This is post three of my infrequent, and increasingly fragmentary series trying to make sense of the Gospel of Mark: part one | part two

1 [16] As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. [17] And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me [ὀπίσω μου | opisō mou] and I will make you fish for people.’

3 [13] He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. … [16] So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); [18] … and Simon the Zealot, [19] and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

8 [31] Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. [32] He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. [33] But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind  me  [ὀπίσω μου | opisō mou], Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

14 [37] He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? … [47] But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

Forgetting is a key element in coming to understand. It allows what we know to become fragmented, to float like melting sea ice around our minds. Hopefully these fragments can be put together. There is a puzzle that I have wondered about for some time in the Gospel of Mark. As I go through waves of remembering and forgetting how the story unfolds different fragments from the story coalesce around different themes. As I noted in my previous entry, Mark’s Gospel consists of multiple threads that all run through the narrative and come together to form a rope: something robust that can actually be used for something. The thread I want to pull on in this post is the puzzle of the twin Simons.

Throughout Mark’s Gospel Simon-Peter plays a central role – some have suggested the central role (perhaps even more than Jesus). One can see in Simon-Peter’s characterisation a shadowy parallel to the beloved disciple in John’s Gospel. But what fascinates me is the slippage in the identity of Simon-Peter through the text. When he is first introduced he is Simon, a simple fisherman. When enumerated among the twelve he is renamed Peter: Rocky; as if to avoid confusion with the other Simon, one among the Zealots:

“The Zealots were a political movement in 1st-century Second Temple Judaism, which sought to incite the people of Judea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy Land by force of arms, most notably during the First Jewish–Roman War (66–70).”

(Yes, wikipedia!)

And yet for all the renaming of ‘Simon the fisherman’ as ‘Peter,’ it is not the Zealot that rebukes Jesus’ fatalistic prediction of his own suffering and death. It is, after all, Peter. The same Peter who Jesus un-names in Gethsemane – calling him again Simon. The same Simon-Peter that John’s Gospel suggests is the one who leapt to violence against the religious leaders that sought to arrest Jesus. In fact we are not told by Mark himself who raised the sword.

There is a significant amount of slippage in the identity of Simon-Peter. Although demarcated as the Rock, the foundation of the church, it seems he is also at risk of being confused with the Zealot.

At this point it is worth showing my hand: I fall into the camp that suggests Mark’s Gospel was written in the later 60s CE. Around the time of the Jewish-Roman War, where defeat seemed inevitable, the destruction, or at least sacrilege, of the temple imminent. (We do not have in Mark the same level of detail about the temple’s destruction as we find in Luke or Matthew.) Understood as an artefact that seeks to intervene in the experience of its community, the text of Mark’s Gospel is frightfully self-aware of this precarious context. The fatalism of the suffering and execution of Jesus hauntingly echoes the same fatalism perhaps felt by its first readers: the same suffering, the same execution looming.

Understood in this way the characterisation of Simon-Peter, in contrast with the Simon the Zealot, carries this sense of foreboding. Something calamitous is coming, and it’s only right that we should fight for what’s right. And yet Jesus, in calling Simon out of his old identity, rebukes this idea. Most stingingly after Peter’s confession. The echoes of Simon’s calling ring in Peter’s ears: opisō mou.“Behind me!” Only, with the confession in Mark 8 it is no longer Simon called to follow behind as a disciple. In Mark 8 it is Simon the Zealot – personified in Peter – renamed again: Satan. Called to follow once more the Messiah.

The use of the character of Simon-Peter serves to better understand who Jesus is for the first community of readers. By highlighting the wavering of the identity of Simon (or is it Peter?) Mark opens up the modalities of Jesus’ way. Jesus may be understood as a Messiah, the heralded liberator and vindicator of the Jewish people. The new warrior King of the Jewish state. (It is important to remember in our own time that Jesus was born in an occupied Palestine, as an occupied Palestinian-Jew.)

Jesus rejects this understanding of the Messiah completely. Simon’s warrior-like tendencies are rebuked sternly and clearly by Jesus. Instead Jesus offers a way forward that rejects violence and enacts peace.

Another important point, Jesus lived in an era of previously unknown peace and stability – particularly for Roman citizens. The Roman Empire, with its expansive army spread throughout its territory, knew how to establish and keep peace. Jesus knew something about peace we struggle to understand. Peace is often predicated on violence, immense violence. And so to reject the wavering of Simon-Peter, and to call him back onto the way of the cross, was to name the violent system on which peace was currently sitting.

There’s a lot to unpack there, particularly how this critique of violence feeds back into Jesus’ later critique of the Jewish temple system. Suffice it to say that Simon-Peter, for all his failings, reminds us to look back at the figures that dance around Jesus throughout the narrative. Seeing in each of the key characters an idea that is central to the story. For Simon-Peter we might summarise the point like this: confessing the Messiah as liberator must mean a liberation from violence, but this is not an easy road, and there will often be faltering back to the way of violence. This is okay. Violence is ambiguous, especially when it props up visible peace. We should then be like Simon-Peter, in all his failings. For he is the foundation of the church: someone who seeks to fight for justice, and wrestles in that fight with the complex place or violence against violence.