Musings on Mark: Minor Markan Characters – Bartimaeus, the Blind Beggar

“Through the identification with Bartimaeus and subsequent minor characters, the reader is encouraged to move beyond faith in Jesus and his power toward a more faithful acceptance of the demands and values of Jesus.” – Joel F. Williams1


MARK 10:46-522

46 And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a large crowd, the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting along the way. 47 And having heard it was Jesus the Nazarene, he cried out and said, “Son of David, Jesus, be merciful to me!” 48 And many charged him to be silent but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, be merciful to me!” 49 And Jesus, stopping, said, “Call him.” And they called to the blind man saying to him, “Cheer up, get up – he calls for you!” 50 Then, casting off his cloak, he jumped up and came to Jesus. 51 And answering him Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?” Then the blind man said to him, “Rabbouni, that I may see!” 52 And Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has saved you.” And immediately he was able to see and followed him on the way.


In a previous post3 I wrote about the centurion at the cross (Mark 15:39, 44-45), a minor character if ever there was one. And in that post I mentioned the work of Elizabeth Struthers Malbon whose book In the Company of Jesus: Characters in Mark’s Gospel4 is an illuminating volume examining the roles played by figures other than Jesus in the Markan narrative. Malbon posits that the functions of minor characters fall into three general categories:

  • They can function as enemies and “fallible followers.”5
  • They can function as exemplars or models of right belief and behavior.6
  • They can function as parallels to other characters.7

The centurion functioned as an exemplar, rightly concluding upon Jesus’ death, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39). In the Markan narrative, he is one of the few that recognize Jesus for who he is. Bartimaeus is another.

THE MARKAN NARRATIVE TO THIS POINT

Before we look at the text of Mark 10:46-52 itself, we should briefly consider the narrative flow that has led us to this point. For the most part, the first half of the Gospel of Mark is about Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, especially the towns and villages that lay along the shore of the Sea of Galilee (cf. Mark 1:39). But beginning in chapter eight, the narrative begins to shift both geographically and thematically. The pivotal moment is the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi (8:27-30): “And [Jesus] asked them, ‘But who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, saying to him, ‘You are the Christ [or “Messiah”]” (8:29). Jesus’ question, posed to the disciples in the narrative, is no doubt intended to be answered by the Markan audience as well. Who do they say Jesus is?

Map of Galilee ESVSB
Map of Galilee and surrounding areas in the first century CE.8

Immediately following Peter’s confession, Jesus utters the first of three Passion predictions (8:31; cf. 9:31, 10:32b-34). But Peter, despite being the first in the Gospel of Mark apart from demonic forces to get Jesus’ identity right, sticks his foot in his mouth when he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him (8:32), prompting Jesus to respond, “Get behind me, Satan, for you do not ponder the things of God but the things of men” (8:33). At each point where Jesus foretells his impending fate at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious authorities, the disciples exhibit some kind of misunderstanding: “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (9:32, NRSV).

Framing the Narrative

The narrative of 8:27-10:45 is punctuated with these Passion predictions and accented with the disciples’ misunderstanding. In a rather creative way, the Markan author frames the disciples’ inability to grasp Jesus’ words with two stories: the healing of a blind man in 8:22-26 and the healing of Bartimaeus, another blind man, in 10:46-52.

Slide1

The first healing is in many ways intended to parallel the confession and misunderstanding of Peter in 8:29 and 8:32.The second, on the other hand, plays more directly into the two-sided coin of the Markan themes of Christology and discipleship.10 For not only does the author of Mark highlight the theme of spiritual blindness, he also highlights the identity of Jesus as the true messiah, an ever important theme in the Gospel of Mark.

EXEGESIS OF MARK 10:46-52

The narrative flow of this pericope is fairly straightforward and resembles other healing narratives in the Gospel (cf. Mark 1:29-31, 40-45; 2:1-12; 3:1-6; etc.).11 Unlike other healing narratives, however, this story features the name of the one who is healed: Bartimaeus. And, as we will see, the role Bartimaeus plays in the narrative is essential to it and the general Markan narrative.

Vs. 46 

  • “And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a large crowd, the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting along the way.” 

As noted earlier, since the confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27-30) the narrative has been progressing south to the city of Jerusalem. Now Jesus and his entourage have arrived in the ancient city of Jericho, a town situated sixteen miles northeast of Jerusalem.12 That there is a “large crowd [ochlou hikanou]” accompanying Jesus is no surprise for a couple of reasons. First, wherever Jesus went people would gather to see him perform miracles (i.e. 10:1). Second, with Passover rapidly approaching, many were no doubt making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate.13

Seated “along the way [para tēn hodon]” is “the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus.” The name “Bartimaeus” is Aramaic for “son of Timaeus.” Typically the Markan author will present the Aramaic words first and their translation second (cf. 3:17; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:34) but here in vs. 46 that order has been reversed.14 The name “Timaeus” is likely derived from the Greek word timaō, “I value” or “I honor”15 and so Bartimaeus’ name is something like “son of honor” or “honored son.” Juxtaposing this “honored son” is his description as “a blind beggar [typhlos prosaitēs].” Being a beggar would have been difficult enough but being one that was blind would have been disconcerting to say the least. In the biblical tradition, blindness brought along with it particular stigmas16 including the idea that such a condition was brought about due to sin (cf. John 9:1-2). Though we do not know how long Bartimaeus had been blind, his situation places him on the margins of society and at the mercy of others. Being seated “along the way” (more literally, “beside the road”) gave him access to the wealthy who were going to and from Jerusalem for business or worship.17

Vs. 47 

  • “And having heard it was Jesus the Nazarene, he cried out and said, ‘Son of David, Jesus, be merciful to me!'”

How Bartimaeus learned that “Jesus the Nazarene” was passing by is unclear but given Jesus’ popularity there is little doubt people would have been talking about him. Perhaps Bartimaeus overheard these conversations, recognized this was the famous miracle worker of Galilee, and cried out for his attention.18

Much ink has been spilled analyzing the content of Bartimaeus’ cry and so a few observations are in order. First, in calling out to Jesus, Bartimaeus addresses him first as “Son of David” and then as “Jesus.” This reflects the way in which Bartimaeus himself is introduced by the Markan author first as the “son of Timaeus” and then as Bartimaeus. Second, “Son of David” functions as an alternative designation for the messiah19 and it is the only time in the Gospel of Mark Jesus is addressed as the Son of David. While Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah (8:29), R.T. France observes that “[n]o other onlooker has interpreted Jesus in messianic…terms in this gospel.”20 This, of course, does not mean that no other characters in the Markan Gospel have interpreted Jesus in this way: the demon that possessed the man in 2:23-26 recognized Jesus as “the Holy One of God”21 and the demoniac of Gerasa refers to Jesus as “Son of the Most High God” (5:7).22 But in terms of human characters, Bartimaeus is an enigma. His physical blindness has not dampened his spiritual sight. Third, Bartimaeus requests mercy from Jesus – “[B]e merciful to me!” Such a request reflects the words of the psalms (Psalm 6:3 [LXX]), 9:14 [LXX], etc.).23 

Vs. 48 

  • “And many charged him to be silent but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, be merciful to me!”

Despite a rebuke from the crowd, Bartimaeus is persistent like other suppliants requesting aid from Jesus (cf. 1:40; 2:3-5; 5:25-34). He simply cannot be silent but cries out “all the more [pollō mallon].” And again, in his cry, Bartimaeus refers to Jesus as the “Son of David.”

Vss. 49-50

  • “And Jesus, stopping, said, ‘Call him.’ And they called to the blind man saying to him, ‘Cheer up, get up – he calls for you!'” Then, casting off his cloak, he jumped up and came to Jesus.”

The cry of Bartimaeus reaches the ear of Jesus and he immediately stops (stas) and requests those in his entourage call to him to come and see Jesus. Peter Bolt observes,

Given the determination with which Jesus has been moving toward Jerusalem (10.32; 10.46), it is quite dramatic when he comes to a standstill….The pause in Jesus’ movement brings him into Bartimaeus’ and the readers’ purview….24

But not only Jesus and the Markan readers but also those in the crowd accompanying Jesus to Jerusalem. In vs. 48, some had rebuked Bartimaeus and ordered him to be quiet. But Jesus, having heard the beggar cry out “all the more,” orders them to call to Bartimaeus on Jesus’ behalf. Now the rebuke has turned into a message of joy: “Cheer up [Tharsei], get up [egeire] – he calls for you!” And the response of Bartimaeus is clearly one of eager joy.

46_Mark’s_Gospel_P._into_Jerusalem_image_1_of_4._Christ_cures_Bartimaeus._Kussell
Wikimedia Commons.

Vs. 51 

  • “And answering him Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?” Then the blind man said to him, ‘Rabbouni, that I may see!'”

Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus deliberately echoes Jesus’ question to James and John (10:36). There the request was one of power and prestige, seats beside Jesus in his kingdom (10:37). Here the request is far more humble: “Rabbouni,25 that I may see!”

Vs. 52

  • “And Jesus said to him, ‘Go, your faith has saved you.’ And immediately he was able to see and followed him on the way.” 

Unlike the first blindness narrative (8:22-26), this healing requires no touching on Jesus’ part at all. Rather, Jesus observes the faith of Bartimaeus and declares that it “has saved [sesōken]” him.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE BARTIMAEUS PERICOPE

The Bartimaeus episode is vital to the Markan narrative in a number of ways. Let’s briefly consider four ways.

Cosmic Reversal

In the pericope previous to 10:46-52, Jesus teaches the disciples an important lesson about the coming reign of God.

42 And Jesus, having called them to himself, said to them, “Know that those who would be considered rulers of the Gentiles wield power over them and the great rule over them. 43 But not so is it to be with you; rather, the one who would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and the one who would be first must become a slave of all. 45 For even the son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom on behalf of many.

This echoes words Jesus spoke to the disciples in 9:35: “If anyone would be first, he will be of all the last and of all a servant.” For the Markan Jesus (and perhaps even the historical Jesus)26 the present world was going to be turned on its head such that those who had been considered the least would be considered the greatest and those who desired to rule must be first and foremost servants of all (cf. Luke 9:48). And the Bartimaeus pericope brings this principle to life.

Bartimaeus is by all counts the least of people. He is blind and a beggar. But Jesus is by no means the least of all people. In fact, as Bartimaeus knows and reveals, Jesus is the “Son of David,” the Jewish messiah. Yet despite the fact that Jesus is far greater than Bartimaeus, this does not prevent him from restoring his sight. Jesus therefore illustrates what the coming reign of God will be like: even the rightful ruler of Israel serves those who most would not consider at all.

Spiritual Sight

As I already mentioned, the Bartimaeus story and the story of 8:22-26 serve as frames placed around the journey of Jerusalem (8:27-10:45). In the journey narrative Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times and each time the disciples exhibit a lack of understanding. They lack spiritual sight.

But not Bartimaeus. Despite the fact that he is physically blind, he knows well who Jesus is: the son of David. That is, Bartimaeus possesses spiritual sight that the disciples do not and perhaps (at this point in the narrative) cannot. He is, in some sense, akin to the blind seers found in classical literature. He “apparently knew something about Jesus that those who tried to silence him [cf. 10:48] did not.”27

Faith and Following

The contrast between Bartimaeus and Jesus’ disciples does not end with the blind beggar’s spiritual sight. As already noted, the Bartimaeus pericope is juxtaposed with that of 10:35-45. There James and John had asked Jesus to do whatever they asked of him (vs. 35). Jesus then asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?” (vs. 36), the same question he asks of Bartimaeus in vs. 51. But whereas James and John requested that they “sit, one at [Jesus’] right hand and one at [his] left” in the coming kingdom (vs. 37, NRSV), Bartimaeus “wants to see, and with this gift of sight he desires to follow Jesus in the way.”28 

But what is it that prompts Jesus to restore the man’s sight? According to vs. 52 it is the man’s faith. And what is the object of his faith? His belief that Jesus is the messiah. Thus, the narrative

serves to teach what Christian discipleship involves. To truly “see” involves faith to understand that Jesus is the Christ, the son of David. The action of Bartimaeus is a paradigmatic example of what it means to be a Christian.29 

Markan Christology

This brings us to what is perhaps central to Mark’s Gospel: his view of Jesus. As we learn from the opening verse of the Gospel, Jesus is the messiah, the “son of God.” At his baptism (1:9-11) a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the beloved; in you I am pleased” (vs. 11). But Jesus’ role as messiah is downplayed in the first half of the Gospel until the confession at Caesarea Philippi. As the narrative progresses toward Jerusalem, the theme of Jesus’ messiahship grows all the more. This isn’t accidental. Mark’s Gospel is in part an attempt to explain how the Jewish messiah could be a crucified one. Consequently, the characters in the narrative begin to exhibit more of an understanding of who Jesus is as the messiah. In the narrative that follows the Bartimaeus episode, the crowds even chant, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (11:10, NRSV). Jesus repudiates neither the chant of the crowd nor the declaration by Bartimaeus.

But Jesus is not a conquering messiah, coming to Jerusalem to assert himself as Israel’s king. Though this was the crime for which he was crucified – insurrection – the Markan Jesus is the suffering messiah who came to “give his life a ransom on behalf of many” (10:45). And it is Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, who is “the first human character in Mark to announce Jesus’ messianic identity publicly.”30

640px-William_Blake_-_Christ_Giving_Sight_to_Bartimaeus_-_Google_Art_Project
William Blake’s Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus (1800). Wikimedia Commons.

Summary

As a minor character in the Gospel of Mark, Bartimaeus serves as an exemplary figure who recognizes Jesus for who he truly is, has faith Jesus can do the impossible, and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem,

a path that leads necessarily to suffering. The blind man who was sitting along the way is now the healed man who is following Jesus in the way.31

For Mark’s audience, Bartimaeus is a paradigm of faith and followership. Blind though he is when he meets Jesus, his faith saves him. But he does not have his sight restored simply to abandon Jesus to his old life. Rather, he continues with him to the city wherein Jesus would ultimately face his death.

And his resurrection.

ABBREVIATIONS

ABD – Freeman, David Noel. Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 volumes. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

BDAG – Danker, Frederick W., Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

NRSV – New Revised Standard Version

NOTES

1 Joel F. Williams, Other Followers of Jesus: Minor Characters and Major Figures in Mark’s Gospel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 170.

2 Unless otherwise noted, all translations of biblical texts are my own.

3 Amateur Exegete, “Musings on Mark: Minor Markan Characters – The Centurion at the Cross” (11.7.18), amateurexegete.com.

4 Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, In the Company of Jesus: Characters in Mark’s Gospel (WJK Press, 2000).

5 Ibid., 195-197.

6 Ibid., 198-205

7 Ibid., 206-209.

8 David Barrett, “The Setting of Mark,” in Lane T. Dennis (executive editor), ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, 2008), 1892.

9 Malbon writes,

The half-sight/half-blindness of the Bethsaida man as he sees persons as trees walking is immediately paralleled by Peter’s half-sight/half-blindness as he sees Jesus as only a powerful Christ and not also a suffering servant.

See Malbon, 211.

10 Vernon K. Robbins, “The Healing of Blind Bartimateus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 92, no. 2 (June 1973), 226.

11 Robert Guelich notes that healing narratives generally have three main elements: setting, request for healing, and a demonstration of the healer’s success. See Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, WBC vol. 34a (Thomas Nelson, 1989), 61. See also Edwin K. Broadhead, Teaching with Authority: Miracles and Christology in the Gospel of Mark (Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), 54.

12 For an overview of the history of Jericho, see Ehud Netzer, “Jericho,” ABD, 3:737-740.

13 John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina vol. 2 (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 317.

14 See Virgil R. L. Fry, “Bartimaeus,” ABD, 1:616-617. Dennis R. MacDonald hypothesizes that the translation of the name “Bartimaeus” was for the benefit of Mark’s Greek readers “perhaps to emphasize that the blind man (or at least his father) was noble.” See Dennis R. MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (Yale University Press, 2000), 100.

15 BDAG, s.v. “τιμάω.” Some have suggested that “Timaeus” may be a hellenized form of Timai (see William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, NICNT [Eerdmans, 1974], 385n95) and others that “Bartimaeus” means “son of the unclean,” seeing in “Timaeus” the Hebrew word ṭāmēʾ (see Marie Noonan Sabin, The Gospel According to Mark, NCBC [Liturgical Press, 2006], 94) but Donahue and Harrington observe that “it is difficult to find a Semitic name that might have generated the name Timaeus.” See Donahue and Harrington, 317.

16 See Mary Ann Beavis, “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14 no. 1 (Spring 1998), 24-25.

17 Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC vol. 34b (Thomas Nelson Inc., 2001), 131.

18 Another possibility is that Bartimaeus recognizes Jesus as a miracle working “Son of David” in the tradition of Solomon who purportedly performed exorcisms and healings (i.e. the Testament of Solomon). See I. Howard Marshall, “Jesus as Messiah in Mark and Matthew,” in Stanley E. Porter (editor), The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 127; Evans, 132.

19 Prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible often ties the restoration of Israel to the restoration of the Davidic line (Amos 9:11-12; Zechariah 12:7-10, 13:1; etc.) and the psalmist recounts Yahweh’s promise, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations'” (Psalm 89:3-4; cf. 2 Samuel 7:4-17). In the seventeenth psalm of the Psalms of Solomon we also read, “See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David [huion Dauid], to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God” (Psalms of Solomon 17:21). For an overview of messianism, see Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, second edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 517-519.

20 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (Eerdmans, 2002), 423.

21 A strong case can be made that “the Holy One of God” is, in fact, messianic. See Max Botner, “The Messiah Is “the Holy One”: ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ as a Messianic Title in Mark 1:24,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 136 no. 2 (2017), 417-433.

22 For Jesus to be God’s “son” in Mark seems to mean that he is the messianic king. See Mark 1:11.

23 See also Psalms of Solomon 17:34.

24 Peter G. Bolt, Jesus’ Defeat of Death: Persuading Mark’s Early Readers (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 237.

25 See Evans, 134.

26 See Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford University Press, 1999), 149-150; Dale C. Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (Fortress Press, 1998), 131-134.

27 MacDonald, 98.

28 Williams, 164.

29 Robert H. Stein, Mark, BECNT (Baker Academic, 2008), 498.

30 Beavis, 37.

31 Williams, 162.

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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