BEN: Your chapter on the death of Jesus does an excellent job of showing how a Roman audience might well hear the story of Jesus’ death, in light of Greco-Roman accounts of the death of notable figures such as philosophers. I noticed however that you didn’t deal with the irony in the Mark account, and its function. Since Mark is in the business of presenting a counter-cultural Jesus and his life, more could have been said about not only the messianic overtones leading up to the Passion itself, but of course the irony of the titulus etc. The point would be Jesus didn’t come to meet conventional Jewish messianic expectations, he came to meet needs for atonement etc. One other thing I wondered about is that Jews seemed quite capable of distinguishing between resurrection and assumption into heaven ala Elijah. Do you think Mark’s audience would have just blended these two distinct things together?
I thought I had spent a lot of time on the irony within the account, so it’s always good to see how it comes over to other readers! Yes, I completely agree. The shame of Jesus’ servile death is very clear in Mark but it’s definitely not the last word – there are the prodigies at Jesus’ death (the darkness and tearing of the veil) showing that God and nature can’t remain unaffected, and there’s also the executioner who comes to belief (I don’t go along with ‘sarcastic’ interpretations here). All the way through, I argue that Mark is playing with the idea of the triumph (my guess is that he’d seen the Flavian triumph in Rome), ironically showing that what appears to be a servile death is in fact the triumph of the King (for those ‘with eyes to see’). I found some really interesting material on death as ‘charade’ and how executions under Nero became quite theatrical in their staging; so it’s not a long stretch of the imagination to see how Mark might have textually ‘staged’ his account here. And audiences would be quite well versed in seeing an execution dressed up to evoke something else from Roman history, or as here a triumphal procession.
You’re right that I didn’t spend much time on atonement, but that’s because I don’t think it’s such a prominent theme in Mark. There are only the two passages (10.45, 14.24), and while it’s clear that Mark thinks that Jesus’ death in some way establishes a (new) covenant which ransoms people from all that binds them, I don’t think there’s too much more in the way of detail. But biography isn’t really the place for theological discussion, and Mark may well have made his views on the purpose behind Jesus’ death clear elsewhere.
On resurrection/translation into heaven, I’m struck by the way that Mark blends the two things together. On one hand, Jesus clearly predicts that he will be raised (by God) after three days, a prediction which is corroborated by the angel at the tomb in 16.7. But he also speaks to the High Priest of sitting on the right hand of God, and the transfiguration scene previews his heavenly glory. So it’s clear that for Mark the empty tomb underlines the reality of the resurrection, but it’s also apparent that the disappearance of the body shows readers that Jesus is now with the Father in Heaven. The two ideas may be distinct in terms of where they come from (resurrection Jewish, and translation/assumption more common in the Graeco-Roman world), but they are fused quite neatly together by Mark (and the other evangelists).
BEN: In your final reflections, you stress that Mark presents Jesus both in his pattern life (rewriting what counts as a noble death) and in his teaching (redefining honor and shame etc.) as counter-cultural. To what degree do you think this really was the character and behavior of Jesus? I ask because of late, there have been a lot of Jewish NT scholars re-reading the Gospels and coming with a Jesus who was hardly counter-cultural at all. For example, they can’t imagine him saying ‘it’s not what enters one’s mouth that makes one unclean, but rather what comes forth from the human heart’ etc. For my own part, it seems clear to me that Jesus really was a counter-cultural Jew, and at certain key points working against the grain of typical Pharisaic or scribal presentations of the Jewish religion. If Jesus had just been another sage who died on a cross, and lived a good but uncontroversial life, it is hard to explain both all the conflict stories in the Gospels, and the way his life ended. What are your thoughts on all this, especially if Mark really is the first biography of Jesus, and the one closest to the historical figure himself?
You will probably think this is a terrible dodge, but I have to say that I was writing about Jesus as a literary figure within Mark’s biography rather than the historical Jesus! So it’s Mark’s presentation of Jesus (the Markan Jesus) who is presented here as counter cultural, at least in some important areas. For example, it seems clear to me that Mark wants to redefine what it means to be honorable or shameful in the new kingdom, and part of the reason for that is so that Jesus’ teaching fits with his death. Whether this corresponds with the historical Jesus’ teaching is another question entirely. My hunch is that there must have been some things in Jesus’ teaching that allowed Mark to present it in this way, but equally the centrality of self-denial in the journey narrative of chs. 8-10 is a Markan construct. If this teaching on honour/shame does go back to Jesus, then he would have been seen as counter-cultural by most people in his society (and still today, if we weren’t so used to reading it in the gospel). I wouldn’t want to claim that he was too far removed from contemporary Jewish teachers in other respects; clearly there was a lively discussion in the first century of various aspects and Jesus may have been radical in some of his views and quite traditional in others. I certainly don’t have the expertise to judge this.
The extent to which Mark himself can be said to be counter cultural is another question, and again one I find fascinating. His presentation of Jesus’ death clearly goes against anything usually counted as noble, but other aspects of his work strike me as quite conventional – the biographical form itself, the talk (ultimately) of Jesus as king, and the approach of God’s kingdom with the accompanying judgement and vindication of believers.
Thanks for all of your questions, Ben, I’ve enjoyed chatting things through with you!