This is the forty-sixth installment, comprising Act 6, Scene 9, chapter 15:1-20a, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the forty-fifth 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:
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: 15:1-20a
1 As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2 Pilate asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" He answered him, "You say so." 3 Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 Pilate asked him again, "Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you." 5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed. 6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7 Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8 So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9 Then he answered them, "Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?" 10 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12 Pilate spoke to them again, "Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?" 13 They shouted back, "Crucify him!" 14 Pilate asked them, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Crucify him!" 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. 16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor's headquarters ); and they called together the whole cohort. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18 And they began saluting him, "Hail, King of the Jews!" 19 They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20a After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. (NRSV)
The reason for Peter’s fear in Act 6, Scene 8 is made abundantly clear in Scene 9. No longer do we have predictions of Jesus’ suffering, we have the suffering of Jesus. The night trial in front of the Jewish authorities becomes in the morning a trial in front of the Roman procurator Pilate. Jesus was said to be “deserving death” in 14:64, but the Jews had no legal authority to enact capital punishment while the Romans ruled them. For this reason they bring Jesus to Pilate and plead their case.
Mark gets to the point rapidly, with no introduction to Pilate and no explanation from the Jewish authorities as to why they are turning Jesus over to him. The scene begins with Jesus being bound and led to Pilate, with Pilate asking, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered him, “You say so” (15:2). Mark encourages us to determine that Pilate's question must have emerged from the information passed on to him by the Jewish authorities, namely, that Jesus was a royal pretender. Jesus’ answer is laden with double meaning, since Jesus is not the sort of king Pilate might suspect, but he is indeed the king that he has revealed in his Passion Predictions and his ministry.
Mark gives us an opportunity to visually imagine the scene after the quick exchange between Jesus and Pilate as “then the chief priests accused him of many things” (15:3). We must imagine these “many things” coming from many voices based upon the many accusations thrown at Jesus in the night trial. Pilate presses Jesus to answer the charges made against him – “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed” (15:4-5). Again, the scene spins so quickly that neither the reason for Pilate’s amazement nor a description of Jesus’ demeanor is offered. Just like that, the formal aspect of Jesus’ trial before the Roman procurator Pilate has ended.
This just means, though, that the chaotic scene is now beginning; how Pilate will deal with Jesus is still up in the air. Mark claims that at the Passover Pilate “used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom” (15:6-8). It is clear that the choice will be either for Jesus, the suffering servant, or the strangely named Barabbas – “son of the father” in Aramaic – who is a noted rebel against Roman rule. When Pilate asks whether the crowd wants Jesus to be released – “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (15:9) - it seems that this is Pilate’s way out, for Mark states that “he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over” (15:10). Events, though, have already spun out of Pilate’s control and the question of Jesus’ fate will not be so easily and deftly handled. As Mark’s narrative continues, he tells us that “the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead” (15:11).
“Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’” (15:12-14).
The response of the crowd might seem shocking, not in the broad course of the narrative of Mark’s Gospel in which we have learned that Jesus must die, but that a crowd should so easily be led to desire the death of a man some might have welcomed into the city and many more did not know at all. But then we must recall that the last time a crowd had come to Jesus, it was not to laud or listen to him, but to arrest him in Act 6, Scene 6. The crowds are no longer for Jesus.
Pilate, however, wishes the crowds to be for him. This is the reason given for him to release Barabbas and to crucify Jesus – “to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” (15:15). It is not even a matter of guilt or innocence, trumped up charges or riled up Roman sensitivities for Pilate. He just wants the crowd to like him and for the day that started off so poorly to get better. Admittedly, there might be political reasons for Pilate’s choice, as no one wants an angry crowd on their hands, but that’s the point: the political is personal here. What’s good for Rome is good for Pilate and what’s good for Pilate is what’s good for Rome.
All of the sudden, the violence and mockery from the Roman soldiers begins. Jesus is flogged (15:15), a cruel series of lashes which could be more or less severe, but which was always severe. Mark notes it with a simple clause, perhaps because before the eyes of the listeners they could see played out the cruelty of the lash on his back. Mark is a dramatist not a romanticizer of pain. Pilate’s choice sets in motion a whirlwind of hatred. Jesus is led by the soldiers “into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor's headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him” (15:16-20a). This is from men who have probably never seen the man let alone met him before. The end of his life, his suffering and pain, his death will be their sport. One can argue that the Jewish authorities had genuine, even if misguided, concerns about Jesus and his impact upon the nation and the people. But the Romans, both Pilate and the soldiers, what is their reason? Just doing their jobs.
John W. Martens
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