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  • Writer's pictureMichael Minch

Mark 8

Updated: Feb 25

Good News from Mark

This week we discussed the first half of chapter eight (8.1-21) which tells of the feeding of the four thousand  and Jesus’ engagement with Pharisees sent from Jerusalem to report on him and his movement. 

1-10:  Feeding of the Four Thousand

This story is closely connected, of course, with the feeding of the five thousand in 6.32-44.  Some scholars have thought they are two narratives about the same event.  But that view is in the minority.  Mark’s story of the second feeding references the first.  There are differences that matter.  The first feeding was “for” the Jews and Jesus presents himself as the new Moses.  There, Jesus announces a blessing upon the food, in good Jewish fashion.  In the first feeding, twelve baskets are left over (12 tribes of Israel) and five loaves (5 books of the Torah).  And the baskets themselves, in the first feeding, are of a type associated with the Jews.  The second feeding was “for” the Gentiles.  This much is clear from the locations of the events, the first in Jewish Galilee, the second in Gentile Decapolis.  Here, Jesus thanks God for the food, in good Gentile fashion.  Seven loaves are left over (God gives Noah 7 laws).  Here, the term for “baskets” is generic, different that that used in the first story.  

Close verbal parallels with Mark’s story of the Lord’s Supper suggest that both stories are to be understood in connection with the Communion Table / Eucharist—implicitly, that the “loaf” (artos) that is broken for the multitudes is Jesus himself (cf. John’s Jesus:  “I am the bread of life” and you must “eat of me”… ).  Verse 8.4 “where we can we find enough bread for these people in this desolate place?” seems to indicate disciples with shallow faith, even a kind of pig-headedness, perhaps.  They should have known from the first feeding that Jesus could take care of this…. The implicit but powerfully important question here is, Is there enough of that artos to feed the Gentiles too?   

11-13:  The Pharisees Seek a Sign

This exchange is tragic and there may be some comedy here too.  In response to the Pharisees (v. 10), Jesus asks, “Why does this generation ask for a sign?”  Jesus could be thinking:  “I will not perform miracles in order to show my identity,” or “I have given them plenty of signs already.  I am not going to jump through their hoops, act on their demand, like a puppet on their strings.”  He might have thought “The sign from heaven you seek is right here talking with you.”  The sense in which “no sign will be given” or “believe me, you will not see one” (v. 12) is that they are spiritually and morally blind to the sign(s) that has (have) already been given.  Jesus, who has performed miracles, is the sign they keep missing.  V. 12 holds the sensibility of a curse:  “if x, then y”: if you refuse to see who I am and what I’m doing, then you will remain in the dark, in the captivity, in the emptiness of life disconnected from the transcendent, from God.  It appears that Jesus reacts quite emotionally and strongly to the lack of faith of those around him, whether they be adversaries, crowds, disciples, friends, or family.  The demand for a sign is, a confrontation, a disagreement, a refusal to see what Jesus expects people to see.  It is a refusal of Jesus himself.  Jesus is the Bread that sustains us.  He is enough for all of us.  John’s Gospel is explicit:  Jesus is “the Bread of Life” and if we “eat of him” we will live forever (6.51).  The Pharisees have come from Jerusalem to “test” Jesus, to confront him, not to have an honest inquiry or discovery, nor conversation.  They came bent on unbelief, or having their already-held beliefs, unchanged.  But it seems that this hardness of heart was not unique to the Pharisaic elite.  It is important to note here that the fact that Jesus continually tells the crowds not to tell others about his miracles indicates that Jesus is not interested in people recognizing his power and divinity merely for egoistic or triumphal reasons.   That would make Jesus petty and narcissistic.  But Jesus is not only grieved, but also angry, when the healing and liberating power of his ministry is denied to some because it is denied by others.  He is, after all, inaugurating God’s reign and all the radical goodness of a new community and a new politics.  It is understandable, to say the least, that he would be emotional when his mission is not grasped, even more, when it is rejected out-of-hand.     

14-21:  The Leaven of the Pharisees

Leaven, to begin, is a metaphor for or synonym for corruption (cf. I Cor. 5.6-8, Gal. 5.9).  In Matthew, it is equated with false teaching.  In Luke, it is equated with hypocrisy.  In Mark, it is equated with obtuseness.  

This story continues the larger complex of stories that deal with the symbolic significance of the term artos (bread).  Throughout this section, Mark has intertwined four themes.  First, he develops the theme of the gospel to the Gentiles by drawing careful distinctions between the

Terms for baskets used in the two feeding stories, and by tracing Jesus’ deliberate movement out of Galilee and into Gentile territory, first to Tyre and Sidon (7.24-30), then by roundabout route to the Decapolis (7.31).  Insofar as the theme of Jesus’ movement including the Gentiles is here, note his words in 6.4:  “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

A second theme is intertwined with the first— the question of Jesus’ identity.  This question is first posed in the synagogue at Nazareth (6.2f) but posed again (.14-16) related to the death of John the Baptist (.17-29).  Speculations about Jesus as John the Baptist raised from the dead (.14), or Elijah (.15a), or another of the prophets (.15b)—will be repeated at the end of this section (8.27-30).  The Pharisees demand a “sign from heaven” not knowing the irony of their demand—an admission that they do not recognize the “sign” who stands before them.  (See above).  

The third theme is the series of coded allusions to the Last Supper.   

The fourth theme is that to all of this, the disciples are quite blind.  Like the Pharisees, the disciples in one way or another expressed the worry and incomprehension: “we have no bread”(e.g., 7.18f, 8.4).

These are four complex and intertwined themes.  The readers and listeners of Mark’s Gospel are meant to see what the Jewish leaders and the disciples do not see.  The narrative is written to put the audience of the Gospel in the know.  Mark invites his readers into the narrative, where they can, in effect, answer the questions and set the doubt, disbelief, and obtuseness straight.  But for Mark’s audience to fit into this narrative schematic and make this contribution, so to speak, they must share Mark’s point of view.   

That one loaf of bread in the boat?  The one the disciples think is not enough?  That’s Jesus, and he is more than enough.  But no one sees it (except, hopefully, Mark’s audience).  The “leaven” Jesus has warned them against is, whatever else it might be, the blindness shared by so many.  The disciples’ lack of understanding in v. 15 sets up Jesus’ response in vv. 17-19: “What are you talking about having no bread?!  Do you still not understand… ?”  This is, it turns out, an extension of Jesus’ refusal to provide a sign for the Pharisees.  Jesus uses Isaiah 6.9: “Don’t you yet understand?  “Do you have your heart hardened?  Having eyes, don’t you see?  Having ears, don’t you hear?”   

It’s not mere misunderstanding, lack of cognitive power.  Jesus adds, “are you so hard-hearted”? (.17).  Oftentimes in life, our inability to understand and our will to not understand are connected.  Sometimes we choose ignorance, our will, our desire is not really given over to moral understanding, because we suspect, predict, and fear the consequence of true understanding—if we understand deeply, something, perhaps much, will be asked of us, called for, demanded.  So, to avoid the demands of morality (and often, theology and spirituality) we make sure we do not understand.  Upton Sinclair observed specifically that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his wealth depends on his not understanding it.  Relatedly, Aristotle discussed the vice of akrasia—weakness of the will. 

This phenomenon has been seen, historically, as a key ingredient of the reactionary and authoritarian-embracing politics characteristic of the right.  Although, of course, as human beings, we are all prone to this form of sin.  Our moral wills are often weak in conjunction with a weakness of curiosity and intellectual verve and veracity.  The New Testament’s call for us to live with and in “the mind of Christ” is intrinsically connected with the call to live with a new heart.  We are invited to “eat,” “consume,” “partake” of Jesus our artos, the very Bread of Life.  

Thanks for reading,


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