Sixteen times in the Gospel of Mark we read the Greek word ekballo, a verb that is a compound of the preposition ek and the verb ballo. Before we look at ekballo we should address some grammar related issues. First, what is a preposition?
Prepositions are function words which assist substantives in expressing their case relationship.1
For example, in the sentence “The girl ran into the house,” the preposition “into” let’s us know that “the house” is in the accusative case, that is to say that it is the direct object of the verb “ran.”
In Greek, prepositions are sometimes added to substantives or to verbs to emphasize a type of action or even to create a new meaning. The Greek verb histémi means “to stand.” But if we add the Greek preposition ana we create anistémi – “to stand up” or “to stand again.” It is the substantive form of anistémi – anastasis – that the New Testament uses to mean “resurrection” (see 1 Corinthians 15:12).
The Greek verb ballo is used throughout the New Testament and its most basic meaning is “to throw” or “to cast.” In the Parable of the Growing Seed (Mark 4:26-29), Jesus tells the disciples that the reign of God “is as if someone would scatter [balé] seed on the ground” (4:26). The preposition ek simply means “out.” So combining the two you get “to throw out” or “to cast out.” By adding ek to ballo there is some measure of forcefulness implied.
In Mark’s Gospel, the very first time we come across ekballo is in 1:12 where we read, “Then immediately the Spirit casts him out into the wilderness” (my translation). There is perhaps some irony in the way Mark has described the action of the Spirit. Of the sixteen times Mark uses ekballo, ten of them are used to describe the casting out of demons (1:34, 1:39, 3:15, 3:22, 3:23, 6:13, 7:26, 9:18, 9:28, 9:38). Demons are, of course, unclean spirits. So Jesus frequently casts out spirits but in 1:12 it is the Holy Spirit that is casting out Jesus!
A Stern Warning
Because it is so often used to describe the casting out of demons, the Markan use of ekballo is certainly meant to convey a sense of forcefulness. Sometimes this is obvious from the immediate context.
In 1:40-45 we read the story of a leper who comes to Jesus and begs him to cleanse him of his disease. Jesus is “moved with pity” (splanchnistheis) touches the leper and heals him. And then we read this:
After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (1:43-44, NRSV).
You can probably guess where ekballo appears – “he sent him away.” This may sound like a very gentle ushering of the former leper away but it is anything but that. For starters, Mark uses the word euthus, commonly translated as “immediately” and here in 1:43 as “at once,” expressing a sense of urgency. The man must go now. He also tells the man to “say nothing to anyone [mēdeni mēden]” and to go to the priest to make an offering as “Moses commanded” (see Leviticus 14:2-32). These words are described as Jesus “sternly warning” the man, using the Greek participle embrimēsamenos which means”to snort with anger” or “to be indignant.” The sense of 1:43 is that Jesus wants the man to leave quickly and is almost shoving him away. Both the Matthean (8:1-4) and Lukan (5:12-16) tone this episode down.
Other passages convey the same forceful tone. In 5:40 we read of Jesus’ reaction to people laughing at his statement that Jairus’ daughter, who recently died, was not dead but asleep – “And they laughed at him. Then he put them [ekbalōn] all outside.” In 9:47 Jesus tells the disciples that if one of their eyes should cause them to stumble that they should “tear it out [ekbale]” lest they enter into hell with two good eyes. In 11:15 we read that Jesus “began to drive out [ekballein] those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple.” In 12:8 Jesus tells the parable of some evil tenants who took a vineyard owner’s son, killed him, and then “threw him [exebalon] out of the vineyard.” Every instance of ekballo carries with it a sense that strong force is being used, that this isn’t a gentle nudge.
1 James A. Brooks and Carlton L. Winbery, Syntax of New Testament Greek (University Press of America, 1979), 2.