Mark wrote his gospel sometime during or soon after the Roman Jewish war in 66-74 CE. Roman oppression led to numerous Jewish uprisings, involving great bloodshed. Finally, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and burned the temple in 70 CE. This destruction traumatized Christians and Jews alike. Against this background, Mark writes his gospel. One of the reasons for the composition was to reassure and instruct his readers in their faith. His main vehicle of instruction is the disciples. Mark presents the disciples in a harsher manner than the other three gospels. However, Mark's severe depiction of the disciples serves a powerful purpose: to teach the readers about true discipleship.
First, Mark presents the disciples in a positive light to encourage identification. In 1:16-20, the disciples respond to Jesus' call to follow him. Because the readers are also followers of Christ, they immediately identify with the disciples. Subsequent scenes reinforce this positive image. Jesus' appointment of the twelve in 3:13-19 shows they were specially selected for their roles. The next section, 3:20-35, suggests that the disciples are Jesus' true family. In 4:11, Jesus says he will give them the mystery of the kingdom of God. Then, in 6:7-13, the disciples are sent out on a mission where they experience success in preaching, healing and casting out demons.
After creating a strong identification between the readers and the disciples, Mark presents the failures of the disciples.
Mark arranges their failures around three boat scenes, three passion predictions, and the arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
The first boat scene is in 4:35-41.
After witnessing healings and receiving private instruction, the disciples still become afraid when Jesus calms the storm. They ask, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?" (4:41). For the first time, the readers question whether the disciples will understand Jesus and his purpose.
The second boat scene in 6:45-52 follows the feeding of the five thousand.
Jesus walks on water and calms the sea, and the disciples' response of amazement falls short of true understanding. The feeding of the five thousand gave the disciples a glimpse of Jesus' divine sonship, and Jesus' use of "It is I" (6:50) also alludes to divinity. Yet, the disciples failed to see these signs. Mark says the disciples' hearts were hardened, a condition previously used to describe the Pharisees in 3:5.
The third boat scene in 8:14-21 functions as the climax of the two preceding boat scenes.
After taking part in two feeding miracles, the disciples worry about not having enough bread, and Jesus warns them about the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. Verse 18 references 4:11-12, comparing the disciples to outsiders, who have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. This scene intimates that the disciples have already fallen prey to the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod: blindness.
The three boat scenes cause the readers, drawn to the disciples, to evaluate themselves in light of the disciples' failures.
The boat scenes show the disciples' fear, lack of trust, and concern for themselves. Above all else, they show the disciples' lack of understanding as to who Jesus is. Because of Mark's introduction of Jesus in 1:1, the readers know exactly who Jesus is, but these scenes lead them to reconsider their view, evaluating whether they acknowledge Jesus' complete divinity and authority.
The disciples' next failures are arranged around three passion predictions.
The first prediction in 8:31 follows Peter's confession of Christ in 8:29.
At first, the reader may assume that the disciples finally understand who Jesus is. However, Peter's rebuke of Jesus after Jesus' prediction of his suffering, death, and resurrection shows this assumption to be false. Peter's confession is only partially correct because he does not understand Jesus' true mission. Jesus then issues a call to discipleship, emphasizing that to follow him means to take up the cross, a way of persecution and suffering.
The second passion prediction in 9:31 says the disciples do not understand but are afraid to ask.
This lack of understanding becomes apparent in 9:33-34 which relates the disciples conversations about which of them is the greatest. Even after two passion predictions and Jesus' call to true discipleship, they still hold onto the view that the messiah will bring a kingdom of power and glory. Jesus again attempts to clear the disciples' vision in 9:35-37. He tells them that power and glory come only when one assumes the role of a servant.
A similar incident follows the third passion prediction in 10:33-34.
Jesus again predicts his suffering, death, and resurrection, and immediately afterwards, James and John ask to sit at his right and left hand in glory. This request shows the disciples' blindness most sharply. James and John are not asking for positions of glory as they suppose but positions of death and suffering beside Jesus on the cross. Jesus follows this request with a symbolic reference to his death and a reminder that to be great, one must follow his example and be a servant.
The readers are again compelled to embark on self-evaluation during these three passion predictions. The failures involve a rejection of suffering and a desire for personal power and glory. Jesus' teachings after each passion prediction reveal the true way of discipleship: a way of servanthood, suffering, and death. The readers examine their own lives to see if they are following the way of the cross.
Jesus' arrest, trial, and crucifixion present the last set of failures by the disciples.
In 14:10-11, Judas Iscariot makes a deal with the chief priests, and in 14:43-45, he betrays Jesus with a kiss.
Mark says three times (14:10, 20, 43) that Judas is one of the Twelve, highlighting his intimate relationship with Christ and emphasizing the treachery of his betrayal.
Next, Gethsemane shows the final failure of the disciples to accept the way of suffering.
While praying at Gethsemane, Jesus asks Peter, James, and John to keep watch and pray. However, as Jesus accepts his impending death, the three disciples sleep. Then, at the crucial hour of Jesus arrest, the disciples flee in terror. When seen in light of 14:31, where they communally pledged to die with Jesus, their desertion is even more devastating.
The last failure is Peter's denial of Jesus, 14:66-72.
As Jesus confesses before the high priest, Peter rejects Jesus before a servant girl and anonymous bystanders. Jesus' confession brings death, while Peter's rejection is an effort to save his life.
Throughout this set of failures, the readers evaluate their devotion to Christ and their acceptance of the way of suffering.
Several positive examples of discipleship within this section aid the readers in their self-assessment.
Simon the Cyrene (15:21) fulfills the command in 8:34 by carrying Jesus' cross, which symbolizes taking up the cross of suffering.
The centurion at the cross (15:39) contrasts Peter's denial with the only true confession of Christ in the entire book.
Along side the negative examples of the disciples, these minor characters help in the readers' self-evaluation.
Mark's presentation of the disciples teaches readers about authentic discipleship, by providing examples by which to compare themselves.
Although Mark wrote specifically to the early church, believers today can also benefit from the lessons on Jesus' divinity, suffering, servanthood, and devotion. Believers can profit from the reminder that Jesus was not just a good man, a teacher, or a prophet but the Son of God with divine authority. Christians worldwide suffer daily for their faith.
This gospel serves as a reassurance that they are following in the way of the cross and exemplifying true discipleship. While society places high importance on personal achievement and power, Mark reminds modern-day readers that true discipleship demands humility and servanthood.
In addition, many people today separate faith from other aspects of their lives. This book reminds believers that being a disciple of Christ means complete devotion in all areas. The gospel of Mark crosses time in its message of discipleship and its relevance will never wane.
Academic Paper: © 2005 Amy Fallon
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Tannehill, Robert C. "The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role." Pages 134-157 in The Interpretation of Mark. Edited by William Telford. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.
Williams, Joel F. "Discipleship and Minor Characters in Mark's Gospel." Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (1996): 332-43.