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Mark’s Central Focus on Jesus’ Death

I began answer the question of “What Is the Messianic Secret?” – a term used to describe that distinctive feature of Mark’s Gospel, that Jesus repeatedly tries to hush up anyone who starts to know or realize he is – first by explaining what the traditional views of the messiah were in ancient Judaism (anything *but* a person who would be publically humiliated and tortured to death by his enemies – just the opposite: he was to be a figure of grandeur and power who destroyed the enemies) and then by laying out how Mark portrays Jesus as someone whom no one really understands.   What’s behind that interesting feature of Mark’s Gospel?  Why does he develop that idea?

Mark himself, of course, understands Jesus quite well.  Jesus is the messiah who has to suffer and die.  I was about to simply to indicate that I’ve said this on the blog before a few years ago, but I’ve decided that to make my point more emphatically and make sense of my answer to the question about the Messianic Secret (coming in the next post), I really need to say it again, at a bit of length, in an entire post.  Here is how I explain the matter in my discussion of Mark in my textbook on the New Testament


In many ways, Mark’s Gospel is all about the death of Jesus.  One scholar, long ago, called Mark a “Passion Narrative with a long introduction.”

Throughout the early portions of Mark’s Gospel the reader is given several indications that Jesus will have to die (e.g., 2:20; 3:6). After Peter’s confession, however, Jesus begins to be quite explicit about it. Even though he is the Christ, the Son of God—or rather because he is—he must suffer death. Three times Jesus predicts his own impending Passion in Jerusalem: he is to be rejected by the Jewish leaders, killed, and then raised from the dead. Strikingly, after each of these “Passion predictions” Mark has placed stories to show that the disciples never do understand what Jesus is talking about.

We have already seen the …

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The Beginning of the Quest of the Historical Jesus
How No One Understands Jesus in Mark’s Gospel



  1. Avatar
    Tom  February 5, 2019

    “… Pilate condemns him to execution for treason against Rome. Pilate gives the Jewish crowds the option of releasing Jesus or a Jewish insurgent, Barabbas (15:6–15)”
    I did a quick (3 minutes, 3 alternate search terms) and ineffective search to see if this was an attested practice in the Roman Empire. No relevant information was found. So, I have 2 questions:
    Do you think this detail is accurate?
    Is there any evidence that Roman officials actually freed condemned prisoners at certain local festival times?

  2. Avatar
    fishician  February 5, 2019

    Please clarify: in Mark when Jesus is asked about being the Messiah, does he respond (in the Greek) “I am” or “You say so (thou sayest)”? Or is that phrase used in the other Synoptic gospels only? It seems like a rather ambiguous response if you’re trying to show that Jesus really was the Messiah.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      In Mark he says EGO EIMI, “I am.” Both matthew and luke change it.

      • Avatar
        fishician  February 7, 2019

        I’m curious why Matthew and Luke would change it to a more ambiguous response. Is that addressed in one of your books? Or I can search the blog perhaps.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 8, 2019

          It’s a great question. I’ve never solved it myself completely. What I’ve been more interested in is how Luke changes Jesus’ next words so he no longer tells teh high priest that he (the priest) will be alive when the Son of Man arrives from heaven. Easy enough to see why Luke would want to change *that* — given that he was writing long after the priest had died….

      • Robert
        Robert  February 7, 2019

        “In Mark he says EGO EIMI, “I am.” Both matthew and luke change it.”

        In his commentary (II, pp 1005-1006, 1016), Joel Marcus argues for the longer text (συ είπας ότι εγώ ειμι) being original. It is not very well attested, but it makes sense from a source-critical perspective. He even cites a certain Bart Ehrman to explain a scribe’s orthodox corruption to the seemingly more emphatic short text. Nonetheless he does not interpret the longer reading as indicating any doubtfulness on the part of the Markan Jesus, but he also sees this as in line with the messianic secrecy motif (525-527).

        What do you think of Marcus’ defense of the longer reading?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 8, 2019

          Hey if he’s agreeing with me….

          • Robert
            Robert  February 8, 2019

            “Hey if he’s agreeing with me….”

            I thought Marcus was just citing you in support of a general point about an orthodox tendency of scribes. Do you actually support the longer reading of Mk 14,62 (συ είπας ότι εγώ ειμι) as original?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 10, 2019

            Ah! I’m not sure — I haven’t looked at it carefully in recent memory!

        • Avatar
          godspell  February 10, 2019

          Jesus almost never answers a question directly. I’ve long thought the “I am” lacked credibility. But so do all the responses we have, since who on the Christian side would have been there to record them?

          “You say so” can be interpreted more than one way–maybe he’s saying “My true mission is too much for you to understand” or maybe he’s saying “So you admit it!”

          I think it might be original to Mark, because it’s a good twist in the story Mark is telling–Jesus is oblique with everyone around him, because they’re supposed to come to the answer themselves. He has no such hopes of the people interrogating him, so he doesn’t waste any time on them.

          Of course, we know that he may not have meant himself when he talked about the Son of Man–as Mark means it, he’s probably saying he’ll be dead, but then they’ll have to face judgment as the Kingdom comes.

          And the word ‘king’ has many meanings as well (who crowned Elvis the King of Rock and Roll? What monarchical powers did he wield from his throne in Graceland?) So it’s really still ambiguous, no matter which version you use.

          • Robert
            Robert  February 11, 2019

            I much prefer Little Richard and Jerry Lee to Elvis.

          • Avatar
            godspell  February 12, 2019

            A lot of people preferred John the Baptist to Jesus. Possibly Barabbas, if there was any such person.

  3. Avatar
    UCCLMrh  February 5, 2019

    Since you normally write so clearly, I was distressed to see what appears to be fundamentalist code in this explanation. The sentence is: “Being a disciple means affliction and pain, not power and prestige; it means giving up one’s life in order to gain the world.” That is, “giving up one’s life in order to gain the world.” In normal English, that appears to be meaningless phrasing. Would you care at some point to decode that phrase in a way that has meaning to those of us who didn’t grow up fundamentalist?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      I don’t think there’s anything fundamentalist about it. That’s what my very liberal professors in seminary used to say about Mark’s Gospel (and the apostle Paul). They thought that the way to “inherit the earth” was not by being rich, powerful, and influential, but by suffering like Christ.

  4. Avatar
    Ask21771  February 5, 2019

    How corrupted was jesus message by the time the gopels were being written

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      Good question! But it’s a long story — too long for a comment here. It’s the subject of my book Jesus Before the Gospels. You may want to start there?

  5. Avatar
    gavriel  February 5, 2019

    Do you think that Jesus thought he would pass through some kind of ordeal and suffering as the apocalypse started unfolding, also proclaiming this to his disciples? Remembering this afterwards, his disciples were enabled with some basis for interpreting the crucifixion?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      No, just the opposite. I don’t think he imagined any personal suffering would be involved at all. The Son of Man would arrive and he, Jesus, would be made the messiah.

      • Avatar
        gavriel  February 7, 2019

        Why not, really? In the usual depictions of this type pf apocalyptic thinking, there is, over time, a mounting social crisis, leading to a short period of intense suffering, followed by God’s intervention and the beginning of the new time. If Jesus conceived of himself specifically as the Messiah, did he really think that he would experience this from a theater box? If he rather thought that he somehow would become deeply involved in the final crisis, involving personal hardships, it would be easier to explain why his disciples so easily accepted a crucified Messiah.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 8, 2019

          Primarily because the messiah was not anticipated as suffering before the end came.

  6. Avatar
    Joel Smith  February 5, 2019

    All four Gospels contain the story of Jesus’ interrogation by the high priest.
    Three of the Gospels state that Jesus did not answer the question whether he was the Son of God. Instead, Jesus answered by again referring to himself as the Son of Man.
    The Gospel of Mark contradicts the interrogation story that is found in the other three Gospels. The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus did answer the question and that he did tell the high priest that he was the Son of God.
    This is the only passage in all of the New Testament where Jesus says that he was the Son of God.
    Jesus’ enemies knew that if they could get him to admit that he was the Son of God… which meant that he was claiming to be the King of Israel, then they knew that they could get the Romans to execute him for sedition against the Roman empire.
    So, why the contradiction?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      Because each account is trying to emphasize something different!

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  February 7, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        Given the (likely) lack of eye-witness testimony as to the inner workings of the (so-called) trial(s), (a) that fact would seem to provide more free space for the different emphasis of each gospel author (or their sources)? and (b) given the high-level similarity across the accounts, what is the (your) scholarly best sense of the source (either immediate or ultimate) for the trial dialogue(s) tradition?

        Thank you!

        • Bart
          Bart  February 8, 2019

          1. Yup; 2. Mark — but based on oral traditions. John doesn’t have a trial before the Sanhedrin in the same way.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  February 8, 2019

            Thanks much!

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 16, 2019

      Remember, Mark has shown us that Jesus is God’s son by adoption–which as Bart as shown us, was a very high honor in the Roman world. Sometimes men adopted in this fashion became kings or emperors. So to Pilate, it wouldn’t matter whether Jesus claimed any kingly rights by birth or adoption.

      But God will be king, always–God will never die. Jesus knows he isn’t God, never will be God. He’s God’s son in the sense that he does God’s will. We can all be God’s son in that sense. Any miracle he can do, others can do, by faith.

      I don’t believe he thought he’d be sitting on a throne in the Kingdom. Yes, maybe in that moment, in some spiritual sense, he considers himself King of the Jews who believe as they ought–and everyone else who believes. But he’s not claiming any kind of temporal power. Somebody like Pilate wouldnt believe any other kind of power exists.

      There’s no way he can make himself understood, to Caiaphas, to Herod (in Luke), to Pilate. In all the gospels, that is a common understanding–the inability of those in power to understand someone who doesn’t want power, and yet will ultimately prove the most influential human in all of history–after he’s gone. And we will only remember them through him. And not kindly.

      And I wonder how many powerful people in the centuries since, passing sentence, have trembled a bit, remembering that.

  7. Avatar
    godspell  February 5, 2019

    I don’t know if there were any surviving disciples by the time Mark’s gospel came out (probably not), but one suspects they’d have had a few bones to pick.

    It is likely that Jesus was frequently misunderstood, and given the way people poured over every surviving memory (and a fair few that were embellished or fabricated), I’m sure there were innumerable discussions among the faithful over who properly took his meaning, grasped his underlying nature, as there are to this day, and will be two thousand years from now, if there are still people then, and they still read.

    Mark is remarkably pure and consistent on a thematic level. I can identify themes in the other gospels, but they tend to range around more. Mark stays firmly on topic. He knows what story he’s telling, and by God he’s going to tell it. There are little inconsistencies (because he’s writing about a human being), but he works with them remarkably well, and doesn’t flinch from them.

    I consider him a great writer. Perhaps the ultimate One Hit Wonder, though. 😉

  8. Telling
    Telling  February 5, 2019


    I recall you saying on this blog somewhere that Jesus was referring to someone else, not himself, when using the phrase “Son of man”. This is consistent with some other historians I’ve read who say “Son of man” meant “human being”, and I think for Jews it meant “son of Adam” (the first man). In the Patterson and Meyer “Scholars Translation” of the Gospel of Thomas they use term “human being” in the familiar “Birds have nests..” parable, which totally turns the meaning of the traditional Christian translation of the parable upside down. It is not Jesus who cannot find rest, but rather is human beings of whom will find rest by following Jesus (or with a more elevated twist — by finding the “Self”). The truth seems to be that the Church wanted, for their own reasons, Jesus to be the one saying he will be crucified, and so created a unique second definition of “Son of man” defined as Jesus speaking of himself, the term meaning “I” but only when Jesus utters it, nobody else, ever. And it appears that the Scholars translation of the Gospel of Thomas utterly rejects the Church definition (and you too, I think.)

    But anyway, I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) that Jesus never once utters words anywhere in the canon that He, Jesus, will be arrested and crucified. In every case he says the “Son of man” will be the one crucified. Thus, if you believe Jesus did not mean himself when speaking of the Son of man then Mark’s gospel does not indicate Jesus as saying he will be crucified, but rather that a “human being” will be crucified. Can you explain? Do you believe Jesus was talking of himself as Son of man or of another man?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      The complication is that in some passages Jesus is definitely talking about himself as the Son of Man. My view is that hte historical Jesus did not do this; the later Chrsitains who thought *he* was the one coming in judgment on the earth (the Son of Man) then started placing sayings on his lips in which he identified himself as that one.

      • Telling
        Telling  February 8, 2019

        Okay, and I agree with you. So then can we agree that Jesus probably never prophesized that he would be crucified, anywhere in the canonical gospels? I think, from what I know about you, that you will agree.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 8, 2019

          No, he does prophesy that in the Gospels. I’m saying the historical Jesus did not.

          • Telling
            Telling  February 8, 2019

            Yes, that’s what you believe, that the crucifixion phrases attributed to him were added. I believe this also.

            But he never actually says HE will be crucified anywhere in the canon; he says the Son of man will be crucified every time. And he doesn’t ever say he is the Son of man. Here, he appears to be equating himself with the son of man, but it can be read differently (Matthew 16:13 NIV)

            13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
            14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
            15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
            16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

            This passage looks more to be saying he is NOT the Son of man, he is the Son of God. But his vocal inflection is important:. With strong emphasis on word “I” he would not seem to be equating himself with the Son of man. Emphasizing “you” (not “I”) it might read the other way.

            Regardless, it is curious that all the gospel writers took great pains to ensure the canonical Jesus never once says “I will be crucified”.

            Look at the below passage (Mark 8:31). Can we really believe that this author would continue with Jesus’ indirect reference to himself and not just say “he began to teach them that HE must suffer many things”?

            31 And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

            Jews would understand that Son of man is a reference to a son of Adam (a Jew) whereas gentiles and Romans would not. A believable explanation for the curiousity is the indirect reference (Son of man) was added to the gospels so to fool the Romans into thinking that they had crucified Jesus when it was some other false savior who was misidentified as him, but would not fool Jerusalem Jews who knew that. Yet in the end fooled Paul and the pagan populations he converted, but not Jews.

  9. Avatar
    4Erudite  February 6, 2019

    I am about a month behind on reading the blog and this week reading away to get caught up. That said, I wanted to address a previous post I read earlier this evening about “reviewing the blog” and suggestions. I think the blog is great and I truly appreciate you taking the time to share your scholarly knowledge…especially with people like myself who are far from being such a scholar. The only thing that would make it better for me would be if I could listen to it while driving…also, there are times when my aged eyes are sore and burning in the evening and just can’t last very long reading a screen. If at home I can always print the blog to avoid the screen, but away from home and/or driving presents a challenge to keep up to date. Now this said, don’t know how much trouble and work would be involved for you to record it and to have an audio selection (I always read it hearing your voice anyway). If you had an audio option, the blind and sight restricted people could also join and benefit from your blog…as well as people who drive for a living or commute long distances to work. Again, no idea how much trouble or extra work on your part such a suggestion would involve…fully understand it might be easier said than done…and you already devote a lot of your personal time to provide the blog…but you asked, and this is what immediately popped into my head. Agin, thank you for what you do already..it is much appreciated.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      There is a weekly podcast with a couple of blog posts on it, read by a generous volunteer. Try that for starters?

    • Avatar
      Rthompsonmdog  February 7, 2019

      Here is a link to the weekly podcast. It reads one article from the previous week and one older article. New episodes usually post Sunday morning.


  10. Avatar
    Stefan  February 6, 2019

    Dont you think that what Satan is meant to be doing (according to Mark’s story) to Peter after the first passion prediction is invoking his flehsly fear of death, i.e. on behalf of Jesus? That Satan is working through Peter (through his fleshliness) to create fear of death, pain and suffering, which is how Jesus defeats Satan and teaches his followers to do?
    Rather than Satan trying to convince Peter, intellectually, of a false messianic idea, or keep him from understanding the true nature of the messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      I think the idea is that Peter here is a *representative* of Satan, taking Satan’s view of things.

      • Avatar
        godspell  February 10, 2019

        Tempting Jesus, as Satan is supposed to have done in the desert. “You don’t have to die, you can have a full life, enjoy power and wealth, and still do God’s will. Give up this delusion that you are the sacrificial offering required for the Kingdom to come!”

        It’s easy to see how Mark shapes the story. It’s harder to be sure how much of the story was already there before Mark began to shape it.

  11. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  February 6, 2019

    Hello Bart

    are you aware of this news . Turkish police bust smugglers, find 1,200yo Bible

    is it real or forgery


  12. Avatar
    Steefen  February 6, 2019

    “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” is in Luke at 23: 34, but not in Mark, Matthew, or John. Why is that?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      It’s very distinctive of Luke’s themes in particular: jews were ignorant of what they were doing (it was the Ronmans’ fault). Maybe I’ll post on that.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 7, 2019

    I imagine that there is a lot of variation in this, but do modern Jews still anticipate the coming of a warrior-king, David, type of Messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2019

      Very few Jews today are looking for a messiah.

      • Lev
        Lev  February 7, 2019

        I understand that for several decades a significant minority of Jews thought Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (d. 1994) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menachem_Mendel_Schneerson) was the Messiah (some still do). There’s more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chabad_messianism

        • Avatar
          godspell  February 10, 2019

          My impression is that Schneerson never told anybody he was Messiah, but he enjoyed having people speculate that he was, and probably they wouldn’t have believed him if he denied it. For a period of time, New York politicians would make a pilgrimage to his door to try for his endorsement, since in certain races the Lubavitcher vote could make a difference, and he controlled it.

          He hasn’t come back from the dead so far, and there are still people of his flock who think he’s the Messiah (as some of John the Baptist’s followers seem to have thought about him after his death). Not the military nationalist Messiah, of course. Be no point, since by that time Israel was once more an independent state. (Perhaps one reason why Messianic beliefs are less prevalent in Judaism–the other being that very few Jews are illiterate peasants now).

  14. Avatar
    classicmelo  August 12, 2019

    Hi Bart, thank you for this post. I have a question about Peter and the parable of the sower if I may:

    In Mark 3:16, Jesus started calling Simon ‘Peter’. Soon after, we get the parable of the sower where Jesus says “Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” (4:16-17). Then finally, Peter is tested by trouble and persecution that comes because of the word, and he denies Jesus (14:66-72).

    Do you think that in Mark, Jesus deliberately renames Simon to Peter to imply that he is comparable to the rocky ground where the seed (or the word) will not take rook? This interpretation seems to work quite nicely in my ignorant opinion, but I’m probably missing something.

    Thanks a lot,

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2019

      Interesting idea. But there doesn’t seem to be anything in the text itself suggesting the connection between the name Peter and the rocky soil. And the identification of Simon as Peter is made in other Christian texts that don’t have the parable (e.g., Gospel of John). So it’s usually thought that this really was Simon’s nickname by Jesus. Not sure why he called him the “Rock” (or “Rocky”); but it’s long been noticed that he sometimes seems more like slippery sand. I discuss this a bit in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magadalene.

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