The disciples in the Gospel of Mark

The third Sunday of Ordinary Time is celebrated as the Sunday of the Word of God - a day devoted to the celebration, study and dissemination of the Word in Scripture. This year (year B) the Sunday Gospels are taken from Mark's Gospel. On this occasion, we therefore share reflection on the role of the disciples in the first half of this Gospel, the texts also read on weekdays in the first part of Ordinary Time, through the lense of narrative analysis - a key to reading the whole Gospel and allow it to bear fruit in our lives.

1. Introduction
Of the four canonical gospels, Mark’s Gospel is both the shortest and the earliest.[1] The date and place of its final composition have been debated. Most scholars agree that it was written around 70 C.E.[2] Among the most widely accepted hypotheses about location, we find Rome or a community closer to Palestine, either in Palestine itself, in Galilee or in Syria.[3] As this matter is not of critical importance for my subject, I will not pursue it further here, given the limitations of time and space.
            Two of the central themes in Mark are christology and discipleship. Who is Jesus, what does it mean to say that he is the Christ, the Messiah, and what does it mean to be his follower, his disciple?[4] These two themes are intimately connected. Narrative analysis shows that one of the ways Mark[5] communicates his christology and his subsequent teaching on discipleship, is through presenting the audience[6] with the response of different groups to Jesus.[7] Three such groups can be clearly distinguished: the Jewish authorities, the disciples, and "the crowd", in which we also find several minor characters standing out.[8] It is with the second of these groups this essay will be concerned.
            Two main divisions of Mark’s Gospel can be distinguished. The first, 1:1 – 8:30 recounts the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and the gradual revelation of his identity, leading up to Peter’s confession in 8:29: "You are the Christ."[9] The second, 8:31 - 16:8, turns the attention towards the fate of Jesus in Jerusalem, his suffering and death, and the revelation of the nature of his Messiahship.[10] There is a significant change of pace and a development of both the major conflicts in the plot and the main characters as we go from the first to the second part.[11] This essay will therefore confine itself to studying the portrayal of the disciples in the first half of the Gospel. I will pursue the task mainly with the aid of narrative analysis and studies done in this field.

2. Study of the portrayal of the disciples in the first half of Mark’s Gospel

2.1 Characters and characterisation: preliminary remarks

This essay will essentially be a study of characters in a narrative. There are several techniques a narrator can use to evaluate characters and present them to the audience in a positive or negative light. A very common way to do this is by establishing connections between characters, comparing and contrasting them with each other.[12] Through the opening statement: “Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1), Jesus is presented as the main character of the narrative.[13] This is his story. The scenes immediately following: the preaching of John the Baptist who prepares the way for the “stronger one”, the baptism of Jesus where the heavenly voice, presumably God’s voice, proclaims him God’s beloved son, and his initial victory over Satan in the desert (1:2 – 13), establish Jesus for the audience as the main protagonist and the most reliable point of reference.[14] As Robert C. Tannehill writes: “We are expected to judge the words and actions of others in light of the words and actions of Jesus” [15]
            There has been some debate among scholars about whom Mark refers to when using the word “disciples” (mathetes). Is it simply a synonym for the Twelve, or does it designate a larger group of which they are representatives or an inner nucleus, much like Peter, James and John stand in relation to the rest of the Twelve? With Tannehill[16] and Donahue/Harrington[17], I believe that a simple equation of the disciples with the Twelve is too limited, and consider plausible the thesis that we are dealing with a somewhat larger group of which the Twelve are a central part and of which they serve as a sort of representative. I also find convincing Elizabeth S. Malbon’s description of an expansive movement towards the inclusion of persons other than the Twelve, even as far as to the implied reader of the Gospel, at the level of the relationship between story and narration/narrating.[18]
            The answer to the question of exactly whom the word “disciples” designates has, however, little bearing on the following discussion. What at any rate seems to be clear is that there is a group of people, often represented by the Twelve if not exclusively composed of them, who distinguish themselves from the crowd and the Jewish authorities by their particular relationship with Jesus. It is the portrayal of this group in the first half of the Gospel that is now in question.

2.2 Called to follow, be with and be sent out: positive aspects

The disciples first enter the scene in 1:16 - 20, with the story of the call of Simon and Andrew, James and John. A distinctive trait of this story is that the initiative is on Jesus’ side. He walks by, he sees them and he calls them (1:16 - 20). The same pattern is present in the call of Levi a little later (2:13 - 14). The disciples have not sought Jesus out and asked to become his followers, as the disciples of a Jewish Rabbi would do. They did not choose, they are chosen.[19] This aspect is emphasised by the later story of Jesus’ appointment of the Twelve: "He now went up onto the mountain and summoned those he wanted" (3:13). The privileged character of the disciples also comes through in chapter 4, when Jesus explains why he speaks on parables: "To you is granted the secret of the kingdom of God, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables" (Mk. 4:11). Throughout his Gospel, Mark frequently makes a distinction between those who “are with” Jesus and “those who are outside”, often marked by the characteristic Greek phrase kat’idian, which means “by themselves”, “privately”.[20] This emphasis on the difference between insiders and outsiders contributes, in my opinion, to reinforce the attractive value of those who are on the inside.
            The disciples are to "come after" Jesus (1:17), to "follow him" (2:14), which means not just walking where he walks, but imitating his being and acting, his way of life.[21] They are to "be with" (3:14) Jesus and to "be sent out to proclaim the message, with power to cast out demons" (3:14 - 15), that is doing the work Jesus himself does. The close personal relationship between Jesus and the disciples is further emphasised in 3:31 - 35, where Jesus calls those who are with him, indeed, anyone who does the will of God, his brother, sister and mother. They, in contrast to his family who a few paragraphs before were presented as tracking him down because they think him mad (3:21), have received Jesus as he should be received.[22]
            Thus, the disciples emerge as a privileged group, one with whom the audience would want to identify.[23] They are chosen by Jesus himself and they respond positively to his call, at least in the beginning. When he sends them out to preach, heal and cast out demons (6:8, cf. 3:13 – 15), they are successful in their mission (6:12 – 13.30).[24] Jesus is even portrayed as caring and considerate towards them and thus as valuing them positively (e.g. 6:31).
            A second way of evaluating characters in a story is to contrast them with the antagonists.[25] The chief antagonists in the Gospel of Mark are the Jewish authorities (Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin) who stand in declared opposition to Jesus.[26] In the first chapters of the Gospel, several contrasts between the disciples and the authorities can be noted. The disciples heed Jesus’ call and follow him unquestioningly, thus showing acceptance of his authority. The authorities on the other hand continuously question, criticise or try to trap Jesus, and already at the beginning of chapter 3, they are “discussing how to destroy him” (3:6). Like Jesus, the disciples are questioned and criticised by the Pharisees (2:18 – 28; 7:1 - 8), a fact which serves both to emphasise the positive link between them and Jesus and to distance them from the antagonists.[27] As already mentioned, the disciples also stand in contrast to Jesus’ relatives and townspeople. Where the latter think him out of his mind and track him down (3:20 – 21.31), or reject him (6:4), the former are counted as his true family (3:33 – 35), those who accept him and his message.
            What on the surface seems to be the high point of the positive portrayal of the disciples, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah in 8:30, also marks the point of transition from the first to the second part of the Gospel, and the turning point in the narrative from the successful mission of Jesus in Galilee towards his dire fate in Jerusalem.[28] With typical Markan skill, this confession is placed immediately after a scene displaying lack of understanding on the part of the disciples (8:14 – 21), to which I will come back in 2.3. In my opinion, this communicates both ironical chiding of, and hope for the disciples given that Peter’s confession is truthful – the audience already knows this from chapter 1 – in spite of his incomprehension and, as the following chapters will show, faulty assumptions of its meaning. However, as the second half of the Gospel falls outside the scope of this essay, I will not develop this further, but rather let it mark a turning point also here towards the more negative aspects of the image of the disciples in Mark.

2.3 Having eyes, but not seeing and ears, but not hearing: negative aspects

While the portrayal of the disciples in the first half of Mark’s Gospel presents them positively as a chosen group with a particular and close relationship to Jesus, contrasting their positive response and solidarity with him with the opposition and hostility of the authorities and Jesus’ kin and townspeople, a conflict is also building up between the disciples and Jesus.[29] Little signs of incomprehension and struggle to grasp the essence of Jesus’ identity and message are scattered throughout the story, and understanding and faith fail to increase as expected (cf. the parable of the sower, 4:1 - 20)[30]. As the disciples have been presented as receiving private instruction and living in a close relationship with Jesus, even to the point of sharing in his mission – and successfully so – their failure to understand and grow in faith is both surprising and comes across as all the more grave. Elizabeth S. Malbon states poignantly: “One expects disciples to be exemplary, their fallibility is surprising.”[31] I will now proceed to examine the negative aspects of the portrayal of the disciples, considering again how they are presented in relation to Jesus and to other characters.
            The first subtle hint at the growing breach between Jesus and the disciples can be found already in the first chapter of the Gospel, where Jesus has withdrawn to pray early the morning after the paradigmatic day of his ministry in Capernaum. “Simon and his companions,” it is said, “set out in search for him, and when they found him they said: ‘Everybody is looking for you.’” (1:36). The Greek verb katedioxen, here translated “set out in search of him”, has hostile overtones, and could also be translated “pursue” in a negative sense. Similarly the verb zetein, “looking for” is later used about how Jesus’ enemies look for ways to destroy him and acquires increasingly negative connotations.[32] Thus a link is created between the disciples and those who do not accept Jesus. This link is further reinforced by the use of the expression “hardness of heart”. We find it characterising the opponents of Jesus in 3:5, calling forth anger and grief on the part of latter, and of the disciples in 6:52 and 8:17, with a similar frustrated reaction in Jesus (8:17 – 21).[33] The incident of 8:17 is particularly striking, placed as it is immediately after a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees and a subsequent warning from Jesus to the disciples that they must “look out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Herodians” (8:11 – 15).
            This scene in chapter 8 is the third in a series of scenes set in a boat on the lake (4:35 – 41; 6:45 – 52 and 8:14 – 21). Repetition, especially in a threefold pattern with the third incident as the climax of the series, is one of the devices the narrator of the Gospel uses to emphasise important points.[34] We see it employed also in the call and mission of the Twelve, going from the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John 1:16 - 20, to the establishment of the group in 3:13 – 19 and finally the mission of the Twelve in 6:8.[35] However, while the call/mission scenes contribute to a positive evaluation of the disciples, the opposite is the case with the boat scenes.
            In the first scene, which follows immediately after the statement that the disciples were gifted with private instruction, the disciples demonstrate their lack of faith faced with the threat of the storm. Their fearfulness is contrasted with the confidence of the peacefully sleeping Jesus, and reprimanded by his questioning: “Why are you so frightened? Have you still no faith?” (4:40). The second and the third scene both follow a feeding miracle, and it is stated explicitly that the disciples have not understood the meaning of the miracles (6:52 and 8:17 – 21). On both occasions the expression “hardness of heart” appears, and in chapter 8, Jesus reprimands the disciples with a series of questions, even taking up the quotation from the Old Testament used in 4:12 about having eyes but not seeing and ears but not hearing, thus linking the disciples to “those outside” who did not understand Jesus’ teaching. The point is further emphasised by two healings, one of a deaf man and one of a blind, framing the episode.[36]
Thus the disciples, who initially received the word with enthusiasm, quickly show that its roots are not yet very deep. Faith, the expected response of those to whom it is given to know Jesus - to whom is given the secret of the Kingdom of God, so to speak - does not seem to develop and bear fruit. This failure comes through even stronger when characters emerging from the crowd, not among those who follow Jesus, are portrayed as exemplars of faith.[37] The prime examples are the woman suffering from a haemorrhage (5:5 – 34), the president of the synagogue, named Jairus (5:21 – 24.35 – 43) and the Syro-Phoenician woman (7:24 – 30).

3. Conclusion

While the above study is non-exhaustive, it still permits us to conclude that the first half of Mark’s Gospel portrays the disciples as complex characters, conveying both positive and negative traits. In the first chapters the image given is highly positive. The privileged status of the disciples and their favourable response to Jesus, as well as their close association with him are emphasised. As the narrative proceeds, signs of a growing conflict can be detected. Through linking the disciples with the groups opposing Jesus and contrasting them with minor characters who stand out as exemplars of faith, the narrator devaluates the disciples and undermines their attractiveness as role models for the audience.
            As already suggested, I personally find in the parable of the sower and its explanation the best image of the portrayal of the disciples in the first half of Mark. The Word is received with enthusiasm and immediately sprouts, in a way similar to the immediate response of the first disciples and their initial success. However, the ground is rocky – a word evoking the name Peter, the Rock – and the roots do not go very deep, hence the failure to grow in understanding and faith.[38] I also consider, along with Tannehill, Bourquin and Malbon,[39] that both the positive and the negative traits in the portrayal of the disciples open for identification with them by the audience, both ancient and modern.

[1] John R. Donahue S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington S.J., The Gospel of Mark, ed. by Daniel J. Harrington S.J., Sacra Pagina Series vol. 2 (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2002), pp. 3 - 5.

[2] Donahue/Harrington, pp. 44 - 46; Wilfrid J. Harrington, Reading Mark for the first time (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2013), p. 10.

[3] David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey and Donald Michie, Mark as Story, 3rd edn. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), p. 2; For a broader discussion, see Donahue/Harrington, pp.44 - 46.

[4] Donahue/Harrington, p. 29.

[5] Throughout the essay, I will use the name Mark to refer both to the implied author, and the narrator of the Gospel, leaving the question of the historical author aside. With “implied author”, I understand the author as he/she can be reconstructed through analysis of the text, and with “the narrator”, the narrating voice within the story.

[6] Following Rhoads/Michie/Dewey, I will use the word "audience" to refer to those to whom the Gospel is addressed, covering both readers and hearers, receiving the text either by reading it themselves or having it read to them.

[7] Yvan Bourqin, Marc, une théologie de la fragilité, Le monde de la Bible, No 55 (Genève: Labor et Fides, 2005), p. 30.

[8] Rhoads/Dewey/Michie, p. 99.

[9] All biblical quotations are from the New Jerusalem Bible. Unless otherwise stated, they refer to chapters and verses in Mark’s Gospel.

[10] Harrington, pp. 23 – 30.

[11] Rhoads/Dewey/Michie, p. 47; Bourqin, p. 34.

[12] Rhoads/Dewey/Michie, p. 100.

[13] ibid. 104.

[14] Donahue/Harrington, p. 23.

[15] Robert C. Tannehill, "The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role", The Journal of Religion No. 4, Vol. 57 (Oct., 1977), 386 - 405 (p. 391).

[16] Tannehill, p. 388, note 8.

[17] Donahue/Harrington, p. 30.

[18] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, "Disciples/Crowds/Whoever: Markan Characters and Readers", Novum Testamentum, Fasc. 2, Vol. 28 (Apr. 1986), 104 - 130 (p. 107, note 9).

[19] Donahue/Harrington, p. 30.

[20] Harrington, p. 41.

[21] William Barclay, New Testament Words (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1964), p. 42.

[22] Tannehill, p. 397.

[23] Tannehill, p. 392 – 393; Bourquin, p. 37; Malbon, p. 104.

[24] Bourquin, p. 33.

[25] Tannehill p. 192.      

[26] Rhoads/Dewey/Michie, p. 117.

[27] Malbon, p. 122.

[28] Rhoads/Dewey/Michie, p. 75.

[29] Tannehill, p. 398.

[30] ibid.

[31] Malbon, p. 124.

[32] Donahue/Harrington, p. 87.

[33] ibid., p. 116.

[34] Tannehill, p. 390.

[35] ibid., pp. 396 – 397.

[36] For the whole of this paragraph, see Tannehill, pp. 398 - 400.

[37] Rhoads/Dewey/Michie, p. 125.

[38] Cf. commentary of the passage in Donahue/Harrington, pp. 136 – 148.

[39] See note 22 above.