Sunday, August 23, 2020

Mark 14 12 - 24

    and the first day of unleavened bread
when they killed the passover
his disciples said unto him
“where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?”
and he sendeth forth two of his disciples
and saith unto them, 
“go ye into the city
and there shall meet you a man bearing a pitcher of water: follow him.
and wheresoever he shall go in
say ye to the goodman of the house, the Master saith, 
where is the guest chamber, 
where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?
and he will shew you a large upper room furnished and prepared
there make ready for us”
and his disciples went forth
and came into the city
and found as he had said unto them
and they made ready the passover.

Jesus preached in Galilee; but he dies in Jerusalem. Three times he tells his disciples that he expects — nay, intends — to die. He doesn’t say that the Son of Man came despite the fact that he was in danger of being killed: he says that he came in order to sacrifice his life. 

But we look in vain in Mark for a theology of the death of Jesus. The Son of Man is to give his life as a ransom — but there is not the slighest hint as to who the ransom is to be paid to, or what it achieves. The evangelical view — that Jesus is like Carton in Tale of Two Cities, volunteering to have his head chopped off so the guilty man can go free — is just not here. There is no harrowing of hell. And there is certainly no sign of Jesus cunningly tricking Satan into exceeding his authority, even though that was the Church’s understanding for a millennium and a half. 

If there is a clue to what Mark thinks the crucifixion of Jesus means; and why it is central to his story, we have to look for it here, in this passage and in the Jewish ceremonial calendar. 

As the story rattles on, it becomes more and more enigmatic. Characters come on stage; they perform a brief role in the story; and they disappear. We never find out who they are. The woman with the jar. Simon the leper. Judas himself. And now, a man with a pitcher of water, who leads the disciples to a large room, set up for a special meal. 

Does Jesus have an arrangement with this man, in the way he had an arrangement with the donkey wranglers in Bethsaida? Has he made a reconnaissance trip to Jerusalem to lay the groundwork for this final week? Does he have a network of agents who use “the master needs it” as their call sign? 

We are told that it was unusual to see a man carrying a pitcher. But how did Jesus know that the man doing the woman’s work would bump into the disciples at exactly the right moment? Did he just happen to know that old Levi the bachelor inn-keeper always went to the well around lunch time on a Thursday? Or had he given him prior instructions to walk up and down outside his house with a bucket until the disciples showed up? Or did a particular male employee spend all day walking to and from the house with jars of water, so the disciples were bound to spot him sooner or later? 

The eleventh sign of the Zodiac is the Water Carrier. By telling the disciples to follow the man with the pitcher, perhaps Jesus is signifying that the inauguration of the Eucharist signifies the beginning of the Age of Aquarius. Or perhaps he isn’t.

and in the evening he cometh with the twelve.
and as they sat and did eat, 
Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, 
One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.”
and they began to be sorrowful, 
and to say unto him one by one, 
“Is it I?” and another said, “Is it I?”
And he answered and said unto them, 
“It is one of the twelve, 
that dippeth with me in the dish”

By tradition, the youngest person present at a Passover meal asks “Why is this day different from all others?” and notes four things which set this meal apart: why do we recline at the table instead of sitting up straight? why do we dip our vegetables in salt water? why do we only eat matzos? and why do we eat bitter herbs? King James says that Jesus and the disciples are sitting down to dinner: but the Greek is clear that they are reclining. Jesus refers to dipping food in a communal dish. There can be no question that Mark understands this meal to be a seder.

King James again used the word “betrayed”; but as we have seen, Jesus consistently talks of being handed over. The Son of Man will be handed over to the priests and the lawyers and they will hand him over to the gentiles.

And now it comes. One of you says Jesus — one of you twelve — is going to hand me over. The disciples are sad — grieved — and they say to him one at a time “Is it I?”

Look carefully. When Jesus says, a few paragraphs later, that all the disciples are going to run away and desert him, they deny that this is so. “No, boss” they all say “Definitely not. How could you think that? We would never do such a thing.” But when he says that one of the twelve is going to hand him over, they simply ask “Do you mean me?”

They are not talking among themselves: they are talking to Jesus. And they are not crying out in shock. Mark is quite clear. They take it in turns to ask him: “Is it me?” “Is it me?” “Is it me?”

It’s a solemn ritual. Jesus isn’t making a prophecy. He isn’t saying “I know what transpired between Judas and the Priests.” He is laying the task on someone’s head. “I tried to give myself up. I gave them every chance to arrest me. But they wouldn’t take me. So one of you is going to have to surrender me to them.” And the question goes round the table, one by one. “Not me.” “Please, not me.” “You surely don’t want me to do it?”

“the Son of man indeed goeth
as it is written of him
but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! 
good were it for that man if he had never been born”

Is Jesus threatening Judas: warning him that if he does a bad thing he’ll get a comeuppance? “One of you goons is planning to shop me to the cops. I warn you, he’ll live to regret it!” 

Maybe. I think that’s how Matthew understood it. But if I am right, Jesus has said “One of you has got to do this”; and all the disciples have said “Do you mean me?” Jesus seems to see Prophecy as a set of instructions; a script. The Prophets have provided a to-do list for the Son of Man. He intends to follow it to the letter. "I have to decided to die in the way that the prophets say that I have to die; and that means that someone will have to hand me over. And I know what I am asking. I am laying a terrible task on someone. That person is going to wish that they had never been born." 

If I am right, Jesus is not making a threat. He is expressing sympathy. 

If Judas stands for the Jews, that is absolutely crucial.

and as they did eat, 
Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, 
and said, “take, eat: this is my body”
and he took the cup
and when he had given thanks
he gave it to them: 
and they all drank of it.
and he said unto them, 
“this is my blood of the new testament
which is shed for many.
verily I say unto you
I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine
until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God”

Sometime around the year 50 of the common era, a Christian named Paul wrote a letter to a group of Christians in a town called Corinth. “I told you what I’d been told,” he writes “That the Lord Jesus, on the same night when he was handed over, took bread, and broke it…” Our best guess is that Mark is writing in the year 70 or 80. But we can be pretty confident that thirty years earlier — within a decade of the crucifixion — “Christians” were telling each other more or less this story in more or less these words. 

Jesus says that the bread they are eating is his soma, his flesh. The word can certainly be used to mean a dead body: Jesus said that the woman with the jar had prepared his soma for burial. But it could equally just mean the body. The woman who touched Jesus’ clothes felt in her soma that she was healed. 

Broken, klao seems specifically to be something you would do to bread. We are used to hearing that Jesus body was broken, like the bread: but neither Mark nor any of the other Gospel say that he used that word. (Idiomatically, we would have to sy “This is my body, sliced up for you”.) 

Jesus “spoke a blessing” over the bread: eulgesas. He “gave thanks” for the wine eucharistēsas. When he fed the five thousand we are told that Jesus “blessed” the bread: when he fed the four thousand we are told that he “gave thanks”, so we can probably treat the two words as roughly synonymous. The Christian re-enactment of this event is called Eucharist. A certain kind of clergyman will tell you that celebrating Eucharist is like sending a thank-you note to Jesus, but I wish they wouldn’t. 

The word diatheke is translated either as “covenant” or as “testament”. I think we understand both words to mean “a very solemn legally binding statement”. Some of us remember our parents signing “covenants” to help pay for our upkeep while we were in college; a set of instructions to be carried out after we die is our “last will and testament”. The word diatheke is very commonly found on ancient legal documents. Due to the sterling efforts of Dr Henry Walton Jones, everyone knows that the Jews’ most sacred artefact was called the Ark of the Covenant. 

Jesus hands round the wine. According to King James, he says “this is my blood which is shed for many”. But you don’t shed wine: you pour it out. You might metaphorically say that blood is pouring out of an injured person. When the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel rants against the Pharisees, he blames them for the blood of all the holy people which has been poured out over the years. 

So there is a kind of triple meaning. This wine, that Jesus is pouring out, from a bottle, into a cup, is his blood. A few hours from now his blood is literally going to be pouring out of his body. What he is doing now represents what is going to happen in a few hours. And they both represent a solemn promise which God is making: which is going to replace the solemn promise which God made to the disciples’ ancestors; and which is celebrated, on this day every year, by the killing of a sacred lamb. 

Jesus doesn’t say that the wine represents his blood: he just says “this is my blood”. Wars have literally been fought over this point. 

And then he makes one more comment: one which doesn’t usually appear in Christian re-enactments and which it is therefore easy to overlook. “This is the last glass of wine I will ever drink”, he says “Until I drink the new wine in God’s kingdom.” It’s a cryptic, intrusive remark. 

If this were a story…  If we didn’t know the ending; if we didn’t already know what Mark “must have” meant… Then I think we would expect this story to end with a coronation. The return of the king. King Jesus sitting in the newly rebuilt temple, sharing a glass of passover wine. That is where the story is pointing: and that is where the story entirely fails to go. 

“I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine”, says Jesus. Remember that line. There is a kind of a pay-off coming.


In the Jewish calendar a day is deemed to end when the sun goes down. The festival of Passover begins at twilight on the 14th day of the first month. The 15th is a Sabbath: the first of seven holy days on which yeast can’t be eaten. The 21st is also a day of rest. The lambs are slaughtered on Passover Eve, the 14th; the seder, the Passover meal, is eaten after dark on that day.

Mark is very clear that the Last Supper is a seder. It follows that Jesus’s trial and execution takes place on Passover itself. But nothing in the story is remotely consistent with Jesus dying on a Sabbath. The Sanhedrin is convened on a day of rest; Simon comes in from the fields on a day of rest; people go to the market to buy cloth and spices on a day of rest; a crowd assembles outside the governor’s palace on a day of rest. 

Yes, the Priests are the baddies and Jesus’s trial is a travesty: so it is possible that they tried him in secret when no trial was meant to take place. But why does Mark not draw our attention to this? One of the sources of conflict between Jesus and the authorities is that he is insufficiently strict at keeping the Sabbath: why does no-one say “But the Pharisees themselves broke the Sabbath in a much more blatant way when it suited them?” 

Yes, Jesus could have decided to hold the seder a day early. I have heard of Jews holding “mock seders” so they can celebrate with their college friends before going home and spending the actual holy day with their family; or so that they can have fellowship with their non-Jewish friends who it wouldn’t be appropriate to invite to the real thing. But wouldn’t you expect this to be mentioned by someone in the story? (“In case you are wondering, we were eating turkey and mince pies on the 22nd because Dad was a fireman and had to be on duty on Christmas day that year.”) 

There is no way of persuading Mark’s Gospel to make chronological sense. And indeed, John’s Gospel works according to a different time-table. His Last Supper is not a seder: it takes place on the 13th. Jesus is arrested and killed on the 14th, and has to be buried in a hurry so his body isn’t still hanging on the cross on the holy day. 

What we should take away from this is that Mark is relatively uninterested in history and chronology, but intensely interested in ritual and liturgy. The meaning of the story is more important than narrative logic: and the meaning of the story depends on the Last Supper having been a Passover meal. Theologically — mythically — magically — the Last Supper was a Passover. So that is how he told the story. 

Joseph Campbell, who is wrong about most things most of the time, makes a very good point about the nature of ritual. Think, he says, of the American flag. There are many thousands of iterations of the flag: anyone can sew some cloth together and create a Stars and Stripes. But each individual piece of cloth is The Flag. You can salute the flag which hangs on Granny’s lawn just as much as the one on the roof of the White House; if you burn or tread on the cheap bit of nylon you bought at Wallmark you are nevertheless insulting The Flag. 

Rituals, says Campbell, are like that. The sacred story has been reenacted many thousands of times: but when the Priest takes on the role of Zeus or Mondarin he isn’t copying or reenacting or pretending: he actually is Mondarin or Zeus. Every time. A mythical story isn’t one that took place a long time ago and then gets reenacted: it’s a story that takes place for the first and only time whenever the priests perform their sacred role-play. 

"Why did Jesus die?" 

Well, you see, the Last Supper. It was Passover. 

"That’s not an answer." 

It’s the only answer.

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