Mark Week 9

“And They Crucified Him:” Darkness Descends: Mark 15:1–47

By Laura C.S. Holmes
Seattle Pacific University Assistant Professor of New Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Mark 15:1–47


Jindřich Prucha, Crucifixion (1912). National Gallery in Prague. Wikimedia Commons.
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Upside Down

I clearly remember the first time I stood on my head as a child. I was fascinated by the way the world looked when I was upside down. The carpet or grass seemed much more intricate and detailed. People’s shoes took on interest, particularly if they came too close to my head. And, until I lost my balance, the upside-down world was a fun, if odd, place to be.

Unfortunately, we do not often think an upside-down world is fun as adults. In the past decade, many events have occurred in the public eye to convince us that we live in an upside-down world, whether we think of 9/11 in the U.S., tsunamis in the Pacific, an earthquake in Haiti, tornadoes and hurricanes, concerns over the economy and unemployment, or daily tragedies around the globe.

Personal lives may also be turned upside down by events of smaller scale, but great individual importance, where disease, death, loss, or despair shakes one’s life. Scripture as a whole testifies to the fact that this world does not currently operate the way it should, and creation longs for a better day to come (e.g., Romans 8:18–23).

Mark’s story of Jesus’ death describes Jesus’ own experience with this upside-down world. In fact, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ Roman trial and death in a way that demonstrates how inverted everything is. The story drips with irony as the characters who oppose Jesus speak truths they do not recognize. Unexpected scriptures are fulfilled; the one who has now claimed to be the Messiah (14:61), the one who was supposed to turn the world upside down and make it right again, is now, in upside-down fashion, being turned over to the Romans. All the same, it is within the allusions to Scripture and the ironic statements of Jesus’ opponents that the depth of this inverted story can be found.

Dying for Another: The Trial Before Pilate (15:1–15)

On Friday morning, the chief priests bring Jesus before Pilate, as they had no authority to execute Jesus on charges of treason. Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea during this time (26–36 AD), and it was his job to keep the peace — especially during an event like Passover, where riots were possible. The chief priests do not bring Jesus to Pilate based on just one charge, but instead list many charges against Jesus, none of which Mark preserves. Pilate asks Jesus about only one charge: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2).

Jesus’ reply is an abbreviated sentence in Greek. Literally, Jesus says, “you say” (15:2). This is not good English, so translators have tended to render it in one of two ways:

  1. “It is as you say” (NASB, NIV), where Jesus restates that he agrees with this charge, as he did with the chief priests’ question about his identity as the Messiah (14:61).
  2. You say so” (KJV, NRSV), where Jesus distances himself from the charge.

Given Jesus’ reticence to accept various titles throughout the gospel and Pilate’s conviction of his innocence of charges of treason, the latter translation seems more appropriate. These are some of the last words Jesus says in the gospel; he speaks no more at his trial (15:5).

Mark describes Pilate as being amazed at Jesus (15:5). He decides to ask the crowds, who have been in favor of Jesus and his teaching (e.g., 12:37), to request Jesus’ release. Since there is no substantial case against Jesus, this makes judicial sense.

In an irony of ironies, however, the crowd chooses Barabbas over Jesus. Mark tells us that Barabbas is a convicted murderer and revolutionary, willing to bring about a new order in society by violent means. The Romans then release the prisoner who threatens their overthrow and instead seek to kill one who has not acted like a revolutionary, even though he was arrested like one (14:48; Author’s Note 1). In this way, Jesus, the innocent man, dies in place of one who deserved death. Jesus’ crucifixion has intensely corporate and political ramifications, but it also has profound personal consequences for Barabbas and all who stand in his place.

Jesus is convicted and handed over on the charge that the people hail him as their king, the King of the Jews. This is yet another way to say that Jesus has come as the Messiah, the chosen one, a king like David (compare 12:35–37), who will deliver Israel from its Roman occupation and restore independent rule once more.

Pilate himself asks Jesus if he is this king, as we noted above (15:2). He also asks the people what they want him to do with this one they call the King of the Jews (15:9, 12). In fact, Jesus will be called king three more times in this chapter, making a total of six occurrences of the title (15:18, 26, 32), all of them in this chapter of Mark.

In other words, Mark is sending a subtly ironic message. Jesus is falsely accused of being the kind of king who revolts to overthrow Rome with violent means, achieving a political revolution but little else. Instead, Jesus is a king with more power than Caesar (compare 9:2–9), but that power is expressed not by ruling or revolting, but by giving his own life in the place of others. Sacrificially, he saves his life, and the lives of others, by losing his life (8:34–38). Jesus turns the world of kingship upside down when he reigns on a cross rather than a throne.

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Mockery and Crucifixion (15:16–32)

After the soldiers flog Jesus at Pilate’s command, they proceed to mock Jesus in light of the kingly charge for which he is being killed. Only royalty could afford to wear purple, so putting a kingly robe on him and a crown, not of jewels but of thorns, and hailing him as king ironically mocks the one who is their king (15:16–20).

As they compel Jesus to march out to Golgotha [Author’s Note 2], the soldiers find that Jesus is too weak from the floggings, the mockery, the suffering, and the previous sleepless night to carry his own crossbeam to be crucified. Despite many of the depictions in Christian art, victims to be crucified would not carry a whole cross on their shoulders, but instead would carry only the horizontal crossbeam. The vertical beam would already be on site, in this case, at Golgotha, awaiting its victim.

Since Jesus cannot carry his own cross, the Romans recruit Simon of Cyrene, who was probably a Jew visiting Jerusalem for Passover. Mark gives the names of his sons, Alexander and Rufus, as though these names were known to his audience. Some scholars think it is likely that Alexander and Rufus became part of the Christian community for whom Mark was writing his gospel, and therefore the community could appeal to them for more details of their father’s experience (15:21).

Furthermore, even though Jesus has exhorted his followers to carry their own crosses, we see that he cannot carry his own, and another in the community must share the burden and help him carry it. The cross does not become Simon’s, but Simon is willing to shoulder the load and follow Jesus all the same. This scene provides a dynamic portrayal of the role of shared discipleship in the kingdom of God in the days to come.

Unlike many later retellings of Jesus’ crucifixion, Mark narrates the event quite plainly: “it was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him” (15:25). Instead of providing grisly details about the crucifixion that would have been all too familiar to his first-century audience, Mark focuses on those who witness Jesus dying. The mockery of the soldiers (15:16–20) has been just the beginning.

They continue ridiculing Jesus as the King of the Jews by posting a sign above his head (15:26). Bystanders allude to the charge against the temple that was brought up at Jesus’ trial (15:29), but here the claim is stated ironically: You claimed the temple was going to be turned upside down, with no stone left on another (13:1–2). The temple is still standing, but you cannot even save yourself (15:30). Of course, ironically, it is by not saving himself that Jesus in fact saves others.

This point of irony continues through derision of the chief priests and scribes, who recognize that Jesus has saved others (see 5:34; 6:56; 10:52), and in order to continue saving others, saving himself by coming down from the cross is not an option. Furthermore, such action would not actually promote their faith, despite their claim. Their problem, as we have seen earlier in Mark, is that they can see the events, but they do not perceive or observe their significance (see Mark 4:12). They speak truth without perceiving it.

Finally, Mark concludes his description of those around Jesus by pointing out that even the revolutionaries (“bandits”) crucified with him, who were seated at his right and left hand (15:32; see 10:40), mocked Jesus. In other words, at the end of his life, Jesus was utterly forsaken by all who were around him. The one who had drawn crowds so widely they could not get home to eat (6:34–44; 8:1–10) and who was sought out even by Gentiles for healing (7:24–30) is left to die alone [Author’s Note 3].

Death and Burial (15:33–47)

As readers of Mark’s gospel know by now, Jesus’ death is not just the death of another crucified criminal [Author’s Note 4]. Mark shows that Jesus’ death is different by marking it with two different kinds of allusions:

  • First, there are scriptural allusions laced throughout this story.
  • Second, there are allusions to the cosmic battle between God and evil that is being waged, and the battleground is “the Place of the Skull” (Golgotha) itself.

Jesus has said that events are proceeding according to the scriptures (14:21, 49). In the account of his death, Mark alludes to more scriptures, and often unexpected ones. Scriptures are evoked when the soldiers divide lots for Jesus’ garment (Psalm 22:19), when the chief priests and scribes cannot perceive what they see (Isaiah 6:10), when Jesus cries that God has forsaken him (Psalm 22:1), and when the whole earth is enveloped in darkness (Amos 8:9–10) [Author’s Note 5]. The latter passage is worth quoting in full:

On that day, says the Lord GOD,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
And darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation.
I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day. (Amos 8:9–10)

Mark is clearly saying that God’s day has come, and it is a day that has brought darkness, not light as the people desired (Amos 5:18–20). The darkness at Jesus’ death indicates a time of mourning, as well as the time where evil looks like it triumphs over God. Even this day, God’s day, has been turned upside down.

As Jesus dies, two unusual events occur away from the cross itself. First, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (15:38). This symbolic act alludes to Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction (13:1–2), but its significance is even deeper than that prophecy. Scholars generally assume that the curtain Mark mentions is the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple.

The Holy of Holies was the place where God was envisioned to come down on the Ark of the Covenant, and where the priest would make the atonement offerings once a year (on Yom Kippur; see Luke 1:8–23 for an example). The curtain between this place and the rest of the temple has now been ripped from top to bottom, implying that a force above, in other words, from heaven, tore the curtain.

Furthermore, the same verb that was used to describe the rending of the heavens (1:10; see Week 1 of this Lectio) is used here once again, and only here, in Mark. God rends the heavens to proclaim that Jesus is the beloved Son at Jesus’ baptism, and God tears the temple curtain, in silence, at Jesus’ death (15:38).

Tearing the temple curtain is significant in several ways. First, as has often been said, tearing the temple veil opens the way for all, Gentile and Jew, sinner and Pharisee, to seek the presence of God (see Hebrews 4:14–16; 10:19–22). Second, tearing the temple veil means that the presence of God is no longer confined to one sacred space. As scholar Donald Juel famously said, “God is on the loose” (A Master of Surprise (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), p. 120). The same God who surprises Israel by sending a Messiah who does and does not look like a Messiah is now out of the temple, acting in surprising ways everywhere.

The second unusual event at Jesus’ death is the comment by the centurion, an official in the Roman army. This centurion, seeing how Jesus died, says, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39). This is the confession Mark has prepared his audience for from the beginning of the gospel (1:1), which has been given only by God’s voice (1:11; 9:7) or the voices of unclean spirits (e.g., 3:11). Yet it is found on the lips of a true outsider, a non-Jew, a commanding member of the army oppressing the Jews. What an upside-down world [Author’s Note 6].

Jesus’ burial is narrated briefly. Mark highlights some important historical facts: Jesus has died relatively quickly (15:44), and Joseph, a member of the council who had unanimously voted for Jesus’ death (14:64), boldly asks Pilate for Jesus’ body (15:43) and places him in a new tomb.

We learn that Jesus has had female followers ever since the beginning of his ministry in Galilee (15:40–41), and these women will play a significant role in the narrative to come. For now, we know that they did not desert Jesus as the male disciples did (14:50), though they do not stand close to the cross in the Gospel of Mark (compare John 19:25–27). They observe where Joseph lays Jesus’ body, for they will return to prepare it adequately for burial, ameliorating the hasty burial Joseph has given Jesus as the Sabbath approaches.

Upside Down Again

Only God could take an upside-down world and turn it upside down again and bring redemption. The cross, an instrument of torture and death emphasizing the power and authority of the Roman empire, will become a symbol of salvation and sacrifice. But for now, in Mark, it is the Sabbath. Darkness and death have the last word today, but only today. Weeping does remain for the night (Psalm 30:5). The women know where the tomb is, but today they rest in the grief of this upside-down world.

Questions for Further Reflection:

  1. Mark has been building up to the suffering and death of Jesus for many chapters now. Why do you think that lingering here, at the cross and the tomb, is so important? What do we miss if we read straight on to Mark 16, without stopping here?
  2. Read Psalm 22. How does it reflect Jesus’ experience at Golgotha?
  3. Is Jesus actually forsaken by God at the cross (15:34)? What evidence do you find one way or the other?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

In Mark 14:48, Jesus asks the crowd, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?” As in Mark 11:17, the word “bandit” (λῃστής) also means “revolutionary” or “insurrectionist.” In Mark 14:48, this term looks back to Jesus’ critique of the Jewish leadership at the temple, and forward to the revolutionary he will free by dying in Barabbas’ place.


Author’s Note 2

Mark translates the Aramaic name for his audience as he says that Golgotha means “the place of a skull” (15:22). This alludes to the geographic formations of the place, where the rocks form the shape of a human skull. In Mark, however, it also gives an ominous tone to the narrative.


Author’s Note 3

Mark will later mention women who are watching Jesus’ death and burial from a distance (15:40).


Author’s Note 4

Given the prevalence of the cross as a symbol in 21st-century culture, it is easy to forget that the cross was an instrument of capital punishment. The victim was either roped or nailed to a beam suspended in the air. The person would usually die from asphyxiation, though dehydration was also a possible cause of death. The inability to breathe usually rendered the crucified one weak and senseless by the time of death. It was a painful and publicly humiliating way to die.


Author’s Note 5

Some have tried to explain the earth’s complete darkness at noon by means of scientific phenomena. Solar eclipses are scientifically impossible at this point in the calendar, however, as they cannot occur during a full moon, and Passover is always held during the full moon. The darkness at Jesus’ death is not the kind of darkness that can be rationally explained. It is a darkness of supernatural origin.


Author’s Note 6

The centurion’s comment could also be taken sarcastically: “Truly this man was God’s son?!? [Yeah, right!]” In this way, Mark would be demonstrating that even after Jesus’ death, people continue to speak ironically, not perceiving the truth in what they are saying. In light of the gospel as a whole, I think Mark has good reason to leave the intent behind this confession ambiguous: The audience knows the centurion is confessing the truth, as it is in Jesus’ death that he exemplifies what it means to be God’s Son, King of the Jews, and the Son of Man.

Given the general ignorance of this truth by the characters within the gospel, as well as Jesus’ promise that the disciples will understand more (though not all) after his resurrection (9:9), whether the centurion intended to offer a Christian confession of Jesus’ identity remains up for debate. Either way — as ironic or forthright — the confession continues to turn the world upside down.


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