege; they will see the Son of Man; when you see the fig tree. Keep your eyes open since you don’t know the day or the hour. Keep watch! Of course, there are a few auditory allusions as well, but the Discourse focuses primarily on seeing.
The reliable markers of community identity will fail the disciples as they have failed Jesus during his earthly ministry. Governing and religious authorities will reject the changes in perspective and position that following Jesus requires. Biological family members will hand over the troublemakers – those who have taken the name of Jesus. There will be no limit to the displacement and distress.
But those expected sources of identity – family, community, religion, government – they are passing away. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is an example of that passing, although it is not the definitive and final example of that passing. There is one source of identity that is stable and lasting – that of following Jesus. The one who endures to the end will be saved. Heaven and earth will pass away, but Jesus’ words will not pass away. So, keep watching.
Pablo Richard, discussed in an earlier post, represents what Shively calls the “resistance literature” approach to apocalyptic in general. While Richard’s arguments are directed toward the Book of Revelation, they are, as I noted previously, equally applicable to the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13. These resistance literature interpretations “agree that Mark is written to address the audience’s experience of oppression and social alienation under Roman and Jewish authorities. Accordingly,” she continues in describing this approach, “Mark employs apocalyptic language in the service of political discourse, which functions to shape a social group that resists the dominant order” (Ibid).
Shively notes that additional research demonstrates the limitations of this approach. Some apocalyptic literature is, in fact, political resistance literature. But some works are more focused on “social injustice,” while others address “temptations that plague the flesh” (page 389). The Markan composition has elements of apocalypse not only in chapter thirteen but scattered throughout the composition. While we can use the analytical tools applied, for example, by Richard, to the Book of Revelation, the approach to the Markan account is not and cannot be the same.
“Although we cannot ascertain the particular social setting of Mark with certainty, evidence internal to the Gospel suggests that Mark seeks to explain the suffering and death of Jesus and his followers,” Shively argues (page 390). “The main rhetorical function of Mark’s apocalyptic discourse is to persuade the audience to testify and suffer for the sake of Jesus and the gospel,” she continues. “Nevertheless, the function of Mark’s discourse extends to challenge visions of the world espoused by Rome and the ruling authorities” (Ibid).
Shively proposes that in the Markan composition, Jesus is not so much creating a resisting movement as he is forming a new family. “Jesus forms a social group, that is, a community gathered for a particular purpose and organized around shared customs,” she argues. “Particularly, Jesus restructures kinship ties to form a new family organized around ‘doing God’s will’” (page 392). This community has a family identity that is defined by practice rather than blood relationship. “Ultimately,” Shively concludes with a nod toward Mark 13, “Jesus’ new family not only transcends the borders of kin and ethnicity to participate in a cosmic conflict, but also transcends the borders of time and space to enjoy an eschatological existence” (page 393).
The Little Apocalypse, according to Shively, develops and describes the nature of this family in light of the destruction of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man. “Jesus’ point is that the destruction of the temple may be a harbinger, but it is not the end of all things, as the disciples appear to believe,” Shively writes. “The end will come only after Jesus’ followers endure the kind of suffering that the disciples have resisted so far in the narrative” (page 393). She notes that the Parable of the Householder, at the end of the discourse, shows the new household at work – resisting, testifying, suffering, and dying, until Jesus returns.
What does this mean (for us)? Shively argues that the community created by the text (or performance, I would add), is a theological reality with political ramifications. “It exists as an alternative social reality because it follows Jesus, not because it resists, reorders or manages socio-political power structures,” she argues. “Because it follows Jesus, the community faces opposing power structures that it may then resist, reorder or manage” (page 402). The Markan community does not exist as a community of resistance per se. The values and practices of following Jesus, however, create the conflicts that make resistance necessary.
“Apocalyptic discourse provides the resources for Jesus’ followers to form and maintain their identity as those who proclaim the gospel in the context of a hostile environment and who live self-sacrificially even in the face of death,” Shively concludes. “Mark gives the audience eyes to see what human vision would otherwise miss about the experience of rejection, suffering, domination and power, in order to shape a new community, inspire it to hope, and compel it to action” (pages 402-403).
Identity is perhaps the fundamental field of struggle in American culture at this time. What does it mean to be a “real American”? What does it mean to be a “real Christian?” What does it mean to be a “real man” or a “real woman”? People have been asking those questions for the last hundred years or so in a variety of venues, but there is a particular and sometimes violent urgency to the questions these days.
Will we White American Christians, for example, continue to assert that being White American Christians (with a firm commitment to fixed gender identities and roles as well) is the definition of and norm for what it means to be fully and authentically human? That has been the perception and perspective of our community for the last five hundred years. But it seems that this perception and perspective are passing away – or at least that they should be passing away.
Will we economically privileged Christians assert that a capitalist model is the only way to describe and organize what a faithful congregation looks like? Will we maintain our idolatries of numbers and real estate, of “profits” and success at the expense of love for God and love for neighbor? So far, that is the order of the day. But Christian bodies that maintain these perceptions and this perspective are passing away, and some are doing so rather quickly.
Will I embrace the likely discomfort and perhaps even the suffering that real changes in perception and perspective will produce for me? Am I ready for life as I have known it to pass away (and good riddance)? I’m not at all sure of that. I think I am continuing to look for the community that will help me to find that identity. But will I take yes for an answer when I find it?
That remains to be seen…
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.
Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.
Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.
Shively, Elizabeth E. “What Type of Resistance? How Apocalyptic Discourse Functions as Social Discourse in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37.4 381–406. Web.