After teaching the disciples that the temple will be destroyed, Jesus tells his disciples about the end of the world that is near. He warns that many will come falsely claiming to be him and of disasters of every kind, that "are the first birth pains of the new age." He tells the disciples that they will be persecuted in the synagogues and before governors and kings, but the Holy Spirit will come to them and speak through them. "Everyone," Jesus says, "will hate you for your allegiance to me, but whoever endures to the end will be saved."
Then, the gospel of Mark tell us, "the abomination of desolation" will take a place that is not his. This appears to be a reference to the prophecy of Daniel that saw attempts in the second century BCE to convert the Jewish temple into a shrine for Zeus as a sign of the end of the age. The author of the gospel of Mark seems to relate Daniel's visions to the threat to the temple in his own time. In addition to images from Daniel, the author turns to Isaiah for signs of the end. Then, returning to the vision of Daniel (7:13), Jesus says the Son of Man will come "in the clouds with great glory, and he will send out the angels and gather his chosen from the four winds, from the farthest bounds of earth to the farthest bounds of heaven."
The end is very near, for Jesus says: "the present generation will live to see it all." No one, however, "but the Father," knows the day or the hour. Therefore, Jesus urges his disciples to be on their guard and keep watch. We know now that the generation of Jesus did not live to see the end of the world that in the gospel of Mark he prophesied. How are we to make sense of this fact? The author of the gospel of Mark was a man, and he was wrong about how soon the end would come. Jesus was also a man, who on the cross seems not to know the outcome of his death. Christian faith affirms that God was fully present to us in Jesus, as we know him in the New Testament. But this need not require believing that Jesus had the knowledge or mind of God.
In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, as well as in the gospel of Mark, Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple, which in fact happened in 70 — almost forty years after his crucifixion. If these gospel accounts were written after the Roman devastation of Jerusalem and the temple, this passage would make perfect sense as an interpretation of that event. The temple was destroyed, the Jews and the Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem were savaged, and many of the survivors fled from the city. The promise (the vineyard) of God, which had originally been given to those in Jerusalem (the tenants), is through these events passed on to Gentile Christians and to Greek-speaking Jewish Christians elsewhere in the Roman Empire. Those with greater faith are entrusted with the gospel.
The signs of the end of the age are related to the destruction of Jerusalem. The time of judgment has begun. We recall that Paul, when he was Saul before his conversion experience and renaming as an apostle, was seeking out Christians to arrest them, and that after being converted he was arrested and persecuted because of his ministry. Moreover, Paul described the coming of the day of the Lord in images taken from the book of Daniel in the Hebrew scriptures, much as the gospel of Mark does in the thirteenth chapter. The vision of "the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory" combines Daniel's vision of the end time with Psalm 8:4-6:
What is man that you are mindful of him;
Or the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the angels.
You crowned him with glory and honor,
You put everything in subjection under his feet.
In the Revised English Version of the Bible the first two lines are translated as: "what is a frail mortal, that you should be mindful of him, a human being, that you should take notice of him?" This translation reminds us that, before the gospels of the New Testament incorporated the phrase "son of man" into their narratives, the phrase in the Hebrew Bible was understood simply as a way of referring to a human person.
Furthermore, Daniel says that he sees one "like a son of man" coming "with the clouds of heaven" (Daniel 7:13), not "the Son of Man." But in the Greek the phrases are closely related, and these two images are combined by the author of the gospel of Mark into a vision of the Son of Man coming at the end of time. Moreover, because Psalm 8:6 and Psalm 110:1 both refer to putting things under the feet" of the son of man (Psalm 8) or the Lord (Psalm 110), it is not too surprising that the two titles are understood by writers within the early church to name the same person. This may be why the first three gospels of the New Testament include many sayings in which Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man.
The call to "keep awake" is followed by the conclusion of the gospel of Mark. Jesus praises a woman who anoints his head with costly oil, even though this seems to some of the disciples to be an extravagant waste. Immediately, Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples, goes to the chief priests and arranges to have Jesus arrested. Jesus instructs his disciples where to prepare for the Passover meal and then eats with them. He blesses the bread, breaks it, and tells them "this is my body. He gives thank for the wine and tells them, "This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, shed for many."
We saw these words earlier in Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. (1 Cor. 11:23-26) Paul, however, does not attribute these words of Jesus to any written document but says he received them directly from the Lord. Did the author of the gospel of Mark learn of this tradition first from Paul? Or was there a story being circulated in the early church that both Paul and the author of the gospel of Mark knew? Missing from the account of the gospel of Mark are any words by Jesus about keeping this supper in memory of him, but these words are recorded in Paul's letter. This is why when the church celebrates the Lord's Supper, it reads these words from 1 Corinthians.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples finish their meal by singing the Passover hymn. Then they go to the Mount of Olives where, Jesus tells them, they will all "lose faith." Peter boldly replies, "Everyone else may lose faith, but I will not." When Jesus says before the cock crows twice Peter will deny him three times, Peter is incensed. "Even if I have to die with you," he exclaims, "I will never disown you." And the gospel of Mark reports that the other disciples "all said the same."
In the garden of Gethsame Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him to pray. He tells them, "My heart is ready to break with grief" and pleads with them to "stay awake." Then going a little further from them, Jesus prays that "this cup" might be taken from him. Yet, "Abba, Father," he says, "not my will but Yours.” (Abba is the Aramaic word for father.) When Jesus returns to Peter, James and John, he finds them asleep. Twice more he goes off to pray, and each time he returns they are sleeping. The disciples who have just pledged to give their lives for Jesus cannot even stay awake while he prays! It is a devastating portrayal of their weakness and lack of understanding. Certainly, the gospel of Mark was not written to enhance the reputation of the first twelve men who, the gospels tell us, were called to follow Jesus.
Then a crowd sent by the high priests, scribes and elders comes with Judas Iscariot to arrest Jesus. When Judas steps up to Jesus, he calls him "Rabbi" and greets him with a kiss. This is a signal that identifies Jesus in the darkness of the garden for the armed men who have come to apprehend him. The gospel of Mark reports that "one of the bystanders" drew a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest's servant. But Jesus does not call upon his disciples to resist his arrest, and they flee as he is quickly taken away. The gospel of Mark also tells us that a young man wearing nothing but a linen cloth, who had followed Jesus, is stripped of his clothing as he runs away.
The story does not pause to reflect on the flight of the disciples or the identity of the young man stripped naked in the garden of Gethsemane but moves quickly to the high priest's house where Jesus is taken to be interrogated. We are told that false evidence is offered against Jesus before the chief priests and the whole Council of elders, but that the evidence is contradictory and insufficient for a death warrant. When the high priest first questions Jesus about this evidence, Jesus remains silent. When asked, however, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus answers, "I am." And he tells the elders, quoting from Daniel's prophecy: "you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven."
This reply leads the high priest to tear his robe and accuse Jesus of "blasphemy." Quickly the elders agree to the guilt of Jesus and to a sentence of death. As they spit at him and strike him, Peter in the courtyard is accused of knowing Jesus, and before a cock crows twice in the early morning Peter denies knowing Jesus three times. Then he bursts into tears.
Later that morning Jesus is taken to Pilate, the Roman governor. The gospel of Mark says that Pilate is astonished when Jesus does not reply to the accusations against him. Then we are told that, in keeping with a custom, Pilate offers to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. The crowd asks that the rebel Barabbas be released and demands that Jesus be crucified. To appease the crowd, the gospel relates, Pilate hands Jesus over to his soldiers to be flogged and crucified.
In the governor's residence the soldiers dress Jesus in purple garments, put a crown of thorns on his head, and mock him, saying: "Hail, king of the Jews!" Then they beat him, strip him, dress him in his own clothes, and bring him out to be crucified. On the way to the place of crucifixion the soldiers force Simon, from Cyrene, to carry the cross for Jesus, perhaps because Jesus was too weak to carry it for himself. At the place of crucifixion Jesus refuses a drink of drugged wine before the soldiers fasten him to the cross. The gospel of Mark tells us that the soldiers shared his clothes, casting lots to decide what each should receive.
Jesus is crucified at nine in the morning with two robbers beside him. The crowd jeers at the inscription giving the charge against him: "The King of the Jews." From twelve to three in the afternoon, we are told, the sky is dark. Then Jesus cries out: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani?" The author of the gospel of Mark tells his Gentile readers that this Aramaic phrase means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The gospel does not explain, however, that this is the first verse of Psalm 22. Saying the first verse of a psalm can be a way of invoking the whole psalm, and although this psalm begins with a cry of agony it ends with words of praise for God. Yet, the impression for anyone not knowing this fact, which would include most Gentile readers then and today, is that on the cross just before his death Jesus is filled with despair.
Surprisingly, the Aramaic-speaking crowd does not understand what Jesus has said and thinks he is calling Elijah. Because the Greek-speaking readers of this gospel would not understand the Aramaic, this is probably a literary device by the author to link the reader to the crowd. Then, the narrative reports, "Jesus gave a loud cry and died." The gospel relates that a number of women, including "Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome," were watching from a distance. It must be that the second Mary is the mother of Jesus, as the only two brothers we have heard about named James and Joses in the gospel are the sons of Mary and the brothers of Jesus. James "the younger" is distinguished in this way from the disciple James, who is the brother of the disciple John.
Why isn't Mary identified as the mother of Jesus? Perhaps the author of the gospel of Mark felt that here, at the end of the gospel story, the mother of the Son of God should not be identified as the mother of Jesus. Or, it may simply be that in the early church the mother of Jesus was remembered as "the mother of James the younger and Joses" because these two brothers were leaders, with their mother, in the early church. The gospel of Mark does tell us that the three women it names as witnesses to the crucifixion looked after Jesus and "followed him" when he was in Galilee. Were James and Joses also, with their mother, followers of Jesus during his ministry? Given their role in the early church, as related by Acts of the Apostles, it seems likely that they were part of the Jesus movement before the crucifixion as well.
The account of the crucifixion in the gospel of Mark concludes with a statement by a centurion standing near the cross. When he sees how Jesus dies, he says: "This man must have been a son of God." It is a devastating commentary on the lack of faith of the disciples that they are all in hiding when Jesus is crucified. Moreover, it is a surprise that the identity of Jesus, which he has tried (without success) to keep hidden throughout the gospel, is confirmed not by one of his followers but by a Roman centurion standing guard at his crucifixion. Certainly, this conclusion reveals something of the author's purpose. The gospel of Mark tells us that the Roman state put Jesus to death, but he was betrayed and condemned and deserted by his own people — and only recognized as the Christ, at his death, by a Roman Gentile.
Then, the gospel of Mark relates, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Jewish Council and a brave man "who looked forward to the kingdom of God," went to Pilate and asked for permission to bury the body of Jesus. As Jesus dies on the evening before the sabbath, there is not time to prepare the body properly for burial. Therefore, Joseph wraps it in a linen sheet, places it in a tomb and covers the door with a stone.
Mary of Magdala, and Mary, "the mother of Joses," mark where the tomb is located and, after the sabbath, we read that Mary of Magdala and Mary, "the mother of James" (this seems to be Mary, the mother of Jesus and of Joses) return with Salome to anoint the body. They find the stone rolled away and a young man in a white robe sitting in the empty tomb. He tells them that Jesus is risen and has returned to Galilee. The young man says to the women that they are to inform the disciples and Peter to meet the risen Jesus in Galilee. But the gospel reports that the women flee in fear and say nothing to anyone.
In some versions of the gospel of Mark, resurrection appearances are also related. But the majority of the ancient texts end with the account of the empty tomb. As Christians are accustomed to reading about the resurrection appearances, many find this ending of the gospel of Mark very disturbing. Why would the author of the gospel of Mark omit the resurrection appearances from his account? And why have the women run away in fear rather than in joy?
We cannot answer these questions, of course, but the end is less surprising if we realize that this gospel is largely supporting Paul in his argument with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. Paul proclaimed the resurrection of the body, and thus it seems other Jewish Christians believed that only the soul or spirit was resurrected. The empty tomb, of course, is confirms Paul's position. Moreover, the end of the gospel of Mark emphasizes the fear and lack of faith of those who followed Jesus during his lifetime. These include the disciples and members of his family. By not relating any resurrection appearance to Peter or the other disciples or to James, the brother of Jesus who becomes the leading apostle of the church in Jerusalem, the author of the gospel of Mark undermines their authority.
Who, then, has authority to preach the gospel? Why, Paul, of course! The end of the gospel of Mark points away from the disciples and away from Jerusalem to the apostle who was called by the risen Lord to take the good news to the Gentiles. If we understand that the gospel of Mark was written for one or more churches primarily made up of Gentile Christians, then the way the gospel ends makes sense. The good news is that Jesus, who was not understood by his disciples and the crowds who followed him, offers salvation to all those who have faith in the risen Lord. This is very much the gospel message preached by Paul.