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The following document is an INTRODUCTION TO MARK written by Father Dom Henry

Wansbrough of Ampleforth Abbey, York, England. His website and this document contains no
copyright notice. Some may find some of his views a bit too modern, but they will also find much
that will be helpful to them.
4. To introduce students to the academic study of the Gospels.
5. To bring students to an understanding of the importance of Jesus in Mark’s eyes.

After studying the course students should be able to
6. Place the gospel of Mark in the context of the literature of hellenistic Judaism in the first
century of our era.
7. Discern the importance of the Hebrew Bible and of the Jewish starting-point in the development
of Christianity.
8. Characterise the personal approach, literary style and theological emphases of the author of this
first gospel.
9. Appreciate the importance and place of Jesus for the beginnings of the Christian movement, and
the enduring impact of his personality.
10. Assess the interplay between history and interpretation in Mark’s presentation of Jesus.
11. Retain a firm basis for the appreciation of subsequent developments in Christian theology.
12. Evaluate ideas and theories claiming to be based on the gospel text.
13. Articulate clearly and simply principal aspects of gospel study.

14. A steady and competent translation of the Bible. It will be important to look up and reflect on
passages of the Old Testament and of other gospels and the Pauline writings. It is useful (but not
essential) to have a personal working copy of Mark into which notes can be written. The New
Jerusalem Bible is one such translation, and also has useful notes. The Study Edition (ISBN
0232 520771) also has a useful Study Guide to the notes. If you don’t want to spoil your own
Bible, photocopy Mark onto large pages with plenty of margin.
15. The Dictionary of the Bible by JL McKenzie (Geoffrey Chapman, 1966) will be invaluable for
looking up unfamiliar terms and ideas.
16. Larger reference works can be useful on difficult points, such as the New Jerome Biblical
Commentary (ed. Raymond Brown, etc, Geoffrey Chapman, 1990), the Oxford Bible
Commentary (ed. John Barton & John Muddiman, Oxford University Press, 2001). They might
be useful to have at your side.
17. Before embarking on the detailed study of this booklet it could well be useful to read through
the chapter on Mark in Introduction to the New Testament by Raymond Brown (Doubleday,
1997) or Four Gospels, One Jesus? by Richard Burridge (SPCK, 1994) or both.
18. Other uncomplicated works on Mark, which may provide fuller or alternative views are A
Commentary on the Gospel according to Mark by Morna D. Hooker (Black’s NT
Commentaries, 1991) and The Theology of the Gospel of Mark by WR Telford (Cambridge
University Press, 1999). The former will provide additional information. The Excursus on
particular topics are especially informative. It would be useful to read the latter after you have
studied this booklet. You may find opinions with which you disagree, or you may find that the
opinions you have formed are confirmed and strengthened.

19. Before starting the study, read through the gospel of Mark as though you had never read it
before and had never heard of Jesus. If possible read it at one sitting, but only as long as you
can retain concentration. Imagine you are an open-minded Hindu or Taoist, wanting to discover
why some people reverence Jesus and call themselves ‘Christians’.
20. Work through the booklet, a chapter at a time. Look up all the references given, reflect on them
and assess whether they show what the author claims they do. If not, cross them out in the
booklet. If there are too many such cases, throw the booklet away!
21. When you have finished a chapter, reflect on the topics suggested, do the exercises and answer
the questions posed. Ideally write a short piece for yourself on each topic or question suggested.
Imagine that you are writing for a sympathetic and like-minded friend who understands you
well. This will help you to sort out your ideas and will anchor the material in your mind. Do not
scruple to turn back to the discussions in the course of the chapter and to the texts themselves.
Make up your own mind and give the references to the passages in Mk which convince you.
Your imaginary friend wants to know what you think and why.
22. If you are doing the work for credit you must write three pieces of 1,500 words each on three
topics suggested for assignments.
1. Begin with a short paragraph on how you see the issues or what you want to
2. In the main body of the essay set out your arguments. Say why you think another
opinion is less satisfactory.
3. In a short final paragraph state the conclusions you have reached.

I am grateful to the Benedictine Study and Art Centre of Ealing Abbey for giving me the stimulus to
work on this project, and to the first-year students of Holy Trinity College, Tafara, Zimbabwe, for their
perceptive remarks as we worked through it, and to my colleague Dom Luke Beckett for his trenchant

Tafara, February 2006 HENRY WANSBROUGH

23. Mark, the Gospel-Writer 4

Exercises 11

24. The Kingship of God in Mark 12

Assignment One or Personal Work 24

3. Parables in Mark 25

Exercises 34

4. What Sort of Person is This? 35

Assignment Two or Personal Work 44

5. The Eschatological Discourse 45

Exercises 49

6 The Passion Narrative 50

Assignment Three or Personal Work 63



A first task is to discover how the gospel came to be written, for it was written neither as a free
composition, straight out of Mark’s head or reminiscences of Jesus, nor like a divine communication
received at the end of a telephone wire. The actual writing was the fruit of an important pre-history.

Mark, who wrote the earliest Gospel, composed his work within a few years of the Fall of Jerusalem to
the Romans in AD70, some four decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In those four decades
the stories about Jesus must have circulated in oral form. At that time, when books had to be copied by
hand and were consequently rare and expensive, oral tradition was considered at least as reliable as
written evidence. Learning by heart was an important part of education, so that memories were highly
trained. Particularly in Judaism a religious teacher, rabbi or scribe (=lawyer), was expected to
memorize quantities of sayings and decisions of previous rabbis, which would be quoted as precedents.
It was precisely Jesus’ failure to use this method of teaching which struck his audience at Capernaum,
‘Here is a teaching that is new, and with authority behind it’ (Mk 1.37).

A. Tradition in Paul

Paul gives us two short pieces which he must have taught his Corinthian converts by heart. He uses the
two technical rabbinic terms for this process, ‘received’ and ‘handed on’:

The tradition I handed on to you in the first place, a tradition which I had myself received, was
that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried,
and that on the third day he was raised to life, in accordance with the scriptures, and that
he appeared to Cephas and later to the Twelve, and next he appeared to more than five
hundred of the brothers at the same time. (1 Cor 15.3-5)

Various terms used in the statement itself are uncharacteristic of Paul. He normally speaks of 'Sin' in
the singular, a power almost personified, not the plural as here. He never uses the expression 'the
Twelve'. When quoting the scriptures Paul himself says ‘as it is written’, not ‘in accordance with the
scriptures’, and so on. This passage is therefore, a basic credal statement, memorized by new converts.

Similarly about the institution of the eucharist he writes:

For the tradition I received from the Lord and also handed on to you is that on the night he was
betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread, and after he had given thanks, he broke it, and
he said, 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.' And in the
same way, with the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.' (1 Cor 11.23-25)
This version of the institution has minute variations from the account given in Mk, which has ‘This is
my blood of the covenant poured out for many’ (a more awkward and more semitic phrase), but lacks
the two commands, ‘Do this in remembrance/as a memorial of me’. They are obviously two different
but very closely related versions of the same scene.

B. Minor Variations in the Gospel Sayings

Within the gospel tradition, too, there are often two traditions of sayings of Jesus, where it is difficult to
establish which is the original. For instance on divorce:

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her
husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery too (Mk 10.11-12).

This cannot be entirely Jesus’ saying, for Jesus was speaking in a Jewish context, where only a
husband, not a wife, may initiate divorce proceedings. Mark, writing for gentiles, has added the second
sentence, to show that Jesus’ ruling applies equally to husbands and wives. On the other hand Matthew,
writing for Christians sprung from Judaism, lacks the reciprocity but inserts the famous exceptive
clause (in italics):

Everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of an illicit marriage, makes her an adulteress; and anyone
who marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Mt 5.32).

Similarly there are slight variations between versions of the saying of John the Baptist:

I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandal (Jn 1.27).

I am not fit to carry his sandals (Mt 3.11).

Anyone who loses his life saves it; anyone who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (Jn 12.25).
Anyone who loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it (Mk 8.35).

In this case the preference probably goes to Mk, for ‘this world’ and ‘eternal life’ are favourite phrases
of Jn, seldom or never used in the synoptics, so probably Jn’s own insertions. On the other hand Mk
may have introduced ‘and for the sake of the gospel’.
It is possible to argue in either direction

C. Variations in Gospel Scenes

Mt, Lk and Jn all have a scene of the healing of a gentile official’s boy by Jesus at a distance, but there
are considerable variations between them, as may be seen by a study of the three texts together.

Mt 8.5-13 Lk 7.1-10
When he went into Capernaum a centurion came He went into Capernaum. A centurion there had a
up and pleaded with him. ‘Sir,’ he said, ‘my boy servant,a favourite of his, who was sick and near
is lying at home paralysed and in great pain.’ Jesus death. Having heard about Jesus he sent some
to him, ‘I will come myself and cure him.’ Jewish elders to him to ask him to come and heal
his servant. When they came to Jesus they pleaded
earnestly with him saying, ‘He deserves this of
you, because he is well disposed towards our
people; he built us our synagogue himself.’ So
Jesus went with them, and was not very far from
The centurion replied, the house when the centurion sent word to him by
‘Sir, some friends to say to him, ‘Sir, do not put
I am not worthy yourself to any trouble because I am not worthy
to have you under my roof, just give the word and to have you under my roof; and that is why I did
and my boy will be cured. not presume to come to you myself; let my boy be
For I am under cured by your giving the word. For I am under
authority myself, and have soldiers under me, and authority myself, and have soldiers under me; and
I say to one man, “Go!” and he goes, to another, I say to one man, “Go!” and he goes, to another,
“Come here!” and he comes, to my servant, “Do “Come here!” and he comes; to my servant, “Do
this!” and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this this!” and he does it.’ When Jesus heard the he was
astonished and words he was astonished at him and, turning round,
said to those following him, ‘In truth I tell you, in said to the crowd following him, ‘I tell you, not
no one in Israel have I found faith as great as this.’ even in Israel have I found faith as great as this.’
And I tell you that many will come from east and
west and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and
Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven, but the
children of the kingdom will be thrown out into
the darkness outside, where there will be weeping
and grinding of teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus And when the messengers
said, ‘Go back, then; let this be done for you, as got back to the house they found the servant in
your faith demands.’ And the boy was cured at perfect health.
that moment.

John 4.46-53
He went again to Cana in Galilee, where he had changed the water into wine. And there was a court official whose son was
ill at Capernaum; hearing that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judaea, he went and asked him to come and cure his son, as
he was at the point of death. Jesus said to him, ‘Unless you see signs and portents you will not believe!’ ‘Sir,’ answered the
official, ‘come down before my child dies.’ ‘Go home!’ said Jesus, ‘your son will live.’ The man believed what Jesus had
said and went on his way home; and while he was still on the way his servants met him with the news that his boy was alive.
He asked them when the boy had begun to recover. They replied, ‘The fever left him yesterday at the seventh hour.’ The
father realised that this was exactly the time when Jesus had said, ‘Your son will live’; and he and all his household

25. In Mt and Lk the official is a centurion; in Jn a ‘royal official’. The latter is more likely, since
Capernaum was in the territory of Herod Antipas, where no Roman centurion would be
26. In Mt and Jn the sick boy is the official’s son, whereas in Lk he is a favourite servant, though he
is once called ‘my boy’ (why? A contamination from Mt? In Gk, as well as in certain sorts of
English ‘boy’ can also mean ‘servant’).
27. Mt has a direct confrontation between Jesus and the official. Lk obviously want to keep them
apart and has two sets of messengers. It also gives him the chance to stress two of his favourite
lessons: generosity with wealth and good relations between Jews and Romans. Jn has the
second set of messengers only
28. Mt and Lk have the lively speech of the centurion about authority, absent from Jn. Jn has
instead Jesus’ complaint about signs and lack of belief (similar to Jn 6.26).
29. Mt here inserts the saying of Jesus about the heavenly feast, given by Lk at 13.28-30. This must
have been a saying of Jesus originally independent.
30. Mt and Jn have a final comment about faith, only implicit in Lk. Mt often explicitly stresses
faith as the cause of a healing (e.g. 9.22; 15.28).
All these differences are perfectly tolerable within an oral tradition. One can imagine the same person
telling the story in each of these three ways to emphasize different points to different people. Imagine
the same family member of yours telling the same story three times, let alone three family members
each recounting the same family incident in a different way or from a different point of view!


In order to form a picture of Mk’s theological interests, we need first to try to distinguish passages and
phrases where Mk is writing himself from those in which he is merely passing on information received
from the tradition. This will involve building up a sort of profile of Markan techniques of writing.

A. Mark’s Techniques of Teaching

On the assumption that Mt is using and editing Mk it is often comparatively easy to discern Mt’s
interests and techniques. So, for instance, after the Baptism of Jesus

Mt 4.1 Mk 1.12
Then Jesus was taken up into the desert by the Spirit And at once the Spirit drives him out into the desert

31. Mk begins very many verses with ‘And’, and in ch. 1 alone has ‘and at once’ nine times; Mt
avoids this, and substitutes a favourite words of his own, ‘then’.
32. Mk repeatedly uses the historic present tense (‘drives’); Mt avoids this and uses the more
sophisticated past (‘was’).
33. Mt frequently inserts the name ‘Jesus’ into Mk’s text, presumably out of devotion.
34. Mt’s ‘taken up’ is preparing for the theme of Jesus as the New Moses, taken up onto the high

However, it is less easy to discern Mk’s techniques, since we have no predecessor against whom we
could compare Mk. Nevertheless Mk is sufficiently consistent in his verbal and compositional
techniques for us to discern a number of clear characteristics. These show that Mk was primarily an
oral teacher and a story-teller of genius. One can imagine that the community came to Mk and said,
‘Mark, you are such a good story-teller that we choose you to write it all down’. Here is a list of the
more prominent features of Mk’s writing. They need to be understood and remembered, since they will
be widely used in what follows.

35. The ‘and’ and ‘and at once’ with the historic present gives a breathless speed to the narrative
which emphasizes the urgency of Jesus’ message.
36. Mk repeatedly uses two phrases of similar meaning for emphasis, e.g. 1.32 ‘at evening//when
the sun had set’, or 1.42 ‘the leprosy left him//and he was cleansed’, or 2.20 ‘then//on that day’.
Particularly frequent are double questions: 4.30: ‘What can we say that the kingdom of heaven
is like? What parable can we find for it?’ (or 3.13; 4.40; 6.2). This repetition is a technique of
oral teaching.
37. Mk zooms in, to focus on one memorable material object: 4.38 Jesus was asleep in the stern, his
head on the cushion’, or 5.27 ‘she touched his cloak from behind’, or 6.28 ‘he brought the head
on a dish’.
38. A delayed explanation with ‘for…’, rationing the information till the reader asks a question,
when it could have been logical to explain earlier: 1.16; 2.15; 5.8; 16.1, 8.
5. The sandwich-technique, by which Mk inserts a piece between two halves of another piece in
such a way that the outer halves and the central piece illustrate and clarify one another. Thus

2.1-4 Story about physical healing

2.5-11 Story about healing of sin
2.12 Story about physical healing

3.20-21 Jesus’ family fail to understand him

3.22-30 The scribes misunderstand him
3.31-35 Jesus’ family fail to understand him

4.1-9 Parable of the Sower

4.10-12 Jesus’ use of parables
4.13-20 Parable of the Sower explained

11.12-14 The fruitless figtree cursed

11.15-19 The Temple rubbished
11.20-25 The figtree found to be withered

6. The controversy-technique. This occurs in the controversies about divorce, about Jesus’
authority in the Temple, about paying tax to Caesar and about the yeast of the Pharisees.
(1) The opponents put a question to Jesus 10.2 11.27 12.14 8.16
(2) Jesus replies with a counter-question 10.3 11.30 12.15 8.17
(3) The opponents give inadequate answer 10.4 11.33a 12.16 8.19
(4) Jesus clinches the matter 10.5 11.33b 12.17 8.21

In each case Jesus’ answer goes more profoundly into the matter than his opponents expected
(or wanted!) to hear.

7. Triple repetition for emphasis:

The prophecies of the Passion: 8.31 9.31 10.32
‘Stay awake’ 13.33 13.35 13.38
The failure of the disciples in the Garden 14.37 14.40 14.41
Witness against Jesus 14.56 14.57 14.63
Peter’s denials 14.68 14.70 14.71
Pilate’s questions to the crowds 15.9 15.12 15.14

B. The Overall Pattern of Mk

These seven instances of pattern show that Mk is a real author, receiving his material in an oral and
flexible form, and shaping this material consistently according to his own patterns of thought in such a
way as to bring out the lessons and emphases which he wishes to underline. For the understanding of
Mk as a whole, however, it is important to be aware of the architectonic lines of the whole story:

witness of scripture 2-3

1.1-13 Introduction witness of Baptist 4-8
witness of Voice 9-11
testing and peace 12-13
1.14-15.47 Diptych
16.1-8 Conclusion

The Diptych: 8.29

8.17 8.31

6.50 9.31

4.40 10.32

Introduction Climax
Adjust lines
The gospel begins with an Introduction, in which the reader/listener is told – still somewhat
mysteriously - who Jesus is, namely, that he is ‘son of God’, whatever that may mean (see p. 40-41).
First comes the witness of scripture, then the witness of John the Baptist, then the overwhelming
witness of the Voice from heaven. This witness is all the more overpowering because it uses the
conventions of apocalyptic (see p. 45), and alludes especially to Is 42.1 (‘my beloved son, in whom I
am well pleased’ is a possible alternative translation to ‘my chosen one in whom my soul delights’).
Finally the Testing in the Desert shows Jesus in the messianic peace with the wild animals (as Is
11.6-9) and ministered by angels (Ps 91.11), a return to the peace of the Garden of Eden.

Next begins the first half of the diptych, two panels, hinged in the middle (8.29), one matching the
other. The curtain comes down, so to speak, and the actors on stage have no idea who Jesus is – only
we, the privileged readers, know that. The actors discover slowly and painfully who Jesus is from a
crescendo of incidents in which they are repeatedly bowled over by Jesus’ charismatic authority. They
still, however, fail to understand what this means, and three times are rebuked, each time on the Lake
of Galilee, for their lack of understanding (4.40; 6.50-51; 8.17). This leads up eventually to Peter’s
declaration at Caesarea Philippi, which, however, is immediately preceded by the symbolically-placed
gift of sight to the blind man of Bethsaida. At Caesarea Philippi Peter’s eyes are at last opened, and he
declares (8.29), ‘You are the Christ’. This is the turning-point of the gospel.

Peter has reached the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, but he immediately fails to understand what this
implies, what sort of Messiah Jesus is. So in the second half of the diptych there follow the three great
formal prophecies of the Passion. Each of these is misunderstood, the first by Peter’s rebuke to Jesus
(8.32), the second by the squabble about precedence (9.33), the third by the sons of Zebedee asking for
the best places (10.35-40). After each of these failures Jesus re-iterates that his followers must share his

Finally comes the climax at Jerusalem. At they leave Jericho and enter the Wadi Qilt for the final three-
hour walk up to Jerusalem (look at a map!), the other cure of the blind man, Bartimaeus, signals that
the disciples, too, are about to receive their full sight. The full revelation of who Jesus is occurs in two
scenes, first the scene before the High Priest, where Jesus for the first time accepts the three great titles,
son of God, Christ and son of man. The second scene is the acknowledgement of the centurion, the first
human being to give Jesus the title, ‘son of God’ (15.39). Whatever the centurion meant by that
formula, Mk must read it with Christian eyes. So the declaration of the Voice at the baptism has
returned again with the declaration of the centurion. This title therefore functions as a bracket which
binds together the whole gospel, showing that the whole gospel is precisely about the revelation of the
personality of Jesus as son of God.
There are other balances between the two halves of the diptych, for example the group of controversies
with the Jewish leaders in Galilee at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (2.1-3.6) and at the end in
Jerusalem (12.1-37). Mk has gathered these two groups of controversies together.

Mk’s practice of gathering incidents together at least raises the question whether Mk’s presentation of
the ministry at Jerusalem in a few days is not itself a gathering together of incidents which in fact
occurred over a wider time-span. The overall arrangement of Jn differs widely from that of the synoptic
gospels, which ultimately stems from Mk. Conventionally preference is given to the synoptic
arrangement, in which Jesus makes only one visit to Jerusalem, at the end of his ministry. Jn presents
four visits to Jerusalem over the course of Jesus’ ministry, beginning with the Cleansing of the Temple.
Each time Jesus goes up to Jerusalem in Jn the authorities attempt to get rid of Jesus, but they succeed
only when Judas gives them the opportunity on the eve of Passover. This offers at least as plausible a
scenario as the single short visit to Jerusalem given by Mk. Just as at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
Mk offers a sample day of his activity (1.21-38), so his careful time-indications serve Mk to knit
together Jerusalem incidents into a tight time-frame: ‘next day’ (11.12), ‘next morning’ (11.20), ‘two
days before the Passover’ (14.1), ‘on the first day of Unleavened Bread’ (14.12). The traditional placing
of the messianic entry into Jerusalem on ‘Palm Sunday’, six days before the Passover, comes, however,
from Jn 12.1, and Jn allows a considerably less packed timetable by placing at least some of the
incidents in previous visits to Jerusalem.

C. Who, then, was this Mark?

Marcus is one of the most common names in the Greco-Roman world. It was one of the seven
praenomina, like Marcus Tullius Cicero or Gaius Julius Caesar. In the NT are mentioned (i) a John
Mark, a young man of Jerusalem (Ac 12.12; 15.38 etc), whom Paul later dismissed from his team, but
who is mentioned as a companion by the author of Col 4.10, (ii) a Mark who was a fellow-worker of
Paul during his imprisonment (Phm 24), (iii) a Mark who is with the author of 1 Peter 5.13 in
‘Babylon’, a code-name for Rome.

The association of Mark with the author of 1 Peter has been responsible for the traditional link of the
gospel of Mark with Peter, and even the theory that Mark was Peter’s secretary, taking down the gospel
at his dictation. This theory was further fostered by the anxiety somehow to attribute the gospel to an
apostle, which both current scholarship and current Church authority see to be unnecessary. Current
theories of inspiration see the important factor to be that the gospel material was cherished within the
apostolic community at every stage of its transmission, oral and written, not merely that it was written
down by an apostle (or in the case of the Petrine theory of Mk, by an apostle’s secretary). The difficulty
about the theory is that 1 Peter is now normally accepted as pseudonymous, that is, not really written
by Peter, but merely attributed to him by a convention of the time.

No other clear information is available. It seems unlikely that Mark knew the Holy Land. His
knowledge of Jerusalem is distant and sketchy (contrast Jn, who mentions the Sheep Gate, the Pool of
Bethzatha, the Pool of Siloam and other known places in Jerusalem). He leads Jesus by a very
roundabout route from Sidon to the Lake of Galilee via the Decapolis (7.31). He seems unaware that he
gives the unfortunate Gerasene swine a run of 30km from Jerash=Gerasa ‘down the cliff’ to drown
themselves in the Lake (5.13).

It is better to abandon any attempt further to pigeon-hole the author, and to identify him only by the
work which bears his name.

At the end of each chapter various exercises will be given. The object of these is to offer the
reader familiarity with the material, which will be assumed in later chapters. Without such
familiarity later chapters may be unintelligible. You are therefore strongly advised to work
through the exercises to make sure that you have understood the material. If you get stuck, it will
be a good idea to re-read the chapter.

39. Look for and list some features of Markan oral style in the story of the Gerasene Demoniac
Mk’s favourite ‘at once’, verses beginning ‘and’,
his vivid descriptions, zoom in/zoom out,
duality (saying things twice),
delayed explanation with ‘For’.
40. Write out for yourself the diptych-pattern, filling in the titles of the incidents mentioned.
41. Can you find the controversy-technique (partly expressed in actions) in the Cure of 3.1-5?
Outline it.
4. Compare Mk’s and Mt’s versions of the Cure of the Gentile Woman’s Daughter (printed
side-by-side below).
1. In Mk’s version is Jesus rude or just playful? How would you characterise the mother in
Mk’s version?
2. Is she the same in Mt’s version?
3. How does Mt show (a) his interest in Judaism (b) his more explicit reverence for Jesus
(c) his concern to bring in the disciples (d) his emphasis on faith?
4. Any other significant differences?
5. Is it fair to call the different versions the same story?

Mt 1521-28 The Canaanite woman Mk 724-30 The SyroPhoenican Woman

And Jesus went away from there and
21 24
And from there he arose and went away
withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he
entered a house and would not have anyone
And know it; yet he could not be hid. 25But
Behold a Canaaniote woman from that region immediately a woman
came out and cried, ‘Have mercy on me, O
Lord, son of David, my daughter is severely whose daughter was
possessed by a demon.’ 23But he did not possessed by an unclean spirit,
answer her a word. And his disciples came
and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away,
for she is crying after us.’ 24
He answer-
ed, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the
House of Israel.’ 25But she came and heard of him and came and
knelt before him, saying, fell down at his feet. 26Now the woman
was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth.
‘Lord, help me!’ and she begged him to cast the demon out
And he answered. of her daughter. 27And he said to her,
‘It ‘Let the children first be fed, for it
is not fair to take the children’s bread is not right to take the children’s bread
and throw it to the dogs. 27
She and throw it to the dogs. 28
But she
said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the answered him, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the
dogs eat the crumbs that dogs under the table eat the children’s
fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then crumbs.’ 29
Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is he said to her, ‘For this you may
your faith! Be it done to you as you go your way; the demon has left your
desire.’ daughter.’ 30And she went home and
And her daughter was healed instantly. found the child lying in bed and the
demon gone.

'The kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the gospel' (1.15). With this proclamation
Jesus' preaching begins. But the content of this proclamation and the nature of the kingdom envisaged
by Jesus have remained hotly disputed. What did Jesus mean by ‘the Kingship of God’?


A. Albert Schweitzer

At the beginning of the twentieth century Albert Schweitzer, the great Swiss theologian, organist,
founder of a leper colony and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, propounded a theory which has
influenced theology and has been continually discussed ever since. He maintained that Jesus urgently
expected a cosmic cataclysm, the break-up of the present structure of the world. He sent out his
disciples with no time to lose, expecting that their preaching would usher in the final stage of the world.
When they returned without it being fulfilled, Jesus revised his view and took the sufferings of the final
cataclysm on himself. He wrongly expected his passion and death to be the last act in the drama of
renewal of the cosmos. He thought that with his death the world as people knew it would come to an
end, and a new world-order expected by the Jews would begin.

Schweitzer’s viewpoint was encapsulated in one of the most famous theological passages of the

Jesus…. in the knowledge that he is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on
that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn and he throws himself upon it.
Then it does turn and crushes him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, he has destroyed them. The
wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great man, who was strong enough to think of
himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind, and to bend history to his purpose, is hanging upon it still (p. 403).

The strength of Schweitzer’s viewpoint was that he recognised the eschatological dimension of Jesus’
message of the Kingdom. Its limitation was that he understood too literally and failed to translate, or to
de-code, the apocalyptic language and symbols in which this eschatological vision was expressed. Such
a misunderstanding was, perhaps, more easily understandable in an age when the bulk of apocalyptic
writings of the first century had only recently begun to be unearthed, when the genre of apocalyptic
was still less widely appreciated. Before such nineteenth century discoveries, this style of writing was
known only from the later prophetic books of the Old Testament, especially Daniel, and from the New
Testament Book of Revelation, a slim basis on which to form a rounded concept of the way these
apocalyptic symbols work. Inherent in this genre of writing are cosmic disturbances, lurid images of
violence, figures moving easily between earth and heaven (in both directions), heraldic and speaking
animals, far-reaching symbolism derived from the Old Testament. The basic message of such literature
is always reassurance that God will soon intervene to rescue his people from persecution. But
prediction of concrete events plays little or no part in its prophetic writings, which seek to interpret
history rather than to foretell how it will unfold. Against this background the apocalyptic sayings of the
gospels take on a very different feel, and so a very different meaning, and can hardly form a basis for
the view that Jesus expected this space-time continuum to cease to exist with his death.

B. Norman Perrin

Half a century after Schweitzer the British/American scholar Norman Perrin held that the kingdom of
God in the preaching of Jesus was a mythical formulation which needed to be interpreted as a sort of
symbol or cypher for God's power at work in the world. According to Perrin the Kingdom of God is a
personal challenge to every Christian. It is not 'a single identifiable reality which every man
experiences at the same time, but something which every man experiences in his own time'.

C. EP Sanders and NT Wright

More recently E.P. Sanders, in a series of works, has seen Jesus' preaching in function of the renewal of
Judaism expected in the late biblical and post-biblical writings, a this-worldly rather than an other-
worldly phenomenon. Jesus intended to establish a structure and a society, a politico-religious entity,
occurring within the present spatio-temporal constitution of the world, rather than as bringing this
structure to an end. If Jesus made arrangements for the continuance of the society he had founded, then
he did not expect the world as we know it to come to an end at his death.

In a somewhat similar vein, Tom Wright depicts the Kingship of God in terms of the frustrated return
from Exile. After the high hopes of the return from Exile in Babylon, the reality turned out to be a
major disappointment, as the returned exiles were dominated by one set of foreigners after another,
Persians, Greeks, Syrians, Egyptians and finally Romans. They were never able to be themselves or to
serve God in peace. The Kingship of God for which they longed was to do just this, to serve God and
obey the divine law as a people free from external domination. This obviously has both a religious and
a political dimension, as well as being a longing for peace and freedom.

It is, therefore, obviously necessary to trace the idea of the Kingship or Kingdom of God as it occurs in
the Old Testament and in the literature of Jesus’ time. Only aganst the background of this context will
it be possible to see how Jesus can have meant the phrase.



A. The term: kingdom or kingship?

The term 'kingdom', which is commonly used, can suggest a territorial entity like the Kingdom of
France or of Spain. This is reinforced by Matthew's expression 'the kingdom of heaven'. This suggests
that the kingdom of God is located in heaven. In fact Matthew uses this expression only out of Jewish
reverence. Matthew was only following the Jewish practice, already current in the first century, of
avoiding the use of the word 'God' out of reverence. 'Heaven', thought of as the seat of God, was
commonly used instead of the word 'God'. Compare Mt 4.17 with Mk 1.15.

The Hebrew word malkuth, which is at the base of the expression, is an abstract noun denoting not a
territorial entity but the fact of God being king, or the royal power of God. If one word is sought,
perhaps the 'sovereignty' or 'kingship' of God is best. Whatever the translation, it is important to realise
that the stress is not so much on the word 'kingdom/kingship' as on the fact that it is attributing to God
the royal authority which is due. The stress is on God. So R.T. France entitled his book on the concept
in Mark 'Divine Government'.

B. The Kingship of God in the Old Testament

That God is king of Israel is a basic concept of the Old Testament, which comes to expression at least
from the beginning of the monarchical period. Gideon refused to be king when his victorious
campaigns against Israel's enemies led him to be offered this post (Jg 8.22-23). Eventually some sort of
permanent leadership was forced upon Israel, at the end of the period of the charismatic and temporary
Judges, to provide permanent opposition to the incursions of the Philistines.

Saul was anointed king by Samuel in about 1020 B.C., but only under protest from the prophet, who
regarded this assimilation to the structure of other nations as casting doubt on the effectiveness of
Yahweh's protection of his people. For Samuel, Yahweh alone was king. When the Israelites demand
that Samuel should anoint a king for them, Yahweh says to him, 'It is not you they have rejected but
me, not wishing me to reign over them any more' (1 S 8.8). Samuel follows this up with a recital of the
evils and abuses to which a human king will subject the nation (1 S 8.10-22).

When David became king - by fair means or foul - he ensured that he was regarded very firmly as the
Lord's anointed, punishing the mercy-killer of Saul as the murderer of the Lord's anointed (2 S 1.16),
and making his personal capital the holy city of Yahweh by installing the Ark there (2 S 6). He ruled
there as the vice-regent of Yahweh. A very ancient psalm sings of the coronation of a king as his
adoption to be son of God (Ps 110.3). A whole series of Psalms sung in the Temple of Jerusalem
celebrates the sovereignty of Yahweh:

Great is Yahweh and most worthy of praise

in the city of our God.
Mount Zion in the heart of the north,
the settlement of the great king (Ps 48.1-2).

Yahweh is king, robed in majesty,

robed is Yahweh and girded with power (Ps 93.1).

Yahweh is king, the peoples tremble;

he is enthroned on the winged creatures, the earth shivers.
Yahweh is great in Zion (Ps 99.1; cf. Pss 96, 97, 145, 146).

As time went on, and particularly from the era of the Babylonian exile, Israel became aware that the
kingship of Yahweh embraced not just themselves but the whole world. Until the exile Yahweh had
been conceived primarily as the God of Israel, Israel's special protector. The question of the
relationship of Yahweh to other nations had not become an important issue. At the Sack of Jerusalem in
597 B.C. one of the shattering blows on Israel was that Yahweh was unable (or unwilling) to protect his
people as a king should. Such were the crimes of Israel that Yahweh could no longer underwrite Israel.
It was the king's business to keep his nation secure, and to other nations Yahweh seemed to have failed
in this. As Ezekiel puts it, his name had been profaned among the nations, that is, his reputation as king
and protector of Israel had been tarnished.

But the exile was a time for new insights, and in exile, confronted with the plethora of gods at Babylon,
Israel was forced to ask the question of the relationship of Yahweh to other gods, to the protectors of
other nations, and to the deities which the Babylonians claimed to rule various aspects of the world and
of daily life. Israel reacted by asserting strongly for the first time that Yahweh is the creator and ruler of
the whole universe, and this was expressed in terms of Yahweh's kingship. This is especially a theme of
the prophet of the Exile, Deutero-Isaiah:

Thus says Yahweh, Israel's king,

Yahweh Sabaoth, his redeemer:
I am the first, I am the last,
there is no God except me. (Is 44.6, cf. 43.15; 52.7)

Finally, at the end of the Old Testament period, comes the expectation of a final, victorious coming of
God as King. This is a combination of the ancient theme of the Day of the Lord, a day of God's
visitation of the earth to correct wrongs and rescue his chosen ones, with the theme of kingship. It has
taken on universal dimensions, for God deserves worship from all the nations of the world, and failure
to worship him will bring them punishment:

When that Day comes, living waters will issue from Jerusalem, half towards the eastern sea, half towards the
western sea; they will flow summer and winter. Then Yahweh will become king of the whole world. ... After this,
all the survivors of all the nations which have attacked Jerusalem will come up year after year to worship the King,
Yahweh Sabaoth, and to keep the feast of Shelters. Should one of the races of the world fail to come up to
Jerusalem to worship the King, Yahweh Sabaoth, there will be no rain for that one. (Zc 14.8-9, 16-17)

C. The Kingship of God in First Century Palestine

In the century before Christ there was a lively expectation of some decisive event by which God would
break into world history. There were many different schools of thought within Judaism (it is commonly
held that one should speak not of ‘Judaism’ but of ‘Judaisms’ at this period). This expectation is to be
found in all the many different circles of Judaism.

42. The Psalms of Solomon were written in the Pharisaic tradition during the latter part of the first
century before Christ. Psalm 17 concentrates on a Davidic king, a representative of the Lord,
who will purge Jerusalem of the foreigners who oppress it. He will gather together and lead a
holy people, who will hope in the Lord and form a centre for all the peoples of the earth.

Raise up unto them their king, the son of David,...that he may shatter unrighteous rulers and purge
Jerusalem from nations that trample her down. ...And he shall gather together a holy people whom he
shall lead in righteousness. ...He shall judge nations in the wisdom of his righteousness, and he shall have
the heathen nations to serve him under his yoke. ...The Lord himself is his king, the hope of him that is
mighty through his hope in God.

43. The Assumption of Moses, a contemporary apocalyptic work, contains the same combination of
themes, associating the kingdom with an end to evil and the punishment of foreigners:

And then his kingdom shall appear throughout his creation,

and Satan shall be no more,
and sorrow shall depart with him...
and he will appear to punish the gentiles (Ass. Mos. 10)

44. In the Scrolls of Qumran one of the most important is the War Scroll, which describes a war
between the sons of Light and the sons of Darkness, to take place at the end of time, for the
triumph of the faithful and the destruction of the wicked. It is a constant refrain that this war is
to the kingly glory of God:

You are a terrible God in your kingly glory...

For Adonai is holy
and the king of glory is with us, accompanied by the saints.
The powers of the hosts of angels are among our men,
and the valiant in battle is our congregation (1QM 12.7-8, Vermes, p. 137).

These are quotations from very different milieux. The first is from Pharisaic circles at the centre of
Jewish orthodoxy, the last from the sectaries of Qumran, who had precisely fled from such attitudes.
They all share these same themes. So Jesus' time was marked by a lively expectation that a decisive
liberation was about to take place. The sectaries who formed a community at Qumran, in revolt against
official Jerusalem Judaism, withdrew into the desert area near the Dead Sea in order to await the
Messiah, and laid a place for the Messiah at their daily ritual meal in anticipation of his arrival.

An element which was particularly important in the Qumran community, and is not without relevance
to Jesus’ behaviour, is the hope of a new Jerusalem of the last times. This is already voiced in the

Look, I shall lay your stones on agates

And your foundations on sapphires.
I shall make your battlements rubies,
Your gateways firestone
And your entire wall precious stones. (Is 54.11-12).

Its fullest expression is in Ezekiel’s vision of the renewed Temple, described in detail in Ezk 40-43, to
which Yahweh would return. Again, the new Jerusalem is celebrated in the Book of Tobit (13.16-18):

The gates of Jerusalem will be built of sapphire and of emerald,

And all your walls of precious stone.
The towers of Jerusalem will be built of gold,
And their battlements of pure gold.
The streets of Jerusalem will be paved
With ruby and with stones from Ophir.
The gates of Jerusalem will resound with songs of exaltation.

Cf. Jub 1.15-17; Ps-Sal 17.32; 1 QM 7.4-10; 4Q Flor 1.6-7; 4 QpPs 37 3.11; 11 QTemple 29.8-10; Rv

For the sectaries at Qumran this new sanctuary is not the Temple of Jerusalem, which they rejected as
unclean, but is the community itself:

He has commanded that a sanctuary of men be built for himself, that there they may send up, like the smoke of
incense, the works of the Law (4 Q 174, Vermes, p. 293).

The expectation was fomented by, and in turn boiled over into, the series of messianic revolts against
the Roman rule. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing to explain to the Romans the run-up to the
Jewish War, is interested chiefly in the political aspects. From him we know that at least petty revolts
were frequent. One of these was led by Judas the Galilean at about the turn of the eras. Judas objected
to the payment of taxes to Rome, on the grounds that it infringed the sovereignty of God (Josephus
Antiquities, 18.1.1). Another rebellion was by the messianic claimant known only as 'the Egyptian'.
These both promised messianic miracles, such as leading their army dry-shod across the River Jordan.
They were, however, swiftly crushed by the Roman military power. Later, after the time of Jesus, the
full-scale revolt of 66 A.D. led to the siege and sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans. Josephus also tells
of an incident in Jerusalem, when some young men were brutally executed for hacking down a statue of
the Roman eagle which they claimed was an affront to the sovereignty of God over the Holy City
(Antiquities, 17.6.3). In the following century another major abortive messianic revolt broke out in 132
A.D., led by Simon ben Kosiba (or Bar Kochba). His name means ‘Son of the Star’ (a reference to
Balaam’s messianic prophecy in Nb 24.17). He was recognised as Messiah even by the great Rabbi
Aqiba. At the time of Jesus there was therefore great excitement and unrest about the Kingship of God.


This section is intended to investigate the meaning of the concept 'kingship of God' in Mark's gospel,
rather than in Jesus' own thought. Written as it was some decades after Jesus' own preaching, and in
different circumstances, Mark's gospel does not necessarily reflect exactly the same emphases as Jesus'
original message. The evangelists were theologians, mediating the message of Jesus to Christians in
their own time. Rather than simply recording what Jesus had said and done, they interpreted the
message of Jesus to their contemporaries. It is a different question (perhaps unanswerable) to ask how
Jesus himself understood the kingship of God, though there must be continuity between the two

It is striking that the expression 'the kingship of God' occurs much more seldom in Mark than one
would expect. In Matthew it is a concept which appears everywhere, occurring some 52 times. In Mark,
however, it comes no more than 15 times. It is important, therefore, to avoid confusing the way the
term is used in Mark with the more diffused usage of Matthew. Quite possibly the concept of the
kingdom current in Matthew, perhaps reflecting the tensions and interests of the Christian community
around him, is quite different from that which is to be found in Mark.

The importance of the concept of the kingship to Mark is clear from the beginning. After the
introductory verses the first proclamation of Jesus, which sets the tone for the whole, is that the
kingship of God 'has drawn near'. Acceptance of this seems to imply repentance and belief in the gospel
(1.15), which is mentioned just before and just after the kingship. The gospel and the kingship are,
then, inextricably linked. What this implies is not yet clear.

Two of the questions often posed about the concept are whether the kingship is something which needs
to be voluntarily accepted or something which bursts upon the world (or both). Does Mark view the
kingship as a spontaneous acceptance of God's will by human beings or as a new state of things
apocalyptically superimposed by God. A second question is whether the kingship is conceived as
present or future (or both). For the New Testament in general Norman Perrin has collected texts which
argue about the timing of the kingship in both directions: in one sense it is already present, in another it
is still to come; is the same true for Mark alone? On both these matters it seems to me that there is a
tension between the two points of view. The tension must remain, for on both questions each points of
view is present in the gospel.

A. The Moral Demands of the Kingdom

One aspect of the concept of the kingship of God is indeed a moral one. So much is clear from the
initial announcement of the kingship of God. It involves repentance, a change of life (1.14).
Furthermore, the kingdom is something which demands certain qualities and to which other qualities
tend to be a bar. If one's eye leads one astray morally, it is better to do without the eye and enter the
kingdom one-eyed (9.47). Those who wish to enter must be like children (10.14,15). Riches make entry
difficult (10.23, 24, 25). The lawyer who recognises the importance of the two commandments of love
is 'not far from the kingdom of God' (12.34). There is no hint here of any long delay, or of any need for
an explosive event from God to make entry possible. Incidentally, all these sayings smack of the clarity
and the black-and-white quality, the absolute demands, or indeed even what seems to us the
exaggeration, of Jesus' own teaching.

This aspect is echoed also in the writings of Paul. Overwhelmingly Paul also uses the term 'kingdom'
with moral connotations. You must live a life worthy of the kingdom (1 Thess 2.12). The kingdom does
not consist in food and drink (Rm 14.17), will not be the inheritance of the unjust (1 Cor 6.9). In Paul,
therefore, just as in Mark, the meaning of kingdom may in one way be understood as a moral response
to the message of the gospel.

B. The Wonders

Another aspect of the kingship of God brought by Jesus is, however, the breaking-in of God's presence
and action in the world through the wonders by which he shows the triumph over evil, the purification
of Israel, the removal of sorrow, distress, alienation, and especially of sin. Here the kingship of God has
arrived and triumphs over evil. One way in which this comes to view in Jesus' ministry is in his conflict
with and triumph over evil spirits. This is a sign of the triumph over evil associated with the arrival of
the kingship of God. Jesus does not, of course, remove all evil and distress, but his wonders are a sign
that the grip of evil and distress on the world is at an end.

1. Unclean spirits
Jesus' triumph over evil spirits is a recurrent theme of the gospel. It is important not only to show Jesus'
power in these individual cases, but it must be seen also as evidence of Jesus' power over the evil
which ruled the world. The expulsion of an unclean spirit is the first wonder worked by Jesus (1.21-28).
The way the expulsion is sandwiched between passages on teaching suggests that Mark himself placed
the incident in this significant position. In the summary passages about Jesus' activity healings and the
expulsion of evil spirits feature together (1.32-34; 6.13). The expulsion of the evil spirit from the
Gerasene demoniac again is a highly Markan story (5.1-20). Most significant is the passage where the
scribes attempt to explain away his expulsions, thereby implicitly granting that he does in fact perform
them (3.22-30, again sandwiched between the two passages on the kinsfolk of Jesus). Here, in his
rebuttal, Jesus alludes to the kingdom: 'If a kingdom is divided against itself that kingdom cannot

2. Cures
Other illnesses, too, are viewed in the Markan stories as cases of possession. In 1.40-45 Jesus cures a

The leprosy of the gospels is not what is today called leprosy (mycobacterium leprae). In the
Bible the term covers many afflictions and skin-complaints. The legislation about 'leprosy'
given in Leviticus 13-14 shows that the term includes at least any contagious or virulent skin-

The narrative suggests that this too is regarded as possession by an evil spirit, for 1.43 should be
translated literally, 'And being angry with him/it, Jesus immediately threw him out.' It makes no sense
that Jesus should have been angry with the sufferer, or thrown him out, especially after, in v. 41, he has
been 'feeling sorry for him'. It makes much better sense if the anger and expulsion are directed at the
disease or an evil spirit who is considered responsible for it.

Other wonderful cures by Jesus, bringing an end to the evil of sickness and disease, should also be
regarded as signs of the coming of God's kingship:

The healing of Simon's mother-in-law (1.29-31),

of the paralytic at Capernaum (2.1-12),
of the man with a withered hand (3.1-6),
of the woman with a haemorrhage and of Jairus' daughter (5.21-43),
of the Syro-Phoenician's daughter (7.24-30),
of the deaf man (7.31-37),
of the blind man at Bethsaida (8.22-26),
of the epileptic demoniac (9.14-29),
of Bartimaeus at Jericho (10.46-52).

Particularly significant among them is the healing of the paralytic at Capernaum, where the physical
cure is specifically linked to the forgiveness of sin. It is also significant that Jesus shows no fear of the
contagion of uncleanness, and has no hesitation about touching or being touched by the leper or the
woman with a haemorrhage. Part of the horror of these two sicknesses is, of course, the alienation they
impose: since they are unclean sicknesses, sufferers must keep apart from the rest of society and life in
isolation. Jesus’ touch puts an end to that alienation.

By these healings Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies of messianic peace and healing in e.g. Is 11.6-9;
35.5-7; 61.1-3. They are signs of the advent of the messianic kingdom or the kingship of God.

3. The eschatological context of the exorcisms and cures

Not all miraculous cures need necessarily be regarded as signs of the coming of God's kingship.
Numerous miraculous cures are recorded at the healing shrine of Aesculapius in Greece, in the Greek
magical papyri, and in the story of Apollonius of Tyana. About the same time other cures by those
attractive figures, the charismatic Galilean rabbis, are attested in Jewish literature, and carry no such
significance. But in the case of Jesus the whole context is different, and points only to this.

When the Baptist appeared, he already proclaimed the approach of the final times. He put himself
forward as the final messenger of God by bearing and wearing the signs of Elijah, the garment of
camel-skin (1.6, as Elijah had done, 2 K 1.8). Elijah was prophesied to precede the final coming: 'Look,
I shall send you the prophet Elijah before the great and awesome Day of Yahweh comes' (Mal 3.23). So
Jesus' wonders must be seen quite specifically in the context of his proclamation of the kingship of

This same interpretation is given, only more explicitly, by the passage in Mt 11.2-6, and its parallel in
Lk, where the messengers come from the imprisoned John the Baptist to ask whether Jesus is 'the one
who is to come'; he replies by citing the evidence of his miracles of healing in terms of the prophecy of
Isaiah (Mt 11.2-6). The miracles are therefore the fulfilment of these promises in the last times.

C. Controversies with the Pharisees

For the Pharisees the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth consists in the perfection of
obedience to the will of God, that is, the perfect accomplishment of the Law. For the Pharisees,
therefore, the Reign of God consists in fulfilment of moral demands. In Mt this dimension of the
coming of the kingdom is particularly clear, for from the beginning of his ministry Jesus stresses that
he has come ‘to fulfil all justice’, when he joins with John at his Baptism, Mt 3.15. The first of the
great discourses, the Sermon on the Mount, is dominated by the same idea: Jesus has come to complete
the Law, Mt 5.17, and entry to the Kingdom demands that the ‘justice’ of the followers of Jesus should
exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. This fulfilment is then illustrated by the six
‘antitheses’ (5.21-48), in which Jesus constrasts the traditional interpretation of the Law with the
perfection demanded for the Kingdom.

This is also the meaning of Jesus’ controversies with the Pharisees in Mk over legal observance. These
do not necessarily show fierce hostility between Jesus and the Pharisees. The hostility between the
Pharisees and the Jesus-movement certainly intensified at the end of the century when, after the Fall of
Jerusalem, Pharisaic Judaism became the dominant, if not the only surviving, tendency within Judaism.
It is from this period rather than from the lifetime of Jesus that the hostility dates which is visible in the
gospels. Jesus has considerable affinity with the Pharisees, and it is notable that they have no part at all
in his passion and death; there is no mention of the Pharisees after Mk 12.13. Jesus’ method of
argument with the Pharisees approximates to their own. His solutions to legal problems show a
consistently different tendency to theirs, but they are reached and supported by the same methods. So in
the controversy about picking corn on the Sabbath (2.23-28) Jesus quotes a legal precedent from David
to establish his contention. Similarly, in the following controversy about healing on the Sabbath (3.1-5),
Jesus appeals to the purpose of the Sabbath to justify his action.

It is notable, however, that Mt, who is himself a legal expert (Mt 13.52), is not satisfied with
these rulings as given by Mk, and in each case improves the argument. In the former case he
finds the precedent of David insufficiently close and adds a precedent about breaking the
Sabbath (Mt 12.5). In the latter case he sharpens the general principle by quoting the parallel of
rescuing an ox from a pit on the Sabbath, adding the recognised Pharisaic argument a minori ad
maius, ‘from the lesser to the greater’ (Mt 12.11-12).

In further controversies the same method is used. About Corban Jesus appeals over the oral Law, the
unwritten Law of tradition, to the written Law of the Pentateuch, to establish his ruling (7.10). On
divorce (10.1-12) he appeals to Genesis 1.27 against Dt 24.1 and its current interpretations, all of which
is good Pharisaic practice.

D. Jesus in the Temple

Perhaps most significant of all in understanding what is meant by the kingship of God is the popular
cry at the Entry into Jerusalem, hailing 'the coming kingship of our father David' (11.10). This must
imply that the kingship of David, the messianic kingship, is in some way being fulfilled, brought into
being, at Jesus' entry into the holy city for the final phase of his ministry. The great celebration, whose
scriptural allusions are all instinct with messianic overtones, provides a patch of joyful light before the
sombre events which follow. Does 'the coming kingship' refer to the immediate event, the entry itself
and Jesus' activity in the Temple, or to the climax of that short week, the Resurrection?

The meaning of Jesus' action in the Temple has been disputed. It is often seen as a mere cleansing of
offensive practices, money-changing and the sale of sacrificial victims. However, there is no indication
that these activities were real abuses. Rates charged for changing the money for the coinage required in
the Temple do not seem to have been excessive, and the sacrificial victims were needed for the Temple-
worship itself. Furthermore, if Jesus had meant merely to cleanse abuses in the Temple practice, the
most effective sign would have been water.

There is no doubt that this action of Jesus was the cause of the violent reaction of the Jerusalem
authorities against Jesus, and their determination to do away with him. The Temple and its rites were
the glory of Jerusalem.

According to the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder, it was the Temple which made Jerusalem 'by
far the most distinguished city of the East'. The disciples were right to wonder at the great stones,
'Master, look at the size of these stones' (Mk 13.1). The largest of them still remaining is 12m long, 3m
by 4m in cross-section and weighs 400 tons. In general the dimensions of it were staggering. The
retaining wall of the esplanade on which it was built rose 30m above the street-level. The Royal Portico
on the south of the great esplanade was one and a half times the length of Salisbury Cathedral (186m
compared to 137m). The ten great pairs of gilded gates were each 13m by 6.6m (Josephus, Bellum
Judaicum, 5). Its wealth was fabulous: the Roman general Crassus stole from it 2,000 talents in cash,
and there were gold vessels worth 8,000 talents (Josephus, Antiquities, 14.72 and 105-109). Above all,
it was the goal of pilgrimage for Jews all over the mediterranean area, the religious and cultural centre
of the nation, served by some 20,000 priests.

Jesus' action in the Temple must be seen in connection with the accusation at his trial and the mockery
on the Cross. He was accused of saying, 'I am going to destroy this Temple and in three days build
another, not made by human hands' (14.58). This saying is preserved also in a slightly different form in
Jn 2.20. The Jewish leaders who mocked him on the Cross also referred to this claim, 'Aha! So you
would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days!' (Mk 15.29). Jesus' action in the Temple was
construed, then, as his attempt to destroy the Temple, a symbolic act of destruction, as part of his claim
to build a new Temple.

The building of a new Temple was part of the hope of Israel for the last times. Ezekiel 40-44 is a
complete blueprint for this renewed Temple, but the renewal of the Temple is also a constant theme in
other Jewish writings:

My soul blesses the Lord, the great King,

because Jerusalem will be built anew,
and his house for ever and ever (Tob 13.15-16)

An early witness to this hope comes in the Book of Henoch 90.28-29 (a section dated to the early
second century BC):

I went on looking till the Lord of the sheep brought about a new house, greater and loftier than the first one, and set
it up in the first location which had been covered up. All its pillars were new, the columns new and the ornaments
new as well as greater than those of the first, the old house which was gone. All the sheep were within it.

The same hope is strongly attested at Qumran, a quite different section of the contemporary tradition:
4Q174, commenting on 2 Sm 7.10: ‘This is the house which [he will build for them] in the last days…
This is the house into which [the unclean shall] never enter… [Its glory shall endure] for ever; it shall
appear above it perpetually.’ (Vermes, p. 293. cf. 4 Q 522; 1 QS 8.5-9). The renewal of the Temple is,
then, a part of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingship of God which would strike an immediate chord with his

The complete meaning of this action in the Temple, then, can be seen only in the context of the final
renewal of Israel and Jerusalem. Mk stresses this by sandwiching the account of the demonstration in
the Temple between the two halves of the Barren Fig-Tree; this little acted parable is symbolic of the
barrenness of Israel and of the withering of the old order (11.12-14 + 20-21). This gives the meaning of
what Jesus was bringing about by his demonstration in the Temple. This was what the authorities were
determined to prevent. They challenged his authority so to act, but received no reply beyond the hint
that his authority was the same as that of John the Baptist, which popular acclaim pronounced to be
divine authority (11.27-33). There was, then, no other way to keep their power secure than to liquidate

Assignment 1 or Personal Study

1. Write a 1,500-word essay, using only the Markan material, either 'In what sense does Jesus make
present the Kingship of God?' or discuss the statement, 'In Mark the Good News is the Kingship of

Be sure to present Jesus’ teaching against the background of the Old Testament conception and the
evidence contemporary with Jesus. You may find helpful McKenzie’s Dictionary of the Bible. Use the
index of other books under ‘Kingdom of God’. Notes in New Jerusalem Bible 2 S 7.1-17; Ezk 34.1a;
Mi 4.14l; Zc 9.9h; Mt 4.17f.

2. Consider also the question, as a Christian, how would you reply to the frequent Jewish objection that
Jesus could not have been the Messiah because the Kingdom has not yet come? Is it based on a
misunderstanding of the concept ‘Kingdom’ or ‘Messiah’ or something else?

Mk has two general statements about parables: ‘To you is granted the secret of the kingdom of God, but
to those who are outside everything comes in parable’ (4.11), and ‘He would not speak to them except
in parables, but he explained everything to his disciples when they were by themselves’ (4.34). Clearly,
then, parables play an important part in Jesus’ teaching in Mk. Is it really true that he would not speak
to them, the crowds, except in parables?

A. Mashal – plural Meshalim

The gospels were written in Greek, but the thinking behind them is often Semitic, that is, either Hebrew
or Aramaic. Jesus, of course, spoke principally Aramaic; these are the concepts we must examine in
order to seize his meaning.The Hebrew concept of mashal is wider than that of parable. The Greek
word parabole means ‘comparison’, whereas mashal includes any imaged saying or proverb. The
initial obscurity of such sayings also leads to the inclusion of ‘riddle’ or ‘dark saying’ among its
meanings; meshalim need thought to yield their meanings! The Book of Proverbs is called meshalim in
Hebrew, and is composed of short, pithy sayings, aphorisms, many of them using imagery, but few of
them comparisons.

A few examples give the feel of the genre:

Idler, go to the ant, ponder her ways and grow wise (6.6)

A wink of the eye brings trouble,

A bold rebuke brings peace. (10.10)

A golden ring in the snout of a pig

Is a lovely woman who lacks discretion (11.22)

A wise child is a father’s joy

Only a brute despises his mother (15.20).

Like the roaring of a lion, the anger of a king,

But like dew on the grass his favour (19.12)

There are, however, also longer meshalim in the Old Testament, stories which point a lesson by a
comparison. Among the most striking of these are the delightful parable of Jotham (Jg 9), the parable of
Nathan (2 S 12.1-4) and Ezekiel’s powerful parable of the Foundling Girl (Ezk 16). Another, amusingly
unsuccessful because David saw through it, is the Wise Woman’s parable, seeking to gain the
rehabilitation of Absalom (2 S 14.6-11).
B. Jesus’ Meshalim in Mk

If Jesus’ meshalim are divided into story-meshalim and aphoristic meshalim it immediately becomes
obvious that the form of very many of his teachings is the aphoristic mashal. They are balanced,
rhythmical, challenging, often imaged, and therefore memorable. A collection of aphoristic meshalim in
the early chapters of Mk shows that virtually all Jesus’ teaching is, as Mk claims, couched in this form.

Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people (1.17)

It is not the healthy who need the doctor but the sick;
I come to call not the upright but sinners (2.17)

The bridegroom’s attendants cannot fast

while the bridegroom is with them (2.19)

No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak (2.21)

New wine into fresh skins! (2.22)

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (2.27)

Anyone who does the will of God

Is my brother and sister and mother (3.35)

Besides these aphoristic meshalim Mk gives five narrative meshalim. Most are gathered into the
collection of ch. 4: The Sower, The Seed Growing by Itself, The Mustard-Seed (also The Lamp on a
Lampstand and The Measure, which are more aphoristic than narrative). Besides these Mk contains
also two others, The Wicked Vine-dressers (12.1-8) and the double parable of The Fig-tree and The
Doorkeeper (13.28, 34).


In order to determine the thrust and purpose of Jesus’ meshalim it is necessary first to make a decision
about parable and allegory. In 1899 Adolf Jülicher published his influential Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, in
which he claimed that Jesus could not have used allegory. An allegory is a parable in which every
element of the story has an equivalent, whereas a simple parable is a story where there is only one point
of comparison. Thus for an allegory a ‘key’ can be given to the code, as in the case of Mt’s parable of
the Wheat and the Darnel, for which the ‘key’ is given in Mt 13.36-42, explaining the meaning of each
element in the story. Jülicher claimed that allegory was a Greek habit of mind, much used by the
classical Greeks in the attempt to give edifying sense to the disreputable behaviour of the Greek gods in
their legends, and descending from there into the early Church. Already Irenaeus (Adversus haereses,
4.36.7) interprets the five groups of workers in the parable of The Labourers in the Vineyard (Mt
20.1-16) as those summoned in the five periods of history from Adam, and even that great exegete
Origen follows the same method. By the time of the Reformation such allegorical interpretation had run
riot. Jülicher pointed out that none of the Old Testament parables has more than one point of
comparison. Jülicher assumed this to be the case of Jesus’ parables, though Mt, writing a mere half-
century after Jesus’ original proclamation, provides incontrovertible evidence that allegory crept in very
soon afterwards. This may be correct, but it would be a mistake to be too dogmatic about this.

Another important step towards understanding the parables was taken soon afterwards by two other
important scholars, Dodd and Jeremias. CH Dodd, in Parables of the Kingdom (1936), took the
important step of looking for the original context of the parables Jesus spoke about the Kingdom, and
Joachim Jeremias, in The Parables of Jesus (1954), extended this work to all the narrative parables.
The two works remain fundamental to all study of the parables. The thesis is that in order to understand
Jesus’ message it is essential to abstract from the application of the parables which was later made by
the early Church or the evangelists, who applied the lesson to their own situation. The paradigm
example is The Sower: the interpretation of the parable of The Sower in Mk 4.13-20 is an application to
the later situation of the community in the second generation, and should not be used towards
understanding Jesus’ meaning in telling the story.

A. The Sower

The fact that the interpretation is later becomes manifest first from its vocabulary, which contains many
expressions not used elsewhere in the gospels, but which are typically Pauline. So ‘the word’ as the
message comes nowhere else in the gospels, but as the message preached and received with joy in 1 Th
1.6; ‘sowing the word’ as a metaphor for preaching in 1 Co 9.11; the words for ‘wealth’, ‘deception’,
‘fruitless’ all only in the Epistles, especially Pauline. The temptations are in fact also those of a later
generation and longer-term than Jesus’ ministry. Secondly, one may suspect that Mk has been at work
both from the sandwich-form (story, vv. 1-9; reason for parables, vv. 10-13; interpretation, vv. 14-20)
and from the triple failure through Satan, persecution and cares of the world. To this one might add the
notorious carelessness of Mk over tenses: ‘sown’ is expressed once in the perfect (v. 15), once in the
present (v. 18), and once in the aorist (v. 20), each time with the same meaning.

This finding has two important consequences. Firstly, it opens the way to reading the parable of The
Sower without its interpretation. Taken on its own the parable may easily be fitted into Jesus’ ministry
as his own reflexion on the failure of his proclamation to all but the small group of disciples, and his
optimism with them (whence the crescendo of 30-fold, 60-fold, 100-fold in v. 20). The three separate
failures of his efforts need not each have a separate point, but simply represent repeated fruitless

Secondly, the splitting up of the unit 4.1-20 lays open the possibility that that the enigmatic section on
the purpose of the meshalim, vv. 10-13, does not either basically belong to this context, but was
inserted here by Mk. Taken at its face-value these verses seem to say that Jesus’ purpose in using
meshalim was deliberately to obscure his meaning from the crowds, outsiders: ‘in order that, however
hard they look, they may not see, and however hard they listen, they may not understand and be
converted and forgiven’ (v. 13). The possibility that this is not really the sense is confirmed by further

45. This same passage of Isaiah is used twice more to explain the failure of the Jews to accept the
message, once at the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry in Jn 12.40 and once at the conclusion of
Paul’s mission in Ac 28.26. This triple usage suggests that the quotation was used as a stock
scriptural explanation of the puzzling fact of Jewish failure.
46. The Markan passage fits the parables ill. ‘The mystery/secret of the kingdom’ (v. 11, in the
singular) is an expression used by Paul of the whole of the ultimate revelation reserved for the
end of time (Rm 16.25, cf. 1 Co 2.1; 4.1, cf. Ep 1.9; 3.5; Col 1.27). Mt and Lk, in their parallel
passages, in fact both adjust the phrase to make it fit the context better, turning the noun into the
plural, ‘mysteries/secrets’, so that it does apply to the parables.
47. There is a strong case that vv. 11-12 are a very ancient Palestinian tradition, for the quotation of
Isaiah is in several respects closer to the Palestinian Targum tradition than it is to either the
standard Hebrew or the LXX text. Furthermore, the triple theological passive (use of the passive
to avoid using the name of God, in ‘is granted’, ‘comes’ [literally ‘is done’], and ‘being healed’)
is typical of early Palestinian tradition. It may well be a saying of Jesus preserved, without its
original context, from the earliest times.

This removes the uncomfortable paradox that Jesus’ chief teaching method was designed to obscure his
message. Rather these verses are an early Christian reflection on the failure of the Jews to accept the
message, somewhat clumsily inserted here by Mk.

B. Harvest Parables

One of the chief images used in the parables of the gospels is the harvest: the coming of the Kingship
of God is the harvest-time. This was already used by John the Baptist, for whom it was a potent image
of judgement and of the imminent arrival of the new era. The Baptist used the image of fruit-harvest as
much as wheat-harvest:

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…. Even now the axe is being laid to the root of the trees, so that any tree
failing to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire… His winnowing –fan is in his hand; he will
clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go
out’ (Mt 3.8-12)

This is an image of divine judgement classically used in the prophets:

Look, I am making you into a threshing-sledge,

New, with double teeth.
You will thresh and beat the mountains to dust
And reduce the hills to straw.
You will winnow them and the wind will carry them off,
The gale will scatter them
Whereas you will rejoice in Yahweh,
Will glory in the Holy One of Israel (Is 41.15-16).

Ply the sickle for the harvest is ripe.

Come and press, for the winepress is full.
The vats are overflowing, so great is their wickedness (Joel 4.13).

John’s message was primarily one of disaster, punishment and need of repentance. It was Jesus’ failure
to set fire to the chaff and cut down the rotten trees which led John to send his messengers to ask
whether Jesus really was ‘the one who was to come’ (Mt 11.2). Jesus replied that he was fulfilling
Isaiah’s prophecies of healing, intimating that his concept of messiaship was not quite the same as
John’s. It is the property of images to be polyvalent, and the harvest is not necessarily an image of
disaster, and – for those who are ready – can also be an image of overflowing joy:

You have increased the nation’s joy.

They rejoice before you as people rejoice at harvest time (Is 9.2)
Those who sow in tears will sing when they reap,
He went off, went off weeping, carrying the seed.
He comes back, comes back singing, bringing in his sheaves (Ps 126.5).

So Jesus’ parables too are full of this harvest-imagery. Not only the Sower, but also the parable of the
Seed Growing by Itself is in fact a harvest-parable, ending with the sickle: ‘when the crop is ready, at
once he starts to reap because the harvest has come’ (Mk 4.29). It is a parable of the patient waiting of
God coming to an end.

The prime example of harvest-parable in Mk is The Wicked Tenants (Mk 12.1-9). Built on Isaiah’s
image of the vineyard (Is 5.1-8) it depicts the Owner sending for his rent, normally at harvest-time. In
Mk it has especial prominence, the only story-parable in the second half, balancing the long story-
parable of the first half, The Sower. As it stands in Mk it may or may not have the allegorical feature of
Jesus as the son. In Mt it certainly has this, for Mt reverses the order to echo the historical facts. Instead
of ‘they seized him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard’ (Mk 12.8), Mt 21.39 gives ‘they
seized him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him’. Jesus was crucified outside the city.
Whether this allegorical element is already intended in Mk’s version need not be examined at the
moment (but see p. 42). The parable makes sense without it, merely stressing that the Lord of the
vineyard of Israel has vainly made every possible move to persuade the custodians of Israel to face
their responsibilities.

Parables of Mt extend this to a fishing-harvest, so that Mt has not only The Wheat and the Darnel (Mt
13.24-30), but its pair, The Dragnet (Mt 13.47-50), each harvest full of good and bad together, which
are finally to be sorted out.

C. The Wedding-Feast

Another centre of imagery is the wedding-feast. This too is a classical figure from the Old Testament,
richly used since the bridal imagery of Hosea, for the final blissful healing of the infidelity of Israel:

I shall betroth you to myself for ever,

I shall betroth you in uprightness and justice
And faithful love and tenderness (Ho 2.21).

Yahweh says this:

I remember your faithful love, the affection of your bridal days,
When you followed me through the desert, through a land unsown,
Israel was sacred to Yahweh, the first-fruits of his harvest (Jr 2.2-3).

Before the gospels, the imagery is used by Paul of his apostolic work, ‘I gave you all in marriage to a
single husband, a virgin pure for presentation to Christ’ (2 Co 11.2). There already Christ is the
bridegroom, but this allegorical element is not a necessary part of the figure. The wedding-feast makes
sense on its own, without the introduction of Jesus as bridegroom. The image is used overwhelmingly
in the teaching of Jesus. First it comes in Mk 2.19, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot fast
while the bridegroom is with them?’ Jeremias wisely insists (p. 50, footnote 12) that the allegorisation
of the bridegroom as Jesus must be a later addition, and comes only in the following verse. The idea of
a bridegroom being taken away from a wedding is so paradoxical that it would have been unintelligible
before the Passion (certainly at the early stage of the ministry in which Mk places it). The phrase ‘while
the bridegroom is with them’ simply means ‘during the actual wedding’. Furthermore, in the Old
Testament it is Yahweh who is the bridegroom. Such also is still the understanding of the marriage-
imagery in Song of Songs by the early second-century Rabbis who included it among the sacred
writings for that very reason. It is an important development in Mk’s Christology that the bridegroom
has now become Jesus himself.

Similarly the parable of The Wedding-Banquet (Mt 22.1-14), although in its present form it includes
allegorical features of Jesus as the Son and Bridegroom, does not need these details, which are indeed
absent from the version in Lk 14.16-24. The point is the failure of the guests originally invited to
respond. The Matthean parable of the Ten Wedding-Attendants (Mt 25.1-12) is a further example of the
wedding imagery, though now Christologically allegorised.

D. Suddenness and Novelty

Apart from the joyful aspect of harvest and wedding-feast, the principal thrust of Jesus’ meshalim is the
newness of the Kingdom and its sudden, unexpected arrival. Unpreparedness enters into all the parables
of both harvest and wedding-feast. Perhaps its strongest expression in Mk is The Doorkeeper (Mk
13.34b-35). In its present context the image of the Doorkeeper who should be ready for his Master’s
return from a dinner-party has been interwoven with the image of servants who have been given a task
to do while their Master is absent on a journey (Mk 13.34a). This suggests a distinctly longer period of
absence than a mere prolonged night out.

Newness is the subject of the meshalim of the New Patch on Old Cloth and New Wine in New
Wineskins (Mk 2.21-22). There is no point in trying to combine new and old: a whole-hearted choice is
necessary. It is Jesus’ attempt to persuade his hearers that a firm and uncompromising decision is



The situation changes drastically when the meshalim are applied to the Second Coming. When the
world did not come to an end at the Resurrection, a new interpretation of the meshalim, in continuity
with Jesus’ meaning but in a wholly new key, comes into being. The fulfilment of the Sovereignty of
God is not completed in Jesus’ lifetime, and this creates the tension between the two aspects of
‘already’ and ‘not yet’. The crisis is no longer, as it was in Jesus’ proclamation, a demand for an instant
decision with the arrival of Jesus, but of preparation for the coming of Jesus at the end of time. This is
perhaps most evident in Mt, with its stress on eschatological rewards and punishments, and its repeated
warnings to be prepared beforehand by good works. So to the parable of the Wedding Banquet, Mt
subjoins the parable of the Wedding Garment, for a garment is a recognised symbol of good works (Mt
22.11-14): in order to prepare for the banquet you must clothe yourself with the garment of good
works. In Mt the importance of the final reckoning is underlined by the illustration and elaboration of
each element of Mk’s conclusion to ch. 13 into one of the four contrast parables stressing the rewards
and punishments of the end, The Burglar, The Conscientious Steward, the Ten Wedding Attendants and
The Talents, before the whole is topped off with The Sheep and the Goats (Mt 24.42-25.46). By
contrast, the short-term parable of The Doorkeeper has disappeared.

Already in Mk, however, the re-interpretation has come into effect. The Doorkeeper has become a
warning to stay awake for the Second Coming (the triple ‘Stay awake!’ in 13.33-37), and the servants
have opportunity to perform their various tasks while the Master is abroad (13.34). Before the Son of
Man comes to gather his elect for a final reckoning, the period of the Church must intervene, with its
mission and its persecutions (13.9-12). The Wedding Banquet is not the final moment of time, but there
will be a time for fasting when the Wedding Banquet is over and the Bridegroom taken away (Mk
2.19-20). The Mustard-Seed has time to grow into a shrub large enough to have big branches ‘so that
the birds of the air can shelter in its shade’ (Mk 4.32). It is, admittedly, not yet a ‘tree’ as in Mt and Lk,
but the birds sheltering in its branches represent the gentiles, as in the Book of Daniel 4.9, 18 (so
interpreted in Ethiopian Enoch 90), so presuppose a mission to the gentiles.


It would be disproportionate to embark on a full discussion of the parables in the other synoptics, but a
brief outline of their treatment in Mt and Lk will help by contrast to illustrate Mk’s parables. Both Mt
and Lk draw largely on Mk, using his three principal parables, The Sower, The Mustard-Seed and The
Wicked Vine-Dressers. Not, however, The Doorkeeper, which is too immediate for their sense of the
delayed Second Coming of Christ. They also share with each other a large number of parables, which
would conventionally be called the Q-Parables, such as The Playing Children, The Leaven, The Lost
Sheep, The Great Feast, The Talents/Pounds. In addition, each has his own long parables. Both content
and treatment, however, vary considerably from Mk.

Mk’s story-parables are all drawn from the imagery of the countryside and village life, and are all
descriptive of the advent of the Kingship of God; they describe the situation as it is, leaving the
appropriate action to be understood by the listener. They are not too rich in imagery, but describe the
countryside with loving care (for example, one can watch each stage in the growth of the Seed: ‘the
land produces first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear’).

Mt’s parables are much richer and more varied in imagery. They still describe the Kingship/Kingdom,
but are all concerned with people, and with contrasting people, for Mt favours black-and-white
contrasts without intermediate shades of grey. So the Two Builders, who build respectively on sand and
rock (Mt 7.24-27), the Playing Children, unwilling either to dance or to mourn (Mt 11.16-17), the
Wheat and the Tares (Mt 13.24-30, good and bad corn, paired by the Dragnet with its good and bad
fish, Mt 13.47-50), the Forgiven but Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18.21-35), the Labourers in the Vineyard
(Mt 20.1-16), the Two Sons (21.28-32), the Wedding Feast and the Wedding Garment (Mt 22.1-14), the
Ten Wedding Attendants (25.1-13), the Talents (Mt 25.14-30), and finally and most obviously the
Sheep and the Goats (Mt 25.31-46). In all of these the interest is on the eschatological rewards and
punishments which will result at the last times. All lead up to the final five parables in Mt 24.42-25.46.

Lk’s story-parables are far more varied and more subtle. Instead of characters who are either
thoroughly good or thoroughly bad, Lk’s characters are mixed, often doing the right thing for the wrong
reason: the Friend at Midnight, eventually giving bread out of sheer shame (Lk 11.5-10), the Wedding-
Guest, taking a low seat to avoid embarrassment (14.7-11), the Prodigal Son, going home simply
because he is hungry (Lk 15.11-32), the Crafty Steward, cutting off the excessive interest to feather his
own nest (Lk 16.1-13), the Unjust Judge, giving the widow her due to save his skin (Lk 18.1-8). Luke’s
heroes – or rather, anti-heroes, for he has no real heroes – enjoy making a little speech to themselves,
often questioning what they should do: so the Rich Fool (Lk 12.13-21), the Invited Guests (Lk
14.15-24), the Prodigal Son (15.11-32), the Crafty Steward, The Unjust Judge, the Pharisee and the
Tax-Collector (Lk 18.9-14). Other parables show the related, well-known Lukan enjoyment of direct
speech, e.g. the Closed Door (Lk 13.23-30), the Great Feast (Lk 14.15-24).

The major difference, however, from Mk and Mt is that the centre of interest of Lk’s parables is no
longer descriptive and no longer focussed on the Kingdom. The parables are hortatory rather than
descriptive, giving examples of virtuous behaviour in spheres which Lk considers particularly
important, such as perseverance in prayer (the Friend at Midnight, the Unjust Judge), or generosity with
possessions (the Good Samaritan, 10.25-37; the Rich Man and Lazarus, 16.19-31), or repentance and
forgiveness (the Two Debtors, 7.41-42; the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Prodigal Son, 15.1-32).


The parables in each gospel have, then, a different and clearly-marked character, Mark’s parables one
character, Matthew’s another, and Luke’s a third. A question is bound to arise about the origin of the
parables. Are these three sets of parables all from Jesus? The question arises first about the parables of
Mt and Lk. Each set of parables is so characteristic of the two evangelists, both in style and in
theological interest that one may wonder whether the evangelist invented them personally. In the case
of Lk it is certainly possible to see the origin of a number of them elsewhere in the scripture. Michael
Goulder repeatedly insists that Lk never invents but only elaborates existing material. A table may be
constructed to suggest an origin of many of Lk’s parables:

Reference Title Origin

6.46-49 The Two Builders Mt 7.24-27=Q

7.31-35 The Playing Children Mt 11.16-19=Q
7.36-50 The Two Debtors The Unmerciful Servant, Mt 18.21-35
8.4-15 The Sower Mk
10.25-37 The Good Samaritan ?2 Chr 28.15
12.13-21 The Rich Fool Si 11.18
12.35-38 The Watchful Servants The 10 Wedding Attendants, Mt 25.1-13
12.39-40 The Burglar Mt 24.42-44=Q
13.6-9 The Barren Fig-Tree Mk 11.12-25
13.18-19 The Mustard-Seed Mk
13.20-21 The Leaven Mt 13.33=Q
14.7-11 The Wedding-Guests Pr 25.6
14.15-24 The Great Feast Mt 22.1-10=Q
15.1-7 The Lost Sheep Mt 18.10-14=Q
15.8-10 The Lost Coin A pair (female/male) to The Lost Sheep
15.11-32 The Prodigal Son The Two Sons, Mt 21.28-32
18.1-8 The Unjust Judge Si 35.12
19.11-27 The Pounds Mt 25.14-30=Q
20.9-19 The Wicked Tenants Mk

For the other Matthean and Lukan parables it is less easy to suggest a source. Are they elaborations of
Jesus’ teaching made by the evangelists themselves, stories invented to illustrate the points? Matthew
himself says at the end of his parable-chapter that the scribe in the Kingdom of Heaven ‘is like a
householder who brings out from his storeroom new things as well as old’ (Mt 13.52). As a first
conclusion, therefore, it might be suggested that Mt and Lk have both elaborated Mk’s parables in their
own strikingly individual ways, and that the parables of Jesus are to be found only in Mk, which are
both homogeneous and strikingly different from those of Mt and Lk. But then a second question arises,
whether this homogeneity is to be attributed to Jesus rather than to Mk’s own inventiveness. If Mt and
Lk both illustrated Jesus’ teaching by their own parables, drawn from other sources than Jesus’
teaching, did Mk do the same? No incontrovertible answer is possible, but Mk’s homogeneous story-
parables drawn from the imagery of agricultural life in the Galilaean countryside fit what we know of
Jesus the best of all three evangelists.

48. Find and list the meshalim in the teaching of Jesus in Mk 10.
49. Construct imaginatively a context in which Jesus might have replied to the disciples with the
parable of the Mustard-Seed (4.31-32) or the Light (4.21).
50. Construct imaginatively a context in which members of Mk’s community might have told Jesus’
mashal of the Unshrunken Cloth (2.21).
51. Can you construct a different context in the life of Jesus for the mashal of the Sewer (7.18-19)
which has nothing to do with food?
52. Do you think that the parables of Mt stem from Jesus or not? Give reasons for your decision!
53. Ditto Lk.


The understanding of the full dignity of Jesus took time. Starting from the strong Jewish appreciation
of the unrivalled monotheism of Yahweh, it would seem absurd or meaningless to call any human being
‘God’. A meaning and a context must be given to such a claim, Indeed, the meaning and implications of
such a statement still provoke disagreements among theologians. In fact Jesus is called ‘God’ only three
times in the New Testament, Jn 1.1; 20.28 and Hebrews 1.8, with the possible addition of Romans 9.5.
Although he probably never calls Jesus ‘God’, Paul makes about Jesus statements which can be made
only about God, without explicitly drawing conclusions. In the same way, a reader of Jn 5.19-30 may
well conclude that the evangelist is struggling to express the dynamic equality of Father and Son, just
as ‘the Jews’ formed the same conclusion from Jn 8.58 and wanted to stone Jesus. It is, therefore, from
the way Jesus is treated, from reactions to him by those who witnessed him, as much as from his own
or the evangelist’s explicit claims that the person and status of Jesus must be discovered.

We have already seen (p. 5) that the shape of Mk’s gospel is significant, and particularly that the
beginning (1.1, 11) and ending (14.61; 15.39) provide the clue to the identity of Jesus as ‘son of God’.
In the introduction the witness of scripture already shows that Jesus is a wonderful, eschatological
figure foretold in scripture. The witness of John the Baptist, clothed in the prophetic garb of Elijah, the
prophet expected to usher in the last times ‘before the great and awesome Day of Yahweh comes’ (Ml
3.23), confirms this. The Voice from heaven is, according to a well-attested Jewish convention, the
divine authorisation of an authentic teacher, again with the allusion to ‘my son’. In addition, the phrase
‘my favour rests on you’ is an allusion to Is 42.1, attesting that Jesus is the Servant of the Lord. After
this portentous beginning the wonder of Jesus grows ever greater. First the disciples respond to the call
of this unknown but curiously authoritative person who passes by (1.16-20). Then the worshippers in
the synagogue are staggered by his authoritative teaching (1.27). As impressive as the cures narrated
individually are the summary statements of the acclaim which Jesus receives everywhere, and the
confidence with which crowds approach him, putting their trust in his power to heal, a trust which is
rewarded (1.32-34). Next a physical healing confirms his power to forgive sins, which only God can do
(2.7). Equally striking is the authority with which Jesus interprets the Law, diverging confidently from
the interpretations held by the Pharisees, the most respected and influential religious practitioners of the
oral Law, in matters of purity (2.17), fasting (2.18-22) and Sabbath observance (2.27-28; 3.4). Then he
commands the elements themselves with seemingly divine power (4.41).

At various times in the course of Jesus’ activity of bringing the peace and healing of God to those in
need, spirits cry out ‘I know who you are: the Holy One of God’ (1.24) or ‘You are the son of
God!’ (3.11), or ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?’ (5.7). Curiously, the
bystanders do not seem to react to these acknowledgements, which suggests that they are more the
evangelist’s interpretations of the inarticulate shrieks of acknowledgement of Jesus’ power by those
who are being cured than any literally-spoken words.


Despite the remarkable obtuseness of the disciples, all this eventually brings Peter to the realisation that
Jesus is the Messiah (8.29). This is in fact a curious title for Peter to use as the outcome of what he has
seen. Might not the title ‘Holy One of God’, blurted out by the evil spirits, be more appropriate as a
reaction to Jesus’ activity? This would certainly have been nearer to the Isaian image suggested by
Jesus in Mt 11.2-6. The context of the discussion at this point is prophetic, for the other identifications
suggested for Jesus are prophets: ‘And they told him, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, others again, one
of the prophets”’ (8.28). John the Baptist was revered as a prophet: ‘everyone held that John had been a
real prophet’ (11.32). Elijah was the prophet expected for the end-time (Ml 3.23), and Jeremiah (whom
Mt 16.14 throws in for good measure) similarly; he had already appeared once in time of national need
(2 Mc 15.13-18). In accordance with the promise to Moses (Dt 18.15-18) of a successor like himself,
the Qumran literature looked forward to the arrival of a final prophet (1 QS 9.11), echoing the
expectation of the late biblical tradition expressed in 1 Mc 4.46; 14.40, ‘pending the advent of a
genuine prophet’. Jesus’ authority and teaching had been prophetic enough. Already in Mk the Feeding
of the Five Thousand is carefully and deliberately represented as a repetiton of the miraculous feeding
by Elisha in 2 K 4.42-44. Later tradition, especially in Lk, will focus on the prophetic quality of Jesus’
activity (Lk 4.24; 7.16; 13.33; 24.19). By contrast the title ‘Messiah’ comes right out of the blue.

It is striking that Jesus himself never uses the title of himself. On the contrary, on this occasion Jesus
immediately binds Peter to silence (8.30). On another occasion Jesus actually seems to suggest that
there are difficulties about the concept: ‘How can the scribes maintain that the Christ is the son of
David?’ (12.35). The difficulty he outlines is that the Christ is too exalted to be son of David. On a third
occasion, before the High Priest, Jesus does accept the title, but immediately substitutes for it the
expression ‘son of man’ (14.61-62). We are left with the impression that it is not a role which Jesus
favours for himself. How can this be?

‘Messiah’ properly means ‘Anointed’, and is used biblically of the anointed king of the line of David,
or of an anointed priest – the only two anointings which occur in Judaism. Psalm 109 (110), using the
ancient imagery of the priest-king of Jebusite Jerusalem, combines the two. At the time of Jesus the
coming of the Messiah was vividly awaited, as is shown by the Psalms of Solomon 17.

Raise up unto them their king, the son of David,...that he may shatter unrighteous rulers and purge Jerusalem from
nations that trample her down. ...And he shall gather together a holy people whom he shall lead in
righteousness. ...He shall judge nations in the wisdom of his righteousness, and he shall have the heathen nations to
serve him under his yoke. ...The Lord himself is his king, the hope of him that is mighty through his hope in God.

At Qumran a warlike figure, the ‘Prince of the Congregation’, the ‘Branch of David’ or the ‘Messiah of
Israel’ occurs frequently; he would lead his people to victory against the sons of darkness. There is,
however, also a ‘Messiah of Aaron’. As a priestly figure, this personality takes precedence over the
Messiah of Israel in the assembly and at the messianic banquet (1 QSa II.20ff, Vermes, p. 102).

One can only speculate about the reason for Jesus’ caution with regard to this title. Josephus (who is, of
course, in any case highly politically-minded) leaves no doubt that ‘Messiah’ is a title favoured by
political insurgents attempting to shake off the Roman yoke, and he describes several of their attempts
to do so (Antiquities, 17.6). It was particularly a title favoured by personalities arising in the
generations after Jesus, as Mk 13.21-22 makes clear. It may have been the political, anti-Roman
connotations of the title which guided Jesus away from it. The concept of a suffering Messiah was
always difficult to grasp, if not downright inconceivable, in Judaism. Perhaps also the kingly
connotations ruled it out for Jesus, perhaps too much an establishment-figure, perhaps a possible rival
to the divine kingship. Jesus was, after all, intent on establishing the Kingdom of his Father:

Blessed is he who is coming in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of David our father! (Mk 11.9)

The acclamations have no suggestion of Jesus as king-messiah. Acts 11.26 tells us that it was first at
Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’. It was perhaps at this stage that such
nomenclature entered the vocabulary of those who ‘called on the name of Jesus’. It is worth bearing in
mind that in a different country (Antioch was in Syria) and in a different language (Greek, instead of
Hebrew or Aramaic) ‘Christ’ would have quite different resonances from ‘Messiah’: it would not
suggest political revolution or attempts to expel the Romans.

It is, therefore, even tempting to ask whether the formula used by Peter in this climactic Markan
confession may not be expressed in Markan rather than Petrine words. This confession by Peter is, as
we have seen, a watershed in Mk’s contruction of the gospel, and may well be couched in his own
terms. ‘Christ’ comes elsewhere in Mk only in a missionary context, at 9.41, as an expansion of a
saying of Jesus. When Jesus has said, ‘No one who works a miracle in my name could soon afterwards
speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us’, the text continues, ‘If anyone gives you a cup
of water to drink because you belong to Christ, then in truth I tell you, he will most certainly not lose
his reward’. The transition from ‘me’ to the impersonal ‘Christ’ is striking, and the same saying occurs
at the conclusion of Mt’s missionary discourse, the instructions for the missionary activity of the
disciples (Mt 10.42). Apart from this it occurs only as part of the mockery of Jesus on the cross, Mk


It is important, therefore, to distinguish a name given to Jesus from a name used by him. The favourite
way in which Jesus refers to himself is ‘son of man’. The expression occurs 14 times in Mk, and
always on Jesus’ lips. It was, therefore, felt to be a turn of phrase peculiar to Jesus. The situation is,
however, complicated here by the allusiveness of the phrase.

In itself the expression ‘son of’ would be expected to mean a member of a group, as ‘the sons of the
prophets’ form a prophetic group, not necessarily fathered by prophets in the literal sense, but part of
their company, loyal and obedient to them (2 K 2.3). In the same way a ‘son of man’ denotes a (male)
member of the human race, with the focus not so much on his paternity as on his present condition. So
the prophet Ezekiel is addressed frequently in the words of the message which he receives, ‘Son of
man, get to your feet; I will speak to you’ (Ezk 2.1, 3; 3.1, 4, etc). The focus is not on his paternity, but
on his condition as passive recipient of the divine revelation.

This usage leads on an Aramaic usage amply attested in rabbinic stories about second-century rabbis
(though it must be admitted that influential scholars have dismissed this evidence because the stories
were written down considerably later, and the usage is therefore claimed to be a later one), in which
‘son of man’ is used as a self-deprecating and generalising self-reference, rather like the English use of
‘one’, the French of ‘on’ as in ‘on trouve’, the German ‘man’as in ‘man findet…’. That is, it is a
circumlocution used to soften a claim made by the speaker which might otherwise seems boastful,
brash or shocking: ‘one soon gets bored of flying one’s own plane’; ‘the constant company of royalty
makes one appreciate fish ’n’ chips’; ‘one easily gets over a quadruple heart-bypass operation’.

A couple of illustrations of this usage are necessary, one a story about Judah the Prince, another about
Simeon ben Yohai, both second-century rabbis:

It is related that Rabbi (Judah the Prince) was buried wrapped in a single sheet, for he said, ‘It is not as the son of
man goes that he will come again.’

Rabbi Simeon hid from the romans for thirteen years after the Second Jewish Revolt (AD132-135), at
the end of which he decided to come out of hiding:

He sat down at the entrance to the cave. There he saw a fowler trying to catch birds by spreading the net. He heard
a voice saying, ‘Let go,’ and the bird escaped. He then said ‘Not even a bird perishes without the will of heaven.
How much less the son of man’
(G. Vermes, Jesus the Jew, p. 165, 167 adapted)
In such statements it is sometimes difficult to discern whether the claim really is a generalisation or
whether it is peculiar to the speaker. Logically there is a distinction between the sense and the
reference. In the saying of R. Simeon the sense is a generalised comparison of sparrows and human
beings, but the reference is clearly to R. Simeon himself. This is exactly the situation of two sayings of
Jesus when he asserts his own extraordinary authority:

The son of man has authority to forgive sins on earth (Mk 2.10)
The son of man is master even of the Sabbath (2.28)

In the second case, especially, it could seem that the claim is simply a repetition of the previous
statement, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’.

The majority of cases in Mk concern the Passion, where Jesus is warning the disciples of his coming
suffering. Chief among these are the three great formal prophecies of the Passion, whose wording and
detailed prediction may be a subsequent clarification (8.31; 9.31; 10.33). Others are related to these
(9.9, 12; 14.21, 41), though there is also one highly significant isolated saying, ‘The son of man came
not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (10.45). Mk therefore clearly
reflects the memory that Jesus spoke of his future suffering in terms of the ‘son of man’.

There remains an important group of sayings where the expression ‘son of man’ has clear reference to
the exalted son of man in the prophecy of Daniel. Controversy continues among scholars over whether
these sayings are genuine sayings of Jesus or whether they are subsequent formulations by the early
community. This unresolved question makes a vastly significant difference, for if they are authentic
sayings of Jesus, this allusion must colour all the other uses of the expression, showing that Jesus
understood himself specifically as the Danielic son of man. We may approach the subject in three

54. The Son of man in Daniel 7. The Son of man is here a triumphant figure, representing the
people of Israel (Dn 7.27), emerging triumphant from persecution by the four great beasts, that
is, the four great empires of the Orient which have oppressed Israel. The Son of man, a human
being, so vastly superior to the rapacious, mindless beasts representing the four empires, comes
to the One of Great Age (clearly the Lord God) and receives all power on earth (7.13-14).
55. The Controversy. In the apocalyptic literature of the first-century AD this figure of the Son of
man, with clear reference to Daniel, occurs plentifully in The Similitudes of Henoch, part of the
First Book of Henoch. The First Book of Henoch is a composite text, some of it dating from the
second century BC, some of it later. It seems impossible to establish when The Similitudes were
written and inserted, but one significant factor is that no fragments of this part of Henoch occur
among the many fragments of Henoch found at Qumran (which must be early first-century,
since the settlement at Qumran was destroyed in 66AD). Is this mere chance, or is it because the
work was not yet part of Henoch? If the Danielic reference of the expression ‘Son of man’ was
already firmly established in Jesus’ lifetime, his use of the expression would mean that he saw
himself as this Son of man. If it was not yet in existence, however, the mere use of the
expression – used also by others – is insufficient to establish this exalted claim.
56. The three sayings. All three sayings are, for one reason or another, suspect of being later
compositions by the community or by Mk, rather than authentic sayings of Jesus. If this is the
case, they could have been composed with the later, more exalted usage of ‘Son of man’ in
mind, and reflect not the mind of Jesus on this concept, but the later theology. In any case they
are important for Mk’s view of Jesus. The sayings to be discussed are:

8.38 For if anyone in this sinful and adulterous generation is ashamed of me and of my words, the Son of man will
also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

This is an eschatological saying, reflecting the emphasis on the Second Coming which we have
seen is characteristic of the time of the Church after Jesus, rather than of Jesus’ own immediate
message. Jesus is not sufficiently self-regarding to speak of his coming in the glory of his Father,
and nowhere in his message does he ascribe angels to himself.

13.26 And then they will see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will
send the angels to gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the world to the ends of the sky.

The same holds for this saying (which includes a direct quotation from Dn 7.13). In addition it is
part of the eschatological discourse of Mk 13, which, though it contains sayings of Jesus, in its
present form is a single lengthy speech quite unlike the succinct and pithy teachings of Jesus
elsewhere recorded (see p. 46).

14.62 You will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.

This part of the trial scene is not a historical report, but rather a Markan composition (see p. 57).
The italicised words are a mixed quotation of Dn 7.13 and Ps 110 (109).1, the psalm most widely
used in the New Testament to express and explain the heavenly exaltation of Christ.

None of these sayings, then, reflect the authentic speech of Jesus. They are, however, of vital
importance for Mk’s view of Jesus. For Mk Jesus is the Danielic Son of man, the glorious figure
representing the whole People of God, and emerging from suffering and persecution to be granted
power over the whole world. According to one tradition of the text of Dn 7.13, the Son of man is
greater still: by the change of one letter the text reads not ‘He came to the One most venerable’, but ‘He
came like the One most venerable’ (in Greek not e` w j heos but w ` j hos), which would suggest even a
divine exaltation, like the One seated on the throne.

For Mk’s own view of Jesus the key title is definitely ‘Son of God’, although this is evident from Mk’s
own composition and Mk’s own stress, rather than from the historical account. Before embarking on an
examination of its use in Mk it is important to see what this title means in the Bible. It should not be
confused with the Johannine use, where the relationship of Son and Father is one of the ways in which
Jn shows the parity of Father and Son. In Jn the clue is given by ‘The Word was made flesh, and we
saw his glory’, where the ‘Word of God’ and ‘glory’ are already divine terms.

(a) Before the Gospels

In the Bible the term ‘son of God’ is used quite widely to denote a bond of affection, nurture, and
loving service. This is most movingly declared in Ho 11.1-4, where Israel is described as God’s son:

When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt,
I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I myself took them by the arm,
But they did not know that I was the one caring for them,
That I was leading them with human ties, with the leading-strings of love,
That, with them, I was like someone lifting an infant to his cheek
And that I bent down to feed them (Ho 11.1-4, cf. Dt 7.6; Ps 29.1).

Similarly the angels are called ‘sons of God’, the heavenly court, as they gather round the throne of
God (Satan included) to serve God and do the divine bidding:

On day, when the sons of God came to attend on Yahweh, among them came Satan. So Yahweh said to Satan…
(Job 1.6)

And so the drama of Job begins (cf. Job 2.1; Dt 32.8). Repeatedly the Davidic king is called ‘God’s
son’, after the promise of the prophet Nathan to David has guaranteed that

I shall appoint your heir, your own son, to succeed you..I shall make his royal throne secure for ever. I shall be a
father to him and he a son to me (2 Sm 7.12-13).

Finally this promise is broadened to include all the faithful of Israel. In the mockery of the Upright, ‘the
godless’ taunt the Upright (in words made their own by the mockers of Jesus on the Cross, in Mt 27.43)

He proclaims the final end of the upright as blessed,

And boasts of having God for his father,.
Let us see if what he says is true,
And test him to see what sort of end he will have,
For if the upright man is God’s son, God will help him
And rescue him from the clutches of his enemies (Ws 2.16-18; cf. 5.5)

These last two are echoed in the Scrolls of Qumran: The text of 2 Sm 7 is quoted and applied to the
Messiah as follows:

He is the Branch of David who shall arise with the Interpreter of the Law in Zion at the end of
time. As it is written, I will raise up the tent of David that is fallen. That is to say, the fallen tent
of David is he who shall arise to save Israel.

And Ps 2, ‘Why do the nations rise up against the Lord and his anointed?’ is applied, not, as the
previous text, to the royal son of God, the royal Messiah who is to come, but to the Elect of Israel (4 Q
174, Vermes, p. 294), that is, the just have taken the place of the king as son of God.
To sum up, the title ‘Son of God’ can, of course, never mean physically son of God in the sense of
procreation, for God is not physical and is incapable of procreation. Rather it expresses a special
mutual closeness, harmony, devotion, attachment, understanding - the irreplaceable ideal relationship
which the perfect father and son feel for each other.

(b) In Mark
As we have seen (p. 6), the title ‘Son of God’ brackets the gospel, marking the beginning in Mk 1.1 and
again in 1.11, the climax of the Introduction, and again in the mouth of the centurion (15.39) at the end
(see p. 62). By the bracket at beginning and end we are shown the content and message of the whole
gospel. This is done supremely fittingly, for at the beginning the Voice from heaven authorizes Jesus for
his mission, and at the end the centurion unwittingly recognises in the death of Jesus that he has shown
himself the perfect son by totally fulfilling his Father’s will in the most testing conceivable
circumstances. At the Baptism, however, the Voice is addressed to Jesus alone (‘You are my beloved
son, in you…’). As the second half begins, after Peter’s declaration, the Transfiguration gives a new
impetus with the public declaration, ‘This is my beloved son. Listen to him!’ (9.7).

On two other occasions (p. 42), the demons which Jesus expels acclaim him with the title ‘son of God’.
The extraordinary thing about these acclamations is that they seem to make no difference to the
bystanders, and not to advance the understanding even of the disciples. This makes it hard to believe
that the actual words were spoken, and makes the conclusion attractive that Mk is putting into words
for the reader an inarticulate shriek – as though the demon has all the breath knocked out of it by the
encounter with the power of Jesus, or as an athlete releasing all his pent-up power in a throwing-event.

Two further occasions have been endlessly debated. In the parable of the Wicked Vine-Dressers
(12.1-8) it has been endlessly debated whether ‘the son’ is an allegorical element referring to Jesus, or
whether, without allegory, the son simply represents the final tireless effort of the Owner to bring the
tenants to pay their due. Some hold that Jesus did not use – or even could not have used – allegory.
However, even if Jesus did not speak this as an allegory, ‘the son’ may still refer to Jesus in Mk’s
writing. Similarly 13.32, ‘As for the day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels in heaven, nor the
Son, no one but the Father’. The authenticity of this Jesus-saying has been hotly debated. On the one
hand there is the dubious authenticity of the whole chapter (see p. 46), and the strongly Johannine ‘feel’
of the expression of the relationship of Father and Son, unique in Mk. Furthermore, it is held that the
saying reflects an awareness, which would be unique for Jesus, of the delay of the Second Coming,
which begins to be voiced by Paul in 1 Thes 5.1, and remains a constant conern in the New Testament
thereafter. On the other hand it is difficult to claim that the early Church would have invented a saying
which attributes ignorance to Jesus. Again, whether these are authentic sayings of Jesus or not, they are
certainly evidence for Mk’s view of the importance of the title, ‘son of God’, and of the closeness of
the relationship which this expresses.


1. In a way the climactic moment of the revelation of the personality of Jesus is the scene of the hearing
before the High Priest. Here at last Jesus is solemnly challenged to accept the description of Messiah
and ‘son of the Blessed One’. It has been described by Hans Conzelmann as ‘a compendium of Markan
Christology’. Jesus does accept them, but immediately diverts to his own preferred phrase, ‘son of
man’: ‘You will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of
heaven’ (14.62), a joint allusion to Dn 7.13 (the son of man on the clouds of heaven) and Ps 110.1
(seated at the right hand of God). The combination produces a further factor: the combination of
‘seated’ and ‘coming’ gives the paradox of stationary and mobile at the same time. How can he be at
once ‘seated’ and ‘coming’? This builds the assertion into a claim to be sharing the mobile chariot-
throne of God, described with such awe and splendour in Ezk 1, and a centre of awed devotion also at
Qumran, where the chariot-throne was already an important part of their mystical theology:

The cherubim bless the image of the throne-chariot above the firmament, and they praise the majesty of the
luminous firmament beneath his seat of glory. Then the wheels advance, angels of holiness come and go. From
between his glorious wheels there is, as it were, a fiery vision of most holy spirits. Above them the appearance of
rivulets of fire in the likeness of gleaming brass, and a work of radiance in many-coloured glory, marvellous
pigments, clearly mingled. The spirits of the living gods move perpetually with the glory of the marvellous chariot.
The whispered voice of blessing accompanies the roar of their advance, and they praise the Holy One on their way
of return (4 Q 405.20-22, Vermes, p. 46).

The high priest’s protest of blasphemy at Jesus’ horrendous claim to share the chariot-throne of God is
no dramatic exaggeration. This claim expresses the fullness of what Mk sees Jesus to be. It is uncannily
echoed in the final triumph of the Book of Revelation, when in the new Jerusalem the Lamb shares the
throne of God, and ‘his servants worship him’ (Rv 22.3 – ‘his’, ‘him’ being God and the Lamb in one).
Mk does not call Jesus ‘God’, but these claims are tantamount to such a description.

2. A climax should, however, be at the end, and it is certainly arguable that the climax is in fact at the
end of Mk. This is a surprisingly open-ended scene, concluding with the tense ‘for they were afraid’.
There is no apologetic angle, for the women make no attempt to check that the Tomb is empty. They
entirely take the angel’s word for it. All the accent is on two factors, the message of the angel and the
reaction of the women. The message of the angel is that the story is not ended, but is to continue in
Galilee – with no hint of what will come next, no limit of the potential. The reaction of the women is
instinct with fear, fright, amazement, terror. Four different words are used, and are left vibrating. Why
such terror? Because belief in the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time was widespread
and accepted in Judaism (except among the Sadducees). A single resurrection, however, was unheard
of. The reaction of the women is a properly eschatological terror that the end of the world, the Day of
the Lord expected by the prophets, is upon them, and with it the general resurrection. The only reaction
is to get away from the place, to flee from the terrifying Day of the Lord as one might flee from a

In other words, God has intervened to vindicate Jesus. The incident is the dramatic expression of the
ancient Christian confession incorporated by Paul into the opening of the Letter to the Romans,
‘designated Son of God in power by the Spirit of holiness at the Resurrection from the dead’ (Rm 1.4).
This is the meaning of the presentation of the Day of the Lord and of the absence of Jesus from the

Assignment Two or Personal Study

57. Familiarize yourself with the Old Testament background to the principal titles of Jesus: Christ,
Son of man, Son of God. Look up and evaluate the passages given above. Read the entries in
McKenzie’s Dictionary of the Bible, use the index of Raymond Brown’s Introduction to the
New Testament. Work through the New Jerusalem Bible notes Is 7.14f; 11.6e; Mk 1.34m.

58. Write a 1,500-word essay: Although Mark does not call Jesus ‘God’ does he in fact present
Jesus as a divine figure, or is it sufficient to say that he shows God at work in Jesus?

Examine the question from the point of view of the story told by Mk as well as from the point
of view of the principal titles used of Jesus in Mk, Christ, son of man, son of God. Present your
own arguments (hopefully livened by your reading), not the views of scholars, and substantiate
them carefully with textual references.

3. Which of the titles is most important to you personally? Why?


No study of Mk would begin to be complete without a consideration of Mk 13, and this for several
reasons. Firstly, it employs the important contemporary genre of apocalyptic writing, which otherwise
appears in the gospels only momentarily. Secondly, this chapter is unique in Mk, in that it is one
continuous discourse carefully composed and woven together, quite unlike the short, pithy incidents
which are otherwise related. Thirdly, it is the one outlook on the future which clearly looks towards the
future of the community. It is therefore of central importance for understanding the view put forward
by Mk for the future mission of the Church.


In the final centuries before Christ a Day of the Lord was awaited when the Lord would set everything
to rights by punishing the guilty and rewarding the faithful. This is first mentioned in Amos 5.18-20,
where it is a Day when the rich will be punished for their oppression of the poor. Already in Amos
8.9-10 it is described in lurid terms of cosmic upheaval, the sun going down at noon and the earth
plunged into darkness. Such writing comes to be called ‘apocalyptic’, that is, ‘revelatory’; it reveals the
future, but always uses certain conventions. Starting from the basis of Amos, its terms become more
and more dramatic, especially in the latest chapters of Isaiah:

A cracking, the earth cracks open,

A jolting, the earth gives a jolt,
A lurching, the earth lurches backwards and forwards.
The earth will rell to and fro like a drunkard,
It will be shaken like a shanty, so heavy will be its sin on it.
(Isaiah 24.19-20, cf. Zephaniah 1.14-18; Zechariah 14)

Such writing reaches its fullest biblical development in the Book of Daniel, where it has a number of
features which are regularly present. These may be illustrated from the vision of Dn 7:

59. It is pseudonymous (that is, attributed to an authoritative writer who is not the real author).
Pseudonymity was a frequent phenomenon at this time: the biblical Books of Wisdom and
Ecclesiastes are both pseudonymously attributed to Solomon; the Books of Henoch are
attributed to Henoch of Gn 5.24. The Book of Daniel is attributed to a Daniel who was active in
the Babylonian Exile. The stories of Dn 1-6 are a mish-mash of various perods and kings of
Babylon, and Daniel himself is modelled on an ancient sage named Danel, mentioned in Ezk
60. It is conveyed by dreams (Dn 7.1), decoded by a heavenly interpreter (7.16).
61. It is full of bizarre imagery (7.6-7), and especially of symbolic numbers (7.7).
62. There is easy access between earth and heaven in both directions (7.13).
63. The message is divine vindication, the release of God’s People from pressing persecution (the
four beasts stand for the empires which have oppressed Judaism, and the ‘son of man’, 7.13, 27,
stands for the people of Israel who will eventually be vindicated from the oppression of
Antiochus Epiphanes, who attempted to suppress Judaism in 167BC).

Such writing became extremely widespread in first century Judaism, as the people yearned more and
more longingly for release from the Roman domination. Extra-biblical examples are the Book of
Henoch, the Qumran Testament of Amram (4 Q Amram, Vermes p.262-3), Second Esdras, etc. In the
New Testament traces of the same style of writing occur, for example, in Paul’s description of the last
trumpet and Christ’s triumphal procession (1 Thess 4.16-17), Paul’s rapture into the third heaven (2 Cor
12.2-4), the earthquake and the entry of the dead into the Holy City at the death of Jesus (Mt 26.51-53),
and of course at length in the Book of Revelation. Not all the five features mentioned above are
necessarily present in shorter episodes, but in the climax of Mk 13.24-26 the last three are most clearly
seen, bizarre cosmic imagery, transition between earth and heaven, and the promise of vindication after


The careful structure of the discourse, given on the following page, must be carefully analysed:

64. After the introduction, each of the three sections is ruled by a biblical quotation, from Daniel in
vv. 14, 26, from Isaiah in v. 30.
65. The first and third sections are each in the form of a chiasmus, that is, each is symmetrically
shaped, with the climax in the centre. Thus vv. 5-6 balance vv. 21-22 (false prophets); v. 7
balances v. 14 (‘when you hear’, ‘when you see’) and the climax is the persecution of vv. 9-13.
Similarly vv. 28-29 balance vv. 33-34 (parables); v. 30 balances v. 32 (solemn prophecy), and
the climax is the certainty of v. 31.
66. The whole is wrapped by ‘Be on your guard’ in vv. 5 and 33, repeated in vv. 9 and 23. The
conclusion is wrapped by the insistent ‘Stay awake’, vv. 35 and 37, linked to vv. 33 and 34.
67. The language is unlike the rest of Mk. Predictions and imperatives are rare in Mk, whereas here
they are constant. Count the number of occurrences of ‘will’ and of commands! By contrast, the
tedious ‘And’, at the beginning of almost every verse in Mk (35 times in the 45 verses of Mk 1),
has almost disappeared (10 times in vv. 5-37). The question has been raised whether Mk wrote
this chapter. It has been suggested that Mk built upon a previous document and made it his own.

As he was leaving the Temple one of his disciples said to him, `Master, look at the size of those stones! Look at the size of
those buildings!' 2And Jesus said to him, `You see these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left on another;
everything will be pulled down.' 3And while he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, facing the Temple, Peter, James, John
and Andrew questioned him when they were by themselves, 4`Tell us, when is this going to happen, and what sign will there
be that it is all about to take place?'

The beginning of sorrows

Then Jesus began to tell them, `Be on your guard that no one deceives you. 6Many will come using my name and saying, "I
am he," and they will deceive many.
When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this is something that must happen, but the end
will not be yet. 8For nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in
various places; there will be famines. This is the beginning of the birth-pangs.
`Be on your guard: you will be handed over to sanhedrins; you will be beaten in synagogues; and you
will be brought before governors and kings for my sake, as evidence to them, 10since the gospel must first
be proclaimed to all nations. 11`And when you are taken to be handed over, do not worry beforehand about
what to say; no, say whatever is given to you when the time comes, because it is not you who will be
speaking; it is the Holy Spirit. 12Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will
come forward against their parents and have them put to death. 13You will be universally hated on account
of my name; but anyone who stands firm to the end will be saved.
`When you see the appalling abomination set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in
Judaea must escape to the mountains; 15if a man is on the housetop, he must not come down or go inside to collect
anything from his house; 16if a man is in the fields, he must not turn back to fetch his cloak. 17Alas for those with
child, or with babies at the breast, when those days come! 18Pray that this may not be in winter. 19For in those days
there will be great distress, unparalleled since God created the world, and such as will never be again. 20And if the
Lord had not shortened that time, no human being would have survived; but he did shorten the time, for the sake of
the elect he chose.
`And if anyone says to you then, "Look, here is the Christ" or, "Look, he is there," do not credit it; 22for false Christs and
false prophets will arise and produce signs and portents to deceive the elect, if that were possible. 23You, therefore, must be
on your guard. I have given you warning.

The coming of the Son of man

`But in those days, after that time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, 25the stars will
come falling out of the sky and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. 27And then he will send the angels
to gather his elect, from the ends of the world to the ends of the sky.

The time of this coming

`Take the fig tree as a parable: as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.
So with you when you see these things happening: know that he is near, right at the gates.
In truth I tell you, before this generation has passed away all these things will take place.
Sky and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
`But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.
`Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. 34It is like a man travelling abroad: he
has gone from his home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own work to do; and he has told the doorkeeper to
stay awake.

Conclusion 35So stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming, evening, midnight,
cockcrow or dawn; 36if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep. 37And what I am saying to you I say to all: Stay


68. A farewell-speech to a great man’s followers is a convention of ancient literature. One of the most
famous is Socrates’ farewell-speech before he commits suicide, the Apologia. Biblical examples are
the Last Supper Discourses in Jn 14-17 and Paul’s discourse to the elders of Ephesus (Acts
20.17-35). Such a speech normally warns of perils and dangers to come and assures the followers of
help and eventual success. Mk 13 is just such a speech, warning the disciples of persecution and
defections to come, and assuring them of eventual release and vindication. It makes use of the
conventions of apocalyptic especially in vv. 24-27.
69. The clue to the interpretation is the ‘appalling abomination’ in v. 14. This quotation of Daniel is an
allusion (and the apocalyptic genre works by biblical allusions) to the idolatrous altar set up in the
Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes during his persecution of Jews in 167BC. Now, however, it refers to
the desecration of the Temple by the Romans in AD70. The turmoil of wars and rumours of wars,
nation fighting against nation, false Messiahs and false prophets is the upheavals leading up to the
Sack of Jerusalem. The formal, prophetic and allusive language is so much a part of the idiom of
apocalyptic that it is impossible to tell whether the Sack has already taken place or is simply seen as
inevitable. It is, however, seen as the birth-pangs (v.8), and the Sack of Jerusalem as somehow
marking a significant stage in the coming of the Kingdom. This indeed it did, for the demise of
Jerusalem marked the moment of liberation of Christianity from Judaism.
70. The timing of the coming remained a worry and a puzzle. There are three decisive sayings of Jesus
in Mark which suggest that the realisation of the kingship of God is not to be long delayed:
a. Before the Transfiguration Jesus declares,
There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingship of God come
with power (9.1).
This is 'one of the most discussed verses in the whole of Mk's gospel'. Firstly a
distinction must be made between the original meaning in Jesus' mouth and the meaning
which the verse takes in Mk. In Mk the striking position surely indicates that Mk is
pointing it towards the Transfiguration itself, and regards the Transfiguration as at least
partly fulfilling it. Was this the original sense, or has Mk given the saying a different
sense by inserting it in this context?
b. At the Last Supper Jesus says,
I shall never drink wine any more until the day I drink the new wine in the kingdom of God
This saying is not part of the original tradition of the institution of the eucharist; it has
no inherent connection with this event. The saying must be an independent saying
garnered by Mk and deliberately placed here. Mk therefore placed it here with the
intention that the reader should see its fulfilment in the immediately-following Passion
and Resurrection account.
c. Similarly, before the high priest Jesus replies,
You will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of
heaven (14.62).
Here it is the 'you will see...' that is remarkable. Mk must have considered that in some
sense the Coming would happen within their lifetime. This can only have been the
Resurrection itself or the events foretold in Mk 13; the similarity of language points to
the latter.

The fulfilment of the Kingship must therefore be seen as occurring in stages. There was no one utterly
decisive moment. Included must be: (the conception of Jesus, the birth of Jesus – not in Mk), the
preparatory message of the Baptist, the proclamation of Jesus, the death-&-resurrection of Jesus, the
liberation from Judaism, the final coming of Christ. About the timing of this last Mk 13 gives no
indication beyond the urgent and repeated ‘Stay awake’ and the parables of 13.28-34. If Mk was
written before the imminent Sack of Jerusalem, the question must be asked whether he foresaw this
event as the occasion of the final Coming. This would coincide with Paul’s pressing expectation of the
End in 1 Thess 4.15-5.3 and 1 Cor 7.29-31 and the early Christians prayer Maranatha (1 Cor 16.22).


71. Highlight on the copy of Mk 13 given above (using plenty of different colours) the keywords
mentioned in the bullet-points. This will help to show the shape.
72. Check the features of apocalyptic listed above for Dn 7, then list similar features in ch. 4 of the
Book of Revelation.
73. Find the apocalyptic features used to give the meaning of the death of Jesus in Mt 27.45-53.
74. Write a short paragraph for yourself about what Mk 13 tells you about the history of the


As long ago as 1892 Martin Kähler described Mk as ‘a passion narrative with extended introduction’.
The Passion comes as no surprise, but has been prepared for throughout the gospel; it is the summit
without which the gospel would make no sense. The expectation of the Passion has been woven into all
the preceding narrative. The reader senses and knows right from the beginning that Jesus is the Christ
who is destined to suffer and to die. Expectation of the Passion permeates the gospel particularly on
three levels.

Firstly, the reader is prepared for the Passion by the frequent allusions or ‘flash-forwards’ which occur.
The clue to the gospel is given in the Voice from heaven at the baptism. Already in the Voice from
heaven there is a hint of the Passion. The words of the Voice, ‘You are my son, the beloved; in you I am
well pleased’ already form an allusion to the opening of the Servant Songs in Isaiah 42.1. The Servant
of the Lord in Isaiah is to suffer and be humiliated, achieving vindication and the glory of God only
through suffering. If Jesus is being called to be the Servant, then the ‘favour’ of God includes suffering
and rejection. Such is the destiny already appointed to Jesus at his baptism.

Next, in the controversies with the Pharisees in 2.1-3.6, a similar hint occurs at crucial points. The
controversies are skilfully arranged in a chiasmus, highlighting the Passion at the two key spots, the
centre and the end. In the centre comes the hint, ‘The time will come when the bridegroom is taken
away from them’ (2.20). Similarly at the end the outcome of the controversies is a warning of
persecution to come: ‘The Pharisees went out and began at once to plot with the Herodians against him,
how they might destroy him’ (3.6). The rest of the chapter is devoted to the deepening opposition to
Jesus, even from his own family, presented in a typically Markan ‘sandwich’: family – scribes – family
(3.13-35). This represents a crescendo of opposition, to which Jesus finally reacts with the Parable of
the Sower, a summative comment on his inability to attract a widespread and loyal following: most of
the seed goes to waste, and only a small proportion of it produces an increasingly encouraging yield,
thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold. Very soon, the fate of the Baptist at the hands of Herod will itself be
warning enough for those who have heard the similarity of Jesus’ preaching to that of John. It is further
stressed by the ominous, ‘they came and took his corpse and laid it in a tomb’ (6.29), the same phrase,
with the same rough word for ‘corpse/body’ as occurs of Jesus’ burial in 15.45-46.

A second indication of the inevitability of the Passion is provided by the consistent emphasis on the
certainty of persecution for the disciples. Mk frequently indicates emphasis by triple repetition, and
nowhere in a more pronounced fashion than in the events of the Passion. So the Passion is formally
prophesied by Jesus three times. Each of these great formal prophecies of the Passion (8.31; 9.31;
10.32-34) is followed by a misunderstanding by the disciples and a re-iteration by Jesus that sharing his
sufferings is a pre-requisite for being a disciple: ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him
renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me’ (8.34); ‘if anyone wants to be first, he must
make himself last of all and servant of all’ (9.35). Finally, to the sons of Zebedee who ask for seats at
his right and left Jesus can promise only, ‘The cup that I shall drink, you shall drink’ (10.39). The
company with Jesus, on his right and left, will be the company kept by the two criminals crucified with
him, a grim Markan irony! Most strongly of all, the accent of Mk 13 is all on the inevitability of
persecution to be undergone by his disciples, from which they will eventually be delivered: ‘You will
be handed over to sanhedrins; you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will be brought before
governors and kings for my sake’ (13.9).

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly of all, the disciples cannot understand their Master until they
have seen and realised in experience that Jesus can reach his destiny only through the Passion.
Immediately after the Transfiguration they are warned that they should ‘tell no one what they had seen
until after the Son of man had risen from the dead’ (9.9). It is at the moment of Jesus’ death that the
climax occurs. The first human being to acknowledge Jesus as son of God is the centurion at the foot of
the cross. This is a clear signal that Jesus’ true quality of divine sonship is revealed only in his suffering
and death (see p. 62). No wonder the disciples were forbidden to proclaim the message when they had
been able to understand only a preliminary part of it, still needing to be completed by an understanding
of the centrality of the Passion to a full comprehension of Jesus’ person and significance.


1.The Tradition

The tradition of the Passion forms part of the very primitive piece of tradition which Paul quotes as
learnt by heart in 1 Cor 15.3-5 (see p.4). However, in the Passion Narrative as we have it in Mk the
traits of Mk’s personal style are unmistakable. Most noticeable of all is the triple repetition which is
such a feature especially of the Passion Narrative (triple prophecy of the Passion; three questions to
Jesus at the Jewish investigation; Peter’s three denials; Pilate’s three assertions of Jesus’ innocence; the
threefold division of time on Good Friday). Linguistically the passage is so full of Markan
characteristics at every level that only the sketchiest of oral sources, or rather suggestions, can lie
behind Mk’s final composition.

This does not, of course, mean that Mk is composing freely or inventing out of nothing. The Markan
account of the Agony is closely related to two other New Testament texts. There was a tradition in early
Christianity about Jesus’ agonized prayer at the prospect of his passion. This tradition took various
forms. A similar saying occurs in Jn 12.27-28,

Now my soul is troubled. What shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? But it is for this very reason that I have
come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. A voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it and will again glorify

The similarities are manifest: distress at the coming Passion, prayer to the Father, mention of the
‘hour’, acceptance of the Father’s will. But the mode is thoroughly Johannine. Jn portrays the Passion
of Jesus not as the moment of Jesus’ humiliation but as the Hour of his exaltation and glorification. Jn’s
Jesus is nevertheless fully human, so that his soul is troubled by the approaching trial (12:27a).
However, it is the moment of his glorification and that of his Father (12:28), to which he has looked
forward (2:4; 7:30; 8:20) and will look forward (13:1; 16:32). Accordingly, he thrusts aside the thought
of praying to be delivered from it. The image of the cup of suffering seen in the synoptic accounts of
the prayer in the garden will also be present at Jesus’ arrest in the garden (18:11). There again Jesus
accepts the cup in an atmosphere of triumph, for it comes at the conclusion of the arrest-scene, where
his divinity has shone through by his use of the mysterious divine 'I am he' (18:5, 6, 8) and the
awestruck reaction of the arresting-party in falling to the ground.

There are further echoes of the tradition in the Letter to the Hebrews 5.7-8:

During his life on earth he offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and with tears, to the one who was
able to save him from death, and, winning a hearing by his reverence, he learnt obedience, son though he was, by
his sufferings.

The details of this tradition about Jesus’ prayer are almost entirely different from those of the synoptic
scene, though again it is centred on the same motifs of prayer in distress and acceptance in obedience to
the divine will. It has been judged to have its origin in an early Christian hymn (compare Philippians
2.6-11). This would account for the poetic pleonasms (prayers and supplication, cries and tears – none
of these words occurs elsewhere in Hebrews), and the echoes of the prayers of the persecuted just man
in the psalms, especially Psalm 116.1-8. In the ‘winning a hearing by his reverence’ there may be also a
link to the voice from heaven in Jn 12.28b and perhaps even to the angel in Lk 22.43. It is a valuable
testimony to the vigour and variety of early Christian reflection on the Passion.

The integration of Mark’s narrative into the earlier part of the gospel is also strong. Not only is the
same little group of three disciples chosen to be alone with Jesus as at the Transfiguration, but just as at
the Transfiguration Peter ‘did not know what to answer’ (9.6), so now – and in the same words (slightly
ineptly, since no ‘answer’ was required!) – ‘they did not know what to answer’ (14.40). The
understanding of events is also strikingly increased if the story is read in the context of the
eschatological discourse of Mk 13. There, as here, the theme of the impending approach of the
eschatological ‘hour’ of testing and the need to keep awake is heavily underscored. The moment of
testing persecution is described in 13.11 as ‘that hour’, a pregnant phrase recalling the threatening
biblical Day of the Lord. The finale of the chapter stresses that no one can tell when it will arrive
(13.32), whence the need to keep awake (13.33, 34, 35, 37). This forms the obvious background for the
contrast between Jesus, who sees himself confronting the ‘hour’ (14.35), and the disciples whose
persistent inability to keep awake is the hallmark of their failure. A final eschatological note is sounded
by Jesus’ ‘has drawn near’(14.42), a reminiscence of the same word, expressing the arrival of the
eschatological Reign of God at the opening of his ministry, ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of
God has drawn near’ (1.15).

2. The Failure of the Disciples

The failure of the disciples, so prominent throughout the gospel, comes to a head in the Passion
Narrative. In this scene it is perhaps more central than even Jesus’ prayer. As possibly with Peter’s
denials (see below), the contrast between the intensity of the first prayer of Jesus and the flatness of the
other two prayers (in 14.39 Mark is content to say ‘he prayed saying the same word’, and on the third
occasion no prayer is given at all) suggests that Mark had sufficient material only for one prayer, and
himself spun it out into three for emphasis. On the other hand, Jesus’ triple return to the disciples and
his reproaches to them are richly described. One important feature may be that, having spoken in the
singular to Peter, he then speaks in the plural to all the disciples (14. 37, 38). Is he speaking just to the
group present in the garden, or to all disciples undergoing temptation?

The importance of the theme of the failing disciples is so great in Mark that the evangelist must intend
it to bear on some contemporary situation of his own community. In the first stage of the gospel the
presentation of the disciples is reasonably positive: the first four are called and respond immediately
and without question (1.16-20). They are called to be with Jesus and to go out and proclaim, with
power to expel evil spirits (3.13-15). They are the privileged recipients of the mystery of the Kingship
(4.11). They are sent out on their mission, which they fulfill (6.12-13) and receive Jesus'
congratulations on returning (6.30-31). Yet even at this early stage all is not well. In direct contrast to
his previous contrast between insiders who understand the mystery and outsiders who do not, Jesus is
seen to be disappointed that they do not understand the parable of the Sower and will therefore be
incapable of understanding the parables (4.13). In the storm on the lake there is a sharp exchange, the
disciples treating Jesus to sarcasm and Jesus replying with the accusation of cowardice (4.38-40). At
the first multiplication of loaves they fail to appreciate Jesus' power to solve the difficulty, and douse
him with sarcasm, 'Are we supposed to go off and buy...?' (6.37) Their failure to understand about the
multiplication of loaves is pointed by Mk using typically Markan double negatives and double
question. After the dispute over the tradition of the elders their lack of comprehension is again
underlined by the Markan dual phrase, 'Are even you so lacking in understanding? Do you not realise
that...?' (7.18). Finally in the discussion after the second bread-miracle they still totally fail to
understand the situation, again eliciting a Markan double question, 'Do you still not realise nor
understand?' (8.17)

After the symbolic healing of the blind man Peter does reach the turning-point of acknowledging that
Jesus is the Christ (8.29), but both he and the other disciples fail to understand what this means. So,
after each of the three great prophecies of the passion, the disciples show misunderstanding, and need
the lesson of their sharing in their Master's suffering to be reinforced. In 8.32 Peter remonstrates with
Jesus, is rebuked as 'Satan', and provokes Jesus's teaching to the disciples about self-denial. In 9.32 the
second prophecy is immediately followed by the quarrel about precedence, which Jesus corrects with
his teaching on the primacy of service. In 10.35 the third prophecy is followed by the ambitious and
self-seeking request of James and John, to which Jesus opposes the same teaching on the primacy of

Once the passion sequence starts, the situation worsens dramatically. First one of the disciples betrays
Jesus, immediately after the highest symbol of friendship, sharing the same dish. Then the inner group
of disciples falls asleep in the garden three times. The bitterness of this occasion is underlined by the
special involvement of precisely those three disciples who had been favoured with special revelation at
the Transfiguration (the link is stressed: again in their abashed confusion they 'knew not what to
answer'). James and John had also stoutly protested that they could share Jesus' cup (Mk 10:39). Soon
they will abandon him at the arrest and flee, despite their promises (14.31 and 50). The height of irony
will be reached in the naked flight of the young man: as at the beginning they forsook all to follow
Jesus, now one of them forsakes all to get away! Finally comes Peter’s denial in the high priest’s hall,
despite his assertion of fidelity till death (14.31).

3. The Prayer

On the one hand, there is a firm tradition, expressed both here and in Jn 12.27-28 amd Hebrews 5.7-8,
that Jesus struggled in prayer with the prospect of the tortured death that he faced. (How much did he
already know? Did he know that Judas had already set the arrest in motion? Did he realise the depths of
the hostility of the Temple authorities? Did he know that the Romans were involved?) On the other,
there is no reason to suppose that the words which the evangelist gives us were heard or passed down
from Jesus himself. The prayer as we have it is built from three elements.

1. The Psalms
From the earliest times Christians attempted to make sense of the stunning events of the Passion by
seeing what happened as the fulfilment of scripture. So the earliest tradition, taken up and quoted by
Paul, asserts that Christ ‘died for our sins according to the scriptures’ (1 Cor 15.3). In the twenty-first
century the view that the rejection of Jesus was the fulfilment of scripture would be shown with
broader brush-strokes. It was the climax of human disobedience and blindness to the divine will, as
seen from Adam onwards, but more especially in the story of Israel’s infidelities down the ages. Jesus’
own acceptance of his role is the climactic expression in human form of the love of God revealed
throughout the scriptures in the loving forgiveness of God for his people. By contrast, in the first
century the way the Passion fulfilled the scriptures was shown in factual correspondence of details of
the events to individual passages of scripture. This same approach is seen in the many quotations of the
Old Testament in the New, where little details are fulfilled in the life of Jesus, e.g. Mt 2.5-6, 15; 1 cor
10.4. It is also typical of the use of scripture in the Scrolls from Qumran. A rough list of the more
obvious scriptural allusions would include:

Zc 13.7 I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.
Am 2.16 Even the bravest of warriors will run away naked
Ps 41.6 I am deeply grieved, even to death.
Ps 35.11 False witnesses come forward against me.
Is 53.7 Like a sheep dumb before its shearers.
Is 50.6 I have not turned my face away from insults and spitting.
Ps 22.18 They divide my garments among them, cast lots for my clothes
Ps 22.7 They jeer at me and wag their heads
Ps 22.1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Ps 38.11 Even the dearest of my friends keep their distance.
Is 53.12 He was numbered among evil-doers
Am 5.18 Darkness at noon

Hence the detail in the Gethsemane narrative, ‘going on a little further’ (14.35) may be a reminiscence
of the same phrase in Gn 22.5, intimating that Jesus’ sacrifice is a fulfilment of Abraham’s sacrifice of
his son Isaac. Accordingly, the prayers of Jesus during his Passion are shown to be those of the
persecuted Just Man in the psalms: Psalm 41.6 in Mk 14.34; further examples at Mk 15.34; Lk 23.46.

2. The image of the Cup.

This image is used variously in the Bible, sometimes of the cup of divine wrath which the guilty must
drink (e.g. Is 51.17; Jr 25.15-16), but also more generally, and frequently in the inter-testamental
literature, of the painful cup of death. The usage here should accord with the two earlier uses by Jesus
in the gospel, first when he asks the sons of Zebedee whether they are willing to share his cup and to be
plunged into the baptism into which he must be plunged (10.38-39). Secondly, it is surely to be
understood in continuity with the cup of the new covenant which Jesus shared at the Supper (14.23-24),
indicating Jesus’ continuing awareness of this dimension of his coming Passion.

3. ‘Abba, Father’
For the prayer itself Mark is using or imitating the formulae of early Christian prayer, with the Aramaic
Abba immediately followed by its Greek translation (o ` p at h,r). This double formula of a particular
Aramaic word, regarded almost as a talisman, occurs elsewhere in the New Testament (1 Cor 16:22;
Rev 1:7, maranatha, meaning either ‘Come, Lord!’ or ‘The Lord is coming’). Jesus' consciousness that
God was his Father was treasured by the early community (e.g. Ga 4.6), and this usage, stemming from
Jesus himself, but rare in the synoptic gospels, was greatly extended, especially in Jn. The unadorned
use of Abba for God was held by that great scholar Joachim Jeremias to be unique to Jesus. He held
that Jesus’ contemporaries would use it only in combination with other, more reverent and distant titles
(e.g. ‘O Lord, father and ruler of my life’, Sira 23.1; also now 1 QH 9.35-36). He also held that it is the
affectionate child’s way of addressing a father, indicating the warmth and intimacy of that relationship,
so ‘Daddy’. However, Fitzmyer’s detailed study of Aramaic of the period shows that only after 200 AD
did this become current, and at the time of Jesus ‘Abba’ was more formal usage, and young children
called their father Abi rather than Abba. By its use of ‘Abba’ and by the focus on obedient submission
to God’s will, Jesus’ prayer recalls the atmosphere of early Christian prayer seen in The Lord’s Prayer.
As elsewhere, Mk uses the triple repetition to emphasize the intensity of Jesus' prayer.

THE ARREST (14.43-52)

Consonant with his consistent emphasis on the failure of the disciples, in Mark all is centred on the
betrayal by Judas and the flight of the disciples. This is another instance of Mark’s sandwich-technique
for contrast: he frames the account of Jesus’ fidelity with that of the infidelity of his followers.

The scene has been prepared firstly by the introduction to the Last Supper (14.17-21). Mk concentrates
not on the identity of the traitor so much as on the depths of treachery shown by one who has shared a
meal, ‘he who eats with me’ (Mk 14.18, omitted by Mt). The scene ends, ‘Better for that man if he had
never been born’. A second preparation has been given by Mk on the way to Gethsemane, in the form
of the scriptural quotation predicting the flight of all the disciples, ‘I shall strike the shepherd and the
sheep will be scattered’ (Zc 13.7), completed by the prophecy of Peter’s desertion and his blustering
protestations of loyalty. The Gethsemane scene then ends with the betrayal of Judas and the flight of
the disciples, leaving Peter’s desertion still in the future.

Betrayal continues as the accent of Mk’s description. As soon as Judas appears his desertion is
underlined by ‘one of the Twelve’, an expression used three times of Judas, and of him alone (14.10,
20, 43). The contrast is marked in the next verse: he betrays Jesus but had shown his solidarity with his
captors by working out an ‘agreed sign’ with the armed mob. The agreed sign was to be a kiss, but
Judas does not stop at this. He respectfully calls Jesus ‘Rabbi’ and gives him an affectionate kiss, which
expresses especial warmth, often a caress – and the trap is sprung.

Then follows the first curious episode, one of the bystanders drawing his sword and cutting off the ear
of the servant of the high priest. Who are these two, assailant and victim? Mk gives no hint, and
nowhere else are the disciples described as ‘the bystanders’. It is odd that any of them should be armed.
It is curious that the victim is called ‘the servant of the high priest’, and it has been suggested that he is
the Servant of the high priest in an honoured sense of ‘right-hand man’ or vizir. The removal of his ear
would then disqualify him from sacred office, according to Lv 21.18 LXX, and the incident can be read
as a reflection on the whole Temple cult. The incident is the more curious, in that it seems without
consequence, for Jesus’ next statement disregards it and refers back over it to the unjustified
aggressiveness of his captors, when they could have arrested him as he taught in the Temple.

Finally the fulfilment of scripture links back to the opening bracket in 14.27 as the disciples flee, a
flight which culminates in the burlesque of shameful desertion represented by the young man’s naked
flight (see p. 54). Pious tradition identifies the young man as Mark, the author of the gospel, perhaps on
the grounds that he alone had the humility to mention it, while Mt and Lk wanted to spare his blushes.
To add to the confusion, the author of the gospel is then identified with John Mark, at whose family
house the early community met (Acts 12.12). It is only surprising that the sheet (duly initialled) is, as
yet, nowhere presented for veneration. On the author of the gospel all the real data is given on p. 11.


The first question to be faced with regard to this gospel scene is its historical intention. Is Mk relating
what he knows to have happened from historical information, or is he deducing what must have
happened, relying on a Christian view of the condemnation and death of Jesus? The former alternative
is the traditional Christian position. It is normally undergirded with the assertion that, unlike the Agony
and the Arrest, this was an inherently public scene, to which there would have been many witnesses.
‘Mk, as the trusted representative of the Christian community, could not simply have spun this story
from his perspective of faith. He would never have got away with it. He would have been howled down
if he had invented things. Anyway, it bears the stamp of eye-witness detail’. Nevertheless, the position
that Mk is relying exclusively on detailed historical information brings with it certain difficulties:

75. ‘The stamp of eye-witness detail’ simply means that the story is well told. It has been granted from
the outset that Mk is a brilliant story-teller, which was no doubt part of the reason why he was
chosen to put down the first written record of the Good News.
76. The contention that ‘a story not based on historical knowledge, and not corresponding more or less
exactly to known facts, could not have survived the criticism of the Christian community’
presupposes a modern view of historical writing. If both Mk and his audience shared a different
perspective on how history should be written, a record of the message of Jesus less mechanically
consonant with known facts could well have been the most acceptable. Comparison with other
contemporary historical writers shows that it was felt legitimate for historians to use a good deal of
latitude, e.g. in the composition of speeches. Josephus often gives considerably different versions of
an event in his two works, The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews. Luke’s three versions of
the Vocation of Paul within the same work (the Acts of the Apostles) show significant variations.
77. Jn contains no record of an appearance before the high priest and the sanhedrin after Jesus’ arrest.
He earlier mentions a meeting of the high priest, Caiaphas, with his advisors at which the decision
is taken to do away with Jesus (11.47-53). After Jesus’ arrest there is only an appearance (18.19-24)
before Annas, the former high priest, which has some similarities with the Markan account,
especially in the details about Peter’s denials.
78. The two judicial appearances, before the high priest and before Pilate, are so similar in structure
that they appear to have been modelled on each other, or at least composed by the same hand (see p.
79. Mk and Mt relate what is basically the same event, but the differences in Lk’s account almost
suggest that he is narrating a different event. The most striking difference is that the high priest is
absent from his story. Mk’s account is so imbued with his own language and narrative techniques
that it is hard to see that he could have been relying on any written source. At most, he is putting an
orally-received narrative into his own words. Among the narrative techniques may be mentioned
are Mk’s technique of ‘sandwiching’ and his triple repetition. As in the triple repetition during the
Agony, he seems to have enough material for one account (14.66-68 give a lively account in his
best eye-witness style), while the second and third are somewhat flat. As for language, Mk’s own
Greek text is peremeated with his characteristic style.

Mk’s account has three special centres of interest, the false accusations about the Temple, the
Christological declaration and Peter’s triple denial.

1. The threat to destroy the Temple and in three days to rebuild it provides the context for the teaching
about the future of Jesus’ community which he gives overlooking the Temple (13.2), when he says that
not one of those magnificent stones will be left upon another. The threat is symbolically fulfilled by
Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple itself, which Mk portrays (through framing it by the story of the
cursing of the barren fig-tree, 11.12-21) as a declaration of the sterility of Israel (see p. 24). It is picked
up by the mockers at the crucifixion (15.29). It was this attitude towards the Temple, put into practice
by Jesus symbolically rubbishing the Temple, which led to his arrest. His persistent re-interpretation of
the Law on such matters as Sabbath observance (2.23-28; 3.1-6), purity (7.14-23) and divorce (10.1-12)
would no doubt have annoyed the Pharisees. But it does not go beyond the bounds of tolerable
disagreement between rabbinic schools. In fact the Pharisees disappear from the scene after 12.13 and
take no part in the Passion. However, when he upsets the business of the Temple, the Temple authorities
take action. Especially at the Passover, for which Josephus claims one-and-a-half million pilgrims came
to Jerusalem, such a disturbance cannot be risked again. It is the Temple authorities, the chief priests,
who take the lead in all the action against Jesus.

Why, then, does Mark attribute the pivotal saying about the Temple to false witnesses, when it is
attested also by Jn 2.19 as Jesus’ own, and important for understanding the course of events? Most
likely it is put in the mouths of false witnesses to show the fulfilment of prophecy. It is a scriptural
allusion to the false witnesses standing up against the Just Man, as in the psalms:

False witnesses have risen against me, and are breathing out violence (Ps 27.12). False witnesses come forward
against me, asking me questions I cannot answer (Ps 35.11).

Jesus’ lack of response is also a scriptural allusion. His silence echoes that of the Suffering Servant of
Yahweh in Isaiah 53.7: ‘Ill-treated and afflicted, he never opened his mouth. Like a lamb led to the
slaughter-house, like a sheep dumb before its shearers, he never opened his mouth’. This theme will
recur in the trial before Pilate (15.4).

2. The High Priest’s question follows the two unsuccessful charges. It is important that no progress can
be made except by Jesus’ own statement. This third question evokes the full declaration of the
personality of Jesus, aptly called ‘a compendium of Markan Christology’ (see p. 42). It is Mk’s
statement that the real reason for Jesus’ condemnation was the claims he made.

The mockery which concludes the interchange between Jesus and the high priest and his council is a
fulfilment of the Song of the Servant in Isaiah 50.6:
I have offered my back to those who struck me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.
I have not turned my face away from insult and spitting.

The humiliation of the spitting and mockery is an unpleasantly suitable response to the accusation of
arrogance implied by the High Priest’s charge. It is also a typical instance of Mk’s irony: they mock
Jesus for the prophecy which Mk’s readers know to be true. It is made more ironical by occurring just
when Jesus’ prophecy about Peter’s betrayal is at the point of fulfilment.

3. Peter’s triple denial brings to a climax the theme of the inadequacy and failure of the disciples which
has been such an important element in Mk, heightened by the contrast between Jesus’ steadfastness and
Peter’s cowardice. There is also a witty contrast between the sturdy Peter and the servant-girl. The
same word is used of the idiotic servant-girl in Ac 12.13 who shuts out Peter after his miraculous
release from prison.


1.The Interrogation by Pilate (15.2-5)

Discovery of the historical facts behind the gospel account faces the same challenges as have already
become evident in the discussion of earlier incidents. Were any of the disciples present? Hardly! Could
they have heard from an eye-witness information which was eventually passed on to the evangelists?
Are the very different accounts in the synoptic gospels and in Jn reconcilable? Mk has composed the
scene from two elements, a dialogue between Pilate and Jesus, and the Barabbas incident.

The account is indelibly signed with Mk’s own hand. Firstly, it has plenty of Markan verbal traits.
Secondly, it has the same structure as the account of the trial before the High Priest. Verbally there is a
marked similarity:

Before the High Priest Before Pilate

14.53 They led Jesus away to… 15.1 They led Jesus away
14.60 Question 15.2 Question
14.60 Surprise at Jesus’ silence to charges 15.4 Surprise at Jesus’ silence to charges
14.61 ‘Are you the Christ?’ 15.2 ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’
14.64 Jesus’ affirmative answer to presider 15.2 Jesus’ affirmative answer to presider
14.61 Further question 15.3 Further question
14.61 Silence of Jesus 15.4 Silence of Jesus
14.65 Mockery by participants and servants 15.16-20 Mockery by soldiers

Furthermore there is the similarity of multiple ineffective accusations, Jesus’ silence (after the manner
of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53), and the fact that in each case progress can be made only through
Jesus’ own answer. Each process ends inconclusively, without any sentence or verdict. This little scene
could not, however, represent any sort of trial; it lacks any sort of legal logic. There is no explanation
why Pilate puts his pivotal first question: who has told him that Jesus is accused of being king of the
Jews? Why do the chief priests continue with their ineffectual and unspecified accusations? If Mk had
not put first the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus over his royalty (15.2), the progression between the
chief priests handing Jesus over to Pilate and their accusing him would have been logical enough. As it
is, the only purposes of 15.3-5 are to parallel the previous trial, to show Jesus fulfilling the scriptural
silence and to excite Pilate’s wonder at his dignity. In this interrogation scene we are witnessing rather
the expression of Mk’s view of Jesus than a record of a trial.

2. The Barabbas Scene (15.6-15)

The Barabbas incident is also fully Markan. It continues the Markan scheme of triples (three passion
predictions, three returns to the disciples in Gethsemane, three accusations by the High Priest, three
mockeries), and shows several other Markan stylistic features. The most obvious feature, however, is
also the most Markan, the ironic structure of the whole piece: it is as King of the Jews that Jesus is
condemned. Mk’s readers accept him as King of the Jews, but it is precisely as king that his own people
reject him and prefer Barabbas. The accent of the whole scene is to put the burden on the Jews, who are
invited by each of Pilate’s questions to implicate themselves further: first, ‘Do you wish that I should
release the King of the Jews?’, then the even more sarcastic, ‘Then what shall I do with him whom you
call King of the Jews?’, and finally, ‘What evil has he done?’ In each of these cases Pilate is making the
crowd reach a decision which is his responsibility and make a judgement which he himself should have
made: the governor should decide on the release of a prisoner, the governor should decide on his right
to the title, and the governor should assess what evil he has done.

Mk’s manner of painting the scene does not, of course, affect its basic historicity. It was normal
practice in Roman provinces that the local administration had no right to condemn a prisoner to death,
whereas the governor could exercise summary jurisdiction on a provincial without any formal trial. No
festal amnesty of a prisoner is known anywhere in the Roman world, but Judaea was unique as a
territory within the empire, and it would have been a fittingly conciliatory gesture on the festival of the
liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. External historical evidence neither supports nor
invalidates this amnesty. Primarily, the scene shows Pilate not as a weakling but as a skilled and wily
negotiator, who managed to kill two birds with one stone, solving the problem of both Barabbas and
Jesus at one blow, and avoiding any nationalistic trouble by persuading the people that it was their own


There are curious instances of Markan duality about the account, two mentions of drink offered (15.23,
36), two mentions of the actual crucifying (15.24, 25), two loud cries (15.34, 37). The first drink
offered out of pity and refused by Jesus is a mild narcotic. The second, the rough, peasant, vinegary
wine may be a taunt, for in Psalm 69.21 and the Qumran Scrolls the offer of vinegar to drink is seen as
a taunt by enemies:

‘They [the teachers of lies and seers of falsehood] withhold from the thirsty the drink of knowledge and assuage
their thirst with vinegar’ (1QH 4.11).

Of the two cries, the first is important as putting on Jesus’ lips the intonation of the Psalm which gives
the meaning of the Passion, while the second seems to lack any theological interpretation; it is simply a
last cry of pain.

1. The Crucifixion
Remarkable about this description is as much what it does not say as what it does. There is no dwelling
on the horrors of this barbaric method of execution. It was too familiar in the Roman world, and as long
as it remained so, realistic representations of the crucifixion were avoided in favour of a bejewelled
Cross. Nor does Mark precise about the location of Golgotha; the associations of the name are more
important that the topographical details.

Only three features are important to Mark. In accordance with his careful principles of chronological
organisation and his interest in numbers, he divides the day into periods of three hours, third, sixth,
ninth hour and evening. The principal features are two. Fulfilment of scripture has been a continuous
interest: the wine mixed with myrrh is mentioned not because of its supposed narcotic qualities but
because it fulfills Psalm 69.21b. The division of Jesus’ clothes is mentioned not to draw attention to the
shame of nakedness but because it fulfills Psalm 22.18. The criminals crucified on either side of Jesus
are mentioned partly because they fulfill Isaiah 53.12.

Markan irony gives these criminals another sense too: Jesus was handed over to be crucified as king of
the Jews; these criminals are now his sole supporters. The reader of Mark’s gospel will surely also
remember that, after the third solemn prediction of the Passion, the sons of Zebedee asked for a place at
his right and his left ‘in his glory’ (10.37), another Markan reminder of the failure of the disciples to

2. The Mockeries
The two chief mockeries (that of the criminals is a mere tailpiece, to show what sort of supporters they
are), focus on the two accusations of the Jewish hearing, the charge of renewing the Temple and of
being the Christ. To these is added again the charge, King of the Jews, brought before Pilate. The irony
is intensified by the reader’s knowledge both that Jesus is taunted for what he really is, and that Jesus
could come down from the Cross. Above all, in both cases the mockery centres on the word ‘save’,
which the reader knows has been used so often in the stories of Jesus’ ministry.

3. The Death of Jesus

In Mark the actual death of Jesus is recounted neutrally, but its sense is given beforehand by three
scriptural links. First comes the darkness at noon. This must fulfil the foreboding threats of the Day of
the Lord in Amos 5.20, ‘Will not the Day of Yahweh be darkness not light, totally dark, without a ray of
light?’ and more especially Amos 8.9, ‘On that Day, declares the Lord Yahweh, I shall make the sun go
down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight’. This darkness at the sixth hour therefore
announces that the Day of the Lord is occurring, that great and terrible day when the judgement and
restoration of Yahweh are to be manifest. From the time of Amos onwards this Day had been a marker
of increasing importance in the Bible. First it was awaited with threatening fear as the Day when
Israel’s sins, infidelities and desertions would be avenged. Once this had occurred in the disaster of the
Sack of Jerusalem and the Exile, it became seen as the day of Restoration, when the Lord would punish
Israel’s tormentors and restore Israel to its own land. This was painted in more and more cosmic terms,
terminology originally drawn from Israel’s awesome experience of God on Sinai at the covenant, when
God, represented in imagery of cloud, thunder, lightning and earthquake, made Israel a chosen people,
bound to him for ever. With Israel’s increasing awareness of universalism, that is, of Israel’s mission to
bring salvation to all nations, this language came to be expanded to involve astral and cosmic

The earth quakes, the skies tremble, the stars lose their brilliance,
Yahweh’s voice rings out at the head of his troops (Joel 2.10).

I shall cover the skies and darken the stars,

I shall cover the sun with clouds and the moon will not give its light.
I shall dim every luminary in heaven because of you (Ezk 32.7-8).

The other scriptural key given to the death of Jesus is the intonation of Psalm 22, which has featured so
widely in the Passion Narrative. It is not a cry of despair, justifying gruesome theologies of Jesus
suffering the pains of the damned, of total separation from God, even of God vengefully exacting from
his Son the penalties which were due from all humankind. On the lips of the dying Jesus it is the
intonation of the psalm, binding together all the other allusions to the psalm. The thrust of Psalm 22 is
the achievement of the glory of God and the vindication of the sufferer only after the psalmist has
passed through shame, humiliation and torture. It ends in triumph:

The whole wide world will remember and return to Yahweh,

All the families of nations bow down before him.
Those who are dead, their descendants will serve him,
Will proclaim his name to generations still to come. (Ps 22.27-31)

4. The Veil of the Temple and the Centurion

These two commentaries complete the picture of the event. Neither of them is meant strictly
historically. It is hard to believe that Christians continued to go to the Temple in the early days of Acts
(Ac 2.46) without any comment on the shredded veil. The symbolic meaning is paramount, signifying
that the uniqueness of Judaism had come to an end and that the privileges of Judaism are now open to
the world. There is a similar story in Josephus (War 6.293-6):

The eastern gate of the inner court of the Temple, which was of brass and vastly heavy, and had been with
difficulty shut by 20 men, and rested upon a base armed with iron , and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm
floor, which was there made of one single stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of
the night… The men of learning understood that the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord
and the the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies. So these publicly declared that this signal
foreshowed the desolation that was coming upon them.

The lesson is reinforced by the Centurion’s acknowledgement. The theme of ‘son of God’ has run
through the gospel right from the beginning (see p. 42). It is in the heading, ‘The beginning of the
gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God’. The same declaration of how Jesus is to be understood is provided
by the Voice from heaven at the Baptism (1.11). The unclean spirits cast out by Jesus have
acknowledged him as ‘son of God’, but none of the bystanders seem to react to it. Only now does any
human being acknowledge Jesus as son of God.

It is vital to Mk that this acknowledgement comes from a gentile. On the lips of a gentile centurion ‘son
of god’ would have a lesser import than to a Christian. ‘Son of the gods’ in gentile discourse would
signify the special patronage of and participation with the pagan deities. It was used freely of great men
and heroes of the past, and by this time was a regular part of the Roman emperor’s title. Further
significance comes from the fact that during his ministry Jesus has only once had contact with a gentile.
The story of the Syro-Phoenician (7.24-30) is enough to show that Jesus was open to the entry of
gentiles into his company. The case remains unique, however, until this moment, when a gentile, rather
than a Jew, becomes the first human being to acknowledge Jesus as son of God. Especially in
conjunction with the splitting of the Temple veil, Mk shows that with the death of Jesus the mission to
the gentiles begins. The gentiles will be more open to the message than the original hearers of the Good

It is now clear why the disciples have been forbidden to spread the message ‘until the son of man had
risen from the dead’ (9.9). To be son of God demanded the full obedience to the will of the Father
shown in the acceptance of suffering and death. The cry of the centurion shows also that the Father is
not wholly divorced from the suffering of the world. In everyday speech we might say, ‘He really is
the son of his father’, when we see a son behaving according to well-known behaviour-patterns of his
father, or especially when a son determinedly carries out his father’s plans in the face of major
difficulties. For Mk the death of Jesus is the climax of the Incarnation, revealing in human form
something of the divine. There remains to come only the vindication of Jesus by his Father at the
Resurrection. The thrust and lessons of that passage have been discussed earlier (see p. 43).

Assignment Three or Personal Work

80. Trace the fulfilments of the scriptural allusions listed on p. 48/49, write in there the passages in
Mk’s Passion Narrative which fulfil them.

81. Mark up in your work-copy of the gospel:

1. The triples in the Passion Narrative (‘1 – 2 – 3’, each series in a different colour: 3 times
of day, 3 questions at the Jewish hearing, 3 denials by Peter,3 questions by Pilate).
2. The parallels between the two scenes before the High Priest and the Governor.

82. Write a 1,500-word essay on either ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’

(Include several answers to this: why did the Jews want him eliminated? Why did the
Romans pass sentence of death? Does Mk think either of these is the fundamental
historical reason? The answer is NOT ‘because Jesus offered himself for my sins’)
or ‘How would you reply to the historical sceptic who said, “I prefer Paul’s sober but
skeletal account in 1 Cor 15.3 to Mk’s imaginative embroideries”?’
83. Consider carefully the question on which you have not written, and make some notes on it for