This article is part of the series A Journey Through Mark
Jesus entrusts his ministry to the disciples
Read Mark 14:12-31
The foreknowledge attributed to Jesus is these verses is extraordinary, including predictions of betrayal and denial by his followers (vv. 18-21; 27-31). Had things been as Mark records here it is difficult to understand why Jesus didn’t withdraw from Jerusalem and avoid arrest. Unless, of course, he intended this course of events to come about, in which case Judas should be re-cast in a different light in that his ‘handing over’ becomes essential to the story of salvation. A more likely explanation is that these predictions reflect a later strata of interpretation which attempts to give a sense of divine coherence to the course of Jesus’ final days. In this way, the impression is given that whatever happened was all part of a pre-ordained divine plan.
The institution of the Lord’s Supper is one of the most difficult events in Jesus’ life for us now to appreciate. It has precipitated such a rich feast of theological meaning and liturgical expression that it is extremely hard to distinguish between Jesus’ intention and later interpretation. We know that meals and table fellowship were an integral component of Jesus’ ministry. They were a celebration of God’s sustenance and saving presence (e.g. 2:18-20; 6:31-44; 8:1-10; Luke 7:31-35), a tangible demonstration of God’s acceptance and reconciliation of those on the margins (e.g. 2:15-17), and a foretaste of the abundant blessings that communion with God would yield in the future (14:25; cf. Isaiah 25:6-10).
Although Mark presents Jesus’ final meal as a Passover commemoration (v. 12-13; in contrast to John 13:1), this may reflect a later attempt to interpret Jesus’ death in the light of the Passover sacrifice. Certainly, the Passover meal, with the symbolic use of foods to remember and re-enact God’s great act of salvation when the Israelites ‘passed over’ from slavery into freedom provides a rich interpretative matrix for the last supper (cf. Exodus 12:1-14; Deuteronomy 16:1-3). However, it is questionable whether Jesus wished his followers to understand his death as a new Passover.
For one thing, the word ‘is’, which identifies bread with Jesus’ body and wine with his blood (vv. 22-24), has no equivalent in Aramaic; and, in any case, a Jew would find the prospect of drinking blood abhorrent (Leviticus 17:10-16; Deuteronomy 12:15-28). Jesus intends the bread and wine to represent something and not to become what is represented. Again, the word translated ‘body’ (v. 22) does not relate to a part of Jesus, but constitutes the entire person and may be used here to encapsulate his life and ministry. Further, comparison with 1 Corinthians 11:25, the earliest witness to Jesus’ words of institution, suggests that the principal association is between wine and covenant, and only by implication between wine and blood.
Unfortunately, space does not permit a full discussion of these important issues, but we may well be closer to Jesus’ meaning when we understand the words and actions associated with the bread as a commissioning of the disciples and an entrusting to them of his God-given vocation. Whilst the words and actions assoc-iated with the wine celebrate the new relationship between God and humanity realised through Jesus’ ministry and death, and finding fulfilment in God’s future (v. 25).
Gethsemane and the humanity of Jesus
Read Mark 14:32-52
Although it is difficult to understand how Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane was recorded, the story is surprisingly well attested (Matthew 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46; Hebrews 5:7-8; cf. John 12:27; 14:31; 18:11). It provides us with some of the most intimate insights into Jesus’ relationship with God and how he viewed his vocation. We have already hinted that the portrayal of Jesus as one who predicts the course of his passion (e.g. 8:31-32; 9:30-31; 10:32-34), together with the desertion of his followers (e.g. 14:17-21, 26-31), is a construct of the evangelist, designed to give a sense of divine foreknowledge and purpose to otherwise chaotic and potentially faith-destroying events. And whilst there is evidence of this editorial re-working in the Gethsemane tradition (e.g. vv. 41-42), we encounter a dramatically different Jesus within these verses.
Indeed, the Jesus of Gethsemane exhibits a depth of humanity that is more demanding and profound than his most public demonstrations of power. He confronts death not as a temporary glitch on the way to resurrection glory (cf. ‘… and after three days rise again’, v. 8:31; 9:31; 10:34), but as a stark reality that threatens to destroy everything. His sense of vocation is tested to the limits as he is overwhelmed by anxiety and grief at the prospect of facing the hour of testing and consuming the cup of fate (cf. 10:38-39). ‘Abba’, the Aramaic equivalent of ‘my father’ or ‘our father’, communicates familial intimacy and, presumably, is recorded here in the original language to emphasise that it was characteristic of Jesus’ way of addressing God (also Matthew 6:9; cf. Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
Jesus’ petition, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup form me; yet, not what I want, but what you want’ (v. 36), concentrates into one sentence what must have been a gradual movement towards acceptance and resolution. The quality of Jesus’ faith exhibited here is extraordinary: a child-like trust in the divine omnipotence of God (cf. 9:23; 10:27; 11:22-24) and a radical obedience enabling him to entrust his future to God and to abandon life itself in pursuit of a vocation (cf. 8:34-37; 13:13). Significantly, it is Christ’s obedience that Paul stresses when discussing the saving effects of the cross (Romans 5:17-19; Philippians 2:8).
The account of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest also possesses a ring of authenticity (vv. 43-52), although it contains more questionable components (e.g. vv. 51-52). The armed mob acts, at least informally, under the auspices of the Sanhedrin. Surprisingly, given Jesus’ activities in the Temple, he is not readily identifiable by his captors and has to be pointed out. Although Judas’ mode of betrayal seems unnecessarily heartless, a kiss was a recognised way for a pupil to greet a rabbi. As we shall see, the disciples’ desertion of Jesus may not have been as final as these verses suggest; here, in accordance with Mark’s presentation throughout, their response is pre-determined (vv. 49-50; cf. 14:26-31). Interestingly, we find a more positive assessment of Peter, James and John on the lips of Jesus in verse 38, where their willingness to stand by him is recognised.
Jesus is tried and sentenced
Read Mark 14:53-65 & 15:1-15
This long section, narrating Jesus’ encounters with Jewish and Roman authorities, together with Peter’s denial, is full of problems. Mark’s record of his trial before the Sanhedrin repeatedly contravenes the rules stipulated in the Mishnah (an authoritative supplement to the Jewish Law), which although not compiled unto 200 AD draws on older traditions: trials have to be held in a special hall on the Temple mount and could not be conducted during feasts or at night; defendants were innocent until proven guilty and only needed to answer accusations which could be substantiated; convictions required at least two corroborative testimonies; a verdict could not be reached before a second meeting of the Sanhedrin on a separate day. And then what was the charge meriting the death penalty? Does it concern Jesus’ pronouncements about the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple (v. 58) or his messianic pretensions (vv. 61-62)? If it is the former, why doesn’t Mark record Jesus making this claim (13:1-2 is a prediction not an undertaking; cf. John 2:19); if it is the latter, claiming to be the Messiah was neither a capital offence nor blasphemous (the Messiah was not God, but God’s human agent). The evangelist’s account of Jesus’ meeting with Pilate is little more convincing (15:1-15). It portrays the Roman prefect as an indecisive, ponderous and conciliatory man when, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, he was ‘inflexible, merciless and obstinate’. Further, there is no evidence of the custom of releasing prisoners at festivals, and the likelihood of Pilate liberating a committed murderer and political agitator is extremely small.
What, then, are we to make of all this? There is good reason to think that Mark has heavily reworked his traditions to serve both his theological interests and apologetic concerns. We notice how as Jesus’ death draws closer, so the veil over his identity is withdrawn (vv. 61-62). Equally, the evangelist emphasises the culpability of the Jews, who had become antagonistic towards Christianity (cf. Matthew 27:19-26; Luke 23:4-16; John 18:28-38; 19:4-16), whilst reducing the involvement of the Roman authorities, who continued in power and posed a real threat to the future of the Christian faith.
And, although we cannot now construct what happened to Jesus in any detail, it does seem likely that he was arrested by the Jewish authorities and faced the Sanhedrin informally to establish the nature of his ministry and to assess his threat with respect to their religious authority. We cannot rule out here a genuine motivation to give Jesus a hearing, but we must also recognise their desire to do away with him. The grounds for this remain unclear, although the belief that Jesus undermined their authority and threatened the fragile peace are likely contenders. We can only assume that the Sanhedrin would have executed Jesus had it possessed the powers to do so. However, that Jesus was handed over to Roman authorities suggests this wasn’t the case. Pilate’s decision to accede to the Sanhedrin’s request will have been motivated by political considerations. Clearly, if Jesus had committed treason by claiming to be ‘the King of the Jews’ (vv. 2, 9, 12), this would pose a very real threat to Roman rule and would need to be dealt with in the customary manner to avoid unrest and possible insurrection. This will have been even more necessary given the strong nationalistic fervour and vastly swollen population of Jerusalem associated with the Passover festival.
Peter’s denial and the crucifixion of Jesus
Read Mark 14:66-72 & 15:16-32
There is good reason to believe the incident concerning Peter’s denial of Jesus is rooted in historical fact. It is highly unlikely that the early church would have created such a story, especially, as Peter was one of the principal leaders and the denial portrays him in decidedly unflattering terms. On a positive note, it suggests the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus was not as complete as Mark indicates (cf. 14:50). Surely, Peter wouldn’t have risked shadowing him into the courtyard of the high priest’s residence if this had been the case. Whether the detail concerning the cock is original and why Peter’s Galilean accent should have given him away when Jerusalem was full of pilgrims is impossible to say.
There is no question that crucifixion was a gruesome form of execution, reserved by the Romans for perpetrators of particularly serious crimes. Victims were made to carry their own cross-bar, stripped and fixed to the wooden structure either by nails or ropes. The legs were usually bent to make it harder to breath and the arms were fixed at the wrist (and not through the palms as many religious artists would have us believe). Death was often an extremely prolonged affair and usually resulted from asphyxiation, sometimes after many days. On top of all this, there was the public humiliation and disgrace, together with whatever the executioners and onlookers meted out.
Details of Jesus’ crucifixion may well provide further evidence of the disciples’ continuing commitment to him – who else would have recorded them! It appears that the charge brought against him of claiming to be ‘the King of the Jews’ (v. 26) was the source of additional suffering, both before (vv. 17-20) and during ( vv. 29-32) his ordeal on the cross. We know next to nothing about Simon of Cyrene (v. 21), and his being pressed into carrying Jesus’ cross was highly unusual. Perhaps Jesus was so weakened by his floggings and abuse at the hands of the Roman soldiers that he was in danger of dying before sentence could be carried out. The whereabouts of Golgotha (v. 22) is now not known, although the name, meaning ‘the skull’, suggests a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The provision of wine mixed with myrrh to ease the pain must have come from one of Jesus’ followers (v. 23). And it appears the mockery of the Roman soldiers was augmented by that of passers by, members of the Sanhedrin and even those crucified with him (vv. 29-32).
And yet in spite of all this pain and anguish, it is difficult not to interpret Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ crucifixion as a sort of victory. For the evangelist, there is genuine pathos here: the one who is taunted to come down from the cross to save his life and convince his audience of his royal and messianic credentials is indeed the saviour of God’s people, as the one who prophesied the destruction of the Temple becomes the source of atonement and the new place of divine encounter.
The death and burial of Jesus
Read Mark 15:33-47
Although Mark’s theological interests can be discerned in his retelling of Jesus’ death and burial, there is good reason to believe that his account is largely factual. In contrast to Luke (23:34, 43, 46) and John (19:26-27, 30), Jesus makes only one utterance from the cross (v. 34) and this echoes the opening verse of Psalm 22. It is impossible to say whether this heart-rending cry of desolation signals the end of Jesus’ faith or is yet another profound demonstration of it (as he remains convinced that there is a God worth appealing to!). The confusion over Elijah (vv. 35-36) could only occur in Hebrew and not in Aramaic as Mark records (cf. Matthew 27:46), whilst the belief that the prophet could be invoked in times of trouble is attested in later Jewish sources and is presumably a ramification of his translation into heaven (2 Kings 2:11-12). The offer of wine (v. 36) may well be historical, even though this detail can be found in what would become one of the great passion psalms of the church (Psalm 69:21).
Strictly speaking, the Sabbath had already begun when Joseph of Arimathea petitions Pilate for Jesus’ body (vv. 42-45). The Jewish Law required the burial of malefactors on the day of death (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) and, although the Romans sometimes left their victims to decompose on the cross, it was not unheard of for them to respect Jewish sensibilities and release the corpse; hence, Joseph’s courageous initiative. Mark tells us that Joseph was a ‘respected member of the council’ and one who was ‘waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God’ (v. 43). Matthew adds that he was a disciple of Jesus (27:57), a secret one according to John (19:38), who Luke stresses did not agree with the council’s decision to kill Jesus. It sounds as if Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin who, if not a follower of Jesus, identified with him to the extent that he was willing to hand over his unused family burial tomb and risk rebuttal by Pilate and being ostracised by his Jewish counterparts.
Two features of Jesus’ death are central for Mark’s presentation. This first concerns the tearing of the curtain (v. 38), which must refer to the one hanging at the entrance to the Holy of Holies, the locus of God’s presence on earth (Exodus 26:31-35). Only the high priest was permitted to enter this place and then only once a year to make atonement for sins (Leviticus 16:29-34). The rending of this curtain from top to bottom, therefore, signifies God taking the initiative to break out of the confines of Temple worship and priestly mediation, and to open up access to himself through the death of Jesus (see notes on Mark 11:12-26; cf. Hebrews 9:12-28; 10:19-20).
The second detail, which in certain respects is the key to Mark’s entire Gospel, is the centurion’s confession (v. 39). For it is only when the way of the cross has been concluded and the journey of discipleship undertaken to this point that Jesus’ true identity and significance for salvation becomes apparent. Here, his convictions about the kingdom and his faith in God are exposed to the most extreme form of public scrutiny. And, in spite of all the ignominy and failure, rather than being found misguided and bankrupt, they disclose a quality of life and human being that can only have been formed and inspired by God. ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
Rumours of resurrection and the invitation to faith
Read Mark 16:1-8
Most English translations, including the NRSV, include what have become known as the ‘shorter’ and ‘longer’ endings of Mark. Most scholars believe that neither of these was original and that both were composed at a later stage (probably 2nd century) to supply the ending that either Mark chose not to write or which was subsequently lost. Certainly, in comparison with the other Gospels, Mark’s omission of resurrection narratives and conclusion with the irony that the women disciples’ who, having been entrusted with the good news, remain fearful and silent, seems strange. As we shall see, however, there are good reasons to maintain that this was the evangelist’s intention.
The clue is to be found in the young man’s (an heavenly messenger?) words to the women who, apparently, had come to anoint Jesus’ body a considerable time after his death (decomposition would have been well underway given the climate) knowing that their access would be denied because of the large stone rolled against the entrance to the tomb (vv. 6-7). The angel supplies them with rumours of resurrection and an invitation, on behalf of Jesus, to meet with him once more in Galilee (cf. 14:28), which was to be communicated to the disciples and to Peter (mentioned by name because of his denial of Jesus).
But why Galilee? Many suggestions have been made, including that Galilee was the original locus for the resurrection encounters (cf. Matthew 28:16-20; John 21) and the place where Jesus as the Son of Man would return to bring the kingdom of God to fulfilment (cf. 8:38-9:1; 13:24-27). However, reflection upon Mark’s presentation of Jesus commends another option. For Galilee was where Jesus’ vocation and ministry took shape and where he called people to follow him in the way of the cross. Repeatedly, Mark stresses that the significance of Jesus for faith only becomes apparent as one undertakes the journey of discipleship with him. And at the completion of that journey not only is the glory of Jesus revealed through the passion, but also the faith that informed his life and the vocation that inspired his ministry is entrusted to those who, having accompanied him throughout, must now embody that same faith and vocation. The return to Galilee, therefore, is the invitation to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, to live out the good news of God, and so to discover that he continues to be the one who mediates God’s presence and enables others to discover it for themselves.
This is Mark’s genius. Rather than limiting the resurrection to what a handful of people experienced, he offers the invitation to share Jesus’ faith to all who are prepared to follow him in the way of discipleship, a invitation that gains shape and definition through the pages of his Gospel.
Pause for thought
The closing stages of Jesus’ life as narrated by Mark have been both profound and uncomfortable. We have seen what people are capable of when feeling threatened or under pressure. We have discovered how revealing suffering can be and how, for perpetrator and victim alike, it possesses a transparent quality which discloses the inner self. We have also had to face up to the gulf that exists between beliefs and convictions entertained in the cloisters of the mind and those forged in the cauldron of human experience, where they must inform conduct, determine priorities and set the course our lives will take.
But, equally, we have confronted a vital truth about God which is communicated through Jesus’ passion and, in particular, his death and the words, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’. For, in spite of first appearances and what we might want to believe, this whole episode is imbued with a profound holiness and divine quality. Not with a God who is out there and who is able to intervene to prevent this tragedy (cf. ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself’, 15:31); but with a God who informs the depth of human being encountered in Jesus. The cross is where we confront the God who is present as the absent one, to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The God who has put his life and vision for humanity and all creation in our hands. Here on the cross, as throughout his life, Jesus radiates divine glory through his faith-filled, vision-inspired, Spirit-empowered example.
And what Jesus incarnated, each of us is invited to share. This is why there can be no final chapter to Mark’s Gospel, just the promise that Jesus will be found wherever his faith is shared, his vision embraced and his ministry continued. For this is the substance of the risen life.