Mark’s Answer to the Ransom Question: Studies in Mark, Pt. 66

Recently, Doug Chaplin offered a response to a post I wrote on Mk. 14.7: Rethinking You Shall Always Have the Poor Among You. In his reply, he argued that the woman who anointed Jesus did so because she viewed Jesus’ impending death as ransom. My reply to Doug was that the “ransom theology” (that is, that Jesus, as “ransom” paid for the sins of the world) might fit in chapter 10 but it does not work in chapter 14. Even if the woman is a “slave woman” in chapter 14, as many scholars have suggested and even if she had knowledge of ransom practices, this pericope is not dealing with such matters. (Actually I don't even hold the view that the typical ransom theology works in chatper 10.) In the end, Doug acknowledged that I was correct and offered some more commentary on the same passage.

Still, the whole ransom argument got me thinking. In particular, it got me thinking about the age-old question: To whom was Jesus’ ransom paid? Was it paid to (the) satan? Death? God? (Of course, each of those answers is theologically based and oriented). But I wonder if the reason we’ve struggled to answer the ransom question is because we’ve made it too theological? Or, I wonder if, we’ve only allowed for one understanding of ransom (e.g. for sin) and have thus, limited ourselves in answers. I’ve heard a lot of people say things like “All analogies break down at some point” and while that is true to a great degree, I also wonder if it is just an easy out? In the end, I think that if we can follow Mark’s line of thinking, we can, at the very least, arrive at a logical explanation of the ransom issue.

One of the important things we must take note of is Mark’s use of the term “dounai” (from “didomi”) and its correlate “paradidomi”. In Mk. 10.45, we read that the Son of Man came to: “…give (dounai) His life as a ransom (lypton) for many.” Actually, the word “dounai” here can, and I think, should, be translated as “hand over”. In other words, the verse should read: “…hand over His life as a ransom for many.” This is in keeping with the word’s use throughout the rest of Mark’s account (14.11, 15.1, 15.15). In these verses, we see a string of “handing over” take place: Judas hands Jesus over to the religious and political leaders (14.11), these officials hand Jesus over to Pilate (15.1) and Pilate hands Jesus over to the crowd, the Roman soldiers and their desires (15.15).

At this point, two questions arise: 1) What is the relationship between Jesus handing Himself over and His enemies repeatedly handing Him over? and 2) How does the answer to the previous question, affect the ransom statement? To answer the first question, I would argue that there seems to be a close connection between Jesus’ handing over of Himself and His enemies (enemies by choice, that is) repeatedly handing Him over. The connection is that, as the people hand Him over, Jesus never retaliates but rather, He lets it happen. Even in 14.48, Jesus makes the point: “I’ve not been leading a rebellion, so, why do you come to capture me?” The word for capture there (syllambano) is very important as Jesus applies it to the religious and political leaders.

Now, this is where our ransom idea starts to come into clear view. In a ransom, you have a variety of elements involved: 1) The captors, 2) The hostage, 3) the ransom money, and 4) Those paying off the ransom. The reason that Doug Chaplin’s “ransom theology” doesn’t work or fit here is that according to Mark’s story, Jesus is neither the “ransom money” nor the one paying off the ransom. Instead, Jesus is the one who is captured, as He Himself admits (14.48).

So, here, according to Mark is how we are to understand the elements of the ransom as the pertain to Jesus: 1) The captors are henchmen, sent from the religious and political leaders, along with Judas, to seize Jesus, 2) The hostage/captured one is Jesus Himself, 3) The ransom money is the money (argyrion; 14.10) paid to Judas, and 4) Those paying of the ransom are the religious and political leaders. Now, I would submit that it is the last part that often makes the ransom analogy seem so confusing. Usually, it is people that care about you that are supposed to be paying the ransom price. However, in Jesus’ situation, the bidders are neither His family nor His friends but instead, those who want Him dead. At this point, then, we can answer the age-old question: To whom was the ransom paid? Literally, the religious and political officials paid it to Judas (they did not redeem Jesus but rather put an end to Him).

The next question that arises, then, is: How does this square with Mark’s statement about Jesus giving His life as a ransom? Remember, while it seems like a minor detail, we must remember that the text says that He “handed over” His life. In other words, as the officials themselves were handing Jesus over, through their chain of command (Judas to officials, officials to Pilate, Pilate to the people), Jesus allowed Himself to be handed over; He did not retaliate or lead a rebellion.

According to Mark’s story, then, while Jesus had a role in the ransom process, He Himself was not physically the ransom. Instead, He was the hostage. Even more, He was a hostage who let the ransom play out (between Judas/henchmen and the officials) without retaliating. He willingly handed Himself over. In the end, from Jesus’ point-of-view, the "end" of His own non-retaliation (and His Messianic claims too) was, in part, what led to the end of His life. When the word “ransom” is used in Mk. 10.45, it is in this same context. There, Jesus is exhorting His disciples to practice non-violence and laying down their own lives—even to the point of becoming a hostage in the ransom process.

Probably, many will critique some of my argument here, contending, “No, Jesus was the ransom, Himself, that’s what the text says.” Yes, a wooden-literal reading of the text, without context, reads that way. However, if taken wooden-literally in Mark’s story, it doesn’t “mean” or make much sense that way. Really, it doesn’t even fit with the rest of the story that follows. What Mark is trying to say is that Jesus was a hostage in the ransom process, a hostage who didn’t retaliate but willingly gave His life—He paid the price for His principles.

It appears, then, that Mark is not issuing a ransom theology for people to subscribe to that says: “Jesus Himself was the ransom.” Instead, he is saying that Jesus, as He was repeatedly handed over, actually handed Himself over, and in doing so, met His death. However, He was raised again, as we know. So, He laid down His life without taking another’s, and in the end, achieved everlasting life. So, why did He do this for many? How did He do this for many? He did it for many in the sense of being an example. He did it for many by sacrifice. We might imagine the scenario of there being two people and one of them must be taken hostage: Jesus or the world. Jesus chose to be taken hostage so that the world could be free. The picture is of one hostage sacrificing for the well-being and freedom of another. Interestingly, this plays out in the Barabbas scene where Barabbas kind of acts as a representative for all hostage-taken-humanity.

*Excurses: It is common, I think, for people to confuse which part Jesus played in the ransom process. I have heard people suggest, in so many ways, that He played just about every part. People say things like “He was the ransom” (e.g. the money) and people say that He “paid the price” (the one paying the captors). I’ve yet to hear anyone say that He was the captor. Mark’s view is that He was the hostage. As far as I can tell, that makes the most sense and it is the view I’m going with!


  1. Michael, as I've said in the comments on my own post, you misunderstand me (though I can see that I expressed myself in a way that encouraged the misunderstanding). What I should have made more clear is that I was saying 'Jesus interpreted the woman's action as a recognition of his impending death, which he understood to be a ransom for many".
    I also think you misunderstand me if you think I accepted you were correct in general, rather than on one specific point of misunderstanding. But let the reader make up their own mind!

  2. Doug,
    The way you put the first answer here certainly makes your previous statements seem clearer. Also, I don't think, and I never suggested, that you accepted that I was correct on everything. You stated that in our discussion. What you said I was correct on was the way that ransom was portrayed in Mk. 14. After I pointed out that it was at play in ch. 10 instead of 14, you agreed (you said "thanks for picking me up on it"). That's all I was saying you agreed with me on. Thus, just so the "reader" knows, no, Doug doesn't agree with me on everything. Thanks for the interaction and thought-provoking, though, Doug!