Mark 8(b)

So, as I was saying six days ago:

Two questions have always dogged my reading of the Gospels: What did Jesus know and when did he know it? And: What did the disciples know and when did they know it? These questions are born partly of a writer’s curiosity, a desire for more information about the consciousness and the emotional experience of the “characters.” But there is more at stake. Because, if Jesus “knew” everything that was going to happen to him, and verses 31-38 certainly argue that he did, then his suffering seems less profound. And the agony on the Mount of Olives and his cry of despair from the cross are difficult to make sense of. It is possible, maybe even likely—I haven’t reread the literature on this—that these verses are the efforts of early Christian apologists to create the impression that Jesus was all-knowing, and, therefore, always in control of his own fate. But if that is the case, the attempt creates more questions than it answers, for it gives us an invulnerable God who was never really at risk, but simply fulfilling his end of some barbaric bargain with his blood-lusting Father. I can’t make theological sense of that. So I am always distrustful of these passages in which Jesus speaks in such detail of what is about to befall him.

The question of the disciples’ consciousness arises in verse 29 when Peter makes his confession of faith. “You are the Messiah.” Peter makes this confession in all of the synoptic gospels. It confers on him the status as the first to believe. Yet his belief is in a Messiah of his own imaging as is clear in verse 33, when he attempts to talk Jesus off the deathward path. I have to admit that this is one instance (the story of Martha and Mary is another) when I am on the wrong side of the gospels. No matter how many times I read those stories, I “accept” rather than fully fathom their morals. Sure Peter has set his mind on human rather than on divine things. But he is human, bound by the specifics of his time, his place and his culture. He’s got no context in which to understand a messiah who not only fails to conquer, but dies trying. Despite his friendship with Jesus’, he is no more equipped than the rest of us to limn God’s intention. So I always wonder whether he deserves the rebuke that Jesus administers. And I wonder why the Church makes so much of Peter’s confession, when he is asserting faith in what amounts to a false perception of God.

Finally, I appreciate the nice linguistic reversals in verses 34-38. He who loses will save, and he who saves will lose. And I have no trouble fathoming what Jesus is saying here. But, again, this passage feels like an apologetic appendage, rather than eye witness testimony. Note that Jesus refers to the cross, which would seem to indicate not only that he knew he was going to die, but how, and at whose command (Rome’s.) This goes even further than the sort of knowledge he disclosed about his impending trials earlier in the chapter. The fact that no one remarks upon this seems odd to me.

I understand that theologically speaking, this section of Mark’s gospel, and similar passages in its synoptic sisters have great theological and ecclesiological importance. They were no doubt critical in first century apologetics. But that may well be the problem. To my eyes, Peter is too obviously a stand-in for those who cannot accept the plausibility of a crucified Messiah, and Jesus too obviously speaks the words that the author wrote for him. This kind of didacticism indicates an unwillingness to trust the reader with unadorned facts. And, as Mark does this so infrequently, it is both jarring and disillusioning.

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