Why did Jesus not wait for his disciples at his tomb? — Or, Why did the disciples not follow Jesus on water? — same question

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by Neil Godfrey

I’m restricting this question to a study in the Gospel of Mark, and to its ending at 16:8 with the women fleeing in dumbstruck fear and after the young man told them to:

Go and tell his disciples, and Peter: He is going before (προαγει) you into Galilee: there you will see him, as he said to you. (16:7)

Why the rush? Why did the author want to write story where Jesus leaves the disciples behind?

I’ve no doubt someone has discussed this before much more competently somewhere in the lit, but this being my turn to notice it too, here goes.

The last time we saw Peter in Mark’s gospel he was caught “following Jesus” but “from afar (απο μακροθεν)” (14:54). But from this distance he was cornered into a situation where he felt his only escape was to deny Jesus who by this time was on his way to the cross.

Before that, all the disciples had “forsaken Jesus and fled” (14:50).

Earlier the author had even linked the denial of Peter and failure of all the disciples with Jesus saying he “would go before them” to Galilee. Will return to that link near later in this discussion.

The forsaking and denying of Jesus is a complete turn around from their first encounter with Jesus. So back to the beginning:

The first calling and following

The beginning is a mysteriously immediate following the moment Jesus — who was passing or walking by — called them.

And as he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew . . . Then Jesus said to them, “Come after me . . .” (Ditto as he walked a little farther and saw James and John.)

And as he passed by, he saw Levi . . . and said to him, “Follow me . . .”

In each case those called immediately responded and followed.

The starkness of the call, and particularly the equal starkness of the immediate response following, registers in the reader’s mind, right through to the end and beyond.

Later there is another incident where one person wants to follow Jesus, but is forbidden to do so. The one possessed by Legion (the multitude of demons) had spent time among the tombs, an outcast among the dead. Having restored him, Jesus authorizes him to go back and preach among his people.

But back to those called to follow him.

The calling of the disciples can been seen as an emulation of Elijah’s calling of Elisha. In Mark’s gospel one’s natural family is not a real family in comparison with the spiritual one, so in Mark the disciples surpass the family ties that caused Elisha to delay his following of Elijah. Thomas Brodie (The Crucial Bridge) argues that Mark’s gospel draws many more of its stories and even some of its structure from the Elijah-Elisha cycle in the Hebrew Bible. If so, this also may have significance for the interpretation of the way Jesus leaves his disciples with a forwarding address. Will refer back to this below too.

The first cracks appear?

Others have commented on the way the author begins with the disciples and others showing perfect responses to Jesus, but how gradually he introduces early signs of trouble before coming to the complete rift between Jesus and others, his disciples included.

After a spectacular start, the disciples are caught out as bits of sleepy heads when they let Jesus out of their sight while he goes off to pray in the dark hours of the morning (Mark 1:35-36). Is this the first sign of a weakening resolve on the part of the disciples? By the end of the gospel they’ll keep falling off to sleep while Jesus prays. Perhaps the author is intending this early story to be the first step down the slippery slope that led to Gethsemane. Everyone was looking for Jesus here, just as “a great multitude” came looking for him there, too (14:43), although with another intent. (There are dozens of other allusions in this section of Mark and the end of his gospel that support this interpretation, but those other allusions are themselves the subject of separate post.)

Should the reader also be mindful of Elisha’s expectation that he needed to stay close to his Master at all times, never taking his eye off him for a moment?

But the most significant point for this discussion is that the disciples took some time to find Jesus. They had lost sight of him and it took them a little while to find him again.

The first failure to follow

After his miracle of feeding the 5000 with 5 loaves, Jesus sent his disciples to go before (προαγειν) him (compare 16:7 above) to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

If the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 can be read (as it often is, rightly) as an anticipation or variant of the eucharist or Last Supper, I suggest that the sending of the disciples ahead is an extension of that theme. Jesus had, after all, said he would see his disciples again in Galilee. The irony is that by the time the reader comes to the end of the Gospel, it is not the disciples who have gone ahead to wait for Jesus but Jesus who has gone ahead of them!

The reason for the irony is explained here in Mark 6, just after that feeding of the 5000:

Then he (Jesus) saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them. And . . . he came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by . . . . (6:48)

We know the response. The disciples screamed out in terror that they were seeing a ghost!

But when they saw him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out (6:49)

But the reader knows the correct response. The last time they had seen Jesus passing by they followed him. He had already given them the command to follow. Why did they not continue to follow him now, just as they did then? He was doing the same as he did then — walking by.

The first two or three times Jesus was passing by — with Peter and Andrew, then with James and John, then with Levi — he expected the disciples to stop immediately what they were doing and follow him, and they did. At least the first three times.

This time they scream out in terror. If the reader hasn’t fallen asleep with the three-fold narratives of Jesus passing by and the disciples getting up and following him, then surely the reader at least ought to know what the disciples should have done here:

and would have passed them by, So when they saw him walking on the sea, they got out of the boat and followed him. . . .

They had earlier seen his stilling of the storm, and they had just seen the miracle of the loaves, so they should have understood that the material world is completely subject to Jesus — and to them, if they believed. Readers really in the know also understand that the feeding of the 5000 had eucharistic meanings, and that the bread to be eaten was the body of Jesus, and that this body was not ultimately subject to death or the imprisonment of the world that till the advent of Jesus was the domain of demons.

This explains why the author relates the walking on the water narrative to the understanding of the loaves — Mark 6:52. The disciples failed to grasp the meaning of that miracle, so it never occurred to them to stop their hard work of rowing (as they had stopped their earlier work of fishing and mending nets) and continue to follow Jesus as they did at the beginning.

For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened (Mark 6:52)

That is, the physical is immaterial. Just follow! As he has commanded! Forget the fish-net-mending, or the waves and wind, or the water even! He is passing by, walking along, going somewhere! So follow!

The turning point: Take up the cross

Peter’s “confession” and the transfiguration is generally seen as the turning point of Mark’s gospel. Here Jesus adds a nasty catch to the “follow me” command. To follow him they have to first take up their crosses.

Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me. (Mark 8:34)

It may not have been in the fine-print at the beginning, but it’s too late for them to argue now. Lucky it’s only a story.

Jesus at this time also appears to be proleptically addressing the disciples generally and Peter in particular when he says:

Whoever desires to save his life will lose it . . . (recall the scene to come when all the disciples flee for their lives in Gethsemane) and, Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed . . . (recall the scene to come of Peter being so ashamed of Jesus he denied him).

Jesus “going before” the disciples to Jerusalem

Jesus is then shown going before (προαγων)his disciples to Jerusalem — and the cross. But the disciples were not following bravely.

And as they followed they were afraid (Mark 10:32)

The same word (εφοβουντο) is used in the closing sentence of the gospel:

And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (16:8)

At least they were following, it might be thought. They had just encountered a rich man who turned down the invitation to follow him because it meant having to give up everything, as well as taking up the cross. The disciples reminded Jesus they had at least done half of what was required. They had at least “left all and followed” him (Mark 10:28).

Unfortunately, the next scene with James and John requesting positions of honour and glory in the kingdom betrayed their misperceptions. They still could not understand the other half requiring them to “take up the cross”.

They were like Elisha following Elijah to his “exodus”, but with more confusion and less commitment.

Yes, they were following Jesus as he “went before them” to Jerusalem. But it was clear they were ready to crumble at the same time. As the parable said of them:

When they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness, and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterwards, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble. (Mark 4:16-17)

If this gospel devotes more space to the failings of the disciples than of those represented by other types of soil, it may well be — as also indicated elsewhere in the gospel — that it was written primarily for an audience whose greatest challenge was persecution.

Promise of Hope or Damnation?

In Jerusalem Jesus addressed his disciples with a prophecy:

All of you will be made to stumble because of me this night, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.’ (Mark 14:27)

In another context Jon Levenson writes:

“Here it is useful to remember that the relevance of a verse often extends beyond the words that the midrashist cites.”

If that is the case, what other words would this prophecy from Zechariah have brought to the inner ear of the audience?

“Strike the shepherd,
And the sheep will be scattered;
Then I will turn my hand against the little ones,
And it shall come to pass in all the land,”
Says Yahweh,
“That two-thirds in it shall be cut off and die,
But one-third shall be left in it:
I will bring the one-third through the fire,
Will refine them as silver is refined,
And test them as gold is tested.” (Zech. 13:7-9)

There is not a lot of optimism expressed here.

But it is easy to read optimism into the next verse in Mark. Probably too easy, because the night of the last supper and Gethsemane is a night that is otherwise bereft of relief and light.

But after I have been raised I will go before (προαξω) you to Galilee (Mark 14:28)

If the reader thinks of what it has meant for the disciples when Jesus “goes before” them till now, then this promise may be interpreted as fitting the gloom of the Zechariah passage like a glove. It means for the disciples either following fearfully, ready to flee and deny Jesus at the first opportunity, or simply looking on from afar and crying out in fear that they may be seeing a ghost.

(One can readily imagine in a community suffering persecutions that many of its more timid associates would relate to the message of following or looking on the sufferings of others “from afar”.)

Nonetheless, there is a hint of hope in the promise all the same. That Jesus says he will be “going before” them is a reaffirmation of his prophecy that he will be resurrected.

But the history of the disciples till now when Jesus has “gone before” them has been one of steady deterioration, and the reader knows it is about to get a lot worse.

So when the young man in the tomb tells the women (who had, like Peter earlier, looked on Jesus and his cross “from afar” — Mark 15:40) to pass on Jesus’ forwarding address to “his disciples — and Peter” (16:7), the audience is surely meant to recall the earlier pronouncements of Jesus warning both “the disciples” and “Peter” separately. The most significant of these was at the narrative’s fateful turning point:

But when [Jesus] had turned around and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter . . .

whoever desires to save his life will lose it (as per 14:50 – the disciples)
whoever is ashamed of me . . . of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed . . . (as per 14:54 and 71 – Peter)

and then again:

But Peter said to him, “Even if all are made to stumble, yet I will not be.” . . . And they all said likewise (14:29-31).

So given the track record in this gospel, the singling out of Peter is not a guarantee that he will see Jesus again. The final message for “the disciples” and “Peter” is not a promise of a resurrection appearance. It is a reminder that Jesus is “going before” them. How they respond and whether they get the message the author does not say. That’s not his point. The story is a “parable” and the message is for his audience.

Whether Jesus “going before” a disciple is hopeful or damning news will depend on the disciple.

The reader has seen the failure of the disciples to follow Jesus in the right way when he “goes before” them. The author is not interested in writing about what those disciples finally decide to do. They are only ciphers for the audience. The author is only interested in what his audience will do. He has written them a moving “parable” and now it is up to them.

It was in some ways an update on the Elijah-Elisha story where Elisha had to keep his focus on his master. The Jesus disciples could scarcely ever really see their teacher as he really was in the first place.

The Way, and the “literal” destruction of the story

The gospel began with an proclamation that the way of the Lord was to be prepared. That way turned out to be the way of the cross. Jerusalem was a geographic metaphor of that cross. The way to Jerusalem was the way to the cross. Having been to Jerusalem and there having suffered the cross, Jesus was able to return to Galilee, a geographic metaphor for wherever the Kingdom of God is “at hand”.

For the disciples to follow Jesus to Galilee, they must, as he repeatedly made clear, also take up the cross. They can only follow him if they, too, are first crucified with him.

To read the story as literal history is to destroy the story, to make a complete nonsense of it. To wonder about the missing verses of the gospel’s ending and the possibility of a happy resurrection appearance to the disciples in the gospel means we have missed the author’s point entirely.

Historically there was no walking on water, least of all a god-man really expecting twelve mortals to climb out of their boat in the middle of the lake and follow him on the surface of the water. That is simply making nonsensical and absurd demands of ‘history’. But as a metaphor, it is a powerful and meaningful story.

Nor did the author suddenly drop dead of a heart attack or from a Roman sword through his neck just before completing his last sentence. The gospel survived long enough to have a bogus ending attached to it because its original audiences understood the ending perfectly well, and preserved it that way. The gospel was not about the disciples in the story, but about them, and their discipleship in the face of persecution. The twelve disciples may have been literary fictions but they were also powerful and meaningful spiritual parables.

Later evangelists literalized the story, historicized it, and in so doing destroyed it. As Paul said, the spirit gives life, the letter kills.

I earlier mentioned a situation in the gospel narrative where someone who wanted to follow Jesus was sent away to preach elsewhere. That person had been delivered from “the tombs” and being an outcast. Here, as in other cases where one is healed, there seems to be an acknowledgment that these people are “right with Jesus” and their follower status (and preaching) is accepted because they have, again doubly metaphorically, carried their cross??

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Why did Jesus not wait for his disciples at his tomb? — Or, Why did the disciples not follow Jesus on water? — same question”

  1. Brilliant article, well thought out and well written. I appreciate all your writings on Mark very much. What do you think of the possibility that the writer of Mark was using the failure of the 12 disciples as a metaphor for Jews…12 disciples = 12 tribes?

    Thank you,

  2. Thanks dods. Glad you like it. I thought I had posted something recently about that very question you raise, but just checked and find it is still sitting in the back room in draft form. Will have to work on it again soon.

    Till then, I don’t discount any “possibility” but my current thinking no longer sees Mark as a polemic against the Twelve or against a branch of Christianity that exalted the Twelve. At present I see Mark as writing in the tradition of the Jewish literature/scriptures whose recurrent theme was a “new Israel” vis a vis “old Israel” — Each “new Israel” started out well, but always went into decline – the message of the History and Prophets that tell this story (it’s spelled out in the Prophets) is for the purpose of teaching their current generation of readers (the potential “new Israel”) not to be like the old one. The first generation of the Exodus (old Israel) was replaced by a new one; the old Israel of the monarchy was replaced by a new one (Nehemiah etc); the theme is much richer than these couple of examples — and will discuss in detail in a future post. But I take the idea from the Old Testament studies of Davies, Thompson, Lemche, etc.

    Mark is writing in this tradition — at least that’s my current thinking. Old Israel has been wiped out – the Temple is destroyed etc. Cultural identity replacements are needed (Rabbinic Judaism is one answer; Christianity another).

    In this context, the Twelve are created by Mark as a “new Israel” to replace the Old within the story context. But this “new Israel” fails — and so becomes the Old Israel lesson for the true “new Israel”, Mark’s audience. The Twelve are created as a counterpart of the Israel of the original Exodus story and similar tropes — they are created as a lesson for the true Israel which is the reading/hearing audience of the story.

    All this sounds horribly complex when compressed like this. Now I see why it has sat in my Drafts for so long. Must work on it again soon. Thanks for reminding me about it!

  3. If you hold that Mark created the twelve, what do you do with the “en passant” twelve in 1 Cor 15:5? Is it a matter of filling in the numbers?

    That said, your reading of the end of Mark is very close to mine, though I do think there is a real Weeden-style polemic against old school apostles that can comfortably co-exist with what you have.

  4. Hi Mike,

    As for the twelve in Paul, I wrote the following in one of my Bauckham review posts:

    (Winsome Munro, J. C. O’Neill, R. Joseph Hoffmann, Robert M. Price (see also The Pre-Nicene New Testament) are among contemporary scholars who have argued that passage is part of a post-Pauline interpolation. Among other features, this passage includes a mention of 500 witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, a “tradition” that could scarcely have been avoided by our gospel authors had they known of it, but which does gain some traction and elaboration in the much later Gospel of Nicodemus and Acts of Pilate. . . . )

    The reference to the Twelve and Peter in 1 Corinthians does not sit well with Paul’s attitude expressed in Galatians, or to other references of his to apostles from Jerusalem. Something is amiss, I think.

    The reason I have changed my mind about Mark not being a polemic against the Twelve and the Christianity they represented is because it finally dawned on me that that idea is incompatible with the view that the Twelve are acting out the stony ground of Mark’s parable. They start out great, if a just little shaky. It’s only persecution that finally sends them off the rails. Yep, they have the wrong idea about the cross, but so does everyone who stands or follows “from afar” in the face of persecution, according to Mark.

    But my thinking on Mark is always malleable.

  5. Further support for my interpretation is to be found in the passage in 1 Kings 19:19-20 where Elijah calls Elisha. It is inescapable, in my view, that this is the narrative on which the author of Mark’s gospel based his story of Jesus calling his first disciples. One of the many striking points in common is that in both the one calling the disciples does so as he is passing by. Elijah throws his cloak on Jesus and keeps on walking. It is expected that Elisha is to run after him, which he does.

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