Mark Essay 5: Why was Jesus executed?

Two sharp distinctions must be made: between Jesus' activity during his Galilean ministry and his activity in Jerusalem, and between the opposition he encountered from the Pharisees and lawyers, and that which he encountered from the Sadducees and Jerusalem authorities.

1. The Pharisees not involved in Jesus' trial and execution.

EP Sanders has established satisfactorily that Jesus' disputes with the authorities in Galilee, though they provoked opposition which, at least according to Mk 3.6, led the Pharisees to plot (Mark links this with the final arrest because he uses the word symboulion only here and after Jesus' arrest in 15.1) with the Herodians how to destroy Jesus, did not go beyond the bounds of acceptable legal dispute. Sanders constantly and plausibly describes Jesus' attitude and behaviour as 'irritating' to the Pharisees, but no worse.

In fact these disputes with Pharisees are not even represented as playing any part in the process which leads towards Jesus' execution. In the later part of Jesus' ministry the Pharisees appear only twice:

1. At 10.2, which is represented as being in the Judaean hills, but in a scene which has no necessary connection with that district, so that the introductory verse may well be part of Mark's own contruction. Anyway, the Judean hills are not Jerusalem.

2. At 12.13, again with the Herodians (what were Herodians doing in Jerusalem? They fit quite well in Antipas' Galilee), in one of the four final disputes at Jerusalem. There is every reason to believe that these four disputes were artifically assembled by Mark. They may be regarded either (with Derrett) as a group of four subjects grouped elsewhere in Jewish literature (Wisdom, Riddle, Principles of Living, Scripture) or as an assembly of the principal opposition groups to Jesus (Pharisees & Herodians, Sadducees, lawyers, and finally Jesus taking the initiative). So 12.13 cannot be taken as evidence of Pharisaic opposition to Jesus in the last days at Jerusalem.

After 12.13 the Pharisees are not represented as playing any further part. Is this because they were too timid and too careful to take part in any dubious procedure? Their own later Pharisaic code of law is so hedged round with cautions and protections for an accused that it would scarcely have been operable - it never was, of course, the law of any state, and remained always theoretical.

2. The Sadducees and Temple authorities play leading role.

The events leading up to Jesus' arrest focus on the Temple and the Temple authorities, the high priests and Sadducees. They would have been the ones chiefly affected by Jesus' demonstration in the Temple, and challenged by his assertion of an authority based not on the orthodox ritual of a chain of ordination but on the same principles as the Baptist's renowned authority. Coupled with these groups in the passion-narrative are lawyers; but these are mentioned always second or even in subordination; they seem to have played a supporting role.

IIOne crucial factor in the investigation is, of course, the Jewish trial-scene. Its historicity is doubtful.

First a general demonstration may be made that the passion-narrative is not, as has often been held, an early self-contained narrative which the evangelists incorporated into their message. In many points, as the contributors to Werner Kelber's The Passion in Mark have shown, it clearly betrays Markan theology and formation.

1. An early point of formation is the parallelism between preparation for the meal and the preparation for the entry into Jerusalem (11.1-6//14.12-16). This can be due to no one but Mark.

2. One theme clearly important to Mark is the failure and betrayal of the disciples. This surfaces constantly and prominently, if not overwhelmingly: it is the dominant theme of the first scene at the supper (14.17-21), which is otherwise hardly more than the traditional, Pauline account of the institution of the eucharist. [But this scene too bears traces of Mark's hand in the Markan insertion-technique of repeating a phrase (esthionton auton) and in the careful parallelling absent in Paul (labon arton//labon poterion, eucharistesas//eulogesas)]

3. The scene in the garden is formed almost exclusively to show the disciples three times being offered the chance to share in Jesus' suffering and three times refusing - just as they had rejected the three prophecies of the passion. In the second and third stage particularly there is virtually no stress on the prayer of Jesus, but all the emphasis on the sleep of the disciples (plus the Markan ouk edeisan ti apokrithosin auto, which was suitable enough at 9.6 after the Transfiguration, but has restricted application here, since he has asked no question). The choice of these three disciples can most probably also be attributed to Mark, as 5.37; 9.2.

Thus there is an inherent probability that Mark will have played a large part in the formation of the trial scene also. One most obvious indication of this is the Markan sandwich composed of the denial of Peter and the confession of Jesus, again stressing the infidelity and failure of even the leader of the Twelve. Before the trial begins there is a little indication that Mark may have changed the scene radically: the plural high priests and elders and scribes are somewhat at variance with the initial 'they took Jesus off to the high priest' (14.53); the larger crowd plays little if any part, and in fact all the interrogation is done by the high priest. It must be remembered that John has no trial scene, but only an investigation by the high priest; it may be that Mark's basis similarly had an interrogation by the high priest, and that the others are an accretion. This becomes all the more probable if Sanders' contention is accepted, that the Sanhedrin as a properly constituted body did not exist at the time of Jesus, and is attested only as an informal body of advisers/courtiers/toadies, assembled ad hoc to support the decisions of the ruler of the time; they then play the part only of a chorus.

The trial consists of two parts, the false witness (56-59) and the interrogation (60-64). Of the two the first is typically Markan, with the two-stage progression, first the general statement of 56, then the particular one of 57-58 corresponding to 56a (content of the accusation) and the summary 59 corresponding to 56b (disagreement). This framework may well be influenced by the Pss 27.12 and 35.1, representing Jesus as the Just One against whom false witnesses rise up. But the historical importance of this stage in discerning the reason why Jesus was executed is the saying against the Temple. This is proferred as false witness (perhaps to fulfil the psalms) but is attested as a saying of Jesus also by Jn 2.10 and Ac 6.14, and by the mockery on the cross (Mk 15.29). If Jesus' action in the Temple is rightly understood as a demonstration that the Temple cult is obsolete, this saying would cohere perfectly, and may constitute the kernel of the whole process against Jesus. It would agree with the Qumran theology that the renewed community will constitute the new Temple (1QS 8.5, 7-8; 9.3-6), and with the opposition of the Hellenist branch of early Christianity to the Temple, but need not therefore be rejected as a 'floating logion' invented by the early Church (Schenke). Jesus himself may well have shared these ideas, especially if he himself had connections with Qumran.

The second part of the trial gives a different interpretation; but is it historically reliable? It has been characterised as 'a culmination' (John Donaghue apud Kelber, p. 71) or 'compendium' (Conzelmann) of Markan Christology. There are certain difficulties about it historically:

*it does not seem to be a technical blasphemy, which requires the name of God. The reaction of the onlookers must therefore be characterised as muddled.

*it is the only place where Jesus accepts the title of Messiah, albeit with some re-interpretation to avoid its political overtones

*it is the only place (apart from the clearly composed 13.26) where 'son of man' is used with clear Danielic reference. This is made all the more difficult because of the total lack of evidence for this usage at the time of Jesus (unless the rumoured Qumran scroll of Enoch stashed away in Kuwait really does contain the Similitudes of Enoch [mentioned in conversation at dinner at St Benet's by Alexander and Talmon, without in any way committing themselves])

*the whole status of the historical evidence for the trial is imperilled by the difficulty of any chain of evidence, when the disciples are stressed to have fled away

*the interpretation of Jesus as son of God is heavily Markan, occurring in the inclusio of the gospel, in the words of the bath qol at Baptism and Transfiguration, and as an interpretation of the inarticulate cries of the demented. What, further, is its relationship to the mysterious 4QpsDanAa 'He shall be hailed as son of God and they shall call him son of the Most High', similarly in an apocalyptic context ('he shall be great upon the earth')?


The trial before Pilate is similarly a Markan composition. It is parallel to the Jewish trial in several respects: the stress on the silence of Jesus (no doubt as the Suffering Servant) in 14.61 and 15.4-5, the care that only Jesus' own admission can condemn him (14.62 and 15.2). Markan also is the triple question of Pilate attempting to release Jesus (15.9, 12, 14).

Mark clearly wishes to put the blame on the Jewish authorities, but in fact it seems all too likely that this was the case. If we may deduce anything from the accounts in the four gospels it is that Pilate attempted to preserve justice, but was entirely outwitted by the Jewish authorities. This is most strongly seen in the veiled threat of delation to Rome and removal of the title philos tou Kaisaros (Jn 19.12). Philo and Josephus for their own purposes represent Pilate as harsh and unsympathetic; their intention is to excuse any misdeeds of Jews as an understandable reaction to prolonged maltreatment. More appealing is the interpretation of Pilate as hemmed in and buffeted on every side by a careful campaign, the plaything of their careful manipulation of Jewish privilege and susceptibility (the incidents of the eagles, the shields, the royal inscriptions, the riot about paying for the aqueduct). By the time, a couple of years before his eventual removal, when it came to the trial of this harmless creature whom the authorities wanted executed, Pilate was capable of only limited attempts to maintain Roman justice against their machinations. Had the Romans been convinced that Jesus was indeed the leader of a dangerously subversive movement, they would surely have taken care to round up some of his followers also, at least when they reappeared after their funk.

Mark Essay 6 The Parables in Mark

Is Mark's use of the parables the same as that of Jesus?

CH Dodd The Parables of the Kingdom (1935)

J Jeremias The Parables of Jesus (1972)

these are classic, basic works, not necessarily still current, but the starting-point of every discussion. Get clear on the meaning of mashal, and the distinction between parable and allegory, which was very important at one time. A useful starting-point for basic information on stances is the article in NJBC (81:57-82).

J Drury The Parables in the Gospels

H Hendrickx The Parables of Jesus

(comprehensive and unoriginal)

M Goulder 'Characteristics of the Parables in the Several Gospels' (JTS 19 [1968], 51ff)

B Gerhardsson various articles, including 'Illuminating the Kingdom' in HW, Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition and bibliography