Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (July-September, 1996) 332-43.

          Copyright © 1996 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

 

                              DISCIPLESHIP

                 AND MINOR CHARACTERS

                         IN MARK'S GOSPEL

 

 

                                             Joel F. Williams

 

 

            How should an interpreter approach the study of dis-

cipleship in the Gospel of Mark?1 For the most part, recent studies

on the topic have focused on Mark's portrayal of the disciples

along with Jesus' teaching to His disciples. In discussing past re-

search on this subject, Malbon states, "Discipleship—that is, fol-

lowing Jesus—has been recognized as a central theme or motif in

the Gospel of Mark. Understandably enough, the portrayal of the

disciples in Mark has often been the focus of scholarly investiga-

tion of the theme of discipleship."2 Malbon points out that past

scholarly investigations are inadequate because "what Mark has

to say about discipleship is understood in reference not only to the

disciples but also to other Markan characters who meet the de-

mands of following Jesus."3 In other words the study of disciple-

ship in Mark's Gospel is broader than a study of the disciples.

            In addition to Mark's portrayal of the disciples he included a

number of so-called "minor characters" who followed Jesus and

lived in accord with His teaching. An examination of these mi-

nor characters is important for an understanding of Mark's view

of discipleship, that is, his perspective on what is involved in fol-

 

Joel F. Williams is Assistant Professor of Bible, Columbia International Univer-

sity, Columbia, South Carolina.

1 This article is a summary of certain theological aspects of the author's disser-

tation, which has been published as Other Followers of Jesus: Minor Characters

as Major Figures in Mark's Gospel, JSNT Supplement Series 102 (Sheffield: JSOT,

1994).

2 Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, "Fallible Followers: Women and Men in the

Gospel of Mark," Semeia 28 (1983): 29.

3 Ibid., 30.

 


      Discipleship and Minor Characters in Mark's Gospel      333

 

lowing Jesus and living up to His demands and ideals.4

            The main character groups in Mark's Gospel are the disci-

ples, the opponents of Jesus, and the crowd.5 In addition to these

groups, a number of individual characters are included in

Mark's narrative. Some of them, such as Andrew or Peter, are

disciples, while others, such as the high priest or Pilate, oppose Je-

sus. Also a number of minor characters function neither as Je-

sus' disciples nor as His opponents. Instead, these individuals

come from the crowd, in the sense that they belong to the general

population, to the group of people outside of Jesus' disciples or op-

ponents. They were not specifically called and commissioned to

be Jesus' disciples, and they did not align themselves with the re-

ligious and political establishments that opposed Jesus and sought

to destroy Him. These minor characters from the crowd appear in

the narrative when they meet with Jesus, and after their en-

counter with Him, they generally disappear from the narrative.

Some, such as the leper, come to Jesus for help, while others, such

as the poor widow, exemplify the teaching of Jesus. Mark's Gospel

includes twenty-two passages that present these minor characters

from the crowd and their response to Jesus. What would Mark's

view of discipleship look like if his presentation of minor charac-

ters were included in a study of this theme?

 

                                                BASIC ISSUES

            Certain principles help guide this study. The first is that

Mark's Gospel is a narrative, that is, a narration of a series of

events. The Gospel of Mark is a historical narrative, but it is a

narrative nonetheless.6 This observation may seem obvious, but

 

4 For other studies of the minor characters in Mark see Robert C. Tannehill,

"The Gospel of Mark as Narrative Christology," Semeia 16 (1979): 62-68; David

Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a

Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 129-34; Jack Dean Kingsbury, Conflict in

Mark: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 24-27; and Eliz-

abeth Struthers Malbon, "The Major Importance of the Minor Characters in Mark,"

in The New Literary Criticism and the New Testament, ed. Edgar V. McKnight

and Elizabeth Struthers Malbon (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1994), 58-86.

5 On the validity of referring to people in biblical narratives as characters, see

Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation, Founda-

tions of Contemporary Interpretation 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 88; and R.

Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design, Foun-

dations and Facets: New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 105-6.

6 For arguments showing that Mark's Gospel presents a coherent narrative, see

Norman R. Petersen, Literary Criticism for New Testament Critics, Guides to Bib-

lical Scholarship (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 49-80; and idem, "`Point of View' in

Mark's Narrative," Semeia 12 (1978): 97-121. Hans W. Frei also argues for the need

to understand the Gospels as realistic narrative (The Eclipse of Biblical Narra-

tive: A Study of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics [New Haven,

CT: Yale University Press, 1974]; The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical

334     BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July–September 1996

 

it has important implications, especially for Gospel research,

which has often neglected the story elements of the Gospels. In the

past several decades New Testament studies have emphasized the

theological message of the Gospel writers and the significance of

this message for the Gospel writer's community. In such studies

the theological concepts of the Gospel are often extracted from the

text with little concern for how these concepts fit with the narrative

features of the Gospel and the unfolding plot of the story. However,

the Gospels are not theological treatises but narratives, and they

are best understood when they are treated as such.7 This is true

even in an analysis of the theological theme of discipleship, since

Mark uses narrative features such as plot and characterization to display his

perspective on following Jesus. This article examines Mark's portrayal of minor

characters to show how this feature communicates his view of discipleship.

            A second principle is that Mark's Gospel as a whole, that is,

every aspect of his text, is important for understanding his view-

points.8 In recent decades critics have treated Mark as a scissors-

and-paste editor, who cut and pieced together traditions to create a

portrait of Jesus. In studying Mark's viewpoints, critics have iso-

lated and set aside the traditional elements in Mark's Gospel and

have concentrated instead on the seams and patches that Mark

contributed to the story. Such an approach, however, often treats

large sections of the Gospel as irrelevant to Mark's message,

even though Mark himself considered these sections important

enough to include them. It is easy to see how an approach that ig-

nores traditional material would diminish the significance of

 

Bases of Dogmatic Theology [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975], xiii–xiv; and "The

‘Literal Reading’ of Biblical Narrative in the Christian Tradition: Does It Stretch

or Will It Break?" in The Bible and the Narrative Tradition, ed. Frank McConnell

[New York: Oxford University Press, 1986], 62–63).

7 "Themes and other such literary characteristics rightly belong in the centre of

an interpretation of Mark in a way that ‘theology’ and ‘theological themes’ do not, if

for no other reason than that the form of the Second Gospel is not that of a self-con-

sciously theological treatise. Mark is first of all a narrative and, at least on initial

approach, should be treated as such" (C. Clifton Black, "The Quest of Mark the

Redactor: Why Has It Been Pursued, and What Has It Taught Us?," Journal for the

Study of the New Testament 33 [19881: 32). On this point also see C. Clifton Black,

The Disciples according to Mark: Markan Redaction in Current Debate, JSNT

Supplement Series 27 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1989), 239. For descriptions of how recent

studies examine the narrative features of the Gospels, see Stephen D. Moore,

"Narrative Commentaries on the Bible: Context, Roots, and Prospects," Forum 3

(1987): 29-62; idem, Literary Criticism and the Gospels: The Theoretical Challenge

(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 3-68; Mark Allan Powell, What Is

Narrative Criticism? Guides to Biblical Scholarship (Minneapolis: Fortress,

1990); and Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, "Narrative Criticism: How Does the Story

Mean?" in Mark and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Janice

Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 23–49.

8 Powell, What Is Narrative Criticism? 7, 91–93.


       Discipleship and Minor Characters in Mark's Gospel       335

 

Mark's presentation of minor characters, since most of this ma-

terial would be identified as coming from Mark's sources.

            A third principle is that interpreters should give attention to

the sequence of the narrative, to Mark's order of presentation.9 A

narrative is more like a path than a picture. A narrative is not a

spatial object that may be viewed as a whole at any one moment.

Rather a narrative tells a story in sequence, with a beginning,

middle, and end. In a narrative the author takes the reader

through the presentation of a story step by step, and the story may

have twists and turns along the way. Interpreters have sometimes

presented Mark's view of discipleship as a set of abstract con-

cepts. Evidence for these concepts is taken from the Gospel with

little concern for the place of this evidence in the development of

the plot. Such an approach neglects the way in which Mark uses

the twists and turns of the story to affect the way one looks at a

theme such as discipleship. Therefore this article follows Mark's

order of presentation in analyzing the relationship between mi-

nor characters and the theme of discipleship.

            A fourth principle is that Mark's Gospel has a rhetorical

function.10 Mark did not write simply to convey historical in-

 

9 The importance of the sequential flow of the narrative and the temporal nature

of reading is emphasized in the work of some New Testament scholars. See

Richard A. Edwards, Matthew's Story of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 9;

Robert M. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and

the Gospel of Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 3, 42-46; David B. Howell,

Matthew's Inclusive Story: A Study in the Narrative Rhetoric of the First Gospel,

JSNT Supplement Series 42 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1990), 43–44, 243–45; and Jeffrey L.

Staley, The Print's First Kiss: A Rhetorical Investigation of the Implied Reader in

the Fourth Gospel, SBL Dissertation Series 82 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1988), 8–9, 19–20.

For a similar approach to interpretation within the broader field of literary criti-

cism, see Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response

(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1978), 108–9; idem, The Implied Reader:

Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore:

Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 280; Steven Mailloux, "Learning to Read:

Interpretation and Reader-Response Criticism," Studies in the Literary Imagina-

tion 12 (Spring 1979): 96, 100; Menakhem Perry, "Literary Dynamics: How the Order

of a Text Creates Its Meanings," Poetics Today 1 (Autumn 1979): 35-64, 311-61; Meir

Sternberg, Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction (Baltimore:

Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 34, 96–97; and idem, "Time and Reader," in

The Uses of Adversity: Failure and Accommodation in Reader Response, ed. Ellen

Spolsky (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1990), 50–51, 77–78, 85.

10 On the rhetorical function of narratives, see Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of

Fiction, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 89-116; Meir Sternberg,

The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Read-

ing (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985), 1-2; idem, "Time and Space

in Biblical (Hi)story Telling: The Grand Chronology," in The Bible and the Text:

The Bible and Literary Theory, ed. Regina Schwartz (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 89,

91; and Susan R. Suleiman, "Introduction: Varieties of Audience-Oriented Criti-

cism," in The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience and Interpretation, ed. Su-

336     BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July—September 1996

 

formation, theological ideas, or a well-formed story. Mark also

wrote his Gospel to move his readers to follow Jesus and live up to

Jesus' demands. Mark's Gospel is a call to discipleship. A true

interpretation of Mark must not ignore or obscure its rhetorical

purpose, but instead must convey its message in such a way that

the call to follow Jesus will be heard again.

 

                        MINOR CHARACTERS IN MARK

 

            What can be learned about discipleship from Mark's treat-

ment of minor characters? Through these individuals Mark em-

phasizes the importance of faith, the open invitation to follow Je-

sus, and the real possibility of failure in discipleship. Mark de-

velops these minor characters in three stages. First, in the chap-

ters that deal with Jesus' ministry in Galilee and His journey to

Jerusalem (1:1-10:45), Mark presents the minor characters as

suppliants, that is, as those who come to Jesus asking for His help.

In the second stage, minor characters function as exemplars, as

positive examples of what it means to follow Jesus and to accept

His teachings and values. This second stage begins with the por-

trayal of Bartimaeus at the end of chapter 10 and continues

through the death and burial of Jesus (10:46-16:7). In the final

stage, at the very end of the Gospel (16:8), Mark presents minor

characters as negative examples, as examples of failure and dis-

obedience. This final stage is not an extended section, but rather

an unexpected turn of events at the end of the narrative.

 

STAGE ONE: MINOR CHARACTERS AS SUPPLIANTS

            In his prologue (1:1-15), Mark introduces Jesus as the au-

thoritative Messiah and Son of God, who proclaimed the gospel, a

message that demands repentance and faith in light of the near-

ness of the kingdom. Following the prologue Mark narrates the

initial ministry of Jesus in the region of Galilee. The early

chapters of the Gospel introduce different character groups and

show their response to Jesus, so that in a rough pattern of rotation

Jesus interacts with the disciples, the crowd, the demons, and the

religious authorities.11 At times Mark narrates scenes that show

Jesus dealing with more than one character group.12 In the first

three chapters of Mark's Gospel, the minor characters appear in

these mixed episodes, which present more than one character

group. Often the demons, the disciples, or Jesus' opponents play

the more active role in the passage. The minor characters are

 

san R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 9.

11 Tannehill, "The Gospel of Mark as Narrative Christology," 68.

12 Ibid., 69.


      Discipleship and Minor Characters in Mark's Gospel       337

 

suppliants, needy people who come to Him for help, but the needs of

these individuals serve to highlight some other feature of the nar-

rative. The appearance of a possessed man in the synagogue pro-

vides an occasion for Jesus to display His authority over the

demons (1:21–28). The sickness of Simon Peter's mother-in-law

gives the disciples opportunity to express their trust in Jesus

(1:29–31). The healing of the paralytic (2:1–12) and the healing of

the man with the withered hand (3:1–6) highlight the growing

conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities.

            In the first three chapters of Mark's Gospel, the minor charac-

ters most fully developed are the leper (1:40–45) and the paralytic

(2:1–12), both people of faith. The leper says to Jesus, "If you are

willing, you are able to cleanse me" (1:40). The paralytic and his

four helpers express their faith by overcoming the obstacle of the

crowd in order to meet with Jesus (2:2–5). In the following narra-

tive, faith continued to be an important feature in Mark's depic-

tion of these characters.

            In chapters 4–8, Mark presents minor characters as figures

contrasting to the disciples.13 While the disciples respond to Jesus

with a growing incomprehension and lack of trust, the suppliants

react with faith and insight. Particularly prominent in chapters

4–8 are the three boat scenes in which Jesus travels with His dis-

ciples on the Sea of Galilee.14 In each of these scenes, either Jesus

or the narrator criticizes the disciples for their lack of faith and

understanding (4:40; 6:52; 8:17-18). In the first boat scene (4:35-

41), Jesus stills the storm by rebuking the wind and the waves,

and then He rebukes the disciples for their timidity and lack of

faith. Mark furthers the criticism of the disciples by noting that

they "feared a great fear." This fear was no longer directed at the

fierce storm, but at Jesus, the One who demands the obedience of

the wind and the sea.

            The first boat scene is followed by three miracle stories that

present minor characters as people who overcome fear and re-

spond with faith. After calming the sea, Jesus delivers a tor-

mented man, the Gerasene demoniac (5:1–20). With a response

similar to that of the disciples in the preceding episode, the people

of the region become frightened after they learn of the miracle,

and, like the disciples, their fear is directed at Jesus. They ex-

 

13 For a description of the disciples' story in Mark's Gospel, see Robert C. Tan-

nehill, "The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role," Journal of Reli.

gion 57 (1977): 386-405. For the idea that minor characters serve as foils for the dis-

ciples, see Kingsbury, Conflict in Mark, 25-27; Rhoads and Michie, Mark as Story,

132-34; and Tannehill, "The Disciples in Mark," 391, 404-5.

14 Norman R. Petersen, "The Composition of Mark 4:1-8:26," Harvard Theologi-

cal Review 73 (1980): 195-96.


338      BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July—September 1996

 

press their fear by asking Jesus to leave. In contrast to the onlook-

ers and thus in contrast to the disciples, the Gerasene demoniac is

not afraid of Jesus, and instead of wanting to be rid of Jesus, he

begs for permission to be with Him. Faith and fear continue to be

prominent themes in the following scene, which includes the

healing of Jairus' daughter and the healing of the hemorrhaging

woman (5:21-43). According to Jesus, the woman is healed of her

affliction because of her faith. She also overcomes her fear and

comes to Jesus when He insists on making this private miracle a

matter of public record. When Jesus calls on Jairus to put away

fear and to continue to believe, Jairus obeys even though all hope

seems lost after the report of his daughter's death. In this way both

the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus stand in contrast to the dis-

ciples who lack courage and fail to trust.

            In the second boat scene (6:45-52), the disciples react with

fear and amazement when Jesus comes to them walking on the

water. According to Mark their amazement is a negative re-

sponse because it grew out of their lack of understanding and

their hardness of heart. The next minor character, the Sy-

rophoenician woman, with her boldness and insight, stands in

contrast to the disciples (7:24-30). She is faced with the dilemma

of Jesus' rejection of her request for help, a rejection that is made

on the basis of her status as a Gentile.15 With humility she accepts

the position of a household dog and does not ask for the privileges

that belong to Israel, but only for the crumbs children leave be-

hind. The woman has sufficient insight to recognize that she is

able to trust in the abundance of God's mercy. In the next two pas-

sages concerning minor characters, Jesus heals a deaf man

(7:31-37) and the blind man of Bethsaida (8:22-26). Between

these two healing miracles stands the third boat scene (8:14-21).

There the disciples misunderstand Jesus' warning concerning

the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. Jesus scolds

them with a series of pointed questions that highlight their lack of

understanding. Using parabolic language, Jesus asks, "Having

eyes, do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?" (8:18). Je-

sus is able to overcome physical deafness and blindness, but He

has not yet healed the disciples of their spiritual insensitivity.

            In chapters 4-8, minor characters stand in contrast to the dis-

ciples, because they express faith in Jesus and because they exem-

plify or symbolize a true understanding of Jesus' ministry and

teaching. In this way Mark shows that following Jesus involves

faith, even when fear is the more natural response.

 

15 On the enigmatic character of Jesus' remark and its impact, see Jouette M.

Bassler, "The Parable of the Loaves," Journal of Religion 66 (1986): 170-71.


      Discipleship and Minor Characters in Mark's Gospel      339

 

            In the so-called "central section" of Mark's Gospel, which ex-

tends from 8:27 through 10:45, Mark continues to present minor

characters as suppliants, but now he includes negative features.

In chapters 8-10, Mark emphasizes the predictions of Jesus con-

cerning His death, the inability of His disciples to understand the

implications of His suffering for His followers, and Jesus' teach-

ing on the cost of discipleship.16 This teaching on discipleship

takes on a new dimension in this section of Mark's Gospel. This

new direction is signaled in 8:34, when Mark states that Jesus di-

rects His instructions concerning discipleship toward the crowd

as well as the disciples.17 Jesus begins to open up the demands

and opportunity of following Him to "anyone" or "whoever" will

come after Him. Discipleship is now for anyone who will deny

self, take up the cross, and accept the way of suffering and ser-

vice. This new dimension in Jesus' teaching creates possibilities

for the portrayal of minor characters, since anyone, including

suppliants and other minor characters, may follow Jesus.

            However, at this point in the narrative Mark's treatment of

minor characters takes a surprisingly negative turn. The minor

characters in the central section fail to understand or follow Je-

sus. In contrast to earlier suppliants, the father of the possessed

boy struggles with faith (9:14-29). As part of the unbelieving gen-

eration that Jesus endures, the father questions Jesus' ability to

help. At his best the man's faith is still mixed with doubt, and he

pleads for deliverance from his unbelief. Next is the rich man

who stands apart from the other suppliants in Mark in a number

of ways (10:17-31). He comes to Jesus looking for information

rather than healing. The rich man voices no need, expresses no

faith, displays no understanding, and receives no healing. He

refuses to answer the call to follow Jesus because the deceitfulness

of his riches chokes out the Word.

 

16 The place of the three passion predictions in the structure of Mark 8-10 is

emphasized in the writings of Eduard Schweizer and Norman Perrin. See Eduard

Schweizer, Das Evangelium nach Markus, 4th ed., Das Neue Testament Deutsch.

(Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975), 214; idem, "Toward a Christology of

Mark?" in God's Christ and His People, ed. Jacob Jervell and Wayne A. Meeks

(Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1977), 32; idem, "The Portrayal of the Life of Faith in the

Gospel of Mark," Interpretation 32 (1978): 388-89; idem, "Mark's Theological

Achievement," in The Interpretation of Mark, ed. William Telford, Issues in Reli-

gion and Theology 7 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 53-54, 58; Norman Perrin, "The

Christology of Mark: A Study in Methodology," Journal of Religion 51 (1971): 179;

idem, "Towards an Interpretation of the Gospel of Mark," in Christology and a

Modern Pilgrimage: A Discussion with Norman Perrin, ed. Hans Dieter Betz

(Missoula, MT: Scholars, 1974), 3-9; and idem, The New Testament: An Introduc-

tion (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 155-58.

17 Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, "Disciples/Crowds/Whoever: Markan Characters

and Readers," Novum Testamentum 28 (1986): 109-10, 124-26.


340     BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July—September 1996

 

            In the central section of Mark's Gospel the disciples continue

to misunderstand, refusing to accept the idea of a suffering Mes-

siah. Jesus healed the blind man of Bethsaida with a second

touch, but in spite of repeated instructions from Jesus the disciples

still do not see clearly. The disciples are not exemplary in this

section, but neither are the suppliants, who struggle with faith and

refuse to follow. Significantly, in this section (8:27-10:45) Jesus

repeatedly presents Himself as the true example or paradigm for

His followers. Jesus, as the Son of Man, must suffer many things

and be killed, and so His followers must deny themselves and

lose their lives for His sake. Jesus, as the Son of Man, did not

come to be served but to serve and to give His life, and so His fol-

lowers must take the lowly position of servants. Mark refrains

from referring to other exemplary characters in this section so

that nothing will detract from Jesus' example. Discipleship in-

volves an acceptance of suffering and lowly service because this

is the example Jesus left for His followers.

 

STAGE TWO: MINOR CHARACTERS AS POSITIVE EXAMPLES

            Blind Bartimaeus functions as a transitional figure in

Mark's presentation of minor characters (10:46-52) Like earlier

minor characters he is a needy suppliant who comes to Jesus in

faith, so that he might receive healing. In fact Bartimaeus has an

exuberant faith that is commended by Jesus. Yet he is not only the

last of the suppliants but also the first of a series of minor charac-

ters who serve as positive examples of what it means to follow Je-

sus and live up to His demands. In his final comment on the

healed blind man, Mark states that Bartimaeus received his sight

and was following Jesus in the way. Thus Mark characterizes

Bartimaeus as someone who has taken on a devotion to Jesus and

His teaching. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem to suffer and die,

and Bartimaeus follows Jesus on this path of service. Bartimaeus

stands in direct contrast to the rich man who would not follow Je-

sus because of his many possessions.

            In chapters 11-13, Mark organizes his material around Je-

sus' activity in the temple on three consecutive days.18 The next

two minor characters after Bartimaeus, the wise scribe (12:28-34)

and the poor widow (12:41-44), appear in the midst of the contro-

versy stories that take place on Jesus' third day in the temple. Both

individuals are commended by Jesus, because in some way they

understand or live up to His expectations. Mark portrays the wise

scribe as unusually perceptive both because of his willingness to

 

18 Werner H. Kelber, Mark's Story of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979): 57. For

a similar approach, see Stephen H. Smith, "The Literary Structure of Mark 11:1—

12:40," Novum Testamentum 31 (1989): 112.


      Discipleship and Minor Characters in Mark's Gospel      341

 

ask about the foremost commandment and because of his accep-

tance of Jesus' answer. Jesus recognizes in this scribe an open-

ness to God's demands and thus an openness to the kingdom of

God. Jesus also commends the sacrificial giving of the poor

widow. The scribe agreed with Jesus concerning the importance

of loving God with one's whole heart, understanding, and

strength. Then Jesus points to the poor widow as an example of

such a wholehearted response to God. In contrast to the rich man

who possesses a shallow understanding of God's commandments

and refuses to enter the kingdom, the wise scribe shows insight

into the commandments and stands open to God's kingdom. Un-

like the rich man, the poor widow gives all that she owns.

            In chapter 14 the disciples move from misunderstanding to

failure. They have repeatedly displayed confusion about the ne-

cessity of taking the way of the cross, and so when they are called

on to suffer, they cease to follow Jesus. Mark implies that there is

a future restoration for the disciples beyond the resurrection and

that the disciples will indeed become "fishers of men." However,

Mark concludes his portrayal of the disciples with their failure,

with Peter weeping after he denied Christ.

            In light of the desertion of the disciples, Mark once again in

the passion narrative contrasts minor characters with the disci-

ples. Minor characters fulfill certain duties that the disciples

should accomplish but do not, because they abandon their respon-

sibility to follow Jesus. Mark expresses the action of Simon of

Cyrene who carries Jesus' cross (15:21), with words that recall Je-

sus' teaching to His followers concerning the necessity of taking

up the cross (8:34). Thus Simon of Cyrene serves Jesus in a way

that is appropriate for a follower. The centurion confesses that Je-

sus is the Son of God and does so in the face of His suffering and

death on the cross (15:39). The disciples recognize Jesus' mes-

sianic identity, but they seem unable to accept His way of suffer-

ing. The centurion, however, is able to view together the divine

sonship of Jesus and His destiny on the cross.

            Joseph of Arimathea takes the corpse of Jesus down from the

cross, wraps it in a linen cloth, and lays it in a tomb (15:42-47).

By taking on the duty of Jesus' burial, Joseph acts in a manner

that has been associated with discipleship earlier in Mark's nar-

rative. After John the Baptist is beheaded, his disciples come and

take his corpse and lay it in a tomb (6:29). After the crucifixion

Jesus' disciples are absent, and so Joseph of Arimathea assumes

responsibility for the burial. Yet Joseph is not the only minor

character who cares for Jesus' burial. Earlier, a woman in

Bethany expresses her love for Jesus by anointing His head with a

costly perfume (14:3-9). Jesus interprets this good deed as an


342      BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July—September 1996

 

anointing for His burial before His death.

            Moreover, Jesus' followers include a number of women who

serve Jesus and follow Him all the way to the cross (15:40-41).

This group of women includes Mary Magdalene, Mary the

mother of James, and Salome, who come to the tomb on the first

day of the week to anoint Jesus' body with spices (16:1-3). There-

fore a number of minor characters continue to demonstrate their

devotion to Jesus, even after the disciples deserted Him.

            From Bartimaeus to the end of the passion narrative, minor

characters exemplify the truth that following Jesus is open to all.

Discipleship is not simply for those like the disciples; who receive

a specific call to follow (1:16-20; 3:13-19) and a unique commis-

sion to preach and have authority (3:13-19; 6:7-13). Those who

read Mark's Gospel, like these minor characters, may respond to

the general call to discipleship that goes out to "anyone." or

"whomever." Mark's minor characters are unlikely heroes: a

blind beggar, a scribe, a poor widow, a woman in the house of a

leper, a passerby, a soldier, a member of the Sanhedrin, a small

group of women followers. Yet these individuals accept Jesus'

teaching, fulfill His demands, and live with devotion toward

Him. They illustrate that in God's kingdom the first will be last

and the last will be first (10:31).

 

STAGE THREE: MINOR CHARACTERS AS NEGATIVE EXAMPLES

            The end of Mark's Gospel presents a number of problems, not

the least of which is a major text-critical problem. The assump-

tion of this article is that Mark intended to conclude his Gospel at

16:8.19 This would mean that the final passage (16:1-8) deals with

minor characters, with the three women followers, and that the

final verse of the book (16:8) records their surprising reactions.

The women flee from the tomb with trembling and terror, and

they speak to no one because of their fear. The young man at the

tomb had just reported the resurrection to the women and com-

manded them to tell Peter and the disciples to go to Galilee, where

they would see Jesus. The young man's words clearly point back

to the promise of Jesus in Mark 14:28, where Jesus predicted He

would meet with the disciples in Galilee after His resurrection.

Apparently the purpose for this meeting was to bring about a

restoration for the disciples, so that they might fulfill their mis-

sion as Jesus' apostles. The command of the young man, there-

fore, is a message of hope for disciples who have failed.

            Mark follows the command in 16:7 with the negative reaction

 

19 For a further discussion of this point, see Williams, Other Followers of Jesus,

191-94.


      Discipleship and Minor Characters in Mark's Gospel       343

 

of the women in 16:8. The flight of the women from the tomb is

similar to the cowardly flight of the disciples after Jesus' arrest in

the garden. Their trembling and terror is a rejection of the young

man's call to them to put aside their amazement. Out of fear, the

women remain silent, and as a result they disobey the command

of the young man and fail to pass on the message to the disciples.

            The disobedient silence of the women forces the reader to re-

flect again on the message of hope given in Mark 16:7. Does the

disobedience of the women negate the promise implied in the

young man's message for the disciples? No, the promise holds

true because it is based on Jesus' word, which will never pass

away. Therefore the anticipated meeting predicted by Jesus and

confirmed by the young man would take place in spite of the dis-

obedience of the women. However, the failure of the women must

not be neglected, because it carries a significant warning for oth-

ers who seek to follow Jesus. The women's failure warns that dis-

obedience and fear are not simply part of the disciples' condition

before the resurrection. The time between the resurrection and

Christ's coming again, or, in other words, the present time, is also

a period of potential fear and failure.

            In 16:7-8, Mark juxtaposes promise and failure.20 The pre-

diction in verse 7 implies a promise that restoration to disciple-

ship is possible in spite of disobedience. The fear and silence of

the women in verse 7 shows that failure in discipleship is a real

possibility in the present time. Therefore in the end Mark uses

minor characters as negative examples for a warning concern-

ing the potential problems of discipleship.

 

                                    CONCLUSION

            Mark's presentation of minor characters is both a call and a

caution. The call to follow Jesus is open to anyone, but it involves

self-denial, sacrifice, and willing, humble service. Through the

failure of the disciples and then that of minor characters, Mark

cautions that the demands Jesus places on His followers are diffi-

cult. Fear and disobedience are potential problems for any who

choose to follow Jesus. In this way Mark's narrative, including

his presentation of minor characters, carries a twofold message:

"Anyone can be a follower; no one finds it easy."21

 

20 On this point, see Andrew T. Lincoln, "The Promise and the Failure: Mark

16:7,8," Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (1989): 283-300.

21 Malbon, "Fallible Followers," 46.

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:        x!

            Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.   Dallas, TX   75204           www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu