Mark Essay 2: Why is Mark so hard on the Disciples?


In Mark the disciples are called to be with Jesus and to enjoy special revelation kat i'dian, and yet they fail ever more deeply. At the end there is a reconciliation, but it is not clear that they are totally trusted even then. The purpose of this portrait has been analysed as pedagogical, polemical or pastoral.


Theodore T. Weeden (ZNW 1968) is an exponent of the polemical view. He charts the progressive three stages of the deterioration of the disciples. In the first stage of the gospel the portrait is reasonably positive: the first four are called and respond immediately and without question (1.16-20). They are called to be with Jesus and to go out and proclaim, with power to expel evil spirits (3.13-15). They are the privileged recipients of the mystery of the Kingship (4.11). They are sent out on their mission, which they fulfill (6.12-13) and seem to receive Jesus' congratulations on returning (6.30-31). Yet even at this early stage all is not well. In direct contrast to his previous contrast between insiders who understand the mystery and outsiders who don't, Jesus shows disappointment that they do not understand the parable of the Sower and will therefore be incapable of understanding all/=any? of the parables (4.13).


They fail to rely calmly on Jesus in the storm on the Lake, though the fact that they turn to him at all shows a certain amount of trust; nevertheless there is a sharp exchange, the disciples treating Jesus to sarcasm and Jesus replying with the accusation of cowardice (4.38-40). At the first multiplication of loaves they fail to appreciate Jesus' power to solve the difficulty, and douse him with sarcasm, 'Are we supposed [avgora,swmen deliberative subjunctive] to go off and buy...?' (6.37) Their failure to understand about the multiplication of loaves is pointed by Mark (double negatives and double question, indications of Markan style), for without 6.52 the story of the walking on the water could merely show reverential awe of the right kind; and there is surely a contrast with the faith of the populace who bring him their sick - a summary, so Markan, passage (6.53-56).


After the dispute over the tradition of the elders their lack of comprehension is again underlined by the Markan dual phrase, 'Are even you so lacking in understanding? Do you not realise that...?' (7.18). Jesus could have given further instruction without any such remark, simply moving 'into the house', and his words are woundingly framed. Finally in the discussion after the second bread-miracle they totally fail to understand the situation, again eliciting a Markan double question, 'Do you still not realise nor understand?' (8.17). After the symbolic healing of the blind man and Peter's unprepared profession of faith begins the revelation that Jesus' messiahship must involve suffering. To this the disciples are especially resistant.


After each of the three great prophecies of the passion the disciples show misunderstanding, and need the lesson of their sharing in their Master's suffering to be reinforced:

in 8.32 Peter remonstrates with Jesus, is rebuked as 'Satan', and provokes Jesus's teaching to the disciples about self-denial.

in 9.32 the second prophecy is immediately followed by the quarrel about precedence, which Jesus corrects with his teaching on the primacy of service.

in 10.35 the third prophecy is followed by the ambitious request of James and John, to which Jesus opposes the same teaching on the primacy of service.


During this period they also fail in the task they were given as exorcists (9.18), and starkly disobey the instruction (9.37) to welcome children (10.13-16), thereby earning Jesus' annoyance (cf. 14.4).


Once the passion sequence starts the situation worsens dramatically. First one of the disciples betrays Jesus, immediately after the highest symbol of friendship, sharing the same dish. Then the inner group of disciples falls asleep in the garden three times (Markan emphasis - the scene is very spun out, with obvious lack of material; Mark is determined to find enough for a triple repetition [14.37-42]). Then they abandon him at the arrest and flee, despite their promises (14.31 and 50, with pa,ntej answering each other in both, and the frequent Markan participle avfe,ntej). One young man even flees naked, forsaking all, as the disciples forsook all to follow Jesus. Then follows the Markan sandwich of Jesus' confession and Peter's triple denial - despite his assertion of fidelity till death (14.31) - a Markan emphasis which sharpens the contrast.





Weeden's explanation of these data is that Mark is polemically engaged in combating a heresy, that in Mark's community there was abroad a qei/oj avnh.r Christology, by which people thought that Christian discipleship too consisted in pneumatic glory. ‘The answer lies at the heart of a christological dispute raging in Mark’s community... Thus Jesus represents one point of view and the disciples another’ (p. 91 in Telford). The disciples see Jesus as a  qei/oj avnh.r, while Jesus stresses the aspect of Christian suffering. Weeden claims to see the former state of mind reflected in the Corinthians to whom Paul writes. Puffed up by their confidence of possessing the Spirit, they 'thrive on the sense of their self-exaltation, seek personal glory and honour in the acclaim of their admirers, each seeking to prove his superiority over the other' (p. 68 in Telford). Certainly the Corinthians to whom Paul writes are excessively self-confident in their sense of gnw/sij and knowing all the answers. One could guess at the Corinthians’ rejection of suffering as the reason for Paul's repeated emphasis on his own sufferings, both in his stress on his vocation as Christ's servant, and in his self-humiliation and in his recital of his own sufferings as his badge of apostleship (2 Cor 10-13). For the Markan community the chief evidence is 13.22, that the false Christs vaunt their signs and wonders, 'to lead astray, if possible, the elect'. Weeden suggests that the protagonists of these ‘false Christs’, authenticated by signs and wonders, are the disciples themselves. The stress in Mark 13 on the need for suffering and persecution before the end, and the seeming absence of Christ, could be interpreted in this way, but equally plausibly by the actual presence of real persecution. In this case the chapter may be read in a more conventionally apocalyptic sense, as an encouragement in persecution, providing reassurance that liberation is at hand. There was certainly no lack of persecution at that time in the Christian community.


Ernest Best (Disciples and Discipleship, or 'The Disciples in Mark' [NTS 1976/77]) rejects this explanation on the grounds that if this were the case there should be another group visible with whom the erring disciples would be contrasted, for example if they stood for the ministers of the community contrasted with people as a whole. As it is, the disciples (or the Twelve) seem to stand for Christian disciples as a whole. It is hard to believe that Mark sees the whole community as captivated by this qei/oj avnh.r attitude.


In addition, the evidence for any qei/oj avnh.r concept is over a century later; the expression is used in Philostratus’ third century Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 7.38: Apollonius, who lived in the first century, shows this quality when in prison by removing his leg from his fetters and then re-inserting it, i.e. refusing the opportunity to escape. There are also some rather silly miracles in 1.19 (ability to understand all languages); 4.10 (recognising a devil posing as a blind beggar); cures of the sick are also mentioned in passing and enigmatically in 8.7.6 [Loeb p. 311]. Apollonius’ miracles are mentioned only casually and in passing, and the atmosphere is totally different from that of Mk. Apollonius is, admittedly, hailed as a qeo.j, but so is the Roman emperor; the sense of the word is clearly different from that current in the biblical world. Only failure to check the sources can have allowed this misconception to be repeated from book to book.


Best prefers a pedagogical explanation: Mark wishes to stress the wonder of the Jesus-event by underlining how hard it was to understand. Matthew and Luke can remove the tough criticism of the disciples because they do not lay such stress on amazement at the Jesus-event. (But a better explanation of their removal of so many criticisms lies in increasing respect, as time goes on, for the disciples and the current leadership of the community whom they represent). Best counters that the disciples do win approval, e.g. when they return from the mission and Jesus calls them to come aside and rest (6.30-31). To this Best adds a pastoral aspect: the lesson of suffering is not easy to learn. This is the reason for the generalisation of criticisms, aimed at instructing the community as a whole. Thus Mark adds to the incomprehension of Peter at the Transfiguration ('he did not know what to answer', 9.6a) a wider phrase, 'for they were afraid' (Markan delayed explanation with ga.r). When Peter swears loyalty (14.31) Mark adds 'and they all said the same'. When Simon is reproached (14.38), 'could you not watch one hour?', the admonition follows in the plural 'Watch and pray...'


Robert C. Tannehill, 'The Disciples in Mark: the Function of a Narrative Role' (Journal of Religion, 1977) in Telford, also prefers a pedagogical/pastoral explanation. Rejecting Weeden’s explanation, he points out that if Mark rejected the Christology of a qei/oj avnh.r, he would not have first presented Jesus as such and then changed horses in midstream. He stresses that the reader is meant to identify with the disciples, which is why the initial presentation is so positive. Only when the reader has so identified is he led to become self-critical and aware of his own failures, as seen also in the disciples. ‘The tension between identification and repulsion can lead the sensitive reader beyond a naively positive view of himself to self-criticism and repentance’ (p. 176 in Telford). After all, Jesus' special choice of the disciples to be close to him is stressed, and there is a final reconciliation after the resurrection, in the implied invitation to join the risen Christ in Galilee (16.7, prepared also by 14.27-28).




The striking fact to which none of the explanations discussed draws attention - and only Tannehill barely mentions (p. 190 in Telford) - is the contrast between the specially selected and carefully privileged group of disciples and others who encounter Jesus. During the early, positive, presentation of the disciples their openness to the mystery is contrasted with the inability of outsiders to hear and understand. Similarly 'those around Jesus' are contrasted with his own blood relations (3.31-35). But later there does seem to be a deliberate contrast in the opposite direction, e.g. 6.53-56. Time and again individuals show their faith and are commended by Jesus. The woman with a haemorrhage has the faith to know that the touch of Jesus will cure her, but the disciples sardonically comment, 'You see how the crowd is pressing around you; how can you ask "Who touched me?"?', as though unaware that the touch can have any significance (5.31). The Syro-Phoenician woman wins commendation and a cure by her cheeky wit, founded on faith and understanding of Jesus (7.24-30). The father of the epileptic demoniac brings his son to the disciples, makes his humble confession of imperfect faith, yet the disciples cannot cure the boy (9.18); are the disciples the object envisaged by Jesus' exasperated comment (a Markan double question), 'Faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?' People bring little children to Jesus, the disciples scold them, and Jesus indignantly says (again with Markan duality), 'Let the little children come to me, do not stop them' (10.14). The sons of Zebedee show their ambition, and immediately after (they were already going up to Jerusalem in 10.32; does one go up to Jerusalem when going down the Jordan valley, or only when one starts up the Wadi Qilt from the outskirts of Jericho?) Bartimaeus, as they leave Jericho, expresses his faith. The woman at Bethany lavishes ointment on him, but those with him are indignant at the waste (14.4). One might add Simon of Cyrene, enlisted willingly or unwillingly to carry the cross when the disciples have deserted him (15.21), and Joseph of Arimathaea who fulfills the relatives' duty of burying him (15.46).


Is there really a polemic against the family of Jesus (3.21, 31-34) and the disciples, contrasting both groups with others who come to Jesus? One intended lesson might be that it is easy to respond to Jesus at first, but hard to stick by him when difficulties arise. In this case, the final reconciliation with Peter and the others, suggested by the message of the angel at the empty tomb that they would see him in Galilee (16.7) suggest a reconciliation after failure. Perhaps Mark is writing against a background of failure of leaders of the Church when confronted with persecution., and is indicating that there must be reconciliation with those who have failed, even if they are leaders of the Church.


Another explanation might be seen against the background of the explosive row between Paul and Peter at Antioch (Ga 2.11-14). A long-term disagreement breaks out between Paul and Peter, when Peter is induced by messengers from James at Jerusalem to withdraw from eating with Christians of gentile origin. If Mark lumps all the disciples with Peter and James’ party (?the Jerusalem Church), it could be that he is indicating that other disciples are on the right track, while the Twelve were failures


In some of these cases the disciples may be regarded as a pedagogical foil or dramatic dummies to bring out the message more clearly (a literary device used frequently by Jn, e.g. Jn 6), as though the reader is already so convinced of the disciples' faithfulness that they can take some flack. But the constant repetition of this procedure would make it at best clumsy and tactless. The editorial stressing of the contrast cannot be dismissed as carelessness. The solution must lie in Mark 13.11, 'Do not worry beforehand about what to say; no, say whatever is given you when the time comes, because it is not you who will be speaking; it is the Holy Spirit.' In order to show the importance of the role of the Holy Spirit, the incapacity of the disciples when left on their own is exploited to the full. The unreliability and disloyalty of their leader, Peter, is fully illustrated, and on several occasions the group of the disciples is joined to this. Just so, in the reconciliation and promise of 16.7 Peter has a special mention but the reconciliation is extended to all the group.




A convincing further point of view is put forward by Shiner. He sees Mark as composing a work of rhetoric. There can be no doubt that certain stereotyped features of the narrative must be attributed to Mark’s authorship and are part of his deliberate plan. E.g. the narratives of the calls of the first two pairs of disciples and of Levi are stereotyped (1.16-18//1. 19-20// 2.14); the series ‘Listen’àinstructionàearsàinstructionàrebukeàexplanation is standard (4.3-14//7.14-18); similarly the reaction to Jesus’ miracles (1.27//4.41), etc. Shiner’s case could be made considerably stronger by the use of evidence from style and vocabulary. The purpose of the repeated miracles (exorcism of one demon, mounting to that of a legion) and the crescendo of awe and amazement at them is primarily part of the revelation of the mystery of Jesus. Mark’s use of irony enables him to reinforce this with revelations to the reader of which the actors on the scene are unaware (recognition of Jesus by demons, the Voice at the Baptism and the Transfiguration). The repetition of  predictions of the Passion and the misunderstanding of the disciples serve various purposes, including stress on Jesus’ willingness and foreknowledge, and on Peter’s affection and loyalty towards Jesus, as well as the need for followers to follow Jesus also in his suffering:


Just as the disciples’ inability to recogize Jesus’ identity in his wondrous miracles allows Mark to draw out the recognition scene in order to give it its proper narrative weight, the disciples’ inability to understand the passion predictions allows a repetition of the predictions and a more extensive discussion of the meaning of the passion (Shiner, p. 282).





Essays in Telford, The Interpretation of Mark:

Theodore J. Weeden, 'The Heresy that necessitated Mark's Gospel' (1968)

Robert E. Tannehill 'The Disciples in Mark...' (1977)

Ernest Best, 'The Role of the Disciples in Mark' (1977) in his Disciples & Discipleship (1986).

Ernest Best, Following Jesus (1981)

Whitney Taylor Shiner, Follow Me! Disciples in Markan Rhetoric (Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1995)


WR Telford, The Interpretation of Mark (SPCK 1985), begins with a remarkable essay by the editor on the questions raised in this century about this gospel. While it gives few answers, and is probably indigestible as a whole, it gives an excellent orientation of the questions, and should be consulted repeatedly on starting new topics.


Theodore Weeden (ibid., ZNW 1968): reason for denigration of disciples is heresy in Mk's community that Jesus was a theios aner. In his community the 'false messiahs' were people who thought that Christian discipleship consisted in pneumatic glory (as some at Corinth). Mk makes the disciples examples of this, whence their glorying in exorcism-power, rejection of suffering constantly, disputes over greatness, ambition, rejectio of children, contempt for humiliation, progressive deterioration (1.16-8.26 they fail to understand Jesus; 8.31-14.9 they fail to understand suffering; 14.10 onwards they sleep, flee, abandon, deny Jesus). To this Mk opposes his theologia crucis.


Ernest Best, Disciples & Discipleship, 'The Role of the Disciples' (NTS 1976/77): opposes Weedon's idea that criticism of disciples must be polemical against some group or other in the community. For this it would be necessary that disciples (=XII) should be contrasted with some other group in gospel who are praised, e.g. ministers contrasted with community. He rejects this because he cannot see another group. [But they are in fact contrasted with individuals, e.g. the Syro-Phoenician, Mary of Bethany, Simon of Cyrene]. B's solution is that Mk wishes to stress the wonder of Jesus by their inability to comprehend it for some time, and the love and strength and forgiveness of God by the forgiveness of their frequent failure. There was no need for subsequent evangelists to do this, because of their change of Christology, less emphasis on surprise at the epiphany of Christ.

The disciples do win approval, e.g. when they return from their mission Jesus tells them to come aside and rest (6.30-31). Criticism of e.g. Peter is soon generalised: 9.6b after 9.6a (he didn't know what to answer, for they were afraid); 14.31d added (I will not deny you; and they all said the same); 14.38 added (Simon, could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray).



Essay 3: Is there a Messianic Secret in Mark?



      Tuckett, The Messianic Secret (1983). His own introduction is important, though complicated. It does give at any rate the genesis of the problem. Be sure to digest material about Wrede, Schweitzer, Bultmann, Dibelius, and as much as possible of modern views. I think that Dunn and Raisanen are the most important.


     Ulrich Luz (ZNW 1965): the secret is composed of two phenomena: the miracle secret, which is not kept because Jesus' miracles are sign of messianic age and so must out, and the messianic secret concerning nature of his messiahship (8.30; 9.9) which are kept: it cannot be understood except in view of cross & resurrection. [But surely these two must be intrinsically linked in anyone's thinking! The miracles show quality of his messiahship.]


     J Dunn (1970/4): impossible to speak of a messianic secret when some of Jesus' historical actions have clear messc overtones, e.g. feeding in desert, Peter's confession, entry into Jerusalem, trail and condemnation as mess. There are also messc overtones to his claims to forgive sins, be the Lord of the Sabbath, to call people, to be bridegroom. But it is part of Jesus' disavowal of false views and his own cautious assertion (considerably by means of Son of man concept) of his own view of messiahship. All his teaching needed to be parabolic in order to induce a whole new frame of reference.


Heikki Raisanen (1976): this is merely part of the conclusion of his book, first published 1976 but brought up to date. It is an education to read.