I just finished preaching two sermons on Mark 5: Jesus and Demons (Mark 5:1-20) and Jesus and Death (Mark 5:21-43) and was struck by a subtle theme in the chapter. I want to propose a (cautious) theological interpretation of the chapter that I believe Mark intends for the perceptive reader to pick up on and further advances an argument he makes elsewhere in his book: the abrogation of levitical purity laws and the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles into the one family of God, through the work of Jesus.
The chapter is divided into two halves, separated by Jesus’ journey across the Sea of Galilee (Mark 5:1, 21). On Jesus’ first journey, he travels to “the country of the Gerasenes” which appears to be a locale that is primarily Gentile in its population. There he encounters a man with “an unclean spirit” Mark 5:2. Not only that, but we are told that this man lives in the “tombs” among the dead, Mark 5:3, which would have made him ceremonially unclean (Num 19:11). When Jesus casts the unclean spirit out of the man, they go to a herd of pigs (Mark 5:11), a ceremonially unclean animal (Lev 11:7). By the time of Jesus, many Jews simply assumed that any association with Gentiles at all would render you unclean, and would thus refuse to even enter their homes (see Acts 10:9-48). So here, we have an unclean spirit, in an unclean man (Gentile), in an unclean place (tombs), entering an unclean animal (pigs).
After this, Jesus returns to the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 5:21) where he is confronted by Jairus, told of his dying daughter that needs healing. But, on the way Jesus is interrupted by a woman with a perpetual discharge of blood who touches Jesus and is healed of her disease (Mark 5:25-29). Jesus then goes to Jairus’ home after hearing that his daughter has now died and proceeds to touch her, taking her by the hand and raising her from the dead (Mark 5:41-42). Both of these accounts perpetuate this theme of uncleanness: having a discharge of blood rendered you and anyone you touched unclean (Lev 15:19), and touching a dead body made you unclean (Num 19:11).
Thus, in both of these stories Jesus has encounters with uncleanness and impurity, but rather than Himself being made unclean, Jesus purifies and cleanses the uncleanness out of the very people (See also Mark 1:40-45).
In the story of Jairus and the unclean woman, we are told an interesting bit of details about the unclean woman and Jairus’ daughter. The unclean woman has this discharge of blood for “twelve years” Mark 5:25. Then, after Jairus’ daughter is raised from the dead, we are told that she was “twelve years of age,” Mark 5:42. Why did Mark feel the need to give us this bit of information?
Well, it could simply be that he wanted to record the extraordinary length of time this woman suffered under her disease–which, of course, is true. And, maybe he just wanted to tell us that the daughter was twelve years of age to explain that she was not an infant. The text says, “And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age),” Mark 5:42. The word that Jairus uses to describe his daughter back in 5:23 was “θυγάτριον” which takes the normal word for “daughter”(θυγάτηρ) and adds the diminutive ending “-ριον”, which means “little daughter,” or “little girl.” So, it may be that Mark gives us her specific age to make sure we don’t take the diminutive too far and think she was an infant, which is why the parenthetical comment begins with a “For…”. This is the answer given by the six different commentaries I have been consulting.
However, I find that answer unsatisfying. Most of the time, when all of the commentaries disagree with you, you are usually wrong. Don Carson warns of “parallelomania” in his excellent book Exegetical Fallacies, which is basically making connections based on textual parallels, but are not actually warranted by the text–something I might be at danger of doing here. So, I propose this view with caution. Nevertheless, my argument is that Mark wants us to link these two females together by:
- Sandwiching the story of the daughter around the story of the unclean woman.
- They both are referred to as “daughters” (Mark 5:23, 34)–a relatively rare word in the New Testament.
- The connection of the number 12 in each story (Mark 5:25; 42).
The Number 12
I believe that Mark gives us the duration of this woman’s sickness (12 years) and the age of this girl (12 years) to trigger an image of Israel, the people of God (comprised of 12 tribes). The main use of the number 12 in the gospel of Mark is the selection of the 12 disciples (Mark 3:14, 16), something that all commentators unanimously agree is representative of the twelve tribes of Israel–the twelve disciples represent the new Israel (“the twelve” becomes almost a proper noun for Jesus’ disciples, Mark 4:10, 6:7, 9:35, 10:32, 11:11, 14:10, 14:17, 14:20, 14:43). The only other instance of the number 12 in the gospel is the reference to 12 baskets of bread leftover after miraculous feeding in Mark 6:43 and 8:19–but, I think one could argue for the same meaning there I propose here. The twelve baskets are intended to evoke the idea of the people of God.
Further, we are given no duration of anyone else’s sickness in the gospel (except Mark 9:21, but it is a general, non-specific number of years, “from childhood”), nor are we told the age of any other individual–the fact that both of these unique numbers are given and that they are the same I believe invites us to consider them more seriously.
After Judas dies, the other apostles apparently think that it is so important to have “12” apostles that they nominate Matthias to take Judas’ place (Acts 1:12-26) and in the New Heavens and New Earth the New Jerusalem (which represents the people of God) is built on the 12 foundations of the apostles, with 12 gates which are the tribes of Israel (Rev 21:9-14). Twelve most often is associated with the people of God.
Thus, I believe that we are given the number “12” in both stories to think of “the people of God.” Claiming that Mark tells us she is twelve years of age to make it clear that she was not an infant seems like a fairly weak explanation. In Mark 5:41, when Mark translates the Aramaic of “Talitha” he uses the Greek word “κοράσιον” which is the same word used to describe the daughter of Herodias in Mark 6:22 and 6:28–a girl who is apparently old enough to perform a sensual dance to a crowd of men. Thus, the idea that people might mistake “little daughter” in 5:23 for an infant, requiring Mark to explain that she was twelve years of age and thus could walk around, seems unsubstantiated and strange. Rather, the sandwiching of Jairus’ story around the unclean woman, I would argue, invites us to not quickly dismiss the fact that both have the number twelve associated with them.
In the Old Testament “Daughter” and “Daughter of Zion” is a moniker repeatedly used in the prophets to describe the people of Israel or at times the place of Israel (specifically Jerusalem).
It is obvious why Jairus refers to his little girl as a “daughter” (she was literally his daughter, after all) but it is more interesting why Jesus refers to the unclean woman as “daughter” in Mark 5:34. Back in Mark 3:35, after Jesus’ biological family attempt to see Him, He dismisses them and explains that, “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” This is a Markan way of describing a disciple of Jesus–you are in the family of God. But notice, Jesus describes “brother, sister and mother,” but not a “daughter.”
Of course, when Jesus refers to the unclean woman as “daughter” he is intending the exact same thing as Mark 3:35–she desires to do the will of God and thus is now in Jesus’ family, she is a disciple. But, because of 3:35, we would have expected Jesus to refer to her as sister or mother. His decision to refer to her as “daughter” is surprising. I would suggest to you that Jesus does this intentionally to (1) further link together the connection between this woman and the little girl (also referred to as “daughter”) and, more importantly, (2) further evoke the Old Testament image of the people of God, represented by these two “daughters.” I don’t think this means that every instance of the word “daughter” in the New Testament should evoke this image, but the combination of the repetition of title and the number twelve I think warrants this interpretation.
A Worldwide Cleansing
So what is the cash payout of these insights? I believe that in Mark 5:1-20 we get a picture of Jesus bringing purity and cleansing to the realm of the Gentiles–something that would have been both surprising and unsurprising to Mark’s Jewish hearers. It would be unsurprising because Jews would not have been surprised to associate “uncleanness” with Gentiles. But it would have been surprising to see their Jewish Messiah purifying Gentiles when many contemporaries assumed the Messiah would have simply destroyed unclean Gentiles.
But, even more shocking, as Jesus comes back to the realm of the Jews, He encounters two women who stand in as literary symbols of Israel itself, the people of God. And, lo and behold, it turns out that they are unclean as well–sick and dead. It is not just Gentiles who are impure, but Jews who require cleansing as well (Mark 1:4-5). Jesus has come to purify and cleanse both Jew and Gentile through His life and death, because impurity does not ultimately relate to external rituals and rules, but has to do with impure hearts, out of which “come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person,” Mark 7:21-23.
Both Jews and Gentiles–everyone across the globe–needs this cleansing, and Jesus offers this cleansing worldwide–to Jew and Gentile alike.
Thus, the literary and theological interpretation of Mark 5 results in a powerful message of the greater cleansing (forgiveness of sins) that replaces the traditional purity (old covenant clean/unclean laws), indiscriminately given (Jew and Gentile) by the work of Jesus Christ.