Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”
These verses are unique to Mark. In fact, this is the first time that we would have been introduced to Jesus’ family. There is no birth narrative in the gospel of Mark. Why does Mark do this? Why does it seem that Jesus’ family think Him to be out of his mind?
The Problem of Language
If you read Mark 3:20-21 in your King James Bible it’ll read a bit differently. Rather than having his family trying to seize him, the KJV reads that it was “his friends” who went to lay hold of him, because he was “beside himself.”
Which is it? Family or friends?
Mark’s language here is ambiguous. Literally it reads “those of him.” This could mean his associates, his followers, his friends, his kin, or his family. The context alone will help us determine meaning.
It is the context which has caused some to see this as family. The family appears again in verse 31. They have arrived and they are looking for Jesus. The words used there are similar to verse 21, and this appears to be another Markan sandwich—where he combines two stories and has a main point in between them.
If verse 21 is someone other than the family, then it doesn’t work for Mark’s sandwich. The context seems to lean us toward it being the family.
But such a view is not without its problems.
The Problem of Christmas
This is not a problem for Mark, but it is for those of us desiring to harmonize the Gospels. If Luke and Matthew are correct in what happened with Mary (and there is no reason to believe they are not) then Mary would have known about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. How would she have had the experiences that she had in the birth narrative and then 30 years later, think that Jesus was a crazy loon for doing the things which Messiah would do?
But this isn’t a problem only for Mark. There are instances in each of the gospels where it seems that Jesus was rejected even by his immediate family. Certainly, it would not be strange for us to imagine Mary having a certain image in her mind of what Messiah would do. And she too might have experienced some level of consternation when her son doesn’t match up to expectations.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to reject other options for translation. Maybe the reference is to his disciples—and they don’t think he’s crazy, but it means something entirely different.
Other Possible Explanations
The immediate context might suggest the disciples other than Jesus’ family. After all, he has just introduced the calling of the twelve disciples. Why would we so quickly move to thinking “those of him” is a reference to family and not his disciples? But what would be the meaning of the passage if it is the disciples?
One explanation is that Jesus was absolutely exhausted—he couldn’t even eat. He isn’t “mad” as much as he is “overwhelmed.” And his disciples are doing what kinfolk ought to do in such a situation—they are taking care of their vulnerable.