The striking subtlety of the New Testament writers

The extreme simplicity of the gospel texts makes it very easy for post-moderns to assume the authors were simple-minded. But in fact, they are writers of unparalleled subtlety and economy. Just as an example, here is Mark (the earliest of the gospels) quietly dropping a bomb into his text at the end of the story of the Gerasene Demoniac. It is one of the strangest and creepiest tales in the gospel, in which the possessed man, living naked among the tombs and strong enough to break chains the locals have put on him in their terror, is healed as the evil spirits beg to be cast into a herd of swine, which then panic and drown themselves.

It should be noted that mere exorcisms were not, themselves, seen as evidence of divinity. As Jesus himself notes, the disciples of the Pharisees practiced exorcisms, but nobody thought they were God and they would have been horrified if somebody had.

On the contrary, what stuck out about Jesus was that he demonstrated the power to cast out demons and did make claims–both explicit and explicit–to deity. His challenge to Pharisees was not that he alone could cast out devils, but that he claimed deity while he did it. Their explanation was that he acted by the power of Beelzebub. His reply, “If I cast out demons by Be-elzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Mt 12:25–28)

The demoniac, healed and in his right mind, begs Jesus to let him follow him. Instead, Jesus tells him:

“Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and all men marveled. (Mk 5:19–20)

The healed demoniac does, in Mark’s view, exactly what Jesus commanded him to do, for God and Jesus are one and the same. However, being a subtle writer, Mark does not draw a picture of a horse and then write under it, “THIS IS A HORSE!” He leaves us to do the math.

This should not, perhaps, surprise us given that Mark begins his book “THE BEGINNING OF THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST, THE SON OF GOD” just in case you were confused about who he thinks Jesus is, and climaxes it with the High Priest asking, “Are you the Christ, the Son of God?” and being told “I AM”. But there are other subtleties we might miss which point, not only to his identity, but to his mission.

One of my faves is this:

And a leper came to him begging him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. And he sternly charged him, and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.” But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (Mk 1:40–45)

The message here gets past a lot of people, who only focus on the miracle of healing. What Mark wants us to see is not the mere healing, but the fact that Jesus exchanges places with the leper. Levitical law consigned lepers to exile from the community. They could not enter towns because of their affliction. And to touch a leper was to incur ritual impurity. But Jesus touches the leper and instead of him becoming unclean, the leper is purified. However, because the leper spreads the news of his miraculous healing, Jesus ends up, just like the leper, no longer able to enter the town. It is a deeply subtle way of foreshadowing what he will do for us all on the cross.


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