Bibliotheca Sacra 154 (October-December 1997) 452-60.
Copyright © 1997 by
THE PARADOX OF AUTHORITY
IN THE GOSPEL OF MARK
Narry F. Santos
The Gospel of Mark has been described as a paradoxical
gospel, a riddle that teases its readers' response, and a narrative
that possesses an enigmatic and puzzling character.l This para-
doxical and puzzling character is seen clearly in the paradox of
authority and servanthood in Mark's Gospel. The paradox high-
lights the relationship of two important Marcan motifs: the
Christological motif of authority and the discipleship motif of
servanthood—motifs that interact intricately in Mark.
This paradox serves as a key Marcan rhetorical device that
urges readers to show servanthood in their exercise of authority
within the community of believers and beyond.2
DEFINITION OF PARADOX
A paradox is a statement that departs from accepted opinion (the
etymological nuance), or an apparently self-contradictory or ab-
Narry F. Santos is Professor of New Testament, International School of Theology—
1 James L. Bailey, "Perspectives on the Gospel of Mark," Currents in Theology
2 The few Marcan scholars who have discussed paradox have treated this issue
in a generally cursory manner. These scholars and their works are Robert Fowler,
Let the Reader Understand: Reader Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark
Fortress, 1991), 184-94; Philip Davis, "Mark's Christological
dox," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35 (1989): 3-18; Dorothy A. Lee-
Pollard, "Powerlessness as Power: A Key Emphasis in the Gospel of Mark," South-
western Journal of Theology 40 (1987): 173-88; and Demetrios Trakatellis, Author-
ity and Passion (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 1987).
The Paradox of Authority and Servanthood in the Gospel of Mark 453
surd statement (the derivational nuance).3 Thus a "paradox" is
an unusual and apparently self-contradictory rhetorical state-
ment or concept that departs dramatically from accepted opinion.
Mark used the paradox to jolt and challenge his readers to depart
from the accepted opinion that servanthood is incompatible with
Mark included various examples that indicate the prevailing
opinion on authority and servanthood during his day. For exam-
ple he recorded Jesus' words, "You know that those who are recog-
nized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great
men exercise authority over them" (Mark 10:42). But Jesus chal-
lenged His disciples to depart from society's prevailing principle
on authority (viz., that the persons of authority are the ones who
are to rule over the ones with little or no authority): "But it is not so
among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall
be your servant" (10:43). Thus Mark dramatically presented his
readers with the challenge to become servants.
In its derivational meaning a paradox involves an appar-
ently self-contradictory statement or concept that can convey uni-
fied truth (i.e., the polaric aspect), despite the existing contrari-
ness of two opposing assertions (i.e., the antinomic aspect). The
antinomic aspect of the derivational meaning is seen clearly in
the verbal paradox of authority and servanthood: "save his life"
and "lose his life" (8:35); "first" and "last" (9:35; 10:31); "great"
and "servant" (10:43); "first" and "slave of all" (10:44). These op-
posites emphasize the divergence between authority and servant-
In addition the polaric aspect of the derivational meaning is
also evident in Mark's Gospel. By tracing the disciples' failure to
understand the paradoxical nature of Jesus and His work, Mark
was encouraging his readers not to commit the same miscompre-
hension of this paradox. The authoritative one is the one who
serves, and the proof of that authority is in the service rendered on
behalf of others.
DESCRIPTION OF PARADOX
Five elements make a paradox recognizable. First, a paradox is a
"both-and" proposition (as in Mark's emphasis on both authority
3 "Etymological nuance" refers to the original meaning of the word "paradox"
(para<docoj). It combines the preposition para<, "contrary to," and the noun do<ca,
"opinion," thus producing in its earliest stages the meaning of "contrary to opinion
or expectation." "Derivational nuance" refers to the shift in meaning later in the
eighteenth century through the influence of Renaissance poets and Christian the-
ologians since Soren Kierkegaard.
454 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October—December 1997
and servanthood). Second, a paradox has tension and/or conflict.
In the Gospel of Mark certain key characters (e.g., the hostile re-
ligious leaders and the misunderstanding disciples) failed to
grasp either the authority motif or the servanthood motif because
of their paradoxical relationship. Third, a paradox has an ele-
ment of awe, surprise, or amazement. The crowds who witnessed
Jesus' exorcisms and healings responded with amazement or
marvel (1:27; 2:12). They were shocked by the tremendous dis-
play of Jesus' power and authority. They also were amazed by who
Jesus is and the seeming paradoxical nature of His person.
Fourth, a paradox is a rhetorical or stylistic figure. Mark used
paradox as an intentional rhetorical device to influence his read-
ers to follow a servanthood-motivated lifestyle in the exercise of
their authority. Fifth, a paradox needs an audience. Mark en-
couraged his readers to reflect on its penetrating truth individu-
ally, and then to undergo a reversal of standards consistent with
METHOD IN THE STUDY OF THE PARADOX
Reader-response criticism, narrative criticism, and rhetorical
criticism can help surface the paradoxical interplay between the
motifs of authority and servanthood in Mark's Gospel.4 Such an
interplay is to be viewed from the perspective of the implied read-
ers (i.e., the idealized readers who have linguistic and literary
competence to grasp the intentions of the text and the author).5
With the help of reader-response criticism, one can observe
the impact of the paradox on the readers at the discourse level.6
The relevant tools of this method (e.g., anticipation and retro-
spection) enable one to see how Mark addressed his readers at
4 Recent discussions of these forms of biblical criticism may be found in John
Paul Heil, The Gospel of Mark as a Model for Action: A Reader-Response Com-
mentary (New York: Paulist, 1993); Edgar V. McKnight and Elizabeth Struthers
Malbon, eds., The New Literary
Criticism and the New Testament (
From Formalism to Deconstruction and Back," in Approaches to New Testament
Mark Allen Powell, "Narrative Criticism," in Hearing the New Testament, ed. Joel
B. Green (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 239–55; Stephen H. Smith, A Lion with
Narrative-Critical Approach to Mark's Gospel (
1996); and Joel F. Williams, Followers of Jesus: Minor Characters as Major Fig-
ures in Mark's Gospel (Sheffield: Academic, 1994).
5 The "implied" readers, also called "ideal" or "informed" readers, refer to imag-
ined reader-critics who read the narrative, who are influenced by the rhetorical
features of the text, and who come to accept the values and commitments of the
6 The term "discourse level" refers to Mark's means of narrative rhetoric or how
he presented the content of the narrative in addressing his readers.
The Paradox of Authority and Servanthood in the Gospel of Mark 455
critical sections where the paradox is present. Moreover, this
method helps distinguish between the dramatic (i.e., through
events and characters) and verbal instances (i.e., through para-
doxical sayings) of the authority/servanthood paradox. In rela-
tion to the verbal instances of the paradox, readers find a way to
comprehend not only the antinomic meaning (i.e., the diver-
gence of two polar opposites) but also the polaric meaning (i.e.,
convergence of two polar opposites) of the paradox's antithetical
sides. They understand the sayings by transforming the paradox
Narrative criticism investigates Mark's characterization of
certain figures in the narrative in reference to the authority and
servanthood motifs. The tools of characterization include direct
description by the storyteller, other characters' responses, indi-
viduals' words and thoughts, and self-characterization. These
tools help portray those characters who had authority and yet
served Jesus (e.g., John the Baptist and Joseph of Arimathea),
those individuals who did not have authority but still served Jesus
(e.g., Bartimaeus and the woman who anointed Jesus), those who
had authority but did not serve Jesus (e.g., the religious leaders,
the rich man, and Judas Iscariot), and those who had authority but
struggled to serve Jesus and others (e.g., the disciples). These
characters serve as Mark's ingenious way of presenting the au-
thority/servanthood paradox. In addition the motif of conflict
between the religious leaders and Jesus regarding the issue of
authority draws attention to the need to recognize the paradox and
to emphasize the need for servanthood.
Rhetorical criticism enables readers to spot rhetorical indi-
cators of the paradox (e.g., inclusios, chiasms, repetitions), along
with the other rhetorical devices (e.g., the amazement motif and
the probing question). These devices enable readers to reflect on
the significance of the paradox and its relevance to them.
The following discussion applies the methods of reader-re-
sponse criticism, narrative criticism, and rhetorical criticism in
an eclectic approach to understanding the paradox of authority
and servanthood in the Gospel of Mark.
APPLICATION OF AN ECLECTIC APPROACH
TO THE MARCAN NARRATIVE
In addition to the prologue (1:1-15) and epilogue (15:42-16:8), the
Book of Mark may be divided into three major sections. The first
major section (1:16-8:21) has key dramatic instances of the
paradox. Though both motifs of authority and servanthood are
present, this first major section highlights Jesus' authority.
456 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October-December 1997
The second major section (8:22-10:52) features several ver-
bal instances of the paradox within the narrative's three paradox-
ical discipleship discourses (8:27-38; 9:30-50; 10:32-445).
The third major section (11:1-15:41) highlights the servant-
hood motif (though it also has episodes that show authority), cul-
minating in Jesus' passion and death, His highest expression of
THE PARADOX OF AUTHORITY AND SERVANTHOOD IN MARK 1:1-8:21
In the first major section of Mark (1:1-8:21) readers are intro-
duced to dramatic instances of the paradox of authority and ser-
vanthood. The prologue (1:1-15) includes four paradoxical jux-
tapositions of material (1:2-8, 9, 10-11, and 12-13) and the paral-
lel patterning of John the Baptist and Jesus. These juxtapositions
and patterning present the paradoxical merger of the two motifs of
authority and servanthood at the very outset of the narrative,
showing their importance and raising the need to determine
more accurately the relationship between the two motifs through
reading the entire narrative.
The authority/servant paradox in Mark 1:16-2:14 is seen in
the lengthy presentation of acts of authority by Jesus,7 and the atti-
tudes and actions of servanthood by key persons in the story.8 The
import of Jesus' paradoxical nature is also seen in the crowd's
sense of wonder and awe. The people's amazement functions
rhetorically as negative portrayals of the characters' inability to
comprehend Jesus and as a warning to readers not to imitate such
In Mark 2:18-3:12 the authority/servanthood paradox is more
dramatically evident in the conflict with and opposition by the re-
ligious authorities, who claimed authority for themselves but who
did not wish to serve.9 The negative characterization of these re-
7 Instances that display Jesus' authority in Mark 1:16-2:14 are the call and the
following (which manifests servanthood) of four disciples (1:16-20); Jesus' exor-
cism and teaching with authority (1:21-28); His healing of Simon's mother-in-law
and her servanthood (1:29-31); Jesus' healing of the leper and His servanthood
(1:40-45); Jesus' healing of the paralytic and His authority to forgive (2:1-12); the
call and the following of one disciple (2:13-14). The importance of this string of au-
thoritative events is emphasized by the framing of the two "call" stories in Mark
1:16-20 and 2:13-14.
8 Jesus, Peter's mother-in-law, Peter and Andrew, James and John, and Levi are
characters who show attitudes and acts of servanthood.
9 The antagonistic questions the religious authorities raised showed their nega-
tive characterization (2:16, 18, 24; cf. vv. 6-7). Their questions were answered by
Jesus with great authority (2:17, 19-22, 25-28). But what is paradoxical is that when
Jesus asked them one question afterwards (3:4), they were silent and sought to kill
the One who actually has authority and who serves (3:6).
The Paradox of Authority and Senranthood in the Gospel of Mark 457
ligious leaders reveals their lack of comprehension of Jesus'
paradoxical nature. Readers are thus warned not to overlook the
importance of understanding Jesus and the paradox of authority
Similarly in Mark 3:13-6:30 opposition by the religious au-
thorities intensified despite the extension of Jesus' authority.10
Moreover, the servanthood motif in this section underscores the
importance of obedience and faith found in various characters in
the story, especially the disciples and other minor characters who
had no authority.11 Faith and obedience are seen as key indica-
tors of the servanthood required of disciples. Thus for them to ap-
preciate Jesus' authority motif in the paradox, readers are to ex-
emplify both faith and obedience, which the religious leaders did
not demonstrate at all.
Mark 6:32-8:9 continues the dramatic paradox through the
authority motif and the addition of more misunderstandings by
Jesus' disciples.12 These misunderstandings point up the danger
of not being aware of who Jesus is. Mark implicitly urged his
readers to grasp the truth that Jesus' authority and servanthood
are key to understanding His nature.
In the last segment (8:10-21) of this major section, opposition
by the religious leaders and misunderstanding by the disciples
intensified." Ironically the religious leaders, who should have
been aligned with God, continued to oppose and test Jesus, and the
disciples, who were expected to understand Jesus, continued to
misunderstand Him. This underscores the growing incompre-
hension of these characters regarding Jesus' paradoxical nature.
10 Instances of authority and servanthood reflected in Mark 3:13-6:30 are Jesus'
delegation of authority to the disciples (3:13-19), the increase in opposition against
Jesus (3:20-35), Jesus' miraculous authority at the sea (4:35-41), exorcism of a
Gerasene man and his obedience to Jesus (5:1-20), healings of Jairus' daughter and
the hemorrhaging woman (5:21-43), the continuation of opposition (6:1-6), and the
commissioning of the disciples and their obedience (6:7-30). The major section of
Mark 3:13-6:30 is bracketed by Jesus' call of the Twelve (3:13-19) and His commis-
sioning of them (6:7-31).
11 These minor characters are the Gerasene man, Jairus, and the hemorrhaging
12 These events are seen in the feeding of the five thousand (6:32-44), Jesus' walk-
ing on water and the disciples' lack of insight (6:45-52), the continuation of opposi-
tion (7:1-23), the healing of the Syrophoenician's daughter (7:24-30), the healing of
the deaf/dumb and the onlookers' disobedience (7:31-37), and the feeding of the four
thousand (8:1-9). These episodes juxtapose the motifs of authority and servanthood.
In addition the coupling of the motifs of authority and misunderstanding is brack-
eted by two feeding miracles (6:32-44 and 8:1-9) from which the disciples gained no
insight or understanding.
13 In this section Mark combined further opposition by the religious leaders, who
demanded a sign from Jesus (8:11), with further misunderstanding by the disciples
(8:18, 21), who still gained no insight.
458 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October-December 1997
In view of this, readers are reminded of the need to understand
the paradox so that they do not fall into the trap of opposing or mis-
THE PARADOX OF AUTHORITY AND SERVANTHOOD IN MARK 8:22-10:52
Mark 8:22–10:52, the major and central section of this Gospel, in-
cludes four references to Jesus' authority/servanthood paradox
(8:35; 9:35; 10:31, 45).
In the "saving one's life"/"losing one's life" verbal paradox
in Mark 8:35 Jesus showed that the pursuit of worldly authority
(i.e., wishing to save one's life) was not His way, because it leads
to eternal, spiritual ruin (i.e., losing one's life). Instead servant-
hood for the sake of Jesus and the gospel is His way because it
leads to a glorious future (i.e., saving one's life). In the
"first''/"last and servant of all" paradox in Mark 9:35, Jesus
taught that being truly great in His sight (i.e., being first) de-
mands an attitude of welcoming and caring for the insignificant
and strangers in society (i.e., being last of all), and of minister-
ing to them, even in insignificant ways (i.e., being servant of
all). Jesus' "first"/"last" paradox in Mark 10:31 concludes His
teaching in 10:1–30 that the way to have genuine authority is not
by opposing Jesus (vv. 1–12) or hindering insignificant people
who seek to come to Him (vv. 13–16) or valuing greatly one's own
goodness and wealth (vv. 17–22), but by receiving God's kingdom
humbly as a child (v. 15), forsaking everything to follow Jesus (v.
28), and believing that God is the God of the impossible (v. 27), who
rewards those who follow Jesus for His sake and the gospel's (vv.
29–30). In the "great''/"servant" and "first"/"slave" paradoxes in
Mark 10:45, Jesus stated that the greatest expression of true au-
thority (i.e., being great and first) is seen in the desire to follow
Jesus' example in showing servanthood and offering His life as a
ransom for many (i.e., being servant and slave of all).
In addition to these four verbal statements on the paradox of
authority and servanthood, paradox is seen in 8:22-10:52, in
which key stories are strategically placed between paradoxical
discourses. Inserted between the first and second discourses
(8:27–38 and 9:30–50), are two accounts that emphasize Jesus'
authority: His transfiguration (9:1–13) and His healing of a de-
mon-possessed boy (9:14–29). Between the second and third dis-
courses (9:30–50 and 10:32–45) are three stories featuring the mo-
tifs of opposition by the religious leaders (10:1–9), misunder-
standing by the disciples (10:10–16, 23–31), and lack of faith by a
person from the multitude (10:17–22). These three Marcan mo-
tifs—Jesus' authority, the religious authorities' opposition, and
the disciples' lack of understanding—prompt readers not to op-
The Paradox of Authority and Servanthood in the Gospel of Mark 459
pose Jesus in the way the religious authorities did, nor to display
lack of insight in the way the disciples did, but to appreciate Jesus'
authority in light of His servanthood. Moreover, Mark carefully
arranged Mark 8:22-10:52 by framing the three paradoxical dis-
courses with two healings involving blind men (8:22-26 and
10:46-52). The inclusio of the two healing accounts shows not
only Jesus' authority but also His actual servanthood, which re-
sulted in sight for the blind men and an opportunity for each of
them to follow Jesus.
The structure of this major section may be illustrated in this
A . Healing of a blind man (8:22-26)
B. Discourse (8:27-38)
(Verbal instance of the paradox, 8:35)
C. Expressions of Jesus' authority (9:1-13, 14-29)
B.’ Discourse (9:30-50)
(Verbal instance of the paradox, 9:35)
C.’ Expressions of opposition, misunderstanding,
and lack of faith (10:1-31)
(Verbal instance of the paradox, 10:31)
B." Discourse (10:32-45)
(Verbal instance of the paradox, 10:45)
A.' Healing of a blind man (10:46-52)
THE PARADOX OF AUTHORITY AND SERVANTHOOD IN MARK 11:1-16:8
Mark 11:1-16:8 exemplifies Jesus' highest expression of servant-
hood, namely, His death on the cross. This last major section em-
phasizes that Jesus' followers must identify with Him and His
servanthood despite opposition by religious (11:27-33; 12:13-17;
12:18-27; 14:1-2, 55-65) and political authorities (15:1-20, 24-26)
and despite the failures of the disciples (14:26-31, 37, 40, 50-51,
66-72), especially Judas Iscariot (14:10-11, 43-45).
Though the motif of Jesus' authority is highlighted in various
strategic passages of the Gospel (1:1-11, 12-14, 15-19, 20-25;
13:1-27; 14:17-31), the motif of His servanthood is emphasized
particularly toward the end of the narrative, which records His
passion and death (14:32-36; 63-65; 15:22-37). Also of note are
actions of servanthood by the disciples (14:12-16), by those who
have authority (12:28-34; 15:39, 42-47; 16:1-8), and by those who
lack authority (12:42-44; 14:3-9, 21; 15:40-41). Moreover, several
dramatic instances of the authority/servanthood paradox surface
through Mark's juxtaposition of the two motifs (11:1-11; 12:38-40,
41-44; 13:1-27; 14:22-25, 32-42, 55-65; 15:22-37, 39, 42-47; 16:5-
7). Remarkably two inclusios at the beginning and ending of
Mark's Gospel frame the entire narrative. One inclusio is that of
460 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / October—December 1997
John the Baptist and Joseph of Arimathea in 1:2–8 and 15:42–47,
and the other is that of the ministering angels and the young man
in 1:13 and 16:1–8. These two inclusios emphasize the lesson that
the true pathway of authority is the way of service.
The paradox of authority and servanthood in Mark is in-
tended to persuade Jesus' followers to balance these two motifs in
their own discipleship role within the community of believers.
One cannot exist without the other. The actions and attitudes of the
religious authorities and of the disciples show that discarding the
servanthood motif can be detrimental to one's faith. On the other
hand Jesus and several minor characters show that both authority
and servanthood are essential parts of discipleship.
Some characters in Mark lacked authority and others had it,
and some lacked servanthood and some had it. These different
characters underscore the need to display servanthood in the ex-
ercise of authority and discipleship. The absence of authority is
no excuse for not being a servant toward others, nor is possession
The opposition toward Jesus by those who had authority and
did not serve (viz., the religious leaders) reveals their lack of
comprehension regarding Jesus' paradoxical nature. Moreover,
the misunderstanding of those who had authority but struggled to
serve others (viz., the disciples) points up the danger of misun-
In view of the opposition by the religious authorities and the
misunderstanding of the disciples, readers are reminded of the
need to understand the paradoxical nature of Jesus and the au-
thority/servanthood paradox so that they do not fall into the trap of
misunderstanding and opposing Him. In addition the sense of
amazement and incomprehension by the crowds, the disciples,
and the religious leaders functions rhetorically as a negative
portrayal of these characters and as a warning not to imitate such
In summary Mark's use of the authority/servanthood para-
dox in the narrative reinforces the truth that the way of authority
is the way of service.
The paradox of authority and servanthood is a key to understand-
ing the relationship between Christology and discipleship in the
Marcan narrative. This paradox reveals that following the au-
thoritative Jesus means ministering to others with a heart of ser-
vanthood. "If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and
servant of all" (Mark 9:35).
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