New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #6

scriptures-resurrection-758817-printSo here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.


Note carefully the different circumstances of Simon and Andrew (Mark 1:16) as opposed to James and John (Mark 1:19–20). What can you determine about their economic situations? Why did Mark include these details? What does it suggest about Jesus’ disciples? Is there a lesson here?

(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)

Now given that the first two passages are actually adjacent to each other (Mark 1:16-18 and 1:19-20), it might seem surprising that Mark didn’t simply compress them into one story.  (My kids actually have writing exercises where they are supposed to combine similar material in order to write more efficiently:  “Jan ate a burger.  Jan ate fries.” is changed to “Jan ate a burger and fries.”) So why didn’t Mark combine these two calling stories?  Maybe to emphasize their differences.  First, it appears that Simon and Andrew are standing in the water, casting a net.  But James and John have a boat and hired workers.  So Mark might want to emphasize that, despite the fact that all four are fishermen, they are coming from different economic positions; the moral of the story would be that Jesus called disciples from a variety of stations in life. Second, James and John also leave their father.  Maybe 2K years of Christianity makes that sound unremarkable to us, but I think that Mark’s audience might have heard a violation of the Fifth Commandment in that line.  So presenting two separate call stories here–instead of compacting them into one–highlights the differences between the two.

The third story is even more interesting.  It isn’t in Mark 1, where it would have been part of the “typical day in the life” of Jesus’ ministry that is presented there.  It is in Mark 2, part of a group of five controversy stories (Mark 2:1-3:6), where opposition to Jesus is a feature in each story; this opposition begins in muted tones and increases in each event until, after the final story, Jesus’ death is plotted.  Why put the calling of a disciple into the controversy stories?  Because it was.

Levi is a tax collector.  Hating on the IRS is such a cultural norm that it is easy to see Levi as the brunt of jokes and snide comments, but in his world, it was much, much worse than that.  The Romans, clever devils, used a system of “tax farming;” instead of all of the muss and fuss of collecting taxes themselves, they auctioned the right to collect taxes in a certain area to the highest bidder, got their money up front, and left the dirty work to the lucky winner.  That winner was allowed to collect pretty much whatever he could.  For Levi to participate in this system (likely not as the big guy with the contract but as a lower-level employee of his) was to participate in a system thought to be inherently dishonest.  But wait, there’s more!  There are political implications here, because Roman rule in Galilee (which isn’t direct at this time, but I won’t bore you with the details) relies on these tax receipts, which means that, from a Jewish perspective, he is on the side of their hated conquerors and, in fact, makes their occupation possible.  And, because he would have spent all of that time handling coins with pictures of the emperor and other pagan images on them and touching all of that unclean Gentile merchandise (because he’s collecting what we would call a customs tax on everything that comes down the road and/or off the boat), he was religiously suspect as well.  In some Jewish writings, these tax collectors are grouped with murderers and thieves. And it is possible that he had personally hassled Simon, Andrew, James, and John in the process of collecting taxes on the fish that they had caught.

And so here comes Jesus, calling this guy to follow him.  Can you imagine the reaction of the other disciples?  (Imagine your stereotypical upper-middle income suburban Jell-o belt ward and call a Hell’s Angel to their high council.)  The calling of Levi isn’t a story about the calling of yet another interchangeable person to yet another church calling.  It is the story of Jesus hand-selecting a group of people who are highly unlikely to get along, enjoy each other’s company, or even like each other very much. And yet Jesus expects these guys to live, work, travel, and learn together. The repetition across the three call stories emphasizes the deliberateness with which Jesus composed this group.

(Regular readers will notice that I cribbed from this post. This post explores how fishing was very different in the ancient world and thus how our associations with it may need to be tweaked.)

One more thought: discipleship is a key theme in Mark. His message is maybe not what you would expect, however: the twelve in general, and Peter in particular, are portrayed as being pretty bumbling. They are willing to follow Jesus, but let’s just say that they have a steep learning curve and make lots of mistakes. I’ll talk about this more in future weeks, but suffice it to say that, while the other gospel writers remove most of the warts from the disciples’ behavior, Mark does not. There are feminist implications to this as well . . . no need to be dismayed that there are no female members of the twelve when Mark portrays them this way and, by contrast, portrays several woman as ideal disciples, most notably Peter’s mother-in-law, who we’ll talk about next week.)


14 comments for “New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #6

  1. Thank you for sharing this insight. It’s interesting to think about in light of our church experiences, particularly in wards that stretch across many demographics.

  2. sba, I think you might have your numbers off? Lesson #6 focuses on calling disciples; lesson #7 on performing miracles. Or am I missing something?

  3. Julie, you’re right. I was only looking at the chapter assignments, not the lesson themes. Dang manual.

  4. Julie,
    I had never thought that the disciples couldn’t have been expected to even get along with each other. That really adds something.

    My family is using your book in our scripture study with partial success. We read the questions and our answers are usually, “I have no idea.” Then, “That’s a good question. Why didn’t I ever think of that question before?” So I have wished for more commentary to go along with your wonderful questions (because we rarely have any ideas that would lead to answers or even guesses), and this series is just what the doctor ordered! Thanks.

  5. I really enjoy reading your posts! In reading the different accounts of Jesus calling the disicples, Luke mentions that Simon was partners with James and John. Doesn’t that make their potential economic differences less likely?

    Also, I’m curious as to your thoughts about where/how John’s account of the disciples meeting Jesus in John 1 fits into the storyline of Jesus calling the disicples from their boats (in Matt, Mark, and Luke).

  6. kf, your questions presume a combination of the various gospel accounts. But I don’t think this is necessarily a good idea, since each writer is telling a different story–and they do not always agree. In other words, Luke’s and John’s accounts simply will not mesh with Mark’s and we shouldn’t try to force round pegs into square holes by reconciling them.

  7. Interesting point on asking why the authors described the fishermens calls as the did. Luke 5 makes it pretty clear that Simon Peter also owned a fishing boat so I’m not sure that explains the separate calls. Luke adds that John and James were business partners with Peter so perhaps this is an indication of Peter leaving a fishing boat “empire,” not just a humble, personal livelihood. Or, perhaps it is the first indication of Peter’s leadership and charisma, recruiting his partners to the movement.

  8. Mike Maxwell, comment #9 addresses your concern. Mashing up the stories is about as helpful to determining what Mark was up to as trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle by borrowing pieces from a different puzzle.

  9. kf. While most of us harmonize the Gospels (especially the Synoptics), I have found it rewarding to emphasize the differences and to ask why they ARE different. The Book of Mormon is ANOTHER Testament of Jesus Christ. Each of the four has its benefits. That’s why Julie’s approach (as indicated in her excellent book and on these posts) is so valuable in increasing our own knowledge. I often feel when we harmonize them (typically in GD class) we aren’t “earning” our knowledge and aren’t getting as much out of it as we could.

  10. 10;12. The matter of harmonisation is of course not unproblematic, which is Julie’s argument. What is potentially problematic is that we are now dealing with different identities, ie different Peters and Christs eg Jesus according to Mark, versus according to John; or a fragmented Christ, prompting arguments questionning the historicity of Jesus.
    The purpose of harmonisation has been primarily chronological, with the effect that one builds up not a unitary view of identity, as some may argue, but a complex and layered view. Treating the Gospels as isolated accounts also sets aside questions related, for example, to their source texts, their heterogeneity, while providing scope for particular kinds of textual critique, as set out in the kinds of questions Julie asks.

  11. sjames: Thanks for adding that. Unfortunately, the vast majority of harmonization I’ve listened to over the years (including as recent as yesterday) doesn’t build up a ‘complex and layered view’ although it should.

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