It has been said that the gospels are passion narratives with a long introduction. In this week’s reading we come to the end of the long introduction and have six chapters focussed on how, in his visit to Jerusalem, the conflicts that have run through the gospel lead, in fulfilment of Jesus’ earlier statements in the gospel, and in ways that only make sense in the light of the Old Testament, to his death.
Mark 11 begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem which we celebrate on Palm Sunday. The cries of the crowd (vv9-10) come from Psalm 118:25-26 and although Mark, unlike Matthew, does not explicitly refer to it, the form of arrival echoes Zech 9.9. Jesus then goes straight to the building in Jerusalem which will be a major focus in these last days: the Temple (v11), the place of God’s presence among his people. There follows, in verses 12-25 , another of Mark’s “sandwich” narratives with the incident in the Temple appearing between the two descriptions of the judgment on the fig tree (an Old Testament image for Israel eg Jer 8.13, Hosea 9.10, Joel 1.7, 12) in vv12-14, 20-25. The Temple incident – variously understood as a cleansing and as a prophetic enactment of judgment – is also explained by reference to Israel’s Scriptures (v17): Isaiah 56.7 and Jeremiah 7.11. It leads to a renewed determination to kill Jesus (v18). The recognition that Jesus’ curse has led to the tree withering leads to him teaching his disciples about faith in prayer (vv22-25). Finally in this chapter Jesus’ return to the Temple focuses on another key area of controversy – Jesus’ identity. His reappearance provokes questions (vv27-33) about his authority to act in this way but Jesus turns these questions back on his interrogators and no explicit answers are forthcoming.
Jesus then returns to teaching in parables with a parable of judgment on a vineyard (vv1-11, another Old Testament image for Israel eg Isaiah 5) ending with a citation of Psalm 118.22-23 to speak of God’s overturning of his people’s rejection. This confrontation further antagonizes those opposed to him who lay a trap focussed on the authority of Caesar and the payment of taxes. Jesus, however, avoids the trap laid through the Pharisees and Herodians with a clever (but subsequently often seriously misunderstood) saying (vv12-17). Another grouping of Jewish leaders – the Sadducees – then present a further challenge revolving around the resurrection (which they denied). Again he sidesteps this and speaks against them (vv18-27).
The questions keep on coming with a query from an individual teacher of the law about the greatest of the commandments eliciting Jesus’ famous answer, citing Deuteronomy 6.4 and Leviticus 19.18, of two-fold love (vv28-34). The chapter’s final dialogue returns to the relationship between two titles attributed to Jesus earlier in the gospel – Messiah and Son of David. Here again Jesus appeals to his Scriptures (Psalm 110.1, a verse cited often in the New Testament) and responds to a question with a question of his own (vv35-37) before directly attacking the teachers of the law and highlighting their economic injustice (vv38-44).
The next chapter, often referred to as the “Markan Apocalypse” or “little apocalypse” is a complex passage whose language and imagery echoes Jewish apocalyptic writings and has led to much debate. It clearly begins with Jesus challenging his disciples’ wonder at the Temple by predicting its destruction, an event which would happen in AD 70 (vv1-4). In response to a question Jesus then proceeds to speak more fully about the surrounding events, their significance and how the disciples should respond in such tumultuous times (vv5ff), drawing on language from Daniel about “the abomination that causes desolation” (v14 cf Daniel 9.27, 11.31 and 12.11) and the Son of Man (v26 cf Daniel 7). There is much debate as to whether all he says relates to that historic fall of Jerusalem to the Romans or whether he looks further ahead and predicts his second coming or return (notably vv26-27) and, if so, how to understand the fulfilment within people’s lifetime (v30). Whatever reading is followed, the conclusion (vv32-37) warns his disciples of the need to watch because the hour is unknown.
For those who had not yet realised, Mark then makes clear that Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover – the great celebration of God’s liberation of his people at the original Exodus and a time of high tension (vv1-2). After recounting the costly anointing by a (here unnamed) woman (vv3-9), one of the disciples brokers a deal with Jesus’ opponents among the people’s priestly leaders (vv10-11). Following an account of the preparations to share Passover with his disciples (vv12-16), Jesus speaks of this plan from within his disciples to hand him over (vv17-21) before he breaks the normal pattern of the meal by giving thanks for bread and wine, giving them to his disciples and speaking of them as his body and his blood of the covenant (vv22-26). Quoting Zech 13.7 Jesus tells the disciples of their falling away and Peter – despite his protestations – of his forthcoming denials (vv27-31).
Jesus’ agony is then described as he prays, while the disciples sleep, in Gethsemane (vv32-42) and then he is arrested in fulfilment of the Scriptures (vv42-50) with Mark including the detail of a young man fleeing naked (vv51-52) which some speculate is a reference to Mark himself. In the trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin leadership the two areas of controversy in the earlier chapters reappear: accusations are made relating to the Temple and Jesus is questioned about his identity, shocking his interrogators by claiming he will be vindicated as the Son of Man and seated at God’s right hand (vv53-65). Meanwhile, outside, Peter, as Jesus warned, denies his association with Jesus three times (vv66-72).
Mark then describes Jesus’ early morning appearance before Pilate, the representative of Rome (vv1-5) who gives the crowd a choice as to whether Jesus – whom he identifies as the King of the Jews – or Barabbas should be released. Urged on by the leadership, the crowd call for Jesus to be crucified and Pilate accedes to their request (vv6-15) leading to his being mocked and then crucified as the King of the Jews (vv16-26), hung between two brigands with further insults focussed again on his claims about the Temple and his identity (vv27-32). Mark’s account of his death is again full of Old Testament echoes – the darkness, the cry of Ps 22.1, the confusion about Elijah (vv33-37) – before he returns again to Jesus and the Temple (v38 – a sign of access to God or destruction?) and who Jesus is (v39 – the centurion’s confession taking up the language of Son of God introduced at the start of the gospel and at key points). He ends with an account of the women (vv40-41, 47) and Joseph of Arimathea arranging his burial.
The gospel famously concludes with a short ending that may be as Mark intended or may be a sign that the full ending has been lost (many translations include either one or two longer endings). There are no resurrection appearances. The women return to where Jesus was buried, find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. They are told that Jesus has risen and instructed to tell the disciples to return to Galilee where it began but they were afraid and said nothing to anyone (vv1-8).
To listen to or download a reading of each chapter from Tom Wright’s New Testament for Everyone (SPCK), click here.
To read Mk 11-13 online at STEP follow the links below (the right hand box gives some help and can be closed to give text on full screen, the site is worth exploring for more detailed study of any text):
ESV & Greek side by side (with various highlighting (when you hover the mouse over words and references) and search tools that don’t require knowledge of Greek to use).
To read Mk 14-16 online at STEP follow the links below
For those interested in questions about the different endings of Mk 16 STEP has this video about the Greek and the manuscripts:
Other Resources on these chapters:
Ministry in Jerusalem, Part 1 (Mk 11.1-13.37)
Ministry in Jerusalem, Part 2 (Mk 11.1-13.37)
The Passion Narrative (Mk 14.1-16.20)
Transcript of this lecture here
Transcript of this lecture here