Sunday, September 5, 2010

Thoughts on Mark 9:14--The crowd was astonished when they saw him

I am sorry that my blog has disappointed so many for so long because of no fresh exegetical entries. Since July, I have been otherwise occupied with house projects.

A comment from a reader of one of my other blogs prompted me to re-post here an entry from more than four years ago. I trust that it will be fresh for most of you. I shall resume my blogging here as time permits and as I resume a more daily schedule in my study.


Recently, as I was teaching a classroom of college students on the transfiguration and the following narrative in Mark 9:14ff, the words of the text caught my attention and stirred my imagination. Immediately upon returning down from the Mount of Transfiguration, the narrative says, "And when they [Jesus, Peter, James & John] came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him" (Mark 9:15-15; ESV). I posed a question to the students. Why do you suppose the text says that when the crowd saw Jesus they were greatly amazed? It is noteworthy to point out that elsewhere in Mark's Gospel the same verb ekthambeō occurs three times, once in 14:33 and once in 16:5 and 16:6, respectively. In 14:33, ekthambeō is used of Jesus in tandem with adēmoneō. The sense is that Jesus "began to be distressed and troubled." In 16:5 and 16:6, ekthambeō is used first of the women who came to the tomb and found it empty and were amazed, and then of the young man who had been seated at the right side of the tomb who cautions, "Do not be amazed!" The verb speaks of deep movement of emotions, particularly of trembling astonishment. Thus, in Mark 9:14, the verb ekthambeō bursts upon the reader with unexpectedness. Given the fact that Mark's other uses of the verb ekthambeō denote intense emotion, we would be amiss to devalue the verb's intensity in 9:14.

The unexpectedness of this verb at this juncture of the story is underscored by the fact that throughout Mark's narrative, verbs that speak of astonishment, such as ekplēssō in 1:22 signal the crowd's reaction to some remarkable teaching or miracle done by Jesus. In Mark 9:14, the crowd had not just seen any miracle nor had they just heard any extraordinary teach from Jesus. Nevertheless, the narrative expressly states that the crowd's astonishment came when they saw Jesus. This surely indicates that there is something about Jesus' personage that incited the crowd's astonishment.

It seems much too weak to take Mark's verb that signals intense emotion as does James Edwards who says,
On the other hand, if Jesus' countenance still radiates the glory of the transfiguration, the command "not to tell anyone" (v. 9) seems rather pointless. Moreover, if Jesus' countenance is substantially affected, we might expect the crowd to retreat in fear (Exod 34:30) rather than advance in avid pursuit. . . . On balance, the astonishment of the crowd appears to owe to Jesus' unexpected appearance and the hopes it raised (Mark 276-277).
Likewise, the comment by R. T. France seems too weak to satisfy the narrative when he explains, "More likely Mark uses the verb rather extravagantly to denote the powerful impression which Jesus' personal presence by now created: 'this authority emanates from him even before he speaks or acts'" (Mark, NIGTC, 364).

It seems more likely that my imagination, activated by the text of Mark that day in class recently, was intuitively right to direct the students to consider a recapitulation of Moses' descent from the mountain as recorded in Exodus 34:29-35.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
Jesus has just come down the mountain after being transfigured in the cloud along with Elijah and with Moses. Echoes, in the transfiguration account, of Moses' experience of the theophany on Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:17-23) are too strong to ignore. This is all the more so when we find Mark using ekthambeō to describe the crowd's response to Jesus. Thus, it seems right that Morna Hooker says,
[Mark] must mean that there was something about Jesus' appearance which gave them good reason to be astonished. The only possible explanation seems to be that Mark means us to understand that Jesus' appearance is still in some way affected by the transfiguration. If Moses, coming down the mountain after speaking with God, reflected the glory of God from his face without knowing it, and so caused all the people to be afraid (Exod. 34:29f.), it is not surprising if Jesus also, coming down the mountain from a similar experience, caused astonishment among the crowd (The Gospel according to Mark, 222-224).
Robert Gundry also seems to get it right when he adds, "And something so striking as the heavenly whiteness of Jesus' garments seems required to account for a word so strong as exethambēthēsan. The extremity of the circumstances leading to later use of this word support this judgment" (Mark, 488).

What about James Edwards' objections to this understanding of the passage? What about his objection that this interpretation makes Jesus' command to the three apostles on the mountain "not to tell anyone" (v. 9) seem "rather pointless"? What about Edwards' objection that this interpretation should cause one to expect that the crowd would "retreat in fear (Exod 34:30) rather than advance in avid pursuit"?

It seems to me that any proper understanding of the interplay between Jesus' revealing and concealing his identity throughout Mark's narrative (the Secrecy Motif) has to acknowledge that Jesus' prohibition announced to his disciples on the mountain can hardly be taken the way Edwards does. In each of Jesus' acts, in each of his parables, in each of his miracles he both reveals and conceals. This is the nature of revelation. Jesus forbade the three disciples to speak of what they had seen on the mountain, but this prohibition hardly prevented him from carrying an afterglow of his transfigured glory with him for his other disciples and for the crowd below to glimpse and to be astonished.

If the crowd got a glimpse of the glory with which Jesus had been clothed when the heavenly cloud descended upon him on the mountain, then why did the crowd not "retreat in fear" as the children of Israel did when Moses approached them after he came down from the mountain? Is it not reasonable for us to suppose that Mark tells us that the crowd was astonished but ran to him and greeted him because he wants us to realize that, even though the crowd likely acted better than they understood, their reception of Jesus who came down from the mountain with apparent glory yet shining from his clothing signals that Jesus truly is the one greater than Moses of whom Moses prophesied when he said,"The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him" (Deut 18:15; NIV). The heavenly voice on the mountain quotes this passage with the command, "Listen to him!" (Mark 9:7), signifying that Jesus is the True Moses, the one greater than Moses, the one of whom Moses prophesied.

So, as I reflect upon the recent day when I was teaching on Mark 9, I marvel at how many times I have read the words of Mark 9:14-15 and have read numerous commentaries on the passage and yet the text struck me as though it were the first time. The words leaped off the page and struck my imagination, prompting me to raise questions for my students, questions that I also needed to search out. I never cease to marvel that, if my students learn nothing when I teach, that I always learn, no matter how many times I have taught the same portions of the text before. Even though we who teach the text of Scripture repeatedly, year in and year out, there is something about the richness and fullness of the landscape of biblical narrative that we never take it all in at once. Even for us who teach there is much for us yet to learn.

I like the imagery sometimes attributed to Chrysostom (and Gregory the Great), used to describe the Gospel of John, that it is like a river--shallow enough for children to wade in it but deep enough for elephants to swim in it. Such is the nature of biblical narrative.