When Disciples Fail

Mark’s gospel, long overlooked in early Christian tradition, experienced something of a resurgence in the late nineteenth century when biblical scholars came to the conclusion that Mark, long believed to be the second gospel written, actually predated the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  This assertion, far from solving the Synoptic Problem, nonetheless helps explain the number of stories, passages, and characteristics that Mark, Matthew, and Luke hold in common.[1]

It also suggests that Mark’s author “invented the literary form which we call gospel: a narrative telling the story of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, proclaiming the good news … that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God….”[2]  This does not mean that Mark created the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection himself, but that he created a unique way of telling Jesus’ story to early Christian communities that was both influential and longstanding.

Like the earliest Christian readers of the other gospels, Mark’s initial audience already knew how the story ended – Jesus was crucified and was buried and rose again three days later.  For a twenty-first century reader, this point may seem rather obvious.  After all who – in the modern western world at least – doesn’t know the basic facts of the Jesus story?  Yet, even if his readers knew the outcome of the story, Mark’s gospel is still full of surprises.  As Francis Moloney points out in his commentary,

The Gospel of Mark is unique among the gospels and unlike most other narratives in that the crises which emerge during its course are not resolved through a dénouement at the end of the story…. Much is resolved, but a further crisis emerges that cannot be resolved by the story itself…. This suggests that it is might be resolved in the lives of the people reading the story.  We should recall that in a good story the reader is told enough to be made curious without ever being given all the answers.  Narrative texts keep promising the great prize of understanding – later.  The ‘later’ of the Gospel of Mark, I will suggest, is the ‘now’ of the Christian reader.[3]

To dig into what Moloney is getting at here, we must start at the original ending of Mark’s gospel (16:1-8).  In the final chapter and verses of the original ending, we see three women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – fleeing from Jesus’ empty tomb, “seized with trembling and bewilderment.  They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8).

Imagine the reactions of some of Mark’s original readers.  The Christian tradition – from early on – held that women were the first Easter witnesses and were the first to report the Easter message to Jesus’ disciples.  We see this storyline in Matthew, Luke, and John, though with some differences in people and place.  But of course someone must have seen and said something.  How else would the Christian tradition have emerged and carried on?  Mark’s ending apparently was so problematic for some that a different author, sometime later, added eleven more verses to the gospel in order to resolve the seeming crisis at the end of the Markan narrative.  In 16:9-20 we see Jesus appearing first to Mary Magdalene and then to two of his disciples before he commissions his disciples to go out into the world.

However, Moloney suggests that Mark’s ending was very purposeful and fits within the overall theological framework of the gospel.  From the beginning, Mark makes his Christology clear:  Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God (1:1).  He is the Lord (1:3), the one greater than John the Baptist who will come and baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:7-8).  He is God’s “beloved Son” (1:11).  Soon after Jesus calls his first disciples when he brings Simon, Andrew, James, and John into his flock (1:16-20).[4]

But here again the movement of the story is well known. Despite the proclamations of the prologue, despite all of Jesus’ work, despite his disciples’ honest and earnest commitment to following him, everything seems to be leading to failure by the time we get to chapter fourteen.  Hints are given about Jesus’ impending death (14:7, 24-25, 27).  Judas betrays Jesus (14:43).  The disciples flee after Jesus is arrested (14:50).  And Peter denies Jesus not once, not twice, but three times (14:66-72).  Nonetheless, in the midst of the disciples’ actions, Jesus still promises to return to them in Galilee after he is risen (14:28).

When we find the women at the empty tomb in chapter sixteen, it seems that Jesus has fulfilled his promise.  The mysterious young man in a white robe even says to the women, “‘Do not be amazed!  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Behold the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you’” (16:6-7).

What if in these stories of failure Mark is making a bigger point about God’s power and love?  Through Jesus’ resurrection we see God’s power to overcome injustice and death for the Son whom he loves.  What is not as clear, however, is how God’s power and love relate to the disciples’ failures.  Moloney suggests that God’s vindication of Jesus also points to God’s vindication of the disciples.  He says,

The original readers of the Gospel of Mark, aware of their fragility, were encouraged by a story which told of the inability of the original disciples, men and women, to overcome their fear and follow Jesus through the cross to the resurrection…. The proclamation of the Gospel of Mark in fragile Christian communities, experiencing their own versions of fear and flight, for almost two thousand years suggests that the accomplishment of the promise of 14:28 and 16:7 continues in the Christian experience of the subsequent readers and hearers of the Gospel.  What Jesus promised happened for the Markan community and continues to happen among generations of fragile followers of Jesus.[5]

Despite the women’s reactions in 16:8, we know that Jesus did meet his disciples in Galilee, as he had promised.  He had to or else there would be no Christian community.  Crucially, Jesus’ promises holds meaning for us today.  Jesus has gone before us, and we too will someday see him.  Even as we fail in our own efforts at discipleship, Mark’s gospel tell us that God’s power and love, seen most profoundly in the person of Jesus, overcomes all human failure.  The conclusion of Mark’s gospel, then, “is not a message of failure, but a resounding affirmation of God’s design to overcome all imaginable human failure in and through the action of God’s beloved Son.”[6]


[1] Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 2.  I am heavily indebted to Moloney’s commentary throughout this blog post.  I will provide footnote citations when quoting Moloney directly or when referencing something particularly unique to Moloney.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid., 353.

[5] Ibid., 354.

[6] Ibid.