As promised in the previous entry in this series on the NT use of the OT this installment will focus upon more semi-veiled allusions to the Old Testament within the Gospel of Mark, this time from the sixth chapter. Yet, what was promised is now altered by expansion. Instead of consisting of one installment, considerations of OT allusions in Mark 6 will span three.
Several years ago I published the essay, “Mark’s Provocative Use of Scripture in Narration—‘He Was with the Wild Animals and Angels Ministered to Him.’” The general point I make in the essay is that Mark purposefully uses the Old Testament in a rather cryptic, enigmatic, and allusive manner that requires listeners to employ their imaginations to listen attentively to the echoes of the OT Scriptures within his Gospel narrative. Of course, the Gospel was written first to be heard rather than read silently as we moderns tend to do. Thus, for example, Jesus’ warnings that bracket his Parable of the Sower—“Listen!” and “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (Mark 4:3, 8)—persist to this day for everyone who hears. Likewise, Jesus’ queries put to the Twelve—“Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” (8:18)—are not for them alone but for everyone who hears the Gospel read.
Mark’s allusive use of Scripture is in keeping with the design of his Gospel which replicates quite effectively in narrative form the concealing and revealing teaching method Jesus employed. Even so, Mark’s Gospel significantly privileges his listeners (and readers) with the announcement at the beginning by heralding, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, just as it is written in Isaiah the prophet. . . (1:1-2)” Even though Mark privileges his listeners this way, he offers few explicit explanatory statements concerning Jesus’ words or actions. For example, unlike Matthew’s Gospel which frequently explains that Jesus’ words or actions fulfilled various OT passages, Mark’s Gospel uses the word “fulfilled” only twice and both uses are in words attributed to Jesus with reference to general fulfillment of Scripture (Mark 1:15; 14:49). Following his decisive affirmation in the first two verses, Mark crafts his Gospel with a starkness, with little plainspoken explanation of the Son of God’s words and deeds in such a manner that his Gospel intensifies a sense of the difficulties Jesus’ disciples experienced as they heard and witnessed his teachings in parabolic form, whether spoken or played out before their eyes with healing miracles or with dramatized signs.1 If we are to have ears that hear and eyes that see who Jesus truly is, then we need to exercise our spiritual senses attentively, especially with regard to Mark’s allusive use of the OT. For proper understanding of Mark’s scriptural allusions does not lie on the surface any more than correct apprehension of Jesus’ parables and miracles is superficial. Mark’s Gospel is uncannily effective in replicating the concealing and revealing nature of Jesus’ ministry, for he writes his Gospel in parables and riddles.
The more frequently one hears Mark’s Gospel the more readily one realizes that the evangelist has skillfully woven into the fabric of his narrative many allusive words, phrases, and echoes that subtly and adeptly but surely conjoin the Jesus of his story to the “Coming One” of the Old Testament Scriptures. Many such allusions occur in Mark 6. My intention was to mention several allusions without being exhaustive but to offer only brief comments upon each and reserve fuller commentary for Mark’s statement concerning Jesus’ action when early in the morning he was walking upon the sea near the boat in which the Twelve strained at the oars as they battled the adverse wind: “He intended to pass by them” (6:48). However, as I prepared this blog entry it became evident that in order to do justice to the OT allusion in 6:48, more extensive consideration has to be given to the OT allusions in the context preceding it to provide convincing evidence. Therefore, the second installment following this one will focus upon Mark 6:48 while this and the next entries feature OT allusions earlier in the chapter.
It is instructive to take into account the fact that Mark 6:6b-44 makes up one of the evangelist’s “sandwiches” or “frames. These occur when Mark’s narrative recounts events in the life of Jesus by literarily welding two episodes together by wrapping one episode around another. A vivid example of sandwiching or framing entails the episode concerning the resuscitation of Jairus’s daughter, who was about twelve years old, wrapped around and thus inextricably linked with the episode concerning the healing of the woman who suffered hemorrhaging from twelve years (5:21-43). Mark goes out of his way to add parenthetically concerning Jairus’s daughter, “she was twelve years old,” corresponding to the duration of the woman’s hemorrhaging, a clue for hearers to listen for other correlations, which are numerous. That Mark recounts the episodes as inseparably intertwined indicates that they are interdependent, mutually interpreting one another, and should not be treated as independent of one another.
The sandwich of Mark 6:6b-43 consists of these episodes—Jesus sends the Twelve apostles on a preaching and healing mission concerning God’s reign and then welcomes them back wrapped around an account concerning Herod’s haunted fear concerning his execution of John the Baptist: (1) Jesus sends out the Twelve in pairs; his reputation greatly increases (6:6b-12); (2) King Herod hears of Jesus’ burgeoning fame and is haunted with fear that John, whom he beheaded, has been resurrected (6:13-29); and (3) when the Twelve return from their apostolic mission Jesus takes them to the wilderness for rest (6:30-44). Considerations of the OT allusions within the inset portion (6:13-29) will be offered in the next entry in this series.
Each of these three segments of Mark’s literary sandwich contains significant allusions to the OT, with the wrapping episodes, in particular, alluding to a “new exodus” motif that finds its fulfillment in Jesus’ mission. For example, Jesus’ directives to the Twelve concerning what they should (staff, sandals) and should not (bread, money, two tunics) bring with them on their mission echoes Moses’ instructions to the Israelites with regard to their preparations for the exodus (Exodus 12:11). If one does not observe the continuity between 6:6b-12 with 6:30-43, which Mark’s narrative requires, one will likely also isolate this allusion from OT allusions in 6:30-43. Yet, if one retains mindful continuity between the two episodes that wrap around the episode concerning King Herod, one is more likely to hear the allusive series of OT echoes as sketching a portrait of Jesus as the “new Moses” who is inaugurating the “new exodus” foreshadowed by the exodus of old and foretold by the prophets, especially by Isaiah, whose prophecy seems to hold a prominent place in the evangelist’s meditation upon Scripture, given Mark’s featuring of Isaiah at the beginning of his Gospel as already indicated above.
Consider, then, OT allusions in Mark 6:30-44 that confirm that the earlier allusion to Exodus 12:11 signals that the framing episodes (6:6b-13 & 6:30-44) do portray Jesus as a shepherd of the people who leads a “new exodus” foreshadowed long ago by the exodus from Egypt and prophetically anticipated especially by Isaiah on which Mark’s Gospel so heavily relies.
Though Jesus invites the Twelve to go with him into a wilderness region for a little rest, once they arrive they find the wilderness not uninhabited but filled with a large crowd of people who anticipated where their boat was headed and beat them to the landing shoreline. Mention of “rest” alludes to a frequent OT theme that is picked up by the NT as fulfilled in Jesus (cf. Heb. 3:7-4:13) and in Mark’s Gospel connects with Jesus as the fulfillment of the Sabbath; he is the True Rest (see Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6). The evangelist underscores the fact that this episode takes place in the wilderness by pointing this out three times—(1) in Jesus’ invitation to take rest in a wilderness region (6:31), (2) in Mark’s affirming that the boat sailed to a wilderness region (6:32), and (3) in the observation made by the Twelve concerning the time of day and geographical location when they said, “This is a wilderness region, and the hour is already late” (6:35). Jesus’ invitation that conjoins going into a “wilderness region” with finding a little “rest” should have provoked thoughtful recollection among the Twelve concerning the linkage of these two themes with Israel’s exodus long ago, and it will do the same for all who have ears to hear Mark’s telling of the good news as it is in Jesus as portrayed in the episode of his miraculous feeding of the multitude.
Likewise, Mark’s account reverberates with other allusions to the OT Scriptures but particularly to the exodus theme. He reports that when Jesus left the boat “he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (6:34). The allusion may be easily missed because we Christians tend not to know the OT sufficiently well to hear the echoes of various passages first in Moses’s petitioning the Lord for his replacement (Num. 27:17) and then extended throughout the nation’s history as two prophets, Michaiah (1 Kings 22:17) and Ezekiel (Ezek. 34:5), lament that Israel is like sheep without a shepherd. Given the theme-setting placement and function of Isaiah 40:3 at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel (1:1-3), it seems fully warranted to infer that the evangelist refracts these OT echoes of the sheep needing a shepherd through Isaiah 40:11—“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young”—since Isaiah is the apparent portion of the OT Scriptures on which Mark principally meditates (Mark 1:1-3). The phrasing of Mark 6:34 is much like that of Numbers 27:15-17—“Moses said to the Lord, ‘May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd” (ὡς πρόβατα μὴ ἔχοντα with ποιμένα ὡσεὶ πρόβατα, Mark 6:34; οἱ̂ς οὐκ ἔστιν ποιμήν, Num. 27:17). It seems reasonable to infer from Mark’s account that the OT foreshadowing theme of a call for a shepherd to watch over Israel which begins with Moses’s prayer, as narrated in Numbers 27:15-17 and recurs in the prophetic voices of Michaiah (1 Kings 22:17) and Ezekiel (34:5), finds its fulfillment now in Jesus’ re-dramatization of the miraculous feeding of Israel with manna long ago in the wilderness. For the latter day Joshua (Ἰησοῦς [Jesus], Greek for Joshua; cf. Num. 27:18—“Take Joshua the son of Nun. . .”) has compassion on the Israelites because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Thus, not only is Jesus greater than Moses; he is also greater than Joshua, for he is God’s “amen” to the petition Moses prayed long ago, for Jesus leads his sheep in the greater exodus that was simply foreshadowed by the exodus led by Moses and sustained by Joshua.
The shepherd-sheep (ποιμήν-πρόβατα) motif explicitly occurs again in Mark 14:27-28 when Jesus tells the Twelve—“‘You will all fall away, for it is written: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Surely, not to link this account with the compassionate shepherd who miraculously provides sustenance for the large crowd in the wilderness would be a failure to hear correctly the message the evangelist conveys concerning Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus’ saying of verse 28—“I go ahead of you into Galilee” (προάξω ὑμᾶς)—prepares for two more uses of the shepherd-sheep imagery without express mention of either “shepherd” (ποιμήν) or “sheep” (πρόβατα). Thus, given the explicit shepherd-sheep imagery of 14:27 united with the action of the shepherd who “goes ahead” of the sheep, the more veiled version of the same imagery, stated in 14:28, all attentive listeners will hear two additional subtle uses of the shepherd-sheep motif in Mark’s Gospel. The first occurs when Mark describes Jesus leading his disciples as a shepherd leads sheep on “the way” to Jerusalem where he will lay down his life on their behalf—“They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid” (προάγων αὐτούς, 10:32). The second comes at the close of the Gospel when at the empty tomb the heavenly witness instructs the women, “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (προάγει ὑμᾶς). Again, the same verb and imagery are used. The shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep has risen to return as their shepherd just as he promised. I must be content simply with piquing imaginations as I resist temptation to provide further unpacking of the richness and fullness of Mark’s shepherd-sheep imagery worthy of extensive study.
Another allusion to the OT also links Jesus’ compassionate feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness region with the exodus theme. The manner in which the latter day Moses instructed the Twelve to have the hungry Israelites arranged in the wilderness region to feed upon the miraculous meal echoes how Jethro directed Moses to organize the Israelites during their march across the wilderness—“But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain —and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Ex. 18:21). Mark reports, “Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties” (Mark 6:39-40). Yet, a more vivid allusion to the OT immediately precedes how the people were organized to receive the miraculous feeding. Though John’s Gospel indicates that the place where Jesus directed his disciples to have the Israelites recline had “much grass” (John 6:10), among the Synoptic Gospels Mark alone reports that Jesus told the Twelve to have all the Israelites recline in groups “on the green grass” (Mark 6:39). Given the richness of the shepherd-sheep motif and the many allusions to the exodus theme that punctuate this episode, it seems inescapable to hear rightly a strong echo of the shepherd psalm’s words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures . . .” (Psalm 23:1-2a). Even the two verbs—respectively translated “sit down” and “sat down” (NIV)—which within the ancient Eastern culture depict a reclining posture, adapt well to the shepherd-sheep imagery that dominates the episode concerning the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Thus, Mark’s episode concerning the miraculous feeding features Jesus as the true shepherd who is foreshadowed by Moses in his prayer, by Joshua whom the Lord told Moses to receive as his successor, and by David who is the premier OT foreshadow of the Coming Shepherd-King. Jesus alone is able to fill the role for which each of the OT prefigurements fell short because they all succumbed to death, for Jesus alone has the power to give his life for the sheep and to take it up again to shepherd his sheep as borne witness to by Mark’s use of the shepherd-sheep imagery as predictive of Messiah’s sacrificial death and as resumptive of his role as shepherd-king after resurrection, as explicated above (cf. John 10:17).
It is true, of course, that all the above explanations of Mark’s allusions to the OT reflect my firm conviction that all that Israel experienced as narrated throughout the OT took place typologically and was written down for our instruction, a crucial affirmation I develop in part 5 of this series. As readers might expect, I am also fully convinced that my exposition of Mark 6 does not entail an imposition of an interpretive grid upon the evangelist’s narrative but reflects Mark’s own understanding of and use of the many OT allusions. Otherwise, I have no plausible explanation for his perceptive uses of all these allusions that contribute to his sketch that leads to his initial heralded proclamation—“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet” (1:1-2)—that the Coming One foreshadowed throughout the OT is none other than Jesus who mingles words and deeds to reveal himself as the promised one.
1 See my, “He Wrote in Parables and Riddles: Mark’s Gospel as a Literary Reproduction of Jesus’ Teaching Method,” Didaskalia 10.1 (Spring 1999): 35-67.
2 See, e.g., James R. Edwards, “Markan Sandwhiches: The Significance of Interpolations in Markan Narratives,” Novum Testamentum 31.3 (1989): 193-216; see also Tom Shepherd, Markan Sandwich Stories: Narration, Definition, and Function, AUSDDS 18 (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 1983).
3 For fuller development of the “new exodus” theme in Mark’s Gospel see Rikki E. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1997; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).
4 In addition to the work by Rikki Watts, others have also demonstrated the prominent shaping impact Isaiah has upon the Second Gospel. See, e.g., Richard Schneck, Isaiah in the Gospel of Mark, I-VIII, BIBAL DS 1 (Vallejo, CA: BIBAL Press, 1994). See also Joel Marcus, The Way of the Lord: Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992).
5 See Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark, which makes a convincing case that Isaiah’s prophecy is the OT backdrop on which the Second Gospel hangs.
6 See 1 Kings 22:17—“I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd” (ἑώρακα πάντα τὸν Ἰσραηλ διεσπαρμένον ἐν τοῖς ὄρεσιν ὡς ποίμνιον, ὥ οὐκ ἔστιν ποιμήν, LXX); and Ezekiel 34:5—“So they were scattered because there was no shepherd” (καὶ διεσπάρη τὰ πρόβατα μου διὰ τὸ μὴ εἶναι ποιμένας, LXX); 34:23—“I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd” (καὶ ἀναστήσω ἐπ’ αὐτοὺς ποιμένα ἕνα καὶ ποιμανεῖ αὐτούς, τὸν δοῦλόν μου Δαυιδ, καὶ ἔσταιν αὐτῶν ποιμήν, LXX).
7 The OT is replete with the shepherd-king motif featuring David and his coming messianic son, foreshadowed by each successive king. Many resources are available concerning the shepherd-king motif of the OT. One easily accessible resource is Beth M. Stovell’s, “Yahweh Shepherd-King and the Restoration of Justice: Metaphors of Shepherding and the Constellation of Kingship,” unpublished essay for Directed Study: Kingship in the OT, at MacMaster Divinity College, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, October 2009.
 Cf., e.g., Beth M. Stovell, Mapping Metaphorical Discourse in the Fourth Gospel: John’s Eternal King. Linguistic Biblical Studies 5 (Leiden: Brill, 2012).