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The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels by William Hamilton


William Hamilton is Associate Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and a Baptist minister. Before joining the Colgate Rochester faculty, he was Dean of Chapel, Hamilton College. The Modern Reader’s Guide to the Gospels was published by the Association Press in 1960. It was copyrighted by National Board Of Young Men’s Christian Association in 1959. He is the author also of The Christian Man. This material prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 6: The Passion and Resurrection Narratives


This final section is the most coherent and flowing in the whole of Mark's gospel, and this material was probably the first to be committed to writing. Only by such a detailed narrative could the pressing questions be answered: How did Jesus die, and why?

1. events leading up to the arrest, 14:1-52

a. The plot, 14:1-2

It is now Wednesday of holy week, and the priests and scribes decide to take Jesus at once, and privately, in view of the crowds gathering for the passover celebration. Jesus had many sympathizers, and a public arrest might cause an uprising.

 b. The anointing at Bethany, 14:3-9

This strange story has two difficulties. First, what is the meaning of "For you always have the poor with you" in verse 7? This verse, taken out of context, has been put to irresponsible use in the history of Christianity, as if it were a divine sanction on poverty and a discouragement to all attempts to fight against it. The saying here must be understood as part of Jesus' commendation of the uniqueness of the woman's act. You are always commissioned to serve the poor, Jesus is Saying. But this woman's act expresses a unique insight into my ministry and God's purpose, and therefore it is a worthy and beautiful thing. Second, what was there in the act that merited such praise from Jesus? Two things, the jar was broken, and Jesus was anointed. The word "Messiah" means "anointed one," and so the woman is confessing Jesus as the Messiah or Christ. But the breaking of the jar suggests that she knows the deeper meaning of his messiahship, that suffering and death await him. The disciples had not yet come up to this level.

c. Judas' betrayal, 14:10-ti

What did Judas betray and why? These two questions have been the subject of endless debate. Perhaps he told the priests of Jesus' messianic claims; more likely (as is hinted here) he told them where and how they could find Jesus so that he could be arrested without a public commotion. (See John 11:57.)

But why? Whether he did it for the money, or to force Jesus into a situation where he could display his divine power and so bring in the kingdom by force, or out of personal disappointment at the apparent failure of the mission, or because he was evil from the beginning (but then why did Jesus call him in the first place?) -- we simply do not know. (See John 13:2.)

d. Preparing for the Passover, 14:12-16

It is now the next day, Thursday, and the disciples ask about preparations for the Passover meal that evening. Jesus' answer indicates that he has already made arrangements with some friend in the city, and he directs two of the disciples to the place.

e. The betrayal predicted, 14:17-21

Jesus has discerned the character of Judas, and announces the betrayal without pointing him out. Verse 21 indicates the divine necessity of the death, but also serves as a solemn warning to Judas.

f. The last supper, 14:22-25

In I Corinthians 11:23-26, we have an independent account of this incident which is remarkably similar. Only Paul mentions the commandment to repeat the rite, though (since Paul's letter is some years earlier than Mark's gospel) by Mark's time it has doubtless become so customary that it didn't need to be mentioned. The words over the bread and the wine differ slightly.

In reading this, recall three facts. (1) Jesus had compared the kingdom of God to a banquet (Luke 14:15-24), and this meal can be seen as a foretaste or a rehearsal of the full messianic banquet in heaven at the end of time (verse 25 here hints at this, too). (2) The Passover, which Mark relates to this supper (the trial and death take place on Passover in Mark, though not in John), commemorated the election by God of Israel as his special people, but Jesus had already made clear that the Jews were forfeiting this status in rejecting the Messiah. A new people is being formed; a new covenant, a new election, is being offered by God. (3) Jesus had already spoken of giving his life for "many" (Mark 10:45), and had described his suffering as a "cup" (Mark 10:38, and see also 14:36).

So this rite portrays the new life of the kingdom of God, pointing forward to the death and resurrection. He is doing here symbolically what he was to do the next day in fact. Standing before them, breaking the bread, he says, "This means my body." Pouring and distributing the wine, he says, "This means my life (the blood is the source of life in Hebrew thought), given to you."

The actions of breaking and pouring, therefore, are just as important as the words Jesus speaks. And when Christians, in many different ways, gather together to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion, Eucharist, or Mass, the words and gestures together form the total meaning. We, like the disciples in the upper room, need something more than mere words about God and Christ. We need gestures to see; tangible things, like bread and wine, to touch and taste. This is one of the meanings of the Christian sacraments.

g. Prediction of Peter's denial, 14:26-31

About the traditional passover hymn (part of Psalms 115-118), the group leaves the upper room and goes out to the evening Jesus has been reflecting on the effect his death will have on disciples, and he tells them they will all flee away. He is shortly proved correct. Verse 28 indicates that only after the resurrection will they be reassembled. Impetuous Peter protests his loyalty, and denial is predicted. (As an example of the kind of interesting you can discover if you turn to the commentaries, note that "cock crow" is the name of the Roman trumpet call announcing beginning of the fourth watch at 3:00 A.M.)

h. Gethsemane, 14:32-42

This scene needs little comment. Even at this late hour, Jesus asks that his time of suffering ("the hour") might pass by, that he not have to drink the cup of suffering, death, and even judgment (15:34 suggests something of what this "cup" really involves). After this bold request (there is no premature acquiescence in Jesus' prayer), he submits his will to God's. And the disciples sleep through it all.

1. Arrest, 14:43-52

The priests, along with a hired gang led by Judas, appear. Judas identifies his master with the traditional kiss of the pupil for his teacher.

The little picture in verses 51-52 is odd. Some have thought that Mark is describing himself here; some consider that it is a detail suggested by Amos 2:16; others simply say it is a genuine, if irrelevant historical detail -- genuine, for there seems to be mo reason why the early church would have made it up.

2. The trial, crucifixion, and burial, 14:53-15:47

a. The trial before the high priests, 16:53-65

The trial of Jesus is in two parts: the ecclesiastical trial before Caiaphas and the civil trial before Pilate.

It is midnight now, and a group is hastily assembled to hear the evidence. Witnesses can't seem to agree-not even on the supposed prediction of the destruction of the temple. Jesus answers the high priest, declaring himself to be the Messiah and Son of God. The quotation from Daniel 7:13 in verse 62 is not a statement about the second coming, but about Jesus' ascension to God with power.

Verse 63 presents the priest responding in the prescribed way to an act of blasphemy. The charge is blasphemy, but the Jewish courts probably do not have the power of capital punishment (see John 18:31).

b. Peter's denial, 14:66-72

The vivid details here suggest that this story is a reminiscence of Peter. He moves from the courtyard to the front porch of the high priest's palace to avoid the girl's questions, but she talks to some of the bystanders who apparently recognize Peter's Galilean accent.

c. The ecclesiastical trial is ratified, 15:1

Meetings of the Sanhedrin after sunset being unofficial (14:53-65), they assemble again in the morning (Friday) to confirm the charge of blasphemy. Since they apparently cannot put him to death, they take Jesus off to Pilate, hoping to establish a charge of treason from his claim to be king of the Jews, and so to convince the governor that he is dangerous to law and order.

 d. tTe civil trial before Pilate, 15:2-15

Pilate's first question indicates that the priests have been stressing the political aspects of Jesus' guilt. The answer in verse 2 is probably a "yes," but with the implication: "That is not my way of putting it, for I have no political or nationalistic pretensions." In any case, Pilate remains unconvinced by Jewish charges (verses 5,10). Perhaps he was inclined at first to release Jesus, and certainly he considered him harmless. But the priests have brought a mob of supporters into the courtyard, and they are pressing for the release of Barabbas and the conviction of Jesus. Pilate is reluctant, but he is unwilling to risk a disturbance and is anxious for his popular reputation, so he finally gives in.

The relative guilt of Roman and Jew in all this has been much discussed. Certainly Mark lays the blame pretty heavily on the Jews, and is almost sympathetic to the weak and vacillating Pilate. And the other gospels give even more sympathetic accounts of the Roman judge. Perhaps Mark is interested in suggesting to whatever Roman officials who might read his gospel that the Roman power was relatively guiltless in the affair. But doubtless both groups, along with the crowd itself, are equally implicated.

e. The soldiers mock Jesus, 15:16-20

The soldiers' barracks were in Herod's palace, and here they bring Jesus.

f. Crucifixion and death, 15:21-41

In Roman crucifixion, which was the penalty for slaves, the victim was compelled to carry the crossbar to the site. Then, his outstretched arms were tied or nailed to the crossbar, the crossbar attached to the upright, the feet fixed to the upright, and the cross then set in the ground and raised aloft. Death ordinarily was slow, taking as long as two or three days, and was usually caused by exposure.

Golgotha was apparently a skull-shaped hill outside the city, but its location cannot be identified today. Simon is chosen from the crowd to carry the piece when Jesus falters. The mention of Simon's sons suggests that they were known to Mark and to the church at Rome (see Romans 16:13).

Jesus refuses the drug, wishing to die with an unclouded mind (and remember 14:25). His clothing becomes the property of the executioners, and the soldiers throw dice for it (see Psalm 22: 18). He is crucified -- that is, nailed to the cross -- at 9:00 A.M. The superscription, giving the offense, was on a chalked board over his head. The charge as written shows that Jesus was officially executed by the Romans, and on the charge of claiming to be king -- of course a distortion of the true messiahship as Mark and Jesus himself understood it.

As he hung there, some of the crowd, the chief priests, and even the robbers on either side joined in the general mockery. Of course, the Jewish taunt is true: he did save others, and he did not save himself, for his whole conception of the suffering Messiah meant that in order for others to be saved, he must not consider his own fate.

From noon until 3:00 P.M., it grew dark. This may be a symbolic touch, related to the portents often associated in the ancient world with the death of heroes (see Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 3), or it may refer to an actual dust storm to which Mark gives a deeper significance. At 3:00 P.M., the terrible cry from Psalm 22:1 is uttered. Mark gives the Aramaic version, and translates it for his readers. This cry presents a problem too deep to be fully understood, but we can begin to grasp it if we find here a genuine, if temporary, feeling of desolation and separation from God. For Christians it is a pointer to the reality and the cost of Jesus' bearing the sin of the world, and even to the cost to God of his gift of salvation. The onlookers misunderstood, and think Jesus is calling for Elijah. At 3:00 P.M., after a cry of victory, he dies.

The curtain of the temple is torn (verse 38)-either a symbol of the destruction of Jewish religion and the temple itself, or of the breakdown of the barriers between the presence of God and men. The curtain mentioned served in the temple to shut off the Holy of Holies (where God was supposed to be specially present) from the sight of the congregation. Only the priest could ever enter the place. This curtain is torn at the moment of death.

The centurion heard the final cry of victory, and is impressed by the manner of Jesus death. His remark, though not a full Christian confession, is at least a mark of admiration. Verses 40-41 serve as a transition to the burial and resurrection stories, and also they may suggest Mark's sources for the crucifixion story itself.

g. Burial, 15:42-47

It was against Jewish law to leave bodies hanging overnight, and especially on a Sabbath. (It was now perhaps 4:00 P.M., just a few hours before sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath and Passover.) Joseph, a member of the Sanhedrin (probably in Arimathea, not the Jerusalem group that tried Jesus), asks Pilate for the body.

The close of the story seems to be unrelieved tragedy. No disciple is present; only a few sympathetic women look on from a distance; the last acts of piety are performed by a respectable Jew who probably never knew Jesus.

3. The resurrection, 16:1-8

Saturday at sunset, when the Sabbath is officially over, the women collect spices to anoint the body in the tomb. (Matthew and John say that the women merely go to see the body; Mark and Luke, that they go to anoint it.) Early the following morning they go to the tomb. They find the large stone rolled away and a young man (explicitly called an angel in Matthew 28:2-5, but only indirectly here) tells them that Jesus has risen from the grave. They hear that he is to appear in Galilee; and they rush out of the tomb in astonishment and fear. Mark makes no attempt to say how the stone was moved; doubtless he thought it was the work of God or of the risen Christ.

With the words in verse 8, "for they were afraid," the true text of Mark comes to an end. The Revised Standard Version includes, in the footnotes, both a longer ending (which appears in the King James version as part of the text) and a shorter ending which appears in some manuscripts. But it is agreed that neither of these endings is Mark's. Some feel that the ending (with verse 8) as it stands is what Mark intended, that it is effective and dramatic; some feel that the original ending has been lost, either because Mark was interrupted in his composition (the persecutions?) or because the manuscript became torn off at the end.

When one compares the five different accounts we have of the resurrection (this, Matthew 28:1-10, Luke 24:1-11, John 20:1-10, and I Corinthians 15:3-7) there are a number of details that are impossible to harmonize. Mark may have allowed himself some imaginative freedom in depicting the scene-the story of the young man, for instance. What can hardly be called legendary or imaginative, however, is the double fact that the tomb was empty and that Jesus appeared to his followers after his death.

How can we interpret the fact of the empty tomb? If we say that the Jews or Romans stole the body, it would have been simple for them to put a stop to the preaching of the resurrection simply by producing it, but this they did not do. If we say that the disciples stole and hid the body, we have a picture of the whole origin of the Christian movement based on a piece of crude deception. Even Jewish commentators on this material find this hypothesis incredible.

Our remaining alternative is to say that God in fact did raise Jesus from the dead, changing his "physical body" into a "spiritual body," and in this latter form he appeared to his followers.

The transformation of the dispirited and cowardly disciples into forthright evangelists, the very existence of the church and the New Testament -- these facts receive an adequate explanation only when we go beyond the general statement, "Jesus conquered death," to the explicit and factual remark that God raised Jesus Christ from :he dead. This is scarcely an easy statement for any of us to make, for we are all modern men. And yet -- though there is room for openness and even agnosticism on some of the details of the resurrection narrative -- it seems certain that no qualification can be accepted of the actual, historical fact of the resurrection as a decisive and mighty act of God for man's salvation and eternal life.

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