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Last Week's Questions
Having no questions from last week (I must have done a better job than I thought), I’d like to use this space to clarify some biblical and non-biblical writing information.
The Apocrypha (Hidden Books) is a collection of books that Protestants consider important but not part of the Bible, per se. In Protestant Bibles these writing are usually tucked between the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). However, in the Roman Catholic tradition as well as Orthodox traditions, they are considered Deuterocanonical books that were originally included in the Hebrew Scriptures.
There are also other books called the Pseudepigrapha (pseudonymous writings—Book of Enoch, Assumption of Moses, I & II Esdras, et. al.).
All of these biblical (remember: the Bible is not a book but a collection of books) and non-biblical books contain various literary genres (poetry, narrative, prophesy, apocalyptic) that need to be recognized when reading. As with modern literature, we read the various literary genres appropriately (e.g. poetry, metaphorically and narrative, more literally).
The Rev. Benjamin Lee Lentz
For these final chapters I’ve rummaged through my boxes of books (I miss my library shelves!) in order to find the definitive study on the events of Holy Week. “THE DEATH OF THE MESSIAH” by Raymond E. Brown is his two volume Biblical exegesis of these final events. Although Brown looks at and compares all four gospel accounts, I will pick out (as best as I can) just Mark’s perspective.
Brown examines the events as if it were a four act play: Act I, Gethsemane; Act II, Before the Jewish Authorities; Act III, Before Pilate; Act IV, Crucifixion, Death and Burial. I’ve also included a Prologue and two Epilogues to cover material outside the scope of Brown’s book.
Just a quick after-thought: I am by no means encouraging the writing of Passion Plays. I absolutely detested the obscenity of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. The “Passionsspiele” of Oberammergau and similar presentations have over the centuries instigated persecution of Jews. Such plays frequently depict a melodramatic juxtaposition of "good Christians" to "wicked Jews," thus inflaming anti-Semitism.
Read Mark 14:1-16:8
This first section is used by Mark to set the stage for the actual passion (suffering) of Jesus. It relates to his readership that the hierarchy (chief priests & scribes is rather non-descript—Jewish authorities in general) plan to have Jesus executed, but not during the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Interestingly, these two events were separate events at the time of Jesus, but by the time of Mark’s recording they had become combined: the Passover being the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. I point this out because it has become one of the “dating factors” in establishing the timeframe of Mark’s record.
In no uncertain terms Mark has told his readers that execution is pending and sets the stage for the anointing scene.
An unknown woman, who shall always be remembered, breaks open a flask of pure nard and pours it over Jesus’ head. That’s a traditional anointing scenario such as for kings. However Jesus confirms his impending death by claiming that she is preparing his body for burial.
It also should be remembered that the meaning of ‘messiah’—in Greek, ‘the Christ’—is ‘anointed one of God’.
This section also speaks of Judas’ betrayal plans. Mark does not give any reason for Judas’ action. Unlike his synoptic friends who offer reasons such as greed or zealotry, Mark remains silent on motive. Along with verse 14:21, it appears that Mark sees Judas’ action as simply his lot in life. Should we infer from Mark that the passion is all part of God’s plan and that Judas is simply the unlucky participant?
This section also includes the institution of the Eucharist and true to Mark’s style, he keeps it simple: this is my body, this is my blood of the covenant. Nevertheless, Mark is not forgetting the prophet as this is clearly a reference to Zechariah: “...because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your captives free …” (Zechariah 9:11)
Act I, Gethsemane
Going to & Prayer at Gethsemane (14:26—42)
Following the meal, Jesus takes the Twelve to the Mount of Olives, just outside the city, across the Kidron Valley (although Mark doesn’t mention the Kidron Valley).
We must compare this to the action of the messianic king David, fleeing his usurper son, Absalom: ”And all the country wept aloud as all the people passed by, and the king crossed the brook Kidron, and all the people passed on toward the wilderness...But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered; and all the people who were with him covered their heads, and they went up, weeping as they went “ (2 Samuel 15:23, 30).
Of course Jesus isn’t fleeing Jerusalem, but is emulating the footsteps of the messianic king as he redefines Messiah. On the way, Jesus foretells the falling away of the faithful by quoting again, the prophet Zechariah: “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered.” (Zechariah 13:7).
Upon arriving at Gethsemane with the Twelve, Jesus takes his inner circle (Peter, James, & John), the core group that usually indicates that something big is about to happen, with him to pray. The prayer offered by Jesus to God might first appear to be that he is unsure, yet he still demonstrates his resolve to fulfilling his role in the eschatological battle against evil.
Jesus’ Arrest (14:43—52)
Although this is a very short section, we have to be careful that we see what is actually written. Perhaps I can best do that Socratically.
Why was Judas necessary? During the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jerusalem would have been packed with pilgrims, so much so that people would have been encamped all around the city—perhaps even on the Mount of Olives. Finding Jesus after he had left the city could have been difficult except for a person who knew where they were going. To be on the safe side, making sure they got the right person, Judas was employed.
Who came with Judas? Although it is frequently believed that it was a detachment either of Roman or Temple guards (John says both, Luke just Temple guards), Mark simply says it was a crowd (ocholos) sent by the Jewish authorities.
Who is Jesus addressing in verse 14:48-49? At a quick glance it appears to be those who came to arrest him, but it actually seems that he was also speaking to those (the bystanders) who would defend him. The Greek word for ‘robber’ (lesten) implies that Jesus does not want to be confused with a mundane messiah who would be seen as a violent insurrectionist.
Act II, Before the Jewish Authorities
Jesus is brought before the High Priest (Matthew & John identify him as Caiaphas, although Mark doesn’t mention him by name) by the chief priests, elders, and scribes (presumably, the Sanhedrin) in order to discover evidence meriting the death penalty. However, the witnesses are unable to keep their stories straight. See Deuteronomy: “A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.” (Deut. 19:15). He could not be convicted on the testimony of these witnesses because they could not agree.
Then the High Priest questions Jesus, asking him to respond to the false accusations made by the “witnesses”. When Jesus remains silent, the chief priest asks specifically: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? (14:61)“ ‘Blessed’, as is “Ancient of Days” or “the Power”, is a euphemism frequently employed in order to avoid pronouncing God’s sacred name, Yahweh.
It is only when the truth is spoken by the High Priest that Jesus responds to the truth in verse 62, quoting (paraphrasing) an apocalyptic passage: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. (Daniel 7:13)
This is interpreted as blasphemy, and reason for a death sentence. Why would Jesus play into his hands? The simple answer is that Jesus is fulfilling God’s plan for the eschatological battle against evil and a path to redemption.
Act III, Before Pilate
In current parlance, what happened before the Jewish authorities could be seen as a Grand Jury hearing, gathering evidence and making recommendation for a trial. However, Pilate does not treat it as such. Indeed, he makes no verdict, simply allowing the Jewish authorities to ‘get what they want.’ This, however, presents us with several historical challenges.
First off, Pilate was considered to be a ruthless, perhaps even sadistic, procurator of Jerusalem. And that comes from Roman sources. Perhaps Mark is more interested in placing the execution solely on the backs of the Jewish authorities (not be confused with all Jews, just the authorities).
Secondly, historians can find no “usual” custom of releasing a prisoner at the suggestion of a crowd. There appears to be one record of a Roman procurator of Egypt, Gaius Septimius Vegetus, as scourging a prisoner and then releasing him to the crowd, but that event was circa 85 C.E., quite sometime after even Mark’s record let alone the actual event.
Thirdly, in the third decade of the Common Era, presumable at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, there is no historical evidence of any insurrection. However, when Mark was writing, there were several insurrections against Rome, culminating in the Great Jewish Revolt (66-70 C.E.) and the subsequent destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The character known as Barabbas, perhaps fully known as Jesus Barabbas, remains unknown to history other than in the Passion Narratives. Mark probably drops the name Jesus from the surname Barabbas because by the time of his writing, the name Jesus had become sacred for Christians.
A few other quick notes: Pilate and the soldiers refer to Jesus as King of the Jews. They would have seen a messiah, as a pretender to the throne—a false king. That’s why the soldiers crown him and put him into purple. There might also be a little Mid-eastern hyperbole coming into play as well, since the whole cohort (15:16) gathers together—that would have been 480 men.
Act IV, Crucifixion, Death and Burial
Crucifixion & Death (15:20b—41)
Unlike his synoptic friends, Mark gives very little detail to Jesus’ journey from the Praetorium to Golgotha. He does mention the assistance of “Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus (15:21)”. Although these three characters are unknown to historians, evidently they were known to Mark’s readership and thereby supplying authentication (witness) to the event.
As for the physical place of Golgotha (Aramaic for ‘skull’; Hebrew, Gulgoleth, גולגולת), it is difficult to locate precisely. Mark gives no specific path to Golgotha, although other Gospel authors give a more detailed via dolorosa.
But even with the greater detail of the other authors, the physical boundaries of Jerusalem have been altered greatly (e.g. there have been several ‘north walls’ - those of the time of the crusades, the time of Mark, the time of Jesus, the time of Herod the Great, the time of David). Based simply on the name (a.k.a. skull hill, perhaps a rounded knoll), with tombs nearby, archeologists tend to believe it to be just due West of the Temple, outside the city wall.
Despite the difficulties with affixing a specific location for the crucifixion, it was clearly in a place that was a somewhat frequent route in and out of the city. This is indicated by the mocking of Jesus by passers-by.
Those who mocked Jesus according to Mark were the passers-by, chief priests and scribes (authorities) and even the two robbers crucified with him (15:29—32).
He was crucified at the third hour, perhaps 9:00 a.m. or more vaguely between 9:00 a.m. and noon (e.g. a subtlety between at the third hour or in the third hour). Then darkness covers the land for the sixth hour (noon—3:00 p.m.).
Verses 34—36 present some difficulties for biblical scholarship. Mark and Matthew offer a phrase either in Aramaic (Mark) or Hebrew (Matthew) both of which translate as “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Much is made of pronunciation and understanding of Mark’s E′lo-i, E′lo-i and Matthew’s Eli, Eli, both meaning “My God, my God” but sounding completely different (the Hebrew ‘Eli’ could be confused with ‘Eliya’ - Elijah, the Aramaic ‘E′lo-i’ could not be misheard as Elijah).
However, I believe that we ought to set that all aside and focus on the source (reference) of the quote. The readers of both Gospel authors would have immediately recalled Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1). This psalm is not one of despair; it is the prayer of a righteous sufferer who yet trusts fully in the love and protection of God and who is confident of being vindicated by him.
For me what occurs next has profoundly inspired me. The centurion—a Roman, a gentile, a non-believer—is the one who reaffirms the similar words of God at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) as well as the words at the transfiguration (9:8): “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ (15:39)”.
Mark boldly uses the declaration of a non-Jew to solidify his main theme—that Messiah now includes a divine element.
Although the story of the burial of Jesus is almost ‘anti-climatic’ compared to the declaration of the centurion, the story of Jesus’ burial was important in the early Church on two counts.
First it establishes that he had really been dead (cf. ‘corpse’ in v. 45), and so had really risen from the dead. Secondly, from the point of view of the tradition about the empty tomb, it was important to establish that the women, who later found the tomb empty, had not gone to the wrong tomb, but to the one in which they had themselves seen the body placed.
The inclusion of the character, Joseph of Arimathaea, who was a member of the Sanhedrin (Jewish authorities) relates to Mark’s readership that it is acceptable for Jews to accept Jesus as the newly defined eschatological Messiah.
Because of time constraints for this week, as well as the fact that I must have miscounted sessions vs. weeks of Lent (perhaps the reason I changed college majors from Math to Intellectual History), I’m going to leave the Epilogue and Post—Epilogue for another session. Remember, back in Session I, that I said it was a “don’t hold me to it” outline.
End Week V
Please send your questions to Fr. Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org