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Jesus’ Death in Mark and Luke

It is one thing to be able to establish the emphases of both Mark and Luke in their accounts of Jesus going to his death.  (See my previous post).  It is harder, and more speculative, to establish why they chose to portray Jesus in these ways.   But there are some good, plausible views of the matter.  I’ll start with Mark.

In Mark Jesus appears to be in shock, is silent the entire time, seems not to understand why this is happening to him, up to the end, when he cries out asking God why he has forsaken him.  And then he dies, never having received an answer.  What is most striking is that even though Mark’s Jesus may not know why, when it comes to the time, he has to suffer like this, the reader does (and so, of course, does Mark).  The moment that Jesus dies, two things happen: the curtain in the temple is ripped in half and the centurion confesses that he is the son of God.   The curtain was the barrier between God, in the holy of holies in the temple, and the people.  No one could go behind the curtain to be in God’s presence, except once a year when the High Priest entered the room on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) to make a sacrifice to atone for the people’s sins for a year.   For the author of Mark, Jesus’ death  changed all that.  There is now no longer a curtain separating God from his people.   All people have direct access to God through the death of Jesus, which is the ultimate atonement.  And someone recognizes it – the pagan centurion who has just crucified Jesus.  The atonement is not for Jews only, but for all people.  At the time he was suffering, Jesus may have been filled with doubts, but the reader knows why this had to happen: Jesus’ death was to bring an atonement for sin.

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Why Did Scribes Add the Bloody Sweat?
Jesus Going to His Death in Luke



  1. maxhirez  September 11, 2012

    “No one could go behind the curtain to be in God’s presence, except once a year when the High Priest entered the room on Yom Kippur ”

    I remember a Church-camp counselor telling me about this with the additional detail that the high priest had a cable tied around his waste, lest the power of the presence of God overcome him they’d be able to at least retrieve the body. Kind of urban-legendy, but believable if you’re a 15 year old curious Presbyterian. Is this a common idea? Sorry for the digression…

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 12, 2012

      I”ve heard this too. But offhand, I don’t know where the tradition comes from. Maybe someone else knows? If so, let us know!

  2. Robertus  September 11, 2012

    I think that for Mark the torn temple curtain is a portant of the coming destruction of the temple, which was a contemporary event for Mark and his community. Thata Roman centurion recognizes the significance of these events is highly dramatic. Awesome staging by Mark. The high priests will indeed see his coming in glory and it will be their demise.

  3. Scott F  September 11, 2012

    It seems that redaction criticism would be a central pillar in any examination of early (and modern?) christian writings. I am quite intrigued by it and yet I encounter little of it in my own reading. Has it become so deeply ingrained in scholarship that it is assumed that no one need mention it? Has it been found seriously flawed or limited? Has it been superceded by some newer scholarly fad?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 12, 2012

      It’s a tried and true method. I think it is not talked about much these days because it has been applied so thoroughly and rigorously to the Gospels that, for scholars at least, there’s not that much more to say.

  4. JamesFouassier  September 11, 2012

    Professor, is it reasonable to think that perhaps Luke was closer to it than Mark ? That Luke was privy to a tradition that Jesus not only went to his death calmly and resolutely but that he anticipated (even welcomed) his death ? In a later chapter in your latest work, “Did Jesus Exist”, you discuss the incident at the Temple. You write, “Jesus apparently took umbrage at the operation [i.e. the money changers and animal sellers] and reacted violently to it. We do not know why.” Might it have been to provoke the authorities, as Dr Schonfield and some others have argued ? Did Jesus have a time table to keep, leaving Jerusalem each night of the week to avoid being taken captive too soon, and only when ready goading Judas into turning him in to the authorities and leading them to him ? Maybe Jesus believed that his death would be the precipitating factor in bringing on the apocalyptic age and the new world to come ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 12, 2012

      Yes, these are all possiblities. Different scholars, of course, work out the scenario differently. I myself do not think that Jesus was out to provoke authorities, but to proclaim his message, which ended up provoking the authorities. I lay out my view at greater length in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

      • Scott F  September 12, 2012

        Just started reading Apocalyptic Prophet. I am trying to save it for an upcoming trip but that is proving nearly impossible!

  5. ZachET  September 11, 2012

    I will most likely be studying religion at university soon in the UK and I’m just wondering who you consider to be the best British scholars in the UK teaching at university?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 12, 2012

      There are lots of them! Terrific scholars. It depends completely on what you want to study (both field and subfield). I would suggest you look at all the websites, see what each faculty member is doing, see if it is what you want to do, look at their publications, and see if they are the one(s) you would like to study with.

      • ZachET  September 12, 2012

        But who are your favorite in the UK

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 13, 2012

          It really depends on which fields you mean! There are lots and lots of amazing scholars in the UK, from Rowan Williams to Judith Lieu to Chris Tucket to Ward Blanton to … on and on and on. These all do different things, and there are lots more.

  6. hwl  September 30, 2012

    Hi Bart,
    I wonder if you can write a post on whether any of the Church Fathers espoused the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement as advocated by evangelicals today? I have been reading an article by Derek Flood and Garry Williams in the Evangelical Quarterly, the former arguing that none of the Fathers taught the doctrine (he says they only substitutionary atonement in the context of restorative justice, not penal justice in sense of punishment) while the latter insisting some of the Fathers did teach the doctrine.
    The crucifixion passage in Mark is often cited by evangelicals as supporting the doctrine: the darkness represented God’s judgment on Jesus; Jesus’ cry of dereliction signifies God was punishing Jesus on the cross hence abandoning him on the cross. In your view, do you think any NT author conveyed the idea that God was angry with Jesus, that God was punishing Jesus who voluntarily took on the sins of the world onto himself thereby making him guilty?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2012

      My problem is that I don’t know what evangelicals are teaching these days. If it’s what you’ve said, then no, I don’t think any of the authors of the NT taught this. But Mark certainly does teach that Jesus’ death brought an atonement (hence the ripping of the curtain). But Jesus himself doesn’t seem to undersand why it’s happening to him at the end.

  7. toejam  March 17, 2013

    Is it not also possible that Mark’s account is less about subtext, and as such, simply more historically reliable than Luke’s? E.g. Using the criterion of dissimilarity, isn’t it more likely that a Christian would alter the story in order to make Jesus look more confident and knowledgeable, than the other way around?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 17, 2013

      Yes — but that would make Luke unhistorical — it wouldn’t make Mark, necessarily, historical, if you see what I mean.

  8. GokuEn  November 8, 2013

    Professor Ehrman, what are we to do with the numerous passages in Mark where Jesus predicts his own execution? Its true that Mark depicts the suffering of Jesus in very vivid terms but does he really depict Jesus as being “not to understand why this is happening to him”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 8, 2013

      Yes, I’d say Mark’s Jesus is confused on the point. He knows that he has to die — since he says so three times — but at the end he doesn’t understand (“Why have you foresaken me”). Maybe Mark wants to say both things at once….

      • GokuEn  November 9, 2013

        The thing is that while its true that Mark’s Jesus is depicted as silent throughout the whole passion except for that last cry, I found no reason to interpret such silence as “shock”. It could be as well be interpreted as a stoic silence for that matter. My point is, what evidence is there that Mark’s Jesus is *confused* about the nature of his suffering? What allows us to interpret his silence in such a way?

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