2007-10-31

The women at the cross

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by Neil Godfrey

It is sometimes said that the women followers of Jesus showed more resolution and loyalty than the male disciples of Jesus. One scene often pointed to as a demonstration of this claim is the women staying within range of Jesus on the cross while the other disciples had either betrayed him, fled for their lives or denied him.

There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Younger and of Joses (widely understood to be Jesus’ mother – c.f. Mark 6:5), and Salome (Mark 15:40)

This claim that the women were in some way “more worthy” than their male counterparts, at least as it applies to the Gospel of Mark, misreads Mark’s narrative completely. The correct understanding of Mark’s sources here also has major implications for how we understand the most fundamental things about the gospel story itself.

We know that when Mark writes about the male disciples fleeing from Jesus at the moment of his arrest in Gethsemane he is creating a narrative that his readers will recognize is a fulfilment of prophecy:

I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. (Mark 14:27 citing Zech 13:7)

But there are other allusions that do not directly quote a Jewish scripture, but are too obvious to those who know those scriptures to ignore:

My God, my God, why have you forsake me? (Mark 15:34, compare Ps.22:1)

Now when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land (Mark 15:33, compare Amos 8:9)

And when they crucified him, they divided his garments, casting lots for them to determine what every man should take (Mark 15:24, compare Psalm 22:18)

And he laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock (Mark 15:46, compare Isaiah 22:16)

Is there a prophecy known to Mark that the women will demonstrate at least a fraction more loyalty and courage than the men? If there was, I don’t know it. But there is a passage in the Jewish scriptures that a godly servant will suffer the experience of his family kin standing “afar off”.

My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand afar off (Psalm 38:11). ) (The same Greek word is used for “afar” in both Mark and the Greek translation of the Old Testament that Mark used, which approximates to ‘makrothen’.)

Mark never intended his image of the women standing afar off from Jesus on the cross to be compared with the way the male followers ran out of the scene altogether. He is asking readers to compare that image with the Jewish scriptures.

How should we compare the moral worth of one who fits Zechariah 13:7 (fleeing when the shepherd is struck) with one who is a family relative and friend who fits Psalm 38:11 (standing afar off from the plight of the victim)?

Both are surely completely black images. There is no modicum of redemption in either.

Mark is preparing readers to view the women, even Jesus’ mother, as totally lost and unregenerate as the twelve disciples.

The other evangelists are as uncomfortable with Mark’s take on this as they are with his total denigration of Peter and the Twelve. They construct resurrection appearances in which Jesus appears notably to the women. John even goes further and relocates the women to stand right up beside Jesus on the cross.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25)

(There was no resurrection appearance in Mark — neither to the women nor the other disciples. The gospel originally concluded at verse 8. See the wikipedia article here for a summary of the evidence and links to further discussion.)

Mark is not writing a historical narrative. He is writing a narrative that is constructed out of selected passages in the Jewish scriptures from which he is deriving metaphorical (or spiritual) meanings for his audience. Later evangelists in dialogue with his gospel re-write Mark. But they do no re-write him according to variant historical evidence, but according to their own theological preferences.

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