The role of the disciples in Mark has received a great deal of attention in Markan scholarship over the years. Scholars have debated the seemingly unanswerable question of who the disciples are in Mark, and what their role is in the hearing of Mark’s audience. Several have essentially argued for their negative portrayal, while others have viewed the presentation of the disciples along more positive lines.
Some have suggested that the portrayal of the disciples has been for polemical purposes, to address an alleged false Christology rampant in the Markan community. Still others have viewed Mark’s treatment of the disciples as more pastoral, representing the reality of discipleship dependent on Mark’s Jesus. Yet most would agree that the role played by the disciples of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is certainly ambiguous.
The question remains, however. What are we to make of the portrayal of the disciples in Mark’s gospel? Why does Mark present the disciples sometimes in a positive ways, but in other places in negative ways?
While I am cautious to avoid simplistic answers to these questions, it seems to me that the most valid, and I think most defensible answer, is that the ambiguous portrayal of the disciples in Mark is for the purpose of demonstrating to the Markan audience the reality of human existence before God.
From reading the Gospel narrative, one can see the great dichotomy that exists within the narrative between “the things of God and the things of humans” (8:33). The negative and positive portrayals of the disciples then are both for purposes of plot and to demonstrate human failure and human possibility before God that occur in the lives of real people.
In this way the Markan audience is confronted by their own reality as followers of Jesus on the way. They are called to faith and discipleship, which is defined not only in following Jesus, but also in their dependence on God.
Jesus is clearly seen as the true model of discipleship who thinks the things of God and is dependent on the Spirit of God to carry out God’s will. The disciples are presented as often weak followers of Jesus, whose relationship to God comes through Jesus.
Thus, the Markan audience is presented with a choice of two models to follow. Either they can follow the examples of the disciples, which will lead to misunderstanding and failure, or they can follow the example of Jesus that will lead to understanding and faithfulness before God.
Given this awareness of the narrative presentation of both Jesus and the disciples, it seems very plausible to me that the audience of the Markan narrative is supposed to view Jesus as the paradigmatic disciple, who not only makes the way possible for them to be in relationship to God, but sets for them an example of how one truly lives faithfully before God.
It is Mark’s Jesus that faces temptation with success (1:12-13). It is Mark’s Jesus that expresses faith in God; faith enough to cast out evil spirits when the disciples cannot (9:14-29). It is Mark’s Jesus who goes the “way of the Lord”, even when that entails his death (8:31-32; Mark 9:30-32; Mark 10:32-34). It is Mark’s Jesus that follows his own command to “take up your cross” (8:34). It is Mark’s Jesus that serves while the disciples try to “lord over one another” (10:35-45) It is Mark’s Jesus who declares the rule of God and acts out the rule of God as God’s own Son. And, it is Mark’s Jesus that God not only affirms at the baptism of Jesus, but is the one God commands the disciples to listen to (1:11; 9:7).
The audience of Mark’s story would view themselves as the discipleship community, the new community of God, and Jesus as the one whom they follow and with whom they participate in doing the will of God.
Thus, the presentation of the successes and failures of the disciples in Mark is for the purpose of presenting human reality before God, and to show Jesus as the exemplary Human One, who is the faithful disciple. The negative presentation of the disciples is meant to remind Mark’s audience that they are also susceptible to failure and sin, to denying and deserting Jesus, and to becoming those that represent Satan (8:33).
The discipleship community of Mark is to hope in the God of Jesus, who was faithful to Jesus, and will indeed be faithful to all who imitate and participate with Jesus in doing the will of God.
Although discipleship is about the disciples’ relationship to Jesus, it is also, and perhaps more, about their relationship to God, for disciples hope not in the power of Jesus to raise them from the dead and give them salvation, but in the God who raised Jesus, and through whom all things are possible (10:27).