Here begins the Gospel (1). When a messenger brought news of a victory in war or of some stroke of personal good fortune, the correct Greek word for his tidings was euangelion, "good news". In the Roman empire, happy events of this kind were ascribed to the apparently superhuman power of the reigning Emperor. It was the Emperor's genius which gave men victory, peace and prosperity. The Emperor was the saviour of mankind, and the news of a new Emperor's birth or accession was therefore the most important euangelion of all. The essence of the Christian message was that a new Saviour had now appeared among men and had ascended his throne in heaven. It was no stretch of language to call this message a euangelion, and the word soon became a technical term in the Christian vocabulary. The equivalent, in English, has always been the Anglo-Saxon word Gospel.
The content of this Gospel concerned Jesus Christ the Son of God. At least a generation before Mark wrote (as is evident from Paul's letters) the title Son of God had become attached to Jesus. Nevertheless in the gospels it is used only sparingly, and its occurrence here in the very first verse of Mark's gospel is significant: evidently one of the main purposes of Mark's work was to demonstrate that Jesus was in fact the Son of God. To feel the force of this claim, it is important to know what the title would have suggested to Mark's first readers. Among Greek-speaking people, the phrase Son of God denoted nothing very much out of the ordinary. The many miracle-workers and men of exceptional psychic or ascetic powers who moved about the ancient world were often so described; and the citizens of the Roman empire had become accustomed to the Emperor being called "son of a god". But (as is clear from the temptation stories in Matthew and Luke) Jesus vigorously rejected any connotations of this sort. If he was the Son of God, this did not mean that he was just one among the many "sons of God" of the ancient world; for he was unique. The meaning of the title for the earliest Christians (and perhaps for Jesus himself) must therefore be looked for, not in the secular language of Greece and Rome, but in Jewish religion; and here it is clear that the title was much more specific. It meant one who was specially singled out by God for an important role in the unfolding of the destiny of his people. In the past, certain kings and prophets had had such a vocation. But in recent times no comparable person had appeared, and hopes were concentrated instead on a single, almost legendary figure, the Messiah (in Greek, the Christ) who was to appear at the end of the present age. Tentatively before the resurrection, and confidently after it, the disciples recognized that Jesus was indeed this Christ (albeit a very different Christ from that of Jewish expectation). Similarly they were led to the point, by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, of seeing in him the Son of God—though, once again, the title when applied to Jesus meant a great deal more than it ever had in the Old Testament: Jesus was not merely the chosen instrument of God, he was uniquely related to God with the intimacy which a son has with his father. That any man should claim such intimacy with God was a source of scandal to the religious men of Palestine, and was one of their reasons for securing Jesus' execution. But the disciples had intimations during Jesus' life on earth that this intimacy was a fact; and they saw the resurrection as decisive proof of it. Thereafter they could talk confidently of Jesus Christ the Son of God. It is one of the themes of Mark's gospel that this sonship was already apparent, to those few who could discern it, during Jesus' life on earth.
The writers of the gospels each chose a different point at which their story could be said to "begin". Mark starts later than any of them with the appearance of John the Baptist—which is in fact where early Christian sermons seem often to have begun (Acts 10.37). Here John is introduced with an Old Testament prophecy; but only the second part of the quotation (A voice crying aloud etc.(2-3)) can be found in the prophet Isaiah (40.3); the first part appears to be a combination of Malachi 3.1 and Exodus 23.20. It is possible that Christians had come to see references to John the Baptist in all these texts from Scripture, and that after they had been quoted together a few times they were thought of as a single passage of prophecy and attributed as a whole to the prophet Isaiah. In any case the prophecy serves here to stress that element in the mission of John which was of supreme importance for Christians: John was the immediate forerunner of Jesus.
And so it was (4). The prophecy simply announced a "herald". Mark now fills out the picture of the historical figure, John, who fulfilled the prophecy. He appeared in the wilderness. This, for anyone who knew Palestine, was a sufficient indication: although a large part of the country was desert, it was the arid and wild mountainous area which begins dramatically just below the Mount of Olives and stretches down to the Jordan valley over 3,000 feet below which was the "wilderness" any local inhabitant would think of at once. John's appearance there doubtless helped to emphasize the austere and challenging message which he had come to proclaim (see above on Matthew 3.1-6). It was also close to the Jordan, where John carried out his characteristic work of baptism. This baptism was something quite new. The Jews practised many forms of ritual washing as part of the ceremonies needed to remove the impurities of sin, and we now know (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) that in one Jewish sect at least such washing was the principal rite by which it was felt that men could be made morally "clean". But nothing in such practices prepares us for the baptism of John. Admittedly John's baptism was also in token of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins. But it was clearly not intended to be understood merely as a new supplement to existing institutions. It was proclaimed as something quite decisive, an act which everyone should submit to, regardless of their religious upbringing; it was a necessary preparation for a new state of affairs which was shortly to come into being. Some of the implications of this radically simple message are worked out in the narratives of the other gospels. Here it seems to have been sufficient to indicate the barest elements of the scene: a new rite of moral cleansing, readily undergone by a great multitude of people, performed by an austere preacher in the wilderness of the Jordan valley, far from the usual holy places and institutions of the Jewish religion. The essence of it was that the people, however scrupulously they had been abiding by the moral and ceremonial laws of their religion, came confessing their sins (5). John's baptism, like the teaching of Jesus, marked a new stage in the progress of religion from a system of observances to an attitude of uncompromising moral sincerity.
The quotation from Malachi (3.1), "Here is my herald whom I send on ahead of you", has already prepared the reader to think of John as Elijah; for Elijah was not merely a great figure of the past: it was prophesied that he would one day return (Malachi 3.23). The description of John's clothes reinforces this impression: in 2 Kings 1.8 Elijah is described as "a man wearing a garment of hair cloth and a leather belt". Moreover the returning Elijah was to herald the day of the Lord; John heralded not only one who was mightier than himself (7), but one whose baptism would be of a different order altogether.
The readers of the gospel knew who this was, and Mark spends no time on the questions which worry the other evangelists, such as whether John recognized Jesus, or whether it was appropriate for Jesus to be baptized. He relates the important facts in a single sentence and proceeds at once (9) to interpret the significance of Jesus' baptism. The dove (10-11) appears to be a visible symbol of what was essentially an invisible event: Jesus' endowment with the Holy Spirit. The voice from heaven, given in words drawn from Ps. 2.7 or Isaiah 42.1 (or both), serves to justify the title given to Jesus in the first sentence of the gospel: Son of God (1).
Matthew and Luke each give a full account of the "temptation" of Jesus. According to them, it consisted of certain choices suggested to Jesus by Satan. Mark's account is so brief that we cannot be sure whether he intended the same interpretation. The details are more or less traditional. Forty days was a biblical round number, the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24.12-18), the time Elijah spent on his pilgrimage to Horeb (1 Kings 19.8); and the angels waited on him (13) (provided him with food)
exactly as they did on Elijah (1 Kings 19). All the meaning of the passage is concentrated in the words tempted by Satan. If we do not supply the details from the other accounts we need not think of this as a succession of specific "temptations" so much as a trial of strength between the Son of God and the powers of evil—a contest which remains present in the background of many other episodes as the gospel progresses.
After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee (14). Mark's readers evidently were expected to be familiar with the story of John's arrest (which Mark in fact tells later on, 6.17-29): it is mentioned here simply in order to mark the moment at which Jesus' work in Galilee could properly be said to have begun—that is, not immediately after the baptism and temptation, but after a certain interval. What Jesus was doing in that interval (whether, for instance, he remained in company with John the Baptist) is not explained by Mark, who is less concerned to fill the gaps in his biography than to divide the narrative into clearly marked sections. For him (contrast, for example, John's gospel) the activity of Jesus has two main phases: first in Galilee, where Jesus has both Success and opposition— though the emphasis is on the success rather than on the opposition; and secondly in Jerusalem, where The final conflict leads to his death. This simple arrangement of the material concerning Jesus is logical and plausible, and is followed with only slight modification by Matthew and Luke. But the fact that John's gospel follows a different pattern, weaving together Jesus' activity in Galilee and Jerusalem, suggests that Mark's arrangement may be schematic rather than historical; and there are hints even in Mark's narrative that Jesus made more journeys to Jerusalem (as a pious Jew living in Galilee would normally do) than the single one which he records. However this may be, Mark clearly intends Jesus' appearance in his home country to mark the beginning of the first period, that of preaching, healing and controversy in Galilee. He devotes the next few chapters to giving some typical examples of these activities.
Proclaiming the Gospel of God (14). The modern reader is curious to know what Jesus' message was like, and will probably find Mark's summary of it somewhat disappointing. In this respect Matthew, who places the Sermon on the Mount right at the beginning of his account of Jesus' work, may seem much more satisfactory. The reason why Mark was content with such a brief summary is probably that when he used the phrase the Gospel of God he could he sure that his first readers would he thoroughly familiar with what was meant by it. The Gospel was the preaching which they themselves had heard and responded to when they became Christians; and Mark gives here, not the content which Jesus must have given to this Gospel when he first preached it, so much as the tone in which he preached, and in which indeed the message was still preached in the church.
'The time has come.' (15) Every Jew would have known what this meant. History as recorded in the Old Testament was all preparation for a consummation that still lay in the future; Jesus was proclaiming that the time of preparation was at last over. 'The kingdom of God is upon you.' Again, the meaning of the phrase the kingdom of God was one which Mark's readers would have come to grasp for themselves. It could not be easily defined; it would only gradually be demonstrated in the teaching and destiny of Jesus and in the new experience of the church. The point here is that it was upon you: unlike his predecessors, Jesus did not merely teach about the kingdom, he proclaimed its imminent arrival. 'Repent, and believe the Gospel.' It will have made no difference that Jesus' hearers already professed a religion in which repentance played an important part. It will have been no good answering, "But we repented yesterday". For Jesus' appearance was the irruption of something new, and the urgency of his preaching demanded (as the next two paragraphs will show) a single-minded and immediate response, a turning away from old habits, and a total commitment to a new standard and a new master. Christian preaching doubtless had this urgent and demanding tone in Mark's time and continued to have it for a long time. Mark is showing here that it had the same tone when first formulated by Jesus.
Jesus was walking (16). Mark has now set the scene: Jesus is in Galilee proclaiming the Gospel by his deeds, as we shall see, as much as by his words. The next events hardly fall into a biographical sequence: they are presented as typical examples of Jesus' activities, somewhat loosely strung together. The first such event is Jesus' summons to two pairs of brothers to accompany him. How much they knew of Jesus beforehand, and how much they were prepared for this sudden call, are details which Mark does not trouble to record. The only important point for him (as doubtless it was the important point also for the young church, when it reflected upon the experience of conversion) was the immediacy of the disciples' response. They were fishermen: not peasants (for Zebedee employed hired men (20)) but partners in a family fishing business. Jesus said he would make them fishers of men (17). The metaphor is obvious enough in the context of the life of the church, where "fishing for men" meant drawing them in from the pagan world outside into the security of the "net" of the church. But when Jesus used the phrase, he probably meant something different. The fishing net in the teaching of Jesus (as in the Old Testament) is usually a symbol of the Last Judgement: when that judgement comes, men and women will be caught up into it inescapably. Simon and Andrew, James and John, are to
share in Jesus' work of confronting men with a judgement which is already beginning and which (like a fishing net) they cannot evade.
They came to Capernaum (21). Jesus, Mark has informed us, came from Nazareth: but the centre of his teaching was to be Capernaum, some 30 miles away from Nazareth and some 1,500 feet lower in altitude—a different world altogether from that of his native highland village. Capernaum was the largest town on the lake, it had a brisk commercial life (it was situated on the important trade route from Damascus to the Mediterranean) and was an important centre of the fishing industry. Its synagogue would certainly have been (as the existing ruins show it to have been in the following century) one of the largest in the country, and here Jesus went on the Sabbath for the normal service of prayer, readings from the Old Testament, and exposition. It was normal for the president of the synagogue to invite a qualified layman to give the teaching, and it was natural that Jesus, who was exceptionally well versed in Scripture, should receive such an invitation. Indeed we find him often (like the apostles after him) seizing just such an opportunity to proclaim his message. Mark does not say what the teaching was: but we may assume that (as in Luke 4) it took the usual form of exposition of Scripture. But it was nevertheless something very different from the ordinary run of Sabbath sermons. Unlike the doctors of the law, he taught with a note of authority (22). It is possible that the Galilean congregation would have been equally impressed by the authority of, say, a learned scholar from Jerusalem, compared with the less highly qualified local doctors of the law (the "scribes" of older versions) to whom they were accustomed: but Mark, who has already stated that Jesus was the Son of God, doubtless has a more significant kind of authority in mind, something which would invest Jesus' words with a greater weight than would proceed from the mere scholarship of an expert. He proceeds to illustrate this, not by an example of Jesus' teaching, but by what we would call a "miraculous cure". By calling it this, we misdescribe it. Mark sees it as another encounter between Jesus and the forces of evil, and the onlookers are made to have the same interest. They are impressed by the fact, not that the sufferer is cured,
but that even the unclean spirits submit (27). Popular belief in Palestine— as indeed in many parts of the ancient world—was inclined to find demons and spirits (as agents of the devil) operative in many spheres of life. A fairly obvious case of their activity was felt to be any kind of mental or physical illness, such as epilepsy or some forms of schizophrenia, in which the sufferer behaved as if controlled from outside, i.e. possessed (23). Furthermore, if (as was usually the case) this condition compelled the victim to commit acts which made him ritually "unclean", then the agent possessing him was called an unclean spirit. The proper technique for dealing wilh this condition was exorcism, and the power to perform exorcisms was by no means uncommon (Matthew 12.27; Acts 19.13). The normal procedure was to make the spirit confess who or what it was and then to invoke the name of a mightier power in order to drive it out. Clearly (at least in Mark's understanding) Jesus had no need to invoke any authority apart from his own: the spirit instantly recognized him and submitted (with the usual final manifestation of its power—in this case convulsions (26)). The episode falls naturally into place. After the trial of strength with the devil himself (1.12-13) Jesus shows his mastery of the devil's agents. The people, impressed both by the authority of his teaching and the effectiveness of his exorcism, rapidly spread abroad the news.
The case of Simon's mother-in-law (29-31) is told quite simply and is one of the passages in Mark which seems most likely to go back to the personal testimony of the apostles.
That evening after sunset (32). Mark is very precise about the timing. The Sabbath ended at sunset, and only then would it have been lawful to bring (if that meant carrying) all who were ill out of their own houses to the house where Jesus was: they came in fact at the first possible moment after Jesus' appearance in the synagogue that morning. Jesus drove out many devils (34), presumably in much the same way as in the story recorded a few verses earlier. The devils had to submit because they knew who he was. But Jesus was evidently anxious to keep his true nature dark—a motive which is characteristic of Mark's presentation of Jesus.
Very early next morning (35). The phrase in the original is rough and vivid: "very early, it was still night". Mark does not say what Jesus' motive was—whether simply to gain time for prayer, or to escape from the pressure of the crowds in Capernaum. The episode marks the transition from Jesus' initial appearance in Capernaum to his wider activity all through Galilee (39).
Once he was approached (40). Mark has been giving a sequence of events that fill out the picture of Jesus' first twenty-four hours in Capernaum, culminating in his departure to undertake a wider field of work. From now on it is clear that the episodes are less carefully linked together and are more in the nature of a selection of Jesus' activities, which perhaps came into Mark's possession without any clear order or sequence. The healing of the leper is a typical instance of these activities. It is not at all certain that the biblical disease of leprosy was the same as the terrible paralysis, anaesthesia and rotting of limbs which bears that name today. Descriptions of it in the Bible (see especially Leviticus 13-14) suggest a variety of skin diseases which were certainly severe and difficult to cure, but which cannot have been regarded as totally incurable, as modern leprosy would have been: for there are elaborate directions both in the Old Testament (Leviticus 14) and in later Jewish literature about the formalities of ritual cleansing which must he performed by the patient when he recovered. The real terror of the disease was seen, not in the physical suffering which it involved, but in the
ritual "uncleanness " which was imposed upon the sufferer. Strictly speaking (though it is possible that the severity of these rules was partially relaxed in the time of Jesus) a leper was allowed no physical contact with the persons or the houses and possessions of other Jews, and this social ostracism was inspired not so much by the fear of contagion as by the ritual "contamination" which was believed to be involved in any such contact. There is therefore significance in the detail that Jesus touched him (41), and the warm indignation
The news went round that he was at home (1). The scene of the next episode is once again Capernaum, where Jesus seems to have made his home with the family of Simon (1.29). It should not be imagined that such a house would have been large enough for Jesus to preach to a great number of people inside (though Luke (5.18-19), who was more familiar with the larger houses of the west, evidently pictured the whole scene as taking place indoors). Rather he will have stood in front of the door and addressed the crowd in the street or open space outside—though eventhat space was not big enough to hold them (2). Because of the press of people, the four men carrying the paralysed man could not force their way through; so they must have found a way up to the roof of the house, perhaps at the side or at the back. Small houses in Palestine normally had flat roofs: one would have thought it would have been easier for them to have let down the stretcher from the edge of it, directly in front of Jesus. But presumably the closely packed throng of people made even this impossible; so they broke through the roof (which would have been of dried mud and wattle, and of no great thickness) and lowered the stretcher on to the only spot where there would have been any room, inside the house, behind Jesus. Their faith was that Jesus must ultimately turn back into the house and would then be forced to attend to the sufferer.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralysed man, 'My son, your sins are forgiven' (5). It was widely believed among the Jews that illness came to men as a direct punishment for sin. This theory was obviously inadequate to explain the whole problem of suffering (and Jesus certainly did not accept the theory unreservedly); nevertheless no one denied that there was a close connection between sin and sickness, and to be forgiven by God was regarded as an essential precondition of recovery. Now, since people did certainly recover, it followed that God must often forgive them their sins, either of his free mercy or in view of their repentance and their meritorious acts. But God could not be forced to forgive them: he retained his sovereign freedom to give or to withhold forgiveness, and no man (unless perhaps he was a prophet to whom God had given intimations of the future) could presume to know whether God would forgive or had forgiven until unmistakable signs of physical recovery could be seen. Jesus' unequivocal statement, your sins are forgiven, therefore embodied a striking claim. He was not just speaking with the voice of a prophet (who might have claimed to know that the man was about to recover, and who could have said, in virtue of this knowledge, that it must be the case that the Lord had forgiven him). Jesus declared outright that the man was forgiven, and so implicitly claimed the authority (which of course Mark's readers knew that he possessed) to dispense God's forgiveness himself. The lawyers (6) with their professional knowledge of Scripture were naturally quick to recognize the implication as blasphemous. 'Who but God alone can forgive sins?' (7)
Jesus' claim was certainly blasphemous—unless it was true. Could it be proved true? How (since a man's forgiveness was entirely a concern between him and God) could it ever be known whether he had been forgiven? If it was a simple blasphemy, it was a singularly "easy" one to utter, since there could be no evidence to show that it was false. If on the other hand the claim was true, it was a stupendous one. It was no "easier" to make such a declaration than to effect immediately the physical improvement which, if the forgiveness was authentic, could be expected to follow in any case in due course. Jesus therefore authenticated his claim by what we now call a miracle: by giving the man an immediate recovery from his paralysis, he demonstrated that his declaration "your sins are forgiven" had been effective. Mark does not say whether the lawyers were convinced. This is just the beginning of a long series of events which built up the tension between Jesus and the religious authorities. Instead, he brings the story to a close by describing the impression made on the crowd, who were less interested in the theological point at issue than in the unprecedented evidence of a supernatural power at work among them.
This is the first use of the title Son of Man in the gospel (10). It occurs again, perhaps with a somewhat different meaning, later in the chapter, but otherwise its occurrences are all concentrated in the second half of the gospel. The title appears never to have established itself in the early church as a formal title of Jesus, but the evidence of the gospels is unanimous that Jesus frequently used it himself. Why did Jesus refer to himself in this cryptic way, and how did he intend the title to be understood? In his own language (Aramaic), the equivalent must have been bar nasha, "son of a man"; and just as the frequent biblical phrase, "sons of men", often means nothing more than "men", so this idiom may have been used in certain circumstances to mean simply "a man" or "a certain man". It is therefore possible that there are some instances in the gospels where Jesus originally used the expression, not of anyone in particular, but of men in general. But these instances are the exception; normally it is quite clear that when Jesus talked about the Son of Man he was referring to a particular individual. There are reasons for thinking that in Aramaic the idiom was sometimes understood as a deliberately enigmatic and oblique way of referring to oneself. If so, Jesus' use of it may have been of a piece with his characteristic manner of speaking: instead of making explicit claims for himself, he challenged his hearers to make up their own minds whether or not he was a person about whom such claims could be made. Nevertheless, his use of the expression had far-reaching implications. It suggested, for instance, not just "a man", but "the Man", that is to say, a particular man who had been singled out by God to perform an important and perhaps representative role in the destiny of his people or of mankind at large. There was much speculation in the ancient world about the appearance or return of the perfect Man, who would restore mankind to its pristine glory and inaugurate a new age. But the only form in which such speculation is likely to have impinged on the society in which Jesus moved was that which stemmed from some verses in the book of Daniel. "I was still watching in visions of the night, and I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven; he approached the Ancient in Years and was presented to him. Sovereignty and glory and kingly power were given to him ..." (7.13-14). This "son of man" in Daniel is again a little mysterious—the book was deliberately written in cryptic imagery—but certain things can be said about him with reasonable certainty. The context in Daniel shows that he appeared before God (the "Ancient of Years") at the moment when the divine judgement of the world was about to begin. lie was in some sense a representative figure: he stood for the righteous men
who (at the time the book of Daniel was written) were being brutally oppressed by a foreign power; and Daniel's vision was that in God's judgement their destiny would be reversed: they would be vindicated, and there would be given to them that ascendancy among the peoples of the world which was being denied them at the present time. We know that this Son of Man figure fired the imagination of the Jews and enjoyed some popularity in later writings. Unfortunately we cannot say for certain how far the idea had been embellished in Jesus' day or what the popular image of the Son of Man would have been. But certain elements in it must have been constant. In particular, the Son of Man was always a personage who was (or would be) vindicated at God's final judgement, and he always had some connection— whether as representative or as leader—with those who suffered on account of their faith. When therefore Jesus used the expression—which he did most frequently (at least according to Mark) in connection with his own impending sufferings—he must have been understood by at least some of his hearers to be tacitly claiming that, whatever his present humiliations, he was destined to be vindicated by God; and also that he had a unique degree of solidarity, if not with all mankind, at least with those whom God regarded as righteous. Now Jesus healed the paralysed man to convince those who accused him of blasphemy that the Son of Man has the right... to forgive sins (10). These lawyers will have known that the Son of Man was a person to whom there would ultimately be given authority (this was an implication of the word "sovereignty" in Daniel). The conclusion forced upon them by Jesus' words and actions will have been twofold: first, that Jesus was in some sense the person prefigured in the prophet's vision of the Son of Man; and secondly, that the authority given to this person included the right (which is the same word as authority in the Greek) on earth to forgive sins, and therefore to heal the sick.
As he went along (14). The exact locality of the call of Levi is left vague by Mark, except that it was in the neighbourhood of the Lake; but we can fill in the details from the geography of Galilee. Capernaum, which was built on the northern shore of the lake, was a station on the important "road to the sea" which carried trade between the cities of the Decapolis and the Mediterranean ports. It was also close to the frontier between the territories of Herod Antipas and Philip, and was the centre of the fishing industry on the lake. It was the obvious place for a custom-house; and since Jesus had already become well known in Capernaum there is no reason to suppose that Levi did not have time to ponder the message of Jesus before he responded to Jesus' summons. Curiously, Levi does not appear in the list of the Twelve in 3.14-19 below (although his brother James does): this is perhaps the reason why in Matthew's gospel the same story is told, not of Levi, but of one who was known to have been one of the Twelve: Matthew.
The social status of Levi can be inferred from the next paragraph. His housewas large enough to accommodate a fair number round the table; he was therefore probably a senior customs officer in the service of Herod Antipas. But the profession of tax-gatherers (15) (including customs officials) was one of those which was very severely judged by Jewish society. It was assumed that it invariably involved extortion and dishonesty—for how else could these officials make a good living?—and it was usually exercised on behalf of a foreign power. Morally speaking such people were thought to be no better than thieves and criminals. They were therefore shunned by the stricter members of society and were even denied certain civic and religious rights. They tended consequently to make their friends mainly among themselves and with members of similarly "disreputable" professions; and a group of such people would be looked upon as by definition bad characters.
At the other extreme of society were the Pharisees, who not merely avoided contact with all such people but constituted a closed society of their own, observing a code of moral obligations and ritual observances more elaborate than that accepted by the majority of Jews. They would naturally have expected a religious teacher such as Jesus to observe the same rule of life as themselves, and this was doubtless an initial cause of tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. But now Jesus was behaving in a way that scandalized them still more. It happened that some of them who were also doctors of the law (16) (with whom Jesus had already had some controversy) observed him not merely conversing with these disreputable members of society but
actually sitting at table (15) with them, which according to Jewish custom was the principal way in which a man could express his solidarity with his friends. And not only this: Jesus, like many teachers of his time, had now gathered a number of " disciples" around him (for there were many who followed him: Mark has recounted the call of only five disciples, and he hastily makes good his omission here), and he was allowing
these also to associate with bad company (16). In reply to their scandalized comments, Jesus quoted a familiar proverb and then boldly applied it to his own role in contemporary society. 'I did not come to invite virtuous people, but sinners.' (17) This saying will have been understood by the church of Mark's time in a general and spiritual sense: it will have been their experience that Christ's invitation had come to them, not as specially "virtuous people", but as "sinners"; and it is possible that their understanding of this saying has influenced the form in which it has come down to us. Nevertheless the application of Jesus' words to the social conditions of his time is still intelligible and is borne out by one of the most characteristic features of his activity: he found himself constantly in opposition to those who were widely regarded as the most virtuous people in society, and sought out those who were shunned as sinners. It was these people whom he came to invite—that is, these were the people with whom he expressed solidarity by offering them a place at that heavenly banquet which (in traditional Jewish imagery) was the destined reward of the righteous.
Once, when John's disciples and the Pharisees were keeping a fast (18). Fasting was an obligation laid on all the Jewish people on one day of the year; but stricter religious sects tended to lay upon themselves additional fast days. This was certainly true of the Pharisees (Luke 18.12) and Mark says that it was true of their disciples (though strictly speaking they were a closed society and did not have disciples, except in so far as some of them were "doctors of the law" and therefore had students). We are not surprised to hear that it was also true of the religious movement initiated by John the Baptist. Seeing Jesus surrounded by disciples, people naturally expected it to to be true also of his "sect", and when they found that he laid down no such practices for his followers, they asked the reason. Jesus replied with a comparison. It was the task of the bridegroom's friends (19) at a wedding banquet to contribute gaiety to the proceedings. Fasting—which meant of course doing without drink as well as food—would be quite out of place and was in fact waived even by the Pharisees on such occasions. 'As long as they have the bridegroom with them, there can be no fasting.' By this it is clearly meant that Jesus' presence with his disciples was a time of rejoicing: fasting was appropriate to a time of waiting and preparation, but now the awaited moment had come, and the old observances had lost their meaning. Jesus was not merely initiating a variant of the Jewish religion, he was proclaiming something entirely new which the old forms of religion could not contain. Two similes help to make the point (21): old material will not take the strain of a new patch that pulls on it when it begins to shrink; and new wine (22) (which was poured off from the vats into jars or skins before it had finished fermenting) needed new and supple wineskins, not old and brittle ones which would burst under the pressure.
Thus understood, these verses form a connected and intelligible whole. But the sequence is interrupted by a verse which appears to say something quite different: 'But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and on that day they will fast.' (20) Jesus, we have said, appears to have been answering the question about fasting by showing in three short similes that the new dispensation which he had come to proclaim superseded all older observances. Why then did he prophesy a time when they would be resumed? Furthermore it was the firm belief of the church, expressed in words attributed to Jesus himself (e.g. Matthew 28.20, 'I am with you always, to the end of time'), that the Lord was always, and always would be, present among those who acknowledged him. What moment then can be in mind when Jesus is reported assaying, 'the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them'? Was
Jesus already hinting at the dark days between the crucifixion and the resurrection? If so, the hint comes a long time before Jesus (at least in Mark's gospel) makes any clear allusion to his destiny in Jerusalem. Alternatively, is this a saying which was invented or adapted by the early church to justify its observance of days of fasting? The verse remains mysterious.
One Sabbath he was going through the cornfields (20). A short sequence of sayings and episodes follows which illustrates Jesus' attitude to the most fundamental and widely observed of all Jewish institutions, the Sabbath. The Sabbath was regarded as one of God's greatest gifts. It was the privilege of the Jew to observe it and to hand down the tradition of its observance from generation to generation. Much of this tradition was of a very positive character: the Sabbath was a day for rest, for rejoicing, for family gatherings, and of course for worship in the synagogue. But it had also its negative side. The simple direction in the Law of Moses, "Thou shalt do no manner of work", had been elaborated into a long series of complicated and often oppressive prohibitions, and it is with these petty restrictions—which were insisted upon most vigorously by the Pharisees—that Jesus is shown frequently taking issue in the gospels. One of the pettiest is illustrated by the first episode. His disciples, as they went, began to pluck ears of corn. It was expressly allowed in Jewish law for anyone to satisfy his hunger by taking a handful of fruit or corn from someone else's field (Deuteronomy 23.24-5). Normally this would offend no one. But on the Sabbath, according to the Pharisees' point of view, such an action must be regarded differently: it fell in the same category as reaping, which was "work", and therefore forbidden (24). Jesus, in reply, appealed to a passage of Scripture which the rigorists themselves had some difficulty in explaining. The story about David is told in 1 Samuel 21: David was being pursued by Saul, and coming to the sanctuary (the House of God (26)) which then existed at Nob demanded food for himself and his men. (The priest concerned was actually Ahimelek and not his son Abiathar; but Abiathar was one of the two most famous priests in the time of David, and the error, whether it be Mark's or Jesus', is trivial.) It happened that the only bread available consisted of the sacred bread which was placed each week before the sanctuary, and which could afterwards be eaten only by the priests (Leviticus 24.5-9). Jewish scholars were in some embarrassment to explain how it could have been right for David and his men to eat this bread. Jesus, in recalling the incident, may simply have been trying to silence his critics by pointing to an instance where their own technique of interpretation left them in difficulties; but there may also be an unspoken implication (made explicit in Matthew's account, 12.1-8) that "a greater than David was here" who, even more than David, had the authority to exempt his followers from particular regulations of the law.
He also said to them (27). This is one of Mark's ways of binding into the context of his narrative a saying of Jesus which may originally have been
remembered in isolation. The saying adds a further touch to Mark's portrait of Jesus' attitude to the Sabbath. Even the Pharisees were prepared to concede that, if a human life were in danger, it was allowable to ignore a Sabbath restriction in order to save it; and they would have agreed that the Sabbath was made for the sake of man, in the sense that it conferred a great blessing on those who observed it. But they would certainly not have agreed with the much more liberal attitude which doubtless underlay Jesus' use of these words. It is possible that verse 28 should be understood in the same way. It was pointed out above that in the Greek the phrase Son of Man (28) may sometimes be a mistranslation of an expression which in Jesus' own language of Aramaic meant simply "man". If this is the case here, Jesus will have been saying that, not just when life is in danger, but in countless other cases besides, man is sovereign even over the Sabbath and not the Sabbath over man. On the other hand, if Mark has here correctly recorded Jesus' use of the title Son of Man, then Jesus must be once again understood as making a particular claim for himself: by virtue of his unique status he could legislate even on such matters as the observance of the Sabbath.
On another occasion (1). Mark adds one more dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over the Sabbath, this time leading up to a clear breach between them. The presence of a man in the congregation who had a withered arm constituted a test case; for although it was permissible on the Sabbath to save a life that was in danger, it was generally forbidden to perform services for the sick on the grounds that, apart from the danger of infringing minute regulations about permitted work and movement, too much concern for those who were ill would be incompatible with the sense of joy and well-being which a Jew should feel on the Sabbath. It seems to have been, once again, the sheer inhumanity of such an interpretation of the Sabbath which moved Jesus to anger and sorrow at their obstinate stupidity (5) and caused him to make a public issue out of an act of healing. This was sufficient, according to Mark, to set in motion a plot against his life, the Pharisees making common cause with the partisans of Herod (6). These men, who reappear later (12.13), were presumably influential citizens who gave their support to the administration of Herod Antipas and saw in Jesus' movement a threat to the peace of the district.
Jesus went away to the lake-side (7). The scene changes from an ordinary Sabbath congregation in a synagogue to a huge gathering on the shore of the lake. Mark's list of the districts from which Jesus' hearers had come seems to include all the main areas of Jewish population in Palestine. So far, the movement had been confined to Galilee; but now the whole of the Jewish nation in Palestine came to hear him: from Judaea and Jerusalem in the south (omitting of course Samaria, which was regarded as a hostile and alien district) and, still further south, from Idumaea (8), the Edom of the Old
Testament; from Transjordan, that is, the narrow strip of valley and the highlands immediately to the east of the Jordan (officially called Peraea); and from the neighbourhood of Tyre and Sidon (11), to the north-west of Galilee, where there were substantial communities of Jews. It was, it seems, Jesus' reputation as a healer which brought the crowds. Healing involved exorcism, and therefore contact with spirits who knew (as Mark and his readers knew, but as the crowds did not know) that Jesus was the Son of God. But once n again Jesus refused to allow his true status to be known to the multitudes who came for healing.
He then went up into the hill-country (13). Steep and therefore uninhabited country lay not far from the lake, and was an appropriate setting for a moment which demanded quiet and privacy. He appointed twelve as his companions (14), a statement which becomes more significant a moment later in the form he appointed the Twelve (16). Mark's readers knew, not just that Jesus had had a certain number of companions entrusted with specific tasks during his work in Galilee, but that he had left behind him a group of men known as the Twelve, who (or at least some of whom) constituted an essential link between Jesus' work on earth and the continuing existence of the church. Some members of this group were well known to Mark and his readers, either because of the part they played in the gospel narrative, or because of their subsequent role in the church: this goes for the first four in the list, and of course for Judas Iscariot. But the rest seem to have been little more than names, and the lists given in different parts of the New Testament do not always agree with each other. The important thing was evidently not the name and character of each, but the fact that there were twelve, symbolizing perhaps that the new people of God was in important respects the successor of the old Israel with its legendary Twelve Tribes.
To Simon he gave the name Peter (16). The name means "a stone", as is explained in John's gospel (1.42); and a reason for the name is suggested by a passage in Matthew (16.18). The name Boanerges is mysterious (17). We do not know precisely what these letters are supposed to represent in Aramaic or Hebrew, nor what Jesus intended by renaming the two brothers. Mark tells us that the name meant Sons of Thunder. This may be right, but it does not take us much further; nor is there any record of these two disciples ever having been called by this name subsequently. Thaddaeus occurs only in Mark's list (18), replaced in Matthew (10.3) by Lebbaeus,in Luke (6.16) by 'Judas the son of James'. Simon (as the NEB makes explicit) was a member of the Zealot party (19). Not much is known of the Zealot party before the beginning of the Jewish War (60-66 A.D.), when its members became champions of revolt against the Roman occupying forces; but there is no reason to doubt that this fanatical anti-Roman movement was active during the previous decades, especially in Galilee, and Simon seems to have been a member of it.
Up to this point in Mark's narrative, such opposition as Jesus had encountered (which first comes to the surface in 3.6) had been created by his attitude to Sabbath regulations. The next two episodes illustrate the beginnings of a deeper antagonism. That the activity of Jesus should have collected a large crowd inevitably suggested to somethat he was out of his mind (21), and that the crowds had been attracted by mere curiosity. Consequently his family (who are to be imagined a day's journey away in Nazareth) set out to take charge of him. Meanwhile Jesus was being confronted with a more menacing accusation. The doctors of the law (22)—whom Mark probably assumes to have come down to Galilee from Jerusalem specially to investigate the reports about Jesus—admitted the reality of Jesus' exorcisms but gave them a sinister explanation. The power by which Jesus drove out the demons and spirits that caused (it was believed) so much of people's illness, was not a good power, but was a worse power still. 'He drives out devils by the prince of devils.' The man who professed to cure those who were "possessed by devils" was in a worse case himself—he was possessed by Beelzebub, who was, if not the devil in person (as Matthew states, 12.24), at least a prince among devils. Jesus showed this up as sheer sophistry. It was one thing to believe (as Jesus and his contemporaries certainly believed) that there was an objective and personal force of evil abroad which could enter a man and make him act in a way untrue to his nature; and it made sense, on this view of the matter, to talk of devils, spirits, demons and so forth in the plural: these were all different manifestations of the same supernatural power. But it was quite another thing to infer from this terminology that different "devils" could be played off against each other for the benefit of human beings. Evil was ultimately one single power, and to talk of evil being divided against itself was a contradiction in terms (25). It was as silly as saying that "Satan could drive out Satan".
Jesus put his answer in the form of two parables (25). To see what a parable is one must look at the parables of Jesus: it was he who made the form immortal. But the word itself did not necessarily mean anything so extended and elaborate as most of Jesus' stories. In Greek it meant any "comparison" or "simile"; and the Hebrew word to which this corresponded had an even wider range of meanings—proverbs, riddles, illustrations and stories. Thus Jesus' answer here (24-7) consists of two quite simple and obvious illustrations. The only deeper meaning which may possibly be present lies in the phrase the strong man (27). According to contemporary Jewish mythology, the monstrous power of evil was due to be "bound" for a period before the end of the world (see below on Revelation 9.1); so that underneath the comparison may lie a claim of Jesus to be stronger than the devil himself and to be the person destined to bring evil into subjection.
On any interpretation the saying which follows is hard to understand. The first part of it fits easily enough into the general pattern of Jesus' teaching. Some Jewish thinkers had drawn up a whole list of sins which in their view put the sinner outside the range of divine forgiveness and deprived him of his share (as they put it) in the life to come. Jesus' teaching stands at the opposite extreme to such legalism: it is open to anyone to repent and be forgiven.' No sin, no slander, is beyond forgiveness for men.' (28) Why then does he make the severe exception which follows? And what does it mean, to "slander the Holy Spirit"? Mark indicates the way he understands this himself: He said this because they had declared that he was possessed by an unclean spirit (30). Confronted, that is to say, by a clear instance of the defeat of evil powers (which in Mark's theology indicated that the Holy Spirit was at work), they had rejected this clear evidence of God's activity. Mark may have wished his readers to infer that, since no clearer case could be given them of the presence of the Spirit, nothing further could happen which would lead them to repentance, and therefore there was no chance that they would adopt the attitude necessary to obtain forgiveness. In the wider context of a doctrine of God's mercy, this is a hard saying. But Mark's concern is a more limited one. He has to explain how it happened that men crucified the Son of God. If they were capable even of "slandering" the clearest manifestations of his divine power, then it was understandable that they would not stop short of destroying Jesus. Nothing would move them to repentance: therefore nothing could qualify them for forgiveness.
Then his mother and his brothers arrived (31). We were told in verse 21 that they were setting out from Nazareth to 'take charge' of Jesus. Mark does not say what happened when they tried to do so; their arrival in Capernaum simply gives him the cue for recording a saying of Jesus which was perhaps remembered apart from any particular context (it appears to be alluded to by Paul in Romans 8.29): 'Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother.' (35) The word brothers is less precise in Greek than in Hebrew: it could mean half-brothers (i.e. sons of Joseph by another wife) or even cousins. It does not follow from this passage (even if it seems likely for other reasons) that Mark knew nothing of the tradition that Jesus was born of a virgin.
On another occasion (1). But it was clearly, in Mark's view, an important occasion. Just as Jesus' fame as a healer had drawn such crowds that he had to have a boat ready to 'save him from being crushed' (3.9), so too his teaching drew a crowd so large that he had to get into a boat. Mark evidently intended to set the two scenes in parallel, and just as in the first he gave some notable examples of Jesus' works of healing, so now, for the first time in his gospel, he gives a specimen of Jesus' teaching, introduced by a word which would have had solemn overtones for Jewish listeners, since it stood at the beginning of a formula which they used every day in their prayers ("Listen O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one"): 'Listen' (3).
In fact however this sample of Jesus' teaching can hardly have been typical. Admittedly it consists mainly of "parables", which were one of Jesus' most characteristic figures of speech; but the point of these particular parables is not so much to convey new religious or ethical truths as to illustrate how Jesus' teaching as a whole was to be understood. In this they continue an important theme from the previous chapter. Just as Jesus' works of healing had provoked opposition as well as admiration, with the result that his opponents, having "slandered the Holy Spirit", had now lost all chance of repenting and being forgiven, so his teaching was such as to arouse different reactions among his hearers, some of whom would inevitably be deaf to his message—God would not give them ears to hear (a phrase which evokes Deuteronomy 29.4, and recalls the pristine obstinacy of the people of Israel in the face of the spectacular benefits they received at the time of the Exodus). What was the explanation of this? Why was the teaching of the Son of God ignored or rejected by some of those who heard it? In the case of the acts of healing, Mark was able to give two reasons for this opposition: some thought Jesus was mad, others that he was inspired by the devil. Neither of these reasons would account for the mixed reception given to his teaching; and so Mark opens his collection of Jesus' sayings with a discourse which bears upon this very question.
'A sower went out to sow.' (3) The first of the parables describes what we know to have been usual farming practice in Mediterranean lands in antiquity, and its freshness comes more from Jesus' vivid and poetic observation than from any intrinsic interest in the narrative. After the harvest (around June) the farmer would probably plough his fields at least once, perhaps several times, during the dry summer months, both to prevent the dry earth from becoming hard and to keep it free of weeds. In November or December (the time of the first heavy rains, when there was enough moisture in the ground to allow the seed to germinate) the field would be sown, the sower casting the seed by hand and probably varying the quantity of seed according to the quality of the soil. Very soon after the sowing, the seed would be ploughed in to protect it from the birds. In these circumstances a certain amount of wastage was inevitable. The field would be bounded at least on one side by a path. Some seed would naturally fall it (4), but since the former would not plough over the path, it would remain on the surface and be eaten by the birds. Some would fall on rocky ground (5), that is to say, places where the limestone rock which underlies the soil in Galilee came close to the surface. Probably the farmer would not expect much of a crop from it: the soil would be too shallow to hold moisture, and the fierce heat of the sun would quickly scorch the plant as soon as it began to grow. But he would not for that reason leave such patches completely unsown. Some seed would fall among thistles (7), which could never be completely eradicated from the soil and which were always a serious nuisance to the farmer. But this amount of wastage was only what was to be expected. Most of the seeds sown would grow to fruition, often producing several side-shoots. A return of thirty to sixty grains from each plant was normal, a return of a hundred was exceptional (though not unheard of)—Jesus was fond of a touch of exaggeration.
The parable then is a description of ordinary farming practice with which Jesus' hearers will have been perfectly familiar. Nevertheless it dwells on a number of details which would not normally come to mind. From the farmer's point of view the wastage would be negligible: it would hardly occur to him to pay much attention to it, or to censure the sower for allowing a few seeds to fall on the path. But Jesus, by recounting three different ways in which the grain might be lost, drew attention to the fact that even when the harvest was good some wastage was inevitable, some seeds would come to nothing. Similarly: however successful his own work might appear to be, it was perfectly natural that there should be some wastage, some indifference, even some opposition.
If this is the natural interpretation of the parable, it is also one that is entirely consistent with Jesus' understanding of himself and his work: he presented an unavoidable challenge, and it was inevitable that some would react against him. But Mark evidently saw a further meaning in the parable, and knew of a more subtle interpretation of it. Consequently, before going on with the scene of Jesus teaching the crowds, he recorded some conversation which Jesus had in private with the Twelve and others who were round him (10). This change of scene puts the matter in a different perspective. The emphasis in the parable was on the small but necessary amount of wastage: a few will always remain unfruitful even though the main harvest develops normally. But now it is the other way round. The phenomenon being explained is no longer the small (though potent) opposition to Jesus' teaching, compared with the crowds who press in to hear it. It is those who accept who are now a small and privileged minority, and what has to be explained is the fact that the great majority remain outside.
At this stage of his work, Jesus had had more success than opposition. He was more aware of the crowds who strained to see and hear him than of the enemies who were already plotting against him. But for the early church things were very different. The Christians were a small movement set in the midst of a large and (particularly on the Jewish side) hostile world;
and to account for this hostility they were glad to find an explanation in a prophecy of Isaiah (6.9-10). That great prophet had been entrusted with the authentic word of God. Yet the people would not listen. Why? It must have been because God himself had intended it that way and dulled their understanding—that they may look and look, but see nothing (12)—and it was this which was preventing them from turning to God and obtaining his forgiveness. Paul used the same text when confronted by the opposition of fellow-Jews in Rome (according to Acts 28.26-7); doubtless the prophecy helped many Christians in the early days of the church to understand their own position and the attitude of their neighbours.
Did Jesus quote this text himself? Mark says that he did, and there is no good reason to doubt it: there will have been many occasions later on when it may have helped him to understand and interpret the massive opposition which he encountered. But it is hardly appropriate to the context here, where Jesus has more admirers than opponents; and it looks as though Mark (or the source from which he derived his narrative) introduced it in order to explain a somewhat different sense of the word "parable" from that which is exemplified by the story of the sower. The word parable (or its Hebrew equivalent) could mean a variety of figures of speech, including riddles and enigmatic sayings. The parables of Jesus, though they may have been perfectly clear to those who first heard them, were often inspired by the circumstances and context in which they were delivered, and there may soon have come a time when, since their original setting had been forgotten, the parables themselves could no longer be understood: they then became "parables" in the sense of mysterious, enigmatic utterances. In which case the fact that Jesus taught in "parables" could be held to explain why some (indeed the majority, as it seemed to the first Christians) did not accept his teaching: they did not understand it! It was only to his intimate disciples (so this explanation ran), and through them to the church, that Jesus had given the clue—the secret of the kingdom of God (11). As one example of the kind of esoteric understanding which (on this view) was necessary in order to grasp the meaning of Jesus' teaching, Mark appends a detailed interpretation of the parable of the sowing. He attributes the interpretation to Jesus, and it may well have come down to Mark along with the parable itself. But there are serious reasons for doubting whether Jesus was the author of it. While the parable bears some traces of the idioms of the language (Aramaic) which Jesus spoke, the interpretation contains many expressions which do not occur elsewhere in the gospels but are characteristic of the preaching of the Greek-speaking church. Further, the circumstances which prevent the proper reception of the word (trouble, persecution, false glamour of wealth) belong more to the experience of the church than to that of the crowd which first listened to Jesus' teaching in Galilee. Mosl significant of all: I he psychological analysis of different kinds of unbelief, profound though it may be, does not spring from the parable itself (as the meaning springs from most of Jesus' parables). It has to be read into it. Mark was right: if this was the way in which the parables were intended to be understood, then they would indeed be mysterious to anyone who did not possess the clue. If Jesus taught like this, no wonder that only a few followed him. Mark indeed goes on to suggest that Jesus' parables were all like this.'You do not understand this parable? How then are you to understand any parable?' (13) And at the end of the chapter he explicitly makes the same point: the disciples were privately given the key to all the teaching which to everyone else remained simply "parables" (33-4)—mysterious and perplexing. This is one of Mark's answers to a question which runs through his gospel: why was Jesus not universally recognized as the Son of God? Because he deliberately gave his teaching in a form which few could understand. Mark develops this idea here, at the expense of breaking into the scene of Jesus' public teaching—which is resumed without apology at verse 21.
He said to them (21). Clearly the section containing private instruction to the disciples is finished, and the scene is once again the lake-side, with the crowds straining to hear Jesus' teaching, just as on a previous occasion they had pressed upon him to witness his powers of healing. According to Mark, the parables were such as to mystify all except those who belonged to the privileged circle of the disciples and were given the clue to their interpretation. He now gives some examples of precisely this kind of enigmatic parable. All but one of them (that of the seed scattered on the land) reappear in Matthew and Luke, who, by placing them in a certain context, or by making minor alterations, often give some hint as to how they understood them. But Mark neither gives an esoteric explanation of them (as he does for the parable of the sowing) nor offers by his editing any suggestion about their meaning. He evidently intends the sayings to remain mysterious, as an illustration of what he has just said about their effect on their hearers. It may well be that the point of them was already obscure to him.
The sayings themselves are characteristically vivid, drawn from life, and often with the ring of proverbs. The lamp (21) is the ordinary oil-lamp that has been found by thousands among the ruins of the ancient world, shaped like a small flattened teapot with the wick in the spout. To light a room, it would have to be put on a lamp-stand, not underneath one of the pieces of furniture in the room such as the bed or the meal-tub (there is a little evidence that this part of the equipment of a peasant house might be mounted on legs; otherwise we should have to think of the tub being placed upside down over the lamp in order to extinguish it, which is a rather different idea). Proverbially, anything hidden away (the meaning of the parables? the true nature of Jesus? the infant church in the world?) will be brought into view one day. The two proverbs in verses 24 and 25 seem drawn from the bazaar: the fair and generous merchant does better in the end, but (as in all economies) the
poor get poorer, the rich richer (in understanding the parables? in understanding the gospel? in faith?). The seed is sown, the farmer continues his normal activities, and does nothing to it until the moment comes for the decision to harvest (judgement will be sudden and unprepared?— the harvest, at all events, was a biblical symbol of the Last Judgement often used by Jesus, and the words he plies the sickle, because harvest-time has come (29) are a quotation from Joel 3.13). The mustard-seed (31) was proverbially the smallest seed in the ground, and by comparison the plant which sprang from it (which grows over six feet tall in Galilee) was prodigious—though Jesus was once again exaggerating when he used language about it which in Daniel (4.12) and Ezekiel (7.23; 31.6) is applied to a massive tree (small beginning of the gospel? of the church? of faith in 26,30 the human heart?). These last two parables are said to illustrate the kingdom of God (26, 30)—but what aspect of the kingdom remains mysterious. Mark has kept faithfully to his programme of showing that Jesus' teaching was likely to be unintelligible to the mass of his hearers.
So far Jesus' activity had all been situated on the west side (or rather in the north-west corner) of the Lake of Tiberias. Now Jesus crossed over to the east side, and the heavy squall (37) which his boat encountered was of the kind for which the lake is notorious, and which can take even the most experienced fisherman by surprise. It is a little curious that the crossing should have been undertaken in the evening (35). Jesus would then have reached the other side two or three hours later, long after nightfall; but the events which immediately followed his landing clearly took place in daylight. We cannot be sure that Mark was really concerned about such details; but if he was, then he must have envisaged the crossing as being combined with an all-night fishing expedition, during which it would have been natural for Jesus to take the opportunity to get some sleep. The episode is told quite simply, with some details which are usually thought to suggest the use of an eye-witness account (the other boats, the cushion, the disciples' almost reproachful cry to Jesus, and Jesus' words which, in the Greek, recall the way he spoke to devils). It is interesting to compare the accounts in Matthew and Luke, who see a more symbolic meaning in the story (Matthew 8.23-7; Luke 8.22-5).
So they came to the other side of the lake, into the country of the Gerasenes (1). Gerasa was one of the most important of the group of Greco-Roman cities which lay for the most part on the eastern side of the Jordan and which, though subject to Rome, constituted a league known as the Decapolis (the Ten Towns). Later in the century Gerasa began an ambitious building programme and became one of the most splendid Roman cities of the east. But even before that, those of Mark's readers who knew little about Palestine were likely to have heard of it. This may be the reason why Mark calls the scene of this episode the country of the Gerasenes: with the name, and with the detail of a herd of pigs (which was unthinkable in Jewish territory), he will have succeeded in conveying an impression of the very different Greco-Roman world in which Jesus set foot when he crossed over the lake. But as a matter of geographical detail his description creates difficulties. The scene is laid by the shore, not too far from a town (verse 14). Gerasa lay some thirty miles away from the lake, more than a day's walk across the mountains, and no part of the shore could properly be called "the country of the Gerasenes". A few Greek manuscripts, following the version of the story in Matthew, give "Gadarene": Gadara was another city of the Decapolis, somewhat closer than Gerasa, in the hills within sight of the lake; but even this city was too far away to fit the details of the story. Either the name conceals that of an unknown smaller town near the lake, or else Mark, for the reason suggested, was more anxious to give the area a pagan atmosphere than to be precise about geographical details (of which in any case he may have been ignorant).
Just as the area was exceptional for Jesus' activity, so too the case of possession is described as an exceptional one. The unclean spirit (2) gave its victim superhuman strength, and its name, Legion (a Roman military unit of over six thousand men), put it in a class apart from the more common cases of possession by, say, seven demons. Yet on seeing Jesus it reacted just as other unclean spirits had: it recognized him by his name (Jesus) and his real nature (son of the Most High God (7)), and acknowledged his superiority. And it was doubtless to illustrate Jesus' power even over such a demon, and even in gentile surroundings, that Mark recorded the story. But there are some further details which make the story unlike any other in the gospels. The first is Jesus' conversation with the spirit. Usually he simply commands it to come out. Here he also asks its name (which was standard exorcists' technique, though it was normally done before, not after, the command to come out, as a way of getting control of the spirit). The second is the occurrence of the title, Most High God, which was not a Jewish phrase, but belonged to the common vocabulary of many Hellenistic cults—another detail which gives a non-Jewish tone to the whole scene. The third is the destruction of the pigs. It was to be expected in an exorcism that the devil would make a final demonstration of its power before leaving its victim. This usually took the form of a paroxysm in the victim himself, though stories were told of other violent manifestations (such as a statue being overturned near by). In this way the onlookers would be assured that the spirit had been decisively overcome. A herd of two
thousand pigs can hardly have been a common sight, and their loss would have been a major calamity for their owner. But neither the interest of the narrator nor, it seems, of the crowd which soon collected was attracted by this aspect of the matter. The miracle, in the eyes of all, was the recovery of one who had been possessed by so formidable a spirit. It was because of this that they were afraid (15) and begged such a potent exorcist to leave the district (16). Nevertheless, since Jesus would not allow the subject of the cure to go with him, the evidence of the miracle, in the person of a notorious demoniac suddenly restored to health, was soon widely acknowledged in an area far outside the normal range of Jesus' activity.
The two miracles which follow are woven into each other in a way which suggests the hand of an expert narrator (Mark was particularly adept at this). The president (22) of a synagogue was in charge of the maintenance and worship of the synagogue, and was necessarily one of the dignitaries of any Jewish community.
This (at least according to Mark) was Jesus' one visit to his home town (1) (Nazareth). Jesus followed his regular practice of attending the synagogue on the Sabbath and making use of an invitation to preach in order to spread his teaching. As always, he made an impression; but the dominant reaction of his audience was sceptical. How could one who had grown up among them and practised a trade,
On one of his teaching journeys (7). At some stage in his activity in Galilee (Mark evidently did not know at what stage) Jesus enlarged the scope of his work by sending out his disciples as missionaries. They had the double task of calling for repentance and of carrying on Jesus' onslaught against the powers of evil in the form of the unclean spirits. This mission was very similar to that which was subsequently entrusted to the church, and there can be little doubt that, at least in some of the gospel accounts, the practice and experience of early Christian missionaries have influenced the record of Jesus' instructions to his disciples (see above on Matthew 10). It is hard to be sure, for instance, whether the detail of anointing the sick with oil (13) (which is not mentioned anywhere else in connection with Jesus' activity) is an authentic element of the disciples' mission or is a reflection of the subsequent practice of the church (James 5.15). In either case it is clearly not t hought of as a medicinal treatment (for which indeed oil was often used, as in Luke 10.34) but as an instrument or sign of supernatural power over disease. But even if such details are uncertain, there is no reason to doubt either that Jesus, on at least one occasion,sent his disciples out on a mission, or that his charge to them was faithfully remembered. The way they were to proceed is vividly drawn: apart from what was basically necessary for anyone walking across the country (8-9)—sandals and stick—they were not to take any of the provisions of food, clothes and money with which a prudent traveller always equipped himself before a long journey. (There may also be the implication that they were not to go as beggars—the word translated pack can mean the pouch in which a beggar put what was given to him.) The reason for travelling so light was probably twofold. In the first place, the mission seems to have taken place in Galilee, which was densely populated: the distance between one town or village and the next was never so great as to warrant serious preparations. Secondly (and this is more important), they were to expect hospitality (as any traveller could who had a good reason for his visit) and to accept it. They were not to exploit this by moving from house to house in turn: their work was presumably too urgent, and time too precious. On the other hand, the kind of reception they had would be a clear sign of people's readiness to hear them. If it were unfavourable, they were to perform a gesture which was a characteristic Jewish way of emphasizing the holiness of Palestine: after being abroad, or in any place regarded as "unclean", Jews would shake the dust from their feet before they stepped in the holy land, so as not to contaminate it. The disciples' gesture could be interpreted only in one way: the place which did not receive them could have no part in the coming kingdom.
Mark separates the departure of the disciples from their return by a narrative which bears only indirectly on the theme of the gospel. It is certainly true that John the Baptist was put to death by Herod Antipas: the fact is recorded by Josephus. It is also true that, just as John's preaching was the forerunner of Jesus' preaching, so his death prefigured Jesus' death, and perhaps for that reason won a place in the gospel story. But the vivid details of Mark's account are clearly there for their own sake (17-28). The story as told in Mark is somewhat different from Josephus' account: according to Josephus, Herod's motive was political. But it is perfectly consistent with what is known of Herod's character; and although it is told more in the manner of a raconteur than of a serious historian, it may well have a basis in history.
People were saying ... others said (14, 15). The kind of rumours to which Jesus' activity gave rise all tended in one direction. There was no special reason to think that a man who had been raised from the dead (16) would be capable of performing miracles; on the other hand, it was a widespread popular belief that the new age, which the Jews confidently expected in the near future, and which would be marked by a miraculous triumph of good over evil, would be ushered in by the return of one of the great Old Testament figures, Moses, Elijah or one of the old prophets (15). In so far, then, as the activity of Jesus seemed to betoken the arrival of the new age, it was natural to identify him with one of these; and following the same line of thought, it might even have seemed possible that John the Baptist himself had been a person in the same tradition who would "come again" at the appointed time, and Mark, by way of introducing the following story, makes Herod think the same.
This same Herod (17). Herod Antipas had been tetrarch (and doubtless known locally as king (14)) of Galilee and Transjordan (Peraea) since the death of his father, Herod the Great, in 4 B.C. He had recently, while returning from a visit to Rome, fallen in love with Herodias, the wife of his brother. This brother did not possess a kingdom of his own at the time, which may be one of the reasons why Herodias left him and was prepared to marry Herod Antipas. So far as we know, the brother's name, like his father's, was simply Herod: that Mark calls him Philip is perhaps no more than a mistake. Herod Antipas then prepared to divorce his first wife (who anticipated him by returning to her father's court at Petra) and duly married Herodias, who brought with her the child of her first marriage, Salome (Josephus gives us her name). The girl would have been around twenty years old. All sorts of unfortunate results followed from this marriage, including, predictably enough, a war with the Nabataean king of Petra, the father of Herod Antipas' first wife. But in the eyes of strict Jews there was a further reason for disapproval in that it was unlawful to marry a brother's wife while the brother was still alive. This is the background to John the Baptist's remonstrances and Herodias' grudge against him. According to Josephus the scene of John's imprisonment and execution was Machaerus, Herod's frontier stronghold east of the Dead Sea. The gospel narrative is not incompatible with this, although Herod's luxurious palace in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee would certainly have been a more appropriate setting for the story of the fatal banquet.
The apostles now rejoined Jesus (30). For the first and only time in Mark's gospel the disciples, on their return from their mission, are called the apostles. The word, which means literally "one who is sent out", was a technical one used by the Jews for a messenger entrusted with an official mission; but in the early church it had only one significance: it meant the select group of disciples who, having witnessed the Resurrection, were entrusted with the task of founding the church. It is a striking fact that this title is seldom read back into the gospel narrative; but there is perhaps reason for it here in that the disciples had just acquitted themselves of the kind of task which was subsequently to be the particular mission of the apostles.
Jesus' reaction to the crowds who had just frustrated his intention of sailing to some lonely place was that they were like sheep without a shepherd (31, 34). This biblical expression (Numbers 27.17, Ezekiel 34.5) was more than a picturesque metaphor for an aimless multitude. It evoked the whole history and destiny of Israel. God himself had shepherded his people, keeping them as one llock in the face of all disintegrating pressures and leading them into their own land towards the fulfilment of that ideal of perfection which their religion constantly held before them. But God had also deputed this shepherding to the people's own political and religious leaders, who had again and again failed to discharge their responsibility— the classic description of this failure is in Ezekiel 34. And it was the same in the time of Jesus. The religious leaders—particularly the Pharisees and the doctors of the law—had failed to give the guidance expected of them (this is a recurring motif in Jesus' discourses). And it was because of this failure that Jesus' heart went out to the crowd—they were like sheep without a shepherd. But there is more still in this phrase: it was promised in the Old Testament (and the hope was still alive in later Jewish writings) that God would send a leader who would be a true shepherd. Jesus knew himself to be this shepherd; and he deliberately began to fulfil the role by showing, first that he had much to teach them (34), and secondly that he was aware of their physical needs.
The four gospels between them give no less than six accounts of a feeding miracle of this kind, and clearly the church cherished the memory of it. Just as, in Mark at least, the healing miracles are not presented merely as the feats of a wonder worker, so the miracle of the feeding has a deeper significance. The scene is not a picnic but a formal meal: the men are made to sit in an orderly way as for a banquet;and Jesus proceeds, like a devout Jewish host, to say the blessing and break the bread himself. The crowd is thus brought into table fellowship with him—the most expressive symbol the Jews knew of solidarity between one man and another; and the whole scene could hardly fail to be remembered when in later years the Christian church began to meet together for that eucharistic meal by which they were still miraculously fed and at which their Lord was still somehow present as host.
The traditional site of this miracle is a small and very luxuriant plain in the north-west corner of the lake, which appears not to have been populated in the time of Christ and which lay about an hour's walk west of Capernaum. If this was in fact the place, and if Mark or the tradition he was making use of was sufficiently familiar with the country for us to be able to rely on the details—and both these assumptions are open to question—then the course of the following events is to be imagined as follows. It had been quite possible for the crowds to gather on the shore from the neighbouring towns before the boat reached the spot: the boat had therefore clearly not crossed the lake from one side to the other (which would have been a much quicker way of crossing than walking all the way round), but had simply moved some distance westward along the shore in order to reach a lonely place (31). If it
started from Capernaum (which was the centre of Jesus' activities) then the traditional site of the feeding miracle would be about the right distance away. After the miracle Jesus apparently intended to do what the crowds had done, that is to say, to walk round on foot while the boat returned the way it had come.
Thus, he made his disciples embark and cross to Bethsaida ahead of him (45). Bethsaida was in fact a few miles further east than Capernaum on the other side of the mouth of the Jordan. However, the disciples found themselves rowing against a head-wind so powerful (48) that by the early hours of the morning (Mark uses the Roman reckoning, "the fourth watch of the night") they had not merely made no headway but were actually (we must suppose) drifting in the opposite direction. Seeing this, Jesus turned west to meet them and apparently struck out across the water.He was going to pass them by, presumably because he wished to get to the land in time to meet them. But once they had seen him he joined them in the boat. So they finished the crossing and came to land at Gennesaret (53). The plain of Gennesaret lay still further to the west, and they were now further from home than when they had set out. The contrary wind had in fact prevented them from making the crossing at all; but they were now at least in a different place (which is all that the Greek, taken literally, need mean by finished the crossing).
In some such way as this the events recorded by Mark can be fitted into the geography of the lake. But geographical precision was not his main concern. What he had to record was a miraculous feat which Jesus was remembered to have performed. As usual he was anxious not to present it simply as a freak or as the ostentatious performance of a wonder-man, and so he concentrated on the reaction of the disciples. Their minds were closed (52): the word in the Greek is a form of that translated "obstinate stupidity" in 3.5 above. It denotes an almost wilful lack of response to a revelation of the true nature of God. Just as the disciples had not understood the incident of the loaves, failing to see in it Jesus' assumption of the role of the true shepherd, so now, we are to suppose, they failed to see the implications of his power over the elements: their minds still worked at the level of popular ghost-stories, and their only reaction was fear.
Yet for all this deeper purpose, the fact remained that Jesus performed many miracles, particularly miracles of healing (53-6); and the section ends with a brief summary of this constant activity without any attempt at interpretation.
A group of Pharisees, with some doctors of the law (1). Almost from the beginning of the gospel these men have been constantly in the background, representing a sinister and powerful opposition to Jesus. Not only were they allied to the civil authorities in Galilee (the 'Herodians'), but they were in touch with the religious leaders in Jerusalem (some of these lawyers had come from Jerusalem, perhaps for the express purpose of reporting on Jesus' activities). So far, conflict with them had been sporadic and inconclusive, and had been focused mainly on specific questions of Sabbath observance. But now the antagonism came further into the open, beginning with some criticism made of Jesus' disciples on a technical question of purity, but developing into a fierce counter-attack by Jesus against the whole principle on which his opponents' religious practices were based.
The dispute began because some of Jesus' disciples were observed to be eating their food with 'defiled' hands—in other words, without washing them (2). It is known that a hundred years later (if not earlier) it was indeed a strict rule among orthodox Pharisaic Jews to wash their hands before eating, in order to avoid the risk of contaminating their food with any ritually "unclean" substance which might be on their hands; and since this rule was not to be found in Scripture they appealed to an old-established tradition (3). But strangely enough there is no evidence for this having been a general rule in the time of Jesus, and the most that can be said is that at a formal meal it was normal for guests to wash their hands (Luke 11.38), and that some exceedingly strict Jews of Pharisaic tendencies may already have been regarding hand-washing as essential for the ritual purity of the ordinary layman in his daily life, just as it was for the priest in the performance of his temple duties. In support of this they may have appealed to a traditional interpretation of some passage of Scripture. Mark's comment, in any case, which is clearly intended for readers unfamiliar with Jewish customs, is certainly an exaggeration in so far as it attributes this kind of scrupulousness to the Jews in general; and in other respects it offers information which is barely credible for Palestine in the time of Jesus. It may, however, reflect the conduct of Jewish communities in a city such as Rome where the risks of ritual "defilement" through contact with pagan institutions were so much greater.Moreover, the passage from Isaiah (29.13) is quoted according to the Greek version of the Septuagint, which is somewhat different from the original Hebrew text. Jesus himself could not have used this version, but the church did so, and indeed in Colossians 2.22 we find the passage quoted in the same form as in Mark, again in the context of a discussion about ritually permissible food. It may well be that discussion of this kind between Jews and non-Jewish Christians has left its traces upon the gospel; consequently we have to go behind it to reach the nerve of the original controversy as it would have been conducted between Jesus and the Pharisees.
If it is not true that the Jews in general (3) observed this rule about the washing of hands, the offence given by Jesus' disciples must have been similar to their failure to fast: they were not adopting those practices of extra piety which were expected of any serious religious movement within Judaism. Jesus' reply, assuming that he quoted from the Hebrew text of Isaiah, would have ended: "their religion is but a precept of men, learned by rote". He was endorsing, in fact, the prophet's criticism of any religious practice which diverted the pious from their basic moral obligations; and he was applying it directly to his critics with the words, 'You neglect the commandment of God, in order to maintain the tradition of men' (8). The many detailed observances which the Pharisees regarded as binding were based, not on the Law of Moses itself, but on a traditional interpretation of the law which sought to make all injunctions relevant to the conditions of contemporary life. The sheer complexity of these observances made the mastery of them a matter which seemed at times to crowd out any balanced understanding of the spirit in which the divine law had been given; and it is on this point that Jesus' most characteristic attacks against the Pharisees were made. Their attempt to secure perfect obedience to the law by fencing it round with a mass of detailed regulations had resulted in an actual neglect of the original commandments.
But Jesus, in Mark's narrative, carried his attack a stage further. The Pharisees not merely distracted attention from the commandment of God (9) by the mass of their detailed applications of it, they actually set aside commandments by developing traditions which were incompatible with them. This was a serious charge indeed. The particular example chosen by Jesus is surprising at first sight. From all we know of Pharisaic tradition, it is clear that they placed very high value on the commandment Honour your father and your mother (10) (Exodus 20.12 and the negative form of it, Exodus 21.17), and were prepared to waive all sorts of other obligations in order to ensure that it would be observed. The case envisaged by Jesus is that of a son who, in a moment of anger, says "Corban" (11). Literally, this meant set apart for God. But the word had become an element in a very common form of oath. What the son said amounted to the oath: "I swear you shall have no benefit from anything of mine" (literally, "If I give you anything, it will have to be set apart for God and paid into the temple treasury"). Now the Jews, like many people in antiquity, took oaths very seriously: it was laid down in their law that a man must fulfil his oath (Deuteronomy 23.21), and fearful consequences were expected if he failed to do so. Therefore it made no difference if, when the moment had passed, the son repented of his precipitate words. He was now bound by an oath which prevented him from fulfilling his normal duties to his parents. Clearly such a use of oaths had the makings of a serious abuse. It is true that the Pharisees attempted to remedy it by arguing that a large number of popular ways of swearing were not valid oaths at all and therefore constituted no excuse for failing to observe a clear commandment of the law. Nevertheless, we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as from later rabbinical writings that abuses of this kind flourished in the time of Jesus, and it was fair to attack the Pharisees for having countenanced them. It was their own thoroughly casuistical interpretation of the law which had given the word "Corban" the status of an oath, and so had made it possible for a man to evade his clear duty to his parents simply by uttering the word. This was a good example of their own tradition having made an important article of God's word null and void (13).
On another occasion he called the people (14). This introductory sentence is so general that it gives no hint of Jesus' motive in making the pronouncement which follows. On the face of it, the saying, 'Nothing that goes into a man from outside can defile him' (15), is of a piece with Jesus' prophetic criticisms of the religion of his day: outward observances are valueless
compared with the pure intentions of the heart. But there is no clue to its precise application; and we can understand why it was subsequently thought of as an enigmatic saying (which is one of the meanings of the word parable) (17). Following the pattern which he used when explaining the parable of sowing in chapter 4, Mark appends an interpretation that was given privately to the disciples. This interpretation makes the saying apply specifically to regulations about food; but is this the point which Jesus originally had in mind? The topic was not particularly appropriate to Jesus' work among the Jewish population of Galilee. It was clearly stated in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14) that certain kinds of meat and fish were not to be eaten, and no Jew would ever have thought of doing so. It was only in a mixed community of Jews and non-Jews that the question became urgent. Moreover, the list of evil deeds and vices (21-2) is more typical of the conventional language of Hellenistic ethics than of the teaching of Jesus. The principle given here was certainly accepted in the church by the time this gospel was written; but there is abundant evidence, both in Acts (10.15; 15.29) and in Paul's letters (Galatians 2.11-14; 1 Corinthians 8 and elsewhere) that the traditional Jewish scruples over "unclean" foods continued to cause divisions of opinion among Christians. Jesus' general statement doubtless implied a liberal attitude towards food; but the implication may not have been worked out by the church until the whole question of the application of Jewish ordinances to Christians had been settled. Thus he declared all foods clean (19) appears to be a comment by Mark himself, reflecting the position on this matter at last reached by the church.
Then he left that place and went away into the territory of Tyre (24). The predominantly Jewish region of Galilee was bounded on most sides by territories that were mainly gentile. To the west, the plain lying between the mountains of Galilee and the Mediterranean sea belonged to the Roman province of Syria, and its inhabitants were called "Phoenicians of Syria" ( 26) to distinguish them from the Phoenician settlers who founded Carthage, in Libya. The principal Phoenician cities in Syria were Tyre and Sidon, which were both cosmopolitan Mediterranean ports; but there is some evidence that politically the territory of Tyre (24) extended eastwards over the mountains as far as the upper reaches of the Jordan, and therefore included an area where the population was still mainly Jewish. Mark's meaning therefore may be that Jesus travelled to the extreme north of the Jordan valley (where he would have been still among his fellow-countrymen), and not that he took the more drastic step of crossing the mountains into the completely non-Jewish environment of the coastal plain.
Nevertheless the point of the following story was that it put to the test for the first time Jesus' attitude to Gentiles. What would he do when accosted by a gentile woman? Was he prepared to extend his miraculous and compassionate powers to pagans? Jesus' first response, though a little cryptic
and perhaps spoken with sufficient humour not to give offence, was discouraging: everyone knew that the Jews, themselves in a special sense the 'children' of God (27), were not above referring to non-Jews as 'dogs'; and Jesus seemed to be endorsing the usual Jewish attitude. But the woman, instead of protesting at this order of priority, accepted that Jesus' mission was primarily to his own people, but surmised (with a prophetic insight which may well have seemed significant to Mark and to the many non-Jews in the church to which he wrote) that its effect could not be limited to the Jewish race. For this insight she was rewarded by a rare miracle: exorcism from a distance.
Jesus' return journey from Tyrian territory (31) is exceedingly puzzling. Assuming that Mark intended to continue the series of episodes which took place in the outposts of Jewish territory, it is reasonable that Jesus' destination should have been that part of the Sea of Galilee which lay in the territory of the Ten Towns (the Dccapolis, a league of Greco-Roman cities to the east and south of Galilee), and it is just intelligible to describe the journey there as having been through this territory, even though this territory was the last he came to. Jesus' route would then have kept to a direction roughly south-east. But Sidon (and its territory which, like that of Tyre, extended far inland) lay considerably to the north. If Jesus went literally by way of Sidon, he must have made an immense detour, and his journey would have taken several weeks. If he went even into the territory of Sidon at its nearest, he must have gone substantially out of his way, and it seems preferable to assume, either that Mark was ignorant of the geography, or else that Sidon is mentioned only because, since early times, it was customary to refer to it in the same breath as Tyre.
The cure of the man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech (32) is described in some detail, and Jesus' procedure conforms closely to that of miracle-healers in many parts of the world: the touch, the spittle, and the solemn word of command (for Ephphatha (34) probably represents the Hebrew form of the word, and Jesus would have used Hebrew as a sacred language) are all typical details; and the raising of the eyes to heaven and the sigh can also be paralleled from magical techniques (though they may of course also indicate something of Jesus' emotion on this occasion). But Mark characteristically avoids giving the impression of a mere miracle. He adds once again Jesus' curious injunction forbidding them to tell anyone (36); and he records the very strong impression made on the crowds (37) in words which suggest that they saw the miracle as a sign of greater things to come. For had not Isaiah prophesied (35.5) that in the promised new age "the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped and the tongue of the dumb shout aloud"?
There was another occasion. Mark seems to have had no information about the place or the time of this miracle; and it is of no help to us when he records that the place Jesus went to immediately after it was Dalmanutha (10), since nothing whatever is known about this place.
They asked him for a sign from heaven (11). Coming straight after the report of some remarkable miracles, this request may seem puzzling. What more impressive "signs" could be given than the feats which Jesus had been performing? But from the point of view of sophisticated and sceptical onlookers like the Pharisees, the vital question about Jesus could not be so easily settled. However much deeper meaning the miracle-stories may have possessed (and Mark takes care to show that most of them were more than mere miracles), they were never entirely cogent or unambiguous. Jesus' exorcisms, it was suggested, were carried out in collusion with the devil himself; his healings used recognized techniques of magic; his apparent control of the forces of nature could be accounted for in terms of harnessing powers considerably inferior to that of God himself. There were too many miracle-workers about for it to be prudent to give one's allegiance to any particular one of them without very careful "testing". Moreover Jesus' teaching constituted a direct challenge to existing institutions and traditional piety. If the Pharisees were to own his authority, they would be forced to abandon much of what they stood for. If indeed it were true, as Jesus was proclaiming, that 'the kingdom of God is at hand', then a decisive response of penitence and self-preparation could no longer be postponed. Naturally the Pharisees (and doubtless many others) were unwilling to draw such disturbing conclusions from their encounters with Jesus unless they had a clear and unambiguous "sign" that he had full authority to say what he said and do what he did. What would they have regarded as such a sign? Here we can only speculate; but parallels from the Old Testament and from later Jewish sources suggest that a dramatic fulfilment by Jesus of a specific prophecy, or a miraculous confirmation of one of his own predictions, would have confronted them with a challenge which they could no longer evade.
Jesus sighed deeply to himself (12). The signs of emotion which, to a notable extent in this gospel, are attributed to Jesus seem to be provoked by impatience with the religious observances and attitudes by which he was surrounded. So here: the religious mentality which will not yield its allegiance without first being given what it will recognize as unassailable evidence makes Jesus impatient. He sees his questioners as representatives of a whole generation which, like the "generation" of Israelites in the wilderness, is too obstinate to recognize the source and implications of the wonders done in its midst.
'Be on your guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.' (13) These words are not elucidated by the story in which they occur, and since they are found in a quite different context in Luke (12.1) it is likely that they were remembered as an isolated and somewhat enigmatic saying of Jesus which Mark thought it appropriate to work in at this point. Leaven, because of its impressive power of transforming a mass of dough many times greater than itself, was often used metaphorically. Sometimes good things were compared to it (Matthew 13.33), sometimes bad (1 Corinthians 5.6). The only clue to its meaning here is that it must have been something which the Pharisees and Herod had in common; and this (particularly since an alliance of Pharisees and Herodians on the very point is recorded in 3.6 above) can hardly have been anything but a common disposition to suppress Jesus and his movement. Jesus' warning, in fact, was entirely practical.
But the story in which the saying is embedded (and in which it plays virtually no part) has a very different point. It gives Jesus an opportunity to castigate his disciples severely for their still unenlightened response to the great things he is doing in their presence. He repeats the condemnation of them already recorded by Mark after the first of the two feeding miracles (6.52). Their minds were closed (18)—a biblical phrase suggesting that they were still in that state of obtuseness which, in the face of divine revelation, had characterized the people of Israel throughout its history; indeed Jesus goes so far as to apply to his disciples those fatalistic words of Isaiah (6.9) (18) which (at least according to Mark) he used of the crowds at large when they failed to understand his parables (4.11-12). The distinction between the disciples and the crowds is here at vanishing point: Mark, unlike Matthew, makes no attempt to portray them in a favourable light. Their moment of glory came later, after Easter, and belonged not to the gospel story but to the history of the church. Meanwhile, even after witnessing Jesus' feeding miracles, they remained blind. The sections which follow show Jesus taking steps to penetrate their blindness.
For Jesus could heal the physically blind. It may be in order to point to a deliberate contrast between his power over blindness and the continuing obtuseness of the disciples that Mark inserts here a second healing story remarkably similar to that given at the end of the previous chapter (the two stories have in common the privacy of the cure, the use of touch and spittle, and the injunction to secrecy, and what was said above about the conventional traits of this kind of miracle applies with equal force here). This one takes place at Bethsaida (22), which was on the far side of the Jordan, in the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas' brother Philip. Philip had begun to found a new city on the site, named Julias after Augustus' daughter Julia; but, since very little is heard about this "city", and since no buildings of any pretension have ever been found on the site, it may be that his plans never got very far, and Mark may not be altogether inaccurate in calling it a village (23); in any case, there is no reason to think that its population must have been much less Jewish than that of, say, Capernaum, or that Mark intends us to imagine that the blind man was a Gentile. The unique feature of the cure is that it was
gradual. If a parallel was intended between the man's blindness and the disciples' obtuseness, it is possible that it was this detail which led Mark to place the story here: the next three chapters relate the gradual (and in fact only partial) enlightenment of the disciples.
From Bethsaida, a day's walk northward through the territory of Philip would have been more than sufficient to reach the villages of Caesarea Philippi (27), a town which had been refounded by Philip as a Hellenistic city, without presumably much affecting the character of the villages round it. The beginning of the conversation is a little contrived (27): Jesus presumably did not need to ask the disciples for information about what people were saying; and their answer to Jesus' question has already been given once by Mark in connection with Herod (6.14). But it serves to point up the significance of the disciples' reply. The people at large had certainly come to see in Jesus more than a mere miracle-worker: he appeared to be a sign that God's promises to his people were about to be fulfilled, and they therefore inclined to identify him with one of those prophetic figures of the past who, it was believed, would return to earth as a herald of the new age. But since the world around them still remained very much the same as it was, they did not take the further step of identifying Jesus with that unique person, the Messiah, who would be the central figure in the inauguration of a new age. The new age, it seemed, had not yet come, even though there might be signs of its dawning in the liberating activity of Jesus. Moreover Jesus himself had not openly admitted to the title of Messiah. Now all the Christians for whom Mark's gospel was written knew that Jesus was in fact the Messiah: indeed they had come to call him, as a matter of course, Jesus "Christ". Mark here relates that even before the resurrection the disciples (for whom Peter appears simply as the spokesman, since Jesus' response to what he says seems on each occasion to embrace all the disciples) had come to recognize the same truth: 'You are the Messiah' (the Christ) (29).
This truth however was not yet to be openly revealed. The injunction to silence continues the series of such injunctions which (particularly in Mark's gospel) Jesus often gives after the performance of a miracle. It is debatable whether these injunctions go back to Jesus (in which case they may have been motivated by a desire for privacy, an anxiety to avoid conflict with the government, or a sense that a popular following was a form of temptation to be resisted), or whether they were (at least in part) inserted by Mark in order to explain the comparatively small following which Jesus obtained in Galilee. But here the injunction makes a clear distinction between the disciples and the people in general: the disciples are shown to have advanced, despite their previous failures, to the point of recognizing Jesus as Messiah, whereas this is something which must slill be concealed from the crowd.
Their progress however does not go very far. Jesus immediately gives them some further teaching which finds no response in them whatever. The Son of Man (31) was a phrase which suggested a glorious and vindicated figure; but he was to come into this state of glory only after he, or the righteous people whom he represented, had suffered, and even been martyred, for their faith. It was perhaps natural that popular thought should concentrate more on the glory to come than on the necessary condition that the righteous people of God (of whom everyone hoped to be a member) should first undergo severe tribulation; and the effect of Jesus' words here is to correct this bias and to emphasize the things which have got to happen first, before glory and vindication can be contemplated. He does this in some detail; and the details are an unmistakable description of his own rejection, death and resurrection. According to Mark, therefore, Jesus both identifies himself completely with the Son of Man and gives a detailed forecast of his own destiny. How near we stand to historical truth at this point is a tantalizing question. On the one hand it was only be to expected that the words in which the church was accustomed to recite the bare facts of Jesus' life, death and resurrection should have influenced at least the form in which Jesus' prophecy was remembered (and there are vestiges of this process in the Greek text of Mark). On the other hand it is difficult to make sense of Jesus' mission unless it is granted that he had at least a premonition of the fate in store for him, and some consciousness of his destiny.
He spoke about it plainly (32). Much of his teaching was in parables, much of it enigmatic; the disciples had as much difficulty in understanding it as anyone else unless, as sometimes happened, Jesus gave them a clue to his meaning. But on this occasion Mark relates that Jesus talked to them plainly, that is, in a way they could not possibly misunderstand. Their reaction, for all that, was no more enlightened than usual. Instead of their usual bewilderment, they registered frank opposition to the idea that Jesus (and perhaps also themselves, as members of the people whom the Son of Man would represent) should suffer rejection and execution. This amounted lo a frank substitution of human preferences for obedience to the divine purpose. It was a manifestation, in the very circle of Jesus' own disciples (for whom, again, Peter stands as spokesman), of the seductive power of the devil with which Jesus had already had to wrestle in the "temptation" with which his work began.
Since the disciples were unresponsive to this message of suffering, Jesus called the people to him (34) for some more general teaching on the same theme—or so, at least, Mark or his source arranged this group of Jesus' sayings: the whole difficulty of this passage is to determine how far the later experience of the church has influenced the record of this important moment in Jesus' self-revelation. That there has been some influence is difficult to deny. 'He must take up his cross', for example, is a phrase which can hardly have had much meaning before the crucifixion of Jesus. Crucifixion was the
Romans' normal method of executing those of their subjects in Palestine who were convicted of causing sedition; but before Jesus' own passion and crucifixion set the pattern for his followers, the call to "take up one's cross" could hardly have been understood except as an invitation to risk one's life in acts of resistance or rebellion against the Roman occupying power— which is hardly likely to have been Jesus' intention. Again, whatever teaching Jesus may himself have given about the necessity to leave self behind (34) (which is the NEB translators' interpretation of the Greek phrase "to deny oneself") and to maintain one's true self (36) at all costs (which is an attempt to bring out the double sense of the word "life" in the original phrase, "whoever shall lose his life ... shall save it"), there can be no doubt that these sayings take on far more relevance and significance if they are read in the context of a Christian community which is being persecuted. The same goes for the final sentence (38). There may have been moments in Jesus' life (such as Peter's denial of him) when this saying would have been relevant; but it reads more easily as a subsequent warning to the church that anyone who is ashamed of Jesus and his followers
He also said (1). This is one of Mark's usual ways of adding a saying of Jesus which did not originally belong to the context. The saying presents great difficulty because (taken in its plainest sense) it was soon proved false; but equally, since no one would have thought of attributing to Jesus an apparently unfulfilled prediction if he did not make it himself, it is almost certain to be authentic. In the context both of Jesus' own teaching and of contemporary Jewish expectation, the kingdom of God ... come in power could only have meant one thing: the moment when God would bring the present course of world history to an end and institute a new order which would be unmistakably his kingdom. If this is what Jesus in fact predicted in the lifetime of his hearers, then he was mistaken; and many interpreters have felt bound to accept this clear limitation of Jesus' understanding of the future, particularly since it is clear from the New Testament letters that the early Christians in general expected the end to come within their own generation. On the other hand a number of decisive events, of less finality than the end of the world, but of considerable significance in the working out of the divine purpose, did in fact take place before the passing of Jesus' generation. One was the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70 which seemed to many to symbolize God's final judgement passed on the Jewish religion;
another was the vindication of Jesus (the Son of Man) by the resurrection; a third was the manifest power released in the church which caused the gospel to be accepted on a scale beyond all human expectation, and seemed a clear foretaste of the kingdom of God already come in power. It is possible that Jesus' prediction originally referred to one or more of these events; in addition to which, the kingdom of God in Jesus' teaching was never a concept confined to the future: his message was that, though the consummation was still to come, vital things were happening and vital decisions were being asked of men even now in the course of his own activity. Since all his teaching about the coming of the kingdom was thus a great deal richer in meaning than the simple prophecies of doom or glory made by some of his contemporaries, it is reasonable to think that the saying here, whatever its original form, was neither so naive nor so misguided as it now appears.
The episode which follows is traditionally known as the Transfiguration, transfigured (2) being derived from the Latin word which corresponds most nearly to the Greek metemorphothe, "changed his form". The account is brief and succinct; but the difficulty is to know whether it is intended simply to report an eyewitness account or whether some of the details derive from a symbolical interpretation of the event. Elijah ... and Moses with him (4), for example, are clearly not just extras on the stage, but are intended by their presence to point to the nature of him with whom they are conversing. But what on this occasion do they stand for? Are they symbols of the Law and the prophets which Jesus was destined to fulfil and supersede? Elijah was commonly thought of as the first of the prophets, and Moses was of course the lawgiver (though it is surprising to find him in second place after Elijah: it is just possible that he was added later to the original story to fill out the symbolism). Or does Elijah appear in his usual role of precursor of the Messiah? In which case Moses is presumably there for the same reason: and it may well be that there was a belief in the time of Jesus (as there certainly was at a later date) that Moses, as well as Elijah, would return at the inaugura-lion of the new age. Shall we make three shelters? (5) Again, this could be a purely practical suggestion of Peter's, an effort to offer hospitality on the mountain to the disciples' distinguished guests—and Mark himself notes how inappropriate the suggestion was: he did not know what to say (6). But equally the shelters (the word means literally "tents") could be an allusion to the fact that in the earliest history of Israel it was in a "tent" that God came to meet his people (Exodus 33.7-11), and the image of a tent continued to serve as a description both of the actual temple in Jerusalem and also of the true sanctuary of God in the heavens (Hebrews 9.1-14). After this, however, the symbolism of the details becomes apparent: the cloud (7) was a traditional sign of the presence of God (Exodus 16.10; 19.9, and many other Old Testament passages); and, since the extinction of the prophetic spirit with the death of the last of the Old Testament prophets, the voice from heaven was the most frequent of the ways in which God was believed to reveal himself to men. The words spoken by the heavenly voice are identical with those spoken at Jesus' baptism; the significant difference here is that they are addressed to the disciples, who are henceforward (though their behaviour might seem to belie such knowledge) in possession of the key to Jesus' true nature. One more clue to the mystery of Jesus may lie in the final phrase,'listen to him'. Deuteronomy 18.15 reads (Moses is speaking): "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren—listen to him." Jesus (it is doubtless implied) is this prophet.
The vision, then, is cast in a Jewish mould: some if not all the details take on their significance from traditions that originate in the Old Testament. All the more striking therefore is the one verse in the section which describes, in language of an almost peasant simplicity (with a whiteness no bleacher on earth could equal (3)), the transfiguration of Jesus himself. To this there is no parallel in Jewish literature: to find anything comparable one has to go to Greek myths, where gods often enough assume human form and then suddenly, by their dazzling appearance, betray their real nature. The vision is unparalleled for good reason. Jewish religion, unlike Greek religion, did not conceive of another and more glorious reality lying in some sense "behind" the physical world and occasionally breaking through to the senses of men. The Jews thought of this other world not metaphysically but temporally. It lay, not in the present behind the outward appearance of things, but in the future: it was the content of God's promises to his people and would one day, by an act of God, be fully revealed to them. The substance of Jewish religious visions was therefore 'what must happen hereafter' (Revelation 4.1), and it may be that Jesus' transfiguration should in part be understood in this sense: the "glorification" of Jesus lay in the future, it was the state he would assume after the resurrection, and what the three privileged disciples were being vouchsafed was a glimpse of that which was to come. But clearly the vision was more than this. Jesus was already Son of God and Messiah; therefore he was already (for those who could see it) a figure of glory. In his transfiguration, as in his preaching of the kingdom and in his power over the forces of evil, Jesus brought decisively into the present things which until then all Jewish religious thinkers had reserved for the future.
In Mark, any spectacular action of Jesus is very often followed by an injunction to secrecy. The transfiguration evidently falls into the same category of things not, or not yet, to be revealed. Jesus refers to himself again (as in 8.31) as the Son of Man (9), and places for the first time a limit to the period of secrecy—until he had risen from the dead. The NEB offers an entirely original translation of the following phrase: They seized upon those words (10). The sense is excellent, making a smooth transition In the question about 'rising from the dead'. But it is doubtful whether the Greek can mean this: it is normally translated "They observed his commandment" or (following a different punctuation) "they kept these things to themselves". In any case their question about rising from the dead arose out of the last words of Jesus' injunction. It was not of course a question about the meaning of "resurrection" itself, for this concept was part of everyone's stock of religious knowledge. One of the most widely held beliefs in Palestine was that at the end of the world all men would "rise from the dead" in order to receive judgement and just reward. What presumably puzzled them about Jesus' saying was that it implied that the Son of Man would rise from the dead, not at, but before the general resurrection. If so, his rising would doubtless (according to the accepted scheme) be a signal for the speedy coming of the end; and this accounts (if strict logic is to be applied to this somewhat jerky paragraph) for their second question: if the end was to come so soon, why had not all things yet come to pass which were due to happen first?
'Why do our teachers say that Elijah must come first?' (11) These teachers are the "lawyers" of a few verses further on, those who profession it was to determine, by reference to their own tradition of interpretation, the precise bearing upon any matter of conduct or belief of a given passage of Scripture. The passage in question here was Malachi 4.5-6: "Look, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will reconcile fathers to sons and sons to fathers ..." The original prophecy was straightforward enough: before the day of the Lord a new prophet would appear who would be none other than the first of the prophets, who had in fact never died (but had been taken up to heaven) and who would return to establish peace in the families of Israel before the end came. But from earliest times there was a tendency to elaborate the role of this future Elijah. The Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament (by adding the words, "and a man to his neighbour") had already extended the area of his peacemaking from family life to the life of the nation as a whole, and Ecclesiasticus 47.13 gives him further tasks. By the time of Christ he had become an important figure in the scheme of the Last Things, and his role had grown from that of domestic peacemaking to that of restoring all things to their pristine perfection (to set everything right (12) is a colourless and not entirely accurate translation). Whether he was to be a precursor of the Messiah, or himself to fulfil part of the traditional task of the Messiah, was a matter on which opinions were probably divided. But in any case it was inconceivable that the end could take place without the previous appearance of this Elijah-figure; and the words of Jesus, which seemed to bring the end sensationally close at hand, naturally raised the question in the disciples' minds how, in Jesus' scheme of things, Elijah could be fitted in.
Jesus' reply is somewhat obscure. The correctness of a traditional interpretation of a passage of Scripture could be established or refuted by reference to another passage, and this seems to be Jesus' technique here. Prophecies that the Son of Man himself was to endure great sufferings and to be treated with contempt (12) are frequently appealed to in the New Testament, but are not easy to find: Isaiah 53 is usually thought to come nearest to what is required, and doubtless the Son of Man passage itself in Daniel 7 implies that the now vindicated and glorious figure had recently (in the persons of the saints) suffered persecution. But such prophecies seemed to conflict with the Elijah traditions, for the Son of Man unquestionably belonged to the final act of the drama, and if Elijah had already set everything right, it was hard to see what would be left to cause great sufferings (13) for the Son of Man. For the true answer, Jesus appeals to another prophecy which stated that Elijah too was to suffer at the hands of men. No such prophecy occurs in the Old Testament or the surviving Apocrypha; but we must assume that it occurred in some writing now lost which was sufficiently reputable for Jesus to quote it in the same breath as "the scriptures" (it is just possible that this tradition underlies the passage in Revelation 11 which is concerned with two suffering "witnesses"). If this prophecy was to be preferred to the tradition of a glorious and well-nigh omnipotent Elijah, then the disciples could look among their own contemporaries for a man who fulfilled this role. If we turn to Matthew (11.14), his account makes explicit what is doubtless implicit in Mark. They need not look far: the person in question was John the Baptist.
As soon as they saw Jesus the whole crowd were overcome with awe (15). The last phrase in the sentence is a strong one, a little stronger perhaps in the translation than it is in the Greek, which could mean simply that the crowd was "astonished" to see Jesus arriving at the precise moment when his presence was required. But overcome with awe may be correct. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai "the skin of his face shone" (Exodus 34.30), and the people were "afraid to come near him". Since the story of the transfiguration itself is full of Old Testament allusions, this may well be one more: Mark thought of a reflection of glory still visible in Jesus, as in Moses, some hours after the event, and producing awe in those who saw him.
The argument seems to have started with the disciples' failure to perform an exorcism. That they were empowered to exorcize is stated in 6.7; but that they should have occasionally failed is not surprising in itself (for some spirits were stronger than others) and must also have given the story a particular interest for the early church, in which exorcism was still practised but doubtless not always with success. What was the reason for these failures? Surely the disciples, and the Christians after them, either had the power or did not have it? A possible answer lay in words attributed to Jesus and added here by Mark as a piece of private instruction to the disciples: 'There is no means of casting out this sort but prayer' (29). If they failed, it must be because they did not pray enough!
The exorcism, the last recorded by Mark, concerns a severe case of what we would now call epilepsy or hysteria, but was then ascribed to the activity of a spirit. The episode contains elements which allow Mark to present it, not as a mere miracle, but as a characteristic manifestation of the power and true nature of Jesus. Jesus' reaction to the all too human scene which met him on his descent from the mountain recalls the impatience and resignation of an Old Testament prophet: in the face of the signal acts of God performed before their eyes, the people remained (as so often in their history: the words clearly evoke Deuteronomy 32.5) an unbelieving and perverse generation (19). The justification for such severe language is immediately provided by the tentative approach of the boy's father: 'if it is at all possible for you' (22). This showed a clear lack of faith in Jesus' power, only partly made good by his impassioned appeal, 'I have faith ... help me where faith falls short' (24) (literally "help my lack of faith"); for it was apparently the approach of the crowd, rather than the singularly candid confession of the father, which spurred Jesus to perform the exorcism, and cure the boy, not just of his present fit, but of his illness altogether: ' come out of him and never go back' (25). Nevertheless it was doubtless because of these words about faith, and because of Jesus' statement which formed part of the dialogue and which must have been a source of great encouragement to Mark's readers—'everything is possible to one who has faith' (23)—that Mark included this exorcism story in his gospel. It is possible also (as his use of the technical Greek words for "rising from the dead " may suggest) that in the very lifelike details of the boy looking like a corpse (26), and in the judgement of many that he was dead, Mark saw a prefigurement of that victory over death which was to be accomplished in Jesus' resurrection and shared by all who had faith in him.
He was teaching his disciples (31). Mark now devotes a section explicitly to Jesus' instruction of his disciples. The main burden of this teaching was the prediction of the fate in store for the Son of Man, which is here repeated in very much the same terms as before (8.31); and just as on that occasion the disciples refused to accept it, so now they did not understand what he said, and were afraid to ask (32). For us, who have come to regard the Son of Man (31) simply as a title for Jesus, the teaching seems to be a straightforward statement of what was going to happen, and we find it hard to believe that anyone could have failed to understand it. But Son of Man to Jesus' contemporaries meant (so far as we can now establish its meaning) a figure who was first and foremost vindicated and glorified; he embodied the splendid destiny to which God's righteous and elect people could confidently look forward. The disciples may not have found any difficulty in Jesus' use of the title as such, for they saw in him a person of unique power and authority; but the teaching which Jesus was giving them about the role which suffering was to play in the destiny of this figure (and doubtless in the destiny of that community of righteous and elect men whom the Son of Man represented) was apparently too much for their preconceptions.
Nevertheless the teaching—or at least that part of the teaching which concerned what would be demanded of the community, and which gave guidance to that community in times of stress—was remembered; and it is possible that we can detect in the apparently illogical sequence of these paragraphs one of the ways in which it was in fact held in the memory. For these sayings were clearly not originally spoken in the order, or even necessarily in the context, in which we have them. There is little apparent logical connection between them; and several of them occur in Matthew or Luke in quite different (and sometimes more appropriate) surroundings. On the other hand, one saying often contains a word or an idea which occurs again in the next, so that the memory would be assisted in moving from one to the other. Thus, in my name in the saying about children (verse 37) is picked up by in your name... in my name in the saying about non-Christian exorcists; is a cause of stumbling in verse 42 is picked up by is your undoing (which is the same word in the Greek) in verse 43; fire in connection with hell leads on to everyone will be salted with fire; and this again leads on to two further sayings about salt (verse 50). It is even possible that the word servant in verse 35 represents a word in Jesus' own language (Aramaic) which also meant child, in which case a further link would be established between the saying about greatness (35) and the saying about receiving children (37). In short the easiest explanation of the inconsequential character of this paragraph is that it reproduces a kind of crude mnemonic system used by teachers in the early church.
To understand these sayings it is therefore necessary to take them separately.
(i) The saying, 'If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all' (35) occurs again at 10.43-4 and in various other places in Matthew and Luke, and the context is always that of Jesus' instruction to the circle of his disciples; but the saying was clearly remembered as one of Jesus' most fundamental pieces of teaching about human relationships.
(ii) 'Whoever receives one of these children' (37). Two presuppositions seem to underlie this saying. First, to maltreat an accredited envoy is to maltreat him who sent him (the idea was as much taken for granted in antiquity as it is now); and secondly, Jesus is in some way present in the poor and needy to whom one gives, or refuses, hospitality, help and service (this is worked out in Matthew 25.31-46). But neither of these presuppositions explains why the saying is about children. It is true that Jesus had an unusual (for his time) interest in children as such (10.13-16). But it is also possible that the original saying was, like verse 42, about 'little ones who have faith', that is, the weaker and more humble of the followers of Jesus, and that at some stage the expression 'little ones' was taken too literally and turned into children.
(iii) Part of the ordinary technique of exorcism was to find out the name and so the power of the devil concerned (38), and then to invoke by name a stronger power with which to cast the devil out. There is nothing surprising in the report that a contemporary exorcist, hearing of Jesus' power over a large number of "unclean spirits", should have been using his name without any sense of obligation to join Jesus' following. The reaction of Jesus' disciples is human and understandable: that of Jesus suggests that he was anxious to avoid forming any kind of militant and exclusive sect. To make the point, he used what was almost certainly a proverb: 'he who is not against us is on our side' (40). The proverb was presumably a political one, and represented the attitude of a liberal and conciliatory party, as opposed to that of the more fanatical nationalist sects which were continually springing up under the Roman administration in Palestine. The fact that Jesus appears to say the opposite in Matthew 12.30, Luke 11.23, is probably again because the proverb existed in reverse, "He who is not with us is against us". This would have been the watchword of the more fanatical parties; and there were certainly aspects of Jesus' teaching which had a certain exclusive-ness, and which he (or an evangelist) may have found it appropriate to express by this severer version of the same proverb.
(iv) 'I tell you this' (41)—one of Mark's characteristic ways of adding an isolated saying of Jesus. The saying occurs in Matthew (10.24) in the context of instructions about the reception to be given to Christian missionaries.
(v) 'As for the man who is a cause of stumbling to one of these little ones' (42). The little ones are doubtless the weaker members of the community of followers of Jesus, and a commentary on this saying can be found in Romans 14; indeed it may have been the kind of situation described there which caused this saying to assume its present form.
(vi) (43-8) The necessity for sacrifice and single-mindedness is described with all Jesus' usual vividness and lack of compromise. Cutting off hand or foot was certainly intended as a metaphor; and since the language is metaphorical, the saying should not be pressed for teaching about hell and eternal punishment. Jesus accepted and used the language of his contemporaries about these things. In the Greek, the word for hell in this passage is Gehenna, the precipitous valley on the south side of Jerusalem which was of baneful memory in Old Testament: history ("Hinnom" in 2 Kings 23.10, Jeremiah 7.31 etc.) and was in the time of Jesus smoking with the refuse of the city. It was in common use as a name for "hell", and other conventional touches are added, like the unquenchable fire (43) and the phrase (which is a quotation from Isaiah 66.24) where the devouring worm never dies and the fire is not quenched.
(vii) 'For everyone will be salted with fire.' (49) Salt preserves; and that which will make Jesus' disciples worthy of eternal life and preserve them in a state of preparedness for it will be the fire of persecution. (This at least is one possible meaning of this difficult sentence.)
(viii) 'Salt is a good thing.' (50) It is clear from the form given to this saying by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount that it is the followers of Jesus who are to be like salt. For the rest, see above on Matthew 5.13.
(ix) 'Have salt in yourselves.' (50) This appears to come close to the Greek idiom in which salt means sharpness of mind and speech—'never insipid' as the very similar phrase is translated in Colossians 4.6.
On leaving those parts he came into the regions of Judaea and Transjordan (1). The journey was destined to be of the greatest significance. Jesus was leaving the comparative freedom of the somewhat provincial territory of Galilee and would soon be facing a direct confrontation with the religious leaders in Jerusalem. On the way, however, there was no reason why things should be any different for him, since the populations and political conditions through which he passed would have been much the same as they were in Galilee. The shortest route from Galilee to Jerusalem was due south along the mountain ridge on the west side of the Jordan. But this meant going through Samaria, and since relations between the Jews and the Samaritans were exceedingly strained at this period, Jewish travellers sometimes preferred to cross the Jordan south of the lake and proceed down the east side of the valley through territory which was also, like Galilee, under the administration of Herod Antipas and in which the population was predominantly Jewish. This territory was called Peraea (rendered in the NEB as Transjordan). They would then re-cross the Jordan in order to reach Jericho, and by so doing enter Judaea, having skirted both Samaria and most of the Decapolis, and having remained for almost the entire journey on what could reasonably be described as Jewish soil. Mark's description of the route is a little vague, and is often thought to be an indication that he had no first-hand knowledge of the geography of Palestine; but whether or not this is so, his words suggest one of the routes which were normally taken by Jewish travellers and pilgrims to Jerusalem.
The question was put to him: 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?' (2) It is not easy to be sure what prompted this question. There was considerable discussion in the time of Jesus on the question of what constituted adequate grounds for divorce, for the relevant text of Scripture (Deuteronomy 24.1-4) was not precise, and the opinions of the professional interpreters (the 'doctors of the law') were divided, some taking a strict view, some a more permissive one. Matthew, who had greater familiarity than Mark with conditions in Palestine, set Jesus' sayings on marriage and divorce in the context of such a discussion (19.3-9). But in Mark the question is more general: not, Under what circumstances is divorce permissible? but, Is it lawful at all? On the face of it, this question could hardly have arisen in a Jewish community, for there was a passage in the Law of Moses (again Deuteronomy 24.1) which expressly sanctioned divorce. The only practical question was the definition of the grounds on which a divorce could be obtained. Nevertheless, there was at least one Jewish sect in Palestine which disapproved of divorce as such; but anyone who held this extreme view had then to explain away the explicit sanction of divorce in Deuteronomy 24.1. If Mark is correct, and the question was put to Jesus in this general form (ami not in the more technical form recorded in Matthew), it must have been because it was thought he would take an extreme view on the matter, and could be challenged to reconcile his view with Scripture. In this sense, the question could have been asked to test him (2).
Jesus' answer, compared with the ordinary run of expert discussion, was radical. The premise of all such discussions was that the Law of Moses was the definitive word of God to man. An obscure clause could be explained by reference to another passage, and apparent inconsistencies could be smoothed out by subtle interpretation; but every clause was regarded as in principle absolutely binding. But Jesus was apparently prepared to regard a clause of the Law as less important than a principle that could be deduced from
5 another part of Scripture. It was because your minds were closed that he made this rule for you (5). Moses' dispensation was only a concession to the obstinacy of human nature. The real will of God must be looked for in the beginning, that is, at the creation (6).
To prove his point, Jesus quoted two passages from Genesis (1.27; 2.24). The relevance of the first is not immediately obvious. It is true that the verse in question was something of a puzzle to Jewish scholars. It runs: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." Why does the text suddenly break into the plural? Whatever the real reason, there is some evidence that scholars in the time of Jesus had an ingenious interpretation based on the legend (made famous by Plato) that man was originally an androgynous being, made up of a male half and a female half, which then got separated and for ever after yearned for each other. It was this original double being, it was believed, which explained the mysterious appearance of the plural "them" in the Genesis account of the creation of man. Jesus may have known of this interpretation; in some circles the text was certainly used in order to propound a somewhat mystical view of the true nature of marriage. In any case, the argument becomes clearer with the second quotation. The words, for this reason (7), are part of the quotation, and immediately follow the account of the creation of the woman from the rib of the man. The biblical explanation
of the fact that man and wife become one flesh (8) is rather similar to Plato's legend: originally, woman was actually a part of man's flesh. By the institution of marriage, God simply joined together (9) what originally belonged together. On the basis of this passage, Jesus could argue that divorce as such is contrary to the will of God.
The disciples questioned him about this matter (10). The disciples may simply not have understood this somewhat sophisticated piece of reasoning, or else they were puzzled (as Christians have been puzzled ever since) about its practical implications. But Jesus' reply to them (11) was quite uncompromising. He was not, it seems, offering an interpretation of the law as it stood; for in theory (though this seldom happened in practice) Jewish law permitted polygamy, and therefore a prohibition of divorce would hardly have affected the position of the husband: lie was permitted to have more than one wife in
any case. Rather, Jesus was making a judgement on divorce in general. Adultery was one of the acts which Jews regarded with the greatest abhorrence and punished very severely: its prevalence among non-Jews was one of their most constant complaints against gentile society. By calling the remarriage of divorced persons adultery, Jesus condemned it in very strong terms indeed. As for the second part of Jesus' reply (12), it is difficult to see how it could possibly have had this form in Palestine, where a wife had no right to institute divorce proceedings, and where consequently the words if she divorces her husband would have made little sense. She might however ask her husband for a divorce, and if he gave it to her the law permitted her to marry another man;
They brought children for him to touch (13). Their purpose (as Matthew explains, 19.13) was to obtain his blessing: it was something very commonly asked of a religious teacher. Why the disciples objected is left to our imagination; but Jesus' reaction, as described by Mark (who hesitated less than any of the evangelists to ascribe expressions of emotion to him), was a strong one: he was indignant (14). What was the quality in children which Jesus prized so highly? We have to clear our minds of all those concepts of children's innocence, freshness of vision and spontaneity of motive which have come to be taken for granted in the west only since the Romantic movement, and have probably never had much currency in the east. The child, in antiquity, was valued not for his childishness but only for the promise in him of adult manhood; and the "blessing" of a parent or a teacher would be in effect a prayer that the promise would be fulfilled: it was a blessing entirely for the future. It is therefore a new and curiously modern tone which we hear in Jesus' voice when he appears to value children as children, in the present and not the future. It is possible, of course, that he was not doing anything of the sort. Children in this passage may be simply symbols for the poor and meek and humble of heart, a nickname for Christians (as perhaps in 9.37); or the episode may even (as some maintain) owe its form, if not its origin, to disputes in the early church about the propriety of baptizing infants. But neither of these explanations does full justice to the saying, 'the kingdom of God belongs to such as these' (14), which implies a clear recognition that there is something in children, as children, of real religious importance. The nearest the Bible (or indeed any ancient literature) comes to this is a passage such as Psalm 131.2—"I have calmed and quieted my soul like a child quieted at its mother's breast"—where the total dependence of a small child on its parents is an image of the dependence, trust and humility a man should feel before God. We can only guess how much more than this was intended by Jesus, or would have been understood by his hearers.
A stranger ran up, and, kneeling before him, asked, 'Good Master ...' (17) This scene, which contains some notably vivid details, has also a striking beginning. It was not customary for one Jew to kneel to another—the gesture was associated more with the cringing behaviour expected in the presence of an oriental monarch—and 'Good Master' was a form of address so unusual that Jesus was moved to comment on it. This is hard to convey in English, for in a phrase like "Good Sir" the word "good" is nothing more than an expression of courtesy. The same was true to some extent in Greek society, and a Greek reader would probably have found the phrase, 'Good Master,' as innocuous as a modern English reader does. But in Jewish conversation this polite idiom was unknown. To say of someone that he was "good" would not even have been understood as a professional compliment: a Jew would not have said that Jesus was "good" in the sense of being a good teacher, better than other teachers. To call someone "good" was to use the word in all seriousness of his moral character and personal conduct. Furthermore it was to use of a human being an absolute term that was proper to God alone. Hence Jesus' objection. It has often been felt (as it appears to have been felt by Matthew, who altered the sense of the remark) that the objection came oddly from Jesus: surely he, if anyone, merited the title "good"? But it may be that Jesus was objecting less to the word itself, which might in fact have been appropriate to him, than to the attitude of his questioner, who was prepared to use so serious a concept as a term of courtesy or even flattery.
'What must I do to win eternal life?' (17) The question was a standard one. After death, at the general resurrection, men would be judged on their record, and those whose good deeds and way of life had merited it would win eternal life while the rest would be consigned to hell. This, at any rate, was the usual way of looking at the matter in the time of Jesus and in the circles in which he moved, and the ultimate purpose and goal of religious life and moral conduct was to "gain a share in the world to come" or to win eternal life. In broad terms the Jews were agreed on the way this could be achieved. God's will for man was revealed in the Law of Moses, and those who kept this law would automatically qualify for their promised share in the life to come. Did the stranger expect from Jesus some kind of practical precision and elaboration of the Law in answer to his question, or did he hope for a new ethic altogether, superseding the old? His words alone do not tell us, though the eagerness of his approach suggests that he expected something quite new. Jesus' reply was almost brusque. 'You know the commandments' (19). Jesus simply referred him back, without any refinements of interpretation, to that basic section of the Ten Commandments which governs conduct towards one's neighbour. 'But, Master', he replied, 'I have kept all these since I was a boy' (20). This reply was not pretentious. A devout Jew treasured his consciousness of living correctly by the law, and it was only the immense elaboration introduced into the observance of the law by certain schools of Pharisaic thought which made scrupulous souls such as Paul despair of keeping the law in its entirety. Jesus at any rate did not criticize his reply; on the contrary, his heart warmed to him (21). Perhaps he valued especially the man's dissatisfaction with a moral achievement which would have seemed adequate to most men of his circumstances (for we learn at the end that he was a man of great wealth) (22). The obvious advice to give him would have been to recommend a drastic increase in his almsgiving, for this was valued by the Jews as one of the most meritorious acts of all, a sure way of amassing riches in heaven (21); and the rich were regarded as fortunate in having the resources to do this on a large scale. But Jesus pushed this far beyond the limit that would have been thought desirable by most of his contemporaries (some of whom actually discouraged excessive almsgiving, on the grounds that a man had a duty not to impoverish himself). The man must give away everything. Only total "giving to the poor" would answer to his situation. And to the question, What should he do then, as a pauper? Jesus had an answer ready: 'Come, follow me'.
The story is one of a personal encounter between Jesus and a particular wealthy man. The question must immediately have been raised (as it has been raised ever since), Would the same apply to every rich man? The normal Jewish view (which was shared by all but the most sophisticated thinkers in antiquity) was that a man's riches were a sign of God's blessing, and that he could turn his wealth to a source of still greater blessing by generous acts of charity. The obverse of this, of course, was that the poor were not blest; and in a society like the Jewish, where throughout their history the rich were few and the poor were many, a more refined view had developed, according to which the poor had other virtues and opportunities of service which they could cultivate, and other evidence in their lives of God's blessing upon them, which compensated for their lack of wealth and privilege. Jesus very strongly endorsed this attitude. He went so far as to say, without qualification, 'How blest are you who are in need' (Luke 6.20). But it would not necessarily have occurred to his listeners to draw the conclusion which Jesus drew, 'Alas for you who are rich', for this would have drastically upset their presuppositions. When therefore Jesus generalized the case of this particular rich man by saying, 'How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God' (23), the reaction of his disciples was one of bewildered astonishment.
'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.' (25) The almost grotesque disproportion of the simile is characteristic of Jesus' speech: there is no reason to think (as some have thought) that the original saying in his own language was misunderstood when it came to be translated into Greek, lt is possible indeed that the saying was originally even more general and paradoxical than it appears; for the reading of the majority of manuscripts (as given in the NEB text as opposed to the footnote) gives in verse 24 'how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God', without any mention of riches, and it is possible that all these sayings were originally quite general: the possibility of anyone entering the kingdom of God is one created only by God; no human qualifications (let alone riches) make any difference.
At this Peter spoke (28). The disciples had responded to the challenge which the rich man had failed to meet. Could they at least be sure of their reward? Jesus' reply should probably be understood as that of a man who was even now leading a small group of impoverished disciples towards an uncertain destiny. A religious leader with political aspirations (and there were several in first-century Palestine) would naturally promise in this age material rewards, as well as in the age to come eternal life (30). On the other hand, a teacher whose concern was entirely with religious truth would be likely to content himself with promising his followers spiritual benefits after death. Jesus' role was clearly of the second type, and that part of the saying which promises eternal life seems the more characteristic of him. But it was also a feature of his teaching that much of what was normally reserved for the promised future life, Jesus brought startlingly into the experience of the present. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that part of Jesus' answer to Peter's question should have dealt with the question of rewards in this age. Nevertheless the apparently unashamed materialism of these promises comes as a shock, only slightly mitigated by the addition that there would be persecutions besides. Jesus may have been speaking metaphorically; but the saying is none the less puzzling, and it is possible (particularly in view of the conflicting evidence of a number of manuscripts) that some confusion crept in soon after the saying was written down.
'But many who are first will be last and the last first.' (31) This saying occurs in a different context in each gospel (compare Matthew 20.16, Luke 13.30), and was evidently remembered as an isolated dictum, to be inserted by the evangelists into their narratives wherever it fitted best. Its setting in Luke's gospel seems the most appropriate.
They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem (32). They were about to come to Jericho, whence the road begins the long steep climb up to Jerusalem. The summit of the Mount of Olives could already be seen, some four thousand feet above. They were therefore, in the most literal sense, going up to Jerusalem. But "going up" meant more than this. It was the expression used of going to Jerusalem as a pilgrim on one of the great festivals (and the road may already have been crowded with pilgrims on their way to join in the Passover); and the deliberate and public confrontation which Jesus seemed to be seeking with the centre of religious authority in the land may be a sufficient explanation of the awe of his disciples and the fear of those who followed behind. Nevertheless, the awed reaction of his followers, though understandable under the circumstances, remains a little strange. Mark may have deliberately anticipated, at this point, something of the dark drama which was soon to begin. He has certainly done this, in any case, in his report of Jesus' pronouncement to the Twelve. The two previous predictions of the destiny awaiting the Son of Man (8.31; 9.31) were in general terms, and could well have been spoken out of Jesus' awareness of the nature of the part he had soon to play. But this third prediction includes details drawn directly from the history of Jesus' subsequent trial; and unless we wish to credit Jesus with the most literal kind of second sight, we must recognize the hand of the narrator, writing up this saying of Jesus in the light of its fulfilment a few days later.
On the two previous occasions, the disciples had failed to understand how the glorious title, Son of Man, could be compatible with so menacing a future. Here, this failure is not mentioned; but the request of James and John perhaps indicates that understanding had still not dawned. 'Grant us the right to sit in state with you' (32). They may have imagined that in Jerusalem Jesus would become a real king, and that they would be his chief courtiers; or they may have been looking forward to the supernatural transformation of things in the age to come—the Greek phrase translated in state means literally "in glory". In either case, they were making the disciples' usual mistake of looking ahead to the future glory without reckoning on the tribulations which must come first, both for the Son of Man and for those whom he represented. Jesus' reply, once again, insisted on this necessary preliminary. 'Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?' (38) Cup and baptism were soon to have their own specific place in Christian worship, and this may have influenced the form in which Jesus' saying has come down to us; but it is possible to attach meaning to the saying without reference to the later technical meaning of these words. The cup was an obvious symbol for a destiny of suffering (as in 14.36), and was a standard Old Testament expression for the severe judgement of God; and to be baptized was probably (though there are too few instances in ancient literature for us to be sure) a not uncommon metaphor, meaning to be overwhelmed by a wave of afflictions. Jesus was in effect challenging the two disciples to share in that destiny of suffering which must precede his own ultimate glorification. They accepted the challenge, and so qualified for a share in the Son of Man's glory. But the further privilege of absolute precedence in the court of heaven was not so readily granted.
'Whoever wants to be great must be your servant' (43). This radical teaching on personal relationships is repeated here (after its appearance already at 9.35) as Jesus' response to signs of ambition among his disciples; but this time it is firmly based upon the example of Jesus himself. The Son of Man, in Daniel 7.14, is indeed exalted to a position where he is to be served "by all peoples" (45). But that lies in the future, when he will be glorified. Meanwhile (and this is the side of the Son of Man's destiny upon which Jesus lays special stress in these chapters) his role is the exact opposite: he has come to serve; and since he is a representative figure, it follows that each of those who throw in their lot with his must also be the willing slave of all (44). The full extent of the service which is to be demanded of Jesus is defined in the words which follow: 'to give up his life as a ransom for many' (45). At first sight this somewhat technical phrase looks more like the later language of the church than that of Jesus himself. But although there are passages, in Paul for instance, which use similar language (Romans 3.25, Colossians 1.14 and elsewhere), there is no other instance in the New Testament of this precise phrase, and there is nothing in the phrase itself which would necessarily have been strange to Jesus' own way of thinking. The idea of a ransom was a common metaphor in the Old Testament: God's interventions on behalf of his people were often described as acts by which he "ransomed" his people from their enemies; and since, in the time of Jesus, people thought of themselves as under the power, not merely of the occupying Roman forces, but (in a deeper sense) of the forces of the devil and indeed of the only too obvious consequences of their own sins, the metaphor of being rescued from all this by the payment of a ransom was very much alive. But how could the death of one man have such a result? The explanation is often sought in Isaiah chapter 53, where the exiled prophet seems to have had some intimation that the death of a righteous man could atone for "the sin of many" (53.12). But, apart from the word many, the saying of Jesus is barely reminiscent of this passage, and it may not be necessary to look so far for the origin of the idea of a vicarious and atoning death. Not long after the time of the Maccabees, some two centuries previously, the deaths of those who were martyred for their loyalty to the Jewish religion were regarded as an expiation for the misdeeds of their nation (2 Maccabees 7.37-8); and it appears that many Jewish thinkers soon came to take the same view of the vicarious effect of the martyrdom of a righteous man. If Jesus expressed the significance of his own death in such terms as these, there is no reason to think that the idea would have been altogether strange to his hearers.
They came to Jericho (46). The last healing miracle recorded in this gospel
is told with much circumstantial detail. The place of it was remembered as the road which led out of Jericho towards Jerusalem; there was a crowd around Jesus, probably of pilgrims who, like him, were "going up to Jerusalem" for the Passover, but who were possibly already curious about Jesus himself and ready, if given the signal, to proclaim him their leader; and a third detail, which is unusual in Mark, is that the subject of the cure is named: Bartimaeus (which simply means son of Timaeus as Mark explains). Perhaps the fact that after his cure he followed Jesus on the road (52) caused his name to be remembered. A further touch of colour suggests that the story goes back to an eyewitness account: when Bartimaeus speaks to Jesus he uses the Aramaic word Rabbuni, which is a particularly respectful form of the title "Rabbi". In John 20.16 the Aramaic word is both recorded and translated. Here Mark simply reproduces it, without translating it: his readers, even if they knew little about Palestine, were evidently expected to understand it (the NEB aids the reader, but eliminates the local flavour of the words, by writing Master (51)). On the other hand, there are two elements which betray Mark's usual concern to reveal that the cure was more than a mere miracle. 'Son of David' (47) is a title which has not been used before in this gospel. It does not mean that Bartimaeus knew anything about Jesus' physical ancestry. It was simply one of the names by which it was natural to refer to the person who (it was popularly believed) was destined to restore the fortunes of Israel: the Messiah, or Christ. The following which Jesus had gathered, and the air of expectancy which surrounded his approach to Jerusalem, were doubtless sufficient to suggest to Bartimaeus that Jesus of Nazareth was this Messiah. And since a well-known prophecy (Isaiah 61.1), which was usually held to refer to the coming of the Messiah, promised that he would bring "recovery of sight to the blind", Bartimaeus' excitement needs no further explanation. But, from the point of view of the narrator, his cry had a further significance: Jesus was the Christ. So far only his disciples had recognized the fact; now a blind man had come to the same decisive realization, and it was in response to this that Jesus opened his eyes: 'your faith has cured you' (52). If there is any symbolism in the previous cure of a blind man (8.22-6), the same implication is doubtless intended here: after a series of attempts to open the eyes of the disciples to his true nature and destiny, Jesus demonstrates that even the physically blind can be made to see.
When they reached Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives (1). These two villages did not lie on the direct route from Jericho to Jerusalem, but would have been reached by turning off southwards just before the road began to climb over the crest of the Mount of Olives. It is not clear why Mark mentions both the villages, which lay at least a mile apart; but if Jesus had in fact reached the crossroads from which the road straight on led to Jerusalem, while that to the left went through the small village of Bethphage to the larger village of Bethany, it is not difficult to imagine him sending two disciples 'to the village opposite' (2) to fetch a colt.
The details of the episode are all capable of a thoroughly prosaic interpretation. Jesus could have made prior arrangements about the colt, in which case there is nothing surprising in the way it was provided for him; and the acclamation and the brushwood may have an equally simple explanation. It is often thought likely, for other reasons, that Mark may have been wrong in stating that Jesus entered Jerusalem only once, at Passover-time. At two other annual festivals it was customary for people to gather green branches from the countryside and bring them into Jerusalem; and on one of them Psalm 118 (from which the words 'Hosanna...' are a quotation (9)) was one of the prescribed liturgical songs. It is therefore perfectly possible that the story in the gospels has grown out of an almost accidental involvement with a crowd of pilgrims on the road. This would incidentally explain why the procession had no immediate consequences, and apparently provoked no official counter-measures.
However, even if this was the origin of the story, it was not the way any of the evangelists understood it. Mark's account is the simplest; but even so the details are evidently intended to carry a deeper significance. One point which is crucial to the story, and which tells against a too rationalistic interpretation of it, is that Jesus, having travelled the whole way from Jericho on foot, chose to ride into Jerusalem. Pilgrims were expected to enter the city on foot. Thus Jesus' action was a deliberate gesture, intended to draw attention to himself. Furthermore, the manner in which he acquired his mount is narrated in great detail. It is true that the matter could have been pre-arranged by Jesus, but it is unlikely that Mark would have recorded it so carefully if he had thought of it simply as a detail of organization. For him, and for those who first remembered and recorded the episode, it must almost certainly have appeared as an instance of Jesus' supernatural prescience. There is significance, too, in the animal he rode on. Mark and Luke use a word for it which, in ordinary Greek, would normally mean a horse's colt (2). But this was also the word which the Septuagint translators of the Old Testament used to represent the Hebrew word meaning "foal of an ass". Two Old Testament texts in particular use this Hebrew expression. One is Genesis 49.11, a rather mysterious oracle about someone who would some day come to rule over Judah and over "all the nations", and would "tether his ass to the vine and his ass's foal to the red vine". This oracle was certainly interpreted as a prophecy of a coming Messiah in the time of Jesus. The other text is Zechariah 9.9: "Your king is coming to you ... humble and mounted on an ass, on a foal, the young of an ass"; and this again was regarded as a prediction of the Messiah who was to come. Matthew and John, by quoting the text from Zechariah, make it quite clear that they understand Jesus' mount to be "the foal of an ass", and Jesus' ride into Jerusalem to be the fulfilment of a prophecy about the advent of the Messiah. The matter is not so clear in Mark: but certain details point in the same direction. The colt was tethered, as in Genesis 49.11; and it was one which no one has yet ridden—a fact about it which would hardly have struck the disciples when they went to fetch it; but it was axiomatic that any beast used for a sacred purpose must never have been ridden, and in fact the Septuagint Greek version of Zechariah adds the detail that the foal the king was riding was "new". Thus the details of Mark's account seem to imply that, like Matthew and John, he thought of the colt, not as a young horse, but as the symbolic and sacred "ass's foal" on which people expected the Messiah to ride.
Jesus' deliberate and ostentatious ride from the Mount of Olives (a spot which also had a place in Zechariah's prophecies of the ultimate coming of the Lord, Zech. 14.4) was therefore staged in such a way as to alert those who could interpret it to the fact that he was himself the promised Christ. But, just as throughout Mark's gospel it had only been a very few who had recognized Jesus for what he really was, so here there was no open and unmistakable declaration of his true nature; and the response of the crowds, though it had all the enthusiasm to be expected in view of Jesus' reputation, does not give anything away. Their cry 'Hosanna' ((9) which originally meant "save now" but had probably become a very general word of religious acclamation), 'Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord', was a quotation from a psalm (118.25-6) that was particularly associated with the carrying of green branches at religious festivals, and the evocation of the coming kingdom of our father David (10) was a sign, certainly, of a lively expectation of the Messiah, but did not necessarily single out Jesus as the Messiah himself. Mark's readers knew who Jesus was and would have found many hints of his true nature in the narrative; but it is nowhere stated that the crowds who thronged round Jesus recognized him for what he really was.
He entered Jerusalem and went into the temple (11). "Going up to Jerusalem" reached its goal when the pilgrim descended the west side of the Mount of Olives, crossed the Kedron valley, and climbed up the other side to the tremendous terrace on which Herod the Great had built the temple. The terrace formed part of the city wall, and one gate on this side led straight into the immense area of colonnaded porches, open courtyards and subsidiary buildings which surrounded the temple itself. To look at the whole scene, Jesus could well have spent some time there; but he soon retired for the night to Bethany, where (if we may supply details from the other gospels) he had friends and the assurance of hospitality.
The story of Jesus cursing the fig-tree is odd in so many respects that it is widely believed to have been misreported by the gospel writers. Why should Jesus have felt hungry (12) on the short walk (barely two miles in all) from Bethany to Jerusalem? How can he have expected to find fruit on the tree if it was not the season for figs? (13) And is not his curse on the tree both quite unreasonable in the circumstances and also out of character? Of all these oddities, the greatest is the detail that it was not the season for figs. If this phrase were removed, the story, though still puzzling, would at least be plausible; and it is possible to think of reasons why the phrase may not belong to the original version. If it was the case (as John's gospel maintains, and as certain details in Mark's account make us suspect) that Jesus went up to Jerusalem at other festivals besides this Passover, then the story may have belonged originally to one of his earlier visits at a different time of year (say for the autumn feast of Tabernacles, when figs would be ripe). But Mark, or the source he was using, recounts only one visit to Jerusalem, at Passover-time, that is to say March-April, too early by some two months for any ripe figs to be found on the trees. The story could not be inserted anywhere else in the gospel, since it was set in the neighbourhood of Bethany; and either Mark, or else some scribe working over the manuscript not long after it was written, may have added the words, for it was not the season for figs. In the framework of Mark's narrative this was correct: but unfortunately it made nonsense of the story.
Even if this explanation is accepted, the story is still puzzling. Why did Jesus curse the tree? Two possibilities are often suggested. One is that the story was originally a parable told by Jesus to express the point that a husbandman's patience could not be expected to last for ever, and that (he parable subsequently became confused with an actual event in Jesus' life;
the other is that the action was symbolic, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets: for all its early promise, the "tree" of Israel had failed to produce any fruit, and the time had come for its destruction. The literal withering of the fig-tree could have been intended as a lesson for the Jewish people of Jesus' time.
Jesus began driving out those who bought and sold in the temple (15). The temple comprised not only the sanctuary itself and the central buildings connected with the cult, but also a series of large colonnaded courts, one of which, since it was open to non-Jews, was known as the Court of the Gentiles. The whole precinct was sacred, and subject to ritual regulations which were enforced by Jewish temple police; nevertheless there is no reason to doubt that people came to the outer courts for many purposes. It was here, under Herod's colonnades, that Jesus 'taught day after day in the temple' (14.49), and here that crowds gathered to hear him. But the target of Jesus' action on this first day after his arrival in Jerusalem was apparently quite specific: those who bought and sold ... the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of the dealers in pigeons. The curious thing here is that these seem to have been necessary and (granting the whole principle of the temple's existence and function) unobjectionable institutions. Contributions to the temple treasury, whether the annual temple tax or offerings for other purposes, had to be made in the purest and most exact coinage known in Palestine, the silver coins minted in Tyre. These could be obtained from money-changers, who charged a small commission on the exchange; and at least at one time of year (a short period ending about a fortnight before the Passover) these money-changers were officially permitted to have their tables (or banks) inside the temple precincts. This is all we know about such trading in the temple; and if this is what Jesus objected to, then it is not easy to interpret his action. If he had wanted to attack the whole temple system, we should have expected some gesture directed at the priests and administrators, not at such a small and comparatively harmless part of the organization as was represented by the money-changers. On the other hand, it is not at all unlikely that, out of this small beginning, a considerable amount of commercial business had developed. The money-changers may have combined their technical function of providing the ritual silver coins with full-scale commercial banking (there are many parallels to this in the ancient world: the comparative security of a shrine made it the natural place for a bank); the necessary dealing in birds and animals for sacrifices, which should have been confined to markets outside the temple area, seems, from Mark's reference to dealers in pigeons, to have made its way into the temple courts; and for all we know, trading of other kinds may have followed in iis wake. Jesus' protest, in this case, will have been against an abuse which had grown up with the connivance, but presumably without the official sanction, of the temple authorities; and if the practices lie was attacking were technically illegal, this would explain why the temple police did not immediately intervene. His action in not allowing anyone to use the temple court as a thoroughfare for carrying goods will have been of exactly the same kind. There is some evidence that this too was technically prohibited, and Jesus may have found that the prohibition was not being enforced.
So far Jesus' action (if this is the correct interpretation of it) reads like that of a reformer anxious to stamp out abuses which the authorities had complaisantly allowed to creep into the administration of the temple. It reflects an extreme reverence for the sanctity of the place and for the importance of the ritual which took place there. But the saying with which Jesus is recorded to have interpreted his action sets it in a different light. It consists of two quotations. The first, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations" ((17) Isaiah 56.7) is drawn from a well-known Old Testament prophecy that the worship of the God of Israel would one day be shared by men of all nationalities, who would therefore have free access to the temple. In Jesus' time, non-Jews were admitted into the so-called Court of the Gentiles, but were very strictly prohibited from penetrating any further; and the natural target of such a saying would have been the prominent notices which were set up to warn Gentiles from trespassing any further. The second quotation is from Jeremiah 7.11: the prophet was attacking the people of Jerusalem for assuming that, because they maintained the worship of the temple, the violence, injustice and idolatry of the city's life would be condoned by God. On the contrary, argued Jeremiah, the presence of such people in the temple showed that they thought of it simply as some sort of protection against the consequences of their unlawful behaviour, rather like a robbers' cave. The translation of this phrase in the NEB reads, at first sight, like a poor substitute for the traditional rendering, "den of thieves"; for if the object of Jesus' attack was the presence of extortionate traders in the holy place, then the description of their offices as a "den of thieves" is as apt as one could wish. But the old translation in fact begs the question. Nothing in the account so far has suggested that the bankers and dealers were dishonest, and moreover the original phrase, both in the Hebrew of Jeremiah and in the Greek translation used by Mark, does not mean anything of the sort. The essence of a "thief" is that he acts surreptitiously; but the word used here means, not a surreptitious thief, but a man of violence, an armed robber or brigand. In the time of Jesus the word became almost a technical word for fanatical rebels against the Roman regime, who conducted guerrilla warfare, terrorized peaceable citizens, and very often had their hideouts in the caves which are to be found in the mountains all over Palestine. The NEB translation is thus a great deal more accurate than the traditional one—if indeed it goes far enough: "brigands' cave" would probably come still nearer to the meaning the phrase would have conveyed to Jesus' contemporaries. Clearly, the quotation cannot have been intended as a comment on ordinary commercial transactions: it implies that the temple had become a place of violence, or at least a meeting-place of violent men.
It seems necessary, therefore, to assume that Jesus' saying on this occasion has nothing to do with his action in turning out the bankers and traders, but is a separate piece of teaching directed against the exclusive Jewishness of the temple and perhaps also against incidents of violence which had taken place within it (such as Josephus tells us took place quite frequently at this period), or at any rate at the hands of those who frequented it. If so, we must ask what was the intention of this whole sequence of actions and sayings which marked Jesus' first complete day in the temple. On the face of it, they appear as a protest against abuses of the proper function and sanctity of the temple. But a further meaning may lie in the background. On the previous day, Jesus had entered Jerusalem in a manner calculated to suggest that a prophecy in Zechariah about the coming Messiah was even now being fulfilled. The same book ends, "When that time comes, no trader shall again be seen in the house of the Lord of Hosts" (14.21). Moreover, it was a traditional belief, inspired by the visions of the prophet Ezekiel (40-8), that in the days of the Messiah the temple would be renewed. All these thoughts will have been present in the minds of Mark's first readers; and Mark may have wished it to be understood that the same inferences could have been drawn by those who actually witnessed the scene, had they had eyes to see and ears to hear.
Early next morning (20). The miraculous sequel of the cursing of the fig-tree gives Mark the cue to introduce three sayings about prayer which, since two of them occur in other gospels in a quite different connection ((22-5) Matthew 6.14-15; Luke 17.6), were presumably remembered separately. The form of the first saying was proverbial. "Moving mountains" was nearly as common an expression for doing the apparently impossible as it is now. Nevertheless, the Mount of Olives would have been a singularly striking setting for the saying. From it the Dead Sea can be seen nearly four thousand feet below, and a cataclysm which "lifted it from its place" (23) would naturally be thought of as "hurling it into the sea". There may also be in the background (at least of Mark's consciousness) a final echo of Zechariah (14.4): " On that day... the Mount of Olives ... shall be cleft in two by an immense valley running east and west."
'Believe that you have received it and it will be yours' (24). This sounds a little like permission to use the power of prayer for any purpose whatever, along with a hint on how to do it. But Jesus was fond of exaggerations and striking simplifications. The point is surely, as so often in Mark's gospel, and doubtless also in Jesus' original teaching, the critical importance of faith. The same point is made explicit in Matthew (21.22), and is related to other aspects of Christian spirituality by Paul (1 Corinthians 13.2). There is perhaps a commentary on it in 1 John 5.14-15.
The third saying (25), besides being a characteristic element of Jesus' teaching, reads like a commentary on the Lord's Prayer. Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, does not include the Lord's prayer in his gospel; but this saying, and the phrase, your Father in heaven, strongly suggest that he knew it.
They came once more to Jerusalem (27). According to Mark's scheme, this was the second full day of Jesus' activity in Jerusalem. It was taken up with controversy between himself and the Jewish authorities, whose supreme council, the Sanhedrin, had its meeting-place and offices in or near the temple precincts. The members of this body are often described in the gospels as the chief priests, lawyers, and elders, and it was therefore probably in their official capacity as members of the Sanhedrin that they accosted
Jesus as he was walking in the temple court (28). Their question, 'By what authority are you acting like this?' was one to which it was important for the Sanhedrin to have an answer. Jesus was attracting crowds by his teaching (11.18), and much of his teaching took the form of a new exposition of Scripture. But the exposition of Scripture was the prerogative of professionally qualified "lawyers". Did Jesus have the necessary qualification? Their question may also have concerned Jesus' reforming actions the day before (11.15-17). Had the High Priest (who was the ultimate authority for the conduct of temple affairs) sanctioned this?
Regarded as a matter of official qualifications and sanctions, the question had a straightforward factual answer: Jesus had received no authority. This was doubtless the answer the deputation hoped to extract. But Jesus (or Mark, or the tradition he used) chose to see the question as a far more searching one. He had not merely assumed the privilege of a qualified lawyer or official representative of the temple authorities; he had acted as a prophet, a preacher and a miracle-worker. For such activity it was meaningless to ask for human authorization. It was either inspired by God or it was not, and a witness of these things had to make up his own mind. Taking the question in this sense, Jesus was justified in returning it to his questioners. It was ultimately the same question as was posed by the person of John the Baptist; and the presence of a crowd of people more ready to see the hand of God in the preaching of a John or a Jesus than in the policies of the official religious leaders put Jesus' questioners at a temporary disadvantage.
He went on to speak to them in parables (1). The word "parable" was one with a wide range of meanings (see above on 3.23). Sometimes it was an illustration intended to make the speaker's meaning clearer; sometimes it was riddling and enigmatic, leaving its hearers guessing. What was the meaning here? In the chapter devoted to Jesus' parables earlier in the gospel (chapter 4), Mark seems deliberately to have represented them as obscure and enigmatic to all hui those who were specially privileged to understand them. But here Mark allows that the point was more obvious. Jesus' enemies saw that the parable was aimed at them (12).
'A man planted a vineyard' (1). At first sight the opening of the story is in the characteristic style of Jesus' parables: the stage is set with a careful description of a familiar scene. The essential features of a Palestinian vineyard are mentioned: a wall built all round to protect the precious vines from the depredations of men and of beasts; a winepress, which was usually constructed over a trough that had been "hewn out" of rock; and a watch-tower which was essential for guarding the vineyard, particularly at vintage time. But this straightforward beginning leads into a story which (unlike most of Jesus' parables) appears to be singularly implausible, and the beginning itself turns out to be not at all what it seems. Compare the following verses from Isaiah (5.1-2):
"My beloved had a vineyard
high up on a fertile hill-side.
He trenched it and cleared it of stones
and planted it with red vines;
he built a watch-tower in the middle
and then hewed out a winepress in it."
The details of the watch-tower and the winepress are identical; and in the Septuagint Greek version of Isaiah (which Mark, but not Jesus, may have used) the wall occurs also. Now in Isaiah the vineyard is an allegory for the people of Israel. If Jesus began his parable in words so closely reminiscent of this well-known text, his listeners must have been prepared to find the same kind of allegory in it.
But if the vineyard stood for Israel, then it was to be expected that other features of the story would be equally symbolic. And along these lines the interpretation of the story is so obvious that one ceases to ask whether such a thing could have happened in real life. The owner of the vineyard is God; his servants are the prophets (the prophets are often called " God's servants" in the Old Testament), who were consistently maltreated by the people to whom they were sent; and the only son is Jesus himself. The question, Whom do the vine-growers stand for? is answered by Mark himself. Jesus' interlocutors were the religious leaders of Jerusalem; and they saw that the parable was aimed at them (12). The only remaining doubtful point is to determine who were the others to whom the vineyard would be given. Reading the story after the event, we have to answer: the Christian church.
On this reading of the parable, it would be beside the point to ask for a plausible explanation of the apparently absurd expectation of the vine-growers that they would acquire the property by murdering the heir, or of the imprudence of the owner in sending his son into such a dangerous situation. The course of events would have been dictated, not by the conditions of real life, but by the relationship of God with his people which the characters in the story were intended to illustrate. But there are considerable difficulties involved in taking the parable in this way. Could Jesus have foreseen his own condemnation by the Sanhedrin and his subsequent execution so clearly that he worked it into an allegory? Did he ever refer to himself as the "only son" of God, and would he have been understood by a Jewish audience if he had? Moreover, since his parables are usually entirely realistic stories, is it likely that he would have made up one that was quite improbable in order to illustrate what was about to happen? These questions are difficult to answer with any degree of certainty, but, once raised, they suggest two other approaches to the parable, (i) Since the allegorical interpretation fits more easily into the thinking of the early church than that of Jesus (for it was the church which recognized Jesus to be the only Son of God, it was the church which saw in the crucifixion the decisive climax of God's dealings with his people, it was the church which clearly represented those "others" to whom the inheritance would pass—even if these truths were implicit in the teaching of Jesus), then the parable may have been invented altogether after Jesus' death, or at least (if Jesus told some such story) so modified and adapted by the church that we can no longer recover the original story, (ii) Alternatively, even if some of the details have been altered under the pressure of a later interpretation, it may still be possible to reconstruct the circumstances of the story in such a way that it ceases to be implausible and takes its place alongside the precise and vivid scenes of real life with which Jesus usually illustrated his teaching. The following reconstruction can only be tentative, but may help the reader to choose between these possibilities.
Planting a vineyard was a long-term investment. In the long run it could be highly lucrative, but for the first few years expenses were liable to exceed profits. No fruit could be gathered at all for the first three years; but during that time the new vines would need constant and expert tending. The owner, being a man of property with other more urgent interests abroad, would naturally commit the care of the vineyard for these first years to experienced vine-growers. No return could be expected from the vines; but it was normal to plant them sufficiently far apart to allow vegetables to be grown between, and the profits on these might be sufficient to pay the wages of the vine-growers and perhaps a nominal interest to the owner. During these first a three years, it was sufficient to send a servant to collect the nominal rent; but if the vine-growers had been unable to make a profit on the vegetables, the servant's arrival could well have led to a dispute and ended in blows. In the parable, this scene is repeated at the end of each of the first three years.
In the fourth year matters would be different. For the first time there would be a vintage. This, being "first-fruits", was subject to ritual regulations, and the profit could be appropriated freely only in the fifth year. Nevertheless, it was important for the owner, or his accredited representative, to be present—Jews were even excused military service for the purpose (Deuteronomy 20.6). Moreover, the owner in the parable had special reason to take personal action. His tenants, three years in succession, had refused to pay rent; and since he had received no rent, he had nothing but the title deed to prove he was the owner. If (as was possible in Jewish law) the tenants were contemplating claiming ownership of the vineyard on the basis of three years' undisputed possession, he would be in a weak position, since servants (if they were slaves) were not admitted as legal witnesses, and he would have no evidence that he had attempted to collect his rent during the last three years. It was therefore essential that in the fourth year he should come himself or, if his other interests kept him abroad, that he should send a reliable representative. In fact he sent his son.
The tenants could not of course have acquired the vineyard simply by killing the heir of the owner. But they may have argued that if they repudiated the claims of the owner's representative—if necessary by force—they would by now have a fairly strong case in a court of law; and that if the owner no longer had an heir who would benefit from the investment in the vineyard, he might not think it worth his while to return to Palestine to press his claim. They therefore allowed the son's arrival to develop into a fight—they could say it was self-defence—which resulted in the death of the son. With an eye on future developments, they flung the body unburied out of the vineyard (8) as evidence of the battle (and possibly also to avoid having to forfeit the vines as being ritually polluted by a corpse). But if they had been counting on the continued absence abroad of the owner, and on the strong points of their case if meanwhile it came into a Jewish court, they were rudely disillusioned. The owner unexpectedly arrived with a strong following and punished their resistance with death.
Such a reconstruction would make the parable plausible as a story. It may seem unduly complicated; but if there had recently been a well-known case of such a thing in Palestine, Jesus' hearers would have had no difficulty in following it. The church, however, might have very soon lost the original point, and seized upon the allegorical meaning implicit in the vineyard, the servants and the son; with the result that when it came to retell the story it concentrated on these details and omitted many others. If the above recon-sl ruction is anywhere near the mark, the parable will fall into place as one of those which illustrate the folly of prevaricating with God: now is the time
to recognize the messengers of God and repent! If so, Mark may well be right in saying that the religious leaders saw that the parable was aimed at them (12). Not much help is to be gained from the following quotation of Psalm 118.22-3. It follows exactly the existing Greek version of the Old Testament; if Jesus quoted it, he will have done so in Hebrew. 'Can it be that you have never read this text?' (10) Of course they had; but they did not necessarily know how to interpret it. Some said it referred to Abraham, some to David; in the early church (which had become accustomed to the idea of the Messiah being rejected) it was unhesitatingly used of Christ (Acts 4.11; 1 Peter 2.6-8). It has no obvious relevance to the parable; but Jesus, conscious of the opposition gathering against him, may well have used it of himself on some such occasion; and the evangelist may have placed it in this position as a hint that the death of the "son" was by no means the end of the story.
A number of Pharisees and men of Herod's party (13). These two groups were mentioned earlier (3.6) as being in league together against Jesus, doubtless seeing in him a threat alike to the religious and the political status quo. (It is a little surprising to find representatives of Herod's party in Jerusalem, for Jerusalem lay outside the dominions of any of the Herods and was ruled directly by a Roman procurator. It is possible therefore that the story originally belonged to Jesus' activity in Galilee.) They now hoped to trap him by extracting from him a declaration of disobedience towards political authority. The taxes in question (14) consisted of the annual poll-tax levied on every citizen of Palestine and paid direct into the treasury of the Roman Emperor. The question was a subtle one. The tax was imposed by the Romans, and no Jew who was liable to pay it could refuse to do so without being prosecuted. At first sight, therefore, the question, 'Are we or are we not permitted to pay taxes?' sounds academic: they had in practice no option. But, after addressing Jesus somewhat fulsomely as someone who had a special insight into the way of life that God requires, the questioners hoped perhaps that he would produce some proof from Scripture to show that paying tax to a foreign power was contrary to the way of life which God had laid down for his people the Jews. If he did so, he would align himself decisively with those extreme nationalists who regarded the tax as an intolerable symbol of subordination, and it would then be easy to have him arraigned before the Roman authorities. But the trap was cleverly laid; for if Jesus produced no learned argument against payment, his reply would amount to an expression of acquiescence in the tax. And since the tax was by all accounts exceedingly unpopular, such a reply might discredit him in front of the crowd.
|A denarius from the time of the emperor Tiberius. The inscription reads "Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs" ("Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus").|
'Fetch me a silver piece' (15). Coins minted in Palestine for instance by the Herods—took account of Jewish sensitivity to portraits and pagan
images, and the small coins in any man's pocket would probably have little on them to remind him that his country was ruled by a foreign and heathen power. But only copper coins were minted in Palestine; the silver coins in circulation were all—apart from the special Phoenician pieces used for the temple treasury—the standard coinage of the empire, bearing on one side the head of the reigning Emperor. One of these silver coins—called a denarius, which is the word used here in the Greek
Next Sadducees came to him (18). The Sadducees represented an important party. Most of the high priests and other important officials belonged to their number; and in matters of scriptural interpretation they were sharply opposed to the teaching of the Pharisees. Jesus, with his expertise in the law and his authority as a teacher, will have appeared to them as likely to share the views of the Pharisees; and so they presented him with a question calculated to cast ridicule on a specifically Pharisaic belief.
Apart from the Sadducees, the great majority of Jews in the time of Jesus believed in the future resurrection of the dead. But this doctrine was a comparatively new one. It had become generally accepted only during the last two centuries, and the Old Testament contained at most some faint intimations of it. To prove it, the Pharisaic interpreters of Scripture had to resort to a rather subtle use of texts, and to appeal more to their own tradition on the subject than to any clear proof from the Old Testament. It was precisely for this reason that the Sadducees differed from them on the question. They denied the validity of the Pharisees'" tradition ", and held that, since the Old Testament makes no mention of it, there is no resurrection.
But their question shows them taking a stronger position than this: not merely does the Old Testament make no mention of resurrection, it contains provisions which make the idea absurd. The particular provision of the Law of Moses referred to here (19) is in Deuteronomy 25.5-6—the institution of so-called "Levirate marriage". This institution belonged to an early stage of Israel's history, when it was regarded as a desirable way of keeping property in one family and of keeping the family name alive. But it could only flourish in a polygamous society, and although attempts had been made to give it a higher moral significance (the Book of Ruth was probably one such attempt) it is unlikely that it was often put into practice in the time of Jesus. Nevertheless, the commandment stood in the Law, and may still have occasionally been observed, and the Sadducees were perfectly justified in quoting it to make their point, and in weaving a story around it.
'At the resurrection, when they come back to life, whose wife will she be?' (23) The absurdity of the conclusion was probably a fair point in view of the crudity with which the belief in resurrection was often held. Writings have come down to us from this period in which the future life is portrayed with the naivest materialism as a mere continuation, under beatific conditions, of ordinary human existence. Such crude beliefs deserved the Sadducees' ridicule. At the same time there were many thinkers who were ready to formulate the doctrine in a much more sophisticated and spiritual form; against them, the Sadducees' argument would have had no force. Jesus aligned himself with this more developed view: 'When they rise from the dead, men and women do not marry; they are like angels in heaven.' (25)
Jesus then attacked the Sadducees' own position by quoting a passage from Exodus (3.6). Since it was recognized that the Old Testament provides no clear proof of the resurrection, how was this text going to carry his point? Was he going to give it a new and subtle interpretation, in the manner of the Pharisees? Jesus' commentary on it is so brief that it is not easy to say. But his usual procedure with Old Testament texts was very different from that of the Pharisees. Instead of manipulating the literal sense of the words, he liked to reveal their underlying purpose, and this may be his technique here. The phrase, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (26), which occurred in the Jews' daily prayers and was one of their characteristic ways of referring to "the God of Israel", carried a heavy load of meaning. God was the God of these patriarchs in the sense that he had led them, protected them, and above all promised to them that he would be eternally concerned for their descendants. In early centuries this promise was understood as being fulfilled in the prosperity and (at times) glorious history of the people of Israel. But in the time of Jesus, when that history
had become anything but glorious, and when, in any case, religious interest had at last become focused upon the destiny of the individual as much as of the nation, the promise had to be understood differently. Since so many generations of pious Israelites had died without seeing any material evidence of the fulfilment of God's promises, either these promises were false (which was inconceivable) or else they would have to be fulfilled for every righteous Jew in a future life. God had not made his promises to the dead but to the living (27). By such reasoning, the Old Testament as a whole could be seen to imply the resurrection, even if it did not actually state it. The Sadducees, in short, had failed to understand both the true sense of the scriptures and the power of God (25) who, despite the apparent finality of human death, was still able to fulfil his promises.
Then one of the lawyers ... asked him (28). The question was not necessarily asked in order to embarrass Jesus, for it was one which we know to have been a subject of discussion among lawyers in the time of Jesus. But the question was probably intended in a rather technical sense. 'Which commandment is first of all?' sounds to us like a question about the most important principle by which to direct one's life. But in the mouth of the questioner it must have meant something different. For a professional expounder of the law, there could be no question of one part of the law, or one principle contained in it, being more important than the rest. A Jew was strictly obliged to keep the whole law—all the 613 commandments of it (as the Rabbis were soon to calculate the number), and the question, Which commandment is first of all? could not have been a question about what part of the law one ought particularly to observe (for one had to observe all parts of it equally). It could only have been the more academic question, from what part of the law (if any) could the rest of the law be deduced? Or, in any systematic arrangement of the many individual laws, which law should come at the head of the list? We know that this question was debated (even though some disapproved of the debate, thinking that it might tempt people to concentrate on some laws at the expense of others and so fail to do their duty by the whole law); and the lawyer may well have been genuinely interested to know what Jesus' own position was.
Jesus' reply keeps well within the usual bounds of such a discussion. The first phrase, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord" sounds at first inappropriate, since it is not a "commandment" at all, but is in (lie nature of a statement of faith. But in fact it is the beginning of a text (Deuteronomy 6.4-5) which was a basic part of Jewish devotion. It was recited by everyone twice a day, and there was general agreement that it did in fact sum up the essentials of the Jewish faith and the Jewish life. There-lore ii was not inappropriate for Jesus to preface his answer with this introduction: it served to put the first great "commandment" in the perspective 11I the Jew's daily profession of faith. To complete his answer, Jesus somewhat unexpectedly added a second "commandment", taken from Leviticus 19.18, "Love your neighbour as yourself".
Thus far, the conversation had run on lines which would have caused no surprise in scholarly circles. Both the first and the second of these commandments were quite often quoted as being basic to the whole structure of the Law of Moses, and even though we do not happen to know of any other teacher who explicitly paired these two commandments together as Jesus did, it does not follow that, simply by putting them together, Jesus was doing anything startlingly original. Indeed, Matthew in his version (22.40) ends the episode at this point, and uses it precisely in order to reveal Jesus in the role of an authoritative Jewish teacher. Luke attaches to it the parable of the Good Samaritan, in order to illustrate Jesus' radical interpretation of the commandment to " love your neighbour ". Mark alone allows the conversation with the lawyer to develop in such a way as to throw a new light on the sense in which Jesus understood the "commandments".
'Well said, Master.' (32) The lawyer agreed with Jesus; but his commentary on Jesus' answer set it in a totally different light. The keeping of these two commandments was far more than any burnt offerings or sacrifices (33). At a stroke, this phrase turned the question from an academic one into a practical one. Instead of being an attempt to subsume all other laws (including those concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices) under one or two general principles, Jesus' answer became, in the lawyer's commentary (what it was doubtless always intended to be) a clear statement that the spirit and basic motivation of the law was more important than the observance of its detailed ritual provisions. We can infer, from other parts of Jesus' teaching, that this was in fact Jesus' view. Mark here allows it to be expressed by a member of that party which was normally opposed to him; and Jesus, to show how closely this formulation came to his own teaching, reversed his usual judgement on the lawyers, and said of this one, 'You are not far from the kingdom of God' (34)—the highest compliment he ever paid to anyone.
There is a further point to notice about the narrative. The liberal view of the law which is implied in the lawyer's answer was certainly not an orthodox one at the time; but we cannot say for certain that a professional lawyer could not have held it, and we ought probably to leave open the question whether this conversation actually took place as Mark (unlike Matthew and Luke) records it, or whether Mark deliberately constructed it in order to bring out Jesus' understanding of the Jewish law. On the other hand, there are certain details which suggest that at some stage the story has been edited to suit a different milieu. When the Jewish faith was being presented to educated Greeks, it tended to be formulated somewhat differently from the way in which it was discussed among Jews in Palestine. It was proclaimed, first and foremost, as the one great monotheistic religion of the world (as compared with the many deities of Greek, Roman and oriental
religions); secondly, greater stress was laid on its intellectual content than came naturally to traditional Jewish psychology; and thirdly, there was a tendency to play down the ritual side of it, particularly the sacrificial system of the temple, which struck the Greeks as crude and unnecessary. In Mark's narrative it is noticeable, first, that the lawyer's paraphrase of the Jewish confession of faith reads remarkably like a conscious defence of monotheism; secondly, that an intellectual term, mind, is added to heart, soul and strength ((30) the three terms which stand in the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy); and thirdly, that the conversation ends with a depreciation of burnt offerings or sacrifices (33). From this, one conclusion suggests itself. This was the language Mark had often heard being used by Greek-speaking Jews while commending their faith to pagans. If he allowed it to influence his composition of the dialogue between Jesus and a lawyer in the temple at Jerusalem, it was because he realized that the liberal Judaism being preached, say, at Rome or Alexandria was in essence an approximation to the teaching of Jesus: it was not far from the kingdom of God. (34)
The last of this series of questions is asked by Jesus himself, and in form it is the kind of question that was much discussed at the time: given such and such a doctrine, which we infer from the Old Testament, how is a certain text, which seems at first sight to contradict that doctrine, to be reconciled with it? The doctrine concerned was that the Messiah is "Son of David" (35). On this subject, the teachers of the law could hardly maintain anything else. It is true that the Old Testament itself does not say in so many words that the coming Messiah would be a physical descendant of David—though some passages come very near it (Isaiah 11.1-9; Jeremiah 33.14-18); but that this would be so had become a very widely held belief, and the gospels themselves, when they show Jesus to be a descendant of David, presuppose that this was regarded as one reason for claiming that he was the Messiah. 11 is very unlikely, therefore, that Jesus meant to cast doubt on this doctrine. Rather, his question (in the manner of such discussions) drew attention, not to any uncertainty about the doctrine itself, but to a text which had not previously been brought into harmony with it. This text (Psalm 110.1) was subsequently used by the early church as an important prophecy of the ascension and exaltation of Christ (Acts 2.34; 1 Corinthians 15.25 and elsewhere). Here, Jesus apparently quoted it to bring a new element into the usual understanding of what was meant by a Messiah who was "Son of David". The psalm, which was almost certainly written later, and possibly many centuries later, than David's time, was nevertheless found by Jesus' contemporaries among the collection of the "Psalms of David", and it would have occurred to none of them to question its authorship. Moreover, it occurred in the sacred scriptures, every part of which was inspired by the Holy Spirit (36), and must therefore be taken seriously as a word of God. In the first line, The Lord clearly meant God, and my meant David's; but who
was David's "Lord"? There was nothing in the psalm to say; and this was just the kind of ambiguity in the sacred text which later scholars came to regard as full of deeper meaning. "David's Lord" must be a kind of cryptogram for some other important person in the present or future destiny of Israel. Some two centuries after the date of this conversation, there is evidence that this person was thought by Jewish scholars to be the awaited Messiah. The Christian church evidently drew the same conclusion when, soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus, it began using the psalm as a prophecy about the risen Christ. Was "David's Lord" popularly thought to be the Messiah even earlier? This narrative, if it was not composed after the event (as some believe it was) seems to presuppose that he was; and in an age in which expectation of a coming Messiah was a marked feature of many Jews' religion, it would not be at all surprising if the cryptogram was popularly interpreted in this way. But if so, it raised a difficulty: how could the Messiah, whom all agreed must be David's "son", be addressed by his father as if he was a superior being—" Lord "? This was the difficulty which Jesus wanted to emphasize: it would not do to use this somewhat grandiose verse as a prophecy about the Messiah without thinking out its implications. Could someone who was human enough to be called David's "son" also be "lordly" enough to sit at God's right hand? Jesus did not offer an answer to this at once: the answer (so at least the first Christians believed) was given, not in a single word, but by the whole life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
'Beware of the doctors of the law' (38). In both Matthew and Luke a substantial section is devoted to an attack on the Pharisees and upon the professional experts in the law. In Mark, even though no secret is made of the opposition between Jesus and these people, only three verses (38-40) are devoted to an explicit attack on their character. Yet perhaps more is implied than is actually said. The real reason to beware of them was not, of course, the rather trivial signs of petty ambition and ostentation which are mentioned here, but the hypocrisy of which these things were a symptom and which Jesus attacks elsewhere (7.6-8) as being their really serious fault. This fundamental hypocrisy proceeded from their whole understanding of religion; and it was presumably as particularly striking manifestations of this hypocrisy that Jesus singled out certain instances of arrogant behaviour of which, perhaps, only a few were guilty. Similarly with verse 40: the condemnation of men who eat up the property of widows (40) was as old as the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 10.1-2), and one which religious groups often used as ammunition against each other. The obligation laid on wealthy women to give hospitality to travelling teachers could have given rise to such an abuse, though it is doubtful whether many lawyers were guilty of it, any more than Jesus' own acceptance of hospitality could be regarded as reprehensible, liul if there were even a few cases of it they were sufficient to make Jesus' point: saying long prayers for appearance' sake made these acts of injustice into particularly scandalous examples of that same hypocrisy of which the lawyers, as a class, were guilty.
Once he was standing opposite the temple treasury (41). It is not possible to reconstruct this scene with any certainty. There were a large number of "treasuries" in the temple, and contributions (some obligatory, some voluntary) were made for many different purposes. Clearly the story is about free-will offerings and not about taxes; and it is usually thought that the scene must have taken place in the Women's Court of the temple, where thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles were set up for receiving various kinds of contributions. But it is superfluous to press the details: how, for instance, Jesus could have seen how much money everyone gave is an unanswerable question. The narrative, in fact, is in the style of a story deliberately told to point a moral, and it is even possible that it was originally told by Jesus as a story and subsequently projected back as an episode in his life—for the story itself has parallels both in Jewish tradition and in the religious literature of other cultures. Its.moral is obvious enough, and only one vivid detail requires comment. Two tiny coins (42): the Greek word (lepton) was used for the smallest coin in currency in Palestine. It was little more than a quarter of an inch in diameter, and 128 of them went to the silver denarius. In Rome it was unknown; the smallest coin there was the quadrans, which was twice the size of the widow's coin, and Mark may have had his non-Palestinian readers in mind when he added the explanation, together worth a farthing (quadrans).
'Look, Master, what huge stones.' (1) This is still the visitor's reaction today. The buildings of Herod the Great can be recognized anywhere in Palestine by the immense rectangular blocks of beautifully hewn stone with which their walls are constructed. The temple, with its surrounding buildings and colonnades, was the greatest of his building enterprises, and not the least spectacular part of it was the huge substructure by which the top of the sacred hill had been extended to form a terrace of some 35 acres. The great east wall of this substructure, which rose vertically from the floor of the valley over 100 feet below, is in position today and still excites admiration. On the occasion of Jesus' visit it will have been quite recently completed. The exclamation of Jesus' disciples as they left the temple area and passed through the gate in this gigantic wall is exactly what one would expect. Indeed, the setting for the long discourse which follows is vivid and plausible. From the Mount of Olives, facing the temple (3), one could look down across the steep valley between, and the whole of the temple area, perhaps the most grandiose and impressive architectural achievement of antiquity, lay spread out before one's eyes. That it should ever be totally destroyed must have seemed almost unimaginable; yet this is what Jesus had just prophesied. No wonder then that Jesus was questioned privately about it by some of his disciples.
Yet however realistic the setting, Jesus' answer, which is the longest continuous discourse recorded by Mark, shows signs of being an artificial composition. When a master gave "private teaching" to his disciples, it might be merely a matter of clarifying for their benefit difficult or enigmatic points made in public (Mark 4—the parable chapter—provides a good example of this). But another type of private teaching consisted of esoteric truths about the ultimate destiny of the world and of instructions on correctly reading the signs of the times. To impart teaching of this kind, Jewish writers had to hand a well-developed literary form, the so-called "apocalypse" or "revelation". They described the approaching end of the world in terms of a supernatural drama, in which the main events were fairly constant, but to which new details were added according to the particular vision of each writer; and these details could often be interpreted, by those sufficiently instructed to do so, as cryptic references to persons and events of their own time. In the time of Jesus, and particularly also in the second half of the first century A.D. (the period when the gospels were written) a number of these "apocalypses" were composed by visionaries who were inspired to see, in contemporary events, clues to the shape of that final cosmic drama which (they earnestly believed) God was about to initiate. If Jesus gave some teaching of this kind, it need cause no surprise that he utilized some of the elements of traditional apocalypses; and it would be still less surprising if, when that teaching came to be written down, it became further assimilated to the pattern of contemporary apocalyptic writings. There is one clear instance of this process in the present chapter. Let the reader understand (14) is an admonition which could not possibly have occurred in a spoken discourse of Jesus; but it is just the kind of hint by which a visionary writer of the period was accustomed to indicate that a phrase or image he had just used was a symbol or a cryptogram for some familiar person, place or event. It shows that at some stage Jesus' teaching on the future has been assimilated to the conventions of a written apocalypse.
Not only the form but also the content of Jesus' discourse has been influenced by these conventions. Speculations about the future tended to assume that the ultimate act of the drama, when God would finally manifest his sovereignty and save his elect, would be preceded by a period of exceptional calamity and tribulation, when the powers of evil would be unleashed to an unheard-of degree, and all but the most faithful and courageous of the saints of God might be tempted to despair. This dark period before the end came to be known in some circles as the birth-pangs of the new age ((8) this almost technical expression occurs in Mark's narrative); and moreover it had
a purpose: it would prepare for the impending judgement by putting men to a decisive test. Those whose faith was already wavering would lose heart, and those whose grasp of the truth was insecure would be misled ((6) again an almost technical word in this context) by various manifestations of a spirit of deliberate deception. But, severe though the ordeal would be, the righteous could take courage. 'For the sake of his own, whom he has chosen,' God 'has cut short the time' (20)—another feature which, if it was not already conventional, was soon to occur regularly in Jewish apocalypses; for the ultimate purpose of these writers was to encourage and sustain their readers. Once these calamitous events had got under way, the final act could not be long delayed, and the righteous could begin to look forward to their promised reward. The important thing was to be able to recognize what stage the drama had reached.
For these reasons, it has become customary to refer to this chapter as a "little apocalypse", with the implication that, since an "apocalypse" is essentially a literary creation, the teaching it contains can hardly have been given by Jesus in anything like its present form. But at the same time it is important to notice the difference between this discourse and a typical "apocalypse". In the Revelation, for example (which is a true Christian apocalypse), the basic pattern is the same—a period of intensified tribulation, followed by the judgement, the new age, and the reward of the righteous; but the treatment is totally different. The tribulations are not the kind of ordinary catastrophes which might be encountered in the course of history: they consist of altogether supernatural upheavals in the processes of nature, accompanied by—or rather caused by—desperate conflicts between cosmic and mythological powers; and the climax to which the book builds up is the establishment of a new order by God, in which his chosen people will at last take their rightful place. In short, the setting is throughout mythological, the powers at work supernatural. The style is that of poetry, not of prose. By contrast, the greater part of Jesus' discourse is set firmly within history. The events predicted are little larger than life, the warnings which accompany the predictions are meant to be serious and practical, and very little space is devoted to the scene which is in fact the raison d'etre of an "apocalypse"—the final phase of judgement and glory. For the most part, the nearest parallels are to be found, not in the Book of Daniel (the first of the Jewish apocalypses), but in the Old Testament prophets; and the discourse as a whole is more concerned with interpreting the significance of contemporary history (which is the main part of what the Bible means by "prophecy") than with painting a mythological picture of the age to come.
The question the disciples put to Jesus was in any case not a general one about the future of the world, but was quite specific. After Jesus' astounding prophecy of the total destruction of the temple, they asked, 'When will this happen?' (4) In the course of his reply, Jesus gave an equally specific answer: 'the present generation will live to see it all.' (30) And he was right. In A.D. 70 (shortly after the date when this gospel is likely to have been written) the Jewish revolt, which had begun four years earlier, was finally crushed. The Romans captured Jerusalem, set fire to the temple, and subsequently levelled it to the ground. That events were already moving in this direction some forty years before must have been clear to a man of Jesus' prophetic insight.
But the essence of prophecy was not merely to discern the course which history was taking, but to set these events in the wider context of God's judgement upon his people, and to prepare men to see in them the signs of a greater providence. The discourse is an essay in reading the signs of the times, and weaves together predictions of actual events or circumstances which Jesus foresaw (or which the next generation of Christians filled in from their experience) with some of the traditional elements which the prophets had incorporated in their descriptions of the impending climactic phase of history. To take each detail as it comes:
(i) 'Many will come claiming my name.' (6) Fanatics who claimed to have divine authority to lead the Jewish people in revolt against the Romans had already appeared in Jesus' lifetime and were to appear again before A.D. 70. This was the historical form in which the mythological "spirit of deception" was to appear in the final period before the end. Possibly Jesus' own appearance and death would accentuate the danger: men might claim to be Jesus himself, returned from the dead with power.
(ii) 'The noise of battle ... the news of battles.' (7) An intensification of the political upheavals of which Palestine had always been a victim was a standard feature expected in the last days. Verse 8 is only a slight adaptation of Isaiah 19.2.
(iii) 'You will be handed over to the courts.' (9) How far the experience of the early church has coloured these verses we cannot tell. For instance, they would serve as an accurate description of the things which Paul had to endure; but equally it would not have been difficult for Jesus to foresee that his followers had these trials ahead of them. Governors and kings do not necessarily shift the scene outside Palestine: "governor" was a usual word for a senior Roman administrator, and those of Herod's sons who still ruled over parts of Palestine by leave of the Roman empire were commonly known as "kings". On the other hand, a wider perspective than was usual in Jesus' teaching is opened up in the words,' the Gospel must be proclaimed to all nations.' (10) It soon became a firm conviction of Paul's that this must happen before the end (literally, "first"); but it took the church as a whole some time to accept the proposition that the Gospel was intended, not merely for the Jews and their immediate neighbours, but for the whole Greco-Roman world; and if Jesus made such a clear statement about it, we must assume that the church did not at lirsi take it as a practical commission, but assumed that he was predicting some supernatural proclamation which would be made immediately before the end.
(iv) 'Brother will betray brother to death' (12). This prophecy occurs in Micah (7.6). The Jews set particular store by the solidarity of family and of race, and this desecration of family ties was, in their eyes, one of the most horrifying features of the terrible last days.
(v) 'But when you see the "abomination of desolation" ' (14). The phrase is as meaningless in the Greek as it is in English. It was the deliberately cryptographic translation which the Greek version of the Old Testament offered for a subtle piece of Hebrew invective. In 168-167 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes set up a statue of Zeus in front of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Maccabees 1.54). The author of the book of Daniel (9.27 and elsewhere), by a kind of word-play on the Hebrew equivalent to the title "Olympian Zeus", called this "the abominable thing which desolates". Anyone who came across the phrase, either in Greek or in Hebrew, would automatically think of this notorious case of deliberate desecration; and he would be led to look for a similar meaning here by the unexpected parenthesis, let the reader understand. It is probably useless to speculate on precisely what kind of desecration Jesus would have had in mind, if indeed he used this particular cryptogram at all. Possibly he imagined the ensigns of the Roman legions, which were regarded by the Jews as idolatrous, being set up as a sign of victory and conquest in the temple precincts. But by the time Mark wrote one event had taken place which may have suggested how the oracle was likely to be fulfilled. In A.D. 40 the Emperor Gaius (Caligula) attempted to have a statue of himself placed in the temple, thereby nearly causing an insurrection. It may be the memory of this which led Mark to make the idol sound like a live person (at the expense, in the Greek, of correct grammar): usurping a place which is not his.
'Then those who are in Judaea must take to the hills'. The event just mentioned was clearly meant to be regarded as a real possibility. When it happened, the only course would be immediate flight to the caves and inaccessible places in the mountains where no victorious soldiers were likely to follow up fugitives. The haste required is described with conventional but vivid details drawn from life in Palestine (15). Inside staircases to the roof of One-storied houses were not usual. If a man were on the roof (where many domestic tasks were done), he would have to come down outside before going into his house—and there would not be time for him to go in. Work in the countryside was done without a coat on—and there would not be time for him to go and fetch it. The winter in Palestine sometimes brings rains so heavy that travel is virtually impossible—so pray that it may not come in winter. Those days will bring distress (18,19), the kind of distress the Jews had so often endured at the hands of conquering or marauding armies, but this lime of an intensity so great thai it could only be the fulfilment of well-known prophecies about the great tribulation immediately preceding the end (the language of verse 18 is an almost exact quotation from Daniel 12.1).
(vi) "Look, here is the Messiah" (21). Another instance of the manifestation of the spirit of deception, calculated to mislead, similar to (i) above.
(vii) 'The sun will be darkened' (24). At this point one might get the impression that the discourse moves from the realm of reality to that of mythology, from events which can be imagined as taking place in history to cataclysms which mark the end of all history. But the words (which are in any case a tissue of allusions to Isaiah 13.10 and 34.4—the imagery was quite conventional) would not necessarily have suggested, as they do to us, a general disintegration of the universe. The sun, the moon and the stars were thought of as being much the same size as they look; and the main function of them (and of the spirits or powers which were thought to control them, the celestial powers (25)) was to maintain life on earth in an orderly system. The sun and the moon assured the orderly procession of night and day, the stars (by the principles of astrology, which were widely accepted) regulated, not only the seasons, but the destinies of men. Even a minor dislocation (such as an eclipse was thought to be) was regarded as the sign of some extraordinary portent or disaster. A fortiori, disorganization in heaven would unleash chaos on earth.
(viii) 'Then they will see the Son of Man' (26). This, at last, is the final moment towards which the whole process has been tending. The language again is conventional: compare Daniel 7.13, Zechariah 2.6, and also Paul's description of the same scene in 1 Thessalonians 4.16 (a passage which perhaps gives the clue to the final phrase: the chosen who are to be gathered from the farthest bounds of heaven (27) may be those of the faithful who have died). The manifestation of the Son of Man will be the climax of the whole drama.
'Learn a lesson from the fig-tree.' (28) The discourse, which has mainly consisted of prophecies of what is to happen, now becomes concerned with the proper attitude which men should have in face of the impending future. Two dangers very soon presented themselves in the early church: first, that of assuming that since the end had not come at once it would not come at all, and that vigilance could be relaxed; secondly, that of becoming distracted with all kinds of speculation about exactly "what day or what hour" these things would happen. Jesus, like other Jewish teachers, seems to have had these two dangers in mind. The end would be preceded by signs, just as certainly as summer is preceded by spring. In England we would probably express the simile differently (and Luke may have been adapting it to European conditions when he wrote (21.29) at the fig-tree or any other tree'): for us, spring is the time of the return of green life after the dead colours of winter. Hut in Palestine the winter, with all its rains, is the one time when the mountains look green: greenness as such is not a sign that summer is near. But the fig-tree, which is one of Palestine's few deciduous trees, stands strikingly bare in the winter, and only puts on fresh green leaves in the spring. The transition between winter and summer is short: it is completed between March and early May; and the appearance of leaves on the fig-tree is a sure sign that this rapid period of change is beginning.
'In the same way' (29). How exactly is the simile to be applied? What in the previous discourse corresponds to the sign of spring and what corresponds to the summer? 'When you see all this happening, you may know that the end is near'. As the NEB footnote shows, the Greek is ambiguous: it does not say just what it is which will be near. Further, the phrase 'all this' is vague, and the next saying, 'the present generation will live to see it all' (30), only increases the obscurity; for it is clear that there are many things in the previous discourse which the generation contemporary with Jesus did not live to see. We are confronted once again by the same difficulties as are presented by 9.1 (on which see above), and many have inferred that Jesus was in error, or was misunderstood, or even that he never said anything of the kind. In fact, the same considerations apply here as there. Many of the things which Jesus predicted actually happened "in that generation"— civil strife, a famine, persecution of Christians, and a terrible war culminating in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. Moreover, there was a sense in which Christians did in fact see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory (26): this was one of their ways of expressing the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead and was now at the right hand of God (Acts 7.56). But one thing did not happen: the final judgement at the end of history. Jesus may have been in error or have been misunderstood about the temporal relation between this ultimate culmination and the catastrophes and trials which those who heard him would have to endure; but this in any case may not have been the main point which he was making. He was speaking in the tones of ancient prophecy. The course of events which he so clearly foresaw was not meaningless, but predetermined and significant. Men would be able to read from them the lesson that God's purpose was being accomplished, and the universal judgement of mankind brought nearer. What might seem like senseless suffering and catastrophe was an essential precondition of the coming of that state of affairs for which men longed, and was therefore, if rightly interpreted, a cause for encouragement rather than despair. The discourse was an exercise in correctly reading the signs of the times.
'Heaven and earth will pass away; my words will never pass away.' (31) If the consummation were delayed, men might cease to believe in it, and find history once again bitter and meaningless. Jesus, in effect, refuses to admit any excuse for this attitude. Whatever time world history may take, its conclusion will always be the same. And against the opposite danger of fussy speculation about the exact timing of that day or that hour (32), he stresses that no human calculation can reveal it. God is free to choose the moment. Surprisingly, even the Son is excluded from the secret. (This is the one occasion in this gospel on which Jesus explicitly claims unique sonship of God. Significantly, he does so in the context, not of his divine power, but of his human limitations.)
Between these two attitudes—the one of ceasing to believe, the other of agitated preoccupation—is the true one. 'Be alert, be wakeful.' (33) Another brief simile illustrates it, similar to many others which Jesus uses for the same theme (and perhaps, in the telling, this one has been slightly contaminated by those others: there seems no reason why it should be only the door-keeper who has to keep awake and not the other servants, unless the master of the house is expected at night. But in the east a traveller on a long journey seldom travelled by night; the task of a door-keeper was to be awake to open to him only if he returned late from dinner, or to detect the entry of a thief—and Jesus used these similes too). With that, the discourse, which began as private instruction to three disciples, is now declared to be 37 destined for the whole community of Jesus' followers: 'What I say to you, I say to everyone: Keep awake'.
Now the festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread was only two days off (1). This sentence gives, or appears to give, a precise date; and indeed, from this point on, events move rapidly, and in a fairly strict chronological sequence. Passover was a springtime festival, at which the slaughter of lambs before the temple and the eating of them by household groups was understood as a re-enactment of one of the great moments of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12). The Festival of Unleavened Bread, on the other hand, which involved removing all old leaven from the house and eating only unleavened bread for the following week, must have been originally connected with the renewal of life at the beginning of each New Year. Long before the New Testament period, these two festivals had been combined, and the order of events was as follows. The main preparations were made on the 14th day of the month Nisan (which normally fell between March and May, though the Jewish calendar, being lunar and not solar, had constantly to be adjusted). Search was made for leaven and leavened food in all houses, and all that was found was destroyed; and in the afternoon the Passover lambs were slaughtered according to a prescribed ritual at the great altar in front of the temple. After sunset (which, for the Jews, meant the beginning of a new day, so by their reckoning we must now call it 15th Nisan) the people assembled by families or small groups to make a solemn meal of roasted lamb, one lamb having been brought to the altar by each group that afternoon. At this meal (since the festival of Unleavened Bread was now combined with Passover) all the bread and cakes were unleavened; and the festival continued for a further week, during which all bread was prepared without leaven.
Which of these days is Mark referring to when he speaks of the festival? Properly speaking neither Passover nor Unleavened Bread began until after sunset, which by Jewish reckoning was a new day, 15th Nisan; but if Mark was reckoning in the Roman manner (midnight to midnight) and not in the Jewish manner (sunset to sunset), both the preparation in the afternoon and the ritual meal in the evening will have appeared to him as happening on the same "day", the first day of the festival. It is likely, therefore, though by no means certain, that Mark was counting back from that day, which, as we shall see, he believed to be a Thursday. But how far did he count back? Two days off suggests to us the previous Tuesday; but when Greeks and Romans counted days, they tended to include the day they started counting from. If today is Tuesday, tomorrow is the second day, and so Wednesday, not Thursday, is two days off. For all these reasons, we cannot be sure whether Mark meant to place these events on the Tuesday or the Wednesday of the week of The final conflict.
Apart from this uncertainty, the chronology in Mark is clear, and appears to be followed by Matthew and Luke. Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples in the evening, was tried during the following night and early morning, and was executed the same day, which was a Friday. It follows that the Passover festival, properly speaking, took place after sunset on the Thursday, which was therefore the beginning of 15th Nisan by Jewish reckoning. But against this has to be set the clear evidence of John's gospel that in that year the festival fell one day later, that is to say, that the Thursday evening was only the beginning of the preparation day, 14th Nisan, and that the Jews did not eat the Passover meal until after sunset on the Friday, by which time Jesus had been crucified. This difference between John's gospel and the other accounts prevents us from accepting Mark's time-scheme uncritically; and certain details in Mark's own narrative also fit in a little awkwardly. Not the least significant of these details is the attitude of the chief priests and the doctors of the law. 'It must not be during the festival', they said." (2)
Meanwhile an episode is introduced which has no exact date. Jesus was at Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper (3). The story, or one like it, occurs in all the gospels. In Matthew, its position in the narrative and most of its details are the same; but Luke places a somewhat similar story much earlier in his gospel and gives it a totally different application; and John tells a similar story (though many of the details are different) not two, but six days before the Passover. Evidently the story circulated in more than one form, and it is likely that Mark himself chose to introduce it at this point and placed his own interpretation upon it.
It was customary to anoint face, hands and feet with olive oil, especially before any kind of social occasion, and those who could afford it mixed a little perfume with the oil. Perfume was expensive, and was sold in bottles of alabaster or pottery with long narrow necks, so that it would pour very slowly. But the woman broke it open, that is, she broke off the neck, and poured out the entire contents at once. This was extravagant. 300 denarii (thirty pounds in the NEB (5)) was perhaps the total which a labourer might earn in a year. The reaction of some of those present was perfectly understandable (4).
Jesus' reply is perhaps illuminated by the contemporary Jewish attitude to "good works". Giving alms to the poor was always praiseworthy, and was indeed constantly expected of all who could afford it. But still more praiseworthy were certain exceptional acts of kindness, such as hospitality to strangers. (There is a list of these acts of kindness in a parable in Matthew 25.35-6.) One of these acts was that of giving decent burial to a friend; and it seems that decent burial was held to include anointing the corpse. Compared, then, with an unremarkable act of almsgiving, the woman's gesture was seen by Jesus as a highly praiseworthy act of kindness—'It is a fine thing she has done for me' (7); and whatever the original meaning of her action (Luke gives a different explanation, John offers none) Mark evidently understood it as the fulfilment in advance of an act of kindness which he would soon have no one else to perform for him (8)—'anointing my body for burial. I tell you this:' (9) the saying which follows has a perfectly obvious meaning. The woman's act was so remarkable that some mention of it was bound to be made wherever the story of Jesus was told. Nevertheless, it is curious that the woman has no name (only in John's version is she called Mary)—it is odd to perpetuate the memory of a good deed but not to record the name of the person who did it; and the phrase, wherever in all the world the Gospel is proclaimed, sounds a little strangely in Jesus' mouth (for it is hard to understand why it took the church so long to accept the necessity of a world-wide mission if Jesus had so clearly predicted it, see above on Mark 13.10). Therefore an alternative translation is sometimes suggested: "When the Gospel is proclaimed to all the world (i.e. at the end of the world), then what she has done will be told (at the Last Judgement) so that God may remember her with favour."
After this interlude, the narrative continues from the point reached in verse 2. Jesus' enemies were trying to devise some cunning plan to seize
him (1); one of the twelve disciples listed in 3.13-19 was ready to betray him. It was not in Mark's manner to give reasons for Judas' treachery. Jesus had predicted that he would be betrayed, and here was Judas fulfilling the prediction. Such things happened according to the secret providence of God; there was no need to enquire about human motives as well.
Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered (12). By Jewish reckoning, these were two different days. The festival of Unleavened Bread began only after sunset (a new day according to the Jewish calendar, so 15th Nisan) whereas the Passover lambs were slaughtered earlier on the same afternoon (14th Nisan). But Mark's expression, though technically inexact, is quite unambiguous: he means the afternoon of 14th Nisan, which (according at least to his information) fell that year on a Thursday, and was the time when each family or group of pilgrims made their preparations for celebrating the festival. These preparations included bringing a lamb to the temple to be slaughtered by the priests in the proper ritual manner. Jesus and his disciples had come to Jerusalem along with the thousands of pilgrims who travelled from all over Palestine to attend the festival; and his disciples took it for granted that he would be observing the festival like everyone else: 'Where would you like us to go and prepare for your Passover supper?'
The first necessity was to find a room. In earlier times the Passover lamb had been roasted and eaten by all male Israelites over 20 years old in the precincts of the temple; but by now it had become a more domestic festival, and the meal was held in private houses. Nevertheless, although the practice had changed, the theory remained the same: on Passover night, the whole city of Jerusalem was deemed, by a special dispensation, to form part of the temple precincts. This meant that those who lived in Jerusalem could hold the meal in their own homes; but those who came as pilgrims from outside had to find a room in the city where they could do the same. It appears to have been expected of the residents that they should lend the upstairs rooms in their houses for this purpose; and in this way even the many thousands of pilgrims were apparently accommodated. Nevertheless, finding a room was an urgent matter, and the disciples were naturally anxious to press on with it. To the modern reader, it sounds as if Jesus had already made arrangements. It was probably as unusual then as it is now in Palestine to see a man (13), instead of a woman, carrying an earthenware jar of water, and the signal could easily have been prearranged. But the episode is remarkably similar to the requisitioning of an ass at the beginning of chapter 11; and it is likely that Mark regarded both that and the finding of the room as instances of Jesus' miraculous foresight.
A large room upstairs, set out in readiness (15). Since all who possessed is a large enough spare room were bound to have it filled on that evening, it is not surprising that this one should have been already set out in readiness with the necessary tables and couches (for on special occasions such as this the Jews followed the Greek and Roman custom of reclining on couches, leaning on their left arm). But this would still leave the two disciples with many things to be prepared for Passover. A lamb would have to be bought, taken to the temple for slaughter by the priests, skinned and prepared for roasting; besides this, unleavened bread, herbs and wine would have to be obtained.
In the evening he came to the house with the Twelve (17). The number of people who shared the same Passover meal followed from the number for whom one lamb would provide sufficient meat. It was normally not less than ten, nor more than twenty. These groups might be family groups: married women and male children over 12 years old were allowed to take part (Luke 2.41-2). But equally, men who had come to Jerusalem as pilgrims could make up "fellowships" for the purpose. The lamb was then slaughtered in the name of each member of the fellowship, and from that moment no further members could be admitted. So long as the meal lasted, the members of such a "fellowship" felt themselves to be intimately bound together by the fact of having shared it; when it was over, they were free to separate. Jesus and his twelve disciples formed an appropriate group to observe the celebration together.
As they sat at supper (18). This is good modern English, but conveys a false impression: they were not sitting but reclining, as was the custom on special occasions. 'One of you will betray me—one who is eating with me'. Since table-fellowship was a particularly strong expression of solidarity between individuals, the betrayal of one who had shared a meal had long been regarded as a particularly base form of treachery: "Even the friend whom I trusted, who ate at my table, exults over my misfortune" (Psalm 41.9, a passage which is clearly alluded to here). On this occasion, the traitor was one who was dipping into the same bowl with Jesus (20). Particularly in the Passover meal, but also at other meals, pieces of bread or vegetable were dipped into a bowl of sweet sauce. Judas must have been lying fairly close to Jesus to use the same bowl; but the point of the saying was probably not to help the disciples to identify the traitor, so much as to emphasize the table-solidarity which the traitor was breaking. As a sin, that was already serious enough; but again, the narrative does not permit us to be sentimental about it. 'The Son of Man is going the way appointed for him in the scriptures' ((21) an allusion doubtless to the darker side of the destiny of the Son of Man, and of the righteous people whom he represented, that is hinted at in Daniel 7.21). It was God, not Judas, who was guiding events along their predestined course.
During supper (22). It may seem surprising that Mark's description of the meal makes no mention of its central feature, the eating of the lamb. But his concern was not to provide a consecutive account of the details of a Jewish observance, but to record certain acts and words of Jesus which, though they may have been prompted by the original character of the meal, were in themselves something entirely new. The Christian "Lord's Supper", in almost every one of its various manifestations, has from its inception centred round these acts and words, and when Mark came to record them he can hardly have failed to be influenced by the recital of them which took place every time the Supper was celebrated in the Christian community. It is understandable, therefore, that he should have omitted those details of the Jewish rite which had no interest for his Christian readers. Nevertheless, he preserves sufficient indication of the sequence of events during the meal for us to be able to place Jesus' innovations in their original context. During supper he took bread (22). It is significant that the breaking of bread took place after the meal had begun. Almost all formal meals among the Jews began with the host saying the blessing and breaking a loaf of bread, which he then divided out among the guests. This was the beginning of the meal: unless it was a luxurious occasion, when hors d'oeuvres might first be eaten in another room, nothing would have been eaten until this moment. But there was one exception to this. At the Passover, the supper began with "bitter herbs "—lettuce and the like—which were dipped into a dish of sweet sauce. This was the moment for the Judas episode which has just been narrated. The breaking of bread seems to have had no important role in the meal, and certainly did not take its usual place at the beginning. To this extent, it is intelligible that Jesus' action should have been during supper, though so far as we know the blessing (which took a form such as, "Blessed be thou who bringest forth bread from the earth") and breaking, though usual on any other occasion, normally played no special part in the Passover meal.
'Take this; this is my body.' Another feature of the Passover meal, which certainly goes back to the time of Jesus (though it was much elaborated in later times) was that the host—or the father, if it was a family group—had to explain the significance of the special food that was being eaten. The whole meal was to be seen as a re-enactment of the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt (Exodus 12); and the explanation took the form of a commentary on a passage such as Deuteronomy 26.5-9, where these events are summarized. For instance, the Passover lamb stood for the original sacrifice made in Egypt; its blood for the blood which was painted on the Israelites' doorposts so that the punishment of the Lord should "pass over" them (Exodus 12.27); and the bitter herbs for the days of bitter slavery which God's people had undergone in Egypt. But what did the unleavened bread stand for? This (since it probably did not belong to the original festival) was more difficult, and differing answers were given. It may have been in this context that Jesus pronounced the words, 'this is my body.'
What do the words mean? The question can only be fully answered out of the subsequent reflection and experience of the church. Here it is sufficient to ask how the disciples would originally have understood them. They would have been accustomed, at every formal meal, to the head of the household breaking a loaf of bread with a prayer of thanksgiving to God (a "blessing"), and when each person at the table received and ate a piece of this loaf as it was given to him, he thereby associated himself with the blessing which had been spoken. To this extent, when Jesus took bread, and having said the blessing he broke it, the disciples, when they ate the bread he gave them, were doing something entirely familiar: they were expressing their solidarity with Jesus and saying Amen to his blessing. But when Jesus added the words, 'this is my body', he went far beyond the meaning of an ordinary family blessing. The only "body" which it would make sense to them to "eat" was the body of an animal which had been offered as a sacrifice—like the lamb which was doubtless (though it is not mentioned here) the main element of the meal which Mark is describing, and which had been ritually slaughtered earlier the same afternoon at the altar before the temple. When Jesus called the bread "his body", his disciples are likely to have grasped that he was likening himself to a sacrificial victim; and when he said, 'take this', he was inviting them to share in the benefits which would flow from the sacrifice being offered.
Then he took a cup (23). If the meal was following the usual course of a Passover, some time will have elapsed since the breaking of bread: the lamb itself will have been eaten, and the prescribed explanation given of the meaning of the special food that was served. But the Christian community had no interest in these details (though an echo of them survives in Paul's phrase, 'he took the cup after supper', 1 Corinthians 11.25), and Mark goes straight on to the moment, at the end of the meal, when the host took a cup of wine in his hands and offered thanks to God in much the same way as he had said the blessing over the bread. Once again, the disciples would have found it natural to associate themselves with Jesus in this by immediately drinking with him, and it is likely (though this cannot be proved from the evidence available) that they would have been used to passing round a common cup on such an occasion. But, once again, Jesus went far beyond this ordinary ceremony by adding the words, 'This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many.' (24) This, more clearly than the saying over the bread, was the language of sacrifice. The most important moment in the ritual slaughter of a victim at the altar in Jerusalem was the shedding of its blood. It was by virtue of the blood poured upon the altar that the sacrifice was deemed effective. Certain sacrifices made by the priests were moreover made for many (though Jesus probably had in mind a larger section of humanity than would have been envisaged at a normal Jewish sacrifice); and on one occasion the blood of a sacrifice had been sprinkled upon the whole people of Israel to seal the covenant made with them by God (Exodus 24.8). The Old Testament looked forward to a "new covenant" of an inner, spiritual kind (Jeremiah 31.31-4), and the work of Jesus was soon to be understood by Christians as the inauguration of this new covenant. The wine, therefore, which the disciples were to drinkwas interpreted by Jesus as the blood of himself as a sacrificial victim, whose death would be on behalf of many and would seal a new covenant between God and men.
'I tell you this: never again shall I drink from the fruit of the vine' (25). As it stands here (the meaning is different in Luke), the saying appears to be a simple prophecy by Jesus that he would not live to partake of any further meals at which wine was drunk; and since the narrative implies that he was by now certain of his impending death, it can be taken as one more solemn prediction of what was about to happen. But the saying does not stop there. It continues with a rich sequence of biblical ideas: 'until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God'. The kingdom of God was often described as a heavenly banquet, at which the Messiah would preside, and all things would be made new; and Jesus seems to have been deliberately relating the meal he had just shared with his disciples to the heavenly reality which, he prophesied, would shortly come to pass. The one was a foretaste of the other, just as the traditional Jewish Passover meal was often interpreted as an anticipation of the coming redemption which God had promised to his people.
After singing the Passover Hymn (26). The Passover meal ended with the singing of part of the so-called Hallel, which consisted of Psalms 113-18. The Greek says simply, "after singing a hymn", but the translators are doubtless right that this special Passover Hymn is meant. They went out to the Mount of Olives. It was obligatory upon all who kept the festival to remain in Jerusalem until sunrise; but in view of the very large number of pilgrims, a technical dispensation had been introduced under which, for this one night, "Jerusalem" was deemed to embrace a number of outlying areas, including the Mount of Olives, but not including Bethany, where Jesus had been spending the night during the earlier part of the week. We can assume, therefore, that it was long before sunrise when Jesus left the city, crossed the Kedron valley and approached the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives. His prediction, 'you will all fall from your faith' (27), is supported by a quotation from Zechariah 13.7 (in a form slightly different from that of any version which has come down to us). It is remarkable that in the gospels no attempt is made to conceal or mitigate the failure of the disciples to stand by Jesus; on the other hand, it may have helped them to live it down, so to speak, when they remembered an Old Testament prophecy
which made their conduct seem predestined. In any case, all Jesus' predictions seem to presuppose that he knew he was to suffer alone. What may have made the realization all the more poignant is that this denial and desertion took place even before the end of the night, during which he and his disciples should have been particularly closely bound together by their table-fellowship. As on previous occasions in this gospel, Peter is singled out from the disciples, but apparently only to represent them all in their apostasy: 'You will all fall from your faith' (30) applies to them all, 'you ... will disown me' is the particular way in which Peter will fulfil the prediction. 'Before the cock crows twice'. In the east there is often a remarkably regular cock-crow, the first soon after midnight, another about an hour later, and a third one an hour later still, leaving two or three hours of silence before the chorus at dawn. Certainly, the third of the four "watches" into which the Romans divided the night (and this way of reckoning the parts of the night now prevailed in Palestine, as can be seen from 13.35) was popularly called "cock-crow", as was the bugle-blast with which a Roman military garrison would announce it. Whatever therefore Mark meant precisely by the cock crowing twice, the moment referred to was one which was going to be easy to recognize, well before dawn.
The section contains one very curious prophecy. 'Nevertheless, after I am raised again I will go on before you into Galilee.' (28) After the flock has been scattered through the striking down of the shepherd, it will once more gather behind its leader as he moves away northward into Galilee. This, at any rate, is the natural meaning of the Greek words, which are repeated below at 16.7; and the difficulty is to see in what way, if any, they were fulfilled. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem, and the fact that there are two traces in the gospels of an appearance in Galilee (Matthew 28.16-20 and John 21) does not really affect the fact that the church began its life, not following its master back to Galilee, but waiting upon his appearances and the manifestations of his power in Jerusalem. On the other hand, the church did soon find itself in movement, being guided by the Holy Spirit from its centre in Jerusalem to all parts of the civilized world. Jesus, in his lifetime, barely went further from the centre of Jewish life than Galilee; but Galilee, compared with Jerusalem, already represented an excursion into a partly non-Jewish world. Moreover, "Galilee" itself was a symbolic name: in its Old Testament form, it meant "land of the heathen" (as in Matthew 4.15). It is just possible that by this prophecy Jesus meant that after the resurrection he would lead his church far beyond the confines of the Jewish world. And this indeed took place.
When they reached a place called Gethsemane (30). The name is likely to mean "oil-press". John's gospel calls it a 'garden' on the far side (from Jerusalem) of the Kedron valley which separates Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. All the gospel accounts imply that it was somewhere on the Mount of Olives itself. The traditional site, not far from a cave on the slope of the mount facing Jerusalem, fits these data as well as any, and we should visualize a secluded and perhaps enclosed spot not far from the road that led over the Mount of Olives to Bethany. Jesus' purpose in coming to it was to pray, for which he usually preferred to be alone; but on this occasion he allowed near him the three privileged disciples who had earlier been witnesses of his transfiguration.
From this perfectly natural and quiet beginning, two altogether unexpected sequences of events unfold. First, Jesus' steady resolution and apparent foresight of what was to happen suddenly forsook him. For no reason that the gospels explain, horror and dismay came over him (34), and his prayer, which we may suppose normally took the form of intimate communion with his Father, was on this occasion an anguished mixture of rebellion and resignation. It may be asked, did Jesus really pray like this? Were his actual words heard and remembered (despite the fact that the only witnesses fell asleep), or did a subsequent tradition compose the kind of prayer which Jesus is likely to have prayed, just as ancient historians, from Thucydides on, freely composed the speeches which generals or statesmen were likely to have made on critical occasions? Not all these words of Jesus are (in the modern sense) original: 'My heart is ready to break with grief' is not an exact quotation, but it recalls both the tone of a psalmist whose faith in God is tested to breaking point (Psalm 42.6), and also the exclamation of the prophet Jonah, when the most recent turn of events had made him feel that it would be better that he should die rather than attempt any longer to fulfil his vocation (Jonah 4.9). 'Abba' (36), an intimate Aramaic word for 'Father', was the way in which the first Christians believed they should now address their prayers to God (very likely following Jesus' own example). 'Not what I will, but what thou wilt' is a clear allusion to the Lord's Prayer itself. In short, the materials for composing the prayer lay ready to hand in the spirituality of the Old Testament and of the early church; and if it is thought unlikely that any reliable record of Jesus' words could have been preserved, there is no difficulty in seeing how the first Christians, meditating on Jesus' last hours of solitude in Gethsemane, may have composed and attributed to him a prayer of this nature. Moreover, however surprising it may seem that Jesus underwent such agony, both the Letter to the Hebrews (5.7) and the Gospel according to John (12.27) offer apparently independent testimony to some experience of Jesus comparable with that recorded here; and the episode is so unexpected that it is difficult lo see how it could have been invented by the church.
The second unexpected sequence of events concerns the disciples. At the outset Jesus merely bade them, without explanation, to stay awake (34). If we are to understand that Jesus was still deliberately observing the customs of Passover night, then the injunction is natural: if one of the group which had eaten the supper together fell asleep, the table-fellowship was deemed to have been broken. For the sake of their solidarity with him, Jesus may have warned them to stay awake. But there is no hint of this in the narrative. And when Jesus found that they had nevertheless fallen asleep (for it was by now doubtless late in the night), he urged them again to 'stay awake', and this time gave the reason: 'pray that you may be spared the test' (38). What test? The prayer, again, sounds like a reminiscence of the Lord's Prayer: Christians are always to pray, 'Do not bring us to the test' (Matthew 6.13). But clearly a special "test" is in mind here with which the disciples were threatened. Was there a danger that they would be arrested and executed along with Jesus? Or was it precisely the temptation to flee danger and deny Jesus which constituted their "test", and about which they ought to be praying just as Jesus was praying about his own greater test? We are not told; nor do we know in what tone of voice Jesus commented on their failure to stay awake for one hour: 'The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.' (38) Was this a proverb, wryly appropriate to the situation? Or an indulgent comment, made by one who suffered no weakness of the flesh himself? Or a general observation on human psychology? We do not know. Once again, it is true that "stay awake" became a very common moral exhortation in the early church, that "do not bring us to the test" was a prayer which Christians uttered every day, and that the power of the spirit and the weakness of the flesh became a familiar contrast in the experience of the first Christian communities. Moreover, 'the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak' is the kind of balanced antithesis more characteristic of literary Greek than (so far as we know) of spoken Aramaic, and is hardly likely to have been said by Jesus in exactly this form. In short, there is no difficulty in detecting signs that the subsequent reflection of the church may have influenced or even created the narrative. But equally, if the disciples did not in fact fall asleep, it is difficult to see why anyone in the church should have wanted to cast discredit on them by making up the story; and if the story of their failure to stay awake is true, the rest flows from that. We are left with an account which, though puzzling in its details, is vivid, moving and apparently authentic.
'Still sleeping? Still taking your ease?' (41) The force of these words depends on the punctuation, and since, when the gospels were first written, punctuation signs were not much used, we can only tell from the context whether here Jesus was giving a command ("Go on sleeping!"), making an exclamation ("Still asleep!") or asking a question ("Still sleeping?"). Most older translations take the words as a command; more recent ones, like the NEB, take them as a comment on the disciples' repeated failure to stay awake. This has the advantage of making better sense wilh what follows, though there is still considerable obscurity about the Greek word translated
Suddenly, while he was still speaking (43). It is difficult, in translation, to reproduce the finer points of an author's style without falling into pedantry. But here there is some significance in the exact word which Mark uses to introduce the next episode. It means, not suddenly, but "at once" (as it is translated in verse 45), and is Mark's favourite way of joining one episode to another. The detail is important, because it is at this point that the narratives of all four gospels converge and begin to move forward together along very similar lines; and this convergence is most easily explained if, in the early church, the account of Jesus' arrest, trial and crucifixion was the first part of the gospel narrative to assume a fairly standardized form, leaving each evangelist little freedom to rearrange it. If such a common tradition existed, it apparently began with Jesus' arrest. In Mark's gospel, however, the arrest seems to be so closely linked with what goes before (suddenly, while he was still speaking) that it looks at first sight improbable that a new chapter, so to speak, originally began at this point; but the word '' at once'' (suddenly) betrays Mark's editorial hand: it was he who joined up the episodes into a single sequence.
The characters in the scene are clearly identified. Judas, one of the Twelve: there seems to be a deliberate emphasis (as in verse 10 above) on the fact that Jesus was betrayed by one of his own disciples; the fact that he was to be "handed over" to his enemies was one which Jesus constantly mentioned when he predicted his own death, and we are left in no doubt that this was the way it turned out. The crowd armed with swords and cudgels might sound like an unofficial gang of ruffians were it not that it is explicitly said that they were sent by the chief priests, lawyers, and elders. These three classes of people made up the supreme Jewish Council known as the Sanhedrin, which was actually assembling at this moment (verse 53). This Council, though many of its civil powers had been taken over by the Roman administration, exercised legal authority in all religious matters, and maintained some kind of police or body of armed men to ensure that its authority was observed. It was these men, according to Mark, who arrived with Judas to arrest Jesus.
Now the traitor had agreed with them upon a signal (44). The kiss strikes us as a particularly repellent gesture of betrayal, but this may be a modern reaction. It was customary for a pupil to greet his master with a kiss: when Judas kissed Jesus and called him 'Rabbi' (45), he was using the ordinary form of greeting, and at the same time identifying, for the benefit of the armed band, the one man in the group who could be addressed in this way. One thing which is clear from his action is that the authorities had no intention of arresting Jesus' disciples. If they had, they would have needed no signal from Judas: it would have been sufficient to arrest the whole group and identify Jesus afterwards. Therefore we probably should not make too much of the fact that the disciples all deserted him and ran away (50). Physical resistance to the armed party was presumably both out of the question and also contrary to Jesus' wishes; John's gospel states that Jesus actually intended them to escape. Their desertion, in fact, may have been more in accord with Jesus' wishes than the preliminary scuffle. Indeed, Mark seems a little embarrassed by this incident when he says that it was caused by one of the party (47). The Greek word is vague (see the alternative translation in the footnote), as if the perpetrator might have been some casual onlooker. But in fact, apart from Jesus' disciples, there is unlikely to have been anyone there.
Then Jesus spoke (48). His words are recorded, with slight variations, in all the gospels, and show that he had no thought of resistance. 'Let the scriptures be fulfilled' (49) summarizes his attitude. With the scriptures, perhaps he had in mind those passages of the Old Testament which seemed to point to a Messiah who must suffer, or perhaps he was thinking of a particular prophecy like that which is given in Luke's version (22.37) "And he was counted among the outlaws" (Isaiah 53.12). Despite his resignation, he
allowed himself the irony of saying, 'day after day I was within your reach as I taught in the temple' (49)—words which present a critical problem, since according to Mark's narrative Jesus had spent at most three days teaching in the temple. This is another small hint that Mark's chronology of these last days may be artificial.
Mark alone mentions the young man with nothing on but a linen cloth (51). The Greek says simply "linen", and means that his only outer garment was made of linen—a sign that he was not poor. The detail is so vivid and unexpected that it has often been suggested that Mark put it in because the young man was none other than the writer of the gospel himself. But this is pure speculation.
Then they led Jesus away to the High Priest's house (53). There follows a hearing before the chief priests, elders, and doctors of the law. These were the people of influence in Jerusalem, and members of these three classes composed the supreme Jewish judicial Council (the Sanhedrin). There can be little doubt that Mark believed that it was before this Council, or a committee of it, that Jesus appeared. But compared with what we know of the usual procedure of the Council, the hearing has some unusual features. The Council's official meeting place was a building inside (or at least close to) the temple precincts, but on this occasion it met in the High Priest's house. Sittings were permitted only during the day, but this one took place in the middle of the night. Capital sentences required confirmation by a further sitting not less than twenty-four hours after the first, and no capital case could be heard on the eve of a Sabbath or feast day; but on this occasion the judges proceeded immediately to secure the carrying out of the sentence, the following day was a Sabbath, and the night of the hearing was the beginning of the Passover festival. However, it is only fair to say that almost all our information about the procedure of the Sanhedrin is unreliable, in the sense that it was first written down and codified over a century after Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Council, at any rate as a judicial authority with civil powers, had ceased to exist. These later Jewish sources provide us with a picture which may well be idealized and artificial. In the troubled period which preceded the Jewish revolt, it must often have been necessary to improvise and adapt; and the gospel accounts should not be suspected merely because they fail to conform with all the details of a procedure which was worked out theoretically some time later.
However, if the hour and the place are unusual, the hearing itself follows the usual pattern of Jewish legal proceedings. Witnesses were called; but the only way in which a charge could be sustained was by securing two witnesses who, when examined independently (and out of each other's hearing), gave identical evidence. This the chief priests and the whole Council failed to do (55): many gave false evidence against him , but their statements did not tally (56). One accusation is mentioned which, if substantiated, would have been very damaging. The temple was the holiest possession of the Jews, the central shrine of the national religion, the place where, above all, God was felt to be present among his people. The threat, "I will pull down this temple" (58), could presumably have been interpreted as blasphemy—and we read in John's gospel (2.19) that Jesus did in fact say something about building a new temple to replace the old (though we may be sure that he did not mean literally to destroy the existing temple).But even on this point their evidence did not agree (59). Apparently, on this point like the others, no two people could be found whose independent evidence was sufficiently consistent to form the basis of a charge.
In the absence of witnesses, the only course left to the Council was to try to get Jesus to incriminate himself. The High Priest's first attempt was simply to put Jesus on the defensive: 'Have you no answer to the charges that these witnesses bring against you?' (60) But, since no charge had been substantiated, Jesus had nothing to gain by replying. He kept silence. The first attempt was a failure.
Surprisingly, the second attempt was successful. Again the High Priest questioned him: 'Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?' (60) When Mark called Jesus 'Son of God' (as in the first sentence of his gospel) he intended the full range of meanings which, by the time he wrote, the church had come to associate with the title. But in the mouth of the High Priest the same title (the Blessed One stands for God: the Jews preferred to avoid using the divine name) clearly meant the same as Messiah, that is, the supernaturally endowed figure whom the Jewish people expected to institute a new age, and who would necessarily stand in the line of those great figures of the Old Testament who were called "Sons of God". Would Jesus admit to being that figure? So far, Jesus had always avoided making any public declaration of his Messiahship. At most he had given hints of it, and his understanding of the title was clearly very different from that of his contemporaries. But asked point blank, he now gave an unequivocal answer, 'I am'," (62)and, by means of two Old Testament allusions, proceeded to draw out one of the implications of his answer. In the course of Daniel's vision (7.13), these words occur: "I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven; he approached the Ancient of Years and was presented to him." The scene was the Last Judgement, and the meaning of the vision was that this Son of Man was then to be given a position of the highest honour and authority. Similarly, Psalm 110 was currently interpreted as a prophecy that One was to come who would have supremacy next only to God: "The Lord says ... sit at my right hand ". By means of these two allusions, Jesus accredited himself not merely with a unique mission and with unique power, but with a unique status in all creation.
'You have heard the blasphemy' (64). Exactly what constituted blasphemy is not defined in the Old Testament, and we do not know what definitions were in use in the time of Jesus. On the face of it, Jesus' words were not blasphemous in themselves, unless the claim they expressed was obviously false; and it may be that the fact that they were uttered by one who, far from being a person of glory and power, was actually a prisoner of the court, was sufficient for the judges to dismiss Jesus' claim out of hand. At any rate the 63 High Priest tore his robes ((63) the action which was required of anyone who heard words of blasphemy) and the rest of the court signified its agreement. Jesus had uttered blasphemy; and blasphemy, according to Jewish law (Leviticus 24.16) was punishable by death.
However, in a province governed by a Roman magistrate, it would have been unusual for a local court to have had the power to impose the death penalty. This power was normally kept firmly in the hands of the Roman governor. John's gospel explicitly informs us that the Sanhedrin refused to carry out the sentence for this reason (18.31), and although there is little independent evidence for Judaea at this period, there is no convincing reason for doubting what John says. The Jews could not execute Jesus themselves, and had to take the further measures which are described in the next chapter. Meanwhile they vented their feelings in a scene of mockery and insult. The gospels all offer slightly different accounts at this point, and it is difficult to be sure what really happened, but certain ideas seem always to be in the background. The main feature of the scene, in all three accounts, is the sarcastic command, 'Prophesy!' (65) If Jesus was truly the Messiah, then the easiest proof he could give would be to show that he possessed the "spirit" promised to the Messiah, a spirit which would surely manifest itself especially through the gift of prophecy—and the fact that Jesus did not, there and then, give a demonstration of prophecy may have confirmed his judges in their view that he was an impostor. In addition, there seems to have been an element of teasing cruelty in the blindfolding of Jesus. And a third point which doubtless influenced the narrative was a prophecy of Isaiah (50.6),
"I offered my back to the lash ...
I did not hide my face from spitting and insult"
—one of those passages about a "suffering servant" of the Lord which Christians very soon came to see as having been fulfilled in the destiny of Jesus.
Meanwhile Peter was still below in the courtyard (66). The High Priest's house must be imagined as a substantial building round a courtyard, with the principal rooms (of which one was large enough to hold the whole Council) on the first floor, the ground-floor rooms presumably accommodating servants and guards. Peter, we are told in verse 54, had penetrated right into this courtyard—John's gospel (18.16) provides the explanation that another of the disciples was well known there and was able to get him admitted. He was sitting among the attendants, warming himself at the fire (54). There it was light enough (either because of the fire, or because of torches) for him to be recognized by one of the High Priest's serving-maids (66), and after a stammering denial he retreated outside into the porch (68), that is to say, out of the courtyard, to the street side of the main door of the house where, despite the hour, there were some bystanders (69) who had perhaps been attracted by the news of the unusual sitting of the Council, but the serving-maid noticed him still lingering near the house, and passed on her suspicions to others in the throng. Finally, Peter was identified as a Galilean (70), perhaps by his accent (as Matthew reports), perhaps by his clothes. This was more incriminating than the maid's personal suspicion, and Peter became vehement: At this he broke out into curses (71). "May God destroy me if I know the man" is the kind of language the phrase suggests. Then the cock crew a second time (72). We cannot be sure whether Mark mentioned the first cock-crow: only some manuscripts give it (at the end of verse 68), and if Peter had heard it, why did he not notice it and realize what he was doing? At any rate, the cock crowing a second time brings the scene into harmony with Jesus' prediction (14.30); and Peter
burst into tears (if that is what the very difficult-Greek word means: "He rushed out and wept" would be another possible rendering, but in the present state of our knowledge the NEB translation is as likely to be correct as any).
As soon as morning came (1). The position at this point was that the Sanhedrin had found Jesus guilty on a capital charge, but not having the power to carry out the sentence they had either to let him off with a flogging or else bring the matter before the Roman governor in the hope that he would arrive at the same verdict and authorize the death penalty. The time for approaching a senior Roman official was the very early morning. The working day of a Roman gentleman began at dawn or even earlier; later in the morning he would have finished his official work and have been unavailable. Consequently the Council having made their plan—that is, having decided on an approach to the Roman governor and on the kind of case to put before him—lost no time after their night session but immediately put Jesus in chains ... led him away and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate was the governor of Judaea from A.D. 26 to 36. He had a bad record of tactless and provocative actions aimed at the Jews, but there is nothing in the following narrative to suggest that he acted irregularly. Under Roman law, his task, in a case of this kind, was simply to take note of the charges being brought, make sure that the accused was given opportunity to defend himself, decide what law, if any, the accused's conduct contravened, give his verdict, declare the sentence, and give orders for it to be carried out. Mark does not attempt to give a systematic account of this procedure; but the points which he records all fit into it well enough.
Pilate asked him, 'Are you the king of the Jews?' (2) From this question we can infer (what Luke, for instance, makes explicit) that the "plan" of the Jewish authorities consisted in bringing Jesus before Pilate on a political charge. A Roman governor, as we can guess from similar hearings in Acts, would not have felt willing or qualified to give a decision on a matter of Jewish law; and the only charge against Jesus which had so far been substantiated was that of blasphemy, the definition of which was entirely a matter for Jewish jurists. To justify their action in bringing Jesus before Pilate, it was necessary to present a different charge. Jesus had admitted to being the Messiah, and this could be represented as a claim to be the king of the Jews (which, taken literally, was of course an act of sedition). We must assume that the many charges they brought against him before Pilate's tribunal centred round this one accusation.
Now there was certainly a sense in which one who was the Messiah must also be "the king of the Jews". The Messiah was to be the successor of King David, and some kind of kingship was inseparable from his status. Therefore Jesus once again, when asked point blank, did not deny that there was truth 2 in the allegation (though his answer in the Greek is too ambiguous— perhaps intentionally so—for us to be able to say that he actually affirmed it). But it is clear from a later remark of Pilate—'Why, what harm has he done?' (14)—that this admission was not such as to make Jesus appear as a dangerous revolutionary: Pilate must have understood—and in the account in John's gospel Jesus explains this to him—that Jesus' aspirations to kingship were not primarily political, and he was presumably not convinced by the allegations of ambition, amounting to sedition, which the prosecutors were able to bring forward. Nevertheless, he did not omit the regular procedure of giving the accused an opportunity to make his defence. But, to Pilate's astonishment, Jesus made no further reply (5). This silence of Jesus, both here and in the earlier proceedings before the Council, is much insisted on in all the gospel accounts. It is true that, once again, since the prosecution had apparently failed to make out a case, Jesus had little to gain by trying to defend himself. But there is probably more to it than that. In the first place, his silence was a fulfilment of one of the "suffering servant" passages of Isaiah which the first Christians (and possibly Jesus himself) regarded as an important clue to the meaning of these events:
"He was afflicted, he submitted to be struck down
and did not open his mouth;
he was led like a sheep to the slaughter
like a ewe that is dumb before the shearers,
and he would not open his mouth." (Isaiah 53.7)
In the second place, his refusal to say a word in his own defence was so unusual and so unexpected that it doubtless stuck in the mind of anyone who witnessed it. It is not surprising that it is one of the best-attested facts of Jesus' trial.
The Governor used to release one prisoner (6). We have no other evidence of this custom in Judaea, but it is not inherently improbable. The custom provided Pilate with the possibility of an easy solution; if the people requested the release of Jesus, he would be relieved of the task of making a decision in the case. But there was another prisoner in custody (7) whom apparently the crowd knew well, and indeed Mark introduces him as if both the man and his past were well known to his readers. Barabbas is not a distinctive name—indeed rather the opposite if it represents Bar-Abbas, " Father's son"; and Mark does not trouble to tell us who the other rebels were and what the rising was they had taken part in (and we know nothing about this from any source outside the gospels). He seems to assume that the whole episode was well known, and it presumably had nothing to do with Jesus' trial that the crowd appeared (8)asking for the usual favour. This early-morning "office hour" of Pilate was the right time for the crowd to present their request, just as it was for the members of the Sanhedrin to bring to Pilate's notice the case of Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate evidently knew that Jesus was more popular with the people than with the Jewish authorities, and that he had been brought before him out of malice (10). Consequently, the fortuitous arrival of people who might be expected to support Jesus seemed to give him his opportunity: 'Do you wish me to release for you the king of the Jews?' (9)
However, under the influence of the chief priests, the people kept to their original purpose of asking for the release of Barabbas. It is not clear why Pilate then drew them into Jesus' case. Possibly he hoped that, if they showed themselves sympathetic to Jesus, they would provide him with further reasons for releasing a man who (he was now satisfied) was not a source of political danger; and this would give him the satisfaction of disappointing the Jewish leaders whom (as we know from other sources) he disliked and despised. But they shouted back, 'Crucify him!' (13) Again Mark gives no explanation. Up to now the crowd had been on Jesus' side. Why this sudden animosity against him? It may be simply that the presence of the chief priests was sufficient to make them change their mind (though we should not have guessed, otherwise, that the chief priests had so much influence with the populace). Alternatively, Pilate's question was understood—and perhaps intended—as a test of their loyalty. Here was a man who called himself " king of the Jews ". On the face of it, this meant that he was an insurrectionary. In the presence of the Roman governor, what would be the reaction of the crowd? To acclaim Jesus as king, and expose themselves to the same charge of attempted insurrection? Or to demand the appropriate punishment under Roman law for a public enemy? These were the alternatives. Understandably they chose the second: 'Crucify him!' Without more ado (for in such cases the Governor was not bound to any precise legal procedure) Pilate pronounced Jesus guilty and sentenced him to crucifixion, the penalty prescribed for action taken "against the Roman people". As usual, the sentence was to be carried out straight away; and it was normal for the condemned man first to be flogged (15), probably to weaken him so that he would die more quickly on the cross.
Then the soldiers took him inside the courtyard (16). When the Roman governor came up to Jerusalem from his capital (the port of Caesarea), he normally brought with him his own company of troops; the word used here was the technical Greek name for a Roman cohort, consisting of between two hundred and six hundred men. These he will have lodged in the building
he used as his headquarters (praetorium)
Then they took him out to crucify him (21). Crucifixion, though generally regarded as a cruel and barbarous form of execution, was a common enough sight in Palestine under the Roman administration, since it was the usual punishment for those who committed violence and insurrection. The two bandits ((27) the word was often used for members of armed resistance movements) who were crucified along with Jesus were typical victims of it, and the fact that Jesus received this penalty proclaimed, as clearly as the inscription placed on his cross, that the charge against him was political: he had claimed to be 'The king of the Jews'. Few details are given in the gospels about how it was carried out, but the traditional representation of the scene is probably roughly correct: the cross might be in the shape of a T or a †, the prisoner was fastened to it either with cords or with nails (John 20.25 proves that Jesus' hands and feet had scars from nails). A peg was driven into the upright of the cross to support the body either between the legs or under the feet. Elsewhere in the empire the victims were stripped naked; but in Judaea the Romans may have respected the Jewish abhorrence of nakedness and allowed a loincloth. All executions, whether Jewish or Roman, took place outside the city walls (they took him out (21) could mean out of the praetorium, or out of the city), but since crucifixions were intended to be a warning example, they usually took place not far from a city gate, so that many people would be compelled to see them on their way in or out of lhe city (John 19.20 confirms that the place was 'near to the city'). The traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion, where in the fourth century Constantine built his great church, is at a spot which, until new city walls were built some len years later, would have lain just outside one angle of the walls, a few hundred yards from one of the gates, in an area which had once been a quarry but which now held some tombs. A rocky mound jutted up from this area (and still exists inside the present church) which, by its shape, could have suggested the name 'Place of a skull' (22); of this name, Golgotha (more correctly Golgoltha) is the Aramaic equivalent, and Calvary (Calvarium) the traditional Latin translation. The identification of this spot with the site of Jesus' crucifixion is by no means certain, but recent archaeological research has made it seem increasingly probable. In any case, the few details which are given by the gospels are entirely consistent with what we know otherwise both about the ancient city of Jerusalem and about the customary procedure at executions in the Roman empire.
A man called Simon, from Cyrene (21). Mark seldom gives the name of the subsidiary characters in his story, but here he gives not only his name but his country of origin. There were substantial Jewish settlements in North Africa, and Simon may have been a Jew who either owned land in Palestine (and so could be on his way in from the country) or who had come up to Jerusalem for the festival.Mark reveals his reason for naming Simon when he adds that he was the father of Alexander and Rufus. These names mean nothing to us, but they must have been known to Mark's first readers. That is to say, the gospel must have been written for use in a community which counted among its members the children of one of the witnesses of the crucifixion. If Rufus could be shown to be the same Rufus as Paul mentions in his letter to the Romans, we could go further and locate this community at Rome; but the name is fairly common, and Simon's sons could just as well have belonged to the church in North Africa (which is another place where Mark's gospel is often thought to have been composed). They pressed him into service to carry his cross. Criminals on their way to execution were normally made to carry the cross-beam of their cross themselves (which is how John's gospel represents Jesus on the way to Golgotha), but Jesus may already have been too exhausted to carry it the whole way—indeed the Greek word translated they brought him (22) is a rather physical one, and suggests that Jesus was dragged or helped along rather than simply led under escort.
Two more details are given which again correspond with normal practice. He was offered drugged wine (23). This was an anaesthetic, and was normally given to Jews before execution; indeed, in view of Proverbs 31.6 ("Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress"), it was thought meritorious to do so, if not actually obligatory, and it was doubtless Jews—and very likely Jewish women—who offered the anaesthetic to Jesus. On the other hand, those who divided his clothes among them were the soldiers of the execution squad, who had a customary right to them. That they should have cast lots to decide what each should have sounds perfectly natural; but Mark's language shows that he had in mind a precedent. The author of Psalm 22, writing out of a situation very similar to that of Jesus—that of an innocent man brought to the last degree of suffering and humiliation by his enemies—included the same detail in his description of his own abject circumstances (verse 18):
"They share out my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothes."
The hour of the crucifixion was nine in the morning (25). This translation is correct, but suggests greater precision than perhaps Mark intended. The day was divided into twelve hours between sunrise and sunset (and in a country such as Palestine where the length of the days does not vary more than two or three hours between mid-summer and mid-winter this worked well enough). Ordinary citizens did not use a water-clock or hour-glass to tell which "hour" it was; they looked at the sun, and observed when it was noon (the "sixth hour"), when it was mid-morning (the "third hour"), and when mid-afternoon (the "ninth hour")—and these are the three hours which are in fact most frequently mentioned in the New Testament. The last two were of course approximations: one cannot have more than a rough idea when the sun has got half-way between sunrise and noon, or noon and sunset. Here, Mark says it was "the third hour". If anyone was taking the trouble to find out the correct time by a clock, then this would certainly be equivalent to nine in the morning. But there is no reason to think that Mark intended such accuracy. He meant that Jesus was crucified in the middle of the morning, and died in the middle of the afternoon (verse 33). That is to say, Mark spread the main events of Good Friday evenly over the day. John follows a slightly different scheme, and places the crucifixion at midday.
The passers-by hurled abuse at him (29). Classic descriptions of mockery can be found in the Old Testament. Sometimes it was Jerusalem in ruins which was the object of scorn—"All those who pass by ... hiss and wag their heads at you" (Lamentations 2.15); sometimes it was a stricken man who had claimed to be pious and good—"All who see me jeer at me, make mouths at me, and wag their heads" (Psalm 22.7); "I have become the victim of their taunts; when they see me, they toss their heads" (Psalm 109.25). Mark uses the conventional vocabulary, but for the content of the taunts he has drawn on earlier scenes from his own narrative—the saying on the temple (14.58), Jesus' "saving" (i.e. healing) of the sick, his assertion that he was the Messiah (14.62). Jesus was subjected in full measure to the insults received by the righteous sufferers of Old Testament poetry.
At midday a darkness fell over the whole land (33). An eclipse of the sun would have been impossible at full moon, but a dust-storm could have made the day unusually dark if indeed it was a natural phenomenon that Mark meant to describe; but the notion that the sun is "darkened" at a great king's death was so common in antiquity, and the expectation that the heavenly bodies would leave their regular courses at a moment of universal crisis, occurred so often in Jewish imaginative writing that we cannot be sure whether Mark was intending to give a literal description of the weather, or a symbolic clue to the unique significance of Jesus' death. The cry, 'Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani', represents a quotation from the first line of Psalm 22. The last two words are in Aramaic—and Mark preserves other sayings of Jesus in his own language. Eli is more difficult: it certainly means 'My God', but it sounds more like the original Hebrew of the psalm than its Aramaic equivalent (which would be Elahi, when the a might have a sound rather like the "a" in "law", and so be transliterated Eloi).On the other hand, this Hebrew form of the word for God is likely to have come quite naturally even to Aramaic-speakers who (unlike Jesus) knew no Hebrew; and if Jesus' cry was mistaken for Elijah (eliyya), then it is clear that the one sound that was clearly heard by everyone from his lips was eli. Elijah was a figure as much of popular folk-lore as of serious religion. Having been "caught up to heaven" instead of undergoing death, it was widely believed that he was still alive and capable of supernatural interventions in human affairs. A common criminal might well have been thought to be calling Elijah (35). But a disciple with sharper ears, or a more inspired imagination, explained the cry in a different way. Jesus was entering into the depths of the desolating experience undergone by many righteous sufferers in the Old Testament. Their predicament was a result of the religious presuppositions of their time, (i) God was just, and therefore bound to reward those who served him in perfect uprightness, (ii) This reward must take some visible form, such as health, prosperity and honour: the absence of these could be interpreted by others only as a sign that God was punishing the sufferer for some misdeed, (iii) The reward must be given in this life; after death it would be too late. If a man was convinced of his own innocence before God, and yet found himself in extreme misfortune; if, in addition, he fell ill and knew himself to be in danger of death—then, on these presuppositions, his predicament became agonizing. Everyone around him was drawing the obvious conclusion that he must have somehow deserved his fate. He knew this to be false, but unless God acted soon, his faith in himself, and even in the God whom he served, would be unable to bear the strain, and his mockers and persecutors would have the last word—and there was not much time left: something must happen very soon! This predicament of the righteous sufferer was in fact the classic way in which the problem of evil presented itself to a reflective Jew of the Old Testament period, and it finds one of its most eloquent and agonized expressions in the twenty-second psalm, which describes a whole range of emotions, from near-despair to a triumphant confidence that, despite everything, God would yet bring good out of the present evil. It was the conviction of some witness of the crucifixion that when Jesus uttered the cry 'Eli' he was experiencing the deepest strain of what we would now call the problem of evil, and confronting it with the spirituality he had inherited from the religious tradition of his own people. He was praying, in his own language, the prayer of the psalmist, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' (34).
A man ran and soaked a sponge (36). This seems to have been another effect of Jesus' cry. The sour wine was probably the cheap drink which soldiers and labourers carried about with them, and it was presumably a soldier who offered it. We cannot be sure what his motive was. The soldiers employed by the Romans in Palestine, though they were not Jews, were probably recruited locally. There would therefore be nothing surprising in this one sharing the popular belief about Elijah and, seeing that Jesus was about to die, endeavouring to prolong his life with a drink in order to see 'if Elijah will come to take him down'. Alternatively, he may have simply interpreted Jesus' cry as one of physical agony, and had an impulse of pity. There is no reason to doubt that the episode took place; at the same time, when recording it Mark certainly had in mind a verse from another of the "righteous sufferer" psalms (69.20-1):
"I looked for consolation and received none,
for comfort and did not find any.
They put poison in my food
and gave me vinegar when I was thirsty."
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and died. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (37, 38). The rending of the curtain, like the three hours of darkness, seems to add a touch of the supernatural to what is otherwise a sober and factual account. Admittedly a natural explanation is possible. If the darkness was caused by the hamsin wind, which frequently blows in from the desert during April and can bring with it such clouds of dust that there is even a kind of 'darkness over the whole land', I hen a gust of the same wind (which sometimes reaches gale force) could have split the heavy curtain which was hung over the main eastern porch of the temple.That is to say, it is possible that someone familiar with Palestine would have seen nothing extraordinary about these two events. On the other hand, Mark was not writing for Palestinians, and he nowhere mentions the wind, so that no one who did not know the country could possibly have understood how these things were supposed to have happened. Moreover, we know from the Letter to the Hebrews (10.19-20) that the curtain of the temple had symbolic value for Christians: that which separated the Jewish sanctuary (that is, the special dwelling-place of God) from the eyes of all non-Jews was now destroyed by the death of Jesus, who had opened up a direct way to the presence of God for Jews and Gentiles alike. This was certainly one of the ways in which the significance of Jesus' death was very soon understood. It is more foreign to the western mentality than to the eastern to confuse fact with symbol, and it seems to us difficult to take two apparently factual statements ("Jesus died" and "the curtain was torn") in two quite different ways, as if one was prose and the other poetry. But when Jewish tradition reported, for instance, that at the death of a certain famous rabbi "the stars became visible in broad daylight", the statement was meant neither to deceive the credulous nor to be dismissed as a scientific impossibility. It was the author's way of describing the significance of the life and death of the rabbi. So with Mark: he gives, in the guise of a bare fact, a hint of the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross.
The centurion who was standing opposite (39) was the officer in charge of the execution squad. Again, he was certainly not a Jew, but he may still have been a Palestinian. The manner of Jesus' death elicited from him the comment, 'Truly this man was a son of God.' "A son of God" has a very different sound (in English) from the phrase with which Mark describes Jesus in the very first sentence of his gospel,' The Son of God'. In the mouth of the ordinary Greek-speaking citizen of the empire, "son of God" was a way of describing any man (particularly a ruler) who seemed endowed with supernatural powers or blessed with exceptional marks of the divine favour; and the way in which Jesus met his death may have brought this expression to the mind of the centurion. Nevertheless, although the English translation quite legitimately makes the centurion say "a son of God" and not "the Son of God", the Greek words so translated are exactly the same as those with which Mark prefaces his gospel.The saying thus takes on a stronger meaning. That Jesus was the Son of God had become a central article of faith in the church when Mark's gospel was written; but the fact was recognized immediately after his death—by a Gentile.
A number of women were also present (40). Mary of Magdala (Magdala being an identifiable site on the north-west shore of the Lake of Galilee) is known to us from Luke 8.2; nothing is known of the other two women named, but it is interesting that Mark identifies them for his readers by connecting
them with two other names which were presumably familiar in the Church where his gospel was read. James the younger could be James the son of Alphaeus (5.18)—distinguished perhaps by his age from James the son of Zebedee—but there is no proof. Salome appears to be identified by Matthew (27.56) as 'the mother of the sons of Zebedee'.
Preparation-day (42) could equally well be translated Friday, the day before the Sabbath. As soon as darkness fell, it would no longer be permitted to do any kind of work, and in strict Jewish eyes the land would be "defiled" (Deuteronomy 21.23) if the body of a Jew was allowed to remain in the place of execution unburied until the next day. A pious and public-spirited Jew (for whom a man who looked forward to the kingdom of God (43) would be a perfectly appropriate description: the phrase itself certainly does not suggest that he was a clandestine Christian,even though Matthew assumes that he was) might understandably be anxious that consciences should not be scandalized by the sight of Jesus' dead body so close to the city. Moreover, the Jews attached great importance to burial: it was esteemed a work of great charity to perform the last duties for a man whose own relatives were not present to do it. Joseph of Arimathaea (which was probably, though not certainly, a town about twenty miles north of Jerusalem) therefore bravely went in to Pilate and asked for the body. We do not know how far, if at all, the Roman administration was in the habit of accommodating Jewish scruples in such a matter. The usual Roman practice was to leave the dead bodies exposed, and refuse them proper burial. Moreover, victims of crucifixion often took two or three days to die, and indeed Pilate was surprised to hear that Jesus was already dead (44), and made certain of the fact before taking any action. However, Joseph's request was granted, and Mark gives a reason why: he was a respected member of the Council (43). A less influential person (say, a relative of Jesus) might have had no success.
So Joseph bought a linen sheet (46). The Jews did not bury in coffins, but wrapped the corpse firmly and laid it in one of the numerous rock tombs to be found outside any town in Palestine. Usually the tombs were family tombs, a large chamber in the rock having a number of small cavities carved out of it; and the entrance would often be sealed by a massive stone (in more pretentious tombs shaped like a mill-stone and rolling into place along a groove in the rock) that was rolled against the entrance. Jesus could not be buried in a family tomb: according to Jewish law, the bones of a criminal defiled those of others; and it was presumably too late in the day to convey him right away from the city to one of the common tombs reserved for criminals. So Joseph gave him a rapid burial in a tomb that happened to be empty near by.
That Jesus rose from the dead on "the third day" (that is to say, by the inclusive reckoning generally used in the ancient world, on the Sunday following the Friday on which he was put to death) was the central point in all the preaching of the early church; and we can tell from the sermons and the summaries of the Christian faith which are recorded in the New Testament (especially 1 Corinthians 15.3-6) that they based this startling assertion on the evidence of those who had actually seen the risen Christ, either on that first Sunday, or on one of the days which followed. This was the evidence on which the first Christians rested their faith: after his crucifixion and his burial, Jesus was seen by a number of reliable witnesses under circumstances which made them say, not that they had seen a ghost, or that Jesus had "come back" from the dead, or even that his death had been an illusion, but that he had now entered upon a new and glorious mode of existence of which they had had visible and tangible evidence, and which, using contemporary religious language, they described in terms of Jesus having "risen from the dead". Now it is true that, to the Jew, "resurrection" meant the calling back to life of a person complete with his mortal body—transformed, no doubt, and adapted to a supernatural existence, but still recognizably his own. It followed that, if Jesus had indeed "risen from the dead", his body must already have undergone this transformation, and that his tomb would be empty. But the absence of Jesus' body from the tomb was apparently never regarded as the main evidence for the resurrection—it was, after all, capable of other explanations: the body might have been removed, or stolen. The whole weight of the Christians' case was placed upon the testimony of those who had actually seen that Jesus was alive, "risen from the dead"; and this short paragraph in Mark's gospel is the earliest reference in Christian literature to the fact that, on Sunday morning, the tomb was found to be empty.
Why was this fact not immediately seized upon and proclaimed? The gospel writers seem to have been conscious of this question, and to have suggested different answers. Mark says that the women kept it a secret: they said nothing to anybody, for they were afraid (8). Luke says that, on the contrary, they told the disciples, but were not believed (Luke 24.11). Matthew says that the authorities tried to cover up the fact by spreading the story that the body had been stolen (Matthew 28.11-15). And a further reason can be suggested: the first Christians rested their case on the evidence of witnesses, and in a Jewish court women were not permitted to give evidence. The report brought back from the tomb by the three women would have been of little use to them as a formal proof of Jesus' resurrection.
Moreover, Mark's narrative contains some peculiar details. First: it was probably a regular custom to anoint a corpse as part of the preparation for burial (1), and this was doubtless omitted by Joseph of Arimathaea, who had no time to give Jesus more than a hasty burial. But thirty-six hours had passed since Jesus' death. It was too late to do it. now. Secondly: the time of their arrival is a little obscure. Very early on the Sunday morning (2) ought to mean before sunrise (the Sabbath was over at sunset the previous evening (1)), and just after sunrise (2) appears to be a somewhat clumsy correction, Thirdly: since they knew that the tomb was closed by a heavy stone, their whole enterprise sounds curiously unrealistic. On the other hand, the scene which Mark goes on to describe can easily be imagined taking place in a typical Jewish tomb. Once the stone ... had been rolled back (4) along the vertical face of the rock, an aperture would have been revealed. Through this, the women went into the tomb(5)—a large rock chamber, with small tunnels s opening out of it for individual burials. They would not have known which of these openings was used for Jesus' burial; but the angel (conventionally described as a youth ..., wearing a white robe (6)) pointed it out to them: 'Look, there is the place where they laid him'. The angel then repeated Jesus' prediction about Galilee (see above on 14.28), and the scene ends with the understandable terror of the women.
For they were afraid (8). These words, according to a number of important manuscripts, are the last words of the gospel.
It is certain that the following paragraphs, which occur in some manuscripts, are not by the same author. Even in English, the phrase, the sacred and imperishable message of eternal salvation (8) is recognizably un-Marcan: it belongs to the theological language of the later church, and is quite unlike the idiom of Mark's sober narrative; and the longer ending (verses 9-20) is mainly a summary of episodes that are reported in other places, and betrays in its details the hand of a later editor.
Did Mark intend to end his gospel on this note of fear and uncertainty, or has the original ending of his book been accidentally lost? On this question opinion is still divided, and there is no evidence to support a decision. One point can be made: we know how books normally ended in the ancient world, and if Mark meant to finish his work with the words, for they were afraid, he was doing something very unusual. But then this would not be the only respect in which his gospel is a very remarkable book.