The Death of Jesus in Mark IV

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.

Mogget Musings

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.

8 Replies to “The Death of Jesus in Mark IV”

  1. Can I just say that it bothers me to see your posts filed under marginalia and speculation? To me, those categories are for ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ type questions, which this clearly isn’t.

    (And, as long as I’m kvetching, I don’t like your name. I think ‘maggot’ every time I see it. You are one of my very favorite bloggers. There are plenty of others who could/should go by maggot, but you ain’t one of them.)

    I’m surprised you made it through this without commenting explicitly on the ending (or lack thereof) in Mark. I’ve always taken 16:8 as a call for _the reader_ to finish the story–to take up the mantle of discipleship from those who dropped it.

    By the way, this series has been wonderful. Thank you.

  2. Great post…very thoughtful and thought provoking, thank you.

    If I were one of Jesus’ disciples I don’t know if I would have gotten it either. Jesus told them who He was and what He had to go thru and the end result. All of those things are unbelievable. You can tell me that David Blaine can levitate, I don’t believe it, no other human has been able to do it, but I can watch him do it on TV. How could anyone be expected to believe that God has a physical son and you are walking and talking with him. Or that he will take your sins away…like the scapegoat you’ve been practicing on…or that he will die and be resurrected. What is resurrected anyway. If it’s never been done before, how do you explain what it really is. And that just because this friend of yours appears to be resurrected that it means you’ll be resurrected too. No one else before has had that happen.

    To me it’s just so different than the reality I’m used I can see why they didn’t get it. I understand.

  3. Mogget, maggot, bible dork, marginalia and speculation:

    Mogget comes from the Abhorsen Trilogy, by Garth Nix. It’s a good yarn, something like Harry Potter meets Night of the Living Dead. Mogget is also my cat. She’s very fat and evil. I have my days.

    Precisely because of the subject matter I blog on, I like to maintain the distinction between what I do and what President Hinckley does. It’s a good division of labor.

    Beyond that, I just like to avoid taking myself too seriously. If others want to, that’s very kind of them. But in the end, I expect to be judged by the quality of the casseroles I deliver via compassionate service rather than my blogging.

    (But just in case, I’ll try not to screw up the blogging… Alas, I sound like a nerd again. Oh well. I am.)

    I suppose I should have explained the textual issues with the ending of Mark.

    In a nutshell, there are six different endings. The one you find in your AV is the fifth longest, I think. It was known to Irenaeus and Tatian by the end of the second century.

    The longest ending is in Codex Washingtonensis,(sp?) in the Freer, in lovely downtown D.C. This reading has an extra 89 words, called the Freer logion, at the beginning of v. 15:

    And they excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things dominated by the spirits [or, does not allow the unclean things dominated by the spirits to grasp the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal your righteousness now.’ They spoke to Christ. And Christ responded to them, “The limit of the years of Satan’s power is completed, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who sinned I was handed over to death, that they might return to the truth and no longer sin, in order that they might inherit the spiritual and incorruptible heavenly glory of righteousness. But . . . .’ “

    There’s almost but not quite a consensus that the original text of Mark ended at 16:8

    Then they [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

    This means that all that stuff in 16:9-20 was added later. And folks with a literary background might suspect it, just from the change in the writing style.

    Anyway…to what purpose this suspended narrative? Lots of theories. As JMS pointed out, at the end of the story in 16:8, there’s nothing. No resurrection appearance, no male disciples, and the women are too scared to repeat what they were told to repeat.

    But you, the reader, know that someone was told, that the women did find the men, and that the disciples did find Jesus, just as he had predicted. And you know all this simply because of the text sitting in your lap.

    What do you make of that?

  4. Mogget,

    A couple of general comments, perhaps worth considering:

    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.

    The leadership of the time, the Sanhedrin were largely derived from imported exiled Jews, who owed their positions of power to the Romans. This is why the local Pharisees outside of Jerusalem and the local Jewish population disregarded them from a religious standpoint, but feared their power. The local Pharisees had no respect for the Sanhedrin, they knew it was a self-promoting Roman puppet.

    The local Jews who heralded Jesus during the triumphal entry had the expectation of a delivering messiah who was going to whoop up on the Romans and restore David’s kingdom. When he failed to do that, they deserted him. Some may have reviled him and been involved in the active persecution of him, but there is nothing to suggest the entire population, or even a lot, of Jews at Jerusalem during the Passover were unanimously, violently in favor of Jesus’ execution. Rather, it is more likely they were despondent after getting their hopes up, and Jesus’ delivery into the hands of the Romans for execution was terrible anticlimax for their expectations. The fact that the Sanhedrin did all their dirty dealings at night and in private clearly suggests it was something that they knew would not have played out well in public.

    These were two very different groups of people with two very different agendas and opinions of Jesus. Both groups were Jews, but that is pretty much all they had in common.

    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.

    The subtelty of the above suggested very nuanced reading is very appealing, but I have a tough time reading Mark as that nuanced. The disciples/apostles clearly had a view of Jesus that was slanted towards a physical delivering messiah who would restore the kingdom of David, a butt-kicking high-powered political and military leader who trashes the Romans miraculously and then restores the economic, military and political power of Judah. This was the prevailing view of all the Jews, and the Christian disciples were not much different in their expectations. Hence the infighting over who would be the chief leaders in Jesus’ kingdom. When Jesus didn’t deliver on their expectations, they couldn’t understand. Not because they didn’t believe he was the messiah, but because he failed to fulfil their unrealistic expectations. It was only later, in Acts (ok, ok, at the end of Luke), that they begin to realize that Jesus was there for spiritual salvation into the heavenly kingdom and their own expectations for a physical kingdom of David were just flat out wrong.

    I think the modern reader’s frustration over their failure to get it has more to do with the modern Christian reader’s lack of understanding of the Hebrew Bible than with anything else. Most modern Christian readers are not steeped in the Hebrew Prophets, whereas the ancient Jews were.

  5. Kurt,

    Good points, all. Very nice. I’ll answer (respond to, not disagree with) some of them later, but right now I need to do dissy stuff.

    And threadjacks only work if someone else participates, eh?!

    There’s some nice stuff for you in that lockbox, BTW.


  6. there is nothing to suggest the entire population, or even a lot, of Jews at Jerusalem during the Passover were unanimously, violently in favor of Jesus’ execution.

    Spot on. Here’s the deal. In a narrative-critical reading, you work with the characters as characters. So there are individual characters:


    And there are group characters:

    the disciples
    the Pharisees

    “The crowds” is another group character. It is quite possible to pull up every instance of this group character and look for patterns, theological trends, etc., etc., just as we do for the scribes, the Sadducees, and the rest. It is also quite proper to ask what role(s) they fill in Mark’s narrative strategy. And just as it is not necessary to assume that every instance of “the Pharisees” means the same group of Pharisees, so it is not necessary to assume that “the crowds” are the same folks.

    Now the interesting thing is that when you read the Triumphal Entry, there is no mention of “the crowd.” Instead, it says (Mk 11:7-10):

    7 So they brought the colt to Jesus and put their cloaks over it. And he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. 9 Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! Hosanna in the highest!”

    I have begun to wonder, since I wrote this, if that is a significant difference. Were “the crowds” who called for his crucifixion the same folks who greeted him on his entry? Were those who did the thing with the clothes and the palm fronds even natives of Jerusalem? Or were they Galileans who had come up with him?

    So…what I was saying was that Jesus had been welcomed, but was now rejected. By who? The crowds. Mark’s narrative makes them out to be a force the Romans and the Sanhedrin had to reckon with, but “la-di, da-di, everybody” is not necessarily implied. I should not, however, have said that he was welcomed by “the crowds” because he wasn’t.

    If you asked me for a historical-critical reading, I’d probably suggest that “the crowds” who called for his execution were a rent-a-mob hired by the Sanhedrin. A good modern analogue would be the tiresome riots of some Muslims over the insult de jour.

    The disciples/apostles clearly had a view of Jesus that was slanted towards a physical delivering messiah who would restore the kingdom of David, a butt-kicking high-powered political and military leader

    Zactly. The Messianic Secret and all that. Modern readers do not fully understand Jewish nationalist hopes and so they start off as unsympathetic readers of the disciples. But this can be corrected with a sympathetic explanation of the situation.

    What I am working with is the frustration that ensues when modern readers note that the disciples still don’t get it after Jesus explains it. Like, three times very explicitly, plus goodness how many other times in a more subtle fashion. It’s not frustration over what the disciples don’t know, it’s frustration over what they refuse to learn. There’s no such thing as a sympathetic explanation for that level of obtuseness. You definitely get the feeling that HP will wash W’s feet with his tears and wipe them dry with his hair before the disciples get a clue about Jesus.

    To this end, what is it that the disciples never learn? They never “get” who Jesus is. When he talks about it, they get scared. And fear does not co-exist with faith.

    So what, then, does the modern reader learn from Mark? The end of Jewish nationalistic hopes is a given to modern readers – as it was when Mark wrote. I think that the modern reader learns to know Jesus for who he was in his death. To trust. And to look beyond the scary stuff and find God. We all fail at this. So did the disciples. But Jesus came back for them despite their failure. And so it will be with us.

    I’m just tweaking away from the historical-critical and toward a narrative approach, is all.

  7. their own expectations for a physical kingdom of David were just flat out wrong.

    I disagree. They were spot on, if one considers the Davidic throne in an eschatological context. All that needed to be taught them was that Jesus would return like they saw him depart, and that was that (Acts 2). Likewise, Mormon expectations for a kingdom of David follow a similar line of thought: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel, blah blah blah.”

    They weren’t wrong per se, they were just off a little bit.

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