3 Mark: placing suffering and death at the heart of the Gospel

The earliest (and shortest) Gospel, the beginning of the good news about Jesus, makes a strong and enduring contribution to telling the story of Jesus. See my earlier posts at https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/

This is the claim that the suffering and death of Jesus was the very essence of his task. The whole narrative of Mark’s Gospel is shaped to direct attention to the events that take place in Jerusalem at Passover. The death of Jesus assumes central importance.

Shaping the story to focus on the passion

Of course, some decades before this Gospel took shape as a written work, the preaching of the early followers of Jesus — all Jews — had drawn on Hebrew Scripture. If the accounts in Acts offer any reliable insight into that preaching, then telling the story of a Jesus and explicitly referring to his death in early sermons was par for the course. (But we have all of this mediated through the author of this Gospel, so we cannot be certain about this claim.)

Some letters of some of those early followers survive, and these letters provide clear and direct evidence for what was the practice of believers in the 40s and 50s. Some of the authentic letters of Paul give indications that even before him, there were simple credal-like statements which focussed on an understanding of the sacrificial nature of the death of Jesus (Gal 2:20; 1 Thess 4:14, 5:9-10; 1 Cor 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Rom 3:24-25, 5:8).

In the last three chapters of Mark (where the final sequence of events for Jesus in Jerusalem are recounted), we can see further pointers to this central theme.

The prelude to the Passion Narrative recounts two significant meals (14:1–31): one, when a woman anointed Jesus in anticipation of his burial (14:8), the other, the last meal of Jesus when he foreshadowed his death. After the first meal, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas is foreshadowed (14:10–11); after the second meal, the denial of Jesus by Peter is predicted (14:26–31).

The Narrative itself has three main sections, each with two parts. Section One (14:32–52) is based in Gethsemane, where Jesus prays before he is arrested. Section Two (14:53–15:20) revolves around the trials of Jesus, first before the High Priest and the whole Council and then before Pilate, the Roman Governor. In between these trials, Peter denies any knowledge of Jesus. Section Three (15:21–41) is based at Golgotha, where Jesus is crucified and dies.

As a postlude to these scenes, Mark recounts the burial of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb on the third day (15:42–16:8). The whole narrative contains a slowly building sense of the inevitable which climaxes in the death of Jesus. All has pointed to this moment; and at the climactic moment, the centurion declares the essential nature of Jesus (15:39).

Table: The Passion Narrative in The Gospel of Mark

Prelude (14:1–31) Two meals: at Bethany, at Jerusalem

Section One (14:32–52) Jesus in Gethsemane

Section Two (14:53–15:20) Jesus on Trial

Section Three (15:21–41)      Jesus at Golgotha

Postlude (15:42–16:8) The Tomb: burial, discovery

How are we to make sense of this death? The Passion Narrative of Mark (as, indeed, in all four canonical gospels) relates it to the figure of righteous person who suffers injustice. He takes great pains to show that Jesus remains faithful to his calling despite the pressures he faces.

Jesus, the righteous sufferer

In this Passion Narrative, the author of the beginning of the good news recounts the death of Jesus by relating it to the figure of righteous person who suffers injustice. The author of this Gospel takes great pains to show that Jesus remains faithful to his calling despite the pressures he faces.

The Gethsemane scene draws on imagery from Hebrew Scripture to underline this. The narrative evokes the suffering of the faithful righteous person, a figure found especially in the Psalms.

Like the righteous sufferer, Jesus laments that he is “deeply grieved” in the face of his death (14:34), using the same language as the psalmist (Psalms 42:5,11; 43:5; also 42:6; 55:4; 61:2; 102:9–10; 116:3; and most graphically, 22:14–15).

Jesus continues in prayer, using the language of the prophets who pointed to the divine judgment which Israel would suffer (“remove this cup” evokes the cup of divine judgment; see Psalm 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15–16; Ezek 23:31–34; Hab 2:16–17; Lam 4:21). Thus the prophets are used to interpret the suffering which Jesus faced.

Yet this image is transformed from vindictive revenge, to vicarious suffering, in the context of Mark’s Gospel—”the cup” has already been identified with the passion of Jesus at Mark 10:38–39.

The Golgotha scene also contains this orientation. What takes place is interpreted with reference to scripture; here, the allusions are both subtle, and more direct. The cry which Jesus utters at the ninth hour, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (15:34), is a clear reference to Psalm 22, by quoting its first verse.

As Jesus approaches his death, the psalm focuses attention on the stark moment of utter dereliction. Here, Jesus identifies with the righteous sufferer, who hopes for salvation but still experiences utter desolation. (It may also be important to observe that the psalm moves from the despair of lament (22:1–21) to the hope of thanksgiving (22:22–31). Is this what was intended by the author of the Gospel?)

Indeed, the Golgotha narrative draws extensively on Psalm 22 to express what Jesus experienced on the cross. The dividing of garments and casting of lots (15:24) alludes to the same actions endured by the righteous sufferer at Psalm 22:18 (this is made explicit at John 19:23–24).

Those passing by mock Jesus, wagging their heads at him (15:29), in the fashion of Psalm 22:7, “all who see me mock me”. The taunt, “let him save himself” (15:31–32) reflects the prayer of the righteous sufferer (Psalm 22:8, “he committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him”).

The offer of wine mingled with myrrh (15:23) evokes Psalm 69:21, which once more is made explicit at John 19:28–30a (this is explicitly “to fulfil the scripture”).

Later reflection, within the early church, recognized that what took place at Golgotha could be understood in the light of the understanding of suffering in the Hebrew Scripture; what happened to Jesus was recognized as fulfilling scripture, as the later addition of 15:28 (added in some ancient version of Mark’s Gospel) indicates (referring to Isa 53:12).

The scenes at Gethsemane and Golgotha are thus steeped in the language and imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is through this Jewish heritage that understanding of this death can be found.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/23/4-the-structure-of-the-passion-narrative-in-mark/

This material was drawn from MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel of Mark, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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