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04 gospel of Mark

The death of Jesus in the Gospel according to Mark

The Gospel according to Mark seems to have been composed in the years soon after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. This means that ten to fifteen years separate this gospel from the authentic letters of Paul. Much has happened in the meantime, and some important events (such as the return of Jesus in glory) have not happened. 

Like Paul, "Mark" (not the real name of the person responsible for this document, but a convenient shorthand for our conversation) thinks the cross of Jesus is central to making sense of it all.

Mark tells a story about Jesus, but this no traditional biography. We get no information about his pedigree, his birth, his childhood and upbringing. Significantly for a Christian text, there is no focus on the resurrection. At best it is hinted at, while (deliberately?) kept off-stage. Instead, we find a conspicuous focus on the death of Jesus.

As long ago as 1896, Martin Kähler observed that Mark's gospel was really "a passion narrative with an extended introduction." [The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ] This observation has been repeated with approval by generations of NT scholars, and has now become axiomatic, even proverbial. For our purposes, it points to a deep truth about the Gospel according to Mark: making sense of the death of Jesus on the cross lies at the very centre of the story about Jesus that Mark tells.

Indeed, as G. W. E. Nickelsburg [Resurrection, Immortality and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism and Ealry Christianity] and Burton L. Mack [A Myth of Innocence] have demonstrated, a strong case can be made for the view that Mark seeks to portray Jesus as the innocent victim of the city authorities in Jerusalem: both Jewish and Roman.

Although written 15-20 years after Paul's death, the Gospel according to Mark offers a surprisingly circumspect theological interpretation of the death of Jesus. The death of Jesus, and specifically his crucifixion, is a major narrative interest in this gospel, but the cross seems to be understood more as the despotic act of the powers that be in Jerusalem, than as an act of God. Jesus dies as an innocent victim, but Mark's interest seems to be more in what means for Jerusalem than what this death means for humanity.

The triple predictions

One of the major narrative markers of the significance of Jesus' death for Mark is found in the triple set of passion predictions:

(1a) Mark 8:31-33 = Matt 16:21-23 = Luke 9:22, (1b) Mark 9:9b = Matt 17:9b, (1c) Mark 9:12b = Matt 17:12b, (1d) Mark 9:30-32= Matt 17:22-23 = Luke 9:43b-45, (1e) Luke 17:25, (1f) Mark 10:32-34 = Matt 20:17-19 = Luke 18:31-34, (1g) Matt 26:1-2, (1h) Mark 14:21 = Matt 26:24 = Luke 22:22, (1i) Mark 14:41= Matt 26:45b,(1j) Luke 24:7. 

The three passion (and resurrection) predictions in Mark read as follows:

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.  He said all this quite openly. [Mark 8:31–32 NRSV]

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;  for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. [Mark 9:30–32 NRSV]

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him,  saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles;  they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  [Mark 10:32–34]

The sons of Zebedee

Another significant reference to the death of Jesus is found in Mark 10, and comes immediately after the third (and most complete) of the three predictions:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;  40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.  42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  [Mark 10:35–45]

The lack of insight exhibited by James and John in this episode will be demonstrated by all the Twelve as the story unfolds. As Marks tells the tale, only a very small number of people understand the significance of the cross for Jesus. The list of those with eyes to see is very short:
  • blind Bartimaeus, who follows "Jesus in the way" after his sight is restored 
  • the woman who anoints Jesus with oil
  • the Roman soldier at the foot of the cross

The last supper

Bearing in mind that we are exploring the way that the cross functions in Mark's narrative (not reconstructing actual events and sayings from the historical Jesus), the last supper scene is critical to the way that Mark frames the death of Jesus. At this carefully arranged meal in a safe house somewhere inside Jerusalem, Jesus alludes to his own death as he inaugurates the Christian Eucharist (a ritual otherwise known to us only from the Pauline tradition), and connects both his death and the ritual to the coming of God's empire.

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it.  24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”  [Mark 14:22–25]

Tearing of the Temple veil

At the climax of his story of Jesus' death, Mark has three "special effects:" darkness in the middle of the day, Jesus' final shout, and the tearing of the great curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the larger sanctuary in the temple. When preparing his revised edition of Mark, Matthew will add another special effect: an earthquake that opens the graves of the righteous dead so they walk around the holy city and appear to people (see Matt 28:50–53).

Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”  [Mark 15:37–39]

Clearly, we are not dealing with reports of actual events. However, we do have the considered commentary of Mark the storyteller just as the story reaches its climax with the death of Jesus. Not only was Jesus the "son of God" and the "anointed one" (both terms are traditional Jewish ways to describe a human being chosen by God to rule over Israel, and do not yet have the christological significance they will carry in later trinitarian theology), but now it is plain that the city authorities (represented by the great Herodian temple) have made themselves liable to divine vengeance.

Creation has grieved (with the daytime darkness) and now the Temple is said to be symbolically destroyed. Mark may be invoking the imagery of Ezekiel as he suggests that God is abandoning the temple, leaving it vulnerable to be destroyed by the pagans. Given the likelihood that Mark's story is composed in the years immediately after the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE, this is a prophetic denunciation of city and its temple for the sin of rejecting and killing Jesus.

Such an interpretation of Mark's account of Jesus' death coheres with the puzzling saying about destroying and rebuilding the temple:

(1) Gos. Thom. 71; (2a) Mark 14:55-59 = Matt 26:59-61; (2b) Mark 15:29-32a = Matt 27:39-43 =(!) Luke 23:35-37; (2c) Acts 6:11-14; (3) John 2:18-22.