The Death of Jesus in Mark II

Just in case you have wandered in accidently, this is the second of a series on the death of Jesus in the Second Gospel. To find the first entry, scroll on down and make yourself right at home.

The Ninth Hour

In Gethsemane Jesus had addressed God, eloquently affirming his freely chosen submission to the divine will in spite of personal dismay (14:36). Now his isolation is so intense that the serenity which has characterized his behavior thus far finally breaks. When he calls out, after some three hours of darkness, it will be in the words of a scriptural passage that cannot be understood as anything other than an exquisite lament: “Elōi, Elōi, lama sabachthani,” translated “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is what Mark reports and these words are, according to Mark, the only and final words spoken by Jesus from the cross.

The verb used to describe his speech is boaō (call, shout, cry out), further qualified as delivered in a “loud voice.” Uses of this verb include emotionally charged cries of joy or prayer, expressions of outraged anguish or pleading, and solemn declarations. All of these contextual settings, along with the reference to a loud voice indicate that the subject is under extraordinary stress. But as Jesus does break his disciplined silence, he is still able to articulate a coherent plea and deliver it with remarkable energy despite the nearness of his death. Moreover, his motivation is spiritual and emotional, not physical. Mark’s audience learns that Jesus, even in his extremity, is in total control of his faculties and life force.

The language of the prayer is rendered twice, once in a Semitic form and again in Greek. The passage cited is from Ps 22:2 and is the sixth such citation from, or allusion to, Psalm 22. The use of a Semitic transliteration adds poignancy to the scene, painting an intimate and distressing picture of Jesus. Now in his final agony, he addresses God one last time in the language in which he probably grew up, normally spoke, and taught in.

While the manner and language of this final prayer are striking, the content is without parallel. This is one of the very rare occasions in which the evangelists report the inner mental state of Jesus. It is also the only instance in Mark in which Jesus addresses God as “God” rather than “Father,” as well as the only occasion when Jesus delivers a prayer in the form of a quotation from scripture rather than his own words. The most significant challenge to Mark’s readers, however, is its assertion of divine delinquency in Jesus’ moment of greatest need.

Let me step outside of the story to frame what must follow by emphasizing what Mark does and does not say. Mark is clear that Jesus feels that he has been forsaken by God, with all the connotations that that word carries. Mark is also clear that Jesus does not know why God might have withdrawn. Mark does not say whether or not God actually withdrew, nor does he tell us why God might have withdrawn. Finally, if God did not withdraw, Mark does not indicate why Jesus might have so perceived the situation.

How should this lament be approached? The relationship between Jesus, his disciples, and others, has been under steadily increasing strain since the first passion prediction of 8:31. The betrayal by Judas, one of the chosen disciples (14:43), leads to abandonment by the majority of his followers in Gethsemane (14:50). Peter, who follows Jesus to his Jewish trial from a distance, also publicly denies him and withdraws (14:66-72). The Jewish leadership (14:53-65) and the Romans (15:1-20) have abused, mocked, and scourged Jesus. The crowd which welcomed him with acclamation from the psalms (11:9-10) has been replaced by a crowd which calls for his life (15:6-15). Finally he has been crucified (15:24). His current sense of alienation from God is the climax of this pattern, the last and greatest trial he faced.

Nevertheless, his words are not to be understood as a failure of filial commitment. The phrase “my God” still implies a relationship with God, albeit one which, to Jesus, now feels like abandonment. Further, Jesus does not indicate that God does not exist or that he cannot answer him, but that he has not done so. To Mark’s audience, the picture of Jesus’ suffering is now both real and horribly complete. Although totally forsaken, he remains loyal to God and the many for whom he was destined to be a ransom (10:45). This unconditional submission and obedience in the face of overwhelming ordeal reveals the enduring presence of a unique bond in the OT tradition of father-son relationships. Moreover, it underlines both the enormity of what Jesus was asked to do and the fidelity with which he accomplished it. For Mark’s audience, this scene is the consummation, not the disintegration, of the relationship between the Son of God and his Father.

Abusive Interlude and the Death of Jesus

Ill-treatment and mockery have punctuated the passion narrative, leaving Mark’s audience no chance to miss the humiliation of the suffering Righteous One. The last articulate utterance of Jesus ignites a final round of the same behavior by the bystanders at the foot of the cross. These Jewish bystanders are close enough to hear and interact with Jesus but, like the bystander of Gethsemane who lopped off the ear of the high priest’s servant, they are utterly alien to what now transpires before their eyes. As the seconds tick away and the great offering nears completion, they look for Elijah, thereby missing the one greater than Elijah who hangs before them:

And some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold, he calleth Elias.

And one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink, saying, Let alone; let us see whether Elias will come to take him down.

And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.

Pious Jews of this period considered it possible that Elijah might come in one of two ways: as an end-time figure, “before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord” as prophesied in Mal 4:5-6 and in a more routine role as a “helper” to intervene on behalf of divine providence in extreme cases. Elijah’s presence or absence could therefore be considered an indication of divine judgment. From this perspective, the offer of a wine-filled sponge on the end of a cane by an otherwise unidentified “someone” should probably be read as an attempt to prolong Jesus’ agony while waiting to see if Elijah will come.

Just as in the earlier scenes of ridicule (15:17-19; 15:31-32) this setting is also rich in irony, crystallized around a double ignorance regarding the divine will as it pertains to both Jesus and Elijah. Elijah will not come because he has already both come and gone; unrecognized in the person of John the Baptist, a forerunner to Jesus in both life and death (9:11-13). Moreover, saving Jesus would doom both Jesus and the many for whom he in death becomes a ransom (10:45). Jesus, like his Elijah-figure, the Baptist, remains the misunderstood and suffering Righteous One right up to the very instant of his death. And the Jewish community, despite seeing Jesus in the fullness of the role for which he was destined by God, likewise remains stubbornly uncomprehending to the end.

Humiliated in the culmination of his trust, Jesus gives a last cry and dies. The inarticulate character of this final act of communication drives home the price paid since the eloquent appeal in Gethsemane (14:36). Mark gives no indication of the time of death and no more definitive indication of the cause of death beyond the crucifixion scene. The verb used to describe the moment of death is exepneusen, which standard lexical aids gloss as “to breathe out one’s life/soul or expire.”

For Mark’s readers, however, this moment has immense significance as the promised ransom for the many has been made. But the enormous knot now lies fully exposed: Jesus is dead, the disciples are scattered, and the Jewish leadership, their Roman masters, and the ever-malleable crowd are left in possession of the situation.

Where is God?

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2 Replies to “The Death of Jesus in Mark II”

  1. How should this lament be approached?

    I dont necessarily see Mark as presenting Jesus as saying he feels he has literally been abandoned. Why read the quotation as anything but the invocation of the general theme of Ps 22? Reading Ps 22, especially verse 12-18, on has the context of one being presently persecuted, but who will be vindicated by the Lord in v. 19-31. This is what was happening in a spiritual eternal sense. How else would Jesus direct the audience to the Messianic psalm’s present fulfilment other than to quote its leading line?

  2. Hi Kurt!

    You have, as I am sure you know, hit on one of the three main approaches used to soften the impact of Jesus’ final words. The other two are:

    1)A suggestion that Jesus really recited the entire psalm, making Mark’s report an adumbration

    2)A suggestion that this is the traditional picture of the final, pious prayer of a righteous man.

    First, yours is by no means an impossible or unreasonable reading. Moreover, it is clear as you say that across the entire passion narrative Mark does “work out” Ps 22. Jesus goes from being the rejected, righteous, sufferer to the vindicated Righteous One.

    Nevertheless I have avoided the reading you selected for the following reasons:

    1)There are five other references to Ps 22 in Mark, so the link to this psalm is clear enough in Mark. No need to quote that exquisite opening lament to establish the link unless a lament is precisely the note needed.

    2)There are likewise links to this psalm the parallell narratives, although without the quotation from Ps 22:2. No one has ever suggested that, for example, Luke does not find Jesus the “fulfillment” of Ps 22 despite the lack an explicit reference to the v. 2.

    3) The sense of abandonment by God lies at the culmination of a long string of lesser abandonments by other humans. This sense of separation simply drives home the extraordinary fidelity in which Jesus brought his Father’s work to completion.

    4) This sort of language appears strong today, but is actually an integral part of the lamentation psalms. It is probably far more shocking to us that it was in the 1st century. Would they have felt the need to soften the impact?

    (Well…obviously Luke did. And if John knew Mark, then he went down a different route as well…) 😉

    5) Links with many other psalms are routinely established without reference to their opening lines.

    But..yours is a good, solid, viable reading. My final thought is simply that it softens the Son of God / Father relationship too much for my tastes.

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