I passed by a book I have on the Gospel of Mark the other night and remembered a passage on Mark 1.17 from Richard Hays’s Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. That is how good books leave you, I suppose. Before explaining Hays’s comments on Mark 1.17, I’d like to show some points in Mark’s first chapter that, in my opinion, compliment what Hays is doing in that passage. Immediately following I’ll explain Hays’s comments on “fishers of men” and discuss the wider implications for Christian theology.
John the Baptist, the cousin and forerunner of Jesus, is the first character introduced in Mark’s gospel. Much of the language used to describe his ministry is deeply evocative of the theological world that Mark is drawing upon. This language first occurred to me when translating Mark in my intermediate Greek class where these kinds of comments and questions were encouraged as we translated the text, parsed the most difficult words, and wept over our lexicons. Time after time though, I found while working closely through the Greek text that Mark is setting his story within the context of Israel’s Scriptures. This is what I saw. John is first described as preaching “in the wilderness” (τῇ ἐρήμῳ). Separated from the text’s literary home, we might overlook the significance of this location. However, when we tune our ears to the conceptual world of Israel’s Scriptures we can see that he is playing off of wilderness motifs found there. The wilderness in the Old Testament is the place where Israel is placed as a repercussion of their lack of trust in God’s word. This repercussion is directly related to its distance from the promised land (Number 13-14). But, as quoted from the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of the book (this is the part of the infamous Isaiah quote that is actually from Isaiah), God is preparing a way in the wilderness: life and salvation are springing up within the judgment of the wilderness (Isa 35.1; 35.6; 40.3). As we move further through Mark 1, we see more allusions to Israel’s Scriptures on judgment and salvation. It is present even in the food John the Baptist eats. He is described as eating “locusts and wild honey” (1.6). We could, with some readers, say this is to present him as some sort of “wild man.” Or we could take note of the fact that this would be allowed under Jewish law. Yet if we keep looking to Israel’s Scriptures, we will find more in John’s appetite. Both locust and honey are allusions to YHWH’s promises in Torah about his covenant relationship with Israel. Locusts are a symbol of God’s judgment (Exodus 10; Joel 1-2) and honey is a sign of God’s promise and salvation (Exodus 3.8, think about this in relation to wilderness and promised land with “milk and honey.”). John the Baptist enacts his message in what he eats, just as prophet before him had done (Ezekiel 3.1-2, 4.9-15). He prepares a Way in the wilderness and this Way is salvation in the judgment as YHWH promised. Mark does not just do this with the forerunner of Jesus, but with Jesus himself. Jesus is “driven” into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan for forty days (hear “forty” within the context of Torah as well, 1.12-13). Jesus is presented as the one who is led into the wilderness (as Israel was), encounters temptation (as Adam and Israel did), yet prevails. This gospel is a judgment, salvation, and a confrontation with the ultimate Enemy.
Which brings me to Richard Hays’s point about Mark 1.17. Here Jesus is passing along the Sea of Galilee when he calls Simon and Andrew. The phrase he uses can be taken a number of ways. Does he call them to be fishers of men purely because this was the profession of Simon and Andrew? Is he speaking in “everyday” fishermen language they can understand so they may be drawn to him? Perhaps. There is no doubt that Jesus’ response is playing off the fishing setting in which the conversation takes place. Still, Hays sees Mark drawing on something deeper here. The use of the phrase “fishers of men” (ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων) is not entirely a new phrase for Mark’s audience; it belongs to the “encyclopedia of reception.” It is not a clever phrase about “catch[ing] outsiders and bring[ing] them into church” (24), but a reference to stories of judgment in the prophetic writings. “I am now sending out my fisherman, says the Lord, and I will catch them.. their iniquity is not concealed from my sight” (Jeremiah 16.16a,17a). This verse occurs right after a promise of salvation (16.15). Amos develops this image as well: “The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: the time is surely upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4.2). Standing within this tradition we begin to see what it means to be fishers of men. The disciples are fishers of men in that they are bearers of YHWH’s eschatological judgment.
It is not through force or violence that the disciples bear eschatological judgment, but in the message and ministry of Jesus. Fascinatingly, I think Mark shows just what this means in the following stories. He shows Jesus teaching in a synagogue when a man with an unclean spirit cries out, “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” (1.24). Ironically, the unclean spirit has recognized Jesus and spoken the truth. Jesus indeed has come to destroy the unclean spirit, but he does this without destroying the man where the unclean spirit dwells (Jesus continues these healing and exorcising activities in 1.32-24). This is God’s judgment and it prefigures the ministry of the gospel that the disciples take up after Jesus. God catches men in the proclamation of the crucified and risen Jesus and enacts a judgment on their situation. This judgment casts out the power of Satan, condemns the sin, and forgives the sinner.
This is fascinating to me because of how we normally hear passages of eschatological judgment and salvation over against how Mark is handing them to us. As early as the first chapter, Mark is narrating Jesus’ life in apocalyptic terms. For Mark, Jesus Christ is the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into “a territory held largely by the devil” (O’Connor). Yet, this action is able to confront sinners and pronounce a judgment upon them without destroying the sinners. This judgment is as disjointing as a fish being reeled out of its world into a world run by the fisherman, but it is a judgment that saves.
BTW: pic is from the movie Gone Fishin’ which apparently has a 4% on Rotten Tomatoes even though I remember it being a masterpiece.