Mark 15:39, Insulting or Revering?
Nov 09, 2020
When the centurion who observes Jesus die says, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 NAS95) we have a statement which can lead to some interesting questions for an inquiring reader. One such important question is whether or not it is meant to be understood as having been spoken in an ironical/mocking way, or in a complementary/reverential way.
Pretending for just a moment that we have only the Gospel of Mark as our witness, let us consider how a critical reader might initially come to the conclusion that the centurion is mocking Christ in that moment of death at Golgotha. For these readers there are some important historical and literary factors which can be presented as supporting evidence. First of all, the reader familiar with the historical setting would rightly assume that the centurion knew crucifixion well as a means of death that “symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture” (Hengel, 62). This reader would also be familiar with the fact that in Greek-speaking culture “heroes cannot on any account be allowed to suffer such a painful and shameful death – this can only befall evil-doers” (Hengel, 81). If these two things are absolutely true for the centurion, then how could his statement have been meant in any way other than as an ironical insult? Additionally, it may be argued that if the shorter reading (ending Mark at 16:8) is correct, then we reach the cliffhanger end of the book by picturing a group of disciples who are afraid, and who Mark tells us were watching all this happening with the centurion at the cross from a distance in 15:40. A mocking statement from the Roman representative could be argued is in line with such a book ending’s literary mood. However, it can be shown that the soldier’s statement is not meant as irony, but rather that the centurion’s statement in 15:39 is the climatic point to which Mark has been leading the reader. This statement ties everything back to Mark’s overarching theme: “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1 NAS95).
It is believed that Mark was written for a non-Jewish audience. One piece of supporting evidence found in 15:39 is that Mark uses a transliterated Latin term for centurion rather than the Greek term used elsewhere in the NT, and this “may be an indication that he was writing for Roman readers” (Brooks, 263). If it is the case that he is writing for a Gentile audience, then what better climatic moment can he bring readers to, and use for greater effect, than to have his opening thesis confirmed from the lips of a hardened Roman military official so unlikely to to be convinced?
What facts of this event do Mark bear witness about which could indicate to the reader that the centurion actually meant what he said? The critical reader who is familiar with the process of crucifixion would realize that Mark reports that Jesus died in what would have been a very unusual way for this type of execution – not suffocatingly breathless, but by crying out in a loud voice. This is the immediate context in which Mark presents his climactic moment, and I believe it is designed to overcome the greatest challenge for a non-Jewish audience – the cross as “foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23 NIV). Rather than imposing the ultimate shame on Jesus as the cross was designed to do, the reader is instead confronted with the centurion’s special recognition of Jesus as a product of His crucifixion.
Centurions were “[t]he most important tactical officers… [they] were the professionals in the army… [and] the most important professionals stationed in an area for a long time” (Ferguson, 51). Centurions were generally promoted up to their position from the lower ranks (Ferguson, 51) – this man was no novice to Roman justice. Under normal circumstances a death by crucifixion should be assumed to be an occasion with the least potential for causing belief on the part of such an officer, yet Mark argues this very particular death by crucifixion is the convicting factor.
Additionally, in his confession we discover that “the centurion has switched his allegiance from Caesar” (Evans, 510) by applying a term to Jesus which in his historical context “had been arrogated for the Roman ruler” (Lane, 576). Keeping in mind the fact that these officers swore a yearly allegiance makes his statement about the true nature of this man being crucified (under a sign reading “King of the Jews”) seem to run in a direction completely counter to his sworn and duty-bound loyalty to the emperor. Mark does not expect his readers to see this as a simple off-handed remark to be taken lightly and brushed aside as inconsequential.
Verse 39 serves majestically as the capstone of the overarching theme of the book set forth in its very first verse. But, it can be further argued from the book’s own internal evidence that it is intended as a non-ironical statement based on a recurring pattern of the presentation of truth statements about Jesus by outsiders. Richard Hayes puts the idea forward this way:
“[w]e have already encountered similar patterns in the stories of the leper (5:25-34), the Syrophoenician woman (7:24-30), the father of the boy with an unclean spirit (9:14-29), and the people who bring the little children for Jesus’ blessing (10:13-16). The climatic event in this series… is the confession of the centurion at the foot of the cross (5:39). In none of these cases does Mark hint that the outsider’s perception of Jesus requires correction. Instead, in each case the audacious words and actions of the outsiders serve as correctives to the perspective of the ‘insider’ characters in the story. Mark has taught his readers to pay respectful attention to what such outsiders say” (Hayes, 51).
Finally, though we can rightly determine the centurion as meaning his confessional statement in a reverential way from the book of Mark alone, when we incorporate the writings of Matthew and Luke we find more powerful reasons to view this statement as meant in a truly complementary way (while also acknowledging there are further questions still as to what “Son of God” would have meant for this man in that exact moment within space-time history). Matthew, writing for a different audience (some who may have been eyewitnesses themselves) gives testimony that in also observing the events in nature (such as the earthquake) there were additional factors at work convincing the centurion this was no ordinary death. What seems important for Mark is that he wanted his readers to see the death of Christ as the important factor in convincing the centurion of His identity as Son of God.
Brooks, James A., Mark, ed. E. Ray Clendenen and David S. Dockery, vol. 23 of The New American Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991).
Evans, Craig A , Mark 8:27–16:20, vol. 34B of Word Biblical Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989).
Ferguson, E. (2003). Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Hays, R. B. (2016). Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Waco, Tx, Baylor University Press.
Hengel, Martin, Crucifixion. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
Lane, William L., The Gospel of Mark, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).