Jesus the Prophet?: Studies in Mark, Pt. 17

In my previous post dealing with “Studies in Mark,” I argued that one of main points of the episode generally referred to as “The Feeding of the 5,000,” is often overlooked. That point is that, in the story Jesus not only miraculously feeds the people (zealots) but also teaches them; He teaches them about His identity and mission. The zealots wanted Jesus to be the leader of the religio-political faction, a faction that would overthrow the Roman Empire via force.

In Mk. 6.34, Mark says that when Jesus’ boat reached shore, He “saw a large crowd and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So He began teaching them many things.” As I showed in the last post (click the following link to read: Feeding and Teaching of the 5,000), that phrase “sheep without a shepherd” was a political idiom. Mark was drawing on Num. 27.17. In that verse, Moses has just handed over his leadership role to Joshua. He did this so that as the text says, “…the Lord’s people would not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

When this phrase is used in Mark’s account, the religio-political context is the same: God’s people need a good leader amid all of the corrupt leaders in the world. Of course, in Mark’s context, the corruption is coming from the Herodian family (Mk. 1.14; 6.14-29). Indeed, in the scene just before the “feeding and teaching,” Mark recounts Herod’s murdering of John the Baptizer. Now, it is no secret that John the Baptizer was portrayed and cast as the forerunner of Jesus. In the opening scene of Mark’s account, that is exactly what John is doing. John says that Jesus will “come after him” and will be “greater than” him. Thus, it is no surprise that in 1.14, when John gets arrested, Jesus takes the helm. But we should not overlook the fact that when this takes place, it is meant to signify that Jesus, as the Baptizer said, has surpassed John; Jesus is the prophet par excellence. Jesus even sees Himself in this light in Mark’s Gospel account (Mk. 6.1-6).

I would suggest that the “sheep without a shepherd” idiom also has this connotation. When Mark draws on Num.27.17, not only does he do it for religio-political reasons, he also does it to make a point about Jesus as a prophet. As numerous Old Testament scholars have pointed out, that whole scene deals with the passing on of Moses’ prophetic legacy to Joshua. In fact, many argue that Moses, the original “great” prophet, was such a great prophet that nothing less than the entire Pentateuch could have been his (or at least ascribed to him). This is incredibly important for understanding what is going on when Mark refers back to the prophetic succession in Num. 27.

Remember, Mark has just told the story about John’s death. Prior to that he had recorded John as saying Jesus, the great one, would come after him. Now, at this juncture in Mark’s account, He finally has. We should see, then, a type of prophetic succession going on here; the legacy of The Baptizer is being passed on. Indeed, Jesus is the prophet but Mark wants his readers to make sure that they view Him correctly: Jesus is a prophet but He is the prophet par excellence. Jesus is greater than The Baptizer, He is greater than Moses and He is greater than Joshua. Nonetheless, the prophetic tradition lives on through Him and as with Joshua (and Joshua’s successors), God’s people now have a leader and a prophet.

The nations were without good leadership, they were without a true prophet from God and so Jesus filled that role. Indeed, Mark goes to great lengths in the first six chapters to show that Jesus is the greatest prophet in the tradition of God’s people! This comports well with how Mark has characterized Jesus throughout, as one coming in the stead and tradition of God’s prophets. That is why we find references and echoes to Isaiah, Malachi, Elijah, Elisha, Moses, Joshua and others throughout Mark’s narrative. Indeed, Jesus, in Mark’s story is a prophet (Hebrew: nabi). While nabi (Greek: prophetes) can have a variety of meanings, it appears that Mark understands it to mean, using the words of J. Blenkinsopp: “one who speaks out against the corrupted ‘power structures of society’ in favor of the ‘socially peripheral, disposed or deprived.’”

May we, as God's people, carry on this prophetic tradition and like our Lord, speak the truth at all times and speak out against corruption when we see it.


  1. Hey Michael,

    I think you are right - about the prophet thing - I need to think more about the Zealot thing - I have been quite distracted recently, but will try to catch up. I am still looking at the appointing of the 12 - in the context of the picture Mark sets in the prior verses (its not really Norman Rockwell but its point is quite clear.) This is getting to be a big task that is going to go on after Jesus' death. So Jesus moves from being the primary herald to being the trainer for the next generation. If I am correct that I think this gospel account was written to the third generation of apostles (who are having pretty tough times!) things begins to fall into place, especialloy the harvest parable and the one about putting a lamp under a basket - I mean Jesus, Samuel got beat last week at Synagogue, maybe we ought to tone it down a bit).

    I think you are running sprints and I am slogging through a marathon - If you get too much ahead of me, then I will have to quote you!

    Grace and Peace,

    John Montgomery

  2. The "trainer for the next generation" is a good point, John. I wouldn't really disagree with that. I would say, however, that Mark is more about painting Jesus as a prophet who teaches prophets, not necesarrily as a teacher who is making teachers. Part of the ramification of this is that the readers of this Gospel, will also become prophets. What exactly is meant by the term "prophet" can mean a few different things.

    I do think that the soils parable and the lamp parable further this point, as I have argued. I hope I'm still causing you to think, I appreciate your comments and thoughts. Challenges are always welcomed.

  3. Hey Michael,

    Point well taken about training trainers - clearly Mark paints Jesus as a prophet - i think you are quite right at that point especially Montefiore's definition.

    I will be back! I am working on Wrede's Secret Messiah - an alternative model.



  4. John,

    Thanks for your comments. Looking forward to hearing about the "alternative model."


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