This Essay copyright of Seumas Macdonald, 2004. May be reproduced freely if this Copyright notice is included

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This Essay copyright of Seumas Macdonald, 2004. May be reproduced freely if this Copyright notice is included.


Mark gives the Gentiles a place of both contrast and anticipation. Gentiles appear within the narrative structure in contrast against Israelites, especially the Pharisees. However, Jesus conducts no Gentile mission, nor commands his disciples to do so, but there are clear indications of a future Gentile mission. This thesis is borne out by an examination of key Markan passages involving Gentiles: 5:1-20, 7:24-30, 7:31-37, 8:1-10, 15:1-39, and 13:10 in conjunction with 14:9.

The Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20)
In Mark, Jesus’ first proper dealing with a Gentile is the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20).1 Chapter Four contains Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God. In the subsequent sea journey (4:35-41), three key questions are raised: who is Jesus, where is the disciple’ faith, and whether Jesus cares about their perishing. Jesus answers these questions in 4:35-5:43.

This raises several points as regards the Gentiles. Jesus, answering the disciples’ question ‘do you not care that we are perishing?’, specifically saves a Gentile, demonstrating a saving concern not only for the Jews. Mark never addresses the reason why Jesus enters Gentile territory. It may be to avoid the insufficient messianic expectations of the Jews, or to escape rising pressure created by his controversies with the Pharisees.

Gerasa is Gentile territory.2 The man addresses Jesus as son of ‘the Most High God’ (v7), a Gentile referent for hvhy, indicating the man is likely a Gentile. Lane argues that descriptive details, i.e. cutting himself, spending nights in secret places and living among the dead, link his possession to demon-worship. Details arguably equally consistent with possession by itself, and not necessarily to demon-worship.

The force of the narrative changes axis on this question. If the man was a demon-worshipper, then the exorcism is a confrontation and victory over Gentile gods, and an invitation to worship the God of Israel not those of the nations. 3 If demon-worship is absent, the narrative points to Jesus’ power over demons and death, consistent with reading the whole of 4:34-5:43 as revealing Jesus' power over death, present in the threat of nature (4:35-41), of demonic forces (5:1-20), and of disease and mortality (5:21-43).

The Gentiles, as represented by the herdsmen and local people, reject Jesus - representing Gentile nations rejecting God. The now-healed demoniac is not permitted to follow Jesus, but told to proclaim God's works among the Gentiles. This command contrasts with the Messianic secret. However, the Gentile nature of this region makes it unlikely that people will a as preparation for Gentile mission.
The Syrophoenician Woman (7:24-30)
The next incident involving a Gentile in Mark's Gospel is the encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in 7:24-30. Contextually, it follows a section dealing with Jesus controverting with the Pharisees and scribes regarding (ritual) purity. The Syrophoenician woman is thereby contrasted with the Jews in terms of her faith (against the persistent unbelief of the Jews) and in salvation brought to an 'unclean' Gentile (against the 'cleanliness' of the Jews).

The text explicitly identifies this woman as a Gentile: ‘into the region of Tyre’, ‘a Greek’, ‘of the Syrophoenician race’ (v26). The woman's daughter being possessed of an pneu:ma ajkavqarton (v25) must be read against the teaching on cleanliness in the preceding section. Jesus’ reluctance indicates that he has not come to Tyre to minister to Gentiles, or even Jews. The woman's reply is a demonstration of faith and an employment of wit. She understands that the Jews are the children and the Gentiles are ta; kunavria (v28). Yet she perceives that God's grace is available to the Gentiles4. The construction of the metaphor infers that both Jews and Gentiles eat from the same source, yet there is a priority – Jews first, then Gentiles.

Jesus’ response to the woman affirms her reply. Salvation, in terms of deliverance for her daughter, comes Dia; tou:ton to;n lovgon (v29). Her faith is recognised against the unbelief of the Jews, and her answer is true, that though as a Gentile she has no claim to Jesus, God's grace overflows even to Gentiles.
Healing of a Deaf and Dumb man (7:31-37)
7:31-37 transitions from Tyre into the Decapolis. The deaf and dumb man is not identified as Jew or Gentile, though again there is good reason to consider that in Gentile regions, Jesus ministered to Gentiles.

This miracle can be understood, similarly to the former passage, as building on the problem of Israel's unbelief. This miracle points to hearing and speaking. Israel hears, but they are without understanding. In healing the man, Jesus points to hearing and accepting his teaching about the Kingdom.

The injunction to silence here, as contrasted with 5:19, is probably occasioned by Jesus’ increasing reputation within Gentile territory as a miracle worker or healer. The Gentiles do not face the same temptation of misunderstanding Jesus’ messiahship, however 'rest' would be hard to come by in an environment of relentless demands for healing.

We see, therefore, that while those who should be on the 'inside', willing and ready recipients for the Kingdom of God which is at hand (the core content of Jesus' kerygma from 1:15 onwards), it is most often those on the 'outside' who are the recipients, both in the portrayal of the Gentiles, and those within Israel who accept Jesus5.

Feeding of the Four Thousand (8:1-20)
Wefald argues convincingly for a Gentile context of the feeding of the Four Thousand (8:1-26). 6 Particularly persuasive is his argument from narrative markers of Jewish and Gentile territory and boundary/sea crossings in Mark's Gospel. The use of the distinct words for 'basket' in each feeding is a less convincing attestation, but the further three points7 concerning literary details build a cumulative case for a Gentile feeding.

Commentators, particularly modern ones (Lane, Cole, inter alia), seem inclined to consider the numbers given for the people and the bread to be historical facts which reinforce the authenticity of the account, and little more. However, the numbers twelve and seven have strong traditional and biblical associations. Twelve may represent the complete tribes of Israel, and seven the whole of the Gentile nations. Wefald’s entire solution is less certain. 8 However, any interpretation maintaining significance for those numbers cannot undermine the Jewish and Gentile character of the episodes.

This passage greatly extends the scope of Jesus’ ministry to the Gentiles. Jesus will provide for the nations, the Gentiles of the world. The two earlier incidents serve are pre-climactic episodes to this one. However, we cannot conclude from this that Jesus conducted a Gentile mission during his earthly ministry. His ministry remained focused on Israel.

Gentiles in the later half of Mark’s Gospel

The final passage of this section (8:22-26) continues the Gentile block. After a trip back across the sea to Dalmanutha (v10), Jesus returns (v13) across the sea to Bethsaida (v22), completing a journey earlier attempted in 6:45. The two-stage healing of the blind man is an enacted parable concerning insight.9 It is remarkable that it is a Gentile, an outsider, who once again is healed, is perceiving the truth.

In 8:27ff, Jesus has returned north, to Gentile territory. It is here that Peter's remarkable insight is attained, and a turning point in the narrative reached. From this outermost point Jesus now sets his face to Jerusalem, and the narrative is a journey from Philippi to Jerusalem and to Jesus' death.

The passage involving James and John seeking 'eschatological honours' in the kingdom, 10:35-45, concludes with Jesus contrasting Gentile leadership with leadership among his disciples. It marks the Kingdom as distinct from the world. Though Jesus does not attack Jewish models of leadership, his polemics against the Pharisees suggests that he is not only attacking Gentile leadership. (v44-45).

The cleansing of the temple (11:15-18) offers a minor, yet pointed, element to the Gentile question. The specific quotation in v17 of Isa 56:7 casts the temple cleansing as being particularly relevant to ‘the nations’. Jesus is restoring to the Gentiles their 'right' to approach God through the temple, in preparation of the eschatological ingathering of the Gentiles after Jesus' death, when the temple physical is replaced by the temple, Jesus, and access to God is through his death and resurrection.
Two verses in the latter discourses point to a future Gentile mission.10 13:10, within the apocalypse passage, declares that kai; eijV pavnta ta; e[qnh prwton dei: khrucqh:nai to; eujaggevlion . This is the clearest statement that the gospel will reach the Gentiles. This is reinforced in 14:9, which by assumption regards the gospel as going to be preached eijV o{lon to;n kovsmon.

Romans in the Passion Narrative

The portrayal of the Romans within the passion narrative is divisible into two subsections: Pilate, and 'the Romans'.

The trial of Jesus before Pilate (15:1-15) revolves around the charge that Jesus was claiming to be the king of the Jews.11 Pilate is therefore first to acknowledge (ironically, not commitantly) that Jesus is oJ Basileu;V tw:n =Ioudaivwn. He certainly knows the charges are not true – his attempt to free Jesus over Barabbas, and his question in v14, show that Pilate understood Jesus’ innocence. His willingness to allow Jesus to be punished and crucified must be understood, as the other gospels elaborate, as a fear of being seen as disloyal to Caesar, and as a desire to ‘satisfy the crowd’ (v15), not to occasion a riot within Jerusalem (especially at Passover).

The Jews handing over Jesus to the Romans creates a strong allusion to the Old Testament. Jesus qua Israel is ‘handed over’ to ‘the nations’, for punishment on account of sin. It is truly ironic that the Roman cohort, in vv.16-20, functions not only as the unbelieving Gentiles in scourging Jesus, but as the first, along with Pilate, to confessionally recognise Jesus as ‘King of the Jews’, although in the most grotesque inversion and mockery of that title. Yet this is precisely what Jesus has been preparing his disciples for in his teaching on the suffering to come (8:31 and 10:45). The final recognition of his kingship is in the inscription, v26, oJ Basileu;V tw:n =Ioudaivwn.

The final word from the Romans comes in v39, the centurion's confession that

=Alhqw:V ou|toV oJ a[nqrwpoV uiJoV qeou: h\n. The lack of articles on both uiJoV and qeou present the possibility of ‘a son of a God’ or ‘a son of God’, yet the definite reading is permitted, if not implied, by the predicate nominative construction. Historically, the question of the centurion's own understanding of his phrase is questionable. Mark, however, situates the profession as a third affirmation of Jesus as the Son of God, the other two being at Jesus' baptism (1:11) and Transfiguration (9:7). Thus, it is significant not only as the first human affirmation of Jesus' sonship, but also by being on the lips of a Gentile, an 'outsider'. Post-crucifixion, this is not the mocking recognition of the Roman soldiery, but a true, though limited, appreciation of Jesus.

Mark thus sets a paradigm for understanding that Jesus will soon be recognised as the King, as Messiah, even by the Gentiles. The prelude to Gentile mission in the Syrophoenician woman, and the feeding of the four thousand, is here brought to an inceptive climax. A climax, because the affirmation functions along with both the divine affirmations and Peter's confession to structure the gospel and bring it to a theological climax; inceptive, because this is the last incident involving a Gentile within Mark's gospel, yet the beginning of Gentile reception of Jesus' message.12


In conclusion, the Gentiles feature significantly within Mark's Gospel. Their role within the narrative functions as a contrast to Israel's unbelief. In the Syrophoenician woman against the Pharisees, the deaf and dumb and blind against the truly not-hearing and not-seeing Israel, and the Romans ironically professing Jesus as King and Son of God, the Gentile ‘outsiders’, receive Jesus. Yet, Jesus mission within Mark is Judeao-centric. Gentile involvement is incidental, Gentile mission is a future concern, foreshadowed, not realised, within the text.

Bibliography of Sources Cited
Lane, William L. The Gospel according to Mark (The new international commentary on

the New Testament. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1974)

Wefald, Eric K. ‘The Separate Gentile Mission in Mark: A Narrative Explanation of

Markan Geograpahy, the two Feeding Accounts and Exorcisms’, JSNT 60 (1995).

Yu, David Personal Communication (2004)

Other Works Consulted

Cole, Robert Alan The gospel according to Mark : - an introduction and commentary

(2nd ed. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Leicester: I.V.P., 1989)
Guelich, R.A. ‘Mark’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the gospels Edited by Joel B. Green,

Scot McKnight; consulting editor, I. Howard Marshall. Downers Grove : IVP,


Köstenberger, Andreas J. and O'Brien, Peter T. Salvation to the ends of the earth: a

biblical theology of misson (New studies in biblical theology. Leicester: Apollos;

Downer Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001)

Martin, R.P. Mark: Evangelist & Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster, 1972)
McKnight, S. ‘Gentiles’ in Dictionary of Jesus and the gospels Edited by Joel B. Green,

Scot McKnight; consulting editor, I. Howard Marshall. Downers Grove : IVP, 1992.

Robinson, Donald W.B ‘Israel and the Gentilse in the Gospel of Mark’ in P.G. Bolt &

M.D. Thompson (Editors), The Collected Works of Donald

Robinson (forthcoming)

1 Passing over 3:7-12;It is most likely that the crowd is dispersed Jews who are coming to hear Jesus.

2 Textual debates about Gerasa, Gadara, etc., fail to place the episode outside Gentile territory.

Lane, W.L. The Gospel of Mark (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmsans, 1974), p 184

3 Wefald, Eric K. ‘The Separate Gentile Mission in Mark: A Narrative Explanation of

Markan Geograpahy, the two Feeding Accounts and Exorcisms’, JSNT 60 (1995), p15.

4 Lane understands the metaphor not to be a Jew/Gentile distinction, but only a ‘life-situation’ of a Hellenistic household. Even if the woman understands the metaphor only on this level, the Gentile stress directs one to interpret the statement along those lines.

5 cf. the sense ‘the poor’ acquires within Jewish literature, and the repeated portrayal of Jesus going to publicly reviled 'sinners'.

Issues regarding the authenticity of two feeding accounts, its overall Gentile character, and the full debate over the specific numbers are victims of brevity in this essay..

6 Wefald, Eric K. Op Cit.

7 Ibid., p20.

There is the problem, as Yu raises (Yu, D. Personal Communication (2004)), of why a Gentile crowd has been with Jesus for three days, given Jesus reluctance to teach Gentiles, and his avoidance of a ‘miraculous medical ministry’.

8 Wefald, Op. Cit. p21-25.

9 Pointing to the structure of the following half of Mark's gospel: first the sight-healing, then Peter declares Jesus' Messiahship, then Jesus' instruction concerning the suffering of the messiah, thrice, before a second sight-healing miracle. The disciples come to understand Jesus' messiahship in two stages.

10 Passing over 12:9 as being primarily about the New Israel, not Gentiles contra Jews in the Church.

11 Understanding the Roman political charge to be a natural extension of messianic claim..

12 This is particularly so if the resurrection is read as an 'open ending' with 16:8 as completing the gospel yet retaining the open question of ‘what next’ for the reader/auditor.

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