Musings on Mark: He’s Out of His Mind!

“And his family heard it and came down to seize him:
for they were saying that he was out of his mind.”
Mark 3:21, my translation


We often take for granted that in our New Testament we have four Gospels sitting side-by-side. We don’t appreciate the history behind the formation of the New Testament and that in its earliest stages the various books of the New Testament were often stand-alone works. Nor do we appreciate that though the Gospels bear certain similarities – the Synoptics all share a wide-range of material and all four Gospels contain a Passion narrative – they each originated in different communities which had different needs. Each of them offer a glimpse of Jesus from a different perspective and sometimes their visions of Jesus are very different.

It is all but certain that the very first Gospel to be written was Mark’s and that both Matthew and Luke utilized Mark’s Gospel as one of their sources along with the hypothetical sources of Q (from the German quelle meaning “source”), M (the source of unique passages in Matthew), and L (the source of unique passages in Luke). Though Mark, Matthew, and Luke are all called the Synoptic Gospels, they are not exactly identical. One of the striking differences between Mark and the other two Synoptics is the lack of a birth narrative. Mark’s Gospel begins with an adult Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River (Mark 1:9-11). Matthew, on the other hand, begins with establishing the lineage of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17) followed by the story of Jesus’ birth (1:18-25). It isn’t until late in chapter 3 that we have the narrative of Jesus’ baptism by John. Luke too focuses on the various events that take place long before Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan which include narratives on the conception of both John the Baptist and Jesus as well as a genealogy of Jesus.

They Came to Seize Him

Because of this, we know nothing about Jesus’ family in the early chapters of Mark’s Gospel. And because Mark’s Gospel was the first of the Gospels to be written and because the birth narratives were very likely not even available to Mark as he was putting his Gospel together, Mark’s original audience would not have been aware of the narratives about Jesus’ miraculous conception and birth. The first time we learn about Jesus’ family in Mark it is cast in not very glowing terms (Mark 1:20-21).

And he went home; and the crowd gathered together, so they were not able to eat bread. And his family heard it and came down to seize him: for they were saying that he was out of his mind. (My translation.)

The crowd (ho ochlos) has been following Jesus for some time: his popularity has not diminished. Our first encounter with ho ochlos was back in 2:4 in a healing narrative (2:1-12) where it hinders the friends of the paralytic from bringing the infirmed man into the house through the door to see Jesus. Ho ochlos also shows up as Jesus heads to the Sea of Galilee (2:13). Jesus even requests that his disciples prepare a boat for him because ho ochlos was so great they might have crushed him (3:9). Here it has grown so large that when it gathers outside the house where Jesus and his disciples are in that he and the disciples can’t even eat a meal! 

In 3:21 the shift moves away from ho ochlos and onto a rather generic hoi par’ autou – “his people.” Normally, hoi + para + the genitive refers to one’s associates, i.e. the disciples, whereas hoi + para + the dative would refer to one’s relatives. But here this cannot be the case for a couple of reasons. First, hoi par’ autou has heard that Jesus is back home (3:20) which prompts them to then leave to head that direction. Since the disciples are already with Jesus, it makes no sense that they would have heard that he was somewhere where they already were. Second, this pericope forms the first part of an inclusio where we have the following: 

A – Jesus and the crowd (3:20)
B – Jesus’ family comes down (3:21)
C – An interlude with the scribes and their accusation. (3:22-30)
B’ – Jesus’ family arrives (3:31-32)
A’ – Jesus looks to the crowd for his true family. (3:33-35)

We should also note that in some later manuscripts (i.e. D and W) we see that hoi par’ autou has been replaced with hoi grammateis kai hoi loipoi “the scribes and the others.” Why the change? It seems that the copyists behind D and W attempted to improve the image of Jesus’ family. Instead of the family being those who went out to seize him because they said he was out of his mind, it is the scribes and “the others” who do so and that is why they come down from Jerusalem (3:22). But our earliest manuscripts make hoi par’ autou the best reading and so we must contend with the text as it is. 

Furthermore, the reason that hoi par’ autou have come down to seize Jesus is because they had said he was out of his mind. But why would the disciples have said that? They were following him and seeing the miracles he was performing. The same is true of ho ochlos; they were following Jesus to experience healing and to have demons cast out the possessed. They would not have considered him out of his mind. All this makes Jesus’ family the most likely candidate for the meaning of hoi par’ autou

Jesus’ True Family

So it is clear that Jesus’ family have come down to seize him because they believed he was going crazy. When his mother and brothers arrive, they send someone inside the house to get Jesus’ attention (3:31). They tell him that his family is outside looking for him (3:32). Jesus’ reply is to ask, “Who is my mother and my brothers?” (3:33) He looks around him and says, “Behold my mother and my brothers. For the one who does the will of God, they are my brother and my sister and my mother” (3:34-35).

This is striking. What Jesus is doing is stating very clearly that mere physical association with Jesus isn’t enough to be his family. Rather, those who poiēsē to thelēma tou theou (“do the will of God”) are his true family. His physical family thought he was nuts and sought to take him away. But ho ochlos has followed him and has listened to his teaching and so they represent his true family. The contrast is intentional. 

Neither Mark nor his audience likely knew of the visit by the angel Gabriel to Mary (Luke 1:26-38) or that upon his birth Jesus was visited by shepherds who had just encountered a host of angels proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah (Luke 2:8-20). They didn’t know about the visit of the Magi and the lavish gifts given to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:10-11). Instead for Mark, Jesus’ family is hostile to him and they seek to take him away for being insane. It sets up the contrast between those who are his physical family and those who make up his true family: those who do the will of God.

 

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