The Death of Jesus in Mark I

Some years ago, when I was a sweet, young Mogget, I thought to participate in Education Week by way of offering a four-class series on the death of Jesus in the Gospels. My intent was to bring out the unique theological insights offered by the authors of each of these exquisite pieces.

In order to compete for a position, I had to actually write up and give one of my proposed classes. In the end, my proposal was not accepted and I probably should not re-use my rejected work. But since things are getting exceedingly boring around here while I do dissy stuff, I guess I’ll serialize it and post it. You can make of it what you will.

The Death of Jesus in Mark

As Mark’s story of the mortal ministry of Jesus comes to a close in the Second Gospel, three major narrative strands running throughout the entire Gospel chave become tangled in a great and potentially insolvable knot:

–The first strand is the consistent failure of the disciples to recognize and respond to Jesus for who and what he is.

–The second strand is the failure of the Jewish leadership and polity to likewise react properly to Jesus.

–The third strand is the apparent, and I stress the word apparent, failure of Jesus in his mission and role as Son of God, Messiah, and herald of the approaching kingdom of God.

When Jesus dies, these three strands of real and apparent failure come together in a great tangle that to the mortal eye has no loose ends.

The Failure of the Disciples

The failure of the disciples, which forms the first strand, appears openly as early as 4:35-41 when the disciples awaken Jesus, who is sleeping in the rear of the boat, by suggesting that he does not care if they perish in the great storm which now threatens them. When Jesus does calm the storm, Mark reports that the disciple’s response was fear, not faith.

At Caesarea Philippi, Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ but his understanding of what this means seems to be flawed. Jesus accepts the designation privately but forbids public testimony and corrects his disciples by teaching that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, killed, and after three days rise again (8:29-31). Peter is unable to accept Jesus’ teaching and his protestations draw the strongest rebuke yet heard on the lips of Jesus: “Get thee behind me, Satan, for thou savourest not the things that be of God but the things that be of men .”

From this point onward, the disciples are increasingly uncomfortable in the situation in which they find themselves (10:32). As Jesus continues to speak of his upcoming ordeal in Jerusalem, the disciples fail to understand and are afraid to ask (9:31-32). The climax comes when the disciples flee from Gethsemane and Peter denies Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard.

This is a betrayal of their call, for disciples are called to be with Jesus (3:14-15), which means that they must be about his business, doing it in his way under his authority. Although they have been temporarily lost to the narrative in the press of the trial, condemnation, sentencing and crucifixion, we will find that as Mark recounts the actual death of Jesus the disciples are once again conspicuous by their absence.

The Failure of the Jewish Leadership

The second narrative strand is, like that of the disciples, a consistent failure on the part of the Jewish leadership and polity to respond correctly to Jesus. Unlike the disciples, however, this failure to acknowledge Jesus runs both deeper and darker. The conflict becomes explicit in 2:1-6 when some scribes question Jesus’ authority to forgive the paralytic’s sins after his friends lowered him through the roof. Although the scribes are said to ponder the question of Jesus’ blasphemy only in their hearts, Jesus confronts them publicly and then heals the paralytic by way of demonstrating his power and authority. From this point onward, the scribes, with one exception (12:28-34), will be a hostile force with which Jesus must contend.

Likewise, conflict with the Pharisees appears in chapter 2 and when, in 3:1-6 Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, the Pharisees and Herodians are said to plot against his life. The crowds are said to see in him only Elijah, perhaps another prophet, or John the Baptist (8:28).

Now, with the timely assistance of Judas, the chief priests and scribes have taken Jesus at night and by force from Gethsemane (14:43-52), tried him (14:53-63), and turned him over to the Romans (15:1) . The crowd, offered a chance by Pilate to free Jesus, chose a murderer over their Messiah (15:6-15). This violent rejection on the part of both the Jewish leadership and city crowds will continue unabated right up to the very moment of Jesus’ death.

The Apparent Failure of Jesus

The third narrative strand is the apparent failure of Jesus. In the very first verse of the gospel, Mark identifies Jesus as both Messiah and Son of God (1:1). The supernatural characters are likewise clear about Jesus’ identity. God identifies him twice as his son (1:11; 9:7) and the devils whom he casts out recognize him without difficulty (1:23-24; 3:11; 5:1-7). Thus, the identity of Jesus is clear to the reader.

However. No mortal character within the story has yet made a completely correct identification of Jesus and in about six hours he will die. This means that despite a series of miracles, healings, and exorcisms unequaled in Israel’s history, despite his teachings, said to have amazed all who listened, despite his spot-on castigation of the hypocrisy of the Jewish leadership, and despite his clear and unambiguous call to prepare for and accept the kingdom of God, no one has really either recognized Jesus or fully accepted his invitation to repent and submit to the reign of God.

As we now enter the story, Jesus is condemned as a criminal and fixed to a cross, the male disciples have fled, and hostile spectators representing elements of the Jewish leadership as well as the common crowd entertain themselves by mocking him. Most significantly, there has been no response from God, either to Jesus’ plea in Gethsemane or to any of the other events which have befallen his Son. The three great narrative strands of Mark’s story are indubitably tangled beyond mortal efforts to loosen.

Have the chief priests and the scribes successfully thwarted Jesus’ mission? Are the disciples never to be reunited? Will the kingdom of God survive the death of Jesus? Will God react? And if so, how? Let us turn to Mk 15:33 and begin to unravel this story.

The Sixth Hour:

The story of the death and burial of Jesus in Mark’s narrative is framed in subdued darkness — an eerie lack of light and activity at the sixth hour, which is noon, over against the familiar onset of the Sabbath evening. Mark tells us that :

“When the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”

This unnatural darkness at noon attracts historical interest: what caused the darkness and how far did it extend? But these queries are largely unanswerable and ultimately less important. What is significant is the use to which Mark puts this motif.

The uncanny darkness lasting from noon to about 3 PM is a first indication that this day is like no other. Connotations of divine involvement arise from association with the penultimate plague in Egypt, the three days of darkness recounted in Ex 10:21-23. All this evokes the image of an ironic reversal of the normal association between God and light. Suggestions of impending judgment are to be recalled from citations such as Deut 28:29, Jer 15:9 and particularly Am 8:9-10

“And on that day,” says the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. …I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.

Note also the absence of any new human activity from the time the darkness descended until the first great cry, a period of about three hours. Since the verbs used by Mark to report the mockery of vv. 29, 31-32 are in the imperfect such activity may have continued unabated, but the peculiar lighting effectively squelches notice of the mundane and focuses attention on that central cross.

And so we see that Mark’s attention has shifted one last time from the victimizers to the victim. By darkening the sky, God illuminates Jesus in his last moments. The next time Mark mentions the lighting, it will be to announce the sunrise which precedes the women’s visit to the empty tomb, likewise a moment of immense significance.

Next up: The Ninth Hour

13 Replies to “The Death of Jesus in Mark I”

  1. Re your intro: I scanned the schedule and there are several (at least 3? maybe 4 or 5?) people doing four-day series where each day focuses on a different gospel. So you can console yourself with the knowledge that you were just ahead of the trend. . .

    I’m surprised that in your first strand, you haven’t given more thought to the female disciples who ‘get it.’ I imagine you are familiar with the literature–prolific!–that suggests that the male disciples serve as foils in Mark to the women who are the ‘true disciples.’

    You wrote, “No mortal character within the story has yet made a completely correct identification of Jesus and in about six hours he will die.” But what about the anointing woman? I’m slightly invested in the idea that the anointing, as both a burial anointing (=prophetic of his suffering and imminent death) and royal anointing (=prophetic of his royal role) implies that she is the one disciple who really ‘gets it.’

  2. Hm, well, you are all very kind. But after an absence of several years, I can find a number of reasons for rejection.

    Nevertheless, we do what we can do.

    Hm, yes, the secondary literature on gendered readings. It is not always clear that ideologically motivated readings give as much as they take.

    With respect to the anointing in Mk 14:3-9

    3 When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head. 4 There were some who were indignant.

    “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? 5 It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages and the money given to the poor.”

    They were infuriated with her. 6 Jesus said,

    “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me.

    8 She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.

    9 Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

    Our understanding of the significance of this event arises strictly from Jesus’ interpretation. The unnamed woman’s self-understanding is left unexpressed. And in fact, none of the Gospels attribute anything to her beyond extravagant love. It is Jesus who uses her actions, whatever her motivations, to drive home the significance of what awaits his followers.

    This stands in rather marked contrast to the centurion’s unsolicited and explicit confession.

    In the larger story, the women must be read as disciples. What this means to the passion narrative is that they, like their male counterparts, must be scattered. After all, Jesus did predict that the Shepherd would be smitten and the sheep scattered. All of them.

    But having said all that, yes, the women do have a unique role…and you can tell me what you think when I get there!

  3. “The unnamed woman’s self-understanding is left unexpressed. ”

    But that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. I think one of the points of the story is that her understanding is not expressed through words but actions (go back and look at all of the verbs in this passage).

    And as for her action: the extravagent love theory just doesn’t hold up with the symbolism of the event. She’s re-enacting 1 Sam 10 through the anointing–hard to imagine she’d do that if this were just about ‘love.’ She understands who and what he is and her actions reflect that. She doesn’t say it–she enacts it.

    And: have you considered reading the centurion’s confesison as irony? What does ‘son of God’ mean on the lips of a gentile? What has he seen that would lead him to make this statement un-ironically? I think he fits into a theme of cheap, false words in this gospel that is contrasted with the woman’s faithful, silent act.

    One more thing: “It is not always clear that ideologically motivated readings give as much as they take.”

    It is not clear that there is such a beast as an ideologically unmotivated reading, and you are certainly painting with a broad brush here.

  4. Mogget, I suspect your paper was rejected for the first strand. In all the Mormon films I’ve seen, these clean-cut nicely shaven blue-eyed men with come-overs “feel the Holy Ghost” and drop their nets and follow Jesus unquestioningly, “getting it” the whole time. To challenge that is, by extension, a challenge to the current apostleship??? Hmmmm….

    What’s funny to me, if we go from Luke’s account, is that the disciples are so confused they’re still asking Jesus waaaaaaaay over in Acts 1:6 when he’s going to restore the kingdom, despite having taught them SO MUCH about the kingdom previously. So there are other witnesses within the synoptics that pick up on this.

    Very, very good stuff, Mog. Top notch.

    What does ’son of God’ mean on the lips of a gentile?

    Julie, for me, it’s a literary gloss, ala Rahab’s intense and intimate knowledge of orthodox Yahwism (Josh. 2), despite being a Canaanite hooker in a brothel and probably never having ever confronted a “Hebrew” before…

  5. despite being a Canaanite hooker in a brothel

    It has been proposed that we sustain Brother David J. as lead author and editor of the next cycle of GD manuals. All in favor please signify by raising the right hand…

    And before you take up your new calling, Brother David J., I have arranged for you to speak in Sacrament Meeting in my ward on SBL weekend. Your assigned topic is “Pious Redactional Activities of the Deuteronomist.” Please leave no faith-promoting myth unexploded…

    And to be serious, the historicity of the cluelessness of the earliest disciples is something I ought to check out.

    Actually, last week my poor GD class found out that in context Immanuel is not Christ. And they came back this week, so it seems that they survived.

  6. She’s re-enacting 1 Sam 10 through the anointing

    If, in fact, 1 Sam 10:1 is in Mark’s thoughts, the best that can be said is that Jesus and the unnamed woman jointly bring the scene together, for the unnamed woman is no Samuel. However, two things militate against this reading:

    1) An association with the anointing that initiated the ill-fated Saulide dynasty casts the anointing of Jesus in a mixed light.

    2) Elsewhere in Mark’s passion narrative (PN), his use of the OT is handled with a more deft and explicit touch. The most striking is, of course, the Ps 22 imagery.

    With this incident, an allusion to the general act of anointing is made possible by the woman, then made explicit by Jesus. I don’t, however, see any striking links to Saul’s anointing. Certainly, the disciples did not have to haul Jesus out of the baggage trains to get him back on his messianic track.

    have you considered reading the centurion’s confession as irony?

    Thank you for asking. The present work is a shorter, less detailed, and narrative-oriented production created from a piece written and defended in a professional setting using the full range of exegetical methodologies.

    The single most powerful proponent of an ironic reading of the centurion’s confession was the late Donald Juel. His basis for this reading was twofold:

    1) The centurion is sarcastic because all other Romans in the PN have been insincere.

    2) A sincere reading of the centurion’s confession is “too convenient” in a text otherwise shot through with irony.

    Juel’s approach has several weaknesses:

    1) His reading fails to take account of the fact that the centurion’s confession takes place on the far side of the death of Jesus. To Mark’s readers, this is the world where Jesus and his message ultimately enjoy success – even success among the gentiles.

    2) The centurion is indeed Roman, but this is not his only character class nor the most important one to Mark’s readers. In his confession he joins a select group of supernatural voices with knowledge previously unavailable to humans. To Mark’s readers this information is now fully exposed. To be the Messiah and the Son of God is to die as a ransom for the many. What Peter did not grok, the centurion affirms.

    3) Juel fails to appreciate the irony he himself engenders by suggesting that a sincere confession from a gentile mercenary is somehow “too convenient.” In fact, it’s rather inconvenient if you think Jesus was the promised messiah.

    There is tremendous irony in the centurion’s confession. The locus of this irony, however, has shifted. In the post-crucifixion world of Mark, the irony may not be in the words themselves, but in the person of the speaker. The likely candidates for Jesus’ message have failed (temporarily, it happens) and now the unlikely have their moment.

    What does ’son of God’ mean on the lips of a gentile?

    The historical centurion, if he even existed, testified first that Jesus was not what he appeared to be, a crucified revolutionary. Second, his choice of words suggests that he thought religious categories best described the truth about Jesus. There is no historical-critical requirement for a sarcastic reading.

    But the present effort is not primarily historical-critical except where that sort of information assists in understanding the narrative. The focus is what Mark’s readers might have understood from the scene.

    It is not clear that there is such a beast as an ideologically unmotivated reading, and you are certainly painting with a broad brush here.

    Alas, it comes from long experience painting with a very fine brush indeed. After awhile, patterns develop. I can pretty confidently distinguish between the frailties common to all human endeavor and tendentious attempts to legitimize various ideologies.

    The best approach is to read critically across a wide swath and to owe allegiance to none. If a corrective reading is required, the credibility and breath of experience are then readily available to make a solid case.

  7. Mogget,

    Where you find ‘no evidence’, I find ironic reversal–very characteristic of Mark. For example, the failed Saulide dynasty is contrasted with Jesus’ perfect kingship. And the woman–nameless, status-less–is contrasted with those very traits in Samuel. I think you missed a few allusions to the 1 Sam 10 story, such as that both are followed by a prophecy that is specific, temporal, and immediately fulfilled. Also, I’m blanking on the citation right now, but I find the inversion of temple and leper’s house (linking Jesus’ cleansing of the temple to the cleansing of a leprous house and then setting the anointing in the home of a leper) another compelling bit of evidence for a royal anointing.

  8. And to be serious, the historicity of the cluelessness of the earliest disciples is something I ought to check out.

    I had a NT professor (Harvard trained!) in grad. school who was quite bent on this. His dissy was done in Mark, and so he came up with a lot of what you have here. I wish I had some of my notes digitized so I could share them. We had several lectures on the clulessness of the disciples, as well as possible threads of insurrection within Jesus’ teachings, which naturally I thought was most appropriate.

    Canaanite hooker in a brothel

    Oh, it gets better than that! The Hebrew of the story smacks of word-play. The word games between “laying down” and “going in” and “coming out” — all in connection with a hooker and an “inn” (which is where hookers did their thang)… I think the author of Joshua 2 had a HUGE grin on his face when he wrote it. Sure, I could write a talk on this. Not that anybody listens anyway…

  9. Hm, well I bet the word “hooker” would penetrate rather quickly. Then you’d have total attention…

    Now back to the unnamed woman and the anointing:

    The question is her intentions, which are never overtly expressed. All she does is gift Jesus with nard. No small thing, this, and a very nice gesture. But her intentions are not readable from the irony of the setting. (Mark’s are, though!) All this is incidental to her actions, which must be explained.

    And it is Jesus who gives the scene its explanation. He’s the master of his own identity until after his death, when someone else can finally both understand and articulate it. To understand Jesus, you have to see him in his death.

    But perhaps we shall have to agree to disagree on this one, followed by the intent to agree again at the earliest possible opportunity…

  10. Mogget, I don’t want to push this if you want to move on, but I think the ‘she was just being nice’ reading comes from a history of misogyny that couldn’t bear the thought of a woman ‘getting it’ when the male disciples didn’t. It seems off to me to think that Jesus would interpret someone’s actions contrary to that person’s intent and then praise that person for their actions.

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