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The passion of Christ. Mark's narrative.
Jesus Christ Prince of peace
In 1896 Martin Kahler asserted that ‘one could call the gospels passion narratives with extended introductions.’ Theologians maintain this is especially true of Mark’s Gospel. Mark's 'extended introduction' prepares the reader for the ‘passion’ through explaining the events leading to it , including the revelation of Jesus' person. Thus, if the narrative is of passion- the suffering and rejection that culminates in the crucifixion of God’s only Son, then the introduction serves to explain what made this happen.
Mark begins his narrative by referring to Jesus as the 'Christ, the Son of God.’(1:1).Immediately we are confronted by the prophet Isaiah introducing John the Baptist, who of course signals Christ. As we acknowledge the writers portrayal of His deity through Isaiah (1:2-3), and John (1:7-8), and even God Himself (1:11: “You are my Son, whom I love...”),Van oyen and Shepherd maintain this parallels Abraham’s words to his son, the intended sacrifice , “Take your son...whom you love”(Gen 22:2), and God words to His Son. This, perhaps the first passion warning, immediately ties in a sacrificial element.
The next passion warning comes as Jesus is driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit following His baptism (1:12). The ‘wilderness’ is characterised by difficult survival conditions and dangerous ‘wild beasts’. This suffering although provoked by Heavenly agents is at the hands of the Devil and the ‘wild beasts’ according to Metcalfe, are Demonic entities.
Next, John the Baptist, Jesus' forerunner is imprisoned following his ministry (1:14). This foreshadows Jesus’ destiny as he is arrested and turned over to the high priests and Pharisees. As we are informed of John's arrest we are also introduced to Jesus prime proclamation that the “Kingdom of God is near; repent and believe the good news!”, (1:15). This reflects Johns prior “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”, (1:4). Knowing that John is Jesus' forerunner, we can speculate that were John goes, so Jesus will too. John's proclamation is unwelcomed by the authorities so he is arrested and killed (6:14- 29). Jesus, now proclaim a similar message of repentance. Thus, according to Dowd, arrest and execution is the likely outcome for Him too. So in chapter one we can already see the passion story begin to unfold.
Mark soon introduces other key elements in the passion theme. Jesus faces opposition from religious officials (1:22, 2:6-8, 16-17), demonic recognition of Christ, (1:24), miss-comprehension of Jesus identity by His own disciples, (1:36-37), and His commands to silence regarding His healing (1:34, 43-44). But, as Dowd and Malbon assert, the next great warning of the passion comes as Jesus explains why His disciples are not fasting by using the bridegroom analogy, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them?” He responds to his own question by warning that, “...the bridegroom will be taken from them...that day they will fast.” (2:19-20). Jesus clearly predicts His own death here as He is obviously the metaphorical bridegroom.
In chapter 3 Mark introduces more explicitly the approaching suffering and death of Jesus in stating that Judas, a disciple 'betrayed him', (3:19) using past- tense. The reader cannot doubt at this point that Jesus will undergo suffering.
In chapters 4-8, Mark intertwines the themes of Jesus teaching his disciples about their mission and the execution of John following his mission and thus forms connections between (1) ministry (and healing), (2) being rejected and arrested, and (3) being executed. Mark shows us that the disciples are in stage one- learning to minister, whereas John has reached stage three- killed as consequence of stage one. Jesus Himself is in stage two- rejection. Here Mark strongly points towards Jesus' death.
So by chapter 8 Mark has shown Jesus power in His healing and exorcisms, and the opposition to His ministry. However, another theme has been running through the narrative. The secret of Jesus' identity- the 'messianic secret'. This refers to how Jesus did not assert His messiahship nor allow others to during the initial half of Mark's gospel. This long and gradual revelation of Jesus' identity is referred to as the extended introduction. Cole has reasoned that the Messianic secret was a deliberate strategic move on Jesus’ behalf as it was his desire for the disciples to witness his words and actions till they saw with unavoidable clarity who he was. He explains the secret thus: the Jewish people had anticipated a conquering Messiah who would lead Israel to victory. An awareness then of Jesus’ Mesiahship would only lead to nationalistic uprisings and false expectations of Jesus mission. He knew that his Messiahship actually characterised by suffering and sacrifice.
This secret arises very quickly in Mark's narrative as Jesus drives an evil spirit out of a man. The spirit acknowledges Him as “the Holy one of God!”, (1:24) and Jesus commands him to silence, “be quiet!”, (1:25). He went on to exorcise many more demons but would not let them proclaim His identity (Mark 1:34). Also in 3:11 it states that demoniacs continuously hailed Him ‘Son of God’ and Jesus continuously replied with orders to silence. Jesus also commanded silence of those He healed. He strongly warned the lepers, “don’t tell this to anyone...”’ (Mark 1:43-4), Jairus's daughter (5:43) and the deaf and mute man (7:36).
The Markan Jesus also explores secrecy through parables (4:1-8, 26-29 and 30-32), as opposed to explicitly teaching of the Kingdom of heaven. This relates to His intentions in these teachings as according to Cole, words such as King, Kingdom and Messiah were politically explosive at that time- they would have distorted and undermined Jesus' mission. Jesus also refers to Himself as the 'Son of man' (first in 2:10) which also makes His identity uncertain to those around Him. He also states He can forgive sins. This added to the sacrificial element of passion hints at His mission.
We have so far looked at how Mark's gospel is constructed as a passion narrative and we have also analysed it's extended introduction. At 8:29 Mark ends this extended introduction as Peter answers Jesus question, “Who do you say I am?”, with “You are the Christ”. Jesus identity as Messiah is no longer implicit but explicit, if only to the disciples This is in stark contrast to Jesus' response of the attribution of Messiah to Him from the first half of Mark. From here onwards, Jesus teaches the disciples what His messiahship means- and therefore, what it will mean for those who follow Him.
Jesus begins this teaching with the first of three predictions of His passion. 'the Son of man must suffer...be killed and after three days rise again', (8:31). This is far from the ambiguous parables the Markan Jesus had used during the extended introduction that comprised the gospels first half. Jesus states that any follower of His must “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”, (8:34). Now we have a precise prophecy of what is in store for Jesus- the cross. Mark also alludes to sacrifice again as in Christ denying Himself, He knowingly approaches the cross and becomes a sacrifice.
Jesus second passion prediction states that He will be “betrayed into the hands of men”, (9:31). At this point, one could suggest, that mark has reaped the reward of introducing Judas as the 'one who betrayed Him', (3:19). The reader can be quite certain that Judas's role in Jesus' passion is drawing nearer. Again the resurrection is emphasised.
The third passion prediction is the most detailed. Jesus tells His disciples they are going to Jerusalem were He will be betrayed and condemned as before, but this time He expands by saying they ( chief priests and teachers of the law), will, “hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him”, (10:33-34). Clearly we can see how Mark has moved through his narrative from implicit passion allusions to explicit passion predictions.
Now the passion itself is all that remains. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is termed the 'the triumphal entry' in Mark. It goes well. The people receive Him with hosannas and recognise Him as, “he who comes in the name of the Lord”, (11:10). However, the following day Jesus goes to the temple there and forcefully clears it of the immorality that was taking place (15:15). The authorities then start plotting to kill Him as mark points out, because they feared Him and His teaching (11:19). Again Mark has brought us back to Jesus' impending passion. Soon after these authorities are shown to question Jesus' authority (11:28), but Jesus counter- questions them and they are too afraid to respond. Marks makes it clear that Jesus passion is tied to opposition to His authority, and now communicates that this tie is fear of the opposition He is to their authority. The Markan Jesus builds on this aspect of the passion theme by teaching the parable of the tenants. It is clear to the authorities that the son referred to is Jesus and the they, the tenants. 'They took him and killed him', (12:8). Jesus predict his death, explains why it will occur and communicates to the authorities that they will be be responsible for it. Mark's Jesus also refers to Himself as the 'rejected capstone' of Psalm 118, Intensifying the passion theme (12:10). The first mention of plans to arrest Jesus shortly follow. Mark signals the end of stage 2, (rejection and arrest) is approaching for Jesus. The authorities search for reasons to arrest Jesus (12:13).
Until chapter 14 Mark focuses on Jesus teaching. Suddenly Judas has went to betray Jesus to the authorities and now awaits an opportunity to hand Him over (14:10). The disciples rejection and betrayal of Jesus is explored further by Mark in Jesus prediction of Peters denial. Jesus echoes the bridegroom analogy in quoting old testament prophecy “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered”, (Zech. 13:7). He communicates that the disciples will turn away when He, their shepherd is taken from them. Mark begins to narrate Jesus' feeling of suffering 'he began to be deeply distressed and troubled', (14:33), and the Markan Jesus states “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”, (14:34). Jesus is described as falling to the ground to pray for His suffering and death to be taken away, but submits to the father's will (14:36). Mark's narrative has built up the passion theme by inference, then explicit teaching and now starkly communicates Jesus turmoil. It is now that the Markan Jesus is 'betrayed into the hands of sinners', (14:41). Judas as afore told has betrayed Him (3:19). The passion predictions are being fulfilled. Jesus goes the way that John has prepared as implied at the very beginning of the narrative (1:2-3).
During the Jesus' trial lies are told to incriminate Him but none succeed. Mark's Jesus remains silent and submits to the persecution. Authorities want Him condemned and He is beaten, mocked and spat at (14:65). Also Peter does deny Him- a further rejection. (14:66-72). He is handed over to Pilot who gives Him to be crucified for claiming to be 'King of the Jew's. Mark notes that Pilot knew Jesus had done no wrong but gave into authorities pressure. As per tradition one criminal was let go- a murderer. Mark highlights the injustice in Jesus' suffering here while showing Jesus predictions realised in detail. He is the Christ, sacrificed for sin and must 'take up His cross' (8:34).
The passion narrative reaches its climax here as Jesus is crucified. To add insult to injury he mocked on the cross by the authorities , soldiers and public (15:25-32). Mark's story of Jesus death is marked by two chilling statements. The first as Jesus cried out in suffering, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”, details the immensity of Jesus emotional pain as He is separated from the Father through carrying sin (15:34). The second, the centurion's response to how He died with the darkness and tearing of the curtain, “surely this man was the Son of God!” (15:39). The passion narrative is complete, and the Markan Jesus is dead.
In conclusion, Mark's gospel can be said to consist of a 'passion narrative with an extended introduction'. Both elements are present in Marks narrative. Mark inferred passion almost immediately with allusions to Abraham's sacrifice, Jesus battling evil opposition in the wilderness and the foreshadowing of His destiny in John the Baptists suffering for his ministry. We consistently see opposition to Jesus and plotting from the authorities. The bridegroom analogy appears very early in Mark's gospel and makes Jesus passion implicit. However, as the 'extended introduction' finishes we see the person of Jesus become explicit in Peters confession. The Son of man, as He has ambiguously called Himself up to this point, is also the Christ, and as Mark quickly informs in the three passion predictions, the Christ will suffer and die. Mark takes us through the aspects of Jesus' passion such as rejection, betrayal, arrest, being mocked and beaten and finally, crucified. So Mark's gospel is a passion narrative from beginning to end. That the person of Jesus is slowly and gradually introduced constructs the extended introduction.