Easter is utterly central. But what was it? What are the Easter stories about? On one level, the answer is obvious: God raised Jesus. Yes. And what does this mean? Is it about the most spectacular miracle there's ever been? Is it about the promise of an afterlife? Is it about God proving that Jesus was indeed his Son? (page 144)
Those of us who grew up Christian have a "preunderstanding" of Easter, just as we do of Good Friday and Christmas, that shapes our hearing of these stories.
This widespread preunderstanding emphasizes the historical factuality of the stories, in harder or softer forms.
So central is the historical factuality of the Easter stories for many Christians that, if they didn't happen this way, the foundation and truth of Christianity disappear. (page 145)
"But we are convinced that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the Easter stories, as if they were reporting events that could have been photographed, gets in the way of understanding them."
"When treated as if they are primarily about an utterly unique spectacular event, we often do not get beyond the question, 'Did they happen or not?' to the question, 'What do they mean?'
History or Parable?
What kind of narratives are these?
When these stories are seen as history, their purpose is to report publicly observable events that could have been witnessed by anybody who was there. (page 146)
When we see these stories as parable, the "model" for this understanding is the parables of Jesus.
The truth of a parable -- of a parabolic narrative -- is not dependent on its factuality.
"Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factuality. It's quite happy leaving the question open. What it does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings." (page 146)
One should not think of history as "true" and parable as "fiction." (page 147)
Both biblical literalists and people who reject the Bible completely do this: the former insist that the truth of the Bible depends on its literal factuality, and the latter see that the Bible cannot be literally and factually true and therefore don't think it is true at all.
Mark's Story of Easter
Mark provides us with the first story, the first narrative, of Easter.
It is very brief, only eight verses.
Mark does not report an appearance of the risen Jesus.
Mark's Easter story ends very abruptly.
Matthew adds to details to Mark's story in 16:3-4:
He explains how the stone got moved: there is an earthquake
He narrates the presence of guards at the tomb
The ending is not only abrupt, but puzzling. According to Mark, the women don't tell anybody. End of gospel. Full stop. The ending was deemed unsatisfactory as early as the second century, when a longer ending was added to Mark (16:9-20)
In Mark (and in Matthew), the women are to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, where they will see the risen Jesus. But in Luke, the risen Jesus appears in and around Jerusalem; Luke has no Easter stories set in Galilee.
Mark's Story As Parable
Appearance Stories In The Other Gospels
These stories are the product of the experience and reflection of Jesus's followers in the days, months, years, and decades after his death. Strikingly none is found in more than one gospel -- striking because in the pre-Easter part of the gospels, the same story is often found in two more more gospels. (page 150)
Matthew has two appearance stories:
In the rest of the story (Matthew 28:18-20), the risen Jesus speaks what has come to be known as the Great Commission:
To the risen Jesus, God has given "all authority in heaven and on earth." The implicit but obvious contrast is to the authorities who crucified him.
Jesus's followers are to make "disciples" of "all nations." Now the commission is beyond Israel. A disciple is not simply a believer, but one who follows the way of Jesus.
They are to teach them "to obey everything I have commanded you." What is required is obedience, not belief.
"I am with you always." The words echo a theme announced in the story of Jesus's birth in Matthew, where he identifies Jesus with "Emmanuel," which means "God is with us."
Luke also has two appearance stories that are considerably larger than Matthew's. Both are set in Jerusalem, not in Galilee.
The first is the Emmaus road story, the longest Easter narrative (24:13-35)
"If we were to use but one story to make the case that Easter stories are parabolic narratives, this is the one. It is difficult to imagine that this story is speaking about events that could have been videotaped." (page 151)
"This story is the metaphoric condensation of several years of early Christian thought into one parabolic afternoon. Whether the story happened or not, Emmaus always happens. Emmaus happens again and again -- this is its truth as parabolic narrative." (page 152)
Luke's second appearance story (24:36-49) is set on the evening of the same day, so it is still Easter Sunday.
John has four appearance stories spread over two chapters.
The Gospel Easter Stories Together
Two themes run through these stories that sum up the central meaning of Easter. The first, in a concise phrase, is Jesus lives. (page 154)
Together, the appearance stories in the gospels make explicit what is promised in Mark: "You will see him." They underline the parabolic meaning of Mark's story of the empty tomb: Jesus is not among the dead, but among the living. (page 155)
The truth of the affirmation "Jesus lives" is grounded in the experience of Christians throughout the centuries.
To state the second affirmation of the Easter stories in an equally concise phrase: God has vindicated Jesus. God has said "yes" to Jesus and "no" to the powers who executed him. (page 155)
The stories underline this in different ways. In Luke and John, the risen Jesus continues to bear the wounds of the empire that executed him. In Matthew, the risen Jesus has been given authority over all the authorities of this world.
Mark, writing most concisely among the authors of the gospels says simply, "You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified; he has been raised."
Easter affirms that the domination systems of this world are not of God and that they do not have the final word.
Paul And The Resurrection of Jesus
The central themes of the gospel stories -- Jesus lives and Jesus is Lord -- are equally central to Paul's experience, conviction, and theology. To these, he adds a third.
How did Paul experience the risen Jesus?
Those traveling with Paul did not share the experience; indicating that it was a private and not public experience. In short, it was what is commonly called a vision.
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Paul thought of the appearances of the risen Jesus to Jesus's other followers also as visions.
Some Christians are uncomfortable with this thought, as if there were "only" visions.
Paul came to believe Jesus is Lord because of his experience of the risen Jesus changed his life.
His experience had a crucial corollary. It generated the conviction not only that "Jesus lives," but that God had vindicated Jesus, said "yes" to the one who had been executed by the authorities and whose movement Paul was persecuting. (page 157)
Paul's third Easter theme makes explicit what is implicit in the gospel stories of Easter. Namely, within the world of Jewish thought that shaped Jesus, Paul, and the authors of the New Testament, resurrection was associated with eschatology.
Jesus, Paul, and earliest Christianity claimed that God's transfiguration of this earth had already started, that they also claimed that the general resurrection had begun with Jesus. That, of course, is why Paul must argue in 1 Corinthians that if there is no general resurrection, there is no Jesus resurrection, and if there is no Jesus resurrection, there is no general resurrection. (15:12-16)
If, therefore, the kingdom of God has begun on this earth or the general bodily resurrection has begun on this earth, the claim is also being made that all are here and now called to participate in what is now a collaborative eschatology. Or, in the magnificent aphorism of St. Augustine: "We without God cannot, and God without us will not." (page 158)
Easter And Christian Life Today: Personal and Political Transformation
Easter completes the archetypal pattern at the center of the Christian life: death and resurrection, crucifixion and vindication. (page 158)
Easter is about God even as it is about Jesus. Easter discloses the character of God. Easter means God's Great Cleanup of the world has begun -- but it will not happen without us.
As the climax of Holy Week and the story of Jesus, Good Friday and Easter address the fundamental human question, What ails us? Most of us feel the force of this question -- something is not right. So what ails us? Very compactly, egoism and injustice. And the two go together. (page 159)
Egoism means being centered in the self and its anxieties and preoccupations, what is sometimes called the "small self." Egoism is centering in the anxious and fearful self and its concerns and desires.
The issue is the kind of self that I am, that you are, that we are.
Good Friday and Easter, death and resurrection together, are a central image in the New Testament for the path to a transformed self.
Johns' incarnational theology, the death and resurrection of Jesus incarnates the way of transformation.
We are invited to the journey that leads through death to resurrection and rebirth. But when only the personal meaning is emphasized, we betray the passion for which Jesus was willing to risk his life. (page 160)
The political meaning of Good Friday and Easter sees the human problem as injustice, and the solution is God's justice.
Jesus's passion got him killed. But God has vindicated Jesus. This is the political meaning of Good Friday and Easter.
The anti-imperal meaning of Good Friday and Easter is particularly important and challenging for American Christians.
Empire is (also) about the use of military and economic power to shape the world in one's perceived interest.
Christians in the United States are deeply divided about this country's imperial role.
Just as there is a dangerous distortion when only the personal meaning of Good Friday and Easter is emphasized, so also when only the political meaning is emphasized. (page 162)
"Jesus is Lord," the most widespread post-Easter affirmation in the New Testament, is thus both personal and political. It involves a deep centering in God, a deep centering in God that includes radical trust in God, the same trust that we see in Jesus. It produces freedom -- "For freedom, Christ has set us free"; compassion -- the greatest of the spiritual gifts is love; and courage -- "Fear not, do not be afraid."
Love is the soul of justice, and justice is the body, the flesh, of love. All of this is what Easter, the ultimate climax of Holy Week is about.
Holy Week and the journey of Lent are about an alternative procession and an alternative journey. (page 163)
Alternative procession is what we see on Palm Sunday, an anti-imperial and nonviolent procession.
"Now and then, the alternative journey is the path of personal transformation that leads to journeying with the risen Jesus, just as it did for his followers on the road to Emmaus. Holy Week as they annual remembrance of Jesus's last week presents us with the always relevant questions: Which journey are we on? Which procession are we in?" (page 163)
After detailing every day from Sunday through Friday of Holy Week, Mark says nothing at all about the sabbath (Saturday).
He notes that Jesus was crucified and buried on "the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath." (15:42) Then he picks up the story on Easter Sunday with the finding of the empty tomb.
The event -- "he descended into hell" -- mentioned in the Apostle's Creed but omitted in the Nicene Creed is known as the "descent into hell" or the "harrowing of hell." (page 127)
"Harrowing" is an Old English word for "robbing" and "hell" is not the later Christian place of eternal punishment, but the Jewish Sheol or the Greek Hades, the afterlife place of nonexistence.
God's Justice And The Vindication Of The Persecuted Ones
Mark and the other evangelists were working within a Jewish tradition that had always emphasized how God vindicated those righteous Jews who remained faithful under persecution and were ready, if necessary, to die as martyrs for their faith in God. (page 128)
Two models of divine vindication: before or after their death.
The classic example of the first model of divine vindication, or salvation at the last minute before death under persecution, is the story of Daniel in the lion's den. (Daniel 5:1-6:28)
The first model is helpful for faithful Jews facing ridicule or discrimination, but how would they help them in situations of lethal persecution when God did not intervene and they died as martyrs? (page 129)
The second model of divine vindication, or salvation but only after death, appears in Wisdom 2-5, a book written shortly before the time of Jesus and now part of the Apocrypha of the Christian Bible. (page 129)
It is, of course, that second model that is presumed behind the gospel stories of Jesus's execution and vindication. That is quite clear in Mark's account.
Jesus's vindication was "in accordance with the scriptures" for all those who knew their tradition's second model.
God's Justice And The Bodily Resurrection Of The Dead
If, as in the biblical tradition, your faith tells you that this world belongs to and is ruled by a just divinity and your experience tells you that the world belongs to and is ruled by an unjust humanity, utopia or eschatology becomes almost inevitable as the reconciliation of faith and experience. (page 130)
"Eschatology is absolutely not about the end of this time-space world, but rather about the end of this time-place world's subjection to evil and impurity, injustice, violence, and oppression. It is not about the evacuation of earth for God's heaven, but about the divine transfiguration of God's earth. It is not about the destruction, but about the transfiguration of God's world here below." (page 131)
How did the claim of a general bodily resurrection, surely the most counter intuitive idea imaginable, become part of that utopian scenario of cosmic transfiguration at least within some -- for example, Pharisaic -- strands of Judaism?
The general reason was because the renewal of an all-good creation here below upon this earth demanded it. How could you have a renewed creation without renewed bodies? (page 132)
The specific reason bodily-resurrection became part of the utopian scenario was the problem of martyrdom during the Seleucid persecution of homeland Jews in the 160s BCE. The question was not about their survival, but about God's justice when faced specifically with the battered, tortured, and executed bodies of martyrs. (page 132) See Daniel 12:2-3 and 2 Maccabees 7:9-11
If you believed, as Jesus said and Mark wrote, that the kingdom of God was already here upon the earth, you were claiming that God's Great Cleanup had already started. And if you believed that the first act of God's Great Cleanup of the earth was the general bodily resurrection and the vindication of all the persecuted and righteous ones, then for Christian Jews, the general resurrection could indeed begin with Jesus, but Jesus's resurrection would only be along with and at the head of those other Jews who had died unjustly or at least righteously before him.
Jesus's Resurrection And The Resurrection Of The Righteous Ones
Jesus descended into hell, or Hades or Sheol, to liberate all the righteous ones who had lived for justice and died from injustice before he himself had lived and died a similar destiny. (page 133)
Borg and Crossan look at this tradition in story, hymn, image, and finally silence.
Why did Matthew add those portions to Mark and what do they mean?
Matthew uses a very significant term. He describes the resurrection of the saints "who had fallen asleep" (Greek kekoime-meno-n). And that is the standard way of describing the righteous ones who died before Jesus -- they are not so much dead as sleeping and awaiting resurrection for their suffering and tortured or executed bodies. See 1 Corinthians 15:20
Gospel of Peter. It's account of the resurrection is unique in that it actually describes the event itself as actually seen by Jewish authorities and Roman guards at the tomb. (page 136)
It is standard in the iconography of Greek Orthodox Christianity to depict the resurrection of Jesus not as that of an isolated individual but as that of a group in which Jesus is the liberator and leader of the holy ones who slept in Hades awaiting his advent.
St. Sargius Church in Old Cairo (page 138)
Chora Church in Istanbul (page 139)
Jesus's harrowing of hell may be present in some other places in the New Testament, but those possibilities are very much debated. It is sometimes asserted that it is a late and post-New Testament piece of theology.
Borg and Crossan say that Matthew 27:51-53 is less an example than an epitaph for the harrowing of hell tradition.
It seems rather that it was early and leaving as the New Testament was being written rather than late and arriving after its creation. (page 140)
First, the harrowing of hell is an intensely Jewish Christian tradition.
Second, the harrowing of hell is also intensely mythological.
Third, the harrowing of hell could not fit easily into any sequence as the ending of a gospel narrative. How could Jesus arise at the head of the martyred and righteous ones and then appear to his disciples to give them their apostolic mandate?
Fourth, there is a somewhat complicated dogmatic problem. If Christians had to be baptized in order to enter heaven, did those holy ones who Jesus liberated from Hades enter heaven without baptism?
"For those four reasons and especially in view of dogmatic problems like the last one, the harrowing of hell tradition was necessarily lost to the gospel story, but not of course to the wider Christian tradition, especially to Christian poetry and art, hymn and image." (page 141)
Kingdom of God, Son of Man, And Bodily Resurrection
For Mark the kingdom of God is already here because the Son of Man is already present. (page 142)
Recall was said about Jesus as the Son of Man in Mark when discussing the trial of Jesus on Thursday, in Chapter 5. Mark insists that Jesus is the Son of Man from Daniel 7:13-14
For Mark, therefore, Jesus as Son of Man has been given the anti-imperial kingdom of God to bring to earth for God's people, for all those willing to enter it or take it upon themselves. (page 143)
The three claims, about the kingdom of God as already begun through Jesus, the Son of Man as already arrived in Jesus, and the general bodily resurrection as already started with Jesus, intertwine with one another, serve to interpret one another, and, taken together, reveal the heart of Mark's theology.
If God's Great Cleanup, God's Eastertide Spring Cleaning of the world, had already begun, then it was a collaborative effort.
Substitutionary Atonement Once Again
In order for God to forgive sins, a substitutionary sacrifice must be offered. (page 107)
For most of us who are Christian, this understanding is rooted in childhood and reinforced in our liturgies.
Hence it is important to realize that this is not the only Christian understanding of Jesus's death.
This understanding first appeared in fully developed form in a book written in 1097 by St. Anslem, archbishop of Canterbury. (page 108)
Anslem presupposes a legal framework for understanding our relationship with God.
This common Christian understanding goes far beyond what the New Testament says.
"In particular, we will argue that the substitutionary sacrificial understanding of Jesus's death is not there at all in Mark."
We most commonly hear the story of Jesus's death as a composite of the gospels and the New Testament as a whole.
For example, only Matthew has the scene of Pilate washing his hands of the blood of Jesus and the cry of the crowd, "His blood be on us and on our children." (27:25)
Only Luke has the story of Jesus appearing before Herod Antipas as well as three of the "last words" of Jesus. (page 108)
The story of Good Friday in John's gospel contains much more dialogue between Jesus and Pilate.
Mark's Story of Good Friday
As the earliest gospel, Mark provides the earliest narrative of the crucifixion. (page 109)
"That Paul, the earliest author in the New Testament, uses multiple interpretations leads to an important point: there is no uninterpreted account of the death of Jesus in the New Testament." (page 110)
The followers of Jesus in the years and decades after his death sought to see meaning in the horrific execution of their beloved master, whom they saw as God's annointed one.
Mark tells the story of Good Friday in precisely indicated three-hour intervals.
from dawn (6 AM) to 9 AM
from 9 AM to noon
from noon to 3 PM
from 3 PM to evening (6 PM)
From 6 to 9 AM
To refuse to respond to authority reflects both courage and contempt. Authorities do not like it. (page 111)
As history remembered, the story about Barabbas is difficult. But if we set in Mark's historical context as he wrote around the year 70, it makes considerable sense.
Both Barabbas and Jesus were revolutionaries, both defied imperial authority. But Barabbas advocated violent revolution and Jesus advocated nonviolence.
From 9AM to Noon
Crucifixion was a form of Roman imperial terrorism. (page 113)
It was not just capital punishment, but a very definite type of capital punishment for those such as runaway slaves or rebel insurgents who subverted Roman law and order and thereby disturbed the Pax Romana (the "Roman peace").
It was always as public as possible.
What made it supreme was not just the amount of suffering or even humiliation involved, but that there might be nothing left or allowed for burial.
On the cross was an inscription: "The King of the Jews" (page 114)
Pilate intended it as derision and most likely saw it mocking not only Jesus, but his accusers
Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between to "bandits." The Greek word translated "bandits" is commonly used for guerilla fighters against Rome, who were either "terrorists" or "freedom fighter," depending upon one's point of view.
From Noon to 3 PM
The darkness is the product of Mark's use of religious symbolism. In the ancient world, highly significant events on earth were accompanied by signs in the sky. (page 115)
The darkness from noon to 3 PM is best understood as literary symbolism.
From 3 to 6 PM
Mark narrates two events that provide two interpretive comments about what has happened. The first is the tearing of the temple curtain. (page 116)
This event is best understood symbolically and not as history remembered.
That the curtain torn in two has a twofold meaning. On one hand, it is a judgement upon the temple and the temple authorities. On the other hand it is an affirmation.
To say that the curtain, the veil, has been torn is to affirm that the execution of Jesus means that access to the presence of God is now open. This affirmation underlines Mark's presentation of Jesus earlier in the gospel: Jesus mediated access to God apart from the temple and the domination system that it had come to represent in the first century.
The second interpretive comment is the exclamation by the Roman centurion that "Truly this man was God's Son." (15:30)
In this exclamation of the centurion responsible for Jesus's execution, empire testifies against itself.
The presence of the women reminds us that Jesus's men followers were not present. They have all fled. (page 117)
Why would first-century Jewish women (and slightly later, gentile women) be attracted to Jesus? For the same reasons that first-century men were, yes. But in addition it seems clear that Jesus and earliest Christianity gave to women an identity and status they did not experience within the conventional wisdom of the time.
The subversion has been denied by much of Christian history, but it is right here, in a prominent place in the story of the climactic events of Jesus life. (page 118)
6 PM and the Burial of Jesus
Pilate's granting Joseph's request for the body of Jesus to be buried is a remarkable departure from customary procedure since, as mentioned earlier, the body of a crucified individual was not given an honorable burial. (page 118)
Jesus's Death as Sacrifice?
We return to a common Christian understanding of Jesus's death: that it was a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. (page 119)
The broad meaning refers to sacrificing one's life for a cause.
In this sense, one may speak of Jesus sacrificing his life for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God.
The more specific meaning of sacrifice in relation to Jesus's death speaks of it as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, a dying for the sins of the world. This understanding is absent from Mark's story of Good Friday; it is not there at all.
There is only one passage in all of Mark that might have a substitutionary sacrificial meaning.
"The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (10:45)
"To many Christians, the world 'ransom' sounds like sacrificial language, for we sometimes speak of Jesus as the ransom for our sins. But it most certainly does not have this meaning in Mark. As already mentioned, the Greek word translated as 'ransom' (lutron) is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin, but to refer to payment made to liberate captives (often from captivity in war) or slaves (often from debt slavery). A lutron is a means of liberation from bondage." (page 119)
"Thus to say that Jesus gave 'his life a ransom for many' means he gave his life as a means of liberation from bondage." (page 120)
The context of the passage in Mark supports this reading. The preceding verses are a critique of the domination system. The rulers of the nations lord it over their subjects. "It is not so among you," Jesus says. Then Jesus uses his own path as an illustration. In contrast to the rulers of this world, "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a lutron -- a means of liberation -- for many."
And this is a path for his followers to imitate: so it shall be "among you."
How then does Mark understand Jesus's death?
He sees Jesus's death as an execution by the authorities because of his challenge to the domination system.
As such, Mark understands Jesus's death as a judgement on the authorities and the temple. Judgement is indicated by the fact that, as Jesus dies, darkness comes over the city and land, and the great curtain in the temple is torn in two. And a Roman centurion pronounces judgement against his own empire, which has just killed Jesus: "Truly this man -- and not the emperor -- is God's Son." (page 120)
Mark's Use Of The Jewish Bible
At several points in his story of Good Friday, Mark echoes and sometimes quotes the Jewish Bible.
Many of us who grew up Christian were taught that the relationship between the two testaments is one of prophecy and fulfillment.
These not only demonstrated that Jesus was the Messiah, but also proved the truth of the Bible and thus Christianity -- only a supernaturally inspired scripture could predict the future so precisely.
It easily and naturally, if not inevitably, leads to the inference that things had to happen this way.
The Jewish Bible was the sacred scripture of early Christians, and many of them knew it well, whether from hearing it orally or being able to read it. Thus, as they told the story of Jesus, they used language from the Jewish Bible to do so. (page 121)
This practice produced what we call "prophecy historicized." A passage from the past (in this case, from the Jewish Bible) is "historicized" when it is used in the narration of a subsequent story.
It is an attempt to connect that newer story to the earlier tradition and lend credibility to it.
The point, rather, is the use of passages from the Jewish Bible in the telling of the story of Jesus and what such use suggests about the interpretive framework of the narrator.
Now we focus on Mark's primary use of the Jewish Bible, namely, his frequent citation of Psalm 22. (page 122)
How are these references to be understood?
Within the framework of "prophecy historicized," they are seen as the product of Mark's use of the psalm as a way of interpreting the death of Jesus.
As part of the Jewish Bible, Psalm 22 is a prayer for deliverance. The prayer describes a person experiencing immense suffering and intense hostility.
Mark's frequent use of language from this psalm suggests that he and his community saw the death of Jesus this way. It was the suffering and death of one who was righteous, condemned by the powers of this world, and who would be vindicated by God.
Divine Necessity Or Human Inevitability?
Did Jesus's death have to happen? There are two quite different reasons why one might think so. One is divine necessity; the other is human inevitability. (page 123)
By the time Mark wrote, early Christianity had already developed several interpretations of the death of Jesus.
The story of Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery affirms that even the evil deed of selling a brother into slavery was used by God for a providential purpose. (page 124)
Like the storyteller of Genesis, early Christian storytellers looking back on what did happen ascribe providential meanings to Good Friday. But this does not mean Good Friday had to happen. (page 125)
Human inevitability -- this is what domination systems did to people who publicly and vigorously challenged them.
Jesus's passion for the kingdom of God led to what is often called his passion, namely, his suffering and death.
To think of Jesus's passion as simply what happened on Good Friday is to separate his death from the passion that animated his life.
The language of substitutionary sacrifice for sin is absent from this story. But in an important sense, he was killed because of the sin of the world. It was the injustice of domination systems that killed him, injustice so routine that it is part of the normalcy of civilization. Though sin means more than this, it includes this. And thus Jesus was crucified because of the sin of the world. (page 126)
Was Jesus guilty or innocent? The question will seem surprising to some, but it is worth reflecting about.
Was Jesus guilty of advocating violent revolution against the empire and its local collaborators? No.
As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of nonviolent resistance to Roman oppression and local Jewish collaboration? Oh, yes.
In Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke), the meal Jesus shares with his disciples is a Passover meal. In John, it is not. Rather, Thursday is the day before Passover, and the lambs to be eaten at the Passover meal on Friday evening will be killed on Friday afternoon, at about the same hour Jesus dies on the cross.
The reason for John's dating seems to be theological: Jesus is the new Passover lamb.
In Mark nine verses are devoted to Jesus's last gathering with his disciples, in John five chapters, often called "Jesus's Farewell Discourse."
In Mark (again followed by Matthew and Luke) Jesus speaks the words that, in slightly varying forms, have become central to Christian celebration of the Lord's Supper (Eucharist, Mass, or Communion): "This is my body, this is my blood." Johns says nothing about this. Instead, John has the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
"Maundy Thursday" is based on John's story: "Maundy" derives from the Latin word for the "mandate" -- the new commandment -- that Jesus gives his followers in John 13:34: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."
Back to Mark... the details in this passage recall the preparations for Jesus's entry into the city on Palm Sunday, but in this case the preplanning has to do with secrecy.
The Last Supper: A Web Of Meanings
Three main elements in Mark's story of the Last Supper: (page 90)
"The theme of failed discipleship continues to be central; more than half of Mark's narration of Thursday evening and night is devoted to it." (page 90)
Four rich meanings of the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. (page 91)
A Continuation of the Meal Practice of Jesus
"According to the gospels, including Mark, shared meals were one of the most distinctive features of Jesus's public activity."
"The issue is that Jesus eats with 'undesirables,' the marginalized and outcast, in a society in which the people with whom one shared a meal was hugely significant."
"They were real meals, not a morsel and a sip as in our observance of the Eucharist. For Jesus, real food -- bread -- mattered."
"For Jesus's peasant audience, bread -- enough food for the day -- was one of the two central survival issues of their lives (the other was debt).
An Echo of the Feeding of the Five Thousand
"As Mark narrates what Jesus did at the Last Supper, he uses four verbs: took, blessed, broke, and gave. These four key words refer us back to an earlier scene concerning food in Mark, in which Jesus feeds five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes." (page 91)
Why this cross-reference from the Last Supper back to the loaves-and-fishes meal?
Mark's story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes begins by establishing two divergent solutions to a hunger situation.
The disciples: Send them away so they can get something to eat
Jesus: You give them something to eat
Jesus forces them to participate step by step as intermediaries in the entire process. (page 92)
"The point of this story is not multiplication, but distribution. The food already there is enough for all when it passes through the hands of Jesus as the incarnation of divine justice. The disciples -- think of them as the already present kingdom community in microcosm, or as the leaders of that community -- do not see that as their responsibility and are forced to accept it by Jesus." (page 92)
"Mark's emphasis on a just distribution of what does not belong to us in the incident of the loaves and fishes links, therefore, to the emphasis on the 'loaf of bread' and the 'cup of wine' that are shared among all at the New Passover meal." (page 92)
A Passover Meal
The first Passover (Exodus 12) occurred on the evening before the tenth plague to strike Pharaoh and Egypt, namely, the death of the firstborn in every household in Egypt. (page 93)
"The Passover lamb was thus also food for the journey. Moreover, the first Passover was also the last supper in Egypt, the land of bondage. We note that the Passover lamb is a sacrifice in the broad sense of the word, but not in the narrow sense of substitutionary sacrifice. Its purpose is twofold: protection against death and food for the journey." (page 93)
"For the empire of Pharaoh, substitute the Roman Empire or any other empire, and the subversive nature of this story is not difficult to discern." (page 93)
Body and Blood and the Death of Jesus
"Mark's story of the Last Supper leaves the connections to Passover implicit. What it makes explicit is the connection to Jesus's impending death." (page 93)
Noting the differences between Mark, Matthew and Luke about the words of the Last Supper, the authors write "The different versions indicate a degree of fluidity in how the Last Supper was remembered and celebrated. What they all have in common, however, is an emphasis on body and blood, bread and wine." (page 94)
What, then is Mark adding here that was not present before?
"First, the point of Jesus's meals -- from the loaves-and-fishes ones to the bread-and-wine one -- is to insist on shared meals as the mandate of divine justice in a world not our own." (page 94)
"The language of body and blood points to a violent death. When a person dies nonviolently we speak of a separation of body and soul. But when a person dies violently we speak of a separation of body and blood. That is the first and basic point of Jesus's separated bread/body and wine/blood words." (page 95)
Another level of meaning in Mark. "It would never have been possible to speak of Jesus's death as a blood sacrifice unless, first, it had been a violent execution. But, granted that fate, a correlation becomes possible between Jesus as the new paschal lamb and this final meal as a New Passover." (page 95)
Writing again about participation, the authors write, "Finally, Jesus does not merely speak of bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood. Rather, he has all the Twelve (including Judas!) actually partake of the food and drink -- they all participate in the bread-as-body and blood-as-wine. It is, as it were, a final attempt to bring all of them with him through execution to resurrection, through death to new life. It is, once again, about participation in Christ and not substitution by Christ." (page 95)
"The Last Supper is about bread for the world, God's justice against human injustice, a New Passover from bondage to liberation, and participation in the path that leads through death to new life." (page 95)
Gethsemane, Prayer, and Arrest
"The prayer is remarkable both for its way of addressing God and its content. Jesus calls God abba, an Aramaic word that Mark includes even though he is writing in Greek. In Aramaic, abba is the familiar or intimate form of 'father,' much like the English 'papa.' It is used by children to address their father not only as toddlers but also as adults." (page 97)
"The prayer reflects not a fatalistic resignation to the will of God, but a trusting in God in the midst of the most dire of circumstances." (page 98)
"It is instructive to compare Mark's story of the arrest with John's account. In Mark, Jesus is a vulnerable human being. In John, Jesus is in charge and is even acknowledged as a divine being by those who arrest him." (page 98)
"We have already mentioned how central the theme of failed discipleship is to Mark's gospel and to Thursday in particular. Judas betrays Jesus, Peter denies him, and the rest flee. They now disappear from the story of Holy Week. Mark does not mention them again until Easter." (page 100)
Interrogation and Condemnation
Some historical comments:
Most likely, Mark (and other early Christians) did not know exactly what happened. (During the "hearing" or "trial.") Thus the trial scene may represent a post-Easter Christian construction and not history remembered.
It is unclear whether we should think of Mark as presenting a formal "trial" or an informal but deadly "hearing."
The temple authorities did not represent the Jews.
Mark's story of Jesus's trial before the temple authorities has three stages:
"Under Jewish law, testimony was required from 'two or three' witnesses in order to convict. In the absence of witnesses who agree with each other, the high priest in effect goes for a confession, and the crucial interchange occurs." (page 102)
"His response begins with what is translated as a affirmation: 'I am.' But as briefly mentioned in Chapter 1, the Greek phrase ego eimi can be translated either as a declarative (and thus as an affirmation) or as an interrogative: 'I am' or "Am I?' (page 102)
The rest of Jesus's response shifts the topic to the "Son of Man": "You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power," and 'coming with the clouds of heaven.'" "Note the single quotation marks within the double quotation marks; they indicate that Jesus's response includes a quotation, specifically language from Daniel 7:13-14.
"We need to pause and reflect on the significance of the shift from 'the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed' to 'the Son of Man.' Recall that when Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah in Mark 8:29, Jesus did not deny it, but reinterpreted or replaced the title immediate with another one. (page 103)
"Perhaps for Mark the title 'Messiah' presumed a leader who would use violence to liberate Israel from the military power of Roman oppression. That was not Mark's vision of Jesus, so 'Son of Man' was his preferred replacement to avoid any ambiguity between a violent and nonviolent messiah." (page 103)
Mark's quotation of Daniel 7 requires careful consideration.
In 167 BCE the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes launches a religions persecution against Jews who refuse to be assimilated into his Hellenistic empire.
Some Jews (whom we know as the Maccabees) fought a successful military war on earth against his empire
Others turned to visions and hope for an absolute divine judgement against all empires past, present, and future
In the vision recorded in Daniel 7, all the major empires, Babylonian, Medean, Persian, and Macedonian are envisaged as beasts
The vision includes a trial, and the decision is the eventual destruction of these empires, their replacement is the what is described in Daniel 7:13-14.
"The fifth and final empire is given not to one like a beast, but to one like a human being. The previous empires are symbolized by beasts, the kingdom of God by a human figure." (page 104)
"Daniel 7 is thus an anti-imperial vision and an anti-imperial text: the empires that have oppressed the people of God throughout the centuries are all judged negatively, and positive affirmation is given to the Son of Man, a symbol for the people of God, to whom is given the everlasting kingdom of God." (page 104)
"Jesus as the Son of Man must be read against the general background of Daniel 7. That usage has three interlinked aspects:"
"In other words, all is not future, but is rather a passage from present into future." (page 105)
Confession And Denial
The sequence of 14:53-72 is the last of the three framing units Mark created in recording the passion of Jesus.
Peter is interrogated and responds with cowardice to unofficial bystanders. Jesus is interrogated and responds with courage to the official high priest (page 106)
"The framing of Jesus's confession by Peter's denials offers those Christians a triple consolation".
First, those who imitate Jesus rather than Peter are applauded for their courage.
Second, even those who imitate Peter rather than Jesus are consoled with the hope of repentance and forgiveness.
Third, neither denials nor even betrayals are the worst sin against Jesus or God. The worst sin is despair -- loss of faith that repentance will always, always obtain forgiveness.