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Mark’s Suffering Son of God

In this post I continue my literary-historical study of Mark’s Gospels, and get to a very big point. After this will be one more post on Mark, in which I discuss the ultimate point.


Jesus The Suffering Son of God

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.


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Jesus’ Death and Resurrection in Mark
Snake-Handling and the Gospel of Mark



  1. Avatar
    LuckyJoyce  February 21, 2014

    What I find most interesting in this account is that though Jesus says he’s the messiah, the Son of God (in maybe the same way as King David was the begotten Son of God), he doesn’t ever say “I am God.” And he says he expects the final judgment, which is coming soon, to be made by the Son of Man arriving in the clouds of heaven, which in Isaiah seems to be talking about an angel of God, not the Messiah. I dunno. I think there was a lot of conflation in the early Jesus Movement. Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah, all got put together and turned into literal son of god, an aspect of God and therefore God. It’s a lot of mental leaping. No wonder my Muslim friends find this amusing. LOL

  2. Avatar
    paulmiller  February 21, 2014

    Professor Ehrman,
    First off I would like to thank you for the time you invest into this blog as it gives me something to look forward to everyday in the frozen wasteland of Northern Minnesota. One quick question: How do modern day biblical literalist explain Jesus prediction in Mark 13:30 that these things will, “occur within this generation”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 24, 2014

      They say that the word for “generation” actually means “race,” so that Jesus is saying the end will come before the Jewish people die out. Which makes for a rather banal and uninteresting statement, in my opinion. Plus, it’s a stretch.

      • Avatar
        EricBrown  February 24, 2014

        So they don’t adhere to the Wandering Jew dodge?

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 21, 2014

    Am I right in believing the Sanhedrin (probably) had some non-clerical members, but was pretty much dominated by Temple priests, whether or not they were in the majority?

    I think the trial by the Sanhedrin taking place in the middle of the night is plausible, because they would have known Pilate wouldn’t be in Jerusalem long – would probably leave right after Passover. And he’d have other issues to deal with, in addition to this one they might pass on to him.

    I’m assuming the Sanhedrin met in the Temple complex…messengers were sent to inform its non-clerical members of this emergency session (possibly rousting them out of bed!)…and most of the ones who would have had to travel a distance didn’t bother to come. So they may have had just barely a quorum, dominated even more than usual by the priests. Does that seem reasonable?

  4. Robertus
    Robertus  February 21, 2014

    “When Jesus refuses to answer his accusers, 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).”

    Minor nit here but you’re reading your historical reconstruction (with which I agree) into the text of Mark. In Mark’s gospel, Pilate does not condemn Jesus to execution for treason against Rome, and not at the ‘trial’, but only after the Barabbas scene does Pilate reluctantly hand him over to be crucified in order to satisfy the crowd. We see here Mark blaming the crowd (of Judeans), along with the chief priests, elders, scribes, and the whole Sanhedrin. Likewise, Pilate (and Rome) are exonerated as much as possible. I don’t disagree with your historical reconstruction and it is to a certain extent implied by elements in the text of Mark, but I also wanted to highlight some important themes for Mark.

    That being said, getting back to historical reconstruction, how much of a role do you attribute to the Jewish authorities in Jesus’ execution. Was it a minor role? Was it motivated merely by the civic concern of keeping the peace in light of a popular loose canon creating a stir among the Passover crowds? I know you think his historical messianic secrret was betrayed to the authorities. Do you think there was also specific opposition to Jesus’ apocalypticism or other elements of his teaching? Definitive answers cannot be given, of course, but I’d love to hear your thoughts, even speculation, on this question.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 23, 2014

      Well, the charge against Jesus after he is condemned by Pilate is that he called himself the King of the Jews; so I assume that was the charge on which he was found guilty. My view is that hte Jewish authorities told Pilate that this what Jesus said about himself.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  February 24, 2014

        But Jesus is not condemned by Pilate in Mark’s gospel.

        15,5 (conclusion of the ‘trial’): But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
        15,9-10 Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over.
        15,12 Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?”
        15,14a Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?”
        15,15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

        Later gospels, canonical and noncanonical, will build upon this and exonerate Pilate even more, but it was Mark who is our first witness to this line of reasoning.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 25, 2014

          Well, if Pilate has Jesus flogged and then “hands him over to be crucified,” that is usually understood to mean that he ordered his execution (and so was the one who — whatever pressures were placed on him — declared him guilty) (whether he *thought* he was guilty or not)

          • Robertus
            Robertus  February 25, 2014

            I agree completely from the point of view of historical reconstruction, but in Mark’s gospel, Pilate believes that Jesus was brought before him merely because of the high priests’ envy, he is ready to release him, and asks the crowd who wanted crucifixion, “Why, what evil has he done?” Does that really sound like Pilate declaring him guilty of treason against Rome? That is certainly not the impression that Mark is trying to create here.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 27, 2014

            Well, whatever *motivated* Pilate, he condemned him to death for calling himself the King of the Jews.

  5. Avatar
    FrankofBoulder  February 22, 2014

    Prof. Ehrman, do you think that Jesus repeatedly predicted his own death, as described in Mark’s gospel? Do you think that Jesus willingly accepted his own crucifixion?

    You quoted Jesus’ alleged statement “Whoever would come after me must take up the cross and follow me,” which seems to anticipate his crucifixion. Do you think he said that? I don’t think Jesus had ESP. I think that statement was put in Jesus’ mouth after his death. Perhaps, it wast concocted by Mark. Mark’s gospel is an attempt to explain away Jesus’ death. Mark tried to rationalize the failure of Jesus’ mission, by claiming that Jesus had planned it that way all along.

    Do you think that Jesus had psychic powers to see the future and that he considered it his mission to be executed, as recounted in Mark? Or, do you think the story in Mark is a myth? If you think it’s a myth, then I guess you agree with me that Mark’s gospel is a work of fiction.

  6. Avatar
    robnapier  February 22, 2014

    You’ve suggested several times that Jesus does not refer to himself as the Son of Man in Mark (I also remember it from Jesus Interrupted). But then how are we to read 10:45? How does this verse make sense if the Son of Man is only a future cosmic judge? And if Mark does not mean Jesus here, who does he mean? Is there any reason to believe 10:45 is a later addition?

    • Avatar
      robnapier  February 22, 2014

      I’m not saying specifically that Mark is saying that Jesus will be a future cosmic judge. If “son of man” is read as generic “humanity” or “one who appears as human,” do all of these verses make more sense than requiring the Son of Man to exclusively refer to a cosmic judge? Then Jesus is more generally saying “we are all here to serve and ransom others” rather than himself specifically (but I’m not sure that undermines the prophetic point of 10:45).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 23, 2014

      You’re misreading me (or I’m being unclear! Which is far more likely….). Jesus absolutely *does* refer to himself as the Son of Man in Mark. I just don’t think the *historical Jesus* referred to himself as the Son of Man.

  7. Avatar
    Habakuk  February 22, 2014

    “The Sanhedrin charges him with blasphemy, and finds him worthy of death. ”

    Some argue that this charge indicates that the gospels were written at a later point in time. Because in 1st centuries Palestine the confession to be the Messiah and the Son of God would have never been considered blasphemy. Ironically the disciples spread the message of Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, for decades throughout Palestine without anyone of them being charged with blasphemy. Which raises the question: Why was Jesus accused of blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God while the disciples – claiming exactly the same – were present in the Jewish Temple for some 30 years?

    The later Christian understanding of “Son of God” that developed in the Graeco-Roman world indeed would have been considered blasphemy in Jewish eyes. So some argue that Mark was never a Jew from Palestine as he would have known that “Son of God” is not a blasphemous claim. He must have been a writer from the later Graeco-Roman world were a – from a Jewish perspective – blasphemous understanding of this term became the norm in Christian thinking.

    Any comment, Dr. Ehrman?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 23, 2014

      Yes, I think the trial before the Sanhedrin is written from a later Christian perspective, precisely because he commits no blasphemy — unless you think (as Mark does but the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day would not have) that Jesus is claiming to be the divine Son of Man.

    • Avatar
      LuckyJoyce  February 24, 2014

      That’s not 100% the case. We do know that James the Just was killed by the Sanhedrin for, presumably, blasphemy. That was an illegal act because even though the Law said blasphemy was punishable by stoning, capital crimes were supposed to be turned over to the Roman procurator. If memory serves, this happened while a procurator was absent; he had died and his replacement was not yet there. The high priest got, basically, a tongue-lashing for this when the Jewish people complained about it upon the procurator’s arrival.

      Stephen, the first of the martyrs, was accused of blasphemy, supposedly, and was dragged outside the Jerusalem walls and stoned to death. His basic blasphemy seemed to be that he claimed to see Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, which they took to mean Jesus = God. Or that is the explanation. No word on the Romans doing anything about that, that I can recall.

      But all the Gospels are written from the perspective of those 40-70 or so years after the death of Jesus, right? so each one has its different agenda and theological slant.

      I’m guessing that the Sanhedrin, knowing Jesus’ popularity among the people, didn’t wish to be the ones held responsible for Jesus’ death. So they told Pilate he was claiming to be King of the Jews. Hence, Jesus was crucified for sedition. Only Rome could choose the King(s) of the Jews.

  8. Avatar
    donmax  February 22, 2014

    I like the “literary-historical” approach, but only up to a point, just so long as the claims of primitive history, the interpretations of bible scholars, and the anti-Semitic pronouncements of its religious authors, don’t outweigh or override the literature. After all, Jesus did NOT have personal biographers who took notes and reported what was going on throughout his lifetime. We only know of him as the protagonist within an ill-defined genre, someone carefully crafted after-the-fact in order to appear more god-like than human. Thus, it seems a mistake to treat the Gospel of Mark, or any similar ancient narrative (whether canonized or not), either as the legitimate retelling of history, or merely as one particular form of Greco-Roman storytelling.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 23, 2014

    Trying to tease apart the historical from the legendary using a 2,000-year-old set of books is my main interest. Hence, I have been reading about the Jesus Seminar. I have been surprised to learn that most in the seminar disagree with Schweitzer and you concerning whether or not Jesus was an “apocalyptic” prophet. They seem to contend that Jesus was preaching a kingdom in the here and now. You might consider doing some posts on the Jesus Seminar and how and why your views differ with the predominant views of the Jesus Seminar.

    I have also been reading about the upcoming “Son of God” movie. With that movie, we may be headed once again toward much that is not historical.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 24, 2014

      Interesting idea!

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  February 24, 2014

        I’d like to second that on a post about the Jesus Seminar. I’ve been reading a commentary on the Gospel of Thomas which argues that the sayings about the kingdom being present right here and now are later accretions in response to the non-return of Jesus. April DeConick thanks you for discussing her ideas or reading early drafts and so I’m curious about your reaction to her conclusions that:
        The core sayings are not only pre-Markan but also pre-Q and pre-Paul dating them 30-50.
        They are consistent with the Jerusalem church teachings of Prophet Christology.
        Although by the time of the final text the group was in eastern Syria.
        The Gospel of Thomas is one of several texts from the Nag Hammadi texts from eastern Syria that reflect Jewish-Christian teachings.
        And that the Pseudo-Clementines are a part of this literature
        Finally the Gospel of Thomas far from being heretical is part of what became the Eastern Orthodox spirituality

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 25, 2014

          I don’t think I’m in the majority on this, but I think her ideas of an early version of Thomas’s sayings is on target, and that it originated in an apocalyptic environment. The Pseudo-Clementines, though, are much later.

          • Avatar
            Rosekeister  February 26, 2014

            Do you think the idea of an early text that grows over time to reflect changing conditions has any application to the canonical gospels? I’ve read your book that shows how the later manuscripts have changes that seem to have been made to correct the text to later theology.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  February 27, 2014

            I don’t think that the tradition moves consistently in one direction or another (growing with time, being abbreviated with time, etc.)

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  February 25, 2014

        Make it three in favor of a post or two on the Jesus Seminar!

  10. Avatar
    GokuEn  February 23, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman, I have a question concerning Jesus’ family in Mark. Most translations indicate that his family thought he went insane and tried to take him away. But the NRSV reads “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” What is the best interpretation of the Greek? Did his family thought he was mad or did the “people” though he was mad?

    Also, assuming it was indeed Jesus’ family who thought he had gone out his mind could that be seen as evidence that Mark has an Adoptionist Christology? If his family thought he went crazy, wouldn’t it mean that there was a radical break in Jesus’ behavior before and after his Baptism? (In fact, the very translation “going out of his mind” suggests that Jesus was not being himself anymore. Is that connotation present in the Greek as well?)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 24, 2014

      The phrase “for people” is not in the Greek. The Greek says “for they.” So it’s talking about his family. The translators felt that it couldn’t *really* be talking about his family, so they changed it in their translation. I think the passage does show that Mark doesn’t know anything about a Virgin Birth story.

      • Avatar
        GokuEn  February 24, 2014

        I always thought the NRSV was the best translation available… But oh well. Its clear Mark does not know a Virgin Birth story (otherwise he would of made a reference to it somehow) but could this passage be used to argue that for Mark Jesus’ baptism is the point where he becomes the “Son of God”? It would seem that Mark hints that Jesus’ behavior changed so dramatically that his own family never saw him like this before hence “being out of himself”.

        Briefly but: do you think Mark is a “Baptist Adoptionist” and this passage shows it?

  11. Robertus
    Robertus  February 28, 2014

    “Well, whatever *motivated* Pilate, he condemned him to death for calling himself the King of the Jews.”

    Even with respect to this element, the ’cause/charge’, King of the Jews, Pilate attributes this claim to the crowd, not Jesus, and even while Pilate was trying to release Jesus. “Then what do you wish me to do with the man *you call* the King of the Jews?”

    I’m not questioning the history or the elements within the gospel that attribute to Pilate the ‘handing over’ of Jesus to be crucified, but just saying that it is much more important for Mark to exonerate Pilate as much as possible without being able to deny the fact that Pilate, without condemning him, nonetheless handed him over to be crucified. As I’m sure you know, the ‘handing over’ is only one step in a chain of ‘handing overs’ that are somewhat theological or literary in nature, certainly not emphasizing an actual condemnation of Jesus by Pilate. Even Pilate’s soldier, the Roman Centurion at the foot of the cross, is the first character to recognize Jesus’ identity as Son of God.

  12. Avatar
    Slydog1227  March 14, 2014

    “Whoever would come after me must take up the cross and follow me.” I find this quote quite interesting on a few levels. First, from my understanding, those condemned to die from crucifixion normally weren’t required to carry their crosses. So not only was Jesus foreseeing his death on the cross, but also his having to “take up the cross” and bear it. Which brings to mind my next question. At what point in the NT did the cross become the iconic representation of the Christian movement? Is this the first mention of the cross as a symbol of the church? And doesn’t seem a little wanky that Jesus would make reference to that, when the whole church/movement/religion had really not even began it’s formation?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 17, 2014

      It is usually thought that criminals were to carry the cross, or part of it, to the place of execution. The cross is already an important symbol already by Paul. This reference on the lips of Jesus is almost certainly something he didn’t say, but something placed on his lips by later story tellers.

  13. Avatar
    richard  December 6, 2014

    Dr Ehrman

    in your opinion why do you think the gospel of mark wanted it’s readers to know that jesus knew about his death all along? any sources from antiquity which have people putting prophecy in people’s mind?

    would a prophetic murdered messiah be more sellable than simply a crucified one?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 6, 2014

      Yes, I think the idea is that if he was really the Son of God, surely he knew what was going to happen to him.

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