Sunday, September 27, 2020

MARK 16

there were also women looking on afar off:
among whom was Mary Magdalene,
and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome;
who also, when he was in Galilee,
followed him and ministered unto him
and many other women
which came up with him unto Jerusalem.


There is an epilogue.

It introduces four — arguably five — new characters. This is not a natural way of telling a story. But it’s the only way Mark can tell it. The hero is dead. The supporting cast have all run away.

Jesus screams. We cut to the temple. The holy curtain is hanging in shreds. We cut back to Golgotha. Jesus is dead. The Centurion sneers. And as the lights come back on, the camera slowly pans to three characters, in the background, who haven’t been mentioned before.

Of course, they are women.

There are always women in the background. Ministering; it says, like Peter’s mother-in-law. Serving. Doing the practical stuff. They had to eat didn’t they? And I suppose someone had to launder the clothes. And when the big guys with the famous names have run away, the women are still there. To clean up the mess.

Mary Magdalene we know nothing about. Her first name was Mary and her last name was Magdalene. Anyone who refers to her as “Mary the Magdalene" or "Mary of Magdala" is seeing stuff in the text which isn't actually there.

We know even less about the other Mary. She had two sons: James “the less” and Joses. Jesus definitely had two disciples called James: James the Son of Zebedee and James the Son of Alphaeus. Zebedee's son is one of the inner circle; so maybe Alphaeus's son was known as the Less Important James? But in that case why not call his mother “Mary the Wife of Alphaeus”? James the Less could just as well mean Little James or Young James. We don’t know.

It would be nice if one of the women in the epilogue turned out to be the most famous Mary of all. It would be nice to think that she had made up with her son since since she called him a crazy man back in Capernaum. Maybe a scribe wrote “Mary the Mother of Joses” when he meant to write “Mary the Mother of Jesus”? But Mark was written in Greek and Iostos / Iesous is a much less plausible typo.

Iostos is Joseph and Joseph was the name of Jesus’s earth-dad and Jesus definitely had a brother called James so maybe when Mark writes "Mary the Mother of Joseph and James…" he expects us to say "…And Jesus as well!"

Maybe he does. And maybe he doesn’t. We just don’t know.

Salome we don’t know one single thing about. Christians have decided she was the wife of Zebedee and therefore the mother of Big James. James and John’s Mum gets a walk-on in Matthew, but we don't know what she was called. Salome was an incredibly common name.

Three women. Two called Mary, one not. One identified by her children; one by her surname; one not identified at all. That’s all we have to go on.

The camera turns to them. And then it turns away again. We haven’t quite got to their part of the story yet.




and now when the even was come
because it was the preparation
that is the day before the sabbath,
Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counseller
which also waited for the kingdom of God
came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.
and Pilate marvelled if he were already dead
and calling unto him the centurion
he asked him whether he had been any while dead.
and when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.





Jesus has died quickly. Pilate is surprised. Enter Joseph of Arimathea.

And exit Joseph of Arimathea, almost immediately.

If you read a certain kind of literature you know all about Joseph. He collected the blood of Jesus at the crucifixion. He hosted the Last Supper. He brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury. He was Jesus’s Uncle and a tin-merchant and used to visit Priddy (where they hold the folk festival). His descendents were the Fisher Kings.

Mark tells us nothing about him. We don’t know where Arimathea was, or indeed if there ever was such a place.

Rich guy. Probably on the Sanhedrin. Secret follower of Jesus. Asks Pilate for the body. Pilate hands it over. Performs a hasty funeral and disappears from history.

Why does Pilate surrender the body of Jesus to Joseph? Because he doesn’t want to antagonize the people by leaving a dead body rotting on a pole during the festival? Or precisely in order to antagonize them. “I couldn’t stop you lot lynching him; but you can’t stop me giving him an honourable burial.” Or maybe Pilate was just a decent chap who thought that even criminals deserved a decent funeral. We are told that Albert Pierrepoint was rather fussy about how the authorities disposed of his clients after he had finished with them.



and he bought fine linen
and took him down
and wrapped him in the linen
and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock
and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre
and Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses
beheld where he was laid.

Joseph bought the linen-cloth specially. Mark thinks that is important: something we need to know. The fine linen is sidoni: the same word Mark used for the clothes that Naked Guy lost in the garden of Gethsemane.

Mark has abandoned any pretence that Jesus literally died on Passover: Joseph is concerned about the Sabbath, but goes out and buys a linen shroud on the holy day. The women have been to the spice-market, too.

Joseph wraps Jesus in the cloth.

He put him in a sepulchre. Most modern translations say “tomb”: if we wanted to be literal we should probably say “memorial”. He rolls a stone in front of the door. He must have been a big guy. He can move a stone by himself which three grown-up ladies couldn’t move together.

And that’s it: Joseph’s part of the story is over.

And we pull back again. The three mysterious ladies are still in the background. Watching.



and when the sabbath was past,
Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome,
had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
and very early in the morning the first day of the week,
they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
and they said among themselves,
“Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?”
and when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away
for it was very great
and entering into the sepulchre,
they saw a young man sitting on the right side,
clothed in a long white garment;
and they were affrighted.
and he saith unto them,
be not affrighted:
“ye seek Jesus of Nazareth,
which was crucified:
he is risen;
he is not here:
behold the place where they laid him.
but go your way,
tell his disciples 
and Peter
that he goeth before you into Galilee
there shall ye see him
as he said unto you”
And they went out quickly
and fled from the sepulchre
for they trembled and were amazed
neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid…




And this is where Mark's story ends.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

The disciples ran away. Some women stayed. So the women first heard the news.

Jesus had no truck with the prejudices of his day. Women were crucial to his ministry and it’s silly that some churches still have a problem with women taking on pastoral roles. Mary, Mary and Salome were in a very real sense Apostles to the Apostles. Mary Magdalene became the Holy Grail…

Yes. All that. Maybe.

But also, this:

The people who were, or should have, expected the Resurrection ran away. Jesus told the disciples that he was coming back. He told them five times, at least. But Judas defected. Peter recanted. Everyone else scattered.

What happened next — according to Mark?

Not according to Matthew or John or Luke. Not according to Robert Powell or the Ladybird Book of Jesus. Not according to the Easter Morning liturgy. According to Mark.

Imagine yourself reading this book, for the first time, on what would have been Jesus’ seventieth birthday.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

What happened next?

No-one knows.

Or at any rate, Mark doesn’t know. Or if he did know, he didn’t want us to know. People who understand Greek tell us he broke off mid-sentence. Your Bible might have some verses after this: it may very well print them in [square brackets]. That’s because different manuscripts have different endings and the different endings are written in different styles and they are pretty much just summaries of John, Matthew and Luke. But the two oldest Bibles in existence break off at this point.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

It has to be girls who go to the tomb. The boy disciples, the eleven, were expecting to Jesus to come back to life. Because he told them that he would: over and over again. The three women are not expecting Jesus to wake up or stand up. They are expecting to embalm a dead body.

They are expecting to anoint him: which is probably a good thing to do with a horribly mutilated corpse, but also, ironically, the appropriate thing to do with a dead Messiah.

The people of this time practiced burial and reburial: after a year or so the bones of a dead person were exhumed and reinterred in ossuaries. We shouldn’t think of the tomb as a single cave with a single bier for a single body: it was more likely to a mausoleum or a morgue, with spaces for a number of burials and an entrance that could be sealed and unsealed. That is why the young man has to point out the place where Jesus was laid.

Yes; it is a young man.

Pretend you are reading this story for the first time.

Would you read this and say “Oh, when Marks says ‘they saw a young man in a white shirt’ he obviously means ‘two angels came down from heaven and caused an earthquake’”?

Or would you say “Oh. Some other disciple got here first.”?

Would you, perhaps, say “Oh, it’s naked guy from Gethsemane: I knew he was going to turn out to be of some importance later on?”

I think that if you were reading the story for the first time, you might say: someone got to the tomb first. And it must have been a guy, because he was strong enough to move Joseph’s stone. And that person found that Jesus’ body wasn’t there. So he waited for the other disciples to come. But they never did. Only some women.

So: Mysterious Young Guy says to Mysterious Women. “Of course his body isn’t here. Haven’t you been paying attention? He's going to meet you all back home Galilee. Go and remind the disciples. Go and remind Peter in particular. And do call him Peter. He can have his name back. That’s important.”

Dot. Dot. Dot.

The women panic. They run away. The don’t pass the message on. They vanish from the story.

They never tell no-one, so no-one never knowed.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

That is the story. That is not Matthew’s story or Luke’s story or John’s story, and it isn’t the church’s story. But it is Mark’s story.

The boys ran away. The girls heard that Jesus had come back to life. But they never passed on the message. The disciples were meant to meet Jesus back in the Galilee. But they never went. They missed the appointment.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

Matthew changes the story. The young man is now an angel who has come down from heaven and created an earthquake. He is waiting for the women outside the tomb. But there is still an odd emphasis on his clothing: white as snow. The women run out of the tomb to tell the disciples, but they bump into Jesus himself, who repeats the angels instructions: tell the disciples to meet me in Galilee. The disciples do indeed go back to Galilee; where they do indeed see Jesus: he tells them to pass his teachings on and then goes back to heaven.

Luke changes the story. The young man in a white robe is now two men in dazzlingly shiny garments. The women go and tell the disciples straight away. Peter checks out the tomb, and what do you think convinces him that the story is true? Linen cloth. Eventually, they all see Jesus: the meet him one last time in Bethany and he goes back to heaven. But they don’t return to Galilee. They stay in Jerusalem. Jesus specifically tells them to.

John changes the story. A group of women go to the tomb and encounter no young men and no angels: only — what do you think? — linen garments, folded up. They go and get John and Peter. John goes into the tomb but Peter doesn’t. John is convinced that Jesus has come back to life but Peter less so. Mary stays behind and sees the resurrected Jesus. Then all the disciples apart from Thomas see him. Then Thomas does. Everyone drifts back to Galilee and take up fishing again, where they see Jesus one last time.

But we are reading Mark’s version.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

“And that is what happened; forty years ago. And only now is the truth coming out. Jesus told Peter and Peter told me and I am telling you. He knew all this would happen. The thousands of bodies hung up on crosses. Pigs in the Holy of Holies. The temple reduced to a pile of rubble. Jesus warned us in advance. And he said that when that happened — that would be the proof that he had gone back to his Papa, and his Papa had put him in charge of the universe. And he’ll be back. Any day now. So hang in there. Don’t fumble the ball this time. Don’t fall asleep like you did in Gethsemane. Don’t say you never met Jesus. Don’t lose your shirt and run away naked. Don’t fail to pass on the message. We have another another chance. Don’t blow it….”

That, it seems to me, is Mark’s understanding of the Gospel. A secret that got out; a message that didn’t get passed on. It is how we would read Mark’s Gospel if we were truly reading it for the…
This month I have published approximated 10,000 words of essays on this page. 

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In September, we should see the final four essays on the Gospel According to St Mark appear here: the trial; the cross; and, er, the thing which happened afterwards. Rather challenging to write but I am quite pleased with them. A book will follow almost immediately.

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Friday, September 25, 2020

Mark 15


and straightway in the morning 
the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council 
and bound Jesus 
and carried him away 
and delivered him to Pilate 
and Pilate asked him, 
“art thou the King of the Jews?” 
and he answering said unto him, 
“thou sayest it” 
and the chief priests accused him of many things: 
but he answered nothing. 
and Pilate asked him again, saying, 
“answerest thou nothing? 
behold how many things they witness against thee” 
but Jesus yet answered nothing 
so that Pilate marvelled
now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner 
whomsoever they desired
and there was one named Barabbas 
which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him 
who had committed murder in the insurrection 
and the multitude crying aloud 
began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them. 
but Pilate answered them, saying, 
"will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?" 
for he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy. 
but the chief priests moved the people 
that he should rather release Barabbas unto them. 
and Pilate answered and said again unto them, 
"what will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?" 
and they cried out again, "crucify him" 
then Pilate said unto them, 
why, what evil hath he done? 
and they cried out the more exceedingly, "crucify him" 
and so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, 
and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified. 

I am trying to make sense of Mark as a storyteller. But this part of Mark’s story does not make sense to me. 

Mark has painted a picture of Jesus’s conflict with the Temple. Mark has shown Jesus blaspheming in front of the supreme court. I understand why Mark thinks the Priests wanted Jesus dead. 

But now a new character enters the story. You probably have a picture of him in your head. He’s dressed in a Roman toga with a wreath on his head; or perhaps dressed as a Roman legionnaire, with a face oddly reminiscent of Michael Palin. (Be honest.) A brooding figure; prone to symbolic gestures, who sings one enigmatic song in the first act. 

Mark doesn’t introduce Pilate. If we were really reading the story for the first time it wouldn’t be completely clear who he was: clearly a judge or figure of authority; someone whose power the Jews reluctantly acknowledge; with the power to have a man killed. 

Next comes someone called Bar-Abbas. We have seen that “Abba” is what little kids call their fathers, so he name means Son of His Papa. I guess that means he was a bastard. He’s some kind of revolutionary or terrorist; but here Mark is strangely evasive. He says that he has been imprisoned with some rebels; and that those rebels killed someone during an the uprising. He doesn’t say that Dad’s-Son himself is a revolutionary or a murderer. About the failed revolution he tells us nothing. 

And then there is a crowd. Outside Pilate’s residence, early in the morning — after cock-crow but before 9AM — on (allegedly) Passover morning. Where did they come from? Where do they go? And why does Pilate involve then in events? 

Pilate calls Jesus “King of the Jews”. He uses the phrase four times, and puts a sign “King of the Jews” above the Cross. He has heard of Jesus; he knows that people are calling him Messiah; and he has a pretty shrewd idea about that word means. But he doesn’t think that letting people call you Anointed amounts to a capital offence. If he did the trial would have been very short. 

We know what happens. It is the maybe the most famous story in the world. Pilate asks Jesus if he is King. Niether Pilate nor the Priests take “You say so” to be an admission of guilt. If they did the trial would have been very short. The Priests run through their charge list; presumably the same accusations they made an hour ago in the High Priest’s house. Jesus doesn’t answer. Pilate repeats the question about whether or not Jesus is king: still no answer. 

And suddenly, from nowhere, there is a crowd. (An ochlos: a multitude; a rabble; a riot.) And they petition Pilate to grant an amnesty to a prisoner. Apparently this was a local custom. Pilate offers to release Jesus: the crowd ask him to release Daddy’s-Son. Pilate acquiesces; and hands Jesus over — that word again — to be executed. Without pronouncing him guilty of anything. 

What does Mark think just happened? 

There is no reason to assume that Barabas is a thug. He might be an heroic figure. He could also be a hard-luck case, on death row because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. People do get killed by despotic governments because they happened to be adjacent to the place where a bad thing happened. "Common purpose" they call it. "Let him have it, Chris".  

There must have been a plan for a mass crucifixion. There are other rebels in prison: at least two people go to their deaths at the same time as Jesus. No-one suggests that Pilate might release one of the “two bandits”; no-one suggests that he free the other rebels. Barabbas is a special case. 

Is the crowd a delegation of Barabbas’s friends and supporters? Perhaps they have come specifically to try to claim the amnesty on his behalf? In which case they wouldn’t know who Jesus was: it's a foregone conclusion they’ll ask Pilate to free the popular freedom fighter, not the religious nutter from up north.

So why does Pilate go through the motions of offering to release Jesus? He understands that the Priests have a grievance against Jesus. Perhaps he has a Machiavellian plan to put the priests in his debt by killing their enemy for them? But he doesn’t have a good legal basis to proceed. 

So perhaps he is being sneaky. Perhaps he is saying “Let’s put it to a vote. And let’s ask these good people who have specifically come to ask for the release of Bar-Abbas. We are going to commute one sentence today: shall it perchance be this popular and unfortunate local hero; or shall it be this Northern preacher who only arrived in town three days ago. Oh, really? Is that your final word? Then I am afraid there is nothing I can do about it. It’s out of my hands.” 

This makes some sense. But the story, as Mark tells it, is very obscure. 


and the soldiers led him away into the hall, 
called Praetorium 
and they call together the whole band. 
and they clothed him with purple 
and platted a crown of thorns 
and put it about his head, 
and began to salute him, Hail, King of the Jews! 
and they smote him on the head with a reed 
and did spit upon him 
and bowing their knees worshipped him. 
and when they had mocked him 
they took off the purple from him 
and put his own clothes on him 
and led him out to crucify him 

It sometimes happens in a fairy tale that the Prince disguises himself as a peasant or a servant. And if the tale is told in the form of a pantomime, there will likely be a scene in which the nagging old cook or the cruel school mistress says “Who do you think you are, the King of England?” or “Well, just sit down and eat your gruel, your Majesty”. (Cakes often get burned at the same time.) 

The terrible climax of Mark’s story is full of this kind of irony. Pilate has called Jesus “Jewish King” five times; the soldiers now take up the joke. Jew-King, Jew-King! They even dress him up as a carnival King and stage a mock coronation. Religious artwork usually depicts the crown of thorns as an instrument of torture; but I am not sure how you would go about plaiting a thorny branch. Maybe it just means “a silly fake crown like kids would wear if they were playing kings and queens”. 

We are not supposed to think “How ironic! They are calling him a King in jest, but if they but knew it, he really is secretly a king.” We are supposed to think: “This is King Jesus: this is what he looks like. The first are last and the last are first. He is the very last. Being hurt and spat on and laughed is the ultimate glorification.” 



and they compel one Simon, a Cyrenian 
who passed by 
coming out of the country 
the father of Alexander and Rufus 
to bear his cross 

Simon of Cyrene is another mysterious, random figure. Some people say that the sons of the man who carried the cross must have been afforded a special status in the ancient Church. There would be no point is calling Simon “the father of Alexander and Rufus” if Mark’s readers didn’t know who Alexander and Rufus were. That might be true: but it’s no help to us

Cyrene is in Libya. This shows that race is no barrier to love: Simon, an African, helped Jesus, a Jew, when no-one else would. 

Or else it proves that white people have always thought it is the job of black people to carry their stuff.




and they bring him unto the place Golgotha 
which is, being interpreted, the place of a skull. 

The Hebrew word gulgolet mostly means “head”: for example in the sense of a “head count”. But it sometimes means “skull”: when Samson crushes the skull of one of his enemies, he crushes their gulgolet. Mark says that the name Golgotha means Kraniou Topos: place of a skull. (Compare our word cranium.) The Latin translators left Golgotha as it was, but kraniou topos became calvariae locus, which is why you still get churches, hills and sentimental hymns locating Jesus death at a place called Calvary. 

Mark does not say that Kraniou Topos is a hill, green or otherwise. 




and they gave him to drink wine 
mingled with myrrh 
but he received it not 

We sometimes read that a condemned man is offered a blindfold but refuses to wear it: I am told that modern American prisons have the charming custom of offering inmates valium before killing them. Jesus told his disciples in the upper room that he would never drink wine again: Mark wants us to know that he kept his vow.




and when they had crucified him, 
they parted his garments, 
casting lots upon them, 
what every man should take

We don’t seem to be able to get away from clothes. Perhaps Mark wants to allude to; but not dwell on, a secondary but still unpleasant fact. Jesus is not merely bound to stake: he is on public display mother-naked. 

In her novel To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf famously relegates the First World War to a parenthesis. Mark puts the climax of his story in a subordinate clause: it is as if we look away from the stake and look at the soldiers instead. They take him to the killing ground. They offer him a sedative. And after they have executed him, they take his clothes. It’s as if you had said: They went for a nice walk in the park. The roses were pretty. He had a strawberry lolly, she had an ice-cream. After he had murdered her, he put the wrappers in the bin. 

It is not at all unlikely that an execution party should be allowed to keep the condemned man’s possessions. We don’t need to imagine them shooting craps for Jesus’ robe: quite possibly they flipped a denarius or just did the Roman equivalent of chartam, forfex, lapis. But the casting of lots is a callback to the Old Testament: to another one of King David’s hymns. A man — we don’t know who — is going though his ultimate time of trouble; rejected by everyone for no reason: 

all my bones are on display 
people stare and gloat over me 
they divide my clothes among them 
and cast lots for my garment 

A majority of Christians would say that this is simply and straightforwardly an oracle; describing the exact circumstances of the death of Jesus a thousand years before it happened. David looked into a magic mirror, saw the death of his remote descendant, described it in a poem; and set it to a tune called the Doe of the Morning. The more militant kind of sceptic would say that the Psalm came first and the story came afterwards. There was no Jesus and no crucifixion: Mark’s Gospel is a patchwork of Old Testament quotes. 

The truth lies somewhere in between, as the truth usually does. Maybe the Romans really played a game of chance to see who took Jesus’ clothes and maybe they didn’t: it doesn’t matter either way. What does matter is that Mark made a conscious choice to write about the crucifixion of Jesus in the words of the old, old poem. It’s like a spiritual hyperlink. "When you read this story", says Mark, "I want you to think of the twenty second Psalm."  

Would Roman torturers really have nailed their victims to stakes? Or would they have just tied them up and left them to the weather and the insects? Certainly, Mark doesn’t mention nails. If they did use nails, they would have gone through ankles and wrists. But almost every Christian painting and almost every Christian play shows Jesus with nails in his hands and feet. That comes, not from Mark’s text, but from David’s poem: 

dogs surround me 
a pack of vultures encircles me 
they pierce my hands and my feet



and it was the third hour, and they crucified him. 
and the superscription of his accusation was written over 
THE KING OF THE JEWS. 
and with him they crucify two thieves; 
the one on his right hand, and the other on his left 

A week ago, James and John asked if they could be placed on Jesus left hand and right hand when he became King. And here he is hanging from a stake, half-dead, with a sign above his head saying "this is what happens to so-called Jew-Kings". 

And who are on his left and his right? Two other naked dying guys. 

People at the top are at the bottom. You want to be with me in my glory? You don’t what that means. But now you do. 



and they that passed by railed on him, 
wagging their heads, and saying, 
“Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, 
and buildest it in three days, 
save thyself, and come down from the cross.” 
likewise also the chief priests mocking 
said among themselves with the scribes, “He saved others; 
himself he cannot save. 
let Christ the King of Israel 
descend now from the cross, 
that we may see and believe.” 
and they that were crucified with him reviled him. 

The people who are mocking Jesus are the ones who happen to be passing by: the mob who were screaming for his blood outside Pilate’s palace have vanished from the story. Golgotha sounds as if it was by a public road: if you wanted to send a message about what happened to Jewish Kings, you probably wouldn’t put the stake at the top of a hill. Despite the sign, the passers-by seem to understand that Jesus is really being killed because he is the enemy of the temple. 

Mark is treating Psalm 22 pretty much as a shooting script. 

all they that see me laugh me to scorn: 
they shoot out the lip, 
they shake the head, saying, 
he trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him 
let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him. 


and when the sixth hour was come 
there was darkness over the whole land 
until the ninth hour. 

English teachers talk about the Pathetic Fallacy: writers have a tendency to make the natural world reflect the emotional state of their main character. Thunderstorms when he is sad; warm spring sunshine when he is in a good mood. Thomas Hardy does it all the time. It is such a cliche that modern movies tend to go for the Antipathetic Fallacy: how many rainy weddings and sunny funerals have you seen? 

But when the hero is God it is not a fallacy. You’d expect his suffering to result in a supernatural darkness. 

Many people have spotted that the Jewish Passover runs on a lunar calendar: and Christians have decided that it is very important that Easter should be celebrated during a full moon. (The first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal equinox, since you asked.) Whatever happened on that Friday, it definitely was not an eclipse. 




and at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, 
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” 
which is, being interpreted, 
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 

Anyone with a religious background knows that Jesus spoke five times from the cross. But those five “words” are a conflation of four different versions of the story. In Mark’s version, Jesus speaks only once. 

And we are still in the Psalms: “My god, my god why hast thou forsaken me” is the first line of Pslam 22. David’s poem ends with God coming to help the suffering man; or at least, with the hope that he will do so. So if Jesus died quoting the psalm, then he died crying out for God’s help — not despairing because God would not help him. 

But it is strange that he quotes it in Aramaic. If he had been quoting scripture, surely he would have quoted it either in Hebrew or in Greek? You would expect an Muslim to quote the Koran in Arabic or a Catholic to quote the Bible in Latin, not in a vernacular translation. So perhaps Jesus really did blurt out something desperate in his mother tongue? 




and some of them that stood by, 
when they heard it, said, 
“Behold, he calleth Elias” 
and one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, 
and put it on a reed, 
and gave him to drink, 
saying, “Let alone; 
let us see whether Elias will come to take him down” 

Elijah, Elijah, Elijah. 

John the Baptist was kind of like Elijah; many people thought Jesus literally was Elijah. The inner circle of disciples saw Jesus talking with Elijah. And some of the witnesses to his death thought that Jesus called for Elijah at the end. 

Just suppose. 

Jesus is dying: he screams out something in his own language. And the people present — either the ones who were paid to hurt him, or the ones who had turned up because they liked seeing people being hurt — decide to offer him a drink to give him a few second’s relief. (We are told that hangmen used to use softer ropes for their favourite murders.) Vinegar is not our condiment, of course: it just means cheap wine, very probably what a Roman soldier might have in his provisions pouch. A reed is just a rod or a stick. No-one actually thinks that Elijah is going to come down from heaven in a chariot of fire and rescue Jesus. It must be a cruel joke. Let’s see if Elijah comes: and then we can wait for Santa and the Tooth Fairy as well. 

Just suppose. Jesus really did call for Elijah. There was a close connection between the Son of Man and Elijah. Suppose he hoped, even at that moment, that God’s top prophet was going to come and save him and they could inaugurate the Messianic age side by side. 

Suppose Jesus' last words were “Elijah… Elijah…” And suppose Mark, unable to make sense of them, after four decades of mediation, decided that he must have been quoting an Aramaic version of an old Hebrew Psalm. 




and Jesus cried with a loud voice 
and gave up the ghost

The word is exepneusen. We have seen that pneuma is both “breath” and “spirit”; and that what Mark calls the pneuma haggio our Bible renders as “holy ghost”. So perhaps’ Jesus spirit departed his body at this moment. It’s even possible that the pneuma haggio, God’s dove, left him and went back to heaven through the hole in the sky. 

But the most probable explanation is the simplest one. Jesus expired. He breathed his last. He quit breathing. 




and the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom 

Mark is quite clear that this is the veil of the temple; not merely “one of the temple curtains”. He must surely mean the curtain that separated the innermost temple, where God lived, from the rest of the place. 

This is as close as Mark comes to providing a theology of the Crucifixion. He doesn’t say why or how. He just says that Jesus died: and the boundary between the sacred and the secular — or at any rate between the Holy and the Even More Holy — fell away. 

Evangelicals will tell us that this means that Jesus has torn down the barrier — sin — which separates Man from God. But in the light of everything else which Mark has said, I wonder if the primary meaning is simpler. The temple is over; the special office of the priests is ended. In a sense, Jesus did what he was accused of. He has destroyed the Temple. 




and when the centurion, 
which stood over against him, 
saw that he so cried out, 
and gave up the ghost, 
he said, 
"truly this man was the Son of God" 

“That he so cried out” seems to be a translator’s gloss. The Greek appears to say that Centurion said what he said “having see that thus he breathed his last”. He sees Jesus stop breathing: and he says that Jesus alethos — surely or certainly — was the Son of God. It’s the same word the serving woman used to Peter. Surely you were with him. You were with him, weren’t you? 

This is often taken as an upbeat ending: a ray of light in the desolation. But I am afraid it is one last twist of the knife. Everything in this chapter has been bitter and ironic. There is a sign over the cross. JEWISH KING. Pilate put it there, not because he thinks Jesus is king, but because he doesn’t. The Priests have asked him to prophesy to them, not because they think he is a prophet, but because they think he isn’t. The passers-by have challenged him to come down from the cross, not because they think he can, but because they think the can’t. And finally, his executioner says that he was the son of God: not because he thinks he is, but because he thinks he isn’t. 

A few hours ago, Jesus was praying: “Daddy: please get me out of this. But no, Daddy: please don’t answer that prayer.” Now he says "Jehovah! Why did you desert me?” screams, and dies. 

And in one way, that is the end of the story. It has to end like that; in complete desolation and despair; because that is the whole of the message. The high is the low. The big is the small. I can only be the highest by becoming the lowest. You will know that I am the ultimate king when I become the ultimate pariah. 

So naturally, that has to be the final line. 

“Yeah. Right. This you call the Son of God?” 




But that isn’t quite the end of the story. There is an epilogue. And the epilogue is the strangest thing in this very strange book. 










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Thursday, September 17, 2020

When I Survey....


“I suppose you think I can’t do the electrocution” wrote E.L Doctorow in his novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, written in the persona of their son. “I will show you that I can do the electrocution.” 

Syliva Plath, also writing about the Rosenburgs, remarks “I am silly about executions”, as if there was a way of being sensible about human beings gurgling in electric chairs. The United States has mostly hidden judicial killings away inside big impersonal institutions; and England stopped killing prisoners more than half a century ago. There are some sadists and tabloid leader-writers out there: but most of us see capital punishment as a weird anachronism. We can’t quite believe it used to happen. 

There is a clip somewhere of the great Jake Thackray introducing his translation of the great George Brassens’ song The Gorilla which is, rather indirectly, a satirical attack on capital punishment. (A judge who has just sentenced a man to death gets raped by a gorilla. It’s a very funny song: you should probably stop reading this essay and listen to it.) He sits there, in his painfully 1970s sweater, on colour TV — very possibly the comic relief on that week’s Esther Rantzan show — and remarks “This week, in Le Sante Prison, Paris, two fellas got their heads chopped off…” 

And I’m like…that was still happening? In the era of colour TV? Not in Saudi Arabia, but twenty miles over the channel in France? Actual decapitation? Polite men in suits and uniforms taking a man to the guillotine and then going and having a coffee and croque monsieur afterwards? It so obscene that we can only talk about it frivolously. They had their heads chopped off. They were strung up. They went to the chair. 

They were very bad men. Terrorists, I think. 

What if—as some people wanted—P.G Wodehouse had been convicted of high treason? What if the main thing which loomed over those funny cocktail party farces was “the man who wrote these stories ended up standing on a trap door with a rope round his neck”. What if Winston Churchill had been allowed to go through with his sordid little fantasy of electrocuting Adolf Hitler in Trafalgar Square? Would we remember anything about Hitler apart from the gruesome newsreels of his death? Or the little Swedish-American union leader who put clever, cheeky, funny words to hymn tunes was shot on a trumped up charge, and his death utterly overshadows his songs. I suppose Socrates is mostly a philosopher and only secondarily a man forced to drink poison. 

There is a pat children’s hymn which I assume no-one sings any more. It goes: 

I sometimes think about the Cross 
and shut my eyes and try to see 
the cruel nails and crown of thorns 
and Jesus crucified for me. 

But it clearly isn’t the kind of thing we can think about. We either think of flesh and blood and piercing wounds and feel sick; or else we resort to gallows humour and treat it as if it was slightly, grotesquely funny. Monty Python at one extreme and Mel Gibson at the other. I think Python is better. The rack and the iron maiden mainly exist in newspaper cartoons or Heavy Metal imagery. 

Mostly, it flips and becomes a Religious Image. Jesus-movies have established their own iconography of the crucifixion. We ought to feel that Robert Powell or Willem Dafoe is being horribly and cruelly brutalised: but in fact, the minute the camera arrives at Golgotha, they cease to be characters and become icons; live action representations of the kind of Crucifix you see outside every Catholic Church and round every priestly neck. 

Some atheists think it is ever so clever to point out that the cross is not, in fact, a religious symbol but is, in fact, an instrument of torture, and how very strange it is to use execution hardware as a symbol of your faith. There would be nothing remotely odd about using the symbol of a noose to represent a political martyr or the victim of a miscarriage of justice. But it is quite true that the crucifix is intended to be a shocking image; like a momento mori, and that it has lost its power due to overfamiliarity. Mel Gibson to some extent did us a favour by reminding us that crucifying someone would have made a terrible mess. The Romans did lots of horrible things to criminals, feeding them to wild animals and tying them in sacks of poisonous snakes. But they treated crucifixion as being almost too disgusting to even mention. 

Jesus was crucified. 

Not some allegorical religious figure. The person we’ve been reading about. The person who gives his followers nick-names and deliberately presents his teaching in such a way that no-one will understand it. The one who always answers a different question to the one you asked. The one who wouldn’t go out and talk to his mum. The one who hugged the kids. The one with the bread and the boat. That Jesus. 

The Greek word for cross is stauros which arguably means a stick or a stake. You could take the word Cross-ified to mean bound to a stake. Mark doesn’t mention nails: he just says that Jesus was Stake-ified. Maybe if we tried to say Impaled rather than Crucified some of the shock and horror and incongruity would find it’s way back into the story. 

Let’s see if Mark can do the Crucifixion.




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Saturday, September 12, 2020

Mark 14 53-72



and they led Jesus away to the high priest
and with him were assembled all the chief priests
and the elders and the scribes.

and Peter followed him afar off
even into the palace of the high priest
and he sat with the servants
and warmed himself at the fire

and the chief priests and all the council
sought for witness against Jesus to put him to death and found none
for many bare false witness against him
but their witness agreed not together
and there arose certain
and bare false witness against him, saying,
"we heard him say
I will destroy this temple that is made with hands
and within three days I will build another made without hands: 
but neither so did their witness agree together. 

and the high priest stood up in the midst 
and asked Jesus, saying,  
“answerest thou nothing?  
what is it which these witness against thee?” 
but he held his peace, and answered nothing.  
again the high priest asked him, and said unto him,  
“art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” 
and Jesus said, “I am:  
and ye shall see the son of man sitting on the right hand of power,  
and coming in the clouds of heaven.” 

then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith 
“what need we any further witnesses? 
ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye?”  
and they all condemned him to be guilty of death 
and some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, and to say unto him, “Prophesy” 
and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands 

and as Peter was beneath in the palace, 
there cometh one of the maids of the high priest: 
and when she saw Peter warming himself, 
she looked upon him, and said,  
"and thou also wast with Jesus of Nazareth" 
but he denied, saying, I know not, neither understand I what thou sayest.  
and he went out into the porch; and the cock crew. 
and a maid saw him again,  
and began to say to them that stood by,  
"this is one of them"
and he denied it again.  
and a little after, they that stood by said again to Peter,  
"surely thou art one of them: for thou art a Galilaean, and thy speech agreeth thereto" 
but he began to curse and to swear, saying,  
"I know not this man of whom ye speak"
and the second time the cock crew.  
and Peter called to mind the word that Jesus said unto him,  
before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.  
and when he thought thereon, he wept. 


The final confrontation. Jesus versus the Priesthood. Jesus versus the Temple. 

That is the charge the Priests bring against Jesus: he said he would destroy the temple. 

It’s an oddly specific charge. Jesus has told his disciples in private that the temple is going to be destroyed. He has preached a public parable that very strongly suggests that the Priesthood is going to come to an end. And I suppose that if a terrorist had said “That skyscraper is going to be destroyed” the authorities might well take him to mean “I am going to destroy that skyscraper”. But the comment about pulling down a temple “made with hands” and putting up another “not made with hands” corresponds to nothing that Mark says that Jesus said. 

The thugs take Jesus to the high priest: the high priest assembles the senior clergy and lawyers. The council is the synehedrion: presumably the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. The thugs in the garden could have strung him up on the spot. But the Priests don’t want a murder or an assassination. They need there to be due process; or at least the semblance of due process. 

But they have no reliable evidence to base a conviction on. They need a confession. 

At first Jesus' identity was a secret. But the secret got out. Since he arrived in town, people have been openly calling him Son of David. So the High Priest asks him directly. And it turns out that only the true Messiah affirms his divinity. 

“Are you the One Who Has Been Anointed? Are you the Son of the One Who Is Worthy of Adoration?” 

There are three other versions of this story and they all diverge at this point. But we are trying to read Mark’s version. And Mark’s version is astonishingly simple. 

The Priest asks Jesus if he is the Messiah. 

Jesus replies “Yes, I am”. 

And everyone present says “In that case, let’s kill him.” 

I don’t think that the Priest has asked Jesus if he is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. I think that the Priest takes Son of the Most High as a title that you would expect a Messianic claimant to use. It may be hubristic for Jesus to agree with the Priest’s definition: but I don’t think that would necessarily make the entire council decide to kill him on the spot. 

To be sure, Jesus goes beyond the High Priest’s question. He agrees that he is the Messiah; and he agrees that the Messiah can be called the Son of God: but then he says, unprompted, that the High Priest will live to see the fulfilment of Daniel’s prophesy. Jesus will go into the presence of God and be granted supreme power over the universe. But is even this sufficient to incur a unanimous death sentence? What freaks the High Priest out? Isn’t it obvious? 

“Are you the Anointed and therefore the Son of the Most Worship-able?” 

“I AM”. 

The Priest gets it. By “I am” Jesus doesn’t simply mean “Yes”. He is using the personal name of God. Yahweh, Jehovah, I-AM. 

And so the Priest pounces. Nothing else matters now. Jesus has blasphemously applied the Divine Name to himself. Jesus has directly claimed to be the God of Israel. 

Matthew and Luke soften the passage. They say that when the Priest asked if he was the Son of God, Jesus replied “That is what you say” or “Even if I told you you wouldn't believe me". It is not hard to see why. If Jesus answered the Priest’s questions obliquely and evasively, then the Priest has no grounds to kill him. But if Jesus really spoke the name of God in the presence of the priest then he was — in a sense — guilty as charged. 

*

Back in the Garden, Jesus said to Peter:  “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” Matthew, Luke and John all tell the same story: but they all have Jesus say simply  “Before the cock crows”. I prefer Mark: it’s the very specific detail which gives the prophecy its force. Not “before the night is out” or “by tomorrow morning”. Before second cock-crow. Peter hears the crowing of the cock and remembers what Jesus said. 

Some people see this story as a very strong hint that Peter is the real author of Mark’s Gospel. Who but Peter would know what transpired outside the Priest’s house during Jesus’ trial? And who but Peter would dare to bad-mouth the first bishop of Rome? 

Others say that this story is fairly strong evidence against Peter’s authorship. The story shows Peter in such a bad light that it must have been written by one of his enemies. 

Mark consistently portrays the disciples as point-missing dunderheads. And we know that in the very early church there was a division — geographically if not philosophically — between Paul, who never knew the human Jesus but became pre-eminent in spreading his message, and the original disciples, who knew Jesus in the flesh but drop out of the story with indecent haste. Paul himself says that he and Peter didn’t see eye-to-eye — Paul directly accuses Peter of hypocrisy over the question of the kosher food. So isn’t it plausible that someone writing under the influence of Paul at the end of the first century might have deliberately depicted conflict and misunderstanding between Jesus and the disciples? “Yes, we Paulists don’t agree with you Peterists about everything. But you Peterists didn’t understand much of what Jesus said when he was with you. You ran away from Jesus. Peter disowned him. Naturally the Risen Lord has entrusted his message to some better followers.” 

Yes, but. 

The most consistent single teaching of Jesus in Mark is “good people are bad; bad people are good; rich people are poor; poor people are rich”. Jesus demonstrates that he is Daniel’s Son of Man by being executed like a bad slave: he has the highest status in the universe because he has the lowest. So wouldn’t it be completely plausible for Mark to be saying, in effect “Peter is top apostle. And how do we know that? We know that because he is the one who messed up the most badly.” 

But Andrew — by the same argument, wouldn’t it follow that Judas — if Judas had….? 

Yes. Yes it would. 


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Saturday, September 05, 2020

Mark 14 25-52


and when they had sung an hymn
they went out into the mount of Olives.
and Jesus saith unto them
all ye shall be offended because of me this night
for it is written
I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.
but after that I am risen, I will go before you into Galilee.”


A wise man once said “Whatever I say three times is true”.

This is the fifth time Mark’s Jesus has directly claimed that he will “rise” after he dies. And this time he is very specific and concrete. He isn’t going to heaven. He isn’t going to Jerusalem. He is going to Galilee. “After I die”, he says, almost in so many words, “I’m going home. Meet me there…”

but Peter said unto him,
“although all shall be offended, yet will not I”
and Jesus saith unto him,
“verily I say unto thee,
that this day
even in this night
before the cock crow twice
thou shalt deny me thrice”

but he spake the more vehemently,
“if I should die with thee
I will not deny thee in any wise”
likewise also said they all.


We have heard the word “offended” before. It is better to chop off your own hand or poke out your own eye than be offended. It is better to drown than cause a child to be offended. Jesus is talking to all twelve disciples. You will all stumble; you will all trip up; you will all fall into a trap. All of you. 

So why does Peter take it personally? 

Flashback: to the very beginning of the story. To Galilee. To Peter’s boat. The story of the silly farmer who didn’t care where his seed was going. “My preaching”, said Jesus, “Is like the seeds”. The different kinds of people in the audience are like the different kinds of soil. There is a particular kind of person who is all fired up when they first hear Jesus’ words. But they fall away when things get difficult. Jesus used that same word. They’ll trip up. They’ll be offended. Skandaliso. 

Those people are represented in the story by the seed which falls on stony ground. In petrodes: rocky places. That’s Peter’s name. Petros. The Rocky One.




and they came to a place
which was named Gethsemane
and he saith to his disciples,
“sit ye here, while I shall pray”
and he taketh with him Peter and James and John
and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy
and saith unto them
“my soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death
tarry ye here, and watch”

and he went forward a little
and fell on the ground
and prayed that
if it were possible
the hour might pass from him.
and he said,
“Abba, Father,
all things are possible unto thee
take away this cup from me
nevertheless not what I will
but what thou wilt.”

and he cometh and findeth them sleeping,
and saith unto Peter, “Simon, sleepest thou?
couldest not thou watch one hour?
watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation
the spirit truly is ready
but the flesh is weak.”
and again he went away
and prayed
and spake the same words
and when he returned
he found them asleep again
for their eyes were heavy
neither wist they what to answer him.
and he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, 
“sleep on now
and take your rest:
it is enough
the hour is come
behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.
rise up,
let us go
lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand.


Two days ago, Jesus took Peter and Andrew and James and John to one side, and talked for a whole chapter about the End Times. The long talk ended with a single command: stay awake. And now here he is with those same disciples, literally telling them to stay awake. And they literally fall asleep. 

Jesus reacts in the most pointed and painful way possible. “Are you asleep, Simon?” I thought you were the one who was going to stick by me when everyone else ran away? 

Simon. It isn’t quite clear whether “Peter” is a nick-name or a title. Whether as a member of the club he is known as Simon “The Rock” Johnson, or whether everyone calls him Rocky and has forgotten that he ever had a different name. But either way, Jesus has dropped the special name. Like a mother referring to a child by his full given name: “Andrew Richard Rilstone what do you think you are doing?” Or like an officer tearing the stripes off an N.C.O. 

Oh, Simon. You didn’t turn out to be my Rock after all. 

First, Jesus walks a short distance from his disciples; so they can’t hear him. Then the disciples fall asleep; so they definitely can’t hear him. And then Mark tells us what Jesus said, in private, to his father. 

The words that Mark imagines Jesus speaking are shocking. They are so shocking that Matthew and Luke both soften them: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” says Matthew. “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me” says Luke. 

No, says Mark. Jesus’ actual words were: “Father: You can do everything. Take this cup away from me.”

As everyone knows abba is the normal vernacular word that a child would have used to address his father: it means "daddy" or "papa". 

If Jesus wasn’t afraid of being tortured then the story has no point. If Jesus wasn’t scared of dying then, again, the story has no point. Jesus has said that God will give people anything they pray for in faith. Even the impossible. Especially the impossible. Jesus could have avoided what was going to happen if he wanted to. And he did want to. 

Over-subtle interpretors want “this cup” to mean “the cup of God’s wrath”. This seems unnecessary. Jesus was honestly, humanly, scared. So he prays an honest, human prayer. “You are God. You can do anything. Don’t make me go through with it. I don’t want to die.” 

Only then does he change his mind. “Please don’t answer this prayer. Not what I want, but what you want.” 

But that is hardly less shocking. Not what I will. Jesus died against his will. The will of Jesus and the will of God are in opposition. Otherwise there would be nothing heroic about the rest of the story. 

That is what Mark imagines that Jesus said. But Mark has taken some trouble to make it clear that no-one can possibly know. 

Jesus prayed the same words twice. Having said “Don’t give me what I want” he went back and asked again for the thing he wanted, and asked again for God not to give it to him. 

Then he goes and prays a third time: and even Mark can’t he imagine what he said. 

Finally, he comes back. He speaks in his personal voice: not his public, teaching voice. And as so often he seems to say several things at once. "Sleep on. Wake up. Let’s leave. Let’s stay here."  

There is an accidental beauty in the Authorized Version: as if everything is serene and quiet before the catastrophe. “Sleep on; take your rest.” But I think the sixteenth century prose masks a sense of despair and bitterness. “All right. Fine! Have a snooze if you want! I’ve had enough! It’s over! The time has finally come!”


and immediately
while he yet spake
cometh Judas,
one of the twelve
and with him a great multitude with swords and staves,
from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders
and he that betrayed him had given them a token, saying,
“whomsoever I shall kiss that same is he
take him, and lead him away safely”
and as soon as he was come
he goeth straightway to him, and saith,
“master, master” and kissed him.
and they laid their hands on him, and took him
and one of them that stood by drew a sword
and smote a servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear.
and Jesus answered and said unto them,
“are ye come out, as against a thief,
with swords and with staves to take me?
I was daily with you in the temple teaching
and ye took me not: but the scriptures must be fulfilled”

and they all forsook him and fled


Jesus is arrested by a crowd — a rabble — sent on behalf of the Temple. The Priests haven’t come out themselves; and the Romans, so far as we know, are not interested. They’ve hired a posse; they’ve put Judas in charge of it. Judas leads the mob to Jesus’ safe space. The thugs don’t know who Jesus is: he isn’t that famous or important in Jerusalem. Judas has to point him out to them. 

Perhaps the plan was that Judas would identify Jesus, subtly; that Jesus would go quietly; and that he would be quietly lynched before anyone could raise any legal objections. Perhaps this is why Judas kisses him and calls him Master. “I have led them to you” he says “Which is what you seem to have wanted. But I still love you and you are still my master.” 

Jesus doesn’t answer Judas. His anger is reserved for the Priests. 

“Why didn’t you do it before?” he asks. “I gave you enough chance. I tried to give myself up. But you wouldn’t do it my way. So we have to do it your way.” 

But then it turns nasty. Someone — Mark doesn’t say who — pulls out a sword, and goes for someone’s head. The High Preist’s servant ducks, keeps his head, but loses an ear. The mob start trying to arrest everyone present. One guy only gets away only by leaving his shirt behind. Everyone scatters; and runs away. Just like Jesus said they would.

And now we come to a bit of a puzzle...


and there followed him a certain young man
having a linen cloth cast about his naked body
and the young men laid hold on him:
and he left the linen cloth
and fled from them naked


So here we are at the arrest of Jesus. The most solemn and sad moment in the whole story. Christians call it The Agony. Dagger-Jew hands Jesus over to the Priests. Peter and James and John and Andrew desert him. Everyone knows he is going to get the death penalty. He will be dead in twelve hours. And, whoops, through the garden runs a bare-arsed man. 

What are we supposed to do with a verse like this? 

Matthew and Luke and John very sensibly ignore it. They all take the incident of the servant of the High Priest and run with that. Luke says that Jesus healed his ear right away. Matthew says that Jesus told the armed disciple that anyone who lives by the sword will die by the sword. John says that it was Peter who struck the blow (of course) and that the servant was called Malchus. But none of them mention the naked guy.

Maybe naked-guy is an author-cameo, like Stan Lee and Alfred Hitchcock popping up in the margins of their own films. "Look at me", says Mark, "Stark naked and totally humiliated! I wasn’t a disciple, but I was there at the crucial moment. And I ran away like all the others."

It could be true. But it would be an odd form of authorial insertion. How could anyone, then or now, possibly know who that mysterious figure is supposed to be? 

Maybe he is an allegorical call-back to the Old Testament. When Potipha’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, he ran away from her in the nude, leaving his night-shirt in her hands. (It’s all there in chapter thirty nine of Genesis.) So Jesus in Gethsemane is a bit like Joseph in Egypt. The High Priest’s men are a bit like adulterous wives trying to have it away with their husbands slaves. It’s a bit of a stretch. 

Maybe the nudity is the point. Nudity isn’t embarrassing or amusing: it is innocent. Humans only started to cover themselves after the Fall. In, if you recall, a garden. Because the Son of Man has been handed over, the effects of original sin are abolished: and the very first result of this is a man returning to a state of Adamic naturism.

Or try this. In Spain there is a tradition of putting a vulgar figure in Christmas nativity scenes: he is literally referred to as “the man doing a shit”. The Giles Frasers of this world tell us that this is a deep theological truth: it shows us that the incarnation of God exists alongside the most basic and embarrassing bodily functions. But it could also be a bit of harmless anti-clericalism. We are going to keep the holy feasts, but we are going to work a toilet joke in too. So maybe Mark was providing an earthy counterpoint to the high drama of Jesus’ arrest. Tragedy, agony, agony, tragedy….farce. Mr William Shakespeare was not above putting drunken porters and punning grave-diggers at the most serious moments of his plays. 

The incident seems to have troubled the earliest readers of Mark’s Gospel. One ancient book was referred to as the Gospel of the Hebrews. If it was based on Matthew, then it was at two removes from Mark: a reworking of a reworking. A surviving passage begins:


Now the Lord, when he had given the linen cloth unto the servant of the priest, went unto James and appeared to him…


We don’t know the context. But it is very striking that “the linen cloth” and “the servant of the high priest” both turn up in the same sentence. The writer had obviously been thinking about the arrest story. 

We also possess a couple of sentences from a variant version of Mark’s Gospel, usually called Secret Mark although that makes it sound a lot more interesting than it really is. Its authenticity is not beyond reproach: all we have is a twentieth century photograph of a seventeenth century transcript of a third century letter. The extant passage tells us how, in the town of Bethany, Jesus raised a rich man from the dead. This naturally makes of think of John’s story about the resurrection of Lazarus. And it goes on:


“And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.”


Young man; linen cloth; naked body. Why did crypto-Mark feel the need to point this out? 

Maybe linen cloth and no underwear was a distinctly Christian form of dress. Maybe it was something you wore on special occasions: like a baptismal gown. Or maybe special Christians wore it all the time — like a priest’s vestment. It might follow that the young man in the garden was a recent convert; someone to whom Jesus had recently taught the secret, inner knowledge of the Kingdom. Or maybe he was one of the twelve, and all the inner circle of disciples wore linen, to signify that Jesus had shared the mystery of the kingdom with all of them. Mark doesn’t tell us how Peter or James were dressed: but their clothes don’t come into the story. He mentions the young man’s clothes because he is the one who embarrassingly lost them. 

In a few pages, Mark will tell us very specifically that Jesus clothes were taken from him before his execution, and that he was buried in a linen cloth. A linen cloth bought specially for the funeral. Matthew, Luke and John place an inordinate emphasis on the fact that when Jesus' body vanished from the tomb, this linen cloth is left behind. 

We could entertain the conjecture that a naked male form slipping out from a linen cloth, vanishing, and leaving only the cloth behind was a way of visualising the Resurrection.


If this were so, it would follow that the naked fugitive is not in the story because some eye-witness remembers him being there. Nor is he a bit of corroborative detail made up by Mark to help us imagine the chaos of Jesus’ arrest. The naked figure isn’t a person at all. He is in an icon. 


Artists sometimes put symbols or visual cues in their works. Naive readers sometimes take them literally. We could imagine someone looking at Holbein’s famous painting of the ambassadors and wondering why some careless anatomist had dropped some human remains on the carpet. Children sometimes think that halos are a special kind of hat worn by very holy people. If you had never read a comic strip before you might think that Desperate Dan can see the wavy lines emanating from his cow pies when in fact they are the artist’s way of representing a nice smell. Our hero doesn’t actually have lightening bolts coming out of his backside, either: it’s just the artist’s way of telling us that someone has kicked him there. 


So. Has Mark drawn a cartoon of the Resurrection in the margin of his picture of the Agony; and have we naively imagined that one of the disciples showed up dressed in a burial shroud. Or did some even older story-teller put a coded-symbol of the Resurrection into the story, which Mark himself, not understanding the code, assumed was an actual character?


But if that is so, the Gospel of Mark is not at all the kind of book we thought it was. It’s not a story, but a code book. At least some of the physical actors in the story are representations of abstract ideas. If boy-who-ran-away-naked is not a person but a symbol is there any particular reason to think that man-with-a-pitcher-of-water or woman-with-box-of-perfume are people either? Maybe Judas is not a disciple who betrayed Jesus, but a piece of marginalia representing betrayal? Maybe we are naive to suppose Mark thought that Jesus really walked on water or fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread. Maybe Jesus himself is an icon? 

Or perhaps the world is not the kind of world we thought it was? 

Perhaps Mark literally believed that if we had been one of the disciples or one of the thugs in Gethsemane on the fifteenth day of Nisan in AD 33 we would have been embarrassed by the sight of a nude bloke disappearing into the trees. But perhaps he didn’t find that inconsistent with believing that nude-bloke “meant” the Resurrection. The Naked Fugitive is a symbol: but he wasn’t put into the text as a symbol by Mark; he was put into the universe as a symbol by God. The world is more like a book than we ever suspected. We live inside a parable. 

We have said too much about the naked man. We are going to have to talk about him once more before the end. But let’s move on.





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