Thursday, December 05, 2013

Jesus' Childhood Outside The Infancy Narratives (Part 5): Mark

Mark's gospel, like Matthew and Luke, has John anticipating Jesus' ministry before it begins (1:2-8).

As in the other gospels, Mark has John popularly received early on (1:5). See my comments earlier about the significance of John's reception.

Mark's accounts of the calling of the disciples (e.g., 1:16-20) are similar to what we find in Matthew. See my earlier comments in my post about Matthew's gospel.

The infancy theme of Jesus' background in Nazareth is mentioned by Mark (1:24).

See here for more about the significance of Jesus' choice to live in both Nazareth and Capernaum. Most likely, Jesus was framing his public ministry in terms of being the fulfillment of Isaiah 9.

The theme of Davidic ancestry is present as well (10:47-48, 11:10, 12:35-37). Again, keep in mind the implication of a Bethlehem birthplace.

And a high estimate of Jesus' character, with its implications for Jesus' childhood, is present in Mark (1:24), as in the other gospels.

Jesus' mother, as in the infancy narratives, is named Mary (6:3).

Jesus has siblings (6:3), and Mark describes them in a way that corroborates the infancy narratives, as I explained when I discussed Matthew's gospel.

The people of Nazareth in Mark 6:1-6 seem to be aware of some unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth. Joel Marcus writes:

In Jewish sources the father's name is normally used to identify the son even when the father is dead (see e.g. Do'eg son of Joseph in b. Yoma 38b and Jesus son of Jesus in the Babatha archive; cf. Ilan, "Man," 23 n. 3). Contrary to this custom, Jesus is designated [in Mark 6:3] by his mother's name rather than his father's. Both Matthew and Luke revert to the usual pattern, Luke 4:22 reading "the son of Joseph" (cf. John 6:42) and Matt 13:55 "the son of the carpenter."…

Ilan ("Man") has shown that a matronymic could be used when the mother's pedigree was superior to the father's, but that can scarcely be the case here, since Davidic descent was the most important of all, and Jesus was a Davidide on his father's side…

These alternate theories being found wanting, and given the hostile nature of the confrontation, it is likely that the use of Jesus' mother's name is a slur against his legitimacy, as Stauffer ("Jeschu") and S. Wilson (Strangers, 188) among others argue. This aspersion would correspond to the tendency in later Jewish traditions to portray Jesus as a bastard (see e.g. Origen Against Celsus 1:28-32, 39, 69; b. Sanh. 67a), a pattern that may already be reflected in John 8:41. Ilan, though disagreeing with this exegesis, cites an interesting parallel, the derogatory designation of Titus as "the son of Vespasian's wife" in 'Abot R. Nat. 7 (B), which implies that he is illegitimate (see Ilan, "Man," 42-43 n. 86, and cf. Saldarini, Fathers, 68 n. 15). McArthur ("Son of Mary") argues against the implication of illegitimacy in Mark 6:3 that "son of Mary" is an informal reference, not a formal genealogical expression, and that there is nothing necessarily unusual or derogatory about an identification by the mother's name in such informal contexts (cf. e.g. 1 Kgs 17:17; Acts 16:1). But Mark 6:3 comes closer to being a genealogical formula than the parallels cited because of the extensive list of other male family members. McArthur's theory, moreover, does not explain the apparent embarrassment of Matthew and Luke at Mark's term or reckon with the hostile context of our passage and the evidence for a trajectory of Jewish aspersions against Jesus' birth. (Mark 1-8 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005], 374-375)

In my post on Matthew's gospel, I mentioned that we should take note of how themes in the infancy narratives are connected to other concepts. If an early Christian source applies passages like Isaiah 11 and 52-53 to Jesus, how likely is it that he didn't also think Jesus fulfilled a Christmas passage like Isaiah 9? Mark often refers to the theme of Messianic prophecy fulfillment, even opening his gospel with it (1:2-3). Since Isaiah 9 and Micah 5 are two of the most explicitly Messianic passages in the Old Testament, how likely is it that Mark didn't think Jesus fulfilled those passages?

One of the problems with critics of the infancy narratives is that they're too focused on what a source like Mark explicitly tells us. Much of the relevant evidence is of an implicit nature. Mark doesn't say much directly about Jesus' childhood. His gospel is derived from what Peter taught, and Peter's apostolic work was focused on what occurred from the ministry of John the Baptist onward (Acts 1:21-22). Peter would typically begin his public teaching with John and Jesus in their adulthood, so Mark started his gospel there. But there are some implications for Jesus' childhood in what Mark tells us, even though he wasn't focused on the subject.

Something else should be said here about the gospels and other early sources in general. Once Jesus begins publicly teaching and performing so many miracles, his adulthood overshadows his childhood. When Jesus was standing before people, teaching them and performing such a large number and variety of miracles in their midst, why would he spend much time pointing them to a far smaller number of miracles that occurred a few decades earlier, when he was a child? Why would the New Testament authors and others involved give much attention to his childhood? Just as Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah's childhood are far outnumbered by predictions about his adulthood, it makes sense for matters pertaining to Jesus' childhood to only occasionally come up during his adult ministry.


  1. Thanks, Jason. I've been enjoying your series! :-)

  2. I've added this:

    See here for more about the significance of Jesus' choice to live in both Nazareth and Capernaum. Most likely, Jesus was framing his public ministry in terms of being the fulfillment of Isaiah 9.