The Christology of Mark (Part IV)

The Centurion’s Confession of Faith

And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mk. 15.33-39)

When Jesus dies, Mark is the only Gospel to record the confession of the centurion, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” (Mk. 15.39) The appellation of “Son of God” is used by Mark in the very first verse of the gospel (forming a nice inclusio of the gospel alongside the centurion’s usage). Mark also portrays Jesus as the “Son” is in the baptismal scene (1.11), at the transfiguration (9.7), and it is seen elsewhere (12.6, 13.32).

So why does Mark decide to record the words of a Roman centurion in this climatic scene instead of the words of Jesus’ disciples? I think it is  probably because Mark intended the centurion to be symbolic of Rome and its  confession, except in this case, the Roman centurion confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, not the Emperor (by Jesus’ time, the title had come to be used as a designation of the new Roman Emperor, portraying him as the the progeny of the previously divinized Emperor). With the Roman centurion’s declaration of Jesus as (a) Son of God, Mark’s usage of the title also becomes a politically subversive statement.

It is commonly thought that the centurion was expressing his newfound belief that Jesus was in fact a Son of God, yet I think it is more than likely the opposite. Mark says that the centurion spoke his piece after seeing “that in this way he [Jesus] breathed his last”, which is to say, after people mistakenly thought Jesus had called on Elijah to save himself. The centurion heard that cry and then saw that Jesus had died without being saved and thus mockingly and dismissively said “Truly, this man was the son of God”, or to put it another way to bring out the mockery, “This guy was a son of God!? Are you serious!” This would sync up nicely with the rest of the passion narrative which is filled with mockery  (e.g. 14.65; 15.9, 12, 17-20, 26, 29-32)

Yet, this is ironic in that while the centurion does not realize the truth of his words uttered in mockery, the reader knows the truth of his statement. If this understanding of the centurion’s confession is correct, then it  would perhaps provide a reason to think that Mark had the same ironic intentions with some previous statements: “Who can forgive sin but God alone?” (2.7),  “Why do you call me good? No one is good by God alone.” (10.18) These rhetorical like questions are the only real case I can see that point towards Mark revealing Jesus to be God (and even this is a rather tenuous case).

Jesus as the Son of God

Interestingly, the only two times God enters the narrative of Mark as a character, it is as a voice out of heaven. At the baptism the Spirit descends upon Jesus and God speaks, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”, and at the transfiguration when Jesus is shrouded in glory, a voice comes from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” These do not really convey a great deal concerning what Mark considers it means for Jesus to be called the Son of God, apart from that it involves an empowerment by God. It is certainly possible that for Mark, Jesus’ divine sonship derived from his baptism when he was empowered by the Spirit of God. One could say, at least, that Mark took no measures to rule out this obvious interpretation.

On two occasions that I can think of – in the opening of the gospel and at the trial of Jesus – Mark seems to use “Christ” and “Son of God” in synonymous parallelism (e.g. “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed”). That, coupled together with the fact that Mark strongly implies Jesus is a king in the passion narrative, would point towards Mark viewing Jesus’ sonship in royal, messianic terms.

Also, Mark seems to inextricably tie the divine sonship of Jesus together with the theme of suffering, even to the point where Mark depicts Jesus as being recognized as the Son of God in his suffering and death and not simply in the subsequent resurrection. So whatever Mark’s exact nuanced view of sonship entailed, he was being quite original in that respect.

All in all, I would suggest that in Mark, Jesus being the Son of God didn’t function as revealing an inherent deity of Jesus, but among other things, is only indicative of the uniquely exalted status of Jesus.

7 responses

  1. I think there could be a problem with your view that Mark or his source has ‘decided’ to place words in the mouth of a centurion if you also suggest that these words were mockery.

    You allege that we are to understand that the non-appearance of Elijah at Jesus’ call evokes this gentile mockery, and you are saying that it was Mark’s original intention to portray it that way – as mockery? So we have a textual nuance which has not been correctly translated? You must be implying this, because I see no grounds for alleging the historicity of an account in which a Roman guard gives any credence to (or even understands) the bystanders’ voiced expectations regarding Elijah in the first place. You would not posit a Roman who understands more Aramaic and Hebrew hagiography than necessary for a ‘peace officer’ in Jerusalem – but you are saying that Mark is positing this?

    You point out that Matthew does not ‘second’ this Markan report of a gentile’s christology, but it is not cricket for you to imply that Luke too was mute on the Markan text. According to Luke, the centurion ‘glorified God,’ calling Jesus ‘Ontos … daikaios.’ This could be considered a non-Markan, low christology, but I mention it because something similar seems to lurk beneath your treatment here as a presupposition. After all, you might say Mark ‘put’ the word daikaios into Herod’s mouth in reference to the Baptist.

    When we get to Matthew, I would expect to hear also that Matthew ‘put’ the word daikaios in the mouth of Pilate (and his wife) in reference to Jesus. And I don’t doubt that Caiaphas himself would have settled for diakaios (in private) – though no evangelist would ‘put’ the word in his mouth. Is this where you want to take Christianity? Shall Caiaphas have the last word on christology?

    Better I think to lose the mockery theory (where did you get such an idea?) I am only a student like you, but I see no gain to ‘historical fact’ by positing Mark’s literary creation of a centurion who was not (at the very least) impressed with the courageous manner in which Jesus had gone from the Praetorium to Golgotha and an ignominious death.

    • Yea, you are correct that the idea of a mocking confession by the centurion doesn’t exactly sync up great with the idea that Mark fabricated the incident. It would make more sense for the centurion’s confession to be genuine if Mark fabricated it.

      I wasn’t saying that the centurion understood the Aramaic cry of Jesus on the cross, but Mark does indicate that some people in the crowd mistakenly thought he was calling for Elijah. Perhaps Mark is implying that the centurion heard someone in the crowd (who was bi-lingual) that Jesus was calling for Elijah.

      I’m not entirely sold on the idea that the centurion’s confession is meant to be mockery, but it is intriguing and not without merit, and is argued for in some of the literature I have read (I will find some references and leave them here in another comment).

  2. Pingback: Christology and Methodology | Near Emmaus

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