History of Christianity—Lecture 5: The Gospel of Mark (part 2)


This is a summary of the fifth part of twenty-four in the course on the New Testament presented by The Teaching Company. The lectures in this course are by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His expertise is in the Greco-Roman cultural environment of early Christianity and the textual criticism of the New Testament. For those who are interested in purchasing this course and listening to the complete lectures, please go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com.

7. First Half of the Gospel—Jesus Unknown Identity

Jesus casts out demons, and people start wondering, “could this man be the Messiah?” The Jewish leaders, however, in Mark 3:22, say that the reason he is able to cast out demons is because he is empowered by the Prince of Demons, the Devil. Most striking of all, Jesus’ own disciples are explicitly said not to understand who he is. We have two accounts in this early part of the Gospel in which the narrator explicit tells us that Jesus’ disciples, who have witnessed what he has done, fail to understand who he is.

At one time, he is on a boat, a storm has come up, and he says to his disciples to beware of the leaven of the scribes and the Pharisees. They think that this means they should have brought some bread along, because Jesus has been talking about leaven. They feel that they have blown it this time because they haven’t brought any bread and he is upset with us. This is right after Jesus has two times multiplied loaves of bread for the multitudes, feeding 5,000 one time and 4,000 another time with just a few loaves of bread.

The narrative ends when the disciples think they should have brought bread along, and Jesus says “don’t you yet understand about the bread? I can provide bread.” No, apparently they don’t understand.

A couple of chapters later we have another account of the disciples explicitly been described as not understanding who this is. In Mark 8:21, Jesus has just performed another miracle, and the disciples question among themselves what this is all about. Jesus then has to ask them, “don’t you yet understand?” The answer is: no, they don’t understand. Throughout the first half of this gospel, virtually nobody understands who Jesus is.

Well, surely somebody understands, because Jesus has been doing all of these miracles. Who does know that Jesus is the authoritative Son of God? When you read the first half of this Gospel, you might be surprised at who knows about Jesus’ identity. In fact you can count the number of people who know about Jesus’ identity on one hand. The narrative begins with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. It’s an interesting account; it’s not narrated in any great depth, but we are told that when Jesus is baptized, he comes up out of the waters, he sees that the Heavens split apart, and the spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. A voice came from Heaven which says, “you are my beloved son; in you I am well pleased. The voice comes directly to Jesus; it doesn’t come to the crowds around Jesus, as it does in the Gospel of Matthew. So who knows that Jesus is the Son of God?

#1, God knows because he says so at the baptism.

#2, Jesus knows because he is the one who hears the voice.

#3 The demons know who Jesus is.

When Jesus casts out demons, in this account, they fly out of the bodies they have been inhabiting and they cry out, “You are the Son of God!” (Mark 3:15). Who else knows?

#4 Mark knows, because he’s writing this account.

#5 You know, because you’re reading this account.

8. Jesus’ Identity Revealed

But no one else seems to know who Jesus is in the first half of this account. All of that does change at the midpoint of the Gospel. Mark shows that progressively people begin to have some inkling of an understanding of Jesus’ identity halfway through this Gospel. At the halfway point of the Gospel comes probably the most interesting miracle story of the entire narrative. It’s an account of a man who is blind who only gradually regains his sight. Prof. Ehrman takes this account to be a symbolic expression of what will happen to Jesus’ disciples, who only gradually come to see who Jesus is.

The way the story goes is there is this man who has been born blind who was led to Jesus, and Jesus is asked to heal the man. He spits and he uses the spittle to put on the man’s eyes as a kind of salve. The man then is asked, “can you see?” He says, “I see people walking around by they look like trees.” Now, it’s not quite clear what that means, how a man who is blind from birth would know what trees walking around would look like. The point probably is that he sees in a fuzzy way, and doesn’t see clearly. And then at a second stage, Jesus looks at him intently, and the man then begins to see.

This is the only Gospel story is unable to heal somebody immediately; it takes place in stages and it takes place right after the disciples are said not to understand who Jesus is. Prof. Ehrman thinks it is a symbolic story of the stages through which people go as they come to see Jesus’ real identity. He thinks this because of what happens in the next story. Jesus is with his disciples and he asks them “who do people say that I am?” They say, “well, some say you are John the Baptist come from the dead, some say you are Elijah, some say you are another prophet.” Jesus says, “who do you say that I am?”, and Peter, the leader of the disciples, replies “you are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29)

You would think, “well, okay, somebody finally understands.” Somebody now gives us that Jesus is the Messiah. But it’s interesting what happens next. Jesus then warns the disciples not to tell anybody. Not to tell anybody? Why would Jesus want them not to tell anybody? Is it because, for this Gospel, Jesus is not the Messiah that anyone expected him to be, that he was not the great and powerful figure who is going to overthrow his enemies?

9. Jesus as the Sufferer

Interestingly, Jesus begins to teach that he has to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Peter rebukes him for saying this? How can the Messiah suffer? Jesus then rebukes Peter, telling him that he doesn’t understand yet the truth about himself. For Mark, Jesus is the Messiah, but he is the Messiah who has to suffer and die even if no one else recognizes it. From this point in the narrative, Jesus regularly predicts that he needs to suffer and die. He makes three predictions of his coming passion—in this context “passion” comes from the Greek word πάσχω (pascho) meaning “to suffer” (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34).

What is striking is that after each of these predictions the disciples demonstrate their complete inability to understand what Jesus is saying. They spend their time talking about who among them is the greatest and who will be the most powerful in the coming kingdom. After each prediction, they engage in this kind of dialogue. They don’t realize that Jesus is not going to overthrow the Romans; he’s going to be crushed by them. And following him means experiencing his fate.

Mark’s Gospel has sometimes been called a “passion narrative” with a long introduction. Fully six of the 16 chapters of this book deal with the final week of Jesus ‘ life leading up to his death. After 10 chapters of teaching the multitudes, healing the sick, casting out demons, and even raising the dead, Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the Passover. He spends then a week there preaching in the Temple. He has a last meal with his disciples, after which he is betrayed by Judas, arrested by the authorities, denied by Peter, put on trial by the Jewish leaders, and then brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate who condemns him to die on a cross, and the climax of the narrative, the point at which everything has been driving up to this stage, Jesus’ death itself.

10. The Death of Jesus

Up to this point, no one seems to have recognized who Jesus is. And even those who, like the disciples, have some kind of partial understanding of Jesus, have not fully realized that, even though he is the Messiah, he needs to suffer and die. At the end, it seems that not even Jesus himself is so sure. Three times he prays to God to remove this fate from him, as if the Messiah could escape suffering. At the end, he is complete silent as if he is in shock. As he hangs on the cross, he has been silent for the entire proceeding. Everybody had mocked him, and at the end, hanging on the cross, he cries out, “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?“, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and then dies.

Even if Jesus has doubts at the end in this Gospel, though, the reader does not. Mark gives two clear indications in the very next two verses of what this death was all about (Mark 15:38-39). The first thing that happens when Jesus died, was that the curtain in the Temple is torn in half. This was the curtain that separated the area of the Temple called the Holy of Holies from everything else. The Holy of Holies was a room in the Temple which was the most holy of rooms because it was thought that was where God’s presence dwelt on Earth. No one could go into that room, except once a year when the High Priest could go into the room to perform a sacrifice for the people before God. Mark said that that curtain in the Temple was ripped in half, meaning that now God is no longer separated from his people because of Jesus’ death. The death of Jesus brings salvation; this was a death that had to happen.

Moreover, the second thing that happens is that somebody recognizes it. No one throughout this entire Gospel has realized that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, who has to suffer and die, until the end. Interestingly, it is not one of Jesus’ family members or townsfolk, not one of the Jewish leaders, and not even one of his disciples, but rather the pagan centurion who has just crucified him, who sees him die, and then calls out, “truly, this man was the Son of God.”

11. The Ending of Mark

Jesus is the Son of God in this Gospel, not despite the fact he died, but because he died on the cross. His identity is then confirmed at the end of the story. Three days later, Jesus’ women followers go to the tomb and they find it empty. There’s a man there who tells them that he has been raised from the dead. Interestingly, in keeping with the theme that Jesus was completely misunderstood all along, we’re told that that the women then flee the tomb and don’t tell anyone about it because they were afraid.

The original version of the Gospel of Mark ended there, with the women not telling anybody anything. At a later time, in the Early Middle Ages, some Christian scribes who copied the Gospel of Mark added an ending to this account, twelve verses in which Jesus actually does appear to his disciples, convincing them that he is alive. Scholars, though, are convinced that this additional ending to Mark’s Gospel was not original: the disciples never did understand, even though the reader does.

12. Conclusion

Mark was the first Gospel to be written, by a Greek-speaking Christian who had inherited a number of traditions about Jesus. This author doesn’t simply repeat these traditions to provide us with historically accurate detail about what Jesus said and did; his account is in fact much richer and more nuanced than that. Mark molded his traditions to make his point, that Jesus was an unexpected Messiah, one whose suffering and death were neither accidental nor incidental to his Messiahship. For Mark, Jesus suffered and died precisely because he was the Messiah. Moreover, Mark wants his readers to know that if they expect to follow Jesus, they too must take up their cross and follow him.

The next lecture, lecture 6 in this series, will consider the Gospel of Matthew, to see how his portrayal of Jesus is similar to and different from that of Mark’s, the shortest and earliest of our New Testament Gospels.

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