The Death of Jesus in Mark III

Hello everyone! I had a good weekend but now, as usual, I need a rest. In any case, here is the third installment, covering Mark’s report of various initial reactions to the death of Jesus. The first to react is God, followed by the centurion. Finally, Mark mentions the fact that some women have been watching, as well… And if you’ve just wandered in, the first two pieces are below.

Reactions to the Death of Jesus

With the stark narration of the death of Jesus, attention begins to spill out from the cross. The first to respond is, appropriately, God, who now makes his interest immediately apparent. Next, a final bystander will speak. But this one, who must be presumed initially hostile, is apparently far more alert than those who stood around waiting for Elijah. As Mark tells the story:

“And the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.

And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out and gave up the ghost, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

God’s Reactions

Attention shifts briefly from the crucifixion site to the temple, where a rich and multi-faceted vignette focusing attention on God’s intentions now develops. Mark reports that the veil of the temple is irreparably damaged. The use of the passive voice for the rending of the veil and the accompanying adverbial phrase, “from the top to the bottom,” drive home God’s looming involvement, for God is the unnamed agent behind this activity.

To appreciate the moment, it may be best to recall the parable Jesus taught in 12:1-9 concerning the wicked tenants. Given stewardship over a vineyard, these favored servants refused to recognize and respond to the owner’s agents, finally killing his son in foolish expectation of receiving the son’s inheritance for themselves. But Jesus predicted that the lord of the vineyard would not allow the evil servants to succeed in their plot. He pointed out that the owner would come, kill the wicked tenants, and give the vineyard to others (12:9). Thus the death of Jesus and “the destruction of the formal [cultural institutions] of Judaism are inseparably bound together.” The old religious order, unable to recognize or respond to divine intent, will come to an end, and that end, which will be consummated at the fall of Jerusalem in 72 CE, 69/70 CE is foreshadowed in the destruction of the temple veil at the death of Jesus. God has publicly withdrawn his favor from the wicked tenants in the very seat of their authority. The Roman legions will be along shortly to clear up the remaining details.

Although God’s commitment to his Son is now clearly renewed in the mind of the reader, the precise nature and extent of his intervention still remain ambiguous. The Lord of the Vineyard will have his rightful harvest (12:2); the erroneous judgment rendered against the Stone (12:10-11) will be spectacularly reversed, for the stone that was rejected will now become “the head of the corner” (12:10). But how will God do this?

In the hours between the death of Jesus and discovery of the empty tomb, there are few clues. Nevertheless, the crumpled fabric rent by God and the gaping structure of the temple very faintly resemble an empty tomb and a rock likewise shifted from its niche by divine intervention (16:4). This dim foreshadowing of the impending resurrection points Mark’s readers past the immediate crucifixion scene but gives no details. The chief priests and the scribes have not succeeded but the world must now wait. God’s designs will be achieved, but on his terms and in his own good time.

The Centurion

Now the last of Mark’s bystanders, a Gentile centurion, speaks. He is distinguished from the other bystanders by his position opposite Jesus, which subtly calls attention to both his distance from all other parties and his focus on Jesus. Mark’s readers would likely see in him a tough, alert, military veteran with 15-18 years of service. Many centurions were also anti-Jewish and most worshipped the emperor. And now this most unlikely, utterly unlikely, character declares Jesus to be the Son of God, in six words outdoing the spiritual discernment of every other human in the entire Gospel.

How would Mark’s audience have understood the story at this point? First, they would have read the centurion’s confession as a mirror of their own faith. Second, they may have seen in him the faint foreshadowing of a second generation of disciples which included gentiles.

Finally, this is the climax of Mark’s Gospel. The Gospel opens with the statement, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This statement makes two assertions: that Jesus was the Christ and that he was the Son of God. In 8:29, which is very nearly the midpoint of the Gospel, Peter declared Jesus to be the Christ. Now, as the end of the narrative approaches, the centurion rounds out the Mark’s claims and provides the climactic first indication to human eyes (ears) that Jesus’ failure was only apparent. Despite the fact that Jesus died to all appearances as a condemned criminal, there will be those, even among the most unlikely, who are able to see the truth of the matter and respond.

What exactly elicited the centurion’s confession? Suggestions have included a combination of the unnatural darkness, Jesus’ religious fervor as expressed in his petition in 15:34, his ability to voice a loud cry at the precise onset of death in 15:37, and the rapidity of his death. But Mark’s language indicates that he believes the centurion is responding solely to Jesus. The darkness and the sundered veil may indicate divine interest, but for Mark only apprehension of Jesus in his death can clinch an assessment of his relationship to God and set the stage for discipleship.

Apart from its immediate consequences, the centurion’s statement in conjunction with the rending of the temple veil by God is part of a larger narrative unit. In this case it will be necessary to set the AV aside momentarily. In 1:10, following Jesus’ baptism, the Greek text reads “he saw the heavens being torn apart…and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son.’ ” This scene shares much with the torn temple veil and the centurion’s affirmation of Jesus as Son of God. Moreover, the verb used to describe both the rending of the temple veil and the heavens is skizō and these are the only occurrences of this particular verb in Mark. The word is very common when applied to the irreparable rending of fabric, but very uncommon when applied to the heavens. Normally, the heavens are said to simply open without damage for heavenly communication using some form of the verb anoigō rather than skizō.

Such a deliberate repetition of events and words within a story, called an inclusio, is never insignificant. Regrettably, the impact of this feature to Mark’s readers is not clear. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus saw the heavens being torn open (present participle). The implication is that they continued to tear. This is a very profound cosmological event and suggests a very fundamental change in the relationship between God and his creations. Likewise, we do know that in ancient Jewish and early Christian thought, the temple was understood as a model of the universe. Thus it may be that the tearing of the temple veil at the death of Jesus marked the culmination of the heavenly rift opened at the baptism of Jesus and the onset of a significant shift in the interaction between God and world – an interaction in which the old order of the Jewish temple would play no role.

In any case, with the rending of the veil the temple is ironically once again an accurate representation of God’s universe.

The Watching Women

As Mark’s story continues to expand outward from the cross, his audience now learns via a short flashback that a group of women have been watching from a distance and that they are disciples. As Mark reports it:

40 There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome;

41 (Who also, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him;) and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem.”

Precise identification of the women is uncertain, although to Mark’s original readers they were likely to have been familiar. Two groups are mentioned: a small trio of named women, and a larger, unidentified group of whom the named three are a part. The trio of named women and their unnamed compatriots renew awareness of the absence of the male disciples. In particular, the three named women seem like an ironic counterpart to the missing inner circle of Peter, James, and John.

Like the men with whom they associated in Galilee, these women are linked to Jesus by words such as “follow” and “minister” (lit. serve), both of which are indicative of discipleship. Despite having remained faithful longer than their fellow disciples, their current status is problematic. Mark describes them as “looking on from a distance.” His lexical choice suggests a comparison with 14:54, where it is said that, as Jesus was led into the high priest’s residence, Peter “followed him from a distance.” Just as with Peter at the Jewish trial, so the women’s discipleship is now under a strain which precludes describing them as “with him,” in accordance with their former status as disciples.

And yet…Jesus promised a reunion in Galilee. This means that the men must be reunited with the women and with Jesus. We now know that God is present, very near in fact. But how will all this come to pass?

Next up: The Burial of Jesus

5 Replies to “The Death of Jesus in Mark III”

  1. “the fall of Jerusalem in 72 CE”

    Everyone said 69/70 when I was in school–has something happened to change the accepted date in the last decade?

  2. The use of the passive voice for the rending of the veil

    Mogget, how much stock is there in all this “divine passive” stuff? Sometimes I just think it’s a regular ol’ passive, yet my Greek professors almost unanimously insisted that most of your regular ol’ passives in the NT were divine passives.

    the fall of Jerusalem in 72 CE

    Yeah, what gives? Did I miss something? Was that the year that all of Rome fell? Or Masada maybe?

  3. Ah, yes. The divine passive. Context. In this case, I don’t see it being read as anything but the divine passive. It’s the death of Jesus, it’s the temple…

    I don’t recall much debate on the issue but that may be simply because nobody in NT studies wants to crowd God out of the picture. If I see something, I’ll bring it up here.

  4. great posts.
    I have always seen the centurion’s confession of Jesus being the Christ in direct relation to Peter’s confession in the begining of the Passion when Jesus aks Peter who he thinks he (jesus) is? Peter being the testamony of a Jew, and the centurion being a testamony of a gentile.
    i loved you anology of the heavens and the temple vale. The renting of the vale to me means the change in relationship between god and man. God is no longer seperated by the vale from man. He is now among them. The very things that seperate us have been torn apart by His atonement.

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