The Quest for the Questioning Jesus: Studies in Mark, Pt. 29

Jesus, according to my count, asks 66 questions in Mark’s Gospel. I’ve categorized the questions, broadly, into three groups (realizing that sometimes a question may overlap between categories). Here are my findings and categorizations:

+Interrogative - (2.8, 5.9, 7.18a, 8.12, 8.17a, 8.18a, 8.27, 8.29, 9.12, 9.23, 10.8, 11.30, 12.11, 12.15, 14.6)

+Rhetorical – [when a specific answer is expected or given afterwards, sometimes even in the form of another question] - (2.9, 3.4, 3.23, 3.33, 4.13a, 4.21a, 4.21b, 5.39, 8.17b, 8.17c, 8.36, 8.37, 9.19a, 9.19b, 9.50, 10.3, 10.38, 11.17, 12.9, 12.16a, 12.16b, 12.24, 12.26, 12.36, 12.37, 13.2, 14.37a, 14.41a, 14.48)

+Genuine – (2.25, 4.13b, 5.30, 6.38, 7.18b, 8.5, 8.18b, 8.19, 8.20, 8.21, 8.23, 9.16, 9.21, 9.33, 10.36, 10.51, 14.37b, 15.34)

For my purposes here, I want to reflect on category number three. In fact, I would suggest that this category is, in some ways, the hardest for many Christians to deal with—it is probably safe to say that the first two categories pose no problems for people. Moving on, many hold the view that Jesus was omniscient—I do not. I believe that as part of the Godhead, when Jesus the man showed up on the earthly scene, He put the omnis on-hold (however one defines “omni”). Paul, in the Philippian hymn, seems to hold this view as well (Php. 2.6-11).

Thus, I think that Jesus, as one who was fully human, asked “genuine” questions seeking sincere answers—answers that He did not know. And while there is an itch to talk about Christological issues at this juncture, I am going to abstain from that conversation so that I can entertain a different one. The issue I want to think on has to do more than anything else, with how interpreting some of Jesus’ questions as “genuine”, can influence our interpretations of entire stories. I will limit myself on examples here.

Take, for instance, Mark 8.22-6. There, Jesus, after rubbing spittle on a blind man’s eyes, asks Him, “Do you see anything?” If we use my categories, I think that this question best fits that of “genuine.” There might be an interrogative sense to Jesus’ question but usually, Jesus asks interrogative types of questions when He wants His audience to look deep within themselves and reflect on a certain issue. That’s not going on here. The question is not rhetorical because there is not one specific answer expected afterwards—the answer can be either “yes” or “no” here. This leaves me to take the question as a genuine. Jesus wants to genuinely know if the man can see.

Now, this is quite interesting. Jesus the healer, standing right in front of the man, asks him if he can see anything. Evidently, Jesus cannot tell just by looking at the fellow. Just as well, He does not employ some divine power so that He just knows. Instead, Jesus does not know if the man can see and so, He asks in order to get an informative answer. I am not inclined to argue, as some do, that, in the ancient world healing blindness was the hardest of all healings and that is why Mark includes Jesus having to give it two tries—though proponents of this view might still see Jesus as asking a genuine or sincere question.

Okay, I want to leave this story for a moment and address the one immediately prior to it. In that story, Jesus and the disciples are on a boat, the disciples have forgotten to stock up on bread and they are worried that Jesus is upset with them for it. Jesus, hearing their chatter, proceeds to ask seven questions in a row. In my opinion, in these seven questions, Jesus employs all three types of questions (that is, if 17b & 17c are not Genuine):

17a - Interrogative
17b - Rhetorical (possibly Genuine)
17c – Rhetorical (possibly Genuine)
18a - Interrogative
18b - Genuine
19 – Genuine
20 – Genuine

Such a reading suggests a number of things. First of all, this suggests that we should not just lump all of Jesus’ questions into one category. Instead, we should take each one on its own terms. Secondly, when reading these passages aloud (these were oral-oriented documents!), one can add tonality or inflection to each of them. In my opinion, when one does this, my categorizations fit well. Thirdly, this suggests that Jesus is not reaming the disciples here. Every commentator I’ve read makes this argument. I wonder, though, if such a reading misses some things?

If the last three questions are taken as genuine ones, then this passage does not reveal Jesus as angry with the disciples but rather being a sincere teacher who wants to know if His students are catching on yet or not. Jesus, as a good teacher, might be asking these questions for pedagogical purposes. Could He be attempting to gauge where His students are? When He asks if they still do not understand, what if He is asking out of sincerity instead of rebuke? This really puts a different spin on the passage.

From a literary standpoint, most scholars have suggested that the “seeing” theme runs through a number of surrounding stories (e.g. 7.31-7, 8.11-3, 8.14-21, 8.22-6, 8.27-33, 9.42-50 and even 10.46-52). Whereas many scholars try to develop some kind of Markan outline through these stories, I am more reticent to do so. I also question the notion that by asking the disciples if they have “eyes but fail to see” in 8.17 and 18, Mark has set himself up to make a contrast with the next story (8.22-6) where the blind man sees. Actually, at first, the blind man does not see!

Just as well, I am not sure that the double-healing attempt (partial sight to full sight) is meant to “parallel” the supposed misunderstanding and then enlightenment that occurs in 8.27-33. Indeed, even after Peter makes his confession Jesus rebukes him. Evidently, he was not totally enlightened! Evidently, Peter did not have "total" insight in to the work and person of Jesus! In my view, the parallels are stretches. That said, the “sight” theme does have merit to it.

Something that has been overlooked, though, is how Jesus’ questions shape these various pericopies. Furthermore, I would contend that in these verses we get a very human picture of Jesus. Here, we see Jesus asking genuine, sincere questions. Jesus, at this point, then, is trying to gauge where His ministry is at. Have His followers caught on? Sure, the crowds often flock to Him but what do the people really think of Him? How effective are His healings and miracles? (I should point out here, that, previously in 6.5, Mark has said, “He could not do any miracles there, except lay His hands on a few sick people and heal them.” One gets the sense that Jesus tried but had limited success. Perhaps we get an inkling of that in 8.22-6.)

Moreover, if the bulk of chapter 8 is meant to show Jesus attempting to gauge where His ministry stands, then the end of chapter 8, which seems rather disconnected to some, makes a lot of sense. There, Jesus issues the call for those who desire to follow Him, and says that they must take up their crosses. Furthermore, they must leave fleshly, worldly desires behind. This is how Jesus wants His ministry to be characterized; this is what He wants it to be gauged by. Where better to locate such a statement than at the end of chapter 8, a chapter where Jesus is repeatedly asking genuine questions about Himself, His ministry, His followers and His crowds? Where better to locate such a statement than after a passage where Peter has just been reprimanded for misinterpreting Jesus and His work?

In my opinion, there is no better place to locate such a statement! In fact, it seems to me that Mark’s ingenuity shines through here as he shows Jesus taking stock of His ministry (which is one, if not "the" main point of chapter 8) thus far so that He is more prepared as He is starting “on the way” to Jerusalem! Better to know where He stands than not. May we be more open and inclined to seeing a genuine Jesus in these verses than we have up to this point!

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