Mark and the Life—and Death—of Jesus
For Mark, belief in Jesus as the powerful messianic teacher and worker of miracles was not the point. Jesus is ultimately something very different.
Mark’s Gospel provides the readings for the Sunday gospels in most churches this year. After the Sunday of Pentecost, the readings will take the worshiper from the story of the Plucking of Grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–28), through the Beelzebub Controversy (Mark 3:23–30), the Stilling of the Tempest (Mark 4:35–41), Jesus’ Rejection at Nazareth (Mark 6:1–6), the Controversy about Clean and Unclean (Mark 7:1–23), and Jesus’ Teaching about Divorce (Mark 10:2–16), to Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem at the end of his career (Mark 12:28–44, 13:1–13). All these stories create an image of a powerful and successful prophet and miracle worker—one who was baptized by John the Baptist, drove out demons, healed the sick and was widely acclaimed as the Messiah; who refuted his enemies and instructed his disciples; and who, upon entering Jerusalem, was hailed as the one “coming in the name of the Lord” (Mark 11:9), though he was later arrested and executed.
With its presentation of the ministry of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark is generally believed to be the oldest record of the life and teachings of Jesus, probably written around 70 C.E. In ancient and in modern times, numerous descriptions of Jesus’ life have taken this outline of Jesus’ public activity as a reliable biographical framework for rewriting the story of Jesus. During the last hundred years, however, more and more scholars have argued that this biographical outline yields very little reliable information about the historical life and ministry of Jesus. Rather, it is an artificial framework designed by the author of the Gospel of Mark to provide a narrative setting for the numerous stories and sayings of Jesus, which were circulating freely in early Christian churches. To be sure, many of these traditions derive from Jesus’ activities; but we do not know the actual sequence of events and places of Jesus’ ministry.
When the author of the Gospel of Mark began to collect the traditions about Jesus in order to compose a coherent narrative of Jesus’ life, he faced a formidable problem. At that time, many followers of Jesus believed it was their task to proclaim the revelation of God’s presence in the miraculous deeds of their powerful Messiah. Apostles went out into the world and imitated the great Messiah, performing miracles and demonstrating the greatness of their message in their eloquent speech. The author of the Gospel of Mark, however, was committed to a very different understanding of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus had been crucified, and his community worshiped him as the one who had died and was raised from the dead.
In composing his gospel, Mark could not ignore the stories about the great deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, about his power to drive out demons and to heal the sick, his walking on water and his miraculous ability to feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. But he collected all these stories about the powerful and miraculous deeds of Jesus in the first part of his writing (Mark 1–8) and concluded this section with the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi: “You are the Messiah!” (Mark 8:29). Jesus’ response to this confession of Peter reveals the true purpose of Mark’s composition: From this point onward, Jesus proclaims that “the Son of Man must suffer many things …” (Mark 8:31). (Note that a completely new title, the “Son of Man,” is introduced here.)
In case readers of the Gospel of Mark still think that the suffering and death of the great Messiah are at best an unfortunate accident, Mark adds a dialogue between Peter and Jesus to the prediction of the Son of Man’s suffering: Peter admonishes Jesus, advising him to avoid such a catastrophic turn in his ministry; but Jesus rejects such counsel by addressing his well-meaning disciple (who had just proclaimed him the Messiah) as “Satan” (Mark 8:32–33). The prediction of the suffering and death of the Son of Man is repeated twice in the following chapters (Mark 9:30–32, 10:32–34). At the same time the disciples are instructed that their lot is not that of followers of a victorious and glorious Messiah. In fact, Mark reports one more miracle story, a fruitless one in which the disciples try to imitate Jesus’ great deeds by attempting to heal a demon-possessed child, but they fail badly (Mark 9:14–29).
The instructions to the disciples in Mark 8–10 have been drawn from the early traditions of church orders, which assign a very different role to those who want to follow Jesus. They must take up their cross and deny themselves (Mark 8:34–35). Those who want to be first must be the last and the servants of all others (Mark 9:35). The rich man is asked to sell everything he has and to give it to the poor (Mark 10:21). Mark predicts that the disciples will be handed over to the authorities (Mark 13:9). Because they are followers of a Jesus who gave himself and his life for others, it is not the disciples’ destiny to rule and to dominate others: “The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). To 055understand Mark’s intended message, his spectacular miracle stones must not be considered alone, but in conjunction with these passages. Mark wants to impress upon his readers that belief in Jesus as the Christ, that is, the powerful messianic teacher and worker of miracles, misses the point. Rather, Jesus is ultimately something very different—the Son of Man who must suffer and die and give his life as a ransom for many.
Mark’s Gospel provides the readings for the Sunday gospels in most churches this year. After the Sunday of Pentecost, the readings will take the worshiper from the story of the Plucking of Grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–28), through the Beelzebub Controversy (Mark 3:23–30), the Stilling of the Tempest (Mark 4:35–41), Jesus’ Rejection at Nazareth (Mark 6:1–6), the Controversy about Clean and Unclean (Mark 7:1–23), and Jesus’ Teaching about Divorce (Mark 10:2–16), to Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem at the end of his career (Mark 12:28–44, 13:1–13). All these stories create an image of a powerful and successful prophet and […]