Friday, April 27, 2012

Understanding Grief

When Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain where Jesus was Transfigured, they encountered a crowd, which included a demon-possessed boy. The other nine Disciples had tried to perform an exorcism on the boy while Jesus was still up on the mountain, but they had failed. Jesus expelled the demon, and then explained to the Disciples that that particular type of demon required prayer and fasting in order to exorcise it.

Understanding Grief
Despite the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke sharing many stories, including verses copied nearly word-for-word at times, there are often many differences in those common sections. Usually, the changes amount to nothing more than a rewording or light editing, but other times the differences fundamentally alter the conveyed meaning.

Mark is theorized to be the original source for these stories, or at least the source from where Matthew and Luke got this shared material, and we will see some evidence for that theory as we study the times when Jesus had announced His impending betrayal, death, and resurrection to the Disciples. If Mark is the "first draft," then perhaps there would be some inconsistencies. Rest assured, we will see that kind of evidence as well.

For reasons which will become obvious, we are going to start with the second time that Jesus relayed His upcoming fate. Then, Jesus had made this announcement after performing an exorcism (Matthew 17:22-23, Mark 9:30-32, Luke 9:43-45). Matthew and Mark both state that this announcement was made sometime later, after they had traveled to a spot in Galilee (for privacy, as Mark suggests), but Luke seems to imply that the announcement was made among the crowd which had been dazzled by the exorcism. We will see possibly why Luke made the change in a moment.

The important part to focus on is the Disciples' reaction to the news that Jesus would be betrayed, killed and resurrected. Below are those reactions from the different Gospels side-by-side, quoting the NIV:
    Mark 9:32Matthew 17:23Luke 9:45
    But they did not understand what He meant and were afraid to ask Him about it.... And the disciples were filled with grief.But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask Him about it.
With Mark, we see the Disciples' confusion, perhaps due to their disbelief that the Messiah would be betrayed and killed. After all, the death of the Messiah was not a familiar concept to the scholars of that time. However, Mark has now gotten himself into trouble here, because he paints an inconsistent image of the Disciples' understanding of Jesus' fate.

The first time Jesus spoke directly of His fate was back in Mark 8:31-32, where, as Mark puts it, Jesus "spoke plainly" about His fate. The Disciples understood this well enough for Peter to spring into action to rebuke Jesus' notion of His fate (Mark 8:32-33). Yet afterwords, Mark has Peter, James, and John confused about Jesus' resurrection as they came down the mountain from the Transfiguration (Mark 9:9-10). In the Mark 9:30-32 account above, we cannot be sure of what exactly the Disciples did not understand. Perhaps it was only the resurrection part. Later, in Mark 10:32-34 when Jesus later mentions His fate again, there is no explicit mention of understanding one way or another, but one could draw an implicit nod to comprehension by the discussion which followed in Mark 10:35-45 where James and John ask to sit next to Jesus in His future, glorified status.

So Mark is muddy. The Disciples seem to both understand and not understand. Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, definitively choose sides.

As noted above, Matthew has the Disciples filled with grief at Jesus' announcement, implicitly in recognition of His prophesied betrayal and death, which would be sorrowful regardless of a subsequent resurrection. Matthew chooses the side of understanding. Nowhere does Matthew portray the Disciples being unable to understand Jesus' fate when He explained it. Like Mark, in Matthew 16:21-23 when Jesus first announces His fate, Peter understands and objects. Again, like Mark, the third time which the prophesy is given, in Matthew 20:17-19, the passage is followed with a request for James and John to sit next to Jesus in the coming Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28). In fact, in Matthew's Gospel, it appears that the Disciples understood Jesus' upcoming death and resurrection so well that they had a designated post-resurrection meeting place (Matthew 28:16).

As seen above, Luke has the Disciples prevented from understanding. Jesus' meaning is hidden from them, implicitly by God. With God hiding the meaning, Luke did not bother having Jesus talk about this in a private location, but rather had Him speak it while they were among the crowd. At the first giving of the prophesy in Luke 9:22, there is no explicit mention of understanding or not understanding, but Luke does edit out the reference to Peter's objection of Jesus' fate, presumably so that no inference of understanding can be made. In Luke 18:31-34, at the third revelation of Jesus' fate, Luke again claims that the meaning of Jesus' prophesy was hidden from the Disciples. Also, just like with Peter's objection, the subsequent request for James and John to sit next to Jesus in the glorified Kingdom, which is covered by Mark and Matthew, is edited out of the story by Luke, presumably because of its implications regarding the Disciples understanding Jesus' prophesy. In Luke 24:13-35, the truth was still hidden from the Disciples until the resurrected Jesus broke bread with them.

So we see that Mark's Disciples were confused, Matthew's were solemnly understanding, and Luke's had the truth hidden from their eyes by God. This is a serious credibility issue for all three Gospels because Mark lacks clarity, and Matthew and Luke have each crafted the story into the form in which they want to tell it, regardless of the truth.


  1. "With Mark, we see the Disciples' confusion, perhaps due to their disbelief that the Messiah would be betrayed and killed."

    It's strange, because they lived in an era in which religions with die-and-rise gods were common. Maybe they didn't acknowledge the death of a messiah as an analogous idea.

  2. Ahab, I think that this confusion would stem from the fact that their Scriptures had defined what the Messiah would do when he appeared, and getting killed, even as a divine offering, was not on the list. If they had been aware of the die-and-rise gods of other contemporaneous religions, they probably would have been more inclined to laugh it off as the foolish beliefs of pagans as opposed to what would come from the one true God. At least that is my guess. ;-)

  3. Interesting, again. I did not know about that stuff.

    So if Mark contradicts himself, it looks like he was copying something and wasn't careful as he elaborated.

    Matthew cleaned up Mark -- or should I say made Mark more kosher.

  4. As I look back on it all, Sabio, I am not 100% ready to condemn Mark as being self-contradicting. It certainly seems that way, and (in my opinion) that is probably what prompted Matthew and Luke to take sides, but I could also read into it that Mark's Disciples required some time to absorb Jesus' fate, like so:

    The Disciples had been brought up with the idea that the Messiah would be the ruler of an earthly kingdom, who permanently re-established Jewish rule in the Promised Land, but had no concept of a Messiah who would die and be resurrected. So at the first mention, perhaps Peter's objection was that what Jesus had said did not match his own concept of the Messiah. Because Jesus' plan was so contrary to their understanding and hopes, their minds could not accept it right away. However, with time, they were able to overcome their own prophesy prejudices, so that at the third recorded telling, they had finally grasped the concept and aligned their faith with Jesus' words enough to start asking about the future beyond His resurrection.

    If that interpretation is correct, Mark is actually the most honest, most human presentation of the Disciples, inconsistencies and all.