Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, for the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars
Like most AABS members, I relate to the Bible in a number of ways: as a New Testament scholar; as a retired professor from a state university (unusual among AABS members); as a lay member of a local Episcopal church (AABS also includes many priests within the Anglican communion). I’d like to share an example of my approach to the New Testament by means of an exploration of the Markan stories of Jesus’ voyages on and around the Sea of Galilee.
The Gospel of Mark is a story, a narrative, a narrative about “the beginning of the good news of Jesus (the) Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Thus, the questions we ask of narratives are appropriate to ask of Mark’s Gospel: What is the narrator trying to communicate to the audience (in the first century, the audience would have been listeners more than readers)? How do the actions of the characters in the settings depicted help the author and narrator communicate with the audience?
As a scholar, it became clear to me (and not to me alone) that Jesus’ two feedings of multitudes with their settings on the west and east sides of the Sea of Galilee function as a “Jewish” feeding (6:31-44) and a “Gentile” (non-Jewish) feeding (8:1-9). Telling these two parallel stories in these two settings portrays Jesus acting in an inclusive way. In fact, chapters 4-8 make a point of showing Jesus’ outreach not only to Jews, his own people, but to Gentiles—in teaching, healing, and feeding. These chapters also show the difficulty Jesus’ disciples experience in following his lead. When the Markan Jesus sends his disciples “to the other [east] side, to Bethsaida” at 6:45, they do not go as sent. The storm on the sea, Jesus’ walking to them on the water, and Jesus’ leading them from Galilee to Gentile territories to the north while continuing his teaching and healing—what I have called the “Markan detour”—eventually bring them “to Bethsaida” at 8:22, where one who is blind is made to see. Are those in Mark’s audience who are blind to the inclusive outreach of Jesus also made to see?
The author of Mark seems to be the first one to apply the term “Sea of Galilee” to the inland, fresh-water body of water that Luke calls by its more usual name the “lake of Gennesaret” (5:1). But Mark’s use of the term “sea” is likely not accidental. By calling the lake Jesus crosses so meaningfully—with or without a boat—the “sea,” Mark taps into the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament echoes of the chaotic sea as the place where God’s people must rely on God’s protection and direction (e.g., Psalm 107). In addition, Mark alludes to the story of the prophet Jonah, who was sent by God to bring a message to the Ninevites, a Gentile nation, but, reluctant to do so, booked passage on a ship in the opposite direction, falling asleep in the boat during a storm on the “sea” (like Jesus). The sailors, like Jesus’s disciples, “feared with a great fear,” and Jonah ended up at the bottom of the sea (not walking on it like Jesus) before eventually reaching the Gentile territory and proclaiming his God-given message. Although the Markan Jesus does not need such a nudge to proclaim God’s message to Gentiles, the disciples in Mark seem to. But Jesus, like the God he follows, gives his followers a second chance. Does the Markan author also give his first-century audience a second chance to see God’s surprising message of inclusivity?
While Mark’s geographical knowledge has been questioned in 21st-century terms, I am convinced that he expected the audience to understand, in 1st-century terms, the ethnography indicated by the geographical references: this is a story about Jesus interacting with Jews and Gentiles. My latter-day audiences have needed some help with this, and I have used a variety of strategies in my multiple contexts. In a university classroom with a large table, we constructed a map of Galilee on the table, with a roll of blue crepe paper for water and signs for the place names, and traced the movement of the Markan Jesus through the narrative. Without the table, we constructed the map on the floor and had students take turns walking across the map to the next destination. Without a large table or room on the floor, I projected a map of Galilee on the white board and students took turns marking the journeys with colored markers. In a good-size church, I once envisioned the main aisle as the River Jordan and the chancel area as the Sea of Galilee and marked the journeys with my own movement in those spaces. In a fourth- and fifth-grade Sunday school classroom, I once used a child’s wading pool for the Sea of Galilee, and we made paper boats to blow across the sea. Have my audiences been enabled to see this expansive good news? That is the goal of AABS members.