Read Mark and Learn

Mike Higton
University of Exeter


This is not a paper about learning and teaching in general. Nor is it a paper on what learning and teaching have been taken to involve throughout the Christian tradition. It is a paper built upon the reading of certain Scriptural texts, and I found that the texts I turned to would not let me talk about such sweeping topics—at least, not directly. The texts I’ve been working with from the Gospel of Mark don’t seem to know anything about ‘learning in general.’ They know only about learning one thing: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That is, the only kind of learning they know about is discipleship . So, although it is a commonplace that ‘disciple’ ( mathetes in Greek) means ‘learner,’ it might be more appropriate at this point to say that, for the New Testament, ‘learner’ means, and only means, ‘disciple.’

This is not, therefore, going to be a paper directly about learning and teaching in general. It is, however, going to be a paper about learning and teaching scripture . We will find, having begun our exploration of teaching and learning with a text about discipleship, that we are tipped directly into other texts that make us think about scripture. The question of discipleship and the question of scripture are, we shall find, inseparable—and the learning spoken of in these texts will be at once discipleship and reading.

I. Mark 1:16-20

I’ll begin with the text in Mark in which we are first introduced to those who are to become disciples—i.e., to become ‘learners’:

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately, they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Note how both call narratives begin with seeing (as does the call of Levi, in a later chapter).? The journey of discipleship—of learning the Gospel—begins with sight, but it is not first of all the disciples’ sight; it is not their insight; not a light which dawns for them. Rather, these fishermen are seen by Jesus: held in his gaze.? And we might ask, what is it about them that is seen? For, having been seen—we might even say, on the basis of having been seen—they are called . Called to become disciples; called to learn . But what does that mean?

But though the seeing and calling in both stories are identical, things become more complex when it comes to following . Simon and Andrew, first of all, are called to a strange fulfilment of what they already are. They are fishermen ( halieis )—and besides their names and their current activity, that’s all that the text tells us about their identity—and Jesus calls them to become fishermen ( halieis anthropon —fishers of people). This calling is certainly to a process where Jesus is a maker —he will make them fishers of people—but that is not making simply as imposition, simply as creation ex nihilo . What Jesus will make of them will be the fulfilment of what they now are.

James and John, on the other hand, are called to leave their nets, and they leave their father, and in this leaving they abandon the most obvious markers of their current identities (they are , after all, the Sons of Zebedee—and aside from their names and their current activity, that’s all that this text tells us about their identity).

In other words, if we ask what discipleship, will involve for these four men, if we ask what these men are called to, and what Jesus has seen in them, there’s at least the hint of an ambivalence between fulfilment and transformation, between making and discovering .

But lets return to this word ‘follow’. These men receive a call to follow , and they respond by following . But I want you to listen for two different resonances to this word. On the one hand, Jesus says to Simon and Andrew, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’ which is exactly what Jesus is doing on the seashore right then. The call to follow rings with a call to apprenticeship : to a participation in the captivating, ensnaring work of the master. But there’s also another resonance, for us readers who are not in Galilee but in San Antonio. For us, met textually by this same Jesus, the invitation to follow means in part the invitation to follow the story . We can only find out what following means for those who are called by following this way, so that following the text becomes the first step in following the Teacher. The word ‘follow’ rings with both ‘participation’ and with ‘reading’.

II. Mark 1:21-24

Another text: this time about Jesus’ teaching rather than the disciples’ learning.

They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?’

Jesus teaches in a synagogue . Now in Luke’s parallel, the emphasis falls on the fact that this is a place for the reading and learning of the Scriptures, and admittedly Mark does not emphasise that—but especially given the comment about the scribes, I think we have to see the Synagogue as bearing weight as a symbol of Jewish identity. The teaching we’re looking at has a specific location .

But there’s a real ambiguity about what Jesus’ teaching has to do with that location. With typical sparseness, Mark gives us very little to work with, saying nothing of the content or form of Jesus’ teaching, saying nothing about whether or how he read the Hebrew Scriptures. Rather, we are given three things: the astonishment of the people; the contrast with the scribes, and the incident with the unclean spirit—and it is the latter (the one most detached from Jesus teaching—such that it is almost a separate story)—it is that one which has the clearest content. On the one hand, the man with the unclean spirit marks Jesus out as dangerous — as one who will not let him alone, as he has (apparently) been let alone by what has happened before in this synagogue. On the other hand, this clash gains its shape from the contrast of uncleanness and cleanness—its content (and so the only real content these passages give to Jesus’ identity or the identity of his teaching) is provided by the key codes in the structure of identity which the synagogue upholds.

On the one hand, then, the text does not seem to present Jesus as a danger to the synagogue as such or to Jewish identity as such (even if it is a danger to the scribes). And that sense is reinforced by the fact that although Jesus’ teaching is astonishing, the recognition that it is such is voiced by the synagogue, and those gathered are presented as recognising that his presence does draw out and throw down uncleanness. On the other hand, however, as soon as the spirit has been thrown out, those gathered declare that Jesus’ message is a new teaching—and we are forced to ask whether what is meant is a teaching that does away with the old.

As we follow the call to follow Jesus, and follow the text, then, we find that the question about the transformation of identity—the question shaped by the ambiguity already noted between the making and the discovery of identity—becomes a question about how the teaching we are following relates to specifically Jewish identities; how it relates to Jewish teaching; how it relates to the synogogue. And if we were to carry on beyond the passage I’ve quoted, we would find ourselves drawn into further stories, which are more complex, more deeply ambivalent in their relation to those things—and following, or discipleship, would lead us more deeply into this ambivalence, an ambivalence that plays over the surface of much of the rest of the Gospel. To be a Christian learner, to be a disciple, is to follow in the sense of reading and following that leads us into deep ambivalence about the relationship between what we read, and what the text we are reading reads.

III. Mark 8:31-35; 14:71-2

I want at this point to start bringing the dominant, plain sense note of ‘following’ in this Gospel back into play: the note of apprenticeship to Jesus, participation in Jesus’ mission. And we can begin to get there if we note another strange thing about this Gospel: the Gospel of Mark withholds what is being chased. If you approach the Gospel of Mark with the question it more or less thrusts on you— Who is Jesus? —it is remarkable how little it gives you to go on, how much it defers giving an answer. There is, of course, the famous messianic secret (Jesus’ injunction to various characters in the Gospel not to spread the news about him), but that is not simply one theme in the Gospel: the Gospel as a whole works in similar ways. So, for instance, in the passage we just looked at, we do not get told what Jesus taught—only that he taught, and that it was astonishing. And earlier in the first chapter we have had a tremendous fanfare from the prophet ‘Isaiah’ and from John the Baptist, and from the divine voice at the Baptism, but nothing to indicate what it is about the man who appears that might fulfil these expectations. Indeed, quite the opposite: plenty to suggest that even those expectations don’t begin to capture him. We are promised one who will baptize, and the one who appears gets baptized; we are promised one who will give the Spirit, and the one who appears receives the Spirit, and is expelled into the wilderness by the Spirit; we are promised one for whom straight ways must be made in the wilderness, and the one who appears is sent to wander that wilderness alone—and so on. We are told to look in this place for an answer, and no answer is forthcoming.

This comes to a head in a text from considerably later in the book, in chapter 8. Peter, who in Mark is definitely presented as the paradigmatic disciple—the paradigmatic learner, you might say—has just for the first time declared to Jesus, ‘You are the Messiah’. A ringing declaration, perhaps, that here, at last, is the answer. And yet the text immediately shows that if Peter thinks he understands—if we think we understand that answer, we are mistaken. Straight away, according to Mark,

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not divine things but on human things.’ He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘ If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me . For those who want to save their life will lose it; and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’

What Peter already knows, what he has already learnt, the following he has supposedly achieved, is engulfed by a greater ignorance. He cannot yet be said to be following —because he has missed the only path along which following can take place.

A few chapters later, Jesus has been arrested. And the same Peter, who has learnt so much from Jesus, who has even declared himself ready to die for Jesus’ sake, finds that he has learnt nothing. He finds that his expectations and understanding—expectations of a messiah who will overthrow his enemies and reign victoriously—still prevent him from seeing the reality of Jesus’ task and fate. In a famous scene, Peter, accused of being a follower of the now-imprisoned Jesus

began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’ At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept. (14:71-2)

Peter does not weep because he has told a lie, but because he has told the truth. It is true: he does not know the man. He as yet knows nothing. He only begins to learn, truly to learn, in the moment when he breaks down and weeps. When he is broken down, we might say: when the arrest and trial and impending death of his Master begin to crucify him too—and finally to overthrow the illusory visions he has had of where his following might lead.

The following to which Jesus calls his disciples—the following to which Christian readers of Mark’s Gospel are called—is not a following which consists in learning a clear message; it does not consist in learning, for instance, a replacement for Torah—a new code by which to live. It does not consist in any kind of learning as accumulation. It does not consist in any kind of learning as acquisition of skill. It consists in dying, following the way of the cross. What is learnt is not some result of the following—not something gained by following, but the following itself. And there is no abstracting discipleship—no abstracting Christian learning, Christian teaching—from that. Learning, following is participating in the cross.

IV. Learning and the Cross

Making and discovering; reading and apprenticeship. The learning I find myself called to by this text does not involve the replacement of the Scriptures read in the synagogue with other Scriptures. Nor does it call for their supplementation with a further text that somehow fills in their gaps or answers their questions; Mark does not present itself as the answer-pages to the puzzles set for the reader in the main textbook. Mark’s text does not have the kind of content that would allow it to perform such a function. In one sense, it barely has any content of its own at all: it is not content but a convolution of content—a transformation to be performed on a content that it does not itself give, or which it borrows from elsewhere. The kind of Christian learning that Mark calls for is the kind that takes place when, in the midst of that synagogue, a call is issued to a certain kind of following: to follow the way of the cross.

So Christian learning (to the extent that there is such a thing) will involve a kind of oscillation: between reading the Hebrew Scriptures and following the passion—allowing the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures to inform and deepen and shape and resource the reading of the passion, but also to be interrupted and interrogated and convoluted by it. The Christian Bible has been mis-stitched, and the Gospel should in fact be interleaved with the Hebrew Bible. Christian learning pursues interleaved reading.

And the oscillation can be amplified, until it takes Christians into any and every other context of learning there is, so that even though the Hebrew Scriptures retain a priority for us, our oscillations might also take us into the Quran, or into the textbooks and course-notes of our universities. A Christian reading of these other texts will be one in which the Hebrew Bible is interleaved with them, and (since you can’t really have an interleaving inside an interleaving) in which that interleaved Hebrew Bible will have the Gospel as a strange interlinear gloss.? Christian learning involves an oscillating reading, an interleaved reading.

Secondly, though—and more difficult to state—Mark says something about what is happening to Christians in that oscillation: something about being seen, being called and being fulfilled, something about a transformation that is both making and discovery, but also something about this transformation involving a kind of death, a death without which we will not have begun to learn.

Title Page | Archive
© 2005, Society for Scriptural Reasoning