Reading Literature as Literature
In between looking for work and spending time with my sons, I have been preparing to preach on Mark 3:7-12. It’s a pretty straightforward text that could be improperly/irreverently read by believers and unbelievers alike for that reason. Attention to detail, however, is key when reading any piece of literature. And when we pay attention to this tiny pericope, the theology it contains becomes clearer for us to see.
Here is the text in its entirety:
Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him. And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.
There is a lot to be said about this text, but there’s one thing that stands out to me. The first few sentences and the last two seem to not flow. After having mentioned the crowds, Jesus’ concern for his and his disciples’ well-being, Mark mentions something about “the” unclean spirits.
Which unclean spirits?
Taken as a general statement, it makes sense. However, as it is is juxtaposed to an otherwise seamlessly relayed account of the Lord making his way to a boat because of the crowds of people, it still stands out. It seems to not fit.
Texts like these, i.e. seemingly discordant/discontinuous texts, are taken by unbelieving scholars as proof of interpolation. The apparent discordance is explained away as an obvious insertion of a Jesus tradition that was not originally part of Mark’s Gospel. [For an example of this, check out my article The Unity of Mark 5, Contra Price.]
This is not only blasphemous and lazy on the part of such interpreters, it is also ignorant. Apparently discordant texts in a work of literature serve a purpose. The author is juxtaposing assertions, sentences, concepts, et al in order to get a point across. Mark, an author, is doing the same thing in Mark 3:7-12.
Understanding How the Text Coheres
How, then, are we to understand Mark 3:11-12? Which unclean spirits saw Jesus, fell down, and cried out “You are the Son of God”? The ones which were present in the crowd of people from whom Jesus sought to distance himself.
The contrast in view, then, is between those who were legitimately seeking Jesus’ healing and those who were possessed by demons. Rather than actually being a disjointed and conflicted pericope, the text is seamlessly united throughout. The crowds of people may have posed an unintentional danger to Jesus, causing him to die beforehand. However, the unclean spirits likely posed an intentional danger to Jesus, wanting him to die before he went to calvary to defeat the devil, death, and sin.
Thus, Mark mentions “the unclean spirits” because they are among the other who are truly ill. They pose an intentional danger to his life, as well as the life of his apostles.
Accounting for the Apparent Disunity
Central to much of the writings of unbelieving scholars is the utilization of two logical fallacies in their analysis of the Scriptures. The first is the fallacy of composition, in which an author/speaker invalidly infers that what is true of a part of the whole is true of the whole. The parts of the whole, in this instance, are the writings of religious groups during the time of the composition of the New Testament. The invalid inference drawn by unbelieving scholars is that what is true of some of the religious groups of the time is also true of the religious group to which the NT authors belonged, i.e. the Christian church.
Once this fallacy has been utilized, the author/speaker will go on to commit the fallacy of division, in which what is true of the whole is invalidly inferred to be true of the parts comprising the whole. It is, in essence, the reverse of the fallacy of composition. Having assumed that all first century Jews believed x about y, they then invalidly argue:
1. Many 1st century Jews believed x about y.
2. Mark was a first century Jew.
3. Therefore, Mark believed x about y, too.
An unbelieving treatment of Mark 3:11-12, therefore, will likely say that if the text is coherent then it is so on the basis of Mark’s attribution of all illnesses to demonic activity. Why? Because they have reconstructed a past using the fallacy of composition, and in their analysis they are utilizing the fallacy of division. [I’ve written on this topic elsewhere, see here.]
However, Mark does not attribute all illnesses to demonic activity. As a Jew knowledgeable of the Scriptures, Mark knows that God and creation are also causes of sickness. He even differentiates between illnesses and demonic activity elsewhere.
We Need to Be Careful Readers of Scripture
While understanding the exact manner in which Mark 3:7-12 is not a matter of salvation, it is important for a few reasons. In the first place, we must remember that the enemy of our souls is always prowling about seeking to devour God’s people. Knowing that God’s Word is a unity, an unbreakable unity, will strengthen us when the devil and his cohorts attempt to divide and conquer the Word of God.
Secondly, seeing the unity of Mark 3:7-12 brings into view the Sovereignty of Jesus as he (1.)orchestrates his removal from the crowds among which are the unclean spirits, and (2.)he does not die “accidentally” or by some power outside of his control. As he declares in John’s Gospel:
No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
Thirdly, understanding the unity of Mark 3:7-12 helps us to see and appreciate the literary qualities of the Bible, as serving the greater purpose of propositionally revealing God to man. Literary devices are an important part of understanding Scripture, so important that Christians throughout the centuries have written entire books on the subject. [For instance, Benjamin Keach wrote a pretty thorough text on these matters titled Tropologia.]
Lastly, we can learn how to utilize these tools when we preach the Gospel. We can use literary devices like juxtaposition not in order to add to or improve the message of God’s Gospel, but to shock, disturb, or even confuse someone into an awareness of their spiritual condition.
The end goal is this: That God would be glorified in our use of the literary devices he has given us.
Soli Deo Gloria