Jesus’ Final Suffering
Mark 14:27-72; Mark 15:1-41
Many of the stories and teachings that we are familiar with from the other gospels are not included in the Gospel of Mark. Among those not included are The Lord’s Prayer, The Sermon on the Mount and the parables: The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, Unmerciful Servant, Workers in the Vineyard, The Talents, and The Lost Sheep. There is no birth story in Mark. There are no stories of the risen Jesus appearing to his followers. There are no genealogies. (In Mark 12:35–37, Jesus told his listeners at the temple that the Messiah was not David’s son – so why would Mark bother with a genealogy to trace him back to David.) Jesus never publically proclaims himself to be the Son of God or the Messiah in Mark.
There is no general agreement among scholars about whether the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome, Galilee, Antioch, or Syria. It is assumed not to have been written in Jerusalem. It was written in Greek to a gentile audience – hence the need to explain several Jewish traditions in the text (though not always correctly.) The consensus is that an anonymous author wrote it, although, many writers still hold that it was written by John Mark (of Luke’s Acts) or Mark the Evangelist (follower of Peter). We have left open the question of why New Testament scholars overwhelmingly think the Gospel of Mark was written around the year 70 c.e.
One possible explanation is that the writing of Mark’s gospel is related to the destruction of the temple in 70 c.e. Jewish rebels had been fighting against the Romans for years when the Roman commander Titus (son of Roman emperor Vespasian) with four Roman legions laid siege to the city of Jerusalem shortly before Passover in 70 c.e. They trapped everyone, including pilgrims, inside, cutting off food and water while Titus waited on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city. Much of the population died of hunger or thirst. Titus’ legions then stormed the city, killing everyone in sight, rebels, and those faithful to Rome, men, women and children. They burned the city and finally the temple in September and tore down what remained. By the end of the year there was no temple and no longer any priests. There would be no more temple sacrifices. Jerusalem was a pile of rubble.
After the destruction of the temple, there was every motive for the Christians to distance themselves from Judaism. Christianity as a small sect of Judaism had been spreading throughout the empire. There was no longer a tie to Jerusalem. Jews were clearly out of favor in Rome, and more and more Christians had never been Jews. The author of Mark may have felt this was the time to tell the story of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God. Perhaps he saw the signs he was looking for.
When we return to Mark, Chapter 14, Jesus and his disciples have just completed their Passover meal – the Last Supper. They have sung the hymn and gone out of the city to the Mount of Olives. Jesus returned to his discourse on the how the disciples will betray and desert him (Mark 14:27–31). He has often spoken about how they must deny themselves. Now he says they will deny him. Peter refuses to accept this. Jesus insists,“ …before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Peter claims he will die first. But Jesus knows the plan. The disciples have been faithful in small things but struggle with the bigger issues. The disciples want to be loyal, but they won’t be. The goal of Jesus self sacrifice is freedom for others. Mark holds the view of Jesus’ death as a liberating atonement for sin. He sees a convergence of divine will and human responsibility. The disciples understand none of this.
Jesus then moved to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray (Mark 14:32–42). Mark never records the disciples praying. Here, they are repeatedly unable to even stay awake while their teacher prays. Reminiscent of the servants and doorkeepers who were tasked with staying alert waiting for their master’s return (Mark 13:33–37), the disciples hear the charge they are given. But once again they fail. Jesus is in agony, facing a clear crisis in his faith, and his disciples are sleeping. Jesus, unlike the disciples, understands what must happen and accepts his fate.
When Judas arrived, Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:43–49). The disciples scatter. Like the youth who followed them and ran away naked, the disciples were in naked retreat (Mark 14:50–52). Apparently no effort was made to round them up.
Jesus was interrogated at the house of the high priest (Mark 14:53, 55–65). Historically, capital crimes were not tried at the house of the chief priest. Nor did they occur at night or during Jewish festivals. Nor could verdicts be given in a single day. Jesus was charged with blasphemy – claiming to be the Messiah – not a capital crime. Likely, Jesus’ real crime was threatening the temple. Mark never mentioned Jesus saying he would tear down the temple and rebuild it in three days. Continuing his fishing expedition, the high priest was finally able to get Jesus to accept the claim of being the Christ. Once again Mark contrasts the Jewish hierarchy with the teacher-healer from Nazareth by asking the question, “Who speaks for God?” For Mark it was not the priests in the temple, it was Jesus.
Meanwhile, Peter had his own trial interlocked and contrasted with that of Jesus (Mark 14:54, 66–72). Instead of a high priest, a servant girl interrogated Peter. The charges put to Jesus were false; those put to Peter were true. Jesus held his ground and told the truth; Peter lied and retreated. Jesus was falsely charged with blasphemy – cursing God; Peter swore and cursed and denied his Lord. Peter’s last opportunity described in the Gospel of Mark ended in dismal failure.
At dawn Jesus was passed on to Pilate, the Roman governor (Mark 15:1–5). First century Jewish historian Josephus described Pilate as an insensitive, arrogant governor who aggravated Jewish agitation. In Mark’s gospel, he is a wishy-washy political hack eager to please both the local Jewish authorities and the crowd in the courtyard. Pilate’s question to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” is the first of five references to “King of the Jews” in Mark. There are also five references to “Messiah”. Finding no fault with Jesus, Pilate deferred judgment to the mob outside his palace (Mark 15:6–15). The fickle crowd turned against Jesus in favor of a subversive, violent insurrectionist and asked that Barabbas be released and that the subversive, but peaceful Jesus be crucified. Pilate relented and ordered Jesus’ execution. Judas betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but who else has betrayed him in Mark’s gospel? Nearly everyone.
Having been turned over to the provincial soldiers, Jesus was then taken to the courtyard to be mocked (Mark 15:16–20). Mark emphasizes the humiliation and ridicule more than the physical brutality. Things are all going according to plan as Jesus predicted on the road to Jerusalem (see Mark 10:32–33). We also see tones of Jesus’ discussion of Elijah after coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration (Mark 9:11–13). Normally, Jesus would have carried the crossbar to Golgotha (Mark 15:21–23). The upright was already there. But, for some reason Mark does not explain, the soldiers found a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the crossbar instead. Perhaps this ‘good’ Simon who bears the cross for Jesus is a ghost of the Simon Peter who deserted when times got tough.
By nine a.m. Jesus was nailed to the cross at Golgotha with two bandits, one each on his right and left. (Perhaps ghosts of the sons of Zebedee, James and John, who like Simon Peter, had since fled the scene.) Golgotha would have been just outside Jerusalem’s walls. Jerome translated Golgotha (meaning “Skull-Place”) as “Calvary” in the Vulgate. Everyone here seems to ridicule Jesus as he hangs from the cross – blaspheming the one falsely accused of blasphemy (Mark 15:24–32). Mark offers no details on the extreme cruelty of crucifixion. From the beginning of Christianity, the one thing Christians know is that Jesus was crucified. Rather what Mark emphasizes here is that Jesus died alone, without friends or consolation of any kind.
At midday – noon – everything went dark (Mark 15:33–37). At three in the afternoon Jesus cried out “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” God, like everyone else, appeared to have abandoned him. Still looking for a sign, some bystanders interpreted his cry as an appeal for Elijah to come down and help him. But Jesus has already said there will be no signs. Jesus dies.
Mark described three unconnected reactions. First, the curtain of the temple, next to the Holy of Holies was torn in two (Mark 15:38). Perhaps this was God rending his garments, but if it was a sign, it was a sign no one saw – certainly no one at Golgotha. Or perhaps Jesus death represents the end of separation of ordinary men from God.
Second, the Centurion proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God (Mark 15:39). Jesus has referred to himself as “the Son” and to God as his Father, but prior to his Gentile executioner, no other human being has called Jesus, the Son of God.
Finally, Mark tells his readers, “there were women looking on from a distance”: Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of Joses, James, and Salome (Mark 15:40–42). There is no mention of any of the Twelve disciples. They have all deserted. Like the unknown woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany, we can trust the women to be faithful.
Primary Text: Mark (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), by C. Clifton Black (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2011)
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan (Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York, 2014)
Evolution of the Word – Marcus J. Borg (Harper One, New York, 2012) (New Testament Text from New Revised Standard Version, 1989)
Coming in Session 10: Mark 15:42-47; Mark 16. The Final Disclosure