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Solus christus: the Markan contrast between Jesus and his disciples.

Of all the portrayals of the disciples in the Gospels, Mark's is the most severe. Indeed, Mark's story presents an ever increasing contrast between the fidelity of Jesus on one hand and the faithlessness and frailty of his chosen disciples on the other. (1) Time and time again the disciples display dullness, fear and pride, while Jesus calls for and exemplifies understanding, faith and sacrificial service. One may understand this contrast in two ways. On one hand, the portrayal of the disciples may function to present them as negative examples. Mark would be suggesting to his readers that they can and should be faithful, unlike the disciples. On the other hand, the disciples may function as narrative reminders that all human striving comes to naught, that only One has ever been truly faithful, Christ alone.

Avoiding mere moralism, this second option is theologically and pastoral ly fruitful and also enjoys the advantage of refraining from suggesting that later readers or hearers of Mark can prove faithful when the very apostles chosen by Christ himself did not. In short, Mark does not finally call us to emulate Jesus instead of the disciples. Rather, the Gospel of Mark is indeed Gospel, proclaiming Gods mercy and grace to those of us who, like the Markan disciples, suffer fear, incomprehension and faithlessness and are nevertheless kept in the circle of God's chosen.

In the beginning

At the outset of the Marks story, John the Baptist and Jesus each enjoy profound success. John's message meets with a positive response: "people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going our to him" to be baptized (Mark 1:5)- Jesus also proclaims the gospel (1:15) and calls four fisherman who "followed him" ("following" being a Markan concept concerning discipleship) and did so "immediately" (1:16-20). Every time in the Gospel someone "follows" Jesus, they serve as an example of what discipleship should be.

Jesus enjoys immense popularity. An exorcism brings "fame" (1:21-28); "the whole city gathered around the door" (1:29-34) as a result of Jesus' healings and exorcisms. A leper cleansed by Jesus announces it with the result that "Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter" (1:45). Truly, Jesus is popular. It is easy to follow Jesus under such conditions. But the situation will soon change, as Jesus rapidly meets with increasing opposition, which culminates in a murderous conspiracy.

A darker turn: conflict, conspiracy, incomprehension

In Mark 2:1-3:6, we encounter five short stories which evince rising tension between Jesus and his disciples on one hand and the scribes, the disciples of John, and the Pharisees on the other. In the first story (Mark 2:1-12), the conflict is subtle: Jesus forgives the paralytic (2:5), which prompts the scribes to question Jesus' action "in their hearts"--not out loud (2:6-7). Jesus perceives this "in his spirit"--he does not overhear them--and asks, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?" (2:8). But in the final story (3:1-6), the conflict is open: "They watched him to see whether he would cure [the man with a withered hand] on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him" (3:2). Jesus brings the man forward, asks his hostile audience the rhetorical question about the purpose of the Sabbath, and, in a most provocative fashion, heals the man's hand. The healing precipitates a murderous conspiracy: "The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him" (3:6).

Thus Jesus begins falling out of favor. In the third chapter Jesus begins withdrawing from the public and building a small, loyal band around him. A "great multitude" follows him (Mark 3:7) but Jesus makes plans to escape them by boat (3:8). He ascends a mountain and calls "those whom he wanted" (3:13), of whom he chooses twelve apostles (3:14-15). Not only have the scribes, Pharisees and Herodians turned on Jesus; even his family attempts to "restrain him," for people were saying "he is out of his mind" (3:21). Jesus in turn asserts that his true family consists of those who are seated "around him" who do the will of God (3:34-35).

In the fourth chapter Jesus begins excluding people. Although many find it scandalous, the purpose of the Parable of the Sower (4:3-9) is to keep outsiders outside:

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that 'they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven'" (Mark 4:10-12; see Isa 6:9-10).

Those "around him" (as in 3:34-35) and the twelve have been given the mystery; truth is for insiders, not outsiders for whom "everything comes in parables" precisely so that they will not comprehend and repent, which is the essence of Jesus' proclamation ("repent, and believe in the good news," 1:15). Jesus employs a significant Isaianic text(2) concerning hardening to make the point that parables are for insiders, not outsiders, for those who stick close to Jesus, not for general consumption.

Some have tried to correlate character groups in Mark with the four categories of seeds and soils given in the parable and its explanation (Mark 4:14-20).(3) None of the potential character groups--the disciples, the crowds, the religious officials, parties and sects, the women--ever bears any significant fruit, however. The categories and characters do not line up well. In fact, the parable indicates that the one group we might expect to show promise, the disciples, with those "around him," lack comprehension: "Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?" asks the Markan Jesus with mild exasperation (4:13). Immediately after Jesus suggests that lack of understanding involves divine hardening, he suggests the disciples may lack understanding. They display the characteristics of outsiders.

Darkness on the deep: the Markan boat scenes

Three remarkable boat scenes portray the disciples' growing incomprehension. In the first (Mark 4:35-41), Jesus again attempts to escape the crowd by boat (as in 3:9). A storm threatens to sink the small craft (4:37). The disciples panic and wake Jesus (4:38). Jesus "rebuke[s] the wind" and a "dead calm" results (4:39). Jesus asks the disciples, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" (4:40). Here, as elsewhere, Mark portrays fear and faith as diametric opposites (see also 5:33-34 and 5:36). The disciples are terrified and ask, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" (4:41). Fear and faith, then, concern Jesus' identity.

The answer to the disciples' question is given subtly in a subsequent boat scene in Mark 6:47-52, which reveals the identity of Jesus as God. This may seem counterintuitive, for many think that Mark has a "low" Christology, while the Gospels of Matthew or John have "high" Christologies. As the great scholar Vincent Taylor once said, however, "The sheer humanity of the Markan portraiture catches the eye of the most careless reader; and yet it is but half seen if it is not perceived that this Man of Sorrows is also a Being of supernatural origin and dignity, since He is the Son of God ... Mark's Christology is a high Christology, as high as any in the New Testament, not excluding that of John."(4)


Allusions in this boat scene reveal this. (5) The disciples are in the boat while Jesus is alone on land (Mark 6:47-48a). Jesus, now walking on the sea, "wanted to pass them by" (6:48b). The disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost, reacting with terror (6:49-50a). Jesus tells them, "Take heart, it is I {ego eimi); do not be afraid" (6:50b). In light of Job 9 LXX, Jesus' walking on the water and the strange remark concerning "pass[ing] them by" suggest the scene is a theophany. Jesus is revealed as the God of Israel. Job 9:8 LXX reads, "[God] alone stretches out the heaven and walks on the waves of the sea as on dry land," while Job 9:11 LXX states, "If he were to pass by me, I would not see, and if he were to pass me by, neither would I know it," which coheres well with the disciples' incomprehension. As Job declares he would neither see nor know it if God were to pass by, so do the disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost (Mark 6:49) and lack understanding (6:52). In light of this, one may hear an echo of the divine name of Exod 3:14 LXX (''l am," ego eimi) in Jesus' utterance of "it is I" (ego eimi). In short, by means of the subtle yet powerful mechanism of allusion calling forth theophanic motifs from the Scriptures of Israel, Mark 6:45-52 reveals the identity of Jesus as God. The disciples lack the faith and understanding to perceive it, however.

Immediately prior to the final boat scene in Mark 8:13-21, the disciples display their dullness in wondering how Jesus might actually feed the four thousand (8:1-9, esp. v. 4); apart from his many exorcisms and healings, Jesus had recently fed five thousand (6:30-44). Then, having arrived by boat at Dalmanutha, the Pharisees test Jesus by demanding a sign, which Jesus refuses to perform (8:10-12). This final boat scene involves both these passages. Jesus warns the disciples, "Watch out--beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod" (8:15). The disciples, having forgotten bread and now down to their last loaf (8:14), foolishly believe their lack of bread explains Jesus' enigmatic counsel. Jesus is not pleased, and his questions to them again employ the language of the dread prophecy of Isa 6:9-10: "And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, 'Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?'" (Mark 8:17-18a). He asks if they do not remember the abundance of the feedings of the five and four thousand, closing with the question, "Do you not yet understand?" (8:18b-21). Lacking understanding, the disciples are at grave risk of becoming outsiders.

The Markan discipleship section

Mark 8:27-10:45 makes up the famous "discipleship" section, in which discipleship is taught by word and deed. Further, the section has as bookends two stories concerning the healing of blind men. In 8:22-26, Jesus heals a blind man from Bethsaida in two stages, while in 10:46-52 Jesus heals blind Baitimaeus. This framing indicates that discipleship--"following" Jesus "on the way" (see 8:27, 9:33-34, and 10:52)--involves understanding. One must "see" to "follow" and "follow" to "see."

The first of these healing stories in Mark 8:22-26 provides an interesting introduction to the discipleship section and its first component story, Peter's confession of Jesus as Christ. Prior to that healing story, Jesus had berated the disciples in the boat for their lack of understanding, as we have seen--"Do you not yet understand?" (8:21). Then comes the healing story: Jesus lays his hands on the man and puts saliva on his eyes, but the blind man informs Jesus that he can only see people who "look like trees, walking" (8:24). The narrator then informs us that "Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly" (8:25). This story suggests that even though the disciples lack understanding, understanding will be given to those who stick with Jesus on the way.

Consider Peter's famous confession of Jesus as Messiah. Jesus asks, "But who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29). Peter gets it half right, like the blind man of Bethsaida who has just been half healed: Peter replies, "You are the Messiah" (8:29). Peter has the answer right in formal but not material terms. After adjuring the disciples to silence about his Messiahship and informing them that he, Jesus, the Son of Man, "must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (8:30-31), Peter begins to "rebuke" Jesus (8:32), who returns the favor, rebuking Peter (8:33) and delivering his famous words about the necessity of taking up the cross and following (8:34). Like the blind man, Peter will need his "sight" healed so that he might fully understand and accept the divine necessity of Jesus' death.

"On the way" (a Markan metaphor for discipleship) to Jerusalem, the disciples show themselves gravely frail, faithless and filled with pride, while Jesus, leading them, marches with determination ever onward towards his goal. In the story of the boy made mute by a violent spirit (Mark 9:14-29), the faithless disciples fail to exorcise it (8:18-19). Jesus predicts his death and resurrection (9:30-31) but the disciples "did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him" (9:32). The disciples argue among themselves which of them is the greatest (9:33-37). They mistakenly rebuke an exorcist (9:38-41). They err in keeping children from Jesus (10:13-16). They are afraid and amazed (a negative concept) as they are following Jesus "on the way" (NRSV: "road") to Jerusalem as he predicts his passion and resurrection for the third time (10:32-34). Finally, the section closes with James and John seeking prestige, requesting to sit at Jesus' left and right in glory (10:35-37). Jesus uses the ill-informed request as a teaching moment to emphasize the necessity of self-sacrifice grounded in Jesus' example: "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (10:43b-45).

The discipleship section is followed by the healing of blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52), who refuses to cease seeking Jesus' healing mercy (10:47-48). His persistence is rewarded; Jesus says to him, "Go; your faith has made you well," and "Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way' (en te hodo, 10:52). Thus, in contrast to the disciples, Bartimaeus showed no concern for status, rank or propriety. He sought Jesus earnestly in spite of the crowd's entreaties that he remain silent; he received his sight as reward for his persistence; and in response he "followed" Jesus "on the way"--he becomes an eager disciple.

The Passion Narrative

In the Markan Passion Narrative (chapters 14-16) all the followers of Jesus fall away. Everyone fails, even though Jesus had warned everyone to "keep watch" in what is generally known as the parable of the Doorkeeper (Mark 13:32-37). Mark 13 is not so much about the end of the world but the calamity which will befall Jerusalem, which will culminate in the destruction of the temple. The beginning of the chapter finds the disciples marveling at the buildings of the temple precincts, in light of which Jesus predicts they will be destroyed (13:1-2). Four of the disciples (Peter, James, John and Andrew) later ask Jesus when "these things"--the destruction predicted in 13:2--will take place (13:3-4). Similarly, the parable of the Doorkeeper at the end of the chapter docs not so much concern the end of the world but events more immediate than the disciples could fathom.

Jesus says that no one--not the angels, not even the Son, but only the Father--knows about "that day or hour" (Mark 13:32). Thus, the four do not know (13:33).'' And in light of the absolute human ignorance of "that day or that hour," all one can do is "beware" and "keep alert" (13:34), holding steadfast at all times, come what may. Jesus then tells them:

It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake (13:34-37).

Ignorance thus demands perpetual vigilance. But in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), a passage to which Mark 13:32-37 is tightly linked, three of the four disciples (Peter, James and John) fail to keep vigil. Mark 13:32-37 concerns "the hour" (v. 32), while in Gethsemane Jesus prays "the hour" might pass from him (14:35) and the disciples are found sleeping when "the hour" comes (14:41). In Mark 13:34, 35 and 37, Jesus tells the disciples to "keep watch" (gregoree; NRSV: "be on the watch," "keep awake," and "keep awake," respectively) at all times, while in Gethsemane Jesus asks the three to "keep watch" (gregoree; NRSV: "keep awake") with him (14:34). In Mark 13:36, Jesus had warned the disciples not to be found sleeping, while in Gethsemane the disciples are found sleeping three times (14:37,40,41). Having failed to heed Jesus' words in 13:32-37, the disciples fail to keep watch and are caught sleeping and are thus unprepared for the hour when it comes a mere half-chapter later.

What is more, Jesus' passion takes place according to the four-watch schema of Mark 13:35 ("evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn"). Jesus eats the Passover and predicts his betrayal at evening (14:17). Gethsemane (14:32-41) occurs at midnight (although the term does not find mention, the event fits the sequence). Jesus is denied by Peter at cockcrow (14:68, 72) as Jesus predicted (14:30). And Jesus is tried by Pilate and crucified at dawn (15:1; see 15:25). Truly, the events spoken of in 13:32-37 were fulfilled in some way nearly two thousand years ago.

Through all this, Jesus is faithful. Even if Jesus has some sort of psychological struggle in Gethsemane, he yields to the will of God. The disciples, however, do not. They flee (Mark 14:50-52). Peter, however, follows at a distance, and in parallel scenes or dramatic beauty, the Gospel contrasts Peter's denial with Jesus' bold confession before the high priest. Mark 14:53-72 comprises two simultaneous stories unfolding in an A-B-A-B structure. The first "A" section consists of Jesus being taken to the high priest's court (14:53). The first "B" section consists of Peter having followed right up into the courtyard of the high priest with the guards (14:54). We return to Jesus in the second "A" section, in which he is tried before the high priest (14:55-65). When asked if he is the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One (14:61), Jesus responds with confidence and boldness, "I am" (14:62), along with words about the Son of Man. After recounting Jesus' conviction, mocking and beating, the narrator turns back to Peter in the second "B" section (14:66-72). Peter denies he knows Jesus three times, the last time with great emphasis: "But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, 'I do not know this man you are talking about'" (14:71), at which point the cock-crow fulfills Jesus' prophecy (14:30), causing Peter to break down and wail (14:72).

The contrast between Jesus and Peter here is as strong as could be, for the story of Jesus' trial before the high priest's court and the story of Peter's denial of Jesus occur simultaneously. In Mark 14:66, the narrator simply states, "While Peter was below in the courtyard"; the narrator gives no indication that Peter's denial occurred after Jesus' bold confession before the high priest's court. Why does this matter? It appears the Gospel of Mark is heightening the contrast between the faithful Jesus and the frightened Peter: at the precise moment Jesus is making a bold confession of his identity, Peter is denying he even knows Jesus. Jesus knows exactly who he is and freely admits it; Peter refuses to admit he even knows who Jesus is.

The empty tomb

All of Jesus' disciples, whether part of the Twelve or not, have now deserted him. He is tried and executed by Pilate apart from any consolation of friends or family (compare both Plato's presentation of Socrates' death as well as the presentation of the Gospel of John, which presents three Marys (the Mother of Jesus, her sister the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene) and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross [John 19:25-27]). The Markan story, however, does say that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses and a certain Salome were "looking on from a distance" (15:40), women who "used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee," along with "many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem" (15:41). Perhaps, then, we have a character group who will prove faithful to Jesus after all.

Yet such hopes come to grief. After Jesus' burial, the narrator records that the same three women make plans to anoint Jesus' dead body (Mark 16:1). After wondering about who could roll the stone away for them and arriving, they discover the stone already removed and encounter a "young man" and become "alarmed" (16:3-5). The young man announces that Jesus has in fact been raised (16:6). He then instructs them to "go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you" (16:7; see 14:28). Instead of doing so, however, the narrator informs us that the women "went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid" (16:8). And there the Gospel ends. (7)

Several observations are salient here. First, observe the note of great grace in 16:7: In spite of Jesus' difficult words concerning the ultimate rejection of those who are ashamed of Jesus (8:38), the young man at the tomb explicitly mentions Peter, whose denial of Jesus was recounted in great detail barely a chapter prior (14:66-72). From the divine perspective, he is (again) an insider, one who stands under the aegis of divine grace.

Second, the phenomenon of irony plays a great role here. Although Jesus had attempted to conduct much of his ministry under a shroud of silence and secrecy, he had also indicated that the time for disclosure would indeed come: "For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light" (4:22). Now is the time for disclosure, according to the young man; but, unlike the leper who ignores Jesus' injunction to silence (1:45), the women say nothing to anyone.

Third, the one group of characters that Mark suggests might prove faithful in some small way by attending to Jesus' body fails. Perhaps that is to be expected, as they came to the tomb to perform burial duties; as such, they apparently did not believe Jesus' predictions about his resurrection, even though they "used to follow him ... when he was in Galilee" (15:40-41). In other words, they lacked faith, and so it is no surprise when the narrator informs us that "terror and amazement seized them," that their fear rendered them silent (16:8). Thus, as the reader comes to the end of the Gospel, every human being has failed. At the very end of the narrative the story dashes any hopes the reader has entertained that someone somewhere might somehow prove faithful. Only Jesus Christ endured to the end. (8) Only he and the God who raised him from the dead are faithful.


Mark's negative depiction of the disciples does not stand alone but is meant to be understood in contrast with the positive presentation of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, a contrast exemplified most strongly in the simultaneous portrayals of Peter's denial and Jesus' confession. The disciples in Mark do not function as foils, as negative examples, as if Mark were encouraging hearers to attempt to succeed in their discipleship when the very disciples chosen by Christ himself failed. Rather, Mark would have his hearers look to Jesus, who alone was faithful unto the end.

(1) The classic treatment is Robert C. Tan-nehill, "The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role," JR 57 (1977): 386-405.

(2) Isa 6:9-10 was important for early Christians who sought to explain Jewish rejection of Jesus as messiah. See, for instance, Acts 28:23-29.

(3) See Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark's World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989).

(4) Vincent Taylor, 'The Gospel according to St. Mark (New York; Macmillan, 1952), 121.

(5) See Richard B. Hays, "Can the Gospels Teach Us How to Read the Old Testament?" ProEeel 11 (2002): 409-11.

(6) This passage should prevent any and all from expending too much time and energy attempting to divine the time and events of the eschaton. Only the Father knows.

(7) On how 16:8 functions as a fitting ending for the Gospel of Mark, see Donald H. Juel, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 107-21: and Morna D. Hooker, Endings: Invitations to Discipleship (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2003), 11-30. In my opinion, Juel's work is indispensible. One might also see Juel's Gospel of Mark (Interpreting Biblical Texts; Nashville: Abingdon, 1999).

(8.) What of Jesus' cry of dereliction, how ever, when on the cross he quotes Psalm 22:1, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Mark 15:34)? One possibility is that the reader should actualize all of Psalm 22, which turns from despair to confidence and hope. Another possibility would be to understand God the Father as the only one who is truly faithful; in spite of Jesus' despair, God raises him from the dead. Be all that as it may, Jesus nevertheless went through with his mission, dying on the cross. It is important to remember that the temptation to come down from the cross (15:30, 32) was a real temptation--would mere nails suffice to hold fast the one who has shown himself master of sickness, demons and nature throughout the Gospel?

Leroy A. Huizenga

Wheaton College
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Author:Huizenga, Leroy A.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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