Monday, January 14, 2013




This is the forty-seventh installment, comprising Act 6, Scene 10, chapter 15:20b-39, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the forty-sixth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.

This is my division of the Gospel:


Prologue,  1:1-13;
Act  1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).

Scene 9: 15:20b-39

20bThen they led him out to crucify him. 21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22 Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23 And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. 25 It was nine o'clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The inscription of the charge against him read, "The King of the Jews." 27 And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. 28 29 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!" 31 In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe." Those who were crucified with him also taunted him. 33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 35 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "Listen, he is calling for Elijah." 36 And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down." 37 Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was God's Son!". (NRSV)


After Jesus’ trial before Pilate and the mockery and beating to which the Roman soldiers subjected Jesus after the guilty verdict, “they led him out to crucify him” (15:20b). Events, as throughout the entire Gospel, occur quickly and with little elaboration. It is, therefore, a surprise to see Mark add an intriguing detail. The Roman soldiers “compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus” (15:21). It is such a surprising detail in this unvarnished Gospel, and a detail that includes three personal names, that it must go back to the oral tradition on which Mark has based his Gospel and perhaps even to “Alexander and Rufus,” who are mentioned as if the audience would be familiar with them.[1] It adds a touch of cinéma vérité  to what is already a  documentary style Gospel. This touch grounds and humanizes what Mark will next describe: people you know were present for Jesus’ crucifixion. It did happen. Mark returns immediately to his unadorned style in which “they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him” (15:22-24a).

The whole of the Gospel has been moving to the crucifixion, since 3:6 explicitly so, and yet Mark describes it in a phrase. It is precisely here, however, where the dramatic and visual nature of this Gospel becomes, perhaps counter-intuitively, most apparent. Dramatic, because it is the hearer who must reflect on the scene without cues from the author; visual, because it is the hearer who must imagine or see the cross before them, simply with Jesus on it. The nails, the soldiers, the wood, the rope, the cries, the hammers pounding, the crowd humming with horror or excitement, all this is in the heart, the mind and the eyes of the one who hears or reads this Gospel. It is the responsibility of the one who hears and sees it to make it real and not turn away from it. For the first hearers of the Gospel, this would have been simple. They would have seen numerous crucifixions, with slaves, criminals, and traitors hung up in public to die a humiliating death as they struggled to breathe. Moderns must imagine this scene today without the personal knowledge of crucifixions that first century residents of the Roman Empire knew intimately, but it is not essential to focus on blood and gore to understand the crucifixion. The goal of crucifixion was to hurt, punish and shame the miscreant before he died, true, but this was only half of the purpose: the other half was to warn all those who looked upon the humiliation of the dying man to reckon with Rome’s power and authority. Mark’s goal is simpler: he wants you to reflect on how Jesus died, but even more so on why he died.

Mark then describes the division of clothes by the soldiers “casting lots to decide what each should take” (15:24b). This is the first explicit reference to Psalm 22, which will underlie so much of the imagery as Jesus dies on the cross. In this case Mark draws on Psalm 22:18, “they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” It is only after this description that Mark notes some of the other details of the crucifixion scene: Jesus was crucified at 9 in the morning (in Greek, “the third hour”); the inscription read, “The King of the Jews”; and he was crucified with two “bandits,” or lêstai, who might be better described as “revolutionaries” (15:25-27).[2]

The next four verses (15:29-32) describe the mockery of Jesus by passersby and by some of the chief priests and scribes, which puts the crucifixion in prophetic context, including the minor events, just as we have seen throughout Mark’s Gospel and especially after Jesus entered Jerusalem. In this case, Psalm 22:7-8 reads,

All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

Mark describes the mockers saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (15:30) and “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe” (15:31-32). Mark’s final detail might be the cruelest cut from a human perspective: “those who were crucified with him also taunted him” (15:32). He is the lowest of the low.

Mark compresses the hours, for at noon (Greek, “the sixth hour”) “darkness came over the whole land until three {“the ninth hour”} in the afternoon” (15:33). Six hours, that is, have already passed since Jesus was crucified and “at three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (15:34). This is the first verse of Psalm 22 in Aramaic.  Without question it places on the lips of Jesus the sense of having been abandoned by God and that darkness should not be banished too quickly: the suffering servant genuinely suffers. Yet with this most explicit of all of the references to Psalm 22, it is clear that Mark is alerting us to the whole Psalm, which ends with victory not derision:

The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it. (Psalm 22:26-31)

Victory, however, is gained through his suffering and it is not yet over.

When bystanders hear  Jesus, they understand him to be calling for Elijah and someone “filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down’” (15:36). The notes to the New Oxford NRSV suggest that “voyeurs…want to revive him, prolonging the ordeal, to see if Elijah comes” (NT 89), but it is just as likely to see this as a continuation of the mockery from before. His time on the cross, all six hours, is bookended by mockery and humiliation.

Finally, “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God's Son!” (15:37-39). Mark packs a wallop with the last few verses of the crucifixion scene. As Jesus dies, the curtain of the Temple tears in two, which might indicate the judgment of the Temple, but more likely shows that Jesus’ death has opened up the way to God, whose presence dwelt behind the curtain. It is, though, a centurion, one of Jesus’ killers, who looks upon him and proclaims that Jesus was God’s son. Mark, we remember, designates Jesus as God’s son in 1:1, but what does the centurion mean by it? The Roman Emperors called themselves “sons of God” and their deaths often had portents associated with them, at least at their funerals; is this the meaning of the centurion’s words? Or does Mark intend to say that the centurion speaks the truth, just as Peter did when he recognized Jesus as the Messiah, without understanding the full implications of his identification? This seems more likely and the full implications of what the centurion states will soon be explained by Mark.

John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @BibleJunkies


[1] See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, on the use of personal names in the Gospel and for Alexander and Rufus specifically.

[2] Verse 28 is not considered here as it is omitted in most translations and from the Greek critical editions. The verse is not found in the best and earliest manuscripts and is considered an interpolation into Mark. A similar verse is found in Luke 22:37, based on Isaiah 53:12; this is what is omitted in Mark: “And the Scripture was fulfilled which said, ‘And he was counted among the lawless.’”