In the Uniting Church’s resource provided for worship leaders, Uniting in Worship, there is a Calendar of Commemorations, based on the cycle of annual feast days for saints in the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox churches—but broadened out to be much wider than this. Many days of the year are designated to remember specific people. Today (25 April) is the day allocated to remember John Mark, fellow worker with Paul and, by tradition, the author of the earliest Gospel.
Mark, it is believed, was a young man at the time of Jesus. The first explicit mention of this young man comes in Luke’s description of the community of believers, gathered together. When Peter was released from prison, he went to “the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many had gathered and were praying” (Acts 12:12).
It’s interesting to wonder whether this gathering in the house of this Mary might have been in the same place, with many of the same people, who gathered in Jerusalem, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, but before the Day of Pentecost. That gathering was in “the room upstairs where they were staying”, without the owner of the house being noted. Included in the people participating in this gathering was “Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:12–14). John Mark is not mentioned amongst those named in this group on that earlier occasion.
John Mark is mentioned further time in Acts after the gathering in Jerusalem in Acts 12. After working for a year in Antioch (11:26), Barnabas and Saul “returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark” (12:25). It seems that John Mark had been sharing in ministry with Barnabas and Saul in Antioch.
The final reference to John Mark occurs at a critical moment in the narrative about the mission that Barnabas and Saul had been undertaking. They had spent time in Antioch in Syria (11:22–30), Cyprus (13:4–12), Antioch in Pisidia (13:13–52), Iconium (14:1–5), Lystra and Derbe (14:6–20), Barnabas and Saul travelled back to Antioch in Pisidia (14:21–23) and then on back to Antioch in Syria (14:24–28).
After a council of the church was held in Jerusalem (15:1–29) and a report from that was given in Antioch (15:30–35), there was some discussion about revisiting “the believers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing” (15:36).
Luke reports that “Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work” (15:37–38). This earlier desertion of the apostles—not actually noted in the text at the time it was said to have taken place—was the basis for Paul’s opposition to this proposal.
Luke indicates that “the disagreement became so sharp that they parted company”; the word that is used here, paroxysmos, is sharp and cutting (we derive the word paroxysm from it). So “Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord (15:39–40). Silas would be the ongoing companion of Paul for some time thence.
There is an ancient church tradition, however, that identifies John Mark with “a certain young man”, not named in the text, who was “wearing nothing but a linen cloth” (Mark 14:51). This young man, perceived to be one of the followers of Jesus, was with Jesus in the garden at the critical time when, as the Gospel reports, all those who were with him “deserted and fled” (14:50). The text explicitly notes of this “certain young man” that the “crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes and the elders” (14:43) caught hold of him as the others fled, “but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (14:52).
This young man—the first Christian streaker!—has been identified as John Mark, and it’s further claimed that he was the author of the work we know as the Gospel according to Mark. The “evidence” in the text is as clear as the clothing that the young man was wearing—it slips away in an instant, it is nothing of any substance at all.
What else do we know of John Mark? Is he the “Mark, cousin of Barnabas” mentioned at Col 4:10? His name appears here and in Philemon 24, amidst a similar cluster of men identified as fellow-workers of Paul (Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke; see Col 4:10–14). The names of three of these men (Mark, Delmas, and Luke) recur amidst the people noted at 2 Tim 4:9–11; also named are Crescens, Titus, Alexander, and Tychicus).
This section of 2 Tim may well be an historical fragment from the time of Paul, inserted into a letter written at a later time, claiming Pauline authorship (but betraying many signs of a later composition). But nothing definitively links this Mark with the John Mark of Acts (nor, for that matter, with the author of the earliest extant Gospel).
The later relationship between John Mark and Paul is also hinted at in a further letter, attributed to Peter (but most likely not authored by either him), which concludes with a note that Silvanus (whom some think may have been Silas) assisted in writing the letter, and that “my son Mark sends greetings” (1 Pet 5:12–13).
This verse has contributed to the tradition that Mark was a disciple of Peter (the word translated “son” could also infer he was a “disciple”)—and thus, that Mark’s Gospel came from when Mark, “in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord”, as Papias declared (Eusebius, Church History 3.39). The lion is the symbol that is traditionally attached to this Gospel.
But this claim about authorship comes from a later century, and is not an observation made at the time the Gospel was written. See
The closing words of the letter attributed to Peter are a fitting conclusion to our consideration of the mercurial John Mark: “Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.” (1 Pet 5:14). If he was, indeed, with Peter, and if this was, indeed, their wish for “the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pet 1:1), it stands as a fine testimony from this first century follower of Jesus.
Mark is subsequently credited as being the founder of the church in Egypt. The Coptic Church (the Church of Alexandria) is called the “See of St. Mark”; it is claimed as one of the four earliest sees: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. John Mark regarded in the Coptic Church as the first of their unbroken 117 patriarchs, and also the first of a stream of Egyptian martyrs.
An apocryphal story told about John Mark concerns an incident soon after he had left Jerusalem and arrived in Alexandria. On his arrival, the strap of his sandal was loose. He went to a cobbler to mend it. When the cobbler, named Anianos, took an awl to work on it, he accidentally pierced his hand and cried aloud “O One God”. At this utterance, it is said that Mark miraculously healed the man’s wound. This gave him courage to preach to Anianos. The spark was ignited and Anianos took the Apostle home with him. He and his family were baptized, and many others followed.
It is said that John Mark went to Rome, but left there after Peter and Paul had been martyred; he then returned to Alexandria and was martyred there in the year 68, after an altercation with a crowd attempting to celebrate the feast of Serapis at the same time as the Christians were celebrating Easter.
Jesus has died. His body has been handed over to followers, placed in a tomb, and left for the Sabbath. By tradition, the body would next be anointed with spices. Normally, the role of anointing a body of a deceased person is undertaken by women. Perhaps the reference to washing the body of Tabitha after her death (Acts 9:37) refers to this?
Josephus describes the rites relating to the body of the young Jonathan III Aristobulus, a High Priest who was murdered in 35 BCE. After his death, there was “great preparation for a sepulchre to lay his body in; and providing a great quantity of spices; and burying many ornaments together with him (Antiquities 15.4). This was a lavish provision for a high status person; we can deduce, by analogy, that similar funeral rites were offered to the bodies others of lesser status on their death.
Indeed, two of the Synoptics note this practice: when the women came to the tomb, they “bought spices, so that they might go anoint him” (Mark 16:1); they came, “taking the spices that they had prepared” (Luke 24:1; see also 23:55–56). Matthew, by contrast, simply states that the women “went to see the tomb” (Matt 28:1); there is no mention of spices in this version, where the focus is more on the claim that the disciples stole the body (Matt 27:64–66; 28:13–15).
This anointing of the body was to be done, at the first possible opportunity, after the Sabbath. Yet, although the women come to the tomb, prepared to anoint the body (Mark 16:1–2), they are curiously unprepared with any plan to roll away the stone that had been placed over the mouth of the tomb (Mark 16:3; perhaps this inferred at Luke 24:1–2 ?).
Matthew, of course, tells of the exact moment that “an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Matt 28:2). This is one of two dramatic apocalyptic events that Matthew recounts. When the curtain in the temple is torn in two, the scene evokes the apocalypse: the earth shook, the rocks were split, the tombs were opened, the saints were raised (27:51–53).
So, when the women arrive at the tomb, and the angel rolls back the stone, there is another such moment; “his appearance was like lightning, his clothing white as snow” (28:3); the guards at the tomb “shook and became like dead men” (28:4). Both scenes evoke the apocalyptic scenario that Matthew has had Jesus point to before his arrest (24:29–31, referencing Isa 13:10–13).
In John’s Gospel, by contrast, there is an interesting twist. John reports that the anointing of the body was undertaken immediately by the two men who had taken custody of the body of Jesus—Joseph of Arimathea, “who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the [Jewish authorities]” (John 19:38), and Nicodemus, “who had at first come to Jesus by night” (19:39).
The two men had a large amount of “myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds”, which they wrapped “in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews” (19:40). I can’t find a specific reference that substantiates what those burial customs were in the first century (the relative dearth of historical sources for this time is a regular problem encountered in biblical studies). There are laws relating to this from later centuries. Did they apply in the first century?
James McGrath, in his book on “The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith”, 2008 (see https://www.amazon.com/Burial-Jesus-History-Faith/dp/1439210179) argues that “the account in Mark’s Gospel itself seems to suggest that some of the concerns of later Jewish laws preserved in rabbinic sources existed at the time of Jesus”—laws such as not leaving the body exposed overnight, not giving the body of the deceased to the family immediately, and placing the body in a nearby tomb used for the bodies of those executed. He thinks that later changes to the story reflect the discomfort and embarrassment of the earliest followers of Jesus regarding the burial of Jesus; an hypothesis that has much merit.
The story of the anointing of the body of Jesus this grows over time; the respect accorded to Jesus has been overlaid across the bare narrative of the earliest account. The notion that the body of Jesus could be left out for the vultures, or thrown into a communal grave, is anathema to the faithful Jewish followers of Jesus.
Powerful figures step into the story, to request the body and deal reverently with the body. The story grows in each telling, with another small element being added, to ensure that the holiness of the body of Jesus is maintained. Even in the despair of death, the story claims the importance of Jesus. Such is the power of the storytelling amongst the earliest followers of Jesus.
There are many scenes, and much close description, of the events that took place in Jerusalem in the days leading up to the death of Jesus, in the year 33CE) by most scholarly reckoning). We have already seen some differences in the way that the very last moments of Jesus, on the cross, are reported. But what happened after Jesus died?
By contrast, the Gospel of Peter (a second century document, written to counter some emerging “heresies”) claims that “the Lord screamed out, saying: ‘My power, O power, you have forsaken me.’ And having said this, he was taken up.” (Gosp. Peter 19). This was presumably his soul departing into heaven, for the body of Jesus was given to Joseph and placed in a tomb (Gosp. Peter 23–24). For the text of this Gospel, see http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/gospelpeter-brown.html
The earliest account of the actions of Joseph is found in Mark’s account. “Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock; he then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb” (Mark 15:46).
The action of Joseph would accord with the instruction in the Hebrew Torah: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the LORD your God is giving you for possession.” (Deut 21:22-23). Joseph, by requesting the body, demonstrates his fidelity to Torah.
I am indebted to James McGrath for drawing this text to my attention; he has canvassed many of these issues in his book on “The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith”, 2008; see https://www.amazon.com/Burial-Jesus-History-Faith/dp/1439210179. Dr McGrath notes that Mark’s account tells us that “Jesus’ disciples were not in a position to accord Jesus an honourable burial … a pious Jewish leader named Joseph of Arimathea made sure that Jewish law was observed”. He cites a note in Josephus’ Jewish War that indicates this was a practice known elsewhere. As Josephus puts it, “the Jews are so careful about burial rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset” (Jewish War, 4.317).
Whether the governor, Pilate, would have been amenable to this specific request, is dubious—given that the bodies of criminals who died by crucifixion were regularly cast into a communal pit outside the city, or there bodies were left out in the open for vultures to pick over. There was no honouring of the lives of criminals for the Romans. However, as the Torah prescribes an early burial of a dead body, it may well be that Joseph, a righteous man, and Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, would have been pressing Pilate to ensure that they were able to adhere to that commandment (Deut 21:22–23, cited above).
The first thing that we know about the tomb, in Mark’s earliest account, is that it was a tomb hewn out of rock (Mark 15:46). When Matthew takes this account and retells it, he adds two striking details: first, the tomb belonged to Joseph; and second, it had not yet been used. Matthew reports that “Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; he then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away” (Matt 27:59–60).
That Joseph owned the tomb may well have been inferred in Mark’s account, but Matthew makes it explicit. That it was a previously unused tomb is new information. Again, James McGrath argues that this added detail was an apologetic argument added because of difficulties with the story; the addition is “an attempt by later followers of Jesus to honour Jesus in their depiction of the burial, in a way his disciples had been unable to in historical reality”. The tomb, he maintains, in contradiction to the explicit claim in the text, was actually not owned by Joseph.
Luke includes this detail in his account: when Pilate permits Joseph to claim the body of Jesus, “he took it down wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid” (Luke 23:53). Luke, like Mark, makes no direct statement as to whether Joseph owned the tomb. It is the pristine, unused character of the tomb that he highlights. Could this be a reference to the significance of Jesus? He is accorded an honour, as God’s holy one, of being interred in a pure, unused tomb. Matthew makes sure we know that he was wrapped in a clean linen cloth and placed in a new tomb; both details undergird this apologetic claim about Jesus.
Luke does not indicate that Joseph was doing this because he was a disciple of Jesus; he is simply “a good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50), perhaps in the same way that Elizabeth and Mary “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1 6)—that is, a faithful and devout Jew.
Of course, in the Apostles Creed (shaped not by the original apostles but in a later time), there is a statement that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead”.
This affirmation was presumably included on the basis of the claim in the first letter attributed to Peter, that Jesus, as a spirit, “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet 3:19), the later statement that “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead” (1 Pet 4:6), and the reference in Ephesians, a later circular letter attributed to Paul, that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph 4:6).
There is, however, no reference to this journey to the underworld (the so-called Harrowing of Hell) in any of the Gospel narratives. The symbolism that these anonymous apostles develop is not evident in any way in the Gospels. The implication is, rather, that the spirit of Jesus goes to be with God in a heavenly realm, even as his body is dealt with in the earthly sphere.
There are many scenes, and much close description, of the events that took place in Jerusalem in the days leading up to the death of Jesus, in the year 33CE (by most scholarly reckoning). The scene of his death is portrayed by all four evangelists.
Mark reports that, when Jesus was drawing near to his death, “darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Mark 15:33) and, after he had uttered his last words, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (15:38).
Luke repeats this, bringing the two happenings together into one moment of time, before Jesus utters his final words: “darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:44–45). For both evangelists, the death of Jesus was a moment of high drama, underlined by these unnatural happenings.
Matthew repeats the words and the order found in Mark (Matt 27:45, 51) but adds a graphic happening—“the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (27:51–52).
The narrator continues, breathlessly, jumping ahead in the story: “after his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many” (27:53). It’s a striking element, more noteworthy because it is neither explicitly told nor hinted at by any other canonical evangelist. But for Matthew, the moment of death brought to the fore the apocalyptic turmoil of God’s direct intervention in history, signalled by the earthquake, the seismic fissure, and a premature resurrection of saints.
Quite by contrast, the Johannine version reports no darkness over the land, no tearing of the temple curtain, no earthquake, and certainly no opening of to,bs and no resurrected saints walking the streets! John simply reports that Jesus, thirsting, was given wine, and “when Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30). It is a most serene ending.
Each writer indicates that Jesus spoke words moments before his death; just as there are differences relating to the way Jesus died, so there are three rather different versions of the last words spoken by Jesus just before he died. Mark says that Jesus “cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34); soon after this, he “gave a loud cry and breathed his last” (15:37).
The words on the lips of Jesus come from Psalm 22, which is one of a group known as the psalms of the righteous sufferer (a group often identified as also including Psalms 27, 67, and 109). Jesu, in his pain and anguish, is drawing on his religious tradition; the psalm he quotes is most apposite for what he is experiencing at that moment.
The version of Jesus’ last words, reported by Mark, is followed almost exactly by Matthew, writing his book of origins some years after Mark had completed his writing. (One relatively minor difference is that Mark quotes the psalm in Hebrew, the formal language of scripture, whereas Matthew renders it in Aramaic, the vernacular of Jesus.)
Luke also has Jesus quoting a psalm, but it has a very different tone. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46, quoting Ps 31:5) has a very different feel—it depicts a man going to his death with certainty, knowing his fate, assured that he will be received by God. It has a heroic feel, with the key figure almost choosing his time of death at the climactic moment in the story.
Indeed, Luke portrays this scene as a moment of theatre (the NRSV refers to “the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle”, 23:48). Immediately after Jesus utters his last words, says Luke, “having said this, he breathed his last” (23:46). His manner of dying evokes praise to God from the centurion standing watch by his cross (23:47).
John places just one solitary Greek word on the lips of Jesus at his last moment; it needs three words to render it in English (“it is finished”, or “it is completed”, or “it is fulfilled”; John 19:30). This, too, has a sense of acceptance, a recognition by Jesus that all the he had been undertaking had now been completed.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:24); it was “his hour … to depart from this world and go to the Father” (13:1), the hour when the Father would “glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you … by finishing the work that you gave me to do”, as Jesus prays just before his arrest (17:1, 4). The hour had come; the work was done; all was complete. The moment was calm and serene; Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (19:30).
Three different perspectives on the significance of the work of Jesus, placed into his mouth at the moment of death, by three different authors, providing their own accounts of his life and importance.
“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). Each of the four canonical Gospels report that there was a chance that Jesus of Nazareth might have been released, and not sent to his death on the cross; and that Barabbas was released in his place.
Is this factual reporting? Did this actually happen in real historical time? Or was it a fable, a myth, a story “made up” in the telling? Barabbas appears in all four Gospels (Matt 27:15–26; Mark 15:6–15; Luke 23:13–25; John 18:39–40). What are we to make of him?
Certainly the actual death of Jesus was an event that happened in real historical time. Although some critics have disputed this, the evidence is clear that Jesus did exist, and that he did actually die. The year 33 is the year that is normally identified as the year of his death. See https://www.patheos.com/blogs/keithgiles/2022/04/did-jesus-even-exist/
In thinking about this story, there are a number of elements to consider. The name Barabbas is the first of these. It is an Aramaic name, combining two nouns: bar, meaning son, and abba, meaning father. So he is “the son of the father”—a name replete with symbolism, especially when he is placed alongside Jesus of Nazareth, son of God.
Indeed, the third century writer, Origen, in his Commentary on Matthew (ch 27, para 17), indicates that he had access to versions of Matthew’s Gospel that identified Barabbas as “Jesus Barabbas”. This strengthens the symbolic power of this figure and suggests that he might have functioned as an “alternative Jesus”, a literary device, to invite the reader to see the choice available to the crowd, and by extension, to consider their own choice in relation to Jesus: a kind of ancient altar call, “whom do you choose: Jesus, son of the father, or Jesus, the Son of God?”
Some interpreters suggest that perhaps there might be an allusion to the Israelite ritual of the scapegoat, in which one sacrificial goat is released whilst another bears the weight of sin as an atoning substitute (Lev 16:8-10; 23:27–32). In the Gospels, one son is released on behalf of the people; but this person is not the true “son of the [F]ather”; rather, the true son of God is forced to his death, which is later interpreted as a death that does carry the weight of Israel’s sin, in the manner of the scapegoat. It’s an ironic, dramatic depiction of the scapegoat process. Perhaps.
The status of Barabbas is a second factor to consider. Mark describes him as “a man [who] was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). The word used to describe this “insurrection”, stasis, has the sense of a violent uprising. A word from the same root is used to describe those in prison with Barabbas—“rebels”.
The word stasis had long been used to describe the civil wars that broke out within the Greek city-states, often because of economic inequalities, social conflicts, and class struggle. Barabbas, it would seem, had been implicated in such an uprising; he was imprisoned with others (rebels) who had taken part in such an uprising, and he had committed murder in the course of this insurrection.
Matthew describes him, more succinctly, as “a notorious prisoner” (Matt 27:16); the word used here, desmion, has a less dramatic force, for it is the usual term for a prisoner, with no sense of political agitation attached (for instance, it is applied to Paul when he is in prison at Acts 16:25, 27; 23:8; 25:14, 27; 28:17; Phlmn 1:1, 9; Eph 3:1; 4:1; 2 Tim 1:8). Matthew has reduced the tension and removed the dimension of political agitation in his version.
John is similarly succinct, describing Barabbas as “a bandit” (John 18:40). However, the word used here, lēstēs, is loaded with political weight. It can refer to a robber, or a bandit; or it can have a more focussed sense of a rebel, a revolutionary. The former meaning is conveyed by the word in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30, 36) and in the words of denunciation that Jesus speaks to the money changers and buyers and sellers in the temple forecourt (Mark 11:17; Matt 21:13; Luke 19:46). Such people are robbers who steal by surprise attack or by their unscrupulous practices.
It is, however, the more political sense of the word lēstēs that is more clearly in view in John’s narrative. Josephus, writing his account of the war that took place between the Romans and the Jews in 66–74 CE, uses this word forty two times; most of these instances describe either men who lay in wait beside the roadside to rob passing travellers (like in the familiar parable), or, more often, individuals who took part in the counter-insurgency against the Romans.
Their actions are violent and threatening; such men would work in groups, attack individuals (often in a crowd, which gave a protective cover to the perpetrator), acting with brutal violence. A number of times, in the reports of Josephus, these are violent actions undertaken for political purposes, by members of the group known collectively as the Zealots. The political overtones of the word are strong.
In such company, then, we find Barabbas (John 18:40) and, by implication, Jesus; certainly, the inscription that is placed over Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:26; Matt 27:37; Luke 23:38; John 19:19) refers to him as “King of the Jews”, a political attribution without doubt. Even when (as John reports) the chief priests questioned this wording, Pilate insisted: “what I have written, I have written” (John 19:20–22).
Indeed, those crucified alongside Jesus are described with the same term for the political insurgents described by Josephus, lēstēs, in two Gospel accounts: “with him they crucified two bandits (lēstas), one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27; so also Matt 27:38, repeated at 27:44). Luke modifies his description of these two (Luke 23:23:33, 39; they are kakourgoi (literally, those who do wrong). Nevertheless, the NRSV and NIV both render this as “criminals”.
In fact, Jesus had already opened the door to a politicised interpretation of his mission, when he was approached by Temple soldiers in the garden, kissed in betrayal by Judas, and handed over to be taken to the authorities. Seeing the soldiers arrive, he said, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit (lēstēn) ? (Mark 14:48; the same word is also used at Matt 26:55; Luke 22:52). Jesus had already indicated that he knew that the Roman and Jewish authorities were perceiving that he was a political agitator.
Luke intensifies the negative portrayal of Barabbas, alongside of the way that he strengthens the innocence of Jesus. He depicts Barabbas as “a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder” (Luke 23:19, repeated in 25). The word translated as insurrection is the Greek term stasis, already noted above as referring to a political uprising. Barabbas, in this account, is clearly a political agitator, prepared to commit murder in the course of his violent activism.
Luke provides this description in the context of the accusation that the chief priests made to Pilate against Jesus, that “he stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place” (23:5), and the later indication by Pilate, that they had presented him as “one who was perverting the people” (23:14). This sounds clearly political; Jesus was being accused of being an activist, an agitator, at the very least.
Both times that this claim is raised, Pilate declares Jesus innocent; yet the same declaration is never made in relation to Barabbas. Luke’s apologetic intent is to lessen the blame placed on the Romans for the the death of Jesus, and to divert attention towards the Jews, as the prime instigator of this action against Jesus. This is yet another indication of political intent in the way that Jesus is perceived.
Did this incident involving Barabbas actually take place? The historical implausibility of this incident is a third important factor. The fact is that there is no evidence of such a custom in other ancient sources. Certainly, some conservative scholars have searched carefully and drawn from other texts incidents that they claim provide an analogy to the Barabbas incident.
An incident retold by Josephus is cited to indicate that the liberation of a prisoner did once take place (Antiquities 20.9.3); but this one-off occurrence did not reflect an annual custom. There are far too many dissimilarities to the Gospel narrative. It fails to support the Barabbas story. Another incident recounted by Livy (History of Rome 5.13) does tell of a temporary release of prisoners from their manacles; but this was done, under difficult conditions, in an attempt to appease the gods, to bring a change in the weather. It’s quite different from the Barabbas situation.
A third alleged parallel, from Roman law, is in the Papyrus Florentinus (61, 59ff). However, the prisoner who is released in this scene, after pleas from the crowd, had not yet been declared guilty (as Barabbas had), and it was not at a Jewish festival or even a Roman feast day (as Barabbas was). The parallels are feeble. There is also a complex argument mounted in relation to a single phrase in the tractate of the Mishnah dealing with Passover (Pesahim 8:6), but the parallels claimed and the way in which the text needs to be treated both mitigate against there being any relevance to the Barabbas story.
So I think that the ways that these incidents are claimed to provide a demonstration of the existence of a Paschal pardon such as the Gospels report are not at all clear. The more such scholars trawl the evidence and mount their arguments to say that this could really have happened, the more I recall the famous words, “methinks they doth protest too much” (adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet).
There is a clear political improbability to the account found in all four Gospels. Pilate was a ferocious and fearless leader whose strength of character is made clear by the numerous times that, according to Josephus, he sent in his troops to quell an uprising, to scatter a crowd, to squash a rebellion.
Pilate would not have been cowed by the crowd in Jerusalem for Passover; had he wanted to act, he would simply have ordered his troops to attack, scatter the crowd, and disperse the built-up tension. The Gospel accounts of Pilate, across all four narratives, are improbable; the apologetic purpose (to show the Romans in a better light, to avoid being seen as an agitator or rebel, and to place the blame on the Jewish authorities) becomes clear, when we read in this way. We need to bear all of this in mind, as we read and listen to the familiar narrative this Easter, and each Easter.
The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!
This final speech of Jesus confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of his teaching. The parables he tells about that kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of the promised future that is in view. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.
Mark’s Gospel has drawn to a climax with the same focussed attention to the vision of God’s kingdom, as was expressed at the start. The beginnings of the birth pangs are pointers to the kingdom that Jesus has always had in view. Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity. But how do we make sense of this dramatic language in the context of the post-Enlightenment scientifically-aware world of the 21st century? How do visions of turmoil and warfare, oracles about fiery destruction and fierce retribution, relate to our contemporary world?
One way of understanding this kind of language and these kinds of speeches, whether by Jesus or any number of the prophets, is to claim that these words were spirit-inspired predictions, from long ago, of the turmoil and conflict that was to take place in the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century in the case of this Gospel passage. Other interpreters claim that such speeches are pointing forward in time, to events that will take place well beyond the time of the reader, even into our own times (that is, the 21st century).
Like the final book in the New Testament, Revelation, this speech of Jesus in Mark 13 has been interpreted of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand. Repentance, now, is the bottom line; repentance, before the end comes, and it is too late.
Another line of interpretation holds that this kind of language needs to be understood as inspired scripture, which provides us with clear doctrinal statements about what is called eschatology (the study of the end times, the last days). In which case, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”, instructing us so that we are aware and informed, and thus able to undertake interpretation of events that are currently taking place.
It may not be that we are right in the midst of those “last days”, but we are equipped with the capacity to interpret and understand what is happening—to know exactly where we are, now, in the alleged timetable of events leading up to “the last days”.
However, there are difficulties with both lines of interpretation. Neither understanding actually reflects the nature of the literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for Mark 13.
But first, we need to be clear about the Historical Context within high this Gospel was written.
Jewish people of the first century lived in one of two ways. Some were members of the nation of Israel which was occupied by a foreign military force, the Romans. (The Romans called this region Palestine). Others were members of a minority group of Jews who were permitted to exist in another nation. (These are known as Jews of the Dispersion). Life in such situations demanded compromise.
For Jews living in the Dispersion, the degree of compromise might vary—but compromise was inevitable. For those living within Israel, the need for compromise was a constant irritant. Some groups, like the Sadducees and the priests, accepted the compromises and did well out of them. Many common folk simply made the best of the situation. Others resented what was imposed on them. They looked back to an earlier time in the history of Israel, when the troops of another foreign force, the Seleucids, held power in Israel. An honoured group of Jews, the Maccabees, had led an armed insurgency which brought victory over the Seleucids in the years 167 to 164 BCE. For a time, Jews had ruled Israel once again.
From the time that Roman troops had occupied Palestine, in 63 BCE, there was tension. It would wax and wane according to the attitudes of the Jewish leaders and the political imperatives at work through the Roman governors. In the year 66, the governor, Florus, demanded money from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This was too much for some Jews; hostilities broke out in various places across Palestine. The war which resulted lasted eight years; in 70 CE, the Temple in Jerusalem would be burnt to the ground, and by 74 CE, all active Jewish resistance to the Romans would be quashed.
In this setting, amidst the battles fought in Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, apocalyptic hopes were inflamed. Many of the Jews actively fighting the Romans believed that their actions would help to usher in the long-promised kingdom, in which God would reign over Israel and foreign troops would be banished. Perhaps a significant number of the followers of Jesus also believed that the kingdom of God was drawing near, as Jesus had proclaimed some decades earlier, in the events of their own day.
Should the followers of Jesus, then, join with the rebel groups in rising up against Rome? Was the way to the kingdom to be won through conflict, martyrdom, and military victory? Or was there another way? Remarkably, one writer chose to answer these questions by writing about the way which would have been chosen by Jesus.
The earliest written account that we have for the life of Jesus—the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one (which we know as the Gospel according to Mark)—appears to deal with precisely these issues as it assembles and reshapes many of the stories told about Jesus. It is strongly marked by apocalyptic overtones, from the urgent message which Jesus utters (1:14–15) to his parting description of apocalyptic terrors (13:3–37).
This work does not provide a clear declaration against military involvement; but this implication can be drawn from its pages. This Gospel was written for first century Jews who were who were caught up in a fervent hope that the kingdom of God was soon to be ushered in, but who were also struggling with what it meant to follow the way of Jesus.
Mark tells the story of Jesus—a person who submitted to his death, at the hands of the Romans, without raising any weapons in defence. The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship. The answer to the questions posed lay in following the way of Jesus. That is the focus of the story that he tells—what does it mean for us to follow Jesus in our own context? The work does not set out to answer the question, “is the end at hand?”, and not even to set out a timetable of events leading to that end. It simply asks, how best do I follow Jesus?
The last set of instructions which Jesus leaves for his disciples, delivered as he sits opposite the magnificent Jerusalem Temple (13:1), sets out the task which lies ahead for the disciples. During this apocalyptic discourse, Jesus speaks explicitly about their future commission (13:9–13). The situation will be one of persecution: “you will be beaten” (13:9), and “they [will] bring you to trial” (13:11); there will be betrayal and death (13:12), and “you will be hated by all” (13:13). False preachers will arise (13:5–6) and fraudulent claims will be made (13:21– 22).
In this context, the fundamental act of discipleship will be to bear witness to the way of Jesus: “you will stand … as a testimony” (13:9), “the good news must first be proclaimed” (13:10), what you are to say will be given by the Holy Spirit (13:11). The role of the disciple will be to remain faithful throughout these trials: “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (13:13). The need for such faithfulness is underscored by the closing words of Jesus’ teachings: “beware, keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” (13:33, 35, 37).
The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!
We also need to consider the nature of such literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for the apocalyptic speech of Jesus reported in Mark 13.
The typical literary characteristics of apocalyptic texts are well-documented. There are a number of features which are found consistently throughout such texts, features which are striking in their impact and powerful in their capacity to invite attention. What is central to all apocalyptic writings is a clear portrayal of a stark conflict between good and evil, which often comes to a head in a grand cosmic battle. To put it in populist terms, apocalyptic texts “spin a good yarn”. They use the techniques of dramatic storytelling, or of good action films.
An apocalyptic text is typically composed in a narrative style, relaying a divine revelation which has been given to a human figure in a visionThat human figure is often someone from the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. The claim that this figure dictated the revelation is a literary device, designed to claim authority for the work; linguistic and historical analysis inevitably demonstrates that the figure claimed as author could not actually have written the work.
Often an angel will interpret the vision (or visionary journey) that has been revealed to this figure. We can see this, for instance, in Rev 1:1–2. In the case of Mark 13, however, such a revelation comes directly from Jesus, without any angelic mediation.
When relating the events of the end times, apocalyptic literature may include a chronology of events that are to occur; frequently these events are placed in the near future, giving sense of urgency to the message being proclaimed. So Jesus outlines a sequence of events that are yet to take place (13:8, 10, 14, 21).
The present time is painted in bleak tones in apocalyptic texts (13:11–13, 17–19, 24–25); by contrast, the visions of the future are bright, positive, and hopeful (13:26–31). God will ensure that the final conflict results in victory; the world as is currently known will be replaced by a glorious period. Often the visions of these end times mirror the language and ideas of creation stories, telling of how God triumphs over the primordial forces of chaos. The darkness that enshrouds the earth (13:24–25) will be replaced by glorious divine light (13:26).
In such revelations, some human beings belong to a group that will assuredly be saved—thus, Jesus refers to “the elect” (13:27); by contrast, the rest of humanity will face utter destruction. In the speech by Jesus, this fate can be inferred from the insistent repetition of “keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” in 13:33–37.
Many apocalyptic works will describe this fate in gruesome detail, often in surreal or fantastic terminology, through grand visionary accounts.
Whilst inferred in Mark’s account of the speech by Jesus, the gruesome details are added in Matthew’s version; the master will “cut the slave in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:51; this is repeated at 25:30, and reinforced at 25:46).
Alongside this, the fate of “ the elect” is celebrated: in the story of the bridesmaids, “those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut”, leaving the unprepared locked outside (25:10). In the parable of the talents, those affirmed are told, “I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master’” (25:21, 23). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous are invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34) and “enter into eternal life” (25:46). The dichotomy is clear.
So Jesus is, by and large, adhering to the conventions of the genre, as he presents his graphic portrayal of what lies on store for his followers in this speech, delivered on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple (Mark 13:3). An in making use of this genre, Jesus demonstrates that speaking in apocalyptic terms is actually doing political theology within a specific socio-historical context.
Apocalyptic is doing theology, in a particular way. It can best be regarded as political theology—that is, it explores faith in the context of the realities of life in the polis, the city. It often provides a counter-narrative to the dominant story of the rulers and those in power, exposing the evil of their ways and proposing an alternative world in which righteous-justice will reign supreme.
The people of Israel, even from the time before they were taken into exile, lived under the shadow of the dominant world power of the time—the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom; then the Babylonians, who took the southern kingdom into exile; then, after a return under the Persians, an apparently more benign power, before the crushing power of the Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great and his successors.
This pattern of an unbroken development from preexilic and exilic prophecy through to the inter testamental period and on into the time of Jesus and the early church, and the ensuing centuries. (We traced some dimensions of that in the earlier post exploring “ the end”, ***
John J. Collins writes that “Apocalyptic literature evokes an imaginative world that is set in deliberate counterpoint to the experiential world of the present. Apocalypticism thrives especially in times of crisis, and it functions by offering a resolution of the relevant crisis, not in practical terms but in terms of imagination and faith.” See https://readingreligion.org/books/apocalyptic-imagination
We might well say, from this, that the function of apocalyptic is like that if a fairy story, or a fable-or a longer book or play or film, in which the reader or viewer is invited to “willingly suspend disbelief” and enter into the story that is being offered.
Tellers of apocalyptic tales invite their listeners, living in times of crisis, to suspend disbelief, watch the vision unfolding, hear the angelic interpretation, even undertake the heavenly journey that the author retells; and to do this with expectation and hope.
Apocalyptic texts are written in the midst of despair fuelled by foreign invasion, murder and rape during the pillaging of that invasion, enforced slavery, religious repression, cultural imperialism, and societal oppression, with the loss of much-loved traditional practices and customs, disconnection from the homeland (the place where God resided), and a continuing sense of having been abandoned by God.
In the midst of all of this, readers and listeners of apocalyptic texts are invited to have hope: hope that God would act; hope that despair would be dispelled and life would flourish once now; hope that the familiarity of traditions would be reinstated; hope that the evils perpetrated by the invading oppressors would be rectified by acts of divine revenge; hope that life, even in their own time, would be transformed into a realm where righteous-justice was in force, where the evils of lawlessness were dispelled.
There are clear, sharp pointers to the political situation of the time in which works of apocalyptic are written–from the time of the Seleucid rulers (from the 180s BCE) through to the Roman conquest of Judaea (63 BCE) and on into the period we call the first century CE, when Jesus lived and then the Gospels were written. These works are political.
All of this, this, it should now be clear, is what Jesus was looking to in his parables of the kingdom, in his teachings about living with fidelity to the covenant with God, in his invitations to his followers to walk the way he walks, leading to the realm of God’s kingdom. His visions of cataclysmic times, in the apocalyptic speech of Mark 13, point to the reality that God is now acting to intervene in events, overturn evil, and institute the righteous-justice of God.
And all of this is intensely contextual, thoroughly political, firmly directed towards the injustices perpetrated under the religious and economic system of the Temple and the cultural and religious oppression of the Roman colonisers. The birth pangs that are just beginning (13:8) herald the coming good times when “the great power and glory” of the Lord is evident (13:26) as “the Son if Man … will gather his elect” (13:27), a time when “summer is near” (13:28). That is the kingdom of God, in which much fruit is borne (4:20, 28), much growth occurs (4:32), new life will emerge (8:31; 9:31; 10:34); 12:27), righteous-justice is enacted by God (12:9-11) and love of God and neighbour is practised by those in that kingdom (12:32-34). Indeed, Jesus says that “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near”, in the parallel (and expanded) account in Luke (see Luke 21:31).
Out of the darkness and despair, the agony of the birthpangs point to the hope of abundance that has been persistently proclaimed by Jesus. And so, we might pray: may that time come, may that kingdom be a reality, even in our time, even in our place; or, as Jesus taught us to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven”.
The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) offers an excerpt from longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery. As Jesus’ last long speech in this Gospel, it certainly makes a mark!
The speech is delivered beside the towering Temple, built under Solomon, rebuilt under Nehemiah (13:1, 3). That temple was a striking symbol for the people of Israel—it represented their heritage, their traditions, their culture. The Temple was the place where the Lord God dwelt, in the Holy of Holies; where priests received sacrifices, designed to enable God to atone for sins, and offerings, intended to express the people’s gratitude to God; where musicians led the people in singing of psalms and songs that exulted God, that petitioned God for help, that sought divine benevolence for the faithful covenant people
Or so the story goes; so the scriptures said; so the priests proclaimed. The holiest place in the land that was holy, set apart and dedicated to God. Yet what does Jesus say about this magnificent construction? “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:2). Jesus envisages the destruction of the Temple. Not only this; he locates that destruction within the context of widespread turmoil and disruption: “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines” (13:8). And then, to seal this all, Jesus refers directly to the fact that “the end is still to come” (13:7).
The End. Eight centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had declared, “the LORD said to me, ‘the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 8:2). Amos continues, declaring that God has decreed that “on that day … I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day” (Amos 8:9–10).
That image of The Day when the Lord enacts justice and brings punishment upon the earth, because of the evil being committed by people on the earth, enters into the vocabulary of prophet after prophet. Amos himself declares that it is “darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18–20).
Isaiah, just a few decades after Amos, joined his voice: “the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high … the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day” (Isa 2:12, 17). He warns the people, “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!” (Isa 13:6).
Isaiah uses a potent image to describe this day: “pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labour” (Isa 13:7). He continues, “the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it” (Isa 13:8), and later he portrays that day as “a day of vengeance” (Isa 34:8).
Zephaniah, who was active at the time when Josiah was king (640–609 BCE) declares that “the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests” (Zeph 1:7); “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there; that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness ” (Zeph 1:14–15).
Habakkuk, active in the years just before the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE, declares that “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab 2:3); it is a vision of “human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them” (Hab 2:17).
Later, during the Exile, Jeremiah foresees that “disaster is spreading from nation to nation, and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth!” (Jer 35:32); he can see only that “those slain by the Lord on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall become dung on the surface of the ground” (Jer 35:33). He also depicts this day as “the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of retribution, to gain vindication from his foes” (Jer 46:10).
And still later (most likely after the Exile), the prophet Joel paints a grisly picture of that day: “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” (Joel 2:1-3).
Later in the same oracle, he describes the time when the Lord will “show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30–31). Joel also asserts that “the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 3:14–15).
The language of The Day is translated, however, into references to The End, in some later prophetic works. In the sixth century BCE, the priest-prophet Ezekiel, writing in exile in Babylon, spoke about the end that was coming: “An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, I will let loose my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, I will punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:2–3).
And again, Ezekiel declares, “Disaster after disaster! See, it comes. An end has come, the end has come. It has awakened against you; see, it comes! Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come, the day is near—of tumult, not of reveling on the mountains. Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you; I will spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your ways, and punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:5–8). This day, he insists, will be “a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek 30:3; the damage to be done to Egypt is described many details that follow in the remainder of this chapter).
Obadiah refers to “the day of the Lord” (Ob 1:15), while Malachi asserts that “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal 4:1).
Malachi ends his prophecy with God’s promise that “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes; he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5–6). This particular word is the final verse in the Old Testament as it appears in the order of books in the Christian scriptures; it provides a natural hinge for turning, then, to the story of John the baptiser, reminiscent of Elijah, who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus, evocative of Moses.
Another prophet, Daniel, declares that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days” (Dan 2:28), namely, that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44).
Whilst the story of Daniel is set in the time of exile in Babylon—the same time as when Ezekiel was active—there is clear evidence that the story as we have it was shaped and written at a much later period, in the 2nd century BCE; the rhetoric of revenge is directed squarely at the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had invaded and taken control of Israel and begun to persecute the Jews from the year 175BCE onwards.
The angel Gabriel subsequently interprets another vision to Daniel, “what will take place later in the period of wrath; for it refers to the appointed time of the end” (Dan 8:19), when “at the end of their rule, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue. He shall grow strong in power, shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does. He shall destroy the powerful and the people of the holy ones.” (Dan 8:23–24). This seems to be a clear reference to Antiochus IV.
Still later in his book, Daniel sees a further vision, of seventy weeks (9:20–27), culminating in the time of “the end” (9:26). In turn, this vision is itself spelled out in great detail in yet another vision (11:1–39), with particular regard given to the catastrophes taking place at “the time of the end” (11:1–12:13; see especially 11:25, 40; 12:4, 6, 9, 13).
This final vision makes it clear that there will be “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (12:1), when “evil shall increase” (12:3) and “the wicked shall continue to act wickedly” (12:10). The visions appear to lift beyond the immediate context of the Seleucid oppression, and paint a picture of an “end of times” still to come, after yet worse tribulations have occurred.
Could these visions of “the end” be what Jesus was referring to, as he sat with his followers on the Mount of Olives, opposite the towering Temple? Later in the same discussion with his disciples, he indicates that “in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24). This picks up the language we have noted consistently throughout the prophetic declarations, in Amos, Joel, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.
The judgement of God, says Jesus, with the “gathering up the elect from the four words, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:27), will be executed by “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (13:25)—language which draws directly from the vision of Daniel concerning “one like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13).
So the resonances are strong, the allusions are clear. Jesus is invoking the prophetic visions of The Day, The End; the judgement of God, falling upon the wicked of the earth. And he deliberately applies these vivid and fearsome prophetic and apocalyptic traditions to what he says about the Temple. By linking his teaching directly to the question of four of his disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Mark 13:3), enquiring about the Temple, Jesus appears to be locating the end of the Temple—its sacrifices and offerings, its psalms and rituals, its wealth and glory … and perhaps also its priestly class—in the midst of the terrible, violent retributive judgements of the Lord God during the days of the end.
The language also resonates with the end section of 2 Esdras, in which God informs “my elect ones” that “the days of tribulation are at hand, but I will deliver you from them”. Those who fear God will prevail, whilst “those who are choked by their sins and overwhelmed by their iniquities” are compared with “a field choked with underbrush and its path overwhelmed with thorns” and condemned “to be consumed by fire” (2 Esdras 16:74–78). (This book claims to be words of Ezra, the scribe and priest who was prominent in the return to Jerusalem in the 5th century BCE, but scholarly opinion is that it was written after the Gospels, perhaps well into the 2nd century CE.)
All of the happenings that are described by Jesus in his teachings whilst seated with his followers outside the Temple (Mark 13:3) can be encapsulated in this potent image: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (13:8). This is imagery which reaches right back to the foundational mythology of Israel, which tells of the pains of childbirth (Gen 3:16). It is language used by prophets (Jer 4:3; 22:23; 49:2; 49:24; Hos 13:13; Isa 21:3; 66:7–8; Micah 4:9; 5:3).
This chapter in Mark’s Gospel, along with the parallel accounts in Luke (chapter 21) and Matthew (chapter 24), are regarded as instances of apocalyptic material. The meaning of apocalyptic is straightforward: it refers to the “unveiling” or “revealing” of information about the end time, the heavenly realm, the actions of God.
Such a focus does not come as a surprise to the careful reader, or hearer, of this Gospel. This style of teaching is consistent with, and explanatory of, the message which the Gospels identify as being the centre of the message proclaimed by Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14); “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17); “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Each of these distillations of the message is apocalyptic—revealing the workings of God as the way is prepared for the coming of the sovereign rule of God.
Apocalyptic is the essential nature of Jesus’ teachings about “the kingdom of God”. This final speech confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of Jesus’ teaching. The parables he tells about that kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of the promised future that is in view. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.
Mark’s Gospel has drawn to a climax with the same focussed attention to the vision of God’s kingdom, as was expressed at the start. The beginnings of the birth pangs are pointers to the kingdom that Jesus has always had in view. Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity.
Of course, that still leaves the basic interpretive question: how do we make sense of this apocalyptic fervour in today’s world??? So to grapple with that, there’s more posts coming …..
This week, we draw near to the end of the stories told about Jesus which we have encountered most Sundays during the year past. Since early December last year, we have been in Year B, and the book we know as the Gospel according to Mark has provided the majority of the Gospel passages for reading and reflection each week.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one (which is how this work styles itself—see Mark 1:1) does not pull any punches. It begins with the rough and ready character of John, who was dunking people in the river to signify that they had repented of their sins (1:2–8). It ends with the sombre scene of two men laying the crucified body of their leader in a tomb (15:42–47), soon after he had cried in despair that his God had abandoned him (15:34).
In the intervening period of time (unspecified in this account—although by tradition we talk about “the three years of Jesus’s ministry”) we have seen Jesus encounter people in need and people who had a vendetta against him. We have heard him debating the details of Torah requirements with other scripture interpreters, and berating them for their hardness of heart and their wilful ignoring of the commands of God. We have heard him condemn his own followers as having little faith, of being incapable of understanding him, of not comprehending even when he performs miracles in front of them.
We have heard, perhaps with horror, his interaction with a foreign woman from Syrophoenicia, in which he called her a dog, and then listened on as he went for the jugular with one of his closet followers, Peter, calling him “Satan”. We have listened to harsh words of condemnation, when he told another follower, John, that it would be better if he were thrown into the ocean than get in the way of Jesus’ mission.
Jesus in Mark’s gospel does not suffer fools gladly—in fact, he does not suffer them at all! At so many points, it seems that he just doesn’t have time for people who don’t get what he is on about. It is a wonder, is it not, that he managed to maintain a loyal following for the amount of time that he did!
And yet, woven throughout those same stories in this very work, there are moments of tender compassion and unlimited grace, incidents which show that Jesus had deep insight into the situation of others and that he was willing to go the second mile—and more—in order to attend to people in need.
He confronted evil spirits and cast them out of people who were possessed. He healed multitudes of people who were ill. He taught, patiently, provocatively, with insight into the ways of God. He provided dramatic pictures in word-form (parables, he called them) which drew simple comparisons to demonstrate the nature of the realm of God. He provided for those who were hungering, both physically and spiritually. He spent himself in word and deed, sought his God in prayer, continued incessantly on his journeying, and in the end, set his face towards the fate that he somehow seemed to sense was sliding its tentacles around his very being.
It is this Jesus, complex and multi-faceted, whom we encounter in the reading from Mark’s account, this Sunday (12:38–44). Jesus is in Jerusalem, the place where fate awaits him. He has been debating one opponent after another in the outer courtyard of the Temple: chief priests, scribes and elders; Pharisees and Herodians; Sadducees; and then another group of scribes (11:27–12:34).
Jesus bests many of these opponents; he ends this sequence of encounters with a typically harsh denunciation of the last group he was debating. “Beware of the scribes”, he is reported as saying; their pretentiousness and pomposity is evident, their condemnation awaits (12:38–40). The vulnerability of widows in the face of the power exuded by the scribes is evident, and Jesus calls them out for this,.
We hear these striking words in the Gospel passage offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday. They come as a climactic concluding moment in the long stream of adversarial encounters, debates, disputes, and arguments that have taken place along the way, from his public announcement beside the Jordan, through the towns and villages of Galilee, on the road towards Jerusalem, in the city beside the Temple. A fitting finale, perhaps.
Yet this is not the final word. That final word, before we leave this Gospel for this year, belongs to another scene. A short, succinct, enigmatic scene. A scene in which Jesus utters no words of condemnation; by contrast, he offers affirmation, encouragement, and support for a poor widow (12:41–44).
It is a simple observation, a short reflection; not complex, not confronting, but a gently irenic end to a long sequence of interactions involving Jesus: healings and exorcisms, teaching by speaking sayings and telling stories in parables, engaging in public discussion and debate, as well as times of prayer and rest.
The widow was in the Temple; most likely in the Women’s Court of the Temple, just inside the structure, past the outdoors Court of the Gentiles. The widow was not in the Court of the Priests, where the actual liturgical processes of the Temple took place, for no females were allowed into that space. The “treasury” into which people were placing their money (12:41) refers most likely to the horn-shaped offering boxes in that courtyard.
By highlighting the widow, Jesus refers to the well-established strand within the legal and prophetic and strands of Hebrew Scriptures which underlined the importance of caring for widows, amongst others. According to Torah, the widow and the fatherless child were to included along with the sojourner in celebratory moments in Israel—when tithing (Deut 14:28–29), at the Feast of Weeks (16:9–12) and the Feast of Booths (16:13–15), when gleaning (24:19–22), and when tithing once more (26:12–13).
A widower’s brother was expected to marry a widow (Deut 25:5–10), for it was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. If it was not possible for a widow to remarry, it was the duty of the community to care for her (Exod 22:22–23; Deut 10:18; 24:17; Isa 1:17). The men harvesting fields were to leave a portion of the harvest behind to be gleaned and collected by the widows (Deut 24:18–21). Beyond the biblical period, in the Diaspora, a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues was be given to the widows and poor, on the analogy of the gleaning provision whilst living in the land.
The vulnerability of widows and the I,portable of providing for them is evident in many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. Among the prophets, Isaiah proclaims God’s judgement on those who “turn aside the needy from justice … and rob the poor of my people”, including the way that they exploit the fatherless and widows (Isa 10:1–2).
Likewise, Ezekiel includes those who “have made many widows” in Israel amongst those who will experience the full force of God’s vengeance (Ezek 22, see verse 25). He observes that “the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you” (Ezek 22:7).
Jeremiah assures the people of Edom, to the south of Israel, of God’s care for them: “leave your fatherless children; I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me” (Jer 49:11). He encourages the people of Jerusalem with a promise that God will allow them to continue to dwell in their land if they “do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place … or go after other gods” (Jer 7:5–7).
In a later chapter, Jeremiah is instructed to tell the King of Judah, “do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer 22:1–3). The prophet Zechariah speaks similarly: “do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech 7:10).
Accordingly, the people of Israel would regularly have sung, in the words of the psalmist, “the Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9). Care for widows was central to the life of holiness required amongst the covenant people. Jesus knows this commitment amongst his people, and holds firm to it.
Here in the Temple, observing the action of the widow, Jesus reinforces this central aspect of covenant life. It has been a strong thread, running through the narrative from earlier chapters. Jesus is calling the people around him to care for the weak and vulnerable among them. He has told his disciples to give up their lives (Mark 8:35) and to welcome children (9:37; 10:14–15).
He instructs men that it is wrong to abandon their wives onto the community to care for (10:5–9) and informs those in power that they ought not to abdicate their responsibility to care for the powerless (10:42–45). He criticises those who distort the functions of the Temple (11:15–17) and advises continuing adherence to the two central commandments of Torah (12:28–31).
Immediately before affirming the action of the widow, he condemns the scribes who seek public honour and yet act to “devour widow’s houses” (12:38–40)—a clear demonstration of the kind of hypocrisy that he previously criticised so vehemently (7:6; 12:5; and see the succinct saying of Matt 7:5 and Luke 6:52, and the long diatribe of Matt 23:13-31). It is a potent counterpoint: glory-seeking scribes and humbly serving widows; the one falling from a great height, the other being raised up in the estimation of Jesus.
In this scene, Jesus condemns those who would tell the weak and vulnerable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. His words remind those in authority that their power comes with an obligation to use it for good. He provides the widow as a clear example of the kind of care that is needed. It is a message that contemporary society would do well to heed.
In this week’s Gospel passage, Jesus engages with a teacher of the Law, discussing the priorities amongst the many laws that are to be found in the Torah scrolls (Mark 12:38–34). The discussion moves quickly to the words of the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4–5, as the first commandment to be identified as worthy of priority.
The exact wording used is interesting. The commandment is to love, with God as the one to be loved. In Deuteronomy, that love is to be manifest from the whole of the person. Most English translations render this commandment as “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5).
The Hebrew word translated as heart is לֵבָב, lebab. It’s a common word in Hebrew Scripture, and is understood to refer to the mind, will, or heart of a person—words which seek to describe the essence of the person. It is sometimes described as referring to “the inner person”. The word appears 248 times in the scriptures, of which well over half (185) are translated as “heart”.
Many of those occurrences are in verses which contrast heart with flesh—that is, “the inner person” alongside “the outer person”. For example, the psalmists declare that “my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:26), and “my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps 84:2b), whilst the prophet Ezekiel refers to “foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and flesh” (Ezek 44:7,9). When used together, these two terms (heart and flesh) thus often refer to the whole person, the complete being.
The Hebrew word lebab, heart, is rendered by the Greek word, kardia, in Mark 12:30. That word can refer directly to the organ which circulates blood through the body; but it also has a sense of the central part of a being—which is variously rendered as will, character, understanding, mind, and even soul. These English translations are attempting to grasp the fundamental and all-encompassing. It seems that this correlates well with the Hebrew word lebab, which indicates the seat of all emotions for the person.
The second Hebrew word in the commandment articulated in Deut 6:4 is נֶפֶשׁ, nephesh. This is another common Hebrew word, appearing 688 times in Hebrew Scripture, of which the most common translation (238 times) is “soul”; the next most common translation is “life” (180 times). The word is thus a common descriptor for a human being, as a whole.
However, to use the English word “soul” to translate nephesh does it a disservice. We have become acclimatised to regarding the soul as but one part of the whole human being—that is the influence of dualistic Platonic thinking, where “body and soul” refer to the two complementary parts of a human being. In Hebrew, nephesh has a unified, whole-of-person reference, quite separate from the dualism that dominates a Greek way of thinking.
Nephesh appears a number of times in the first creation story in Hebrew scripture, where it refers to “living creatures” in the seas (Gen 1:20, 21), on the earth (Gen 1:24), and to “every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life (nepheshhayah)” (Gen 1:30). It is found also in the second creation story, where it likewise describes how God formed a man from the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into him, and “the man became a living being (nepheshhayah)” (Gen 2:7). The claim that each living creature is a nephesh is reiterated in the Holiness Code (Lev 11:10, 46; 17:11).
The two words, nephesh and lebab, appear linked together many times. One psalmist exults, “my ‘heart’ is glad, and my ‘soul’ rejoices” (Ps 16:9a), whilst another psalmist laments, “how long must I bear pain in my ‘soul’, and have sorrow in my ‘heart’ all day long?” (Ps 13:2). Proverbs places these words in parallel in sayings such as “wisdom will come into your ‘heart’, and knowledge will be pleasant to your ‘soul’” (Prov 2:10), and “does not he who weighs the ‘heart’ perceive it? does not he who keeps watch over your ‘soul’ know it?” (Prov 24:12). In Deuteronomy itself, the combination of “heart and soul” appears a number of times (Deut 4:29; 10:12; 11:13, 18; 13:3; 26:16; 30:2, 6, 10), where it references the whole human being.
In each of these instances, rather than taking a dualistic Greek approach (seeing “heart” and “soul” as two separate components of a human being), we should adopt the integrated Hebraic understanding. Both “heart” and “soul” refer to the totality of a human being. The repetition is a typical Hebraic style, using two different words to refer to the same entity (the whole human being). The repetition underlines and emphasises the sense of totality of being.
The third Hebrew word to note in Deut 6:5 is מְאֹד, meod, which is usually translated as “might” or “strength”. Its basic sense in Hebrew is abundance or magnitude; it is often rendered as an adverb, as “very”, “greatly”, “exceedingly”, or as an adjective, “great”, “more”, “much”. The function of this word, “might” or “strength”, in Deut 6:5 is to reinforce the totality of being that is required to love God.
In light of this, we could, perhaps, paraphrase the command of Deuteronomy as love God with all that you are—heart and soul, completely and entirely. Love God with “your everythingness” (to coin a word). There’s a cumulative sense that builds as the commandment unfurls—love God with all your emotions, all your being, all of this, your entire being.
We find the same threefold pattern in the description of King Josiah, who reigned in the eighth century (640–609 BCE): “before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25). Most often, however, it is used as an intensifier, attached directly to another term, providing what we today would do in our computer typing by underlining, italicising, and bolding a key word or phrase.
Rendering this Hebrew word in Greek—as the translators of the Septuagint did—means making a choice as to what Greek word best explicated the intensifying sense of the Hebrew word, meod. The LXX settled on the word δύναμις, usually translated as power (the word from which we get, in English, dynamic, and dynamite). Dynamis often has a sense of physical strength and capacity, and that resonates well with the sense of the Hebrew term as it is used in Deut 6:5. So the LXX has dynamis as the third element in the Shema commandment.
What happens when we turn to the New Testament? Jesus refers to this commandment in his dialogue with the teacher of the Law. That conversation is reported in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. Comparing the wording of the commandment across those three synoptic accounts is illuminating.
Matthew seems to retain the greatest fidelity to the Jewish text, with a threefold formula, citing “heart, soul, and mind” (Matt 22:37). By contrast, Mark, the earlier Gospel, has chosen two words to render meod (dynamis), expanding the threefold formula to include a fourth element, “heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:29). Luke, using Mark as one of his sources, reorders the final two elements to “heart, soul, strength, and mind” (Luke 10:27).
Curiously, none of the Gospels use the Septuagint’s choice (dynamis) for translating the Hebrew word meod into Greek. Perhaps this might be because, elsewhere in the texts of the New Testament, this word is reserved for describing a quality of God: “the power of the Most High” (Luke 1:35), “the power of the Lord” (Luke 5:17), “the great power of God” (Acts 8:10), the good news which is “the power of God” (Rom 1:16), the message of the cross which is “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18), that divine power which is extolled in heavenly hymns (Rev 7:12; 12:10; 19:1).
In place of dynamis, Mark’s version offers two different words, when compared with the Septuagint—ἰσχύος, and διανοίᾳ. The use of ischuos (usually translated as power or strength) seems closest to the intention of the LXX (dynamis), although the primary reference of ischuos is to brute physical strength. That relates to, but does not exactly correlate with, the sense of power in dynamis.
The second word chosen by Mark to render meod, the Greek term dianoia, appears also in Matthew’s account of the conversation. This is a word that refers to the mind. It is one of a number of Greek terms that refer to the rational element of the human being. Earlier dialects of Greek (prior to the Koine Greek of the first century CE) had two stem words to refer to mind: φρήν, plural φρένες, and νοῦς, from which the compound dianoia is formed.
According to Pythagoras, phrēn was a mental activity that he considered to be one of the intellectual capacities that constitute the soul (psychē), along with nous (mind) and thumos (passion). Nous was the overarching organising principle of the mind; it came to refer to the full range of rational functions—perceiving, understanding, feeling, judging, and determining. The addition of the prefix dia-, to form dianoia, intensifies the sense of understanding in an intellectual way.
So it is striking to note this Greek influence, focussing on the importance of the mind, the reasoning component of humanity—even at the very early stages of the formation of the traditions about Jesus, even prior to these two early written accounts. The author of the earliest Gospel (unknown to us; designated as Mark in the developing patristic traditions) writes an account about the Jewish man, Jesus, and his Jewish followers, that is already oriented towards Gentiles. His way of reporting the words of the man from Nazareth is already influenced by Greek notions (dianoia in place of dynamis).
But then, in Mark’s account—and only in Mark’s account—the scribe responds, affirming what Jesus has said (Mark 12:32) and paraphrasing him back (12:33)—although he reverts to a threefold formula, repeating kardia and ischuos, omitting psychē, and replacing dianoia with another Greek word for the activity of the mind, σύνεσιν (synesin). What is the force of this substitution? This would seem to underline the focus that is evident, already, in Mark’s use of the term dianoia. Both words (dianoia and synesin) emphasise the activity of the mind in the process of the loving that is commanded.
Mark’s decision to orient the commandment towards the actions of the mind (using synesin) is followed by Matthew, writing not much after Mark’s account had begun to be circulated. And Matthew’s reversion to three terms, instead of Mark’s expanded fourfold statement, reflects stronger awareness of the Deuteronomy text.
Paradoxically, Mark’s account of the response to Jesus offered by the thoroughly Jewish scribe, teacher of Torah, intensifies the Greek influence (synesin in place of psychē and dianoia). We have a pointer to the growing attraction towards the Jesus movement amongst Gentiles, even in this early, pre-written stage of the Gospel tradition. His Jewish words, and the Jewish words of his scribal conversation partner, are already being transferred into Greek conceptual terms by the time the earliest two Gospels are written.
By contrast, the later Jewish text, the Targum Jonathan on Deuteronomy (written in Aramaic) renders the command of Deut 6:5 as “Mosheh the prophet said to the people of the house of Israel, Follow after the true worship of your fathers, that you may love the Lord your God with each disposition of your hearts, and also that He may accept your souls, and the (dedicated) service of all your wealth”.
Wealth! That is a surprise! This version heads in yet another direction, taking meod as a reference to the capacity that a person has in life by virtue of the possessions and physical resources that they have at their disposal. An interesting direction to take!
In preparing this blog, I have made use of a number of resources: the Greek New Testament UBS 4th edition; Rahlfs’ Septuaginta; Strong’s Concordance; the Hebrew Bible Interlinear; Aland’s SynopsisQuattro Evangeliorum; Targum Jonathan; and Brown, Driver, and Briggs’ Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Thanks also to Elizabeth, Elise, and Andrew, for a stimulating discussion on this topic.