We are studying Mark 5:1-20 (selected verses 1-8, 14-15, and 18-20) this week – Mark’s version of the story of the demons sent by Jesus into a herd of pigs. Some questions on the text are here. Here are a very few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: In Mark’s gospel, as we probably know, everything happens suddenly and very fast. There’s “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” and then boom the voice crying in the wilderness and baptism and temptation and calling disciples and casting out demons and healing and that’s just chapter 1. By the time Jesus and the disciples get to “the other side” of the Sea of Galilee, to begin our story, there’s been lots more healing, the calling of all 12 of The Twelve, a fair bit of teaching, including confrontations with Pharisees, and the parable of the sower and several other parables, and calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Phew.
Immediately after this story, Jesus and his followers will go back to their side of the Sea, and Jesus will bring Jairus’ “little daughter” back from death, and on the way to do that, heal a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years. We readers are rapidly getting the picture of someone with unprecedented authority, power, and life force.
Unfortunately for us, Professor Lyn Kidson hasn’t gotten up through Mark 5 in her series of historical notes to this gospel … but we can stay tuned.
The setting of the story is the general region of “the Decapolis,” which is a cultural, political, and maybe somewhat ethnic term – the 10 cities are under Roman control, but are perhaps more Greek than Roman culturally. This seems important, in that it’s not primarily a “Jewish” but Gentile area. Hence the pigs, which we wouldn’t expect to find on the Jewish side of the lake.
Speaking of Roman control, everyone always mentions that the spirits call themselves “legion” and that the Romans have literal legions all over the place and that those legions are oppressive – at least, in the eyes of the occupied, if not of the occupiers. That legionnaire connection is probably on purpose.
This episode is in all of the synoptic gospels – not John – and Luke’s version shows up in the lectionary every third year, after Pentecost. [I thought I remembered that.] Mark’s version is substantially similar, but not identical. So, technically, this is a story we’d not know if all we knew were the lectionary. But we’d feel like we knew it.
CLOSER READING: In v1, Jesus and the disciples arrive “in the region of the Gerasenes.” How precise this geographical terminology is meant to be is one of those questions on which hangs some of those [fruitless, according to me]
debates shouting matches between Team Bible-Err-Not! and Team Bible-Err-Too! The Decapolis city of Jerash – which gives its name to the “Gerasenes” – is a long way from the Sea of Galilee. Long enough that there would have been time to corral that fleeing herd of pigs, probably, before they threw themselves into the sea like so many lemmings. On the other hand, “the region of” leaves a lot of room for maneuver – maybe the “region” begins at the water’s edge. We seem to be meant to think of some land, more or less Gentile territory, and close enough to the water to work with the narrative.
[Maybe a little bit like the way I used to tell people “I’m from Los Angeles” or even “Pasadena” when in point of GPS fact our family home was in an unincorporated area of San Gabriel County, somewhere between San Gabriel and Temple City. Because to whom outside of locals would that have meant anything at all?]
Immediately upon stepping out of the boat in v2 [typical Mark language], Jesus is met by a person (man) “out of the tombs” with “an unclean (impure) spirit.” The tomb word repeats three times between vv3-5. The word in Greek sounds like “memorial” or “monument” and that seems to highlight the way a tomb is a place people can visit or erect to remember the dead. [Maybe a bit the way we’d say “memorial garden” – although that sounds a lot more cheerful to me than “tombs.”]
The ”unclean spirit” language only occurs in Mark’s version, and only in vv2-13, where it occurs three times. After the unclean spirits join up with the pigs, Mark refers to the man as “the one possessed by demons” a couple of times. That’s the language that Matthew and Luke use to tell the story, as well. That makes me think that there is something significant about that “unclean spirit” – and that maybe it has something to do with this person’s living in those [unclean] tombs, and in the region of the [unclean] Gerasene Gentiles, and in close proximity to those [unclean] pigs, and all in all, being someone overwhelmed all the time by … the opposite of cleanness, clearness, emptied-outness, un-burdened-ness.
The language of “cleanness” here, in Greek, is the root that gives us our word catharsis. These days, we’re likely to think of catharsis in psychological terms, as clearing up some past trauma or other, along with its baggage and its self-defeating effects. That thinking might apply here, too.
Vv3-6 give us the man’s backstory: his unrestrainable strength, his living in the tombs and the mountains, his crying out. There’s so much detail about the chains and shackles … what are they doing there? They tell us this person is too strong for normal people … but regular people, presumably, have tried to hold him in bondage, not to free him. That seems important. There is something embedded in this text about freedom and bondage. The crying out language, which just does remind me of the Hebrews in Egypt, whether it should or not, seems to be part of that. Maybe also his dwelling in the mountains – which is often a place where people go to meet God, but not this person, evidently.
How long does this whole episode take?? The ones feeding the pigs, after the mass porcine suicide, fled and reported the event “in the city and in the country” – that seems like it would have taken some time, and then some more time for people for miles around to arrive to see what had happened.
V17 (not one of our “select verses,” but …) is an ironic inversion of v10. In v10, the unclean spirits beg Jesus not to send them out of the country. In v17, the residents of the country beg Jesus to leave the country. Hmm. See what Mark did there, maybe?
The residents are afraid. That seems noteworthy. [Maybe because anyone with enough power to calm this person down has so much power that he’s even less safe than the raving outcast was? Aside from what the pigs are going to cost …]
In the final verses, Jesus tells the man to report [not what happened to the pigs but] how much the Lord has done for him and the way he has had mercy on him, which he does in the Decapolis – the 10 Hellenized cities in the wider region on that “other side” of the sea [of Galilee], causing people to wonder or marvel. Although he reports what Jesus has done for him.
I wonder what Jesus is doing “on the other side” in the first place. It sure looks like he had an appointment with this man, since he meets him, cleans him up, and then goes right back to Galilee …
Images: “Feuchtwangen Pfarrkirche – Vorhalle Fresko Evangelist Markus” (cropped), Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Reichenau St. Georg – Fresko Besessener von Gerasa,” Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons