PUBLISHED IN LANTAYAN Vol. 8 (Academic Year 2009-2010)
Pastoral-Theological Journal of Don Bosco Center of Studies, Paranaque City, Philippines

Each Gospel was written to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ (see Mk 1:1; Mt 1:1; Lk 24:44-49; Jn 20:30-31).  But Jesus is never a solitary figure.  In each Gospel he calls followers and challenges them to learn from him as his disciples. (1) The disciples, present with Jesus at almost every turn, are major players in Mark’s story.  Jesus is certainly the most important character, but the disciples also play a vital role. (2) Surprisingly, however, the disciples of Jesus, despite a positive start to their relationship with him, fail their master as the story comes to an end.  Indeed, unless one accepts the longer ending of Mark 16:9-20, the story closes without any resolution of their increasing fear and failure across the latter part of the Gospel.  Their last appearance is marked by fear and flight, as they abandon Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:50-52).  Both Paul and the other Gospels tell of the presence of the risen Jesus to the disciples (see 1 Cor 15:3-11; Mt 28:16-20; Lk 24:36-49; Jn 20:18-23).  This is not the case in the Gospel of Mark.  There is no account of the appearances of the risen Jesus and the re-establishment of discipleship. (3)


Mark told a Gospel-story.  This means that his main purpose was to offer an interpretation of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (see 1:1).  A major part of the literary technique he used to do this was to open his story of Jesus with a “Prologue” (1:1-13) and to close it with an “Epilogue” (16:1-8).  I will conclude this paper by devoting my attention to the Epilogue, which contains Mark’s unique and very brief account of the empty tomb and the Easter proclamation (16:1-8).  It is a crucial element in understanding the victory of God over Jesus’ death, and the victory of God over the failure of the disciples. For the moment, let us focus our attention, however briefly, upon the Prologue (1:1-13).

The Prologue the Gospel introduces the reader/listener to the mystery of the person of Jesus in 1:1-13.  The promise of “the beginning” in v. 1 (see Gen 1:1), and the coming of the creating presence of the Spirit of God in v. 10 (see Gen 1:3) indicate that the prologue to the Gospel of Mark is linked to the prologue to the human story, as it was told in Genesis 1-11.  God is the most active figure in vv. 1-13.  Jesus is presented to the reader.  He is the Christ, the Son of God (v. 1), the Lord (v. 3), the Stronger One (v. 7); the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit (v. 8). (4) God’s voice has assured the reader that he is the beloved Son of God, and that God is well pleased with him (v. 11).  He is filled with the Spirit (v. 10), and driven into the desert to dwell with the wild beasts and to be served by the angels, thus reversing the tragedy of the Adam and Eve story, to re-establish God’s original design (vv. 12-13). (5)

The story-teller has provided a dense Prologue for the reader/listener in which he provides a succinct summary of what God has done in and through Jesus, his beloved Son.  There should be no doubt in the reader’s mind about who Jesus is.  Notice, however, that the disciples have not been party to what is said in the Prologue.  They must work out the mystery of what God is doing in and through Jesus (and also in and through them) by participating in the mission and ministry of Jesus.  There have been hints throughout the prologue that pointed to this ministry, if he is to baptize with a holy spirit (v. 8).  There is perhaps even a hint that he will accept total and unconditional self-sacrifice as God’s “beloved” (v. 11).

The reader comes to the end of the prologue well informed about who Jesus is, but as yet unaware of how Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Lord, the Stronger One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and how in his person God’s original creative design has been restored.  The readers of this Gospel know that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, and they may well wonder how such an end could be pleasing to God (see v. 11).  The Prologue to the Gospel lays down this challenge.  Now the reader knows who Jesus is, and must be prepared to read through a story which will show how Jesus pleases his Father. An essential part of this story is the disciples of Jesus.

Even though they are not present in the prologue—and indeed they do not know what the reader has learnt about Jesus in the prologue—Mark is very interested in the story of disciples.  We must follow their association with Jesus’ person, his mission and his death and resurrection within the story better to understand Mark’s portrait of them.  As we will see, the Markan story of the disciples indicates, on the one hand, what they were called to and, on the other, who was ultimately responsible for a successful discipleship.  This paper argues that they were called to a servant discipleship, but that God was ultimately responsible for their success.  Mark’s presentation of the performance of the disciples, and Jesus’ teaching on the nature of discipleship is an interpretation that reaches beyond any attempt to report “how it was.”  Mark tells of disciples and discipleship with an eye to the Christian community, to interpret their story of following Jesus.  The Markan presentation of Jesus along with his description of the role of the disciples sought to address the experience of being a follower of Jesus in his own post-70 Christian community. His message, however, can address all subsequent disciples who read the Gospel. While Mark was primarily interested in instructing his own community in the first century, the ongoing reading of the Gospel has continued to instruct Christian communities over two millennia.

The Disciples

Some studies of Mark distinguish between “the Twelve” (hoi dôdeka), and the more generic description of “the disciples” (hoi mathêtai).  In the life of Jesus, his choice of his first followers and the appointment of the inner circle of “the Twelve” was, historically, an important distinction. (6) However, for the purposes of the following reflection, they are considered together. Mark’s interpretation of the Christian community depends upon the readers’ appreciation of his portrait of both “the Twelve” and “the disciples.”  Another, less clearly defined group, is simply called “those who follow” (hoi akolouthentes).  All three groups are called to follow, instructed on the requirements of true discipleship, and described as failing to understand and accept Jesus’ demands.  Though the Twelve were called to exercise a ministry of leadership, nevertheless, they belonged to the larger community, called “disciples” or “followers” of Jesus.  Mark instructs his readers on the blessings and challenges of living in a Christian community by means of his interpretation of all “the disciples”: the twelve, the disciples, and those who followed.

When one singles out the principal places across the Gospel where the disciples play a significant and active role, along with those passages where Jesus instructs them on the demands of discipleship, three themes emerge:

  • Initially disciples are called to follow Jesus and are associated with him (1:16-20; 2:13-14; 3:13-19; 6:7-13).
  • Gradually, the first signs of their inability or unwillingness to be true “followers” of Jesus becomes apparent (4:35-41; 6:30, 45-52; 8:22-10:52).
  • Finally they sink into total failure (14:50-52; 14:66-72; 16:8).

Strange as this movement into failure may at first appear, Mark’s story of struggling and fragile disciples conveys his understanding of the role of their relationship with Jesus, and his care for them.  Behind this portrayal of the disciples in the story of the Gospel lies Mark’s teaching to his own community.  He wants them to know that, in the end, authentic discipleship is a gift of God.  We go on reading the Gospel of Mark as part of our inspired Scriptures, and this portrait of the disciples continues to instruct all Christian believers and communities.

The Call of the Disciples and Their Sharing in Jesus’ Mission

Jesus’ disciples share in a privileged way in Jesus’ own person and mission.  Jesus’ first action, after his initial appearance and proclamation of the kingdom (1:14-15), is to call disciples to follow him. They respond to his call and take their place behind him. They leave all the signs of their earthly success and join him, to follow him down his way (1:16-20).  He not only calls fishermen to become fishers of human beings, but he even summons a public sinner, the tax collector Levi, to become his follower. Like the fishermen, Levi also responds without hesitation (2:13-14).  Having called his first disciples, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee.  The disciples witness the wonders he does, and also receive private instruction from him (4:11, 34; 7:17). Across the early chapters of the Gospel, the disciples do not actually do anything, but they are his constant companions.  The initial positive presentation of the disciples and their relationship with Jesus must not be lost from view.  The disciples are called to follow Jesus, to be with him, and to share in his ministry.  However much they may fail as the story proceeds, this understanding of discipleship retains its place in the Markan instruction of his early Christian community, called to be with Jesus and to continue his ministry in both word and deed.

Jesus is portrayed across the Gospel of Mark as forever on the move. Almost every episode begins with a verb of motion, generally closely associated with the adverb immediately (euthus).  He is forever going, coming, leading, entering, setting out, and so on.  This way of telling the story creates the impression of a restless energy in Jesus, responding to a call of his own as he journeys on.  While on this journey, Jesus can call his disciples to be fellow pilgrims, to follow him (akolouthein).  In the second half of the Gospel, this movement settles into a more regular pattern, as Jesus and the disciples, journey along the way to Jerusalem (see 8:27; 9:33, 34; 10:17, 32, 46, 52; 11:8).  Jesus is not the master of his own destiny and this relentless and energetic movement, eventually leading to Jerusalem and the cross, is an indication of Jesus’ unconditional response to the design of God.

After summoning a further larger group, he appoints from among them “the Twelve” (3:13-14).  The appointment of “the Twelve” is an important moment in the Markan interpretation of discipleship  He appoints them “to be with him” (v. 14a: hina ôsin met’autou). (7) Jesus establishes an intimacy between himself and his disciples, and this intimacy has its consequences.  The “being with him” leads to the promise that they will share in Jesus’ mission of spreading God’s reign.  They will be sent out, they will preach, and they will have authority to cast out demons (v. 14b-15).  Up to this stage in the Gospel, Jesus has burst upon the scene; he has preached and he has cast out demons. What Jesus does, the disciples will now do, but only if they are with Jesus (v. 14a).  The action of the disciples flows from the disciples’ being with Jesus.  The intimate personal link between the disciple and Jesus must not be broken.  Whatever the disciples are as followers of Jesus, and what they are able to do as his missionaries, depend upon being with him.  The promise that they would share his ministry (1:17; 3:14b) becomes a fact when the Twelve are formally sent out on a mission (6:7-13).  The disciples are to take Jesus as their model for mission; like him they are sent on a wandering mission (6:7-9).  They are not to seek comfort and security but to stay in the place where their message finds a home (vv. 10-11).  They successfully preach repentance, cast out demons and heal the sick (vv. 12-13). (8)

These promising initial moments in the Markan use of his traditions are an important part of his interpretation of the role of disciples and the demands of discipleship.  Mark presents Jesus’ call to the disciples, and his close association with them so that they can join his mission: disciples are models for all who are called to be followers of Jesus.  Mark wanted his original readers to develop a sense of oneness between the “disciples of Jesus” in the Gospel, and the “disciples of Jesus” reading the Gospel.  The disciples in the Gospel formed an original community of “followers of Jesus.”  They were called by him, associated with him and granted a share of his mission to preach the gospel to the whole world (see 13:10).  The successful creation of followers who left all and shared successfully in Jesus’ mission was a fundamental message addressed to the original Markan community in the story of the Gospel.  It retains its importance for today’s Christian communities.  However much the original readers, or hearers, of the Gospel of Mark may have been aware of their failure to live up to this summons to share in Jesus’ life and mission, the voice of Jesus still issued the invitation: “Follow me” (1:17).

Signs of Failure

What is surprising about the disciples in the Gospel of Mark is that they cut an increasingly poor figure the longer they are associated with Jesus.  After the association of the Twelve with his mission (3:14-15), and even before he sends them out (6:7-13), Jesus chastises “those who were about him and the Twelve” (4:10) because they have not understood the parable of the scattered seed (4:3-9), suggesting that they will never be able to understand his teaching in parables (v. 13).  After his teaching, Jesus and the disciples (see v. 34) set off in a boat to go to the other side of the lake.  In the midst of a storm they are overcome by fear, an emotion that will become increasingly present among them.  Rebuking the wind and the sea, as if they were personifications of evil and violence, Jesus calms the storm, but chastises his disciples for their fear and lack of faith (v. 40).  But even this rebuke has little effect.  The passage closes with his disciples filled with awe, saying to one another: “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (v. 41).  They are frightened, and unable to recognize the presence and authority of God in the one they are following.

The cost of discipleship is first made clear in the report of John the Baptist’s fearless commitment to his mission, unto death (6:14-29).  However, before this report, the Twelve were sent out on a successful mission (6:7-13).  On their return, immediately following the account of the Baptist’s death, they are eager to tell Jesus all the things they had said and done (6:30). (9) They are losing the sense of being the “sent ones” (apostoloi; see vv. 7, 30) of Jesus.  They have reached a stage where they regard their successful mission as being the result of their own authority over sickness and the demonic.  They forget that what they do depends entirely upon their being with Jesus (3:14). (10) Despite Jesus’ two-fold feeding of the multitudes (6:31-44; 8:1-9), they are unable to understand his walking on the sea after the first miracle (6:51-52), and they do not understand what he means when he speaks of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Herodians after the second miracle (8:11-21).  In 6:52 Mark reports, “For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:52).  The same themes return in 8:11-21.  Jesus accuses them of hard-heartedness and blindness (vv. 17-18), and frustratingly asks them, “Do you not yet understand?” (v. 21).

The disciples’ blindness and inability to understand lead directly into the section of the Gospel that runs from 8:22 to 10:52 where Jesus predicts his passion and calls the disciples to the cross, to receptivity and to service. Jesus’ challenging words are set between two miracles where blindness is transformed to sight (8:22-26; 10:46-52).  These two miracles symbolically portray Jesus’ accusation that the disciples may be blind (8:17-18), and their blindness becomes evident in the central section of the Gospel.  Here, more than anywhere in the Gospel, Mark tells a story that makes clear the demands of discipleship.  Repeatedly, Jesus draws his disciples to one side and instructs them (see, for example, 8:34-38; 9:33-50; 10:23-31, 35-45).  As Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem, asking his disciples to follow him, he thrice announces his forthcoming passion (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34).  After each of these passion predictions the disciples show that they cannot or will not accept Jesus’ “way,” and are unwilling to follow him.  With Peter as their representative they have their own idea of messiahship (8:32-33).  They want to set up an exclusive discipleship, and are hostile to others who do not see things their way (9:38-41; 10:13-16).  Even after the final passion prediction, full of the gruesome details of what will happen in Jerusalem (10:33-34), the sons of Zebedee are jockeying for positions of authority (10:35-37), and the other disciples are indignant that they might be beaten out of these honors (10:41).  Remarkably, however, Jesus never fails the failing disciples.  He instructs them on the need for the cross in 8:34-9:1, on the need for service and receptivity in 9:35-37, and draws cross, service and receptivity together as he instructs them on the need to forsake their search for human authority and political power in 10:38-44.

The earlier moments of close association between Jesus and disciples are attractive, and readers of the Gospel are prepared to accept the paradigm of the original disciples in their following of Jesus.  However, on arrival at Mark 10:45, the fragility of the original disciples is becoming increasingly obvious, and a matter of concern.  The disciples will not and cannot accept that to follow Jesus means to commit themselves to the cross (8:34-38; 10:39), to humble service and receptivity (9:33-37; 10:35-44), for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel.  Despite these signs of failure, Jesus leads the way: “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (10:45).  The first blind man stumbled from total blindness to partial sight to a fullness of vision (8:22-26); blind Bartimeus leaves all, and follows Jesus down his way toward Jerusalem (10:46-52). (11) But in the episodes between these two miracles, the disciples have not succeeded in such self-abandonment and enthusiastic preparedness to follow Jesus “down his way” (v. 52). (12)

What is surprising about this part of the story, as the disciples waver in their attachment to Jesus is that, despite the fact that they sink deeper into failure and an inability to understand what is being asked of them, Jesus perseveres with his instruction.  This is not simply a sign of Jesus’ persistence or patience.  His teaching and journeying with his disciples “on the way” to Jerusalem is Mark’s presentation of one of the central elements of his teaching on disciples and discipleship.  Jesus never abandons the fragile disciples.  He continues to summon his would-be “followers” to the cross (8:34-38; 10:39), to receptivity and service (9:33-50; 10:35-44).  Jesus’ message on discipleship still stands, despite the increasing failure of the disciples.  The light in the darkness of their failures is the never-failing presence of Jesus to his fragile disciples.  Here we are touching the heart of the Markan interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and the Christian community. Jesus’ fidelity to failing disciples, originally articulated by this Gospel for the Markan community, offers comfort and inspiration to disciples of all time, wherever this Gospel is read.

 The Ultimate Failure

The failure of the disciples comes to a head in the passion story.  Judas, “one of the Twelve” betrays Jesus (14:10-11), Peter denies him (14:66-72) and his most intimate followers, Peter, James and John, sleep through his hour of anguished prayer (14:32-42). (13) The final appearance of the group of disciples is found in 14:50: “And they all forsook him and fled.”  Following this lapidary statement of the flight of the disciples, Mark interprets their action with a brief parabolic narrative.  There was also a young man “following.”  He too, at the threat of danger, fled, leaving in the hands of his assailants the only covering which he had on his body, a linen cloth. Like the disciples who have just fled, he is naked in his nothingness (vv. 51-52). (14)

We come now to the Epilogue of the Gospel (16:1-8).  Just as the disciples were not addressed by the words and events of the Prologue (1:1-13), there are no disciples at the cross or at the resurrection of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (15:1-16:8).  But the listener/reader is always present, and he or she is made aware of hints of an eventual restoration to their place “following” Jesus.  The flight of the disciples is symbolized by the parallel flight of the young man, who leaves everything behind to forsake Jesus, but at the empty tomb the women find “a young man, sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe” (16:5).  The similarities between the parable of the naked young man, which describes the fleeing disciples in 14:41-52, and the presence of the young man whose clothing is described at the empty tomb at 16:5 are too close to be irrelevant.  The reader senses restoration. (15) The women are commissioned: “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you” (v. 7).  These words from the young man recall earlier words of Jesus. In the midst of his prophecies of their imminent failure Jesus had promised his disciples: “You will all fall away; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.  But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee’” (14:27-28).  Nevertheless, the fear, silence and flight returns in v. 8, the last verse of the Gospel: “And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  The story of failure is pushed to its limits.  Mark is relentless in his interpretation of the fragility of the human response to the divine intervention that took place in the person of Jesus. The Father’s voice from heaven that demanded disciples “listen to him” (9:7) seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

The Disciples, God, and the Christian community

Scholars have interpreted this negative portrait of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark in a variety of ways.  Many claim that, for Mark, the disciples offer no paradigm for the Markan Church or for the Christian community of any age, as they fail so dismally.  As one scholar puts it:

I conclude that Mark is assiduously involved in a vendetta against the disciples.  He paints them as obtuse, obdurate, recalcitrant men who at first are unperceptive of Jesus’ messiahship, then oppose its style and character, and finally totally reject it.  As a coup de grace, Mark closes his Gospel without rehabilitating the disciples. (16)

This widely held position throws into relief the failure, but underplays and misunderstands the importance of the positive side of the disciples’ story in Mark’s attempt to address his own community, and subsequently, the Christian communities down through the centuries who continue to read the Gospel of Mark.  What is the reader to make of the earlier part of the narrative?  In 10:32, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem, the disciples, despite all their fear and failure, are still called “those who followed” (hoi de akolouthountes).  The two sides of the disciples’ response to Jesus must be held in tension, as there is a need to take into account both the positive and the negative in the story of the disciples, as it is the story of all disciples. (17)  The Markan interpretation of the disciples in the story would have been strongly influenced by the Markan readers of the story.  In other words, for Mark, the story of the disciples reached outside the boundaries of the story of the Gospel into the story of the Christian community for which he was writing his interpretation of the life of Jesus. (18)  As God was the most important agent as the Prologue addressed the readers and listeners (1:1-13), God is again the most important agent in the Epilogue as the readers and listeners are again addressed (16:1-8).

The lived experience of failure and the ongoing presence of Jesus in the lives of the readers in the original Markan community determined Mark’s interpretation of disciples and discipleship.  There was little or no room for a human success story for Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man.  It appears that the same interpretation is continued into the Markan presentation of the disciples to the Christian community that he was addressing by means of his Gospel.  Jesus was finally vindicated by God in the resurrection (see 16:6).  Similarly, the disciples’ experience of the never-failing presence of Jesus, even in their failure, will not be thwarted.  He told them he would be struck and they would flee.  At the same time, he promised he would go before them into Galilee (14:27-28).  The women failed to communicate this Easter promise to the disciples and Peter (see 16:8), joining the other disciples who had fled in fear (see 14:50-52).  But the word of Jesus (see 14:28; 16:7) will not fail!  The very existence of the Gospel of Mark, read and heard in the original Markan community around about 70AD, and all subsequent Christian communities, is proof that the word of Jesus did not fail.  The promise of the young man, catching up an original promise of Jesus, “He is going before you into Galilee.  There you will see him,” has come true (16:6; see 14:28).  The Gospel of Mark tells the members of a struggling Christian community that human beings may fail, but God will not fail them.  Failure will be overcome and discipleship restored, not because men or women understand and succeed, but because of God’s graciousness.

The explanation of the enigma of the failure of the women in 16:8 lies in Mark’s desire to instruct his readers that the encounter between the risen Jesus and the failed disciples did not take place because of the success of the women.  As the disciples failed (14:50-52), so also the women failed (16:8).  In the end, all human beings fail … but God succeeds.  God has raised Jesus from the dead (16:6); the Father has not abandoned the Son (15:34).  The same God will also raise the disciples, men and women, from their failure.  They will see the risen Lord in Galilee, but not because the disciples or the women succeed.  The event that bridged the gap between the end of the Gospel of Mark and the community which heard it and read it took place because of the initiative of God, and not the success of men or women.  The Christian community that produced and received the Gospel of Mark existed because of the initiative of God. (19)  The promise of the Gospel’s prologue (1:1-13) is fulfilled in the action of God described in its epilogue (16:1-8) and experienced by believing readers of the Markan story.

The Easter proclamation, “He has been raised” (v. 6), (20) the promise that Jesus was going before his disciples into Galilee (v. 7), and the failure of the women to speak to anyone because they, like the disciples before them, fled in fear (16:6-8.  See 14:50), point beyond the limitations of the Markan story to the existence of a believing Christian community.  The prologue to the Gospel (1:1-13) informed the reader that Jesus was the Christ (1:1), the Lord (v. 3), the mightier one (v. 7), one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (v. 8), the beloved Son of God (v. 11), restoring God’s original creative design (vv. 12-13).  The original Markan community accepted this confession of faith, and attempted to live as authentic disciples of Jesus, taking up their cross, receptive servants of all, in imitation of Jesus (see 8:31-10:44) who came to serve and not be served, and to lay down his life (10:45).  Yet, in human terms, the disciples, both men and women, fail to follow Jesus through the cross to resurrection.  In the same human terms, even Jesus failed, crying out in anguish from the cross (15:34).  But Jesus’ apparent failure is his victory.  On the cross he is King, Messiah and Son of God (see 15:26, 31-32), and God has entered the story by raising his Son from the dead: “He has been raised” (16:6b: hvge,rqh; êgerthê).  He is no longer in the place where they laid him (v. 6c).

The author believes and wishes to communicate that the exalted christological claims of the prologue (1:1-13) have been vindicated by the story of the suffering and crucified Jesus, especially by means of the Easter proclamation of the epilogue (16:1-8).  The affirmation of God’s project by means of the prologue (1:1-13) and the epilogue (16:1-8) also points to God’s vindication of failed disciples.  The original readers of the Gospel of Mark, aware of their fragility, were encouraged by a story which told of the inability of the original disciples, men and women, to overcome their fear and follow Jesus through the cross to resurrection (14:50; 16:8).  But as God has transformed the failure of Jesus by the resurrection (16:6), his promise to the failing disciples of a meeting in Galilee (14:28; 16:7) has also eventuated.  God, and not human beings, generated the new Temple, built upon the rejected cornerstone (see 12:10-11; 14:57-58; 15:29, 38).  The existence of the Gospel and its original intended readership are proof of that fact. (21)

The accomplishment of Jesus’ promises is not found in the text.  The existence of the Markan community and its story of Jesus indicate that it is taking place among the readers of the text, in the experience of the original readers (and hearers) of the Gospel of Mark.  But that is not the end of the process.  The proclamation of the Gospel of Mark in fragile Christian communities, experiencing their own versions of fear and flight, for almost 2,000 years, suggests that the accomplishment of the promise of 14:28 and 16:7 continues in the Christian experience of the subsequent readers (and hearers) of the Gospel.  What Jesus promised (14:28; 16:7), happened for the Markan community, and continues to happen among generations of fragile followers of Jesus.  As Christian disciples continue to fail and flee in fear, they are told that God’s action in and through the risen Jesus overcomes all such failure. (22) Jesus is going before them into Galilee.  There they will see him.  The Epilogue, the conclusion to Mark’s Gospel is not a message of failure, but a resounding affirmation of God’s design to overcome all imaginable human failure (see 16:1-8) in and through the action of God’s beloved Son (see 1:1-13).  Words addressed to the struggling disciples at the transfiguration are addressed to all who take up this Gospel: “Listen to him” (see 9:7).


 1 In both Greek and Latin, the root of the word “disciple” means “to learn” (Greek: mathêtai, from the verb manthanein, “to learn.”  Latin: from the verb “discere,” also meaning “to learn”).

2 For a survey of a variety of approaches and different interpretations of the role of the disciples in Mark, see C. Clifton Black, The Disciples according to Mark: Markan Redaction in Current Debate (Supplements to the Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989).  For a briefer overview, see Francis J. Moloney, “The Vocation of the Disciples in the Gospel of Mark,” in “A Hard Saying.”  The Gospel and Culture (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001), 53-63.

3 The tradition of the appearances of Jesus the disciples (especially in the light of 1 Cor 15:3-7)  is older than the Gospel of Mark.  Mark’s original readers (as well as all subsequent readers) would have been surprised by the ending of Mark’s Gospel at 16:8.  They would be aware that he was not telling the story as they knew it.  He is re-interpreting an established tradition.

4 Herman C. Waetjen, A Reordering of Power: A socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 22, speaks of Jesus in the prologue as “God’s surrogate.”

5 See Francis J, Moloney, The Gospel of Mark.  A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 27-41, for a detailed study of Mark 1:1-13.  See also Idem, The Living Voice of the Gospel.  The Gospels Today (Melbourne: John Garratt, 2006), 72-87.

6 On the historical “Twelve” and the more general group of followers or disciples of Jesus, see John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew.  Rethinking the Historical Jesus (4 vols.; Anchor Bible Reference Library; New York: Doubleday, 1991-2009), 3:125-97.

7 For a detailed analysis of this passage, and the insistence that what is said of “the Twelve” is to be applied to followers of Jesus in general, especially the readers of the Gospel, see Moloney, Mark, 76-80.

8 See Francis J. Moloney, “Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 63 (2001): 647-56.

9 The passage that runs from 6:7-30 is an example of the Markan practice of “intercalation.”  The disciples are sent out (A: vv. 7-13), the cost of proclaiming the truth is reported in the death of the Baptist, which foreshadows the death of Jesus (B: vv. 14-29), those who were sent out return to Jesus (A1: v. 30).  On this Markan literary technique, see Tom Shepherd, “The Narrative Function of Markan Intercalation,” New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 522-40.

10 See Moloney, “Mark 6:6b-30,” 656-63.

11 For a detailed study of 8:22-10:52 that supports the sketch of the disciples offered in this paragraph, see Moloney, Mark, 171-214.

12 See the evocative treatment of this passage by R. Alan Culpepper, Mark (Smith & Helwys Bible Commentary; Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 344-49.

13 Peter, James and John appear to have a special closeness to Jesus, (see 3:16-17; 5:37; 9:2; 13:3)

14  See Harry Fleddermann, “The Flight of as Naked Young Man (Mark 14:51-52),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41 (1979): 412-18; Moloney, Mark, 344-48.

15 See Neil Q. Hamilton, “Resurrection, Tradition and the Composition of Mark,” Journal of Biblical Literature 84 (1965): 415-21; Moloney, Mark, 344-52.

16 T. J. Weeden, Mark – Traditions in Conflict (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 50-51.  For Weeden, the disciples are used in the story as the representatives of a false Christology.  A similar negative reading of the role of the disciples is found in Richard A. Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 79-97.

17 See especially, Robert C. Tannehill, “The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role”, Journal of Religion 57 (1977) 386-405. This important study is also available in William Telford, ed., The Interpretation of Mark (Issues in Religion and Theology 7; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 134-57.

18 See Moloney, Mark, 352-54.

19 For an excellent synthesis of the ongoing relevance of the post-Easter Markan community, gleaned from a reading of the Gospel, see Klaus Scholtissek, “Nachfolge und Autorität nach dem Markusevangelium,” Trierer theologische Zeitschrift 100 (1991): 56-74.

20 This is not the place to evaluate what might have been meant by “resurrection” in the earliest Church.  Mark’s terse narrative offers no help.  For a survey, see Francis J. Moloney, “Faith in the Risen Jesus,” Salesianum 43 (1981): 305-16.  Scholarly opinion varies.  See, by way of example: those who argue for the physical presence of the pre-Easter Jesus alive among his disciples (see, for example, Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Did Jesus Actually Rise from the Dead?” Dialog 4 [1965]: 18-35; Idem, Grundzüge der Christologie [Gutersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1964], 85-103); an experience among the disciples that they had been forgiven (see, for example Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus.  An Experiment in Christology [London: Collins, 1979], 115-319.); a mysterious awareness that “the Jesus thing goes on” (see Willie Marxsen, The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth [London: SCM Press, 1970]); the expected fulfillment of the disciples’ recognition of the pre-Easter Jesus as the Mosaic eschatological prophet (see, for example, Rudolf Pesch, “Zur Entstehung des Glaubens an die Auferstehung Jesu,” TQ 153 [1973]: 201-228).

21 On the perennial nature of the Markan message of the tension between success and failure among disciples, both women and men, see Hans-Joseph Klauck, “Die Erzählerische Rolle der Jünger im Markusevangelium.  Eine narrative Analyse,” Novum Testamentum 24 (1982): 1-26; Elizabeth S. Malbon, “Fallible Followers: Women and Men in the Gospel of Mark,” Semeia 28 (1983): 29-48 (now available in Idem, In the Company of Jesus.  Characters in Mark’s Gospel [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000], 41-69); Robert C. Tannehill, “The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role,” 134-57.

22 For similar suggestions, see Thomas Boomershine, “Mark 16:8,” 234-39; Robert C. Tannehill, “The Gospel of Mark as Narrative Christology,” Semeia 16 (1980): 82-84; Susan R. Garrett, The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 137-69

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