Son of a…
Why does the Markan composer name Bartimaeus and leave other beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry nameless? There must be something interesting going on here.
“Bar-Timaeus” is a hybrid name. It is a combination of the Aramaic word for “son” (Bar) and the Greek name that likely means “honored one” or “one who is highly esteemed or valued” (Timaeus). The Markan composer translates the name for his (largely) Greek-speaking audience, just as he translates other Aramaic words in the composition. For example, the composer translates “Ephphatha” (“Be opened”) in an earlier healing story.
There may be nothing important about this boundary-crossing name, but then again, the Markan composer doesn’t generally add details just for dramatic color. The amount of detail in this brief story is notable. Those details include the name and lineage of the blind man, his personal geography, the dialogue with the crowd, the cloak, the request, and the fact that he followed Jesus. “Whenever Mark furnishes his stories with these vivid details,” Hurtado writes, “it indicates that he wished to make the accounts prominent and effective in impressing upon the reader his portrait of Jesus” (page 175).
It may be that Bartimaeus represents and embodies the character of the communities that first heard the Markan composition. Whether one places those first performances in Palestine or Rome, it is virtually certain that these early communities were at least bilingual and bi-cultural. That would simply make these communities like the world in which they lived.
If the composition was first performed for Roman congregations (my preferred solution to the location problem), then the tension between Jews and Gentiles in the text has a clear framework. The Roman congregations, as we know from Paul’s letter to them, were struggling with the relationship between more traditional Judaism(s) and the Jesus movement. And within those communities, the tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians was heightened by the fallout from the persecutions in Rome and the Jewish War in Palestine.
If the Markan composer is seeking, among other things, to tell the Gospel story in a way that brings these communities back together, then having Bartimaeus as the parade example of an authentic Jesus follower would be a good move. He begins the story as one who lives on the edge – the edge of the road, the edge of the town, the edge of community, and the edge of survival. He moves from the edge to the center by the end of the story. I wonder how many of the composer’s listeners had made the same journey.
I imagine one of these performances of the Markan composition. Candidates for baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of the crowd late in the evening, perhaps on the eve of Easter Sunday. They listen to the story in all of its depth and drama as they consider whether they will go through with their commitments to lives of following Jesus to the cross. Perhaps these candidates in particular identify closely with Bartimaeus.
They have, perhaps, been living on the edge as well. Some of them may be enslaved persons who never quite know what the next moment will bring – a beating, a sexual assault, cleaning the latrine, or tutoring the master’s children. They may not be able to see into the next moment, much less the next day. They have heard that this Jesus character might be a source of good news in an otherwise dreary world. And they begin to cry out.
What is the significance of the title that Bartimaeus uses to address Jesus, namely “Son of David”? Hurtado notes that the title has messianic overtones in some intertestamental works and in the Christian scriptures. He suggests that “the weight of the evidence suggests that Mark understood the term as a designation for the Messiah of Israel” (page 174).
It is certainly the case that the mention of the “Son of David” creates a bridge to the material yet to come. The next event is the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The crowd will quote the psalms of Ascent during the parade. Those quotes will include a blessing on the “coming kingdom of our father, David.”
Because of this mention of Jesus as “Son of David,” Robbins argues that “this story is not simply a discipleship story. In it the Christological image of Jesus and the response in discipleship converge.” Robbins concludes that “Christology and discipleship prove to be simply two sides of the same coin in the gospel of Mark. An erroneous Christological perception of Jesus’ activity,” Robbins asserts, “leads to improper expectations and requests, and inept discipleship activity” (page 226).
Those on the edge face obstacles to moving. They can’t see over the crowds. They can’t tell what’s going on. The ones who are already inside have no interest in being disturbed. They might even tell the edge-sitters to shut up and know their place. But the distance from desperation to faith is often not very far in the Markan composition. So, they have cried out all the more.
Jesus stops in his tracks and listens. He says to the gatekeepers and guardians, “Call those edge-sitters here. Tell them the story. Let’s ask them what they want.” So, the good news begins. “Be brave now!” they say. “Get up!” they say. “He’s talking to you.”
Here is one of those second person singular pronouns that demands our attention. Perhaps you can imagine, as can I, the performer turning to the candidates for baptism as these words are spoken. Perhaps this is a moment in the reading or the sermon to turn to particular people in your preaching audience as well. “Be brave now! Get up! Jesus is talking to you!”
It’s not even necessary that we get our theology right before we come in the door. Jesus takes us as we are. We will read in a few chapters that the “Son of David” theology of the Messiah needs some updating and expansion, as far as Jesus is concerned. It’s not wrong. Jesus doesn’t correct Bartimaeus. It’s a place to begin. It’s an entry point. But there’s so much more.
No matter how dishonored and devalued Bartimaeus is in his context and culture, he is the Son of the Honored One. Jesus treats him precisely that way. So, those who wait to enter the water hear the same acceptance and invitation. Call them over here, Jesus says. Perhaps we can help our listeners to experience that same acceptance and invitation. Call them over to Jesus! That, after all, is preaching, eh?
Our baptismal candidates have come in their old clothes. Perhaps they come in the only clothes they own. That was likely the case for Bartimaeus. He throws off that cloak and jumps up. I wonder if some of the candidates reflexively reached for their own cloaks and began to discard them. I wonder if some of them leapt to their feet in joy and excitement, knowing what was coming both for Bartimaeus and for them.
Bartimaeus’ story is their story. Bartimaeus’ story is our story. I wonder if cheers and applause broke out in the crowd as they imagined the cloak flying and the blind man springing to his feet. I wonder if we could tell the story in such a way that cheers and applause (and perhaps a few people jumping up) might happen in our congregations. Well, that’s asking a lot, but who knows?
We get another second person singular now. “What do you want that I shall do for (or to) you?” Again, the storyteller perhaps turns to those most impacted by the story and asks the question. The “fourth wall” of play-acting is pierced again. The story reaches out and grabs at least some of us with its power. Perhaps we might stop in our reading for a moment and look people in the eye. Perhaps we might ask the question again. Perhaps we might let it hang in the air for a few seconds.
I wonder if the Markan composer intended a pregnant pause at this point.
“My teacher,” Bartimaeus responds. The distance has disappeared. The chasm has been bridged. The Son of David has become My Teacher. “That I might see again,” the blind man replies. The word is “anablepo.” The preposition that begins the word vibrates with multiple meanings. Let me see “again.” Let me see “anew.” Let me “look up.” The Markan composer intends and includes all these meanings in that small sentence.
“Is that what you want?” we might ask our listeners. Do you want to see the world as Jesus sees it? Do you want to see things in a new way? That’s one of the definitions of repentance, after all. And repentance is the precursor to believing in Mark 1. Do you want to look up? For a while in the days to come, looking up in the Markan composition will mean looking up to Jesus on the cross. Is that what you want?
The son of the Honored One is addressed directly one more time. The second singulars put their hands on our cheeks and direct our gaze to Jesus. “Your trust has saved you.” We’ve discussed that declaration in some detail. Imagine our baptismal candidates as they enter into the new world of seeing Jesus. And they hear that this is a vision of healing, wholeness, salvation, and discipleship.
“And immediately,” the composer tells us, returning now to narrator mode, “he could see again (or anew or up).” The more I reflect, the more I think that seeing “anew” is the real emphasis for the Markan composer here. That new sight, even though it resembles the old way of seeing, has new outcomes. Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, to suffering, to the cross – the Way of Discipleship.
N. T. Wright notes the multiple ways that Bartimaeus is portrayed as the model disciple. He recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. He believes Jesus can help him. He leaves everything behind to follow Jesus. “As with the blind man in chapter 8,” Wright notes, “the healing of Bartimaeus is a sign that Jesus is trying to open his followers’ eyes, this time to see him not just as Messiah but as the one who would give his life to bring salvation to all” (Kindle Location 2592).
Here is what you can expect, candidates for baptism, trembling in the candlelight and community. There is drama in the story. There is, perhaps, greater drama in hearing the story. One preaching challenge would be to capture and convey that drama to our listeners.
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.
Ward, Richard; Trobisch, David. Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It. Eerdmans. Kindle Edition.