And so we come to the last of my little four part series. If you’ve just dropped in, the first three are below. Other than that, enjoy!
The Burial of Jesus
As the day draws to a close Mark’s readers are suddenly confronted with a bewildering set of religious and statutory complications regarding the corpse of Jesus. Jewish law required that the corpse be buried by sundown to prevent defilement of the land. Roman law prohibited removal of the body from the cross without permission of the prefect. Burial is a matter for the male disciples, but they are nowhere to be found. And in this case, the situation is more urgent because it is now late Friday and the Sabbath is approaching.
Like the great knot formed at the death of Jesus, this smaller tangle that has spun off the events on Golgotha must be unsnarled. But as the little knot slips free and Jesus is buried, the great knot will also begin to loosen, drawing Mark’s readers irresistibly forward toward a faint post-crucifixion future.
Joseph of Arimathea
Mark reports that it is Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, which will begin at sunset:
42 And now when the even was come, because it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath,
43 Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God, came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.
Joseph of Arimathea is neither one of Jesus’ Galilean followers, nor has he yet played a role in Mark’s narrative. He is said to be waiting for the kingdom of God and he is described as a “honorable counselor,” probably implying both sufficient wealth to have ready access to a hewn tomb and the connections to approach Pilate. He is also most likely a member of the Great Sanhedrin.
Joseph’s personal motivation is ambiguous. Is he sympathetic to Jesus or just a pious Jew concerned to see that the Law is followed? Two points suggest that Joseph is more than simply an observant Jew. First, Joseph is said to have “boldly” gone in to Pilate.” This may indicate that his action is an unusual, if not unique, activity on his part. Second, Joseph is said to have put Jesus in a tomb “hewn out of a rock,” instead of rolling him into a common mass grave or even a handy ditch. While the lack of any prior public association precludes understanding Joseph as a disciple, his unusual level of motivation and his anticipation of the kingdom of God most definitely mark him as a seeker of truth and a man for whom pursuit of the things of God was a matter of some personal priority.
Pilate’s Last Decision
Attention now returns to Pilate. As the prefect, he has the authority to release the body of Jesus or to order it to remain on display indefinitely. Mark reports that Pilate is surprised to hear that Jesus is already dead:
44 And Pilate marvelled if he were already dead: and calling unto him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been any while dead.
45 And when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.
Since victims of crucifixion were known to linger in agony for up to two or three days, Pilate’s response is justifiable. He summons the centurion, now firmly established in the minds of Mark’s audience as the most trustworthy human in the entire gospel, and learns that Jesus is, in fact, dead. Pilate then bestows the corpse of Jesus on Joseph for burial. That Jesus should have been cared for in death by three such unlikely characters, none of whom knew him in life, points up yet again the extraordinary isolation in which he died. Burial is a matter for disciples – where are they?
Beyond the straightforward matters of law, what is the import of this scene?. First, the use of the word “body,” (lit. corpse) graphically establishes Jesus’ death. Second, the state has now formally taken note of the death of Jesus and exercised its final legal prerogative by releasing the his corpse. The requirements of Roman law have been met. If Joseph moves quickly enough, the land will not be defiled. But most importantly for Mark’s readers, the requirements for Jesus’ resurrection are beginning to fall into place.
The Burial of Jesus
With Pilate’s permission to retrieve the body of Jesus, Joseph must now move rapidly to perform such services as time allows. The need for haste because of the approaching Sabbath reprises the threat the Sabbath always posed for Jesus. Thus, Mark reports that Joseph:
bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre.
The use of five verbs in rapid succession creates a sense of Joseph’s urgency as he struggles to bury Jesus. It is also yet another indication Joseph’s influence and wealth that he can accomplish all this is so short a time.
What role do this scene and it’s leading character play in the larger narrative? First, it is clear that Joseph goes to extraordinary lengths to resolve competing requirements without offense to Caesar or God. Second, although he is also a witness of the reality of Jesus’ death, it is his use of a rock-hewn tomb which is important for the vital later conclusion that the corpse of Jesus is gone rather than lost. But it is the casual reference to his hope for the kingdom of God which piques interest. As an indicator of simple piety, it is semi-redundant with notice of membership in the Great Sanhedrin. But there is a whiff of irony here, which alerts the reader that all is not as it seems. A man said to be committed to waiting for the kingdom of God has just performed a great service for the preeminent herald of that very realm – by burying him. Will that be the end of the matter?
On the contrary, Mark’s readers know that Jesus’ final proclamation of the kingdom of God was an assurance of its endurance by way of a prediction that he would not drink of the fruit of the vine again until he drank it new in the kingdom of God. (14:25). Perhaps this indicates that Joseph’s hope and piety should be read in tandem, so that he, in deliberate counterpoint to the Gentile centurion, faintly foreshadows a second generation of Jewish disciples who will respond to a renewed proclamation of the kingdom of God when it appears.
The Women Watch
The day draws to a close with one last mention of the women. Once again, their passive response is noted:
47 And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid.
Only two of the three earlier mentioned women are present. No explanation is given for changes. Since the women are not acting wholly within their previous roles as disciples, what place do they occupy in the narrative? First, they are a major source of continuity at a critical point in the story as the only characters to move with Jesus through his crucifixion and death to the tomb. Second, they are the only members of their community now in a position to testify personally to the death of Jesus. Their gender makes this a surprising responsibility. But beyond these matters, they are also the focal point of most of the remaining loose ends in the narrative:
— Their expectations with respect to the tomb, unlike those of Joseph, are still open-ended for they are said to watch carefully where he was laid and they intend to return.
— As followers of Jesus, they have neither been scattered like their fellow “sheep” who fled from Gethsemane (14:27) nor have they come to a correct understanding of the death of Jesus, for they fully expect to find a corpse when they return to the tomb.
— Finally, as the women conclude their activity, Mark’s readers would reflect on Jesus’ promised reunion, his prophecy that after the Shepherd was smitten and the sheep scattered, he would go before them into Galilee (14:28). The time for this reunion with Jesus is approaching, but where are the men? Surely, the women must know!
Unlike the centurion and Joseph of Arimathea, who have been important and exemplary characters but whose roles are now complete, it is these women, who move on in the story. Deep in their uncertainty and misunderstanding they still carry the narrative forward. In a twist of plot and a gender reversal which seems to have surprised Christians for almost two millennia, Mark’s narrative as it passes from the death of Jesus, thru his resurrection, and out to the larger and later Christian community is anchored on these women and their testimony.
And so we come to the end of this final section of the passion narrative and, except for a handful of verses, the end of the Gospel of Mark. The disciples have almost all been scattered as predicted by Jesus (14:27). The only remaining followers of Jesus are the women and they seem oblivious to the possibility that Jesus’ highly accurate predictions of his own suffering might be matched by equal accuracy regarding his resurrection, for their one remaining motivation is to complete his burial.
The perfidy of the Jewish leadership, displayed as early as 3:6, is now complete. The Jewish crowds who welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem have violently rejected him and at their behest the Romans have crucified him. As death approached, Jesus finally called out to his father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” God did not answer and Jesus died. The three narrative strands that dominate the action in Mark, the real failure of the disciples, the real failure of the Jewish leadership and populace, and the apparent failure of Jesus, have come together in a final great knot.
But all is not as it seems. Mark’s readers know with the death of Jesus, the ransom has been made for the many (10:45). Likewise, Mark’s audience understands that in the obedient self-gift of his death for the many under the trauma of total abandonment, Jesus also brought his unique father – son relationship with God to a great culmination. Moreover, a most unlikely witness of that self-gift, the Gentile centurion, has, in fact, become the first to recognize the reality that all others have missed and responded by openly and independently confessing Jesus to be the Son of God.
God has finally made his interest felt by rending the veil in the temple. The gaping structure presents a rich but ambiguous scenario. First, the desecration of the structure points to God’s displeasure with the Jewish leadership who, like the wicked tenants of 12:1-9, had thought to kill the Son and receive the inheritance. Second, the combination of the torn veil and the centurion’s confession form an inclusio with the torn heavens and voice which likewise identified Jesus at his baptism (1:10), giving a definite, if somewhat curious, sense of closure. Finally, Mark’s readers might also note a certain faint resemblance between the gaping temple structure and the empty tomb, for both were opened by God without human intervention.
But these indications do not satisfy the questions that remain, for every reader wants to know what happened to Jesus, what happened to his disciples, and what might be the future of the kingdom of God which Jesus so emphatically proclaimed.
And so it is that when Joseph of Arimathea steps forward to unravel the little knot by burying Jesus, the great knot also begins to slip. First, Pilate releases the body of Jesus and Joseph provides a decent if hasty burial. To Mark’s readers, who remember that each of Jesus’ passion predictions also contained the word that he would rise again, the idea of the resurrection now subtly surfaces. Notice of the watching women rekindles interest in the missing male disciples and particularly in Jesus’ prediction that, although they would fail and be scattered, he would gather them again in Galilee (14:28). Finally, the description of Joseph of Arimathea, with its reference to his hope for the kingdom of God, renews awareness of Jesus’ assurance that the kingdom would survive his death (14:25).
One by one, the themes of resurrection, reunion with the disciples, and renewal of the proclamation of the kingdom of God have sounded. All roads lead not to the cross but through it and on to the resurrection, for the death of Jesus is also the prologue to the 3rd day and everything that lies beyond.
Although Mark has stood for 2,000 years without my aid, I am going to offer something of a postscript, for I find myself unable to leave this study without talking about it. First, by way of balancing and closing the tension between the male and female characters we have considered, I must point out that the women were eventually unnerved by the angel at the empty tomb. Like the men, they fled in fear. This completed the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in 14:27, that the Shepherd would be smitten and the sheep scattered. But the very presence of the text in our hands indicates that the recovery of the disciples, both male and female, eventually wiped out any real stigma associated with their betrayal.
Beyond that, the situation at the end of the passion narrative in Mark reads like a miniature of the Gospel as a whole. God is in control, Jesus has performed perfectly, unknown minor characters have modeled one or more qualities of discipleship, and the disciples have failed as usual. This failure of the disciples to “get it” frustrates modern readers, who prefer literature where they can easily identify and sympathize with characters. Nevertheless, Mark’s pedagogy is sound: by rubbing our faces in the failure of the disciples, Mark offers us the opportunity to minimize our own.
Precisely what was the disciple’s failure? It would seem that they never really understood just who Jesus was. His self-explanation, that he was the One who must die as a ransom for the Many, engendered fear and confusion. In Mark’s Gospel, fear is the antithesis of faith.
How then, shall we understand this business of discipleship? Somebody, and unfortunately I forget who (!?), has suggested that discipleship is really apprenticeship. This idea has stuck with me. An apprentice is never totally prepared for what is about to happen and his/her requirement for understanding always exceeds whatever he/she might possess. There is always failure and sometimes it is, in fact, totally catastrophic. This, however, does not compromise Christian discipleship, precisely because of the identity of the Master who has chosen to take us on as students.
Who, then, is Jesus? The combination of kingship themes developed earlier in the passion narrative, the tearing of the temple veil, and the centurion’s acclamation of Jesus as Son of God, leave us with a powerful set of scenes to assimilate. I find myself pondering a most unlikely situation: when Jesus feels most alienated from God’s presence he is actually closest to God’s will. The word for this is paradox.
To what purpose this paradox, then? Speaking personally, I find that Mark requires me to “leave home” and go out to meet God. When I do this, I am somehow no longer amazed to find that success and failure are not what they seem and that the conclusion was anything but an end. All roads lead to the cross, but by the hand of the God they all move past the cross, on to the empty tomb, and from there into eternity.