Summary Mark Chapters 14 &15

While looking back over Chapter 15, I noticed that I had not summarized Chapter 14. Given that the two of them deal with a lot of the same themes, I believe that doing the two together will not harm either chapter. They do form something of a unit; the two together are the Passion Story, the first two stages of the narrative that ends with the Resurrection of Easter Sunday.

There is, IMO, a qualitative difference between the narrative of these two chapters and pretty much the rest of the gospel. Given this, we should be asking if, indeed, this Passion Story predated Mark. The possibility seems, well, possible. I would not, could not dismiss it out of hand without having several good reasons. Be that as it may, whether it does actually predate Mark is really not the question that should most concern us. The question that should engage us is whether if, or to what degree, this narrative is historically reliable.

This question, I think, is more acute for these two chapters than it is for most of the rest of the gospel. The narrative is presented as something much more like a recitation of historical events than the rest of the gospel. The narrative leading up to this is a series of episodes that Mark only just barely ties together. Take this from a translator: a very large number of chapters start with either “and” or “then”, or “and then”.  I have made no attempt to smooth this out, or to pretty it up, so if my translation seems jerky, it’s because the underlying Greek text is jerky.  Starting with Chapter 13–the apocalypse of Mark, as it were–this changes into something more like a unified text. Prima facie, I think this is good reason to suspect that these narratives came down to Mark more or less intact, as had the stories of the death of the Baptist or the Gerasene demonaic. As such, I think we might be well justified in believing that these narratives did predate Mark, and that he more or less swallowed them whole.

Why did he do this? Why not? Let’s continue to remind ourselves that Mark was not an historian, engaged in historical research. However these stories presented themselves  to him, they would most likely have appeared to be…sincere. That is, they would have presented a Truth, and a very obvious one,  that stood apart from any factual accuracy they may carry. And Mark was concerned with capital-T Truth. So why not include them more or less whole? (Granted, we do not–cannot–know what changes Mark may have made, so accepting them as what Mark intended them to mean is probably the best we can do as historians.) And the story of the death of the Baptist is more or less reflected in Josephus; but whether this constitutes an independent source is a matter of no small debate.

All that aside,what is in these chapters?

In the opening paragraph of this post, I said the two chapters contained similar ‘themes’; really, at root, there is basically one theme with a couple of corollaries, or sub-branches, or something. This basic theme is, I think, is this: Why was Jesus arrested and executed? Pretty much everything else hangs on that question.  We’ve gnawed on this in several different contexts, and at several different instances; what is the answer? Or, rather, what is the most likely possibility?

The one thing I think is indisputable and irrefutable is that Jesus, definitely, was executed by crucifixion. This was a huge embarrassment for the proto-church, and then the early church, so there is absolutely no motivation for them to have made this up. Quite the contrary. In addition, Paul openly states–almost seems to be bragging about it–that Jesus was crucified. Given these two sets of circumstances, I can’t imagine that there is any plausible reason to deny that the crucifixion did not occur.  So we have the what; that leaves the why.

I think that the evidence we are given from the Romans provides the most plausible explanation. I think that the story we are told as a cover does not make sense. That Jesus was executed by the Romans as an insurrectionist is likely; that Jesus was executed by the Romans at the behest of the religious authorities because they were jealous of, or threatened by Jesus, for some reason that is never actually explained is not likely. Consider that last point; there is a lot of insinuation, a lot of implication, a lot of ‘because’, but very little reason to take what is said seriously. Jesus, we are told, over and over, was popular; but when crunch time came, there is no hint that the crowd was ready or willing to riot if Jesus was to be put to death; quite the opposite, in fact. During Jesus’ apparently semi-public trial before Pilate, the crowd is against Jesus. They either don’t know who he is, or don’t care that he dies, or both. As such the cause for jealousy–which is explicitly given as the reason for Jesus being sent to Pilate–simply does not hold. Given the apparent lack of  popularity, there is no reason the religious authorities should have been jealous of Jesus.

Given this, why should we believe the repeated statements that he was as popular as Mark implies? And, if he was such a danger in Galilee, why did Herod not execute him there? Herod, in the end, was willing and able to execute the Baptist without rioting in the streets, so why not Jesus? This question is especially pertinent if we grasp that John was more popular than Jesus was at the time of the latter’s trial. There is the testimony of Josephus that Herod garnered a lot of bad press from the execution, so it is possible that Herod was once bitten, twice shy. It’s possible, but there isn’t much outside evidence for this. Josephus doesn’t give us any indication that Jesus was anything but a wonder-worker. Granted, Josephus cannot be taken at face value, but we cannot just assume that, perhaps, later Christian copyists excised anything written about Jesus being a rebel; he mentioned the political fallout of John the Baptist; why not mention it about Jesus if it was a factor? We are never told that the religious authorities suffered any sort of backlash from the arrest and execution of Jesus. As such, we are, IMO, justified to infer than there was none as Josephus reports about Herod.  Given this, the final nail is put in the coffin of the cover-story that Jesus was executed at the behest of the religious authorities in Jerusalem.

So we have that Jesus was not wildly popular. A close reading of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem revealed that Jesus was not the subject of adulation of throngs lining the streets. Rather, he was likely escorted between Bethany and the gates of Jerusalem by a group of supporters. The group may have numbered in the dozens, or perhaps the hundreds, but not in the thousands. The crowd did not turn on him between Sunday and Friday; it was never there to begin with.

So this brings us back to the Romans. We hear the term “King of the Jews” (rex Iudaorum) about half-a-dozen times in Chapter 15, We do not hear it anywhere else in all of Mark’s gospel.  This is what is written on Jesus’ cross. Ergo, the available evidence tells us that this was why he was executed. The problem is, there is very little in Jesus’ message to indicate that he was a revolutionary. Has this all been removed from the record?

And this is a crucial problem. The QHJ people, and those reconstructing “Q” all seem to think that Jesus was a wise man, a tolerant man, preaching peace and love and brotherhood; Burton Mack has compared him to a Cynic sage, in the mold of Diogenes (the dude with the lantern looking for an honest man) of Sinope, the founder of the Cynic school. Is this justified? Perhaps. Is this something that would have gotten Jesus killed by the Romans? Seems doubtful. Even Alexander the Great found Diogenes irreverent, but not threatening.

So what is happening is that I’m gradually being pushed into a Contradiction Corner here. One the one hand, I’m saying Jesus was executed as an insurrectionist; on the other, I’m saying that the evidence doesn’t support Jesus as being a rebel.  Of course, Jesus could have been executed as an insurrectionist without actually having been a rebel. But isn’t that the story as we are told, that I don’t believe? The answer is yes. Well, sort of. The difference, the crucial difference is, IMO, who initiated the arrest process.

It would be ever-so-nice to know why Jesus was arrested and executed. But it would also be nice if money grew on trees; being nice doesn’t count for much on the reality scale. I’m not sure we know, or will ever know why Jesus was arrested. And this not-knowing is intolerable for a lot of people. Those who are on religious or spiritual quests are not looking for uncertainty, or  “we’ll never know” sorts of answers. Exactly the opposite. I don’t think Paul knew why Jesus was executed, and I’m darn-near certain that he didn’t care. But Paul was an exceptional, at least an unusual person, The not-knowing didn’t bother him because he had the Knowing that faith in the Christ was sufficient for salvation, however he conceived that. For other people, I suspect the narrative and the reasons why mattered. That is, I think, why the gospels were written in the first place: to provide a narrative that ‘filled in the blanks’ left by preaching such as Paul carried out.

As mentioned, Albert Schweitzer is on record saying that Jesus’ execution must have been dependent on Jesus’ teaching. IMO, this is simply neither true nor necessary. It was enough that the Romans thought he was a revolutionary; the actual facts of the case didn’t matter to them. If Jesus called himself, or if others around him called Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the latent political implications of the word were probably enough justification for the Romans.  I think that is the most likely scenario, especially since I think this is what we find between the lines of Chapters 14 & 15.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on September 21, 2013, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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