What portrait of the disciples emerges from Mark?
What message(s) is Mark conveying through his portrait about what it means to follow Jesus?
St Mark wrote his gospel sometime during or soon after the Roman Jewish was 66-74 C.E. which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. One of the aims of the Gospel was to reassure and instruct his readers in their faith. His main vehicle of instruction is the disciples. Mark presents the disciples in a harsher manner than the other three gospels but this is to serve a powerful purpose: to teach his readers about true discipleship.
In St Mark’s Gospel the theme of “discipleship” is introduced at the beginning. At first they are presented in a positive light. In 1: 14-15 we are told of the calling of Simon and Andrew, Peter and John and just afterwards the call of Levi. In all cases these men respond immediately to the summons and abandon their means of employment in order to follow Jesus. 0n the one hand we see the authority of Jesus, who calls men to follow him and is instantly obeyed. On the other we are reminded of the total demands that his call to discipleship makes.The cure of Peter’s mother in law contains no negative overtone; on the contrary it helps establish a “home base” for the mission 2:1.
Subsequent scenes reinforce this positive image. Jesus’ appointment of the twelve in Mark 3:13-19 shows they were specially selected for their roles and in 3:20-25, Mark suggests that they are Jesus’ true family, 3:31-35. The disciples are the “insiders” but those like his family and the religious authorities and those who do not respond are the “outsiders”. In the case of the family they are physically outside, 3:32. The different responses to Jesus are very significant in St Mark’s Gospel. The way in which the disciples have been shown, in their failure to understand and to respond, has been dealt with at length by scholars such as Theodore Weeden, seeing it as a way to combat heresy in the early church. However, the first part of the Gospel the image is reasonably positive. They are given authority to preach and drive out demons 3:14-15 showing Jesus’ trust in them and in 4:11 Jesus says he will give them the mystery of the kingdom of God. He explains carefully the parable of the sower, 4: 13-20 with perhaps the expectation that they will begin to understand who Jesus is, 4:33-34.
But the word disciple should mean “learner as well as “follower” and the disciples begin to show that they have not been learning, they do not really understand. This is shown in the first boat scene 4:35-41. The disciples become afraid when Jesus calms the storm. But two points should be made here. Jesus asks “Why are you so afraid?” This is perhaps a reasonable reaction to the storm but the Greek word used is not “phobus”, meaning afraid, but “deilos” meaning timid. However, there is a dynamic here between fear and belief which is important message of Mark. Secondly Mark, who so often gives more information than the other gospels, writes, “Jesus was sleeping with his head on a pillow”. It has been suggested by Revd Dr Muddiman that his is the position of the person who was steering  , so it would perhaps underline the disciples’ fear when they saw that their steersman was asleep. However there is also some idea of their awakening faith in Jesus “Who is this that even the wind and sea obey?” This episode is obviously not sufficient to shake Jesus’ confidence in them for he is soon sending them out 6:7-11 on a successful missionary tour 6: 12 and perhaps our reaction to this is that we do not have to wait until we have finished years of study until we can begin our ministry. Jesus sent out his disciples before they really understood what was going on.
The second boat scene in 6:45-52 follows the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus leaves his disciples and goes alone to pray. But they soon get into trouble and he has to come to their aid. When they see him they are terrified. The Greek uses the word “phobus” here. The feeding of the five thousand gave the disciples a glimpse of Jesus’ divine sonship and Jesus’ use of “It is I”, 6:50 also refer to divinity. Yet the disciples failed to see these signs. Mark writes this was because their hearts were hardened.
In the third boat scene when Jesus and his disciples cross the water 8:14-21, Jesus again talks to his disciples and almost compares them to the Pharisees who “do not have eyes to see” in spite of all the signs shown such as the feeding of the five thousand and then the four thousand. But “presumably the penny drops, since at Caesarea Philippi Peter is able to respond to the question put to him by Jesus about his own identity”, 8:29. But has he really understood?
The disciples’ next failures are shown in three passion predictions. The first prediction follows Peter’s confession of Christ. Jesus issues a call to discipleship emphasizing that to follow him means to take up the cross, a way of persecution and suffering. The passage goes on in verse 36 “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” This sounds like a warning against materialism and riches. The second passion prediction exhorts his disciples not to be puffed up with their own self-importance but to imitate the lowly status of children 9:33-37. This comes in response to the disciples’ conversations about which of them is the greatest. They still hold on to the idea that the messiah will bring a kingdom of power and glory. They do not understand. They appear to be no nearer to understanding Jesus’ words about death and resurrection than they were at the end of chapter 8! So Jesus spells out once again what discipleship means. Instead of worrying about their own position, they should be worrying about the most humble member of society and in receiving one who is weak and humble, they will be receiving Jesus himself. Once again, the disciples and we ourselves are pointed firmly to Jesus’ own example.
A similar incident follows the third passion prediction in 10:33-34 where Jesus once again predicts his suffering, death and resurrection. James and John are not asking for positions of glory as they suppose but position of death and suffering. This time Jesus clearly points out the similarity between his own suffering and theirs. At the beginning of chapter 13 there is another section on discipleship given to just four disciples, where Jesus describes what following him means and refers to the sufferings which Jesus’ disciples may expect.
The command to “watch” is the final word in this section and it is echoed in the garden of Gethsemane when they are told to watch but cannot and fall asleep. Then at the crucial hour of Jesus’ arrest, they flee. When they are seen in the light of their pledge to die with Jesus in 14:31 this desertion is devastating. The last failure is Peter’s denial of Jesus, 14:66-72 at the same time as Jesus is being condemned by the High Priest. Jesus’ confession leads to his death, whereas Peter’s denial is an attempt to save his own life.
Why did Mark portray his disciples in such a bad light? A provocative explanation by Weeden states it was because of controversy in Mark’s community over Christ’s nature. But surely it is more than this. Mark reminds us of the demands of discipleship. Whilst our society places high importance on personal achievement and power, where faith is sometimes separate from other aspects of our lives, being a disciple means humility, devotion and following. Suffering is as inevitable for the disciple as it was for Jesus; the cross is the mark of the Christian. You will drink my cup, says Jesus. You will not be ashamed of me. We may fail many times though lack of understanding, like the disciples. But we know that God did open their eyes, in much the same way as Jesus gradually opened the eyes of a blind man and the disciples were transformed from ones who had misunderstood, into fearless leaders of the early church. In Mark 14:27-28 Jesus quotes from Zechariah and prophesies reconciliation he will “go before them” to Galilee which implies they will follow him. The disciples have failed, but Jesus is calling them back. So, the portrait of the disciples is an encouragement and an example in our own lives.
Bailey Kenneth, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (2008)
Bauckham Richard, The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (2008)
Best Ernest, Disciples and Discipleship quoted in “Why is Mark so hard on the disciples?” www.users.ox.ac.uk
Garrett Susan, Disciples on Trial www.religion-on-line.org
Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark, www.globalchristiancentre.com
Gooder Paula, Gospel According to Mark on Timeline at St John’s College Nottingham
Hooker Morna, The Message of Mark (1983)
Muddiman John, Mark’s Gospel and Early Christian Mission lecture at St Paul’s Cathedral 26th June 2015
Robbins Vernon, Review of “Mark Traditions in Conflict” by Theodore Weeden, Journal of Biblical Literature Vol 9 Sept 1972 www.jstor.org
Weeden Theodore, The Heresy that necessitated Mark’s Gospel (1968)
Wenham David and Walton Steve, Exploring the New Testament Volume 1 (2011)
 Morna Hooker
 Dr John Muddiman
 Paula Gooder St John’s Nottingham Timeline
 Theodore Weeden The Heresy that necessitated Mark’s Gospel
 Paula Gooder
 Paula Gooder
 Dr John Muddiman
 Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark
 Morna Hooker
 Larry Hurtado Mark 1989 (quoted in Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark)
 Morna Hooker
 Theodore Weeden Traditions in Conflict reviewed in Journal of Biblical Literature
 Morna Hooker