“your disciples … were not able” (Mark 9:18)
All three gospel records agree that the epileptic boy and his father enter the picture immediately after the events described on the mount of transfiguration. Whatever we believe about the mountain-top experience, this sequel has a strong historical flavor – indisputable even by the unbelieving Jesus scholar who knows nothing outside of his poor ‘embarrassment principle’ – because it certainly reports a shameful failure of faith and power in the alleged Messiah’s chosen men.
Jesus, Peter, James and John return to camp to find the other apostles overwhelmed by defeat. Two or more of them had tried and failed to perform an exorcism in a case obviously complicated by epilepsy.
Confronted with the scene, Jesus lumps the chagrined disciples together with the crowd and the scribes as one and all “faithless” (Mk 9:19). “How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” These expressions reveal an almost sorrowful astonishment, a mingling of disdain and divine homesickness.
“Faithless.” In the absence of Jesus the disciples have been tested and proven ‘unable’ – they have tried and failed to exercise one of the hallmarks of messianic authority (power over demons). What form might this failed exercise have taken? I think it is fair to assume for it a standard form of prayer in his name, something like: ‘In the name of Jesus the Messiah of Nazareth, I bid you come out of him.’ Examples of the apostolic use of similar forms for healing are attested in the Acts.
But why had the authority of the messianic name been here invoked in vain? Not because they lacked belief that Jesus was their Messiah. These nine apostles had been present at Peter’s recent profession (Mk 8:29) of belief in their master’s messianic status. And they had certainly seen wonders aplenty to confirm this special knowledge about Jesus.
And yet Jesus clearly viewed their failure as some kind of failure of belief, an example of faithless action, of unbelief. In fact it looks very much like Jesus judges their current belief in his person and his mission not as belief but as unbelief.
“I believe, help thou my unbelief!” This cry of dilemma by the distraught father in Mk 9:24 is easily imagined in the mouths of the disciples later, when they asked about their failure privately (Mk 9:28). And what did Jesus tell them they lacked? Nothing but prayer (Mk 9:29).
So here is a group of logia with a strong warrant of historical authenticity which suggests two things:
(1) there are cases of belief about Jesus’ person and mission which are viewed by Jesus as a type of unbelief;
(2) there are forms of belief without which ‘prayer in his name’ cannot effect anything.
In a later post I will get some help from Martin Buber (Two Types of Faith, ET 1951) in further analysis of this story’s meaning for faith and belief – and unbelief.