Chapters 14-15: The Passion Narrative
W. ROBERT CONNOR 2/26/13
A vivid detail, not in the other gospels, 14.51–52: a young man (neaniskos) dressed not in a chiton or himation but in a sindona — a “linen cloak” says J.E. Powell for its four occurrences in Herodotus. Expensive. Surely it’s an unusual garment, probably of imported fabric. Showy, luxurious. What’s more, he doesn’t just wear it — the cloth is “thrown around him” (peribeblemenos), in haste perhaps, or in some casual style. And then Mark adds an explanation: “to cover his nakedness” (Is that what ἐπὶ γυμνοῦ means? What else could it mean?)
So what was he doing, wrapped in an expensive fabric, naked underneath, at night, up on the Mount of Olives? And why do those who try to seize him (other neaniskoi in some mss.) go after him and not some of the disciples or others who accompanied Jesus? Why him?
Mark does not pose such questions, let alone answer them. He simply reports the episode, adding thereby to the feeling that he was an eyewitness reporting what he saw or knew from those who were there.
The young man leaves the sindona and runs away naked. It’s enough to make us conjecture that Mark was an eyewitness. If he was not this neaniskos himself, perhaps he was another one of those who accompanied Jesus (sunekolouthei 14:51 — not a disciple but part of the entourage. At any rate, he thought he had reason to fear for his life, to get out of there even if he had to streak.
This passage has always been fair game for speculators. See most of the going theories summed up (and a few added) here.
In our first-century era, this cloth was normally used for burial, and peribeblemenos could just as well describe a corpse (see the same cloth used for Jesus’ burial at Mark 15:46). That’s why the theory that tickles my fancy is the one that sees in the young man our only synoptic reference to Lazarus, whom John 12 assures us the high priests were also out to get. Can’t you see him still parading proudly in his burial outfit, ready to show himself in testimony at Jesus’ bidding? (Only Mark never quite caught his name.) “He had reason, he thought, to fear for his life and so get out of there even if he had to streak.” Especially if he was Lazarus (or could be mistaken for him), and suspected there was a price on his head.
There’s only one other neaniskos peribeblemenos in Mark, and he’s cloaked in white at 16:5. The women, peering into Jesus’ tomb, spot a νεανίσκον καθήμενον ἐν τοῖς δεξιοῖς περιβεβλημένον στολὴν λευκήν. Could it be the same guy (or at least the same actor), cleaned up from his humiliation, wearing a fresh white cloak to act as First Messenger of the resurrection? I don’t know about eyewitnesses, but I still say it makes a great movie!
Another tantalizing detail. In Matthew (26.56; the other gospels say nothing of this) all the disciples flee. In the better mss. of Mark 14:50 “everybody” flees. That could be a significant difference since the story of the well-wrapped young man implies that in addition to the disciples there were others accompanying Jesus at this point. (Cast of thousands? Well, a few dozen at least.) How would Mark know that? Was he one of them? At this point was he fascinated by the holy man, amazed by what was happening, but not quite ready to stake his life on it? He ran too?
“How would Mark know that?” He doesn’t, of course. I have the the impression that he’s happy to throw in any detail he finds in his tradition, without worrying too much about whether it fits the context, as long as it’s good cinema. Mark has this extraneous detail (maybe a scrap of the Lazarus tradition from the old Jerusalem church) about the thugs wanting to grab a walking mummy at the same time as they grab Jesus. Matthew, equally ignorant of its origin, sees it as a red herring and drops it from his smooth-running story. In both cases, I think we’re pretty far from an eyewitness account.
As a cinematographer Mark seems to me to be on and off his stride at short intervals. There’s LOTS in Matthew that begs for a camera (or a chorale, as Bach knew). But Mark goes chugging along, stops every now and then to add a detail or name, and leaves out a lot of detail that a “tragic historian” like Josephus would exploit. Mark seems almost business-like in describing the trial and crucifixion, as if pausing would let a still nascent emotion roll out. No great movie here. Bach knew better than to try a Mark Passion.
All good points, Bob. I admit Mark really wasn’t creating an epic like DeMille or Josephus; he was more like Sam Katzman, making a 16-chapter serial for Saturday matinees. Could it be that “Mark” was there to provide an abridged, more portable, and (with all the folkloric embellishments removed, in line with Paul’s prescription) more credible version of Matthew? One that would be more palatable, more digestible to the reasonably educated, down-to-earth Gentile reader, potential convert? — even though someone tried to spoil that with the stuff at the end, and who knows where else. It could have undergone a lot of editing as it travelled from church to church, copied and recopied.
Very interesting idea. How do the gospels compare in length to Pauline epistles?
Romans and 1 Corinthians are both 16 chapters long; chapters of the latter often contain more than 40 verses. Next in line would be Hebrews, with 13 chapters, and somewhat shorter chapters. The others, as I recall, vary in length, though all are shorter than the big three.
But this might be apples and oranges, since the epistles were meant to be read aloud to the congregations, while I envision the gospel as a teaching tool. But I could be wrong there; maybe it, too, was read aloud all at once, periodically. And the snoring would probably not have been as deafening as during the epistolary readings.
In ch. 15:20 – 21 Mark reports the names of Simon of Cyrene’s sons, Alexander and Rufus (a Greek name and a Roman one). Neither Matthew 27:32 nor Luke 23:26 reports the names. Irrelevant? Or did they simply not know them? Mark likes to get names right.
Clothing, too. Joseph of Arimathea in Matthew 27:57 is merely a “rich man”. In Luke 23:50 he’s a βουλευτὴς ὑπάρχων, “good and just”. But Mark 15·43 notes how well he’s dressed (εὐσχήμων). Does dress matter? Mark seems to think it does, in the several episodes where the touching of Jesus’ himation is mentioned, when a blind man rushes to him leaving his himation behind, when the young man with the sindon runs away naked, and not least in the scourging of Jesus. The whip and crown of acanthus should be enough detail, but, in Mark clothes go on and clothes go off – a purple robe in 15:17, then it comes off and his himatia (plural) are put back on him in 15:20.
I find I like Mark’s little obsessions: what people wear, what their names are, how they eat. Trivial maybe, but down-to-earth and reassuring that these things count. I find Mark’s approach — his restraint, his sharp eye (now and then) for detail, his matter-of-fact, get-on-with it narrative — quite powerful in its own way. Makes me think one could be a Christian without a lot of theologizing or factional squabbling.
At any rate, his narrative pace seems to get more and more hurried as the ending approaches. A very lean account of events leading up to the resurrection, and then, abruptly, he stops — at 16:8 in mid-verse!
RICHARD McKIM 3/2/13
Mark may take the expressway from Gethsemane to the empty tomb, and the Passion narrative in between may be all-too-well trodden turf, but before we jump straight from our naked neaniskos to the ending I want to note a few features of the landscape according to Mark.
First, the weakness of the disciples. For all the get-on-with-it narrative economy that Bob notes, Mark feels called upon to highlight this point at remarkable length. Back in chapter 8, he didn’t include Matthew’s punning “on this rock” declaration by J to Peter, but he did agree that Peter is the disciple who first declares J to be the Christ (8:29). Despite his customary parsimony with ink, Mark now splurges a lot of it in chapter 14 on J’s prediction that Peter will deny him — three times! — and on the story of how that prediction comes true. The length of his account more than matches that of the usually far more prolix Matthew.
Mark also gives extensive play to the disciples’ narcoleptic incompetence at Gethsemane. J asks them to stand guard for him while he prays, but they keep falling asleep — three times! — much to J’s exasperation. The verb J repeatedly uses to remind them to “stand guard” or “stay alert” — γρηγορεῖτε 14:34, γρηγορῆσαι 14:37, γρηγορεῖτε 14:38 — is the same one he uses repeatedly in his chapter 13 prophecy for what the faithful must do without fail until the second coming, warning them “Don’t get caught sleeping!” But in their first test, on the eve of his crucifixion, the disciples are guilty of precisely this dereliction of duty. And the chief among them, Peter, is the biggest failure of all. Something for popes to ponder in perpetuity.
The lengthiness of these episodes in Mark suggests that they were of fundamental importance in the early Christian understanding of the Passion, so much so that even Mark can’t bring himself to abridge them. I find this front-and-center portrayal of mortal weakness impressive — both a profound acknowledgment that human beings, even J’s own right-hand men, are incapable of meeting the demands that J places upon them, and (via Peter’s triple denial) a tragic forecast of the future of the church as a fallible human institution.
All praise to Mark, then on that score. But on another he must be wrong. When J on trial is asked “Are you the Christ?”, his response in Matthew is the in-character enigma “You’re the one who said that” (σὺ εῖπας). (Hard to capture the force of the emphatic σὺ here — “You said it, [not I]”?) But Mark has J make the totally out-of-character declaration “I certainly am” (ἐγώ εἰμι). Luke, by the way, awkwardly conflates the two into the flat-sounding “You’re the ones who say I am” (ὑμεῖς λέγετε ὅτι ἐγώ εἰμι).
Matthew wins hands down here. Jesus, as Mark himself portrays him, never identifies himself as the son of man, let alone the Messiah, always speaking of such beings in the third person. Not the first time we’ve noted that Mark can seem oddly tone-deaf to the voice of his hero.
But when J appears before Pilate, Mark’s back on track. J gives Pilate the in-character response to P’s question “Are you the King of the Jews?” — “You’re the one who says it” (σὺ λέγεις), ditto Matthew. And while Pilate is “amazed” at J’s refusal to defend himself (ditto Matt again), he’s mainly concerned to placate these weird people he has to govern, with their weird internecine disputes about who-knows-what. No washing his hands of J’s blood as in Matt, who thus protests too much that the Jews, not Pilate, are to blame. Luke gives a much more complicated account but in the same exculpatory vein as Matt, minus the hand-washing.
Here Mark’s the clear winner. It just makes sense that a Roman in Pilate’s position would gladly consign this nobody to crucifixion in order to keep the peace, and wouldn’t bother getting bogged down in the moral issue of whether the sentence was justified.
Good shaping of the material and the difficulties. I might add a demurral about “winning”. We set these writers up as competitors and ask, in effect, which one do we like better. But suppose it’s true that Mark is the groundbreaker, creating the new form, but very restrained about what he will put in it. If Matthew knows this gospel, he might well say, “OK as far as it goes, but inadequate for what we Christians need.” So he supplements, on what basis is not clear to me, but Matthew Arnold might say he welcomes the Aberglaube for its nourishment.
By “winner” I mean roughly “most likely to be historically accurate”. It may be delusional to think this is different from “the one I like best”. However, Bob, your own speculation about Matthew’s response to Mark assumes that what Matt adds is NOT historically accurate but based on “what we Christians need”. You or I might like Matt’s version better (I do — I like the hand-washing!) and still agree that it’s probably fictitious.
Good points all, Rick. I especially appreciate your insight into Mark’s portrayal of Pontius; it really does contrast with the other evangelists’ view of him as a cowardly but basically sympathetic character. Your instincts are apparently dead accurate: they fit right in to Philo’s contemporary account of Pontius’ habitual behavior.
Bob has already found some tantalizing details in at least one of Mark’s hands (or sources), about the beheading of John the Baptist, that betray close contemporary knowledge of the events described. Mark’s portrayal of Pontius may also fall into this “eyewitness” category.
I fight shy of the eyewitness theory about Mark, as always. The big problem with it here is Mark’s version of J’s response at trial to the question whether he’s the Christ — “I certainly am”. Elsewhere in the synoptics, even according to Mark, he always refers to son of man/messiah in the third person, as if he were speaking of someone else, or of some divine cohabitant of his body, as I’ve noted before.
Nowhere except in John’s theological stratosphere does he make the sort of messianic claim for himself that Peter makes for him in Mark 8. He may tacitly accept the identification there & in the corresponding Matt passage, but that’s different from saying “You’re right!” or “I certainly am!” And tacit acceptance is what he suggests by saying “You said it [not I]” both in Matt’s account of the trial and in Mark’s own of the Pilate encounter. So Mark’s account of the trial can’t be eyewitness. Blindly uncritical transmission of some unreliable written/oral source seems more like it.
The Ending: Mark 16:8
Fast-forward (in Mark’s signature cinematic style) to the empty tomb. Mark leaves us there with a riddle and another neaniskos, this one white-robed (περιβεβλημένον στολὴν λευκήν). And women (not the powerful scribes and high priests) are the ones who have to decide what to do next. Despite the neaniskos’ clear instructions — go tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee — the women decide to say “nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” So how did the disciples know that Jesus had gone there, where people, we have been told, were very skeptical of this carpenter’s son? Did the disciples really see him there? Did Thomas plunge his hands into the wound on his side? How did his followers get organized to create a world religion out of such unpromising beginnings? How did Jesus disappear?
No clue. The disciples are on their own, and so are we. The women felt trembling and ekstasis. Of that Mark feels sure. Maybe he felt the same when he thought about these strange events. Maybe he expected his readers, then and now, to feel that way too. But fear wins out.
Ancient readers were also clearly troubled by this ending, adding some post-resurrection appearances, missionary instructions, Jesus’ ascent on high — the stuff they wanted but that Mark denied them. Most everyone agrees that these extensions were tacked on later. But why did Mark tell us none of this? Because, I suspect, he tells us only what he is pretty sure he knows, from first-hand observation or from reports from people he trusted — or was it only what he thought we absolutely needed to know?
The end is like the beginning. Mark is the Grinch who stole the Christmas pageant. No kiddies dressed as sheep and camels. No shepherds, no Magi, no stable, no manger, no virgin birth. He starts with the baptism by John, fulfilling Isaiah, with a dove and a voice saying “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” Then on with the story, but in a way that denies us much of what we think we need. Give me a moral code. Tell me how to pray. Tell me when to fast, what feasts to keep. Help me develop a spiritual practice that will sustain me when the going gets rough. Some of this emerges, but only in bits and pieces, mostly when Jesus has to respond to the trick questions of priests, puritans and philologists.
What about the act historically at the center of the Christian church – the Eucharist? The Last Supper with his disciples never turns into a memorial meal in Mark, any more than his baptism by John turns into a sacramental entry to his fellowship.
The result seems to me a minimalist Christianity, as if we could do without all the usual stuff — provided … Provided what? That we recognize that this strange, rejected, suffering man was indeed God’s beloved son and our true sovereign? Can we subsist on that? Is that too frightening?
“A minimalist Christianity.” Bob, much as I admire the way you lead us de profundis into the brightest of dawns, I can’t believe that Mark was that smart or that subtle. “Minimalist” is fine, but minimalist to the point of leaving out the resurrection, the sine qua non itself of Christianity (1 Corinthians 15:17: “If the Messiah has not been raised, your Faith is in vain”), not to mention the most fundamental teaching (as you yourself have stressed), especially on brotherly love, the lesson that Matthew, John, Luke, James and Paul all harp on so vehemently?
The biggest and most elusive challenge facing any author is HOW TO END THE DAMN BOOK. Pity poor Homer, first of all, trying to wrap up the Odyssey. From then on, even many of the greatest works of literature tail off to an inadequate, weak or faltering end. Some, in desperation, append an alternative ending — John Fowles, for example, or John the Evangelist. Best policy is to kill off your hero at the end, but that can’t always be managed, especially with Mark, where we need to deny the hero’s death.
But no ancient work of literature is willingly without its telos, and we can’t make an exception of Mark. Do we really think that some individual author named “Mark” would intentionally spend his efforts, sixteen chapters of laborious, sometimes confused and disjointed writing, only to leave us in an agnostic lurch, in an empty tomb? Or does it make more sense to say that we’ve captured in “Mark” a work in progress, a text that had been in a continual process of refinement, constantly being adapted and refitted to its use as a proselytizing tool? — until it ultimately failed as such, and was frozen in its current evolutionary state, unable to fully adapt to the community’s need for historical truth, to reconcile opposing versions of historical dogma, as its wretchedly fragmented ending attests?
I suspect that part of Mark wanted to go on and finish a no-bullshit version of Q — follow the directions of both the neaniskos and Jesus himself (14:28) and bring the eleven together with Jesus back in Galilee, whence he would depart for his heavenly throne. Finis. But he’d also been under the sway of the alternative Pauline vision (found in Luke) of the eleven holed up in that stuffy attic in Jerusalem, exposed to repeated appearances of the risen Jesus, and finally to the flaming tongues that drove them out into the streets of Jerusalem drawing crowds. Can’t you imagine Mark, conflicted and not knowing quite what to write, tearing up that last sheet of papyrus?
Mark has the worst kind of how-to-end-it conflict. He tries again and again to compose an ending that would somehow conflate the two versions, but he’s not up to the task. He abandons all attempts at a final page, collapses, has a stroke that immobilizes him. His faithful amanuensis lovingly preserves the remainder of the scroll and passes it on to posterity, a magic carpet for us all to trip over.
Wait — no! His faithful but clueless secretary, ignorant of Q, appends a phony, irrelevant ending, and passes a “complete” gospel on to posterity. Yeah, that sounds more likely …
The women find the tomb empty but tell no one “for they were afraid” (ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ). Mark’s gospel ends with a two-word sentence, second word γάρ (for). Is that even Greek? Looks more like the result of a torn manuscript or a mid-sentence heart attack than a calculated leave-’em-spooked ending. And yet I’m not quite ready to give up on the possibility that Mark has deliberately left us in suspense.
Jesus’ last instructional word in Mark is γρηγορεῖτε, “Stand watch!” — both in his Chapter 13 prophecy and his reproof to the somnolent disciples at Gethsemane. Maybe Mark meant his abrupt ending to leave us in that same position — waiting & watchful, too frightened to sleep! — not knowing when we’ll encounter the risen Christ in our own lives, without stories of his appearance to others that might take the edge off that tenterhooks state. Fear is, as Bob suggests, thematic in Mark. Two of Jesus’ three predictions of his resurrection are linked to followers’ fear — ἐφοβοῦντο 9:32 and 10:32, same verb as describes the Easter women’s reaction. No comforting post-appearances by the risen J to dispel this vital component of Mark’s idea of faith.
But for anything like this reading to be right, we’d have to grant Mark the required sophistication — a big “if”, as Bill points out.
I’m intrigued by the women’s final variant on the “tell no one” motif that has puzzled me from the start. “For they were afraid” explains the women’s silence by their fear, as if Mark were trying to account for why nobody was known to have seen the empty tomb first-hand. If the women told no one what they saw — and οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν is pretty emphatic — then how does anyone (Mark included) know they saw it? How do we know the tomb was really empty? Interesting that the only witnesses are those too frightened to speak of it and presumably, being women, unable to write of it either. If 16:8 is the end, Mark throws a veil of mystery over whether — or in what sense — the resurrection really happened, to put it mildly.
I’m also struck, on reading Matthew’s account of Easter morning, by Mark’s flat-out contradiction of that version. Matt: The women didn’t merely tell everybody, they RAN to tell them as soon as possible. Mark: They said nothing to anyone. Maybe Mark is writing first, before tradition turned the women into blabbermouths to fabricate eyewitness evidence. Or perhaps Mark’s line is a direct riposte to what he considers an unfounded tradition.
Matt says soldiers were paid off to spread the story that the disciples stole the body. What if that’s what really happened? Mark may have thought there was no way of proving it didn’t, that J made no verifiable appearances after his death. We must believe, but we can’t know.
So I can picture Mark the journalist thinking: “I’m a hard-facts guy, a beat reporter — places, names, attested events in order of occurrence, narrative momentum be damned. There’s this story about the women at the tomb, but nobody ever heard a verifiable peep from them. I’ll tell the story to get their silence on record, but that’s as far as my empirical conscience can go. We haven’t a trace of hard evidence for the resurrection. My readers, like me, must take it on faith. I won’t make it easier for them by pretending we know what happened that morning, or by recording dubious rumors about post-resurrection sightings. Fact is, the risen J has yet to appear to the world. We all must await him in wakeful fear — stay ever vigilant and above all believe — without the reassurance that would come from knowing that he’s appeared already.”
The truncated brevity of the chapter reinforces Mark’s point — here we suddenly come to the end of what we can know for sure.
Our neaniskos tells the women to “go and tell his disciples and Peter that he’s going ahead of you into Galilee. That’s where you’ll see him, just as he told you.” I have no trouble thinking Mark’s ladies were on the point of carrying out his order when the page ended. That final sentence could have continued on the next piece of the roll, so that it read, καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν (ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ) ἕως ἂν ἀφίκοιντο πρὸς τοὺς μαθητάς, or something of the sort: “They said nothing to anybody — they were afraid to — until they reached the disciples …” There’s no reason to think that Mark was in any doubt as to how the Q-story should go. His doubt, I suspect, was whether he should follow Q or Paul, and he may never have resolved that doubt.
I confess I’m surprised to hear anyone taking Mark for a hard-nosed, just-the-facts reporter. Mark, I’m now convinced, never “reported” anything. His job was to collate and condense, not to report. The “condensing” part is, I’m pretty sure, responsible for Bob’s impression that he omits too much. That’s the risk when you’re trying to produce a streamlined but readable version of Q — and to show up Matthew for the long-winded embellisher he is!
But I do think Mark honestly records what he thinks is true (albeit enhanced with a bit of camera-work), and Lord knows there were plenty of Jesus-sighters still alive in his time, if he’s the “Mark” I’m thinking of. Just listen to his erstwhile buddy Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.6: “Next he was seen by more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once, most of whom have survived to this day, though some have gone to sleep.”
Having confidently recorded so many signs and wonders, it would be odd to see Mark less than confident in reporting the resurrection, because there we are talking about “eyewitnesses” — whether or not deluded or deceived by the “double” that our Muslim friends insist on. But it’s what happens just after the resurrection that foxes him. His sources contradict each other, and in the end he can’t deal with it. Let someone else tell that part of the story (and he must have known there were plenty willing to do so).
I am attracted by Bill’s idea that ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ did not originally end the sentence. Manuscripts do have a lot of trouble at their endings. Mice or whatever took their toll. And yet Mark keeps surprising me by his abruptness — starting where he does, short-changing the teaching for the miracles and the polemics, hurrying on when one wants more time, more detail … so I’m still puzzled. Maybe that’s the way I should be?
My “Mark the journalist” riff wasn’t meant to suggest literal reporting but rather his artlessly chronological cataloguing of events, names & places, the resulting fragmentation of J’s “message” amid an interruptive sequence of miracles & talmudic disputes, the lack of — what’s the word? — theological depth compared to the other gospels, etc. For me, the only place where it snaps into focus why Mark thinks this guy so world-shakingly important is in the power of those Chapter 13 prophecies.
So yes, Bob, the effect is puzzling, unless we just say that Mark is the least competent of the gospelers, or that the needs of his original audience were very different from ours. And/or maybe God has his own reasons for arranging things (mice etc.) so that one of the gospels ends this way in its canonical form. Very much in-character for God to leave us puzzled!
“The needs of his original audience were very different from ours.” Rick, this seems to me quite likely. Not easy to live on the dark side of the Pax Romana. So is there ANY analogy to our situation?
Or are we, despite all differences, left at sea in the same boat as Mark’s original readers, commanded to wait watchfully (and fearfully!) for Jesus to come walking across the water and steer us home?
And so Mark leaves the Renegades as he found us, full of questions …
Next up: the Gospel of John.