Easter. The Passion of Jesus XX. Crucifixion part 1. Mark and God’s Compassion on the Downtrodden.

Part 21, here.
Part 19, here.

You can read the whole series here.

Crucifixion 1. Mark and God’s compassion on the downtrodden.

Crucifixion was designed as a public event, meant to control by fear. People were meant to be allowed up close and personal to the cross. Of all the people who show up at Jesus’ cross, the most historically certain are the soldiers. Also likely are passersby, it’s entirely plausible that Jesus would be seen by those moving about in normal activity. However, the Psalms are so evidently used as framework, and the pictured audiences so contemptuous, it seems impossible to know whether there are specific memories of events of crucifixion in John and other Gospels. It’s certainly not implausible that members of the Sanhedrin might show up, for various reasons (but the priests are more problematic–it’s Passover eve for John, and lambs must be killed).

There are a couple of traditional spots for the site of the crucifixion. One is contained in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, another is at a spot that dates from the Turkish period. While many like the latter for esthetic reasons, it’s undoubtedly too late for the actual site. Other places have been argued for, but seem based less on hard evidence than textual guesswork. The Church site seems the more likely spot for an historical event.

Mark says it was the third hour (9am) that Jesus was crucified. “and the inscription of the charge against him read, the King of the Jews.”(Mk 15:26, ESV) The inscription is somewhat different in each Gospel. Matthew (Mt 27:37 ESV) has “And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.'” Luke (Lk 23:38) writes,”There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.'” John has (Jn 19:19) “Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.'” There is evidently a tradition about an inscription and King of the Jews was part of it. One frequently sees INRI in iconography. Clearly, John was favored in that.

The Crucifixion, Simon Vouet, 1622. (Image: Wikipedia) Note the influence of John's Gospel.

The Crucifixion, Simon Vouet, 1622. (Image: Wikipedia) Note the influence of John’s Gospel.

There is no mention of Jesus being nailed to the cross in any of the canonical Gospels. The only way we know of nails is through the stories of a resurrected Jesus. Jesus is crucified between two robbers. There is a long tradition of calling them thieves, but the Greek word is λῃσταί in Mark and Matthew which is something like “laceti.” It’s plural of “lacetace”–robber. Some kind of revolutionary, a guerrilla and this seems confirmed by the Gospels using the same word to describe Barabbas, a violent man. This was not a period of great unrest, but a lacetace might operate as a kind of robber with a cause, but mostly as a bandit. Maybe they were part of the same rioting as Barabbas, but the Gospels don’t make any connection between the three. But finally, Jesus is not crucified alone, and the charge of revolutionary could be made to fit all three men.

Mark provides a careful arrangement of events during the crucifixion. There are three groups that speak to Jesus in the third hour. The first group brings up the charge in the Jewish trial of destroying the temple and rebuilding it and then challenge: “save yourself and come down from the cross.” How do these people know what was said during the trial? Mark doesn’t explain this, and perhaps it’s meant for the reader/listener to remind us of the episode, because there is a scene coming that involves the temple. After this, the chief priests come and discuss Jesus among themselves: “He saved others, he cannot save himself.” And then they repeat what the first group says in essence: “Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross that we may see and believe.” This is Mark reminding us of the second question in his trial narrative: “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed?” Finally Mark says, “and then those who were crucified with him, also reviled him.” The list culminates a string of circumstances that reflect Mark’s story of failure. His disciples have run away, there were false witnesses who came to the trial, Pilate, who clearly understood that Jesus was brought before him out of jealousy, turns on him, the soldiers are hostile and enjoy the theater of torture in flogging him and pressing a thorn bush onto his head, everyone who walks by the cross is contemptuous and sarcastic. It’s a wholly negative picture.

Mark tells us there was darkness over the land between the 6th and 9th hours (noon to three o’clock). It’s a dreary scene. At the 9th hour, Mark has the dreadful statement, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Mark brackets his Passion story with the two Aramaic expressions, “Abba, Father” and this one. The two prayers are meant as a dramatic touch, they are in Jesus’ native language, cries from the depth of Jesus’ soul. The last plea is from Psalm 22, which lies behind much of the Passion narrative. Even the contemptuous words of roadside taunts are taken from the Psalm:

All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
“He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him” (ESV)

By the end of the psalm (in the psalm) the character is victorious, and before the character’s trials, God had always helped him. Now God had abandoned him. Mark deploys this as an expression of confusion, as though Jesus feels some unexpected emptiness before him. He doesn’t use “Father.” It’s as though even that has escaped him. Mark makes this the nadir of the Gospel, everything has turned against the Savior, even nature has turned dark. He is utterly alone. And many people will identify with the picture at some time in their lives, when it seems that all is darkness. The response from bystanders: he’s calling Elijah. “And one ran, filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. Saying, wait, let us see whether Elijah will come and take him down.” It’s not a benevolent gesture, they want to test him. Did the bystanders mistake Eloi for Elijah? Was there some tradition about Elijah and the dying? There’s no information. (Brown 2:1088 gives some of the possibilities on why Elijah is referenced. It may be a confusion between Hebrew and Aramaic.)

And then Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed out. Literally, he expired. There are no words associated with this second loud cry. Suddenly the veil of the temple is torn in two. There is a lot of argument about “which” veil is torn. Mark is not expecting his listeners to have any deep knowledge of temple structure. It’s sufficient that a veil is torn, the temple’s sacral nature is violated, in a way, destroyed. Hebrews gives a positive interpretation: now the temple is open to all. For Mark, it seems to be a judgement scene. Jesus is vindicated as we think of the happenings of the first trial.

Then Mark tells us of the Roman soldier: “When the centurion who stood facing him, saw that he thus in this manner breathed his last, he said ‘truly, this man was God’s son.'” Mark is using this as a part of the theme of verification. Jesus has been charged in the trials as a faker. Mark has a Gentile bear witness. Mark gives us no background for the soldier (but it’s a great movie scene, fodder for screen writers). We aren’t supposed to ask such questions. It’s a cosmological statement. The Gentiles can know that Jesus is God’s son, through the power of this death. That’s Mark’s message, and he’s writing to Gentiles, so it makes perfect sense. Mark has planned what to write here and the trial and death form thematic bookends. Mark is an interesting illustration of Hebrews: Jesus had to learn. Learn obedience, humility, sympathy, empathy, through suffering. Mark carries this out.

Again, as in the Garden prayer, we seem to benefit from some unidentified witness who somehow sees and hears everything. The answer is that Mark extends traditions before him by the same methodology as before. Perhaps the Psalm is guide as much as echo.

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death. (EVS)


  1. This is very moving, WVS. It expands my knowledge, especially of the context of Mark’s account, but more than that, it draws me into contemplating what this message means to me – and what it could mean for me, if I let it. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Thanks, dare I say it, moonflower?

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