“He Intended to Pass Them By”
We left off in the last post with Jesus seeing the struggle of the disciples as they tried to row “against an adverse wind” (Mark 6:48). This prompts Jesus to make his way to them, “walking on the sea.” But then we read one of the most bizarre statements in the Markan Gospel: “He intended to pass them by.” What in the world does that mean? Let’s begin by briefly considering the Greek text.
|parelthein||to pass by|
The main issues here are what the imperfect ēthelen and the aorist infinitive parelthein mean in this context.
The imperfect ēthelen comes from theló, a word we’ve seen before in Mark’s Gospel. For example, in the pericope of the healing of the leper (1:40-45) the infirmed man says to Jesus, “If you choose [thelēs], you can make me clean” (1:40). Jesus responds, “I do choose [thelō]. Be made clean!” (1:41) We also read in the story of John the Baptist’s death that Herodias “wanted [ēthelen] to kill” John (6:19; cf. 6:22). So it seems that theló expresses the idea of desiring, wishing, or choosing to do something. It involves volition. The aorist infinitive parelthein comes from parerchomai, a verb that simply means “to pass by” or “to pass.” It is a word used only here in 6:48 and in 13:30-31 and 14:35. In this instance it clearly refers to Jesus moving past the boat in which the disciples had been rowing.
But why would Jesus “intend to pass them by”? He had seen their struggle, a struggle which prompted him to begin walking toward them on the sea. So it seems pretty cruel to not intervene to help them. So what do we do with those four important words?
One solution to the problem is found in the Matthean and Johannine versions of the story. If you read those two accounts you will quickly notice that neither include this detail. In Matthew’s version one would expect to see it after Matthew 14:25 while in John one would expect to see it in perhaps around John 6:19. But neither Matthew or John chose to include this information. But we are not redacting Mark; we are seeking to explain it. So we move on.
In his commentary on Mark, R.T. France suggests that “in the narrative context the clause is best seen not as a statement of what was in Jesus’ mind but of how his approach appeared from the disciples’ point of view.”1 This is certainly an interesting take but is ultimately not convincing. Had Mark intended for the reader to think that it seemed to the disciples Jesus was going to pass them by he could have done so using the verb dokeó. Instead, Mark is intentional with his words. The implied subject of ēthelen is Jesus. And the narrator is offering his omniscient view of the situation in which he knows the intentions of all the characters, including Jesus.
One of the more compelling solutions is that when Mark says that Jesus intended to “pass them by” he is actually making a reference to the theophanies found in texts like Exodus 33:17-23. There we read how Moses requests to see Yahweh’s glory. Yahweh consents and tells Moses, “I will pass [pareleusomai] before you my glory and will declare my name ‘(the) Lord’ before you” (33:19, LXX; my translation).2 Similarly, in 1 Kings 19:11 Yahweh tells Elijah, “Go out soon and stand before (the) Lord upon the mountain: behold (the) Lord will pass by [pareleusetai]!” (LXX; my translation) So the language used is similar leading to the conclusion that Mark is being intentional with it. But does Mark intend for his audience to think that Yahweh himself was about to pass by the disciples? Is this a theophany or a christophany?
The Misunderstood Markan Jesus
To answer that question we need to understand who Jesus is in Mark’s Gospel. Whereas both Matthew and Luke included extensive genealogies and birth stories, Mark does not. It is almost as if Mark 1:1-11 serves as Jesus’ origin story for the Markan community. He isn’t born of a virgin in the city of Bethlehem. Rather, he is “from Nazareth of Galilee” (1:9). In other words, Jesus is just a regular guy. He came from a tiny town where everyone knew everyone else (see 6:2-3). He wasn’t a scribe or a teacher; he was a tektón, a man who worked with his hands for a living (6:3; NRSV, “carpenter”). But that changed when he was baptized by John. It is then that he becomes the messiah, the heir to David’s throne, God’s “Son, the Beloved” (1:11).
So what we find in Mark 6:48 isn’t a theophany so much as it is a christophany couched in the language of a theophany. Jesus in Mark 6:48 was seeking to reveal who he was and to answer the question the disciples had asked during the previous miracle on the Sea of Galilee – “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41) He’s the Messiah, the Son of God! But the disciples don’t understand this. When they see Jesus walking on the water they think he is a ghost and cry out in fear (6:49-50). Jesus immediately tells them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (6:50). The opportunity for the revelation of who he is as messiah is thwarted by their fear and by their lack of faith. For when Jesus gets in the boat and the storm then ceases the disciples become “utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:51-52). The disciples’ inability to fully grasp what is before them is a recurring theme in Mark’s Gospel. Even when the disciple Peter gets it right (8:29) he gets it wrong (8:31-33). And in the end, they all abandon him (14:27-31, 50) despite seeing all he had done.
Jesus had intended to reveal himself more fully to them (i.e. “pass them by”) but the fear of faithlessness of the disciples wouldn’t allow him.
1 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (Eerdmans, 2002), 272.
2 The future tense form of parerchomai is pareleusomai.
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