“For all the nations…”: the universality of the Kingdom in Mark

It’s common to come across the well-founded observation that Luke’s Gospel is particularly interested in highlighting the universality of the Kingdom of God. References to the outcast of society abound, including Gentiles, women, the poor, and the sick. So when I heard someone casually mention that in one of the Gospel accounts Jesus’ given rationale for the temple cleansing was, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations,” I assumed with great confidence that it must have been Luke’s version.

I was very wrong! The quotation from Isaiah 56.7 occurs in all three of the Synoptics, and the only one in which Isaiah’s phrase “for all the nations” is included is the one that seemed to me the least likely.

Matthew 21.13: He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Luke 19.46: and he said, “It is written,
‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.”

Mark 11.17: He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

It certainly would have made sense with Matthew’s replacement-theology-esque emphasis to include the phrase from Isaiah; ditto with Luke, for reasons cited above. Why is it, then, that both Matthew and Luke omitted this statement of high significance from Jesus’ words in this act of seminal importance, diverging from their (widely assumed) source in Mark?

Turns out, the universality of the gospel is not as rare in Mark as I had thought. Via Google Books, I found R.T. France commenting on 13.10, “And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations”:

Jesus’ excursions into Gentile territory (5:1-20; 7:24-8:10) and his Gentile following in 3:8 have begun to prepare us for this vision, and we have seen in 7:24-8:10 a deliberate extension of the blessings of Israel’s Messiah to the surrounding peoples. It is possible that the specific inclusion of πάντα τὰ ἔθνη in the Isaiah quotation in 11:17 is a further pointer in this direction, even if that is not the main thrust in context. Later the confession of Jesus as Son of God by a Gentile officer will be a foretaste of the universal church (15:39). But this verse (and by implication 14:9) is the most explicit indication in Mark’s gospel of the universal scope of the good news and therefore of the Christian mission, as it will be spelled out in Matthew’s final commission (28:19-20) and in the whole narrative of Luke’s second volume.[1. R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: a commentary on the Greek text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), p. 516]

So the universality of the gospel of the Kingdom seems like an obvious recurring theme in Mark that Matthew and Luke expand upon in different ways. Mark’s interest in that idea is coincident with and even necessary for his vision of the Kingdom of God as rival to the power of Rome (as Joel discusses here et passim), for how could the kingdom over which Jesus is ruler be of smaller geographic scope than that of Rome? France goes on to argue that the eschatological gathering “from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” in 13.27 is reflective of this universal vision of God’s dominion, which also makes sense and could only be made to refer to Diaspora Jews if 1) Mark was written later than 70 or 2) the phrase or passage is a post-Diaspora interpolation.

This doesn’t answer why this key phrase was omitted in Matthew and especially Luke, where much theological hay could have been made from it. Any guesses?

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  • Paul D.

    My off-the-cuff guess is that Matthew and Luke either didn’t know or didn’t care where the quote came from, and the “for all nations” bit felt out of place in the immediate context. Or perhaps they recognized the similarity of Mark’s quote to Jeremiah 7:11 and didn’t think the “for all nations” part belonged because of that.

    I’d note that Matthew doesn’t exactly have a stellar record for accuracy with his own Old Testament references.

  • This difference you notice may constitute a minor argument for a pre-70AD Mark and a post-70AD Matthew and Luke.

    The author of Matthew might feel like dropping the phrase which features an alleged prophecy that looks impossible any longer to fulfill.  I mean with the temple gone it seems unlikely to become that ‘center-of-the-nations’ place alluded to by Isaiah.  Especially where there are other traditions which have Jesus predicting that ‘it will not stand.’

    On the other hand, the Greek word for ‘people’ (root ‘ethn’) in Mark’s Isaiah quote follows the Septuagint Isaiah, and I think the author of Matthew only uses words from that root “ethn” to mean Gentiles – not Jews-and-Gentiles.

    The Hebrew text of Isaiah 56:7 has a word which kind of means ‘all-homeys’ 🙂 – well at least it implies I think a gathering of all tribes of Israel as a unit.

    The Hebrew word usually represents holy people or chosen people and not the not-chosen, so if the author of Matthew favors the Hebrew Isaiah to the Septuagint, he might think the Greek in this particular case makes the phrase worthy of dropping for that reason.

    • Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?

      • Still, everything you argue on Mark’s behalf is good I think.  He’s more cosmopolitan than some people would admit.  I like your discovery because it could also provide minor support for a Roman provenance for Mark (rather than Palestinian).

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