The Gospel of Mark

“The Gospel of Mark offers astonishing good news and a stern challenge.”

Mark is thought to be the earliest of the gospels to be written. Until an early Christian took the initiative to write this story of Jesus’ life and ministry, people who had not actually known him could learn about his life and message only through the stories shared verbally in Christian communities.

Clues include the writings of two early second century Christian historians; they both describe a follower of Paul named Mark. Mark is described as a person who followed Peter closely and wrote down everything he heard Peter say about his own memory of the life of Jesus. It is broadly thought that the writers of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark’s writings and were influenced by those writings, reinforcing the belief that Mark was the first written gospel.

Mark is a powerful message of good news: a forgiving, loving and welcoming God sending Jesus to prove to mankind that God so loves us that his son would die for our redemption. It is also a clear and present challenge to live our lives the way Jesus would call us to do.

Meet Our Professors

Allen Hilton

Rev. Allen R. Hilton, Ph.D. is the founder and leader of House United, a donor-driven non-profit initiative dedicated to bringing people together across our political, religious, and racial divisions for the common good. He has served on the New Testament faculties of the Yale Divinity School and St. Mary’s College of California, and on the clergy teams of large congregational churches in New Canaan, CT, Seattle WA, and, most recently, Wayzata, MN. Hundreds of churches across the nation use his adult education Bible curricula. His first book, A House United was published in April 2018.

David L. Bartlett

David L. Bartlett was the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, USA, Bartlett served as the senior minister of congregations in Minnesota, Illinois, and California. From 1990 to 2005, Bartlett served at YDS on the faculty as well as in administrative roles including Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Academic Affairs. Bartlett has published numerous books and scholarly articles. It is with great sadness that we note his passing in late 2017.



Yale Bible Study

The Gospel of Mark


The Gospel of Mark offers astonishing good news and an awfully stern challenge in one fell swoop.

Mark’s Jesus speaks good news – about a God who forgives, loves, and welcomes all comers.  Mark’s Jesus also is good news – offering forgiveness, reaching to gather the forgotten ones, standing up to the purveyors of exclusive regulations and dried out rules, and dying to set humanity free.  There’s a whole lot of good news in this book.

Mark’s Jesus speaks and is a challenge as well – modeling a Way of service and self-denial that gives itself out for neighbor and stranger, and then calling us to follow in his steps.  Of any who will answer that call, this Jesus will settle for nothing less than a whole life.  Indeed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous saying could very well have been planted by Mark:  “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (The Cost of Discipleship)

In addition to its benefits to our faith, the Gospel is also just a whole lot of fun to read.  The author has cleverly sewn together stories of Jesus in a way that builds characters and themes, ironies, comedies and tragedies into his book.  Expert crafting encourages close and attentive reading.

This interwoven whole of good news, challenge, and literary delight make the Gospel of Mark a wonderful book to read together in Bible study.

The Composition of the Gospel

Somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea about two thirds of the way through the first century, forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, a few years after Paul wrote his last letter, around the time Roman soldiers burned Jerusalem down, just after Nero almost burned Rome down, an early Christian gave us a gift.

Until that time, Christians who had not known Jesus heard about him through stories shared orally in their churches.  A parable here, a prayer there, a miracle somewhere else.  Over time some of Jesus’ sayings were collected here, his miracles there, his conflicts with authorities somewhere else. There may have been small collections of his conflicts with Jewish leaders.  Paul and other missionaries were telling the story of his crucifixion and resurrection.  There were ways of hearing about Jesus.  But there was nothing that told the whole story, with a beginning, middle, and end…until Mark.  When that book’s first words ring out “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…”, they also mark the beginning of Gospels – the first full story about Jesus.

“The Gospel according to Mark” or “The Gospel of Mark,” was not in manuscripts, and no author is listed.  So why do we refer to it that way? The title was assigned because of second-century Christian claims. The earliest of these comes from a churchman named Papias, who writes around 125 C.E.,

“Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements (Quoted in Eusebius, Church History 3.39).”

A half-century later, another 2nd-century Christian wrote, “after the death of Peter himself, [Mark] wrote down this same Gospel in the regions of Italy.”  (The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Mark)

The Mark to whom these authors refer is probably John Mark, the son of a Jerusalem Christian mother, who became a co-worker of Paul and Barnabas.  Some scholars find this author too little Jewish, too little aware of the Hebrew Bible (he quotes it according to a Greek translation) to fit that resume.  And so it is not clear how sure we should be of Papias’ and the prologue-writer’s claims – they too have “neither heard” Mark “nor accompanied him,” but instead depended on tradition.  Nonetheless, in this study we will call our author by the shorthand name “Mark.”

Whoever he was and wherever he wrote, we imagine this author/Mark did this generous literary work for a community of his fellow followers of the Way.  One hobby for readers of Mark is to guess at the circumstances of those first readers.  The tradition places the book in Rome after the death of Peter, and so written in the aftermath of Nero’s persecutions.  Within the book itself, chapter 13 suggests that the imagined audience may have been experiencing persecution.  In chapter 7 the author clues his readers in on Jewish customs in ways that indicate a goodly share of them were Gentiles.  You may find another clue or two as you read.  You will probably also find that the imagined audience for this marvelous Gospel ends up, ultimately, being you.



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The Gospel of Mark

I. Mark 1:1-3:6: Popularity Breeds Contempt

In the first two chapters of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is strikingly compassionate:  he liberates a man from demon possession (1:23-27), heals many of the people’s various diseases (1:29-34), cures a man with leprosy (1:40-45), absolves and heals a paralytic (2:1-12), and, in a culminating act of compassion, restores a man’s withered hand (3:1-6).  With what accolades do the local authorities shower Jesus for all his humanitarian activity?  “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (3:6) The first mystery of Mark’s story is, “Why?”  How does Jesus the people-helper draw such vehement opposition from the Jewish leaders in such a short time?

Mark’s narrator provides the clues necessary to solve this mystery in a series of conflict episodes that pit Jesus against the Jewish leaders.  Indeed, alongside the five acts of compassion listed above lie five direct confrontations.  The scene is set when Jesus’ first synagogue audience comments that the substitute (Jesus) is a much better teacher than their usual ones (the Scribes – 1:22).  There follow heated debates about who has authority to forgive sins (2:1-12), what constitutes worthy dinner company (2:15-17), whether fasting is an important faith practice (2:18-20), and (twice) how the Sabbath commandment ought to be interpreted (2:23-27; 3:1-6).

Our attempts to explain the Pharisees’ antipathy to Jesus must start with these conflicts.  But on their own, such disagreements about the Torah (Moses’ law) and Judaic truth do not explain violent reprisals.  Rabbis always argue with one another about interpretations.  It’s what scholars do.  These arguments do not usually lead to murderous plots.  So what raises these Pharisees’ temperature so quickly?

Because the answer to this question doesn’t appear in any one passage, it can easily elude us.  You and I customarily digest our Bible one paragraph at a time on a Sunday morning.  But these clues are tiny and subtle, and they are sprinkled here and there along the way.  We get them one every third week, so they don’t string together.  In fact, one of the profound luxuries of Bible study is to read continuously, and this author rewards such reading with insights.

Consider this:  Jesus begins Mark’s Gospel walking along the seashore and asking a few fishermen to join him (1:16-20).  Two chapters later, he has become so famous and sought-after that he and his closest followers must take precautions to insure his safety among the adoring masses (3:7-8).  Between these two scenes lie a string of casual allusions to Jesus’ growing popularity (1:28, 33, 45; 2:2, 13).  This astronomical growth in the size of Jesus’ crowds seems an important clue.  Rabbinic disagreement is one thing; massive emigration is another.  When these Pharisees start losing market share, things get ugly.

Anyone who reads the Gospels much knows that all Jesus has to do to draw Pharisaic wrath is lift a finger on the Sabbath.  In fact, he does it three times in this section (1:21-28; 2:23-28; 3:1-6); but the leaders only shout him down in two of those three scenes.  The odd passage out is 1:21-28, where Jesus casts out a demon on the Sabbath and meets no opposition at all.  It’s the only scene in the four Gospels where Jesus does anything but teach on the Sabbath without opposition.  Why?

Mark’s narrator helps us answer our question by building 1:21-28 and 3:1-6 to be juxtaposed.  First he puts the word “again” in 3:1 so we can’t miss the call to comparison.  Then, in each case a man presents himself to Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath and is healed. These similarities make one stark difference stand out:  the audience response.  In 1:21-28 “all were amazed,” but in 3:1-6 “the Pharisees…conspired.”  This contrast needs explaining.  Perhaps a Jesus flanked by four still-scaly fishermen seemed innocuous enough to the leaders (1:16-20); but one who attracted “great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon” had become a threat (3:7).  Was the Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus motivated by a pure concern for the Law of Moses or by professional rivalry?  Near the end of this story, Pilate will detect that “it was out of jealousy that the Chief Priests had handed Jesus over [to be crucified].” (15:10) The Pharisees’ early opposition to Jesus and their plot to destroy him seem similarly motivated.

On this side of the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Holocaust, Mark’s character development can take on a very ominous tone.  Centuries of Christians have fueled their anti-semitic fires with passages just like these.  You and I know the very Jewish totality of this text (only a handful of Gentiles appear in all its sixteen chapters).  We know that Jesus is a Jew, the disciples are all Jews, and the author is most likely a Jew.  But through the ages, Christians have overlooked those simple truths and persecuted Jews because of Mark’s (and the other Gospelers’) portrait of the Jewish leaders.

So what did Mark mean by giving the Pharisees such black hats?  Recall that his book isn’t primarily about Jewish leaders.  In it, they are flat characters (like Democrats in a Republican’s story) – foils, whose attacks give Jesus heroic opportunity. He capitalizes with winsome one-liners like “Sabbath is made for humanity, not humanity for Sabbath” and “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  By outing the Jewish leaders’ rivalrous motives within his story world, Mark’s narrator establishes for his audience the holy innocence of the One his book is primarily about.

And that is where this section ought to end: with Jesus.  The Gospel’s first verse tells us so:  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  John shouts out about him in the wilderness, God tells him he loves him as he arises from baptismal waters, and then, in two chapters and a bit, he sets the world ablaze.  By section’s end he has reached the unreachable (demoniac), touched the untouchable (leper), healed the unhealable (paralytic), welcomed the unwelcomable (tax collectors and sinners).  Because all of this has rattled the powers that be, he has also taken his very first steps toward a hill far away and an old rugged cross.  Stay tuned!

Further Reading:

Joanna Dewey, “The Literary Structure of the Conflict Stories in Mark 2:1 – 3:6,” JBL 92 (1973), 394-401.

John Vannorsdall, “Mainline Churches”, in William H. Willimon, Sermons in Duke Chapel: Voices from “A Great Towering Church” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press)

General Questions:

  1. Imagine that this is the only thing you have ever read or heard about Jesus. Then write three adjectives that best describe the Jesus you meet in Mark 1:1 – 3:6.
  2. How do you imagine you would respond to Mark’s Jesus?  Would you be with the disciples?  The crowds?  The Jewish leaders?  The unmentioned people who stayed at home?  Why?
  3. The story about Jesus healing a paralyzed man (2:1-11) brings together several themes that are important to Mark. One of them is Jesus’ authority.  When the scribes grumble, “Only God can forgive sins?” what are they (inadvertently) saying about Jesus?

Focus Questions:

  1. Put yourself in the story of Mark 3:1-6. If you’re the guy with the withered hand, what do you make of Jesus?  What has he done for you?  Is there more than one level to that good deed?
  2. Next put yourself in the first audience of the story. How have the first two chapters prepared you to hear this paragraph in 3:1-6 more intelligently?  What do you know that the man with the withered hand doesn’t?
  3. Now come back to the 21st century. Just before this scene, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”  Have you ever seen rigid enforcement of well-intended rules do anyone harm?  Share an example.  What kind of God does Jesus’ saying portray?



Yale Bible Study

The Gospel of Mark

II. Mark 3:7-4:41: What Kind of Kingdom?

Like any good story Mark’s gospel has a narrator and characters and a plot.  Much of the plot revolves around conflict—conflict between Jesus, the hero of our story, and those who oppose him or misunderstand him or even set out to destroy him.

Last week’s passage ended as the Pharisees and the Herodians begin to counsel together about how they might get Jesus killed.

In today’s passage there are two other kinds of opposition.  The first opposition comes from the scribes who come from Jerusalem to watch Jesus perform his marvelous healings.  They do not doubt for a minute that Jesus is able to heal people.  What they suspect, however, is that Jesus does his healings using black magic, using powers that have been given to him by Satan.

In Jesus’ world and in Mark’s world people were defined by the spirits that drove them.  Those who were blessed were driven by the spirit of God.  Those who were cursed were driven by a spirit of evil.  The scribes acknowledge that Jesus has done amazing things in healing sick people and calming distressed people, but they say that he must be working for Satan.

Jesus says that if they’ll just open their eyes they’ll notice that he is working against Satan.  His business, his mission, is to free people from Satan’s power.  So of course he cannot be working both for Satan and against Satan at the same time.  He uses several figures of speech to make his point, mini-parables really.  A house divided against itself can’t stand nor a kingdom endure.  Satan can’t fight Satan.  Here Jesus sounds like a very wise teacher; “think about it,” he says, “What you’re suggesting is impossible.”

Then he speaks more strongly.  There is only one sin that can’t be forgiven.  It’s called the Sin against the Holy Spirit, and here’s what the sin seems to look like.   If God is using someone to do enormous good and we claim that the do-gooder is on Satan’s side, we’re not just slandering the do-gooder we’re slandering the good God.

The other opposition comes not from Jesus’ opponents but from his family.  They think he must be out of his mind to claim the powers that he claims, to name God as if he belonged to God in some unique and saving way.

When faced with opposition from the scribes Jesus defends the power of the Holy Spirit.  When faced with opposition from his family Jesus re-defines the family.  He looks past his biological family and looks straight at his family in faith and says: “Whoever does God’s will is my true brother and sister and mother.”  He doesn’t say that some of his followers are his “father” because God is his father and their father, too.  We can guess that Mark tells this story to comfort those in his community who have been opposed by their own families.  If they look around them at the other Christians who are listening to this story, they will find that they have a new family, the believing community.

Mark chapter four is a series of parables.  The Greek root for the word “parable” means “something thrown up against something else.”  Jesus throws a story about a sower up against the promises of faith, and he throws the picture of a mustard seed up against the promise of God’s kingdom.  When these realities are compared and contrasted—the seed and the kingdom for example—we understand the kingdom better than we have before.

One thing we understand about the kingdom is that it is already present among us.  Toward the end of his gospel, in chapter 13, Mark will quote Jesus telling the disciples about the Kingdom that is to come at the end of time.  But here in chapter 4 the Kingdom is already present—it’s present like a sower who sows seed (or a preacher who sows the word of God); it is present like a planting that seems to begin with very little but ends with an amazing abundance of fruit.  The Kingdom is here the way a crop is here that seems to grow by itself until suddenly, it’s harvest time and the bounty we have ignored pops up all around us.  The kingdom is here the way a mustard seed is here; not much to look at but containing in itself all the latent power one day to form a bush large enough for birds to shelter there.

Some New Testament scholars think that the long explanation that Jesus gives of the Parable of the Sower is a later addition to what Jesus really said in Galilee.   It seems too complicated and confused for the kind of parable we expect from Jesus.

Professor Mary Ann Tolbert thinks that the parable and its explanation give us another clue to Mark’s story.  (Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective)  The different kinds of soil in Mark 4:13-20 symbolize the different kinds of people who hear the word from Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.  For some, like the scribes and Pharisees, the word never takes root.  Others are like the rocky ground because they are faithful just as long as it is safe to be faithful and then they scramble.  Maybe Mark wants us to think of Peter here, whose nickname means “rocky” and who does tend to head for the hills when opposition grows.  Other characters are wooed away by wealth; the rich man of Mark 10 is one of these, but so is Judas who is bribed into betrayal.  Other characters are the good ground, these are the faithful people who usually appear only briefly in Mark’s Gospel, but who do have faith and who do receive the blessing—the woman with the flow of blood in chapter 5, Blind Bartimaeus in chapter 10, maybe even the centurion who looks at Jesus on the cross and says: “This really was God’s son.”

Many scholars also suspect that Mark 4:10-12 is Mark’s addition to Jesus’ parables.  If we just read the parables we would think that Jesus told them to clarify his message.  But these verses suggest that he tells parables to complicate his message, so that insiders will get it but outsiders won’t.

Whether or not this was a theme in Jesus’ ministry it is a major theme in Mark’s portrayal of that ministry.  The Kingdom of God is a mystery, a secret; insiders get it and outsiders don’t.

What’s more, Mark will say, sometimes people who seem to be insiders (like the disciples) end up very far out indeed.

Further Reading:

Mary Ann Tolbert, “How the Gospel of Mark Builds Character,” Interpretation 47 (1993), 347-357.

General Questions:

  1. How does Mark build suspense in his story? Is it a problem that we already know how the story comes out?  (Probably many of those who first read/heard his gospel knew, too.)
  2. To this day there’s a kind of cynicism which thinks that every generosity is really self-serving and every sacrifice is really self-aggrandizement. People look at what the Holy Spirit is doing and are so jaundiced that they say: “Oh, that’s just Satan, or selfishness, or human nature at its worst.”  How do we acknowledge and transcend this cynicism in others?  In ourselves?
  3. How do you understand the way Jesus uses parables? Are there ways in which parables can help us understand Christian claims today? Are there times in which parables get in the way of understanding?

Focus Questions:

  1. Do you identify more with the sower or the soils in Jesus’ parable? If you see yourself in the sower, is the parable comforting? discomforting? other?  If you identify with the soil, can you imagine soil improving itself?  If not, why does Jesus tell the parable?  How is it a meaningful parable for you?
  2. Jesus’ job is not easy: telling how God works in the world. If you were to tell a parable that helped others understand what God’s power means to you, what might you say?
  3. How do you understand the term “Kingdom of God”? Some think it sounds too much like a place and suggest “realm of God” and others think it’s too much of another era and want something like “God’s commonwealth.”  How might the phrase take on meaning for us today?



Yale Bible Study

The Gospel of Mark

III. Mark 4:35-6:29: Jesus, Though Art All Compassion

Our stories for today are all about mercy.  Our stories for today are all about power.  Jesus uses his power to work mercy; more than that, Jesus’ mercy is itself power.

Miracles are hard for us to trust.  We think we’re too sophisticated to believe some of these outrageous stories – especially the first outrageous story where Jesus does not simply heal somebody in trouble, he stills the storm.  We pay meteorologists to tell us when storms are coming and we do not pay wandering prophets to still the storms when they come; we duck; we hide; we wait it out.

When things get bad enough we sympathize entirely with the disciples: “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”  But we really assume nature will have run its course.  No surprising stillnesses; no unpredictable calm.

Mark believes that Jesus represents God.  And Mark believes that God (not just nature) not only created the world and all that is therein, God governs the world and all that is therein.  When Jesus says to the storm: “Be still!” the storm obeys.

The next three stories seem more plausible, if plausibility is what we are after.  The Templeton Foundation pours millions of dollars into showing the relationship between religion and health, and even the most ruthlessly scientific among us admits that our powers of prediction when it comes to illness are not one hundred per cent accurate.  We do get surprised.

What was most surprising to Mark’s audience was not that Jesus helped people.  What was surprising was who he helped – and how.  He helped the most unlikely people, and he helped by reaching out to them.  Jesus mercy was itself power.

The man possessed by an unclean spirit in Mark 5:1-20 is in trouble every which way.  He lives among the dead, which makes him both emotionally unhealthy and religiously unclean.  He is isolated from everybody else; when they try to lay hold of him he shakes them off.  He is isolated from himself: he hurts himself.  He’s in the thrall of powers he did not invent and does not understand.  Everyone of us who reads this passage knows people like that; everyone of us knows that some days we are a razor’s edge of sanity away from that disaster ourselves.

It’s a battle of Good Spirit vs. Bad Spirit (remember chapter 3 and Jesus’ empowered by the Holy Spirit).  It is the opposite of self help; it is God help.  We know the man is cured when he is clothed and in his right mind.  He wants to do what we often want to do when we’ve known mercy.  Just latch on to Jesus and be religiously religious.  Jesus tells him something much tougher: Go home to the people who knew you at your worst; bear witness to your God.”

(In the midst of all this Mark recalls a Jewish joke, how all the demons filled the unclean animals and sent them to their un-kosher death.)

Then Mark tells us about Jesus reaching out to two women, one who has died, and one who has a flow of blood.  Mark loves to tell sandwich stories; right in the middle of the story of Jairus’ daughter, we get the woman with the hemorrhage.  It is a great story telling device; suspense builds as we stand with Jairus and wonder whether Jesus will ever move in to heal our daughter.

It is also a great poetic device; a kind of parable (one thing thrown against another).  Two kinds of women, but both women.  Both unclean by the rules of the time, one because she menstruates the other because she has died.

One is brought to healing by another’s faith; one is brought to healing by her own faith.  The woman’s faith looks like audacity.  She recites no creed.  She trusts; she acts; she pushes toward healing.  Of course Jesus recognizes that as faith.

The father’s faith is more hesitant.  Perhaps he is just a more hesitant person than the woman; he has to overcome fear, says Jesus, as faith always overcomes fear.  Perhaps the miracle he needs is even more miraculous than the woman with the blood flow; he needs a resurrection.  This whole Gospel will need a resurrection, and when it happens in chapter 16 there will be a contest between faith and fear again.

John Donahue and Donald Harrington also think that Mark tells the story of the two women because Jesus returns them to the possibility of child-bearing.  The little girl is raised so that she can go on and have children; the older woman is healed so that she can bear children again.  What we have, they think, is not only mercy but new creation (Mark in the Sacra Pagina Commentary Series).

What we clearly also have is power.  The woman with the flow of blood so trusts Jesus’ power that she knows that touching his garment may suffice.  When Jesus heals her he feels the power leave him.  In a way it’s kind of magic; in another way it is what we’ve seen.  The Spirit at work.  The Spirit works hard, and takes its toll.

Then in chapter 6 of Mark’s Gospel we are back to rejection again.  Rejection dominated chapter 3, and in truth it never entirely goes underground.  When the demoniac is healed the townsfolk want Jesus to go away.  When the woman is healed Jesus’ disciples are puzzled and befuddled.  When Jesus gets ready to heal the girl the mourners start giggling.

Now it’s not the religious leaders or his family who are upset with Jesus.  It’s his townsfolk.  They are upset because they can’t believe that all that power and all that mercy come together in, well, in that carpenter’s son.  Now their opposition is so strong that Jesus can’t do miracles among them.  Their lack of faith contrasts with the faith of the hemorrhaging woman and the girl’s father.  He was amazed at belief in chapter 5; in chapter 5 he is amazed at unbelief – which has its own power, too.

We get the story about John the Baptist’s death because John the Baptist is an essential character in this story.  We can’t really understand Jesus without understanding the prophet who foretells him and foreshadows him as well.   Here, sadly, John the Baptist foreshadows Jesus by dying a violent death at the hands of an oppressor.  Here John’s disciples foreshadow Jesus’ disciples by the starkness of the contrast.  When John dies his disciples bury him; when Jesus dies his disciples will be nowhere to be found.

Further Reading:

George Buttrick, “The Wonderment of Jesus,” reprinted from Pulpit Digest 33 (1952), 33-38.

Carol Marie Noren, “Storm at Sea,” in William H. Willimon, Sermons in Duke Chapel: Voices from “A Great Towering Church” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).

General Questions:

  1. How do you understand Jesus as the embodiment of God’s mercy? Do you identify with any of the figures in our stories – the fearful disciples, the distraught man, the insistent woman, the grieving father?
  2. Looking at the first six chapters of Mark’s Gospel, how do you understand the meaning of “faith” for Mark? Do you see that kind of faith in lives around you?  in you?

Focus Questions:

  1. Mark’s world (Jesus’ world) is full of miracles. Do we simply have to admit that that was then and this is now, or that the belief in miracles demands a simpler faith than we can manage?  If we can speak honestly of actual miracles, what do we mean?
  2. Mark tells his Gospel stories in part to inspire us to follow the Jesus we see. How might we combine power and mercy in our own vocations, our families, our church life?



Yale Bible Study

The Gospel of Mark

IV. Mark 6:30-8:26: Dense Disciples?

Along with the Jewish leaders, the demons, the crowds, and Jesus himself, the disciples are main characters in Mark’s drama – the only ones who are near Jesus throughout.  This role links the disciples’ fate to Jesus’ early on.  When Jesus eats with the wrong crowd, they are interrogated (2:15-16).  When they do not fast (2:18), pick grain on the Sabbath (2:23-24), or don’t wash their hands before dinner (7:1-5) Jesus is interrogated.  They run errands for him (3:9, 11:2) and guard him amid the masses (5:31).

Mostly, though, the disciples just follow Jesus around.  They listen to him teach the people and argue with the leaders and demons.  And they watch with very wide eyes as he works wonder after wonder.  By the time we reach chapter eight, the disciples have seen Jesus cast out demons (1:23-26; 5:1-20; 7:24-30); heal many diseases (1:29-34; 6:53-56) like leprosy (1:40-45), paralysis (2:1-12), a hemorrhage (5:25-34), and deafness (7:31-37); raise a young girl from the dead (5:21-24, 35-43); still a big storm on the sea (4:5-41); and walk on water (6:45-52).

Despite their front-row access, the disciples are slow and confused as they size Jesus up.  Having begun their journey following a teacher, by chapter 4, they have begun to wonder if they’ve stumbled on more than a teacher:  “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him (4:41)?”

In this week’s section of Mark, the disciples make very little progress in answering their question.  Our section is bracketed by two feeding stories.  In 6:30-44, the disciples tell Jesus it’s time to end a long teaching day and send the multitudes home for supper.  His compassionate instinct is to feed these masses, so he replies, “Let’s host the meal here!”  But the very-miracle-familiar disciples have absolutely no idea how they can do that.  “Think of the cost, Jesus?!”

Between the lines we sense Jesus’ growing impatience.  But he refrains from saying, “How much do you think a wind-and-wave calmer is selling for these days?”  Instead: “Inventory, boys!  How much food DO we have?”  The count is meager.  He prays, they distribute the scraps, and before they know it Jesus has fed 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish.  In fact, the leftovers far exceed the original stock.

It soon becomes clear that Mark’s Jesus has a purpose for the feeding in addition to hospitality.  It is supposed to teach his disciples a lesson.  So, do they learn?  The next wonder follows “immediately” when Jesus hikes atop the water to catch up with the disciples’ boat.  They are initially terrified (who wouldn’t be?), but when they realize that it is Jesus who has sauntered over the sea, they are “astounded.”  The narrator tells us why:  “They did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” (6:52)

These disciples are slow learners.  Their next C minus moment comes after Jesus’ discussion about clean and unclean things in chapter 7.  When the Pharisees and scribes ask why Jesus’ guys don’t observe hand-washing rules, Jesus attacks their habit of ranking human precepts over the obvious divine teaching of Torah.  He simplifies his answer for the crowd:  people are not made impure by the food that comes into them, but by the words that go out of them.  Clear enough.  But the disciples don’t get it.  When they “asked him about the parable,” Jesus was fed up:  “Do you also fail to understand?!”  By now, the disciples should be getting these things.

The disciples’ daftness comes to a head in this section in 8:1-10.  To understand how, it will help us to picture Mark’s process as an author.  Throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries NT scholars pictured Mark as a clumsy collector who haphazardly stitched together the Jesus stories that he received.  Karl Ludwig Schmidt once described Mark’s job as putting “pearls on a string.”

Mark 8:1-10 is one of the reasons scholars thought so little of this author.  “Was he throwing in the kitchen sink?  Could he not see that he had just told almost the same story five paragraphs earlier?!”  To these scholars, Mark’s editorial principle seemed to be, “The more, the merrier!”

Only in the last four decades have students of the NT begun to appreciate the subtle method to Mark’s apparent madness.  Narrative criticism shifted its focus from the individual paragraphs and asked about the meaning of the whole book.  And so they looked at this “doublet” differently, asking what Mark might be trying to communicate by this repetition.

From a narrative-critical perspective, we care about the word “again” in (Greek: palin) at the beginning of the second feeding (8:1): “There was again a great crowd without anything to eat.”  This little adverb tells us that the narrator knows he’s repeating himself and we start to expect a purpose.  We care about the bits between the two feedings (discussed above) that reveal the disciples’ slowness to understand.

If the repetition is purposeful, suddenly 8:1-10 becomes signature evidence of the disciples’ failure to understand.  Because very soon after seeing Jesus feed 5,000 people with a little bread and fish they’re desperate before 4,000:  “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?!”

All of this foreshadows more important failures that lie ahead for the disciples, when they will thrice whistle as Jesus predicts his death, sleep through his moment of anxious prayer, and finally head for hiding places as he is arrested, tried, and executed.  By the time of his resurrection, which he also foretells for them three times along the way, they are nowhere to be found.

Why would Mark paint this dreary picture of Jesus’ disciples in his Gospel?  At first glance it seems discouraging.  If being with Jesus day after day didn’t even clue the disciples in, what chance do you and I have to understand who Jesus is?

This is another good Markan mystery.  I believe the author has a plan for the rehabilitation of the disciples and of us.  Keep watching them through the final eight chapters, and we’ll pick this conversation up again when we get to chapter 16.

Further Reading:

David Rhoads, “Jesus and the Syrophoenecian Woman in Mark. A Narrative-Critical Study,” JAAR 62 (1994), 343-75.

Jeffrey B. Gibson, “The Rebuke of the Disciples in Mark 8.14-21,” JSNT 27 (1986), 31-47.

General Questions:

  1. We have not yet touched the wonderful story of the Syrophoenician woman’s request (7:24-30). There, Jesus initially resists her when she asks him to heal her daughter.  But the persistent mother finally prevails – through argument.  Here’s the question:  in a section where the disciples clearly don’t learn anything, is this a scene where Jesus learns?  Can a Messiah learn?  If not, how do we explain his change of mind?  If so, what do we learn about Mark’s view of Jesus?  How about our own view of Jesus?
  2. Jesus’ teaching about what makes people clean or unclean is a very Jewish topic. The encounter that follows it immediately is with the Gentile Syrophoenician woman.  Do you see a method to Mark’s madness in this back-to-back?  How might the two stories be related?

Focus Questions:

  1. Does this characterization of the disciples seem consistent to you? You’ve read eight chapters now.  Are there examples that lie outside this profile of the disciples as slow to understand?  Are they getting anything right?
  2. The entire first bread episode happens because when Jesus’ disciples return from a mission trip, he says, “Y’all need rest! Let’s get away.” (6:30-31) How does this instinct of Jesus fit or not fit with his earlier pronouncement that “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath!”? (2:27) Is Sabbath rest a consideration in your own faith journey?
  3. Faced with a hungry crowd at the end of a three-day retreat, Jesus says, “I have compassion for them…” (8:2) and decides to feed them. What do you make of this as a 21st-century disciple?  How do the two bread miracles inform us about what faithfulness looks like when it sees hunger in the world?



Yale Bible Study

The Gospel of Mark

V. Mark 8:27-10:52: Who is He? Who are We?

Everything we have learned about Mark suggests that he was an author who shaped his story carefully.  In his time as in our own thoughtful authors often put the climactic moment in their story right in the middle, so that the chapters before lead up to that dramatic moment and the chapters afterward lead from that moment to the conclusion of the story.

Right in the middle of Mark’s Gospel is Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Messiah!”  In order to understand the place of this confession in Mark’s Gospel we need to raise three issues.

  1. Why does Jesus ask this question?
  2. Does Peter get the answer right?
  3. Why does Jesus get so angry at Peter?
Why Does Jesus Ask this Question? 

The traditional answer is that Jesus asks this question in order to quiz the disciples.  He knows what the right answer is and he wants to tease it from those who follow him – for their sake.  If we want to follow many early theologians who think Jesus knew everything, then surely he asks this question in order to improve the disciples’ understanding.

The less traditional answer is that Jesus asks this question because he is working out his own identity.  Mark had not read Erik Erikson, or any other of the psychologists we know, so he probably did not know that part of maturing is having an “identity crisis.”  But Mark has been concerned all along with establishing Jesus’ identity.  God calls Jesus God’s son at the baptism in chapter 1, the demoniac calls him “Son of the Most High God” in chapter 5.  Maybe Jesus asks the disciples because he is working his way toward his own mission.  In the light of Peter’s answer he has a better sense of who he is, and a clearer sense of what he must do.  He tells us what he must do when he tells Peter that the Son of Man must suffer many things.

Does Peter get the answer right?

 When Matthew retells this story he leaves no doubt that Peter gets the answer right.  Peter says that Jesus is not only the Messiah, he is the Son of the Living God, and Jesus says to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my father in heaven.” (Matthew 17:17).  Grade: a definite A plus.

But when Mark tells the story, Jesus does not say one word of affirmation or condemnation.  Peter says “You are the Messiah,” and Jesus says “don’t tell anyone.”  That probably means “right, but let’s keep it a secret,” but it might mean “right, but not quite right enough.  Don’t say another word until you get your story clearer.”

Jesus doesn’t help our uncertainty – or Peter’s – when he immediately refers to himself, not as the Messiah, but as the Son of Man.  Is that another term for Messiah or is it a more complicated term?  There is no doubt that for Mark Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ.  He says so in Mark 1:1.  But he may be more than that, too – the Son of Man as Jesus says here; the Son of God, as God will say in the next chapter.

Peter gets the story partly right, but it’s more like a B minus than an A plus.  As Mark has portrayed the disciples, B minus is not bad – for them.  Maybe Mark tells us the story of the man who is blind and who Jesus heals one step at a time (in Mark 8:22-26) because the disciples are seeing who Jesus is a little bit slowly, foggily, one step at a time.

Why does Jesus get angry at Peter?

 Jesus gets angry at Peter because it is clear what Peter does not understand.  He does not understand what is required of the one who is both Messiah and Son of Man.  What is required is that he be rejected, and suffer and die.  Peter says: “God forbid.”  Jesus says: “Get behind me, you Satan!”

That does not just mean, “You’re wrong again, Peter.”  It means “don’t tempt me!”  Satan is the tempter.  Jesus would not say this if he did not find Peter’s alternative tempting: how about Messiahship with no suffering?  Jesus resists the temptation; again maybe he’s growing toward his own role as Son of Man and Son of God.

Peter may say “God forbid” partly because he does not want Jesus to suffer and partly because he knows full well that if Jesus is a persecuted Messiah, his followers will end up as persecuted disciples.  Jesus confirms his worst fears in the very next paragraph: “If any would become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8.34)

After Peter has weighed in on who Jesus is (Messiah) and Jesus has weighed in on who Jesus is (Son of Man) God weighs in on who Jesus is.  At the Transfiguration the four disciples follow Jesus to the mountain and there they see him bathed in light and talking to Moses and Elijah.  Moses and Elijah represent the whole history of Israel from the beginning until now – giver of the Law, the greatest of the prophets.  But suddenly both the law and the prophets vanish leaving only Jesus – and God says, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him.”  Does God mean “listen to him, along with Elijah and Moses?” or “listen to him instead of Elijah and Moses?”  or “listen to him even more than Elijah and Moses?”

Our section ends with another blind man, Bartimaeus.  Unlike the first blind man (unlike Peter and the disciples) he sees immediately and he believes completely.  Mark says from then on Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way.”

We have seen in these chapters what Jesus’ way looks like.  It requires taking up a cross.

It requires coming down from the mountain and from our “mountain top experiences” to deal with a messy world where a young boy has seizures and his father is terrified.  It requires being servant of one another, giving up all that bragging about greatness, promotions, salaries, which school they got into, or their children did.

The blind man at Bethsaida sees all this gradually.  Bartimaeus sees all this immediately.  The disciples are still stumbling around – Peter trying to wish away suffering, James and John trying to get VIP seats in the Kingdom, all of them fumbling when they should be praying.

How much do we see?  How faithfully do we follow?  Who do we say that He is?

Further Reading:

Letty Russell, “The Impossible Possibility,” in William H. Willimon, Sermons in Duke Chapel: Voices from “A Great Towering Church” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press)

Walter Brueggeman, “Slogans – And Hurts Underneath,” in William H. Willimon, Sermons in Duke Chapel: Voices from “A Great Towering Church” (Durham, NC: Duke University Press)

General Questions:

  1. The technical word for a set of beliefs about Jesus and his importance is “Christology”.  What kind of Christology does Mark reveal in this passage?
  2. We’ve seen in Mark’s Gospel that the “big” players like Peter often get things wrong while the bit players, like Bartimaeus or the father of the boy with the seizures, often get things right. Of course this may be just exactly how it happened, but why do you suppose it is so important for Mark to show us this contrast?

Focus Questions:

  1. We are told that we have to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.  We tend to trivialize that claim: “My infirm parent is my ‘cross to bear’” or “grading all those papers before January 11th is my cross to bear.”  What more painful and strenuous crosses might be demanded of us?
  2. Some scholars have thought that the story of the transfiguration is a way of Mark showing us either what Jesus’ resurrection will look like or what his return in glory will look like. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus predicts both those “comings” but we do not see either of them.  Does this help us understand the passage, or is it just one more confusion?
  3. What does “faith” look like in these chapters? Can we have different degrees of faith and still be followers of Jesus?



Yale Bible Study

The Gospel of Mark

VI. Mark 11:1-13:36: A Healthy Insomnia

The word “apocalypse” is chilling to some of us.  It evokes images of nuclear winter, Armaggedon, The Vietnam War (“Apocalypse Now”) – cataclysmic events that we would just as soon not think about.  Pop cultural treatments, from Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth to Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind books and movies, are intended to frighten us.  Even Sports Illustrated gets into the act in a weekly bit that features people who lose their perspective about games: “This Week’s Sign That the Apocalypse is Upon Us.”

Apocalypse can scare us.  As we read chapter 13 of Mark’s “good news,” which is called “The Little Apocalypse,” our question is simple and clear:  How can apocalypse be good news?

Conflict in Chapters 11 and 12

The prelude to the cosmic apocalypse in Mark is a very local conflict. Jesus enters Jerusalem for the first time, riding a donkey to the acclamation of his Palm Sunday crowd.  That parade into the city ushers in the Gospel’s second cluster of confrontations (1:21 – 3:35 was the first).  This time Jesus’ disagreement is with the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem, and this time he instigates it (rather than they), by tossing the money-changers’ tables in the Temple.  “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?  But you have made it a den of robbers!”

Early in Mark, the conflicts were teacherly – about Sabbath laws and fasting and purity laws.  Here Jesus begins with actions like the symbolic gestures of Israel’s prophets. He even curses a fig tree to demonstrate God’s displeasure toward fruitless Israel (11:12-14, 20-21).

If Jesus intends by these acts to grab the leaders’ attention, he succeeds.  The very next morning, Jewish leaders line up to challenge him, each asking questions appropriate to their role.  In order come…

  • The Chief Priests, scribes and elders, asking, “By what authority do you do these things?” – by which they ostensibly mean his attack on the Temple money-changers. Jesus refuses to answer, rather telling the Parable of the Vineyard in which, his interlocutors quickly discover, they are the villains (11:27 – 12:12).
  • The Pharisees and Herodians, asking whether Jews should pay taxes, drawing Jesus’ famous words, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but unto God what is God’s.” (12:13-17)
  • The Sadducees, who do not believe in resurrection, asking a convoluted question about who is married to whom in the afterlife. Jesus answers condescendingly that they have forgotten the story of Moses, “the one about the bush,” in which the voice is from “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – the living, not the dead! (12:18-27)
  • Then comes a rare moment of bipartisanship in Mark, when a single scribe likes the way Jesus has answered questions, and so draws near to ask, “What is the greatest commandment?” At Jesus’ prompting, he answers his own question, “Love…God…and love…neighbor.”  Jesus replies, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” (12:28-34)

Here ends the questioning.  But Jesus is not finished.  As a parting blow, he attacks the scribes’ interpretation of Psalm 110, reading it in a way that defines the Messiah’s father as God rather than David (12:35-37), and then warns his followers to watch out for the hypocritical scribes (12:38-40).

You may recall that in Galilee near the beginning of Mark’s Gospel a series of disputes so enraged the Pharisees and Herodians that they began to plot Jesus’ demise (3.6).  These later conflicts of chapters 11 – 12 raise the temperature in Jerusalem.  Jesus’ interpretive correction of the scribes will soon be turned around on him when it gets really hot: as the High Priest interrogates Jesus during the trial before the Council, his last and condemning question will be, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One (14.61)?!”

The Little Apocalypse

Israel’s prophets often interpreted unwelcome political events, like the exile to Babylon, as God’s judgment on the king’s or the people’s disobedience.  But how could prophets explain persecution that arose because of faithfulness and obedience?

Apocalypse is the literature of the persecuted faithful. The biblical template is the Book of Daniel, written during the persecutions of the 2nd century B.C.E. tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes.  He outlawed and punished Jewish religious acts like Torah-reading and circumcising children.  Violators were executed.  Antiochus’ soldiers force-fed pork to the Jews and defiled the Jerusalem Temple.  Amid this terror, the Book of Daniel invited readers to imagine “one like a Son of Man coming on the clouds” to turn things around.

Mark picks up that thread from Daniel.  After a time of great persecution and then cosmic upheaval (13:13-19; 13:24-25) Jesus pictures “the Son of Man coming on the clouds with great power and glory” (13:26) to intervene on behalf of the faithful.  When the disciples wonder when (13:4), Jesus tells them it will be easy to get fooled about this calendar. Imposters will further confuse matters, claiming to be the Messiah and fooling some of the faithful (13:3-6, 21-22).   Jesus will not commit to a time: “About that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (13:32)

Delay is an issue.  By the time Mark writes it has been nearly 40 years since Jesus entered Jerusalem.  How should the faithful respond to that apparent delay of the end?  The command of Jesus is clear:  “Keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.”  A last sentence moves the meaning from Jesus’ disciples to Mark’s group and beyond:  “What I say to you I say to all: ‘Keep awake.’” (13:35-37)

Can Mark’s apocalypse help us, nearly twenty centuries later? The answer to this question depends on what Mark wanted to see happen in his community.  In the course of this chapter, Jesus tells his disciples not to be fooled by imposters or cataclysms into thinking the end has come (5-8).  But on the other hand, he calls the Christians to vigilant watchfulness (35-37).  He doesn’t want them jumpy.  But he does want them attentive.  In the meantime, amid hardship, he calls them to trust the support of God’s Spirit (11).  It’s a sort of healthy insomnia – a refusal to lapse into sleepy complacency, despite being short on answers about God’s plans.

Jesus points the way forward for us in another way as well.  Amid persecution and distress, Jesus proclaimed to Mark’s ancient Christian group a truth worth knowing:  God holds the future.  For us, living amid global uncertainty, with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of unstable forces, we could use our own assurance.  God holds our future, too.  With that assurance, Jesus calls us to a trusting, attentive faithfulness now.  Good news!

Further Reading:

Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Apocalyptic Rhetoric of Mark 13 in Its Historical Context,” Biblical Research 41 (1996), 5-36.

John Boone Trotti, “Mark 13:32-37” Interpretation 32 (1978), 410-413.

Norman Perrin, “The Relationship Between the Passion and the Parousia in the Gospel of Mark”, from The New Testament Colloquium (1973), 31-45.

General Questions:

  1. Jesus is appalled by the practice of the money-changers in the Temple (11:15-17). But to the Jewish leaders of the time, those practices may have seemed very normal and useful.  What parts of normal everyday life around you do you imagine Jesus the prophet might expose?
  2. What do you imagine Jesus means when he says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (12:17) Any way that this applies to us?
  3. The one passage not covered in the essay above is the story of the widow’s contribution at the end of chapter 12. Why does Jesus praise the woman for giving her last dime?  What principle is he working on?”

Focus Questions:

  1. Some early Christians clearly believed that Jesus would return and intervene in history during their lifetimes. They got that part wrong.   They also believe God holds the future?  Can we believe God holds the future, despite the calendar error?
  2. About the time between the present and the apocalypse, Jesus said, “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” (13:35) What work do you imagine the “man” expects his slaves to do while he is gone? What is your work?
  3. In the face of possible danger, we are accustomed to being told, “Be Afraid!” – because the flu is spreading, because you can’t be sure the school is safe, because terrorists are at the door. Does Jesus’ apocalyptic speech evoke fear in you? If so, of what? Is there any way in which Jesus’ words alleviate your fear? If so, how?



Yale Bible Study

The Gospel of Mark

VII. Mark 14:1-15:47: A Soldier’s Epiphany

Mark’s Gospel has been driving relentlessly toward these chapters about Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem.  As early as chapter 3 we have learned that Jesus’ enemies are plotting to have him destroyed.  Three times, in chapters 8, 9 and 10 Jesus tells his disciples of his destined suffering and death.  In chapter 6 the death of John the Baptist foreshadows Jesus’ own death and the first time that Judas Iscariot is introduced to our story, in Mark 3:19, we learn that Judas will betray the master who calls him.

The shadow of Jerusalem looms over the ministry in Galilee; on the way Jesus shows amazing compassion, wisdom and power.  But the way leads toward the cross.

We will begin at the foot of the cross itself and then go back briefly to review the final events that bring our story toward crucifixion.

In telling the story of the crucifixion Mark uses two devices that indicate again how carefully he weaves his plot (or how wisely he shapes the telling of the story he remembers).

For one thing Mark relies very heavily on irony to tell his story.  Irony works in a story when the reader of the story knows what the actors in the story do not know.  When actions and words have meanings far beyond what the characters in the tale realize.

Sometimes in our passage Mark uses dramatic irony.  When the soldiers dress Jesus in a royal purple robe, for example, and place a crown of thorns on his head and hail him as King of the Jews, they think they are acting out a parody of a coronation.  The readers, however, know that Jesus is indeed the King, the King who suffers, and ironically, therefore, the parody enacts a truth far deeper than the soldiers know (Mark 15:16-20).

Sometimes Mark uses verbal irony.  Words that Jesus’ opponents cite as insults can be read by the wise reader as both true and redemptive.  For instance when Jesus hangs on the cross the chief priests and the scribes say: “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” (Mark 15:31) Of course believers know that only because he cannot, or will not, save himself can he save others.  What the leaders think of as mockery could be sung by believers as a hymn of praise.

The other device that Mark uses to tell his story is to draw very heavily on the Old Testament, and especially on Psalm 22 to provide echoes, or foreshadowings of Jesus’ passion.  Psalm 22 presents poetically many of the themes that Mark provides dramatically.  “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads.” (Ps.22:7) “They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (Ps. 22:18) Most strikingly Psalm 22 begins with the very words that Jesus cries on the cross—the last words he speaks in all of Mark’s Gospel: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Different scholars interpret the close relationship between Mark 15 and Psalm 22 in different ways.  Some scholars think that the Old Testament time and again predicts in quite exact terms what will happen to God’s Messiah.  For them the close link between Psalm 22 and Mark’s Gospel simply shows that Jesus fulfilled what the psalmist prophesied of him.

Other scholars think that Mark took the story of Jesus’ passion and shaped it in such a way that it would remind early readers and hearers of a scriptural passage they knew – Psalm 22.

Still others think that Mark rightly records Jesus’ last words from the cross – who would have chosen these words to make a theological point? – and then may shape the rest of the story with Psalm 22 also in mind.

In any case we are left with one major affirmation.  For Mark Jesus’ death is not a terrible mistake; Jesus fits a pattern already established in the Old Testament, of the righteous one who suffers out of loyalty to God.

This brings us to the verse that is the center of our discussion today.  In Mark 15:39 a centurion cries out: “Truly this was Son of God.”  Unfortunately the Greek text is a little ambiguous here.  It could mean, “Truly this man was The Son of God” or “truly this man was a son of God.”

However since Mark (and God) have told us from Mark 1:1 through Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration that Jesus is THE Son of God, and not just a godly person (which is what “a son of God” might mean) our sense is that Mark’s Gospel is driving us not just to a kind of confession of Jesus’ innocence (that’s what the centurion does in Luke’s Gospel) but to a claim of Christian faith:  Truly this was God’s Son.

(Those who stress irony in Mark’s Gospel think that the centurion may be being ironic here, saying something like: “Some Son of God this is!”  But even if this is the case, we remember that in Mark ironic statements are used to proclaim the truth.  “Indeed he is.”)

Remember that we have said that Mark is a careful weaver of his story, preacher of his gospel.  It seems far more likely that here the centurion says what the reader has come to believe: “This man really was the Son of God.”  What is so striking is that the centurion does not say this after one of Jesus’ miracles, not even at the site of the empty tomb.  He looks at the cross and says: “Truly this was God’s Son.”

For Mark the fullest embodiment of God comes just when Jesus is most weak—even deserted by God.   And the centurion who believes is not a disciple, not even a Jew, he’s a Gentile—an outsider brought into God’s family by God’s mercy.

Chapter 14 and 15 lead us to the cross, to this desertion and to this affirmation.  In the preceding passages one disciple denies Jesus and another betrays him.  At the foot of the cross none of the inner circle is there, and even the women stand at a distance.

The woman who anoints Jesus foretells his death and burial.  Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross, something Jesus has told us all faithful people sometimes have to do.

Pilate in one final ironic gesture sticks a sign over the cross which he thinks is absolutely silly and we know is ultimately true: “The King of the Jews.”

Further Reading:

Susan R. Garrett, The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Co.), 129-135.

General Questions:

  1. Much of Christian theology tries to provide a doctrine of “atonement”—an explanation of how and why Christ’s death saved others. Mark does not provide a doctrine of the atonement; he tells the story, but clearly the story is about the way in which the cross is a good gift not just an appalling death. How do you think this works in Mark’s Gospel?
  2. One way of understanding irony is that an ironic perspective always assumes that there is more going on than meets the eye (or the ear). How does Mark help us see beyond the surface of his story to its deeper meanings?
  3. To an outsider Peter does not come out much better than Judas here. Neither stands with Jesus at the end. Why do Mark and the early Christians judge Judas more harshly?

Focus Questions:

  1. What do you think the Centurion means by his claim at the foot of the cross, and what might that mean for our reading of this whole passage, this whole Gospel?
  2. Both John and Luke tell the story of the crucifixion in ways that make Jesus seem much less abandoned and discouraged at the end. Do you find Mark’s portrayal of Jesus last hours unbearably stark…or if there is some hope here, where do you see it?



Yale Bible Study

The Gospel of Mark

VIII. Mark 16:1-8 (and 8:22-16): The Empty Tomb Effect

We’ve reached the last chapter of the Gospel now, and it’s time to tie up some loose ends.

  • Jesus must, as John the Baptist promised about the “one mightier than I” (1:8), begin baptizing with the Holy Spirit.
  • The disciples, who have thus far been daft about Jesus’ identity, must finally recognize with the narrator (1:1), God (1:11; 9:7), the demons (5:7), and a Roman soldier (15:39) that he is God’s Son.
  • The disciples must finally grasp what kind of Son of God/Messiah/Son of Man Jesus is – a serving (10:45) and dying one (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34), rather than the kind that rules from a palace.
  • Jesus must rise from the dead, as he has said three times he would (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34).

These are not expectations we have developed over years of Easter worship services or from reading Matthew and Luke and John.  They all arise from Mark’s story.  So, though it is a lot to ask of eight verses, we trust our narrator to be as faithful as he has ‘til now, and we read – expecting a resurrection, followed by appearances and epiphanies and Holy Spirit baptism.

Instead we get fear.  After seeing Peter and the whole gang cower from Thursday on, we have hoped for a Sunday morning comeback, but we don’t get it.  The disciples are still cowering somewhere.  And the women come not to greet Jesus, but to embalm him.  When they arrive, the tomb is empty and a messenger has splendid news:  “Go tell the disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  Instead, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  Period.  The end.

The end is so abrupt – the Greek sentence stops almost before it’s started – and lacks so much that we’ve been prompted to expect that later copyists tried to help Mark out (8:9-20).   But the original just stopped.  Fear was the last word.

If you think this ending is bad for us, imagine how it shocked its original audience.  For them the stakes were huge!  An early-second-century Christian named Papias tells us that Mark wrote in Rome, using notes he’d taken while Peter talked.  If he’s right, then the group hearing the Gospel has chilling recent memory of terror under Nero: Peter and Paul both brutally executed by a petty and insane emperor (see Suetonius’ description).  But even if the audience isn’t in the city of Rome, the text hints that they’ve encountered opposition and threats (13:9-13).

This audience, threatened and scared by persecutors next door, is looking to Mark’s story for heroes who will inspire – courageous men and women who keep the faith in the face of danger.  But Mark’s disciples have been anything but courageous.  They fell apart on Thursday night, when Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter denied him and all the others “forsook him and fled.”  Worse, no one has seen them since.

Their problem is our problem: if Peter and the gang that hung around with Jesus can’t bear up, how are these scared Christians in Mark’s audience going to do it?

Their last hope was these Sunday morning women.  With Peter and the boys behind locked doors, the women have ventured out to tend the body.  But they, too, scatter in fear…and the story ends…and now everyone in the room is suddenly afraid.

They may even be a bit angry with Mark.

Then I imagine someone in Mark’s roomful reminds everyone of what they all know by now:  “Wait a minute!  Peter wasn’t a coward.  He was a hero.  We’ve heard the brothers and sisters tell it.  Nero’s thugs came after Peter and he didn’t run away.  He didn’t deny Jesus.  He died a martyr’s death.”  Soon the room is abuzz with stories about the courage and heroism of the other disciples.  “Didn’t James die…”  “I heard Andrew…”

Having passed now from disappointment to relief, this roomful of fearful faithful slowly make their way into a third state:  perplexity.  How in the world did the weaklings in Mark’s Gospel become the heavy lifters we honor in our churches?  What turned a denier into a martyr? A lot of cowards into the courageous?

And as soon as the questions dawned, so did the answer:  They DID see Jesus.  They DID get the Spirit.  They got it all.  He changed them!  Had to!

Maybe when the coast cleared in Jerusalem the shamed disciples all trudged back home to Galilee, tails between their legs, and he found them.  Or maybe they traced old sentimental steps to one of their favorite haunts and they found him.  Somewhere, somehow, all his predictions finally sank in:  “On the third day I’ll rise.”  And they saw him.

In the euphoria, one of Mark’s crowd may have recalled Caesarea Philippi.  Just before Peter’s big recognition scene, Jesus heals a blind man (8:22-26).  But the story has a strange twist: the healing takes two tries. Jesus’ first touch opens the blind man’s eyes, but he only “see[s] people like trees walking around.”  It is not until a second touch from Jesus that the man finally sees clearly.

Could it be that Peter’s famous answer to Jesus – You are the Messiah! – is also half-sighted?  It seems so when Jesus says, “I’ll die,” and Peter says, “No! Messiahs don’t die!”  At 16:8 Peter still hasn’t understood.  There must have been a “second touch.”  Jesus helped Peter to see!

Suddenly that whole ancient room imagines once-scared disciples shouting back and forth to one another, “Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!” And Mark’s people can’t help joining the raucous scene.  So they shout their own celebration:  “Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!”

So what about us?  As you and I walk the road to our own Galilees we may do well to hear the very first line of Mark’s Gospel echoing in our ears: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  “The BEGINNING of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The first time we read it, we thought it described a chapter, or a paragraph – John the Baptist announcing Jesus at the start, or the first chapter of this book.  But now we can’t help but wonder:  Could that be the name of the whole book?  Sixteen chapters of “The BEGINNING of the good news…”?

Maybe there’s more there for you and me after 16:8, too. Maybe Jesus is just getting started. Maybe fear is not the last word for us either.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!

Further Reading:

Norman Peterson, “When Is the End Not the End? Literary Reflections on the Ending of Mark’s Narrative,” Interpretation 34 (1980) 151-66.

David J. Hester, “Dramatic Inconclusion: Irony and the Narrative Rhetoric of the Ending of Mark,” JSNT 57 (1995) 61-86.

Gerald O’Connor, “The Empty Tomb: Reflections on the Resurrection”, from America, April 21, 2003; 13-15.

Helmut Thielicke, “Time and Eternity”, reprinted from The Silence of God, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s Publishing Co.) (1962), 77-88

General Questions:

  1. Why do Mary, Mary, and Salome make the trip to Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning?
  2. At the end of the Gospel of Mark in your Bible, you see print after 16:8. The “Shorter Ending” and “Longer Ending” of Mark are not in our earliest manuscripts of the Gospel.  Instead, they seem to have been added later by copyists.  Can you imagine a reason why a copyist would not be satisfied by the ending of Mark at 16:8?
  3. The resurrection stories in the Gospels vary. If you were on the planning team for this year’s Easter worship service, which of the four would you choose for the preacher?  Why?  How would you preach to an Easter congregation that had just heard Mark 16:1-8?
    • In Matthew, Jesus appears to Mary and Mary Magdalene near the tomb, then to the disciples in Galilee (chapter 28).
    • In Luke, Jesus appears to no one at near the tomb, but to a pair of his lesser-known followers on the Road to Emmaus and then to his disciples in Jerusalem (chapter 24).
    • In John, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene near the tomb, then to the disciples in a locked room and on a beach (chapters 20 and 21).
    • In Mark, of course, Jesus appears to nobody.
  4. The variety of resurrection appearance stories indicates mystery. But the differences between the accounts that we saw in the last question have caused some to doubt that Jesus rose.  What do you make of the differences?
  5. Mark implies that an encounter with Jesus changed the feeble and cowardly disciples of his Gospel into the heroic martyrs they become. That encounter was very transformative for them.  What does “meeting Jesus in Galilee” look like for you?  Has the presence of the living Christ impacted your life? How?