Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Centurion's Sarcastic Cry in Mark 15.39

The centurion's cry in Mark 15.39, "Truly this was the son of God", is often described as a "confession". It is the moment in Mark's Gospel when Jesus is finally acknowledged as God's son, by a Gentile centurion, forming a nice inclusio with God's announcement of Jesus as his son in Mark 1.11 (cf. 9.7, 12.6). But are we supposed to read centurion's statement as a positive confession, or is it a sarcastic comment, "Huh, truly this fellow as a son of god!"? I first heard the latter interpretation as a first year student in Oxford in the mid 80s, from Canon John Fenton. I would like to underline the merits of this reading in the current blog post, and then I will conclude by asking where the reading originates.

Since hearing John Fenton expound this reading, I have often taught it myself. Usually people are somewhat shocked at first, but as time goes on the reading becomes more appealing and, ultimately, quite persuasive. If the cry is sarcastic, it makes sense in its narrative context. Take another look:
Mark 15.37: ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἀφεὶς φωνὴν μεγάλην ἐξέπνευσεν. 38. Καὶ τὸ καταπέτασμα τοῦ ναοῦ ἐσχίσθη εἰς δύο ἀπ' ἄνωθεν ἕως κάτω. 39 Ἰδὼν δὲ ὁ κεντυρίων ὁ παρεστηκὼς ἐξ ἐναντίας αὐτοῦ ὅτι οὕτως ἐξέπνευσεν εἶπεν, Ἀληθῶς οὗτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος υἱὸς θεοῦ ἦν.

Mark 15.37: And Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38. And the veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who was standing facing him, saw how he died, he said, "Truly this was a son of god".
There is nothing that the centurion has seen that suggests that we should read the text as implying his admiration for Jesus. He makes his comment when he saw how Jesus died (ὅτι οὕτως ἐξέπνευσεν εἶπεν), that is, in despair (15.34), apparently unable to call down Elijah to deliver him (15.35-6). The reader, on the other hand, is given some privileged information, that the veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. This is classic dramatic irony: the reader knows what the actors in the drama do not know, and the actors do not realize the truth of the words that they are speaking in mockery.

To read the text in this way coheres with the rest of Mark's Passion Narrative, which is commonly regarded as rich in irony. Jesus is repeatedly mocked as a king (15.9, 12, 18, 26, 32) with purple cloak, crown of thorns and mock homage (15.17-20), but the reader knows that he really is a king. He is mocked as a prophet (14.65) while his very prophecies are being enacted all around him (the mockery itself, fulfilling his Passion predictions, and Peter's denial, fulfilling Jesus' Last Supper prophecies). Given this context, it is difficult to think that the centurion's remark can be intended as a "confession" of faith in Jesus. Reading the remark as the crowning element in the dramatic irony of Mark's Passion Narrative makes good narrative sense.

Now, the first time I heard the suggestion that we read the centurion's cry as ironic was from my tutor John Fenton. A friend tells me that he thinks Fenton got this interpretation from Austin Farrer. This is plausible because Fenton was an admirer of Farrer, but I don't remember that from what Fenton himself said -- and he was inclined to attribute ideas that were not original. I have cast around the literature too to see if anyone else has read the text in this way, and I am surprised to be struggling to find examples of this interpretation. I had thought that perhaps Donald Juel mentioned it, but again I can't find it. Fenton himself mentions it in written work once, as far as I am aware, as follows, with some helpful additional context connecting the saying to the Elijah on Horeb narrative:
Elijah had, it was believed, set up an experiment to prove that the Lord was God, not Baal (1 Kings 18). Someone now tries to repeat the experiment on Jesus: he is given the drink, and they say, Let us see if Elijah will come to take him down from the cross. If Elijah comes, Jesus is who he says he is; if Elijah does not come, he is not. Jesus dies, without the intervention of Elijah, thus proving to those who think in this way that he was not the Messiah, the king of Israel. (It is possible that the centurion's words should be taken in this sense: He really was God's son! Of course not! There is a parallel in the Greek between what the people said on Mount Horeb after Elijah's miracle: Truly the Lord is God; and what is said here, Truly this man was the Son of God. There is also the possibility that 'this man' should be translated 'this fellow', disparagingly, as in Acts 6.13.), John Fenton, Finding the Way Through Mark (London: Mowbray, 1995), 111.
If anyone has any more from the literature on this theme, I would be interested to hear it.


AKMA said...

I don't know when he published it, but I can affirm that Don Juel promoted vigorously the “sarcastic” reading of this verse. I expect that it appears in A Master of Surprise, perhaps also in his commentary on Mark in the Augsburg commentary series.

Brent said...

I believe this reading is advocated in Donald Juel, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted (1994) and perhaps in Messiah and Temple (1977) by the same author.

CMWoodall said...

Juel says that the first-gentile confession reading is "more due to Christian piety than from sensitive interpretation".
Saints Matthew & Luke have another reading that surely influenced the Christian understanding of this.
Juel has a point but looks solely at Mark rather than Luke and Matthew.

I don't see anyone earlier than Fenton or Juel propose this.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for these useful points. I have dug around and found a bit more in Juel and will blog it later.

Jim said...

this is very interesting mark. still, finding 'sarcasm' without the benefit of tone of voice is a bit perilous. finding sarcasm in an ancient text may be even more difficult. and the fact that the 'confession' serves as something of an inclusio to the gospel makes it less likely, in my very humble opinion.

still, it is something worth pondering, so thank you.

Josh said...

Timothy J. Geddert offers the possibility of an 'ironic' rendering in his commentary on Mark (2001, appearing the Believers Church Bible Commentary series) referencing Robert M. Fowler, Let the Reader Understand (1991, p208).

This particular page of Fowler's book is available for preview on google books (if you want a look). In his discussion, he includes the following footnote: "Another scholar who has recognized that 15:39 functions simultaneously on 'two levels' is Donald Juel, with James S. Acherman and Thayer S. Warshaw, An Introductino to New Testament Literature (Nashville: Abingdon Pres, 1978), 146."

It seems by 1959, Cranfield noted in passing that the centurion may have been guilty of an 'unwitting proclamation of the truth' (The Gospel According to St Mark, 460.) Cranfield parallels this with other 'unwitting' proclamations in Mark, implying the possibility that irony throughout the book of Mark might support an ironic reading of 15:39.

Frank McCoy said...

Donald H. Juel, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament Mark, Augsburg Fortress, Mpls., MN, 1990, pp. 227-28:

Elsewhere in the narrative, the role of Jesus' enemies, Jews and Romans alike, is to speak the truth without understanding what they say. "You are the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" says the high priest. "You are the King of the Jews?" asks Pilate. "Hail, King of the Jews," the soldiers taunt. "So you are the Christ, the King of Israel, are you?" say the bystanders at the cross.

It would seem appropriate to read the statement of the centurion in such light. The grammatical ambiguity makes it possible to hear the statement in two ways. The first would be to regard the 'confession' as a purely human estimate. The centurion, impressed perhaps by Jesus' utter collapse, offers an estimate: "Truly this man was [note the past tense!] a son of God." That might mean "a religious man," i.e., hardly a criminal. Luke takes the statement in that sense: the centurion says, "He was innocent." The statement might also be read read sarcastically in line with the earlier cynicism of the Roman soldiers who mock Jesus as "King of the Jews."

Frank McCoy said...

Stephen D. Moore, "DECONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM Turning Mark Inside Out" (Mark & Method, Ed. by Janice Capel Anderson and Stephen D. Moore, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008, pp. 95-110), p. 107:

What does the centurion's utterance actually amount to? In declaring the bloody, lacerated corpse dangling on the cross before him to have "truly [been] a Son of God" (alethes houtos ho anthropos huios theou en), is he really, in good crypto-Christian fashion, as we have been assuming all along, succeeding spectacularlry where Jesus' elite hand-picked disciples have so singularly failed, effortlessly coupling the concepts of divine sonship and dishonorable death where they could not, and thereby giving climactic and definitive expression to Mark's theology of the cross? Or is he merely engaging in grim gallows humor instead, the tone inflecting his "Truly this man was a Son of God" actually being one of scathing sarcasm rather than awed reverance (footnote 24 at this point is found on p. 254, "A suggestion made in passing by Richard A. Horsley; see his *Hearing the Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark's Gospel* (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 252"), so that the Greek might better be rendered in colloquial American English by "Some Son of God!" or some equally dismissive phrase.

This alternative reading of the centurion's pronouncement finds support from the immediate context. On this reading, the centurion would simply be parroting the derision of everybody else in the vicinity of the cross, not least the Judean religious leadership with whom his commander, Pontus Pilate, is in cahoots: "Those who passed by derided him....In the same way, the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying '...Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now...' Those who were crucified with him also taunted him" (15:29-32).

Thus complicated and counter-read, the centurion's utterance seems to oscillate undecidedly between confession and oppression.

Anonymous said...

Sharyn Dowd, Reading Mark, 2001, p. 162-63 adopts the sarcastic reading, citing Fowler.
If sarcastic, wouldn't one have to say also that it was rather uniformly
misunderstood in the exegetical tradition, beginning with Matthew?
mikeal parsons

Anonymous said...

I should add that sarcastic (Juel) is not necessarily the same as ironic (Cranfield). Dowd also preserves the 'confessional' interpretation by reading the saying not only as sarcastic but also ironic:
"Ironically, however, the centurion represents all the gentiles who will hear the gospel and make a sincere confession as a result of Jesus’ death (13:10; cf. Isa 52:15; 2:1-4; 56:6-8)." (Reading Mark p. 163)
mikeal parsons

N T Wrong said...

I like it. It fits with the attitude of the soldiers (vv. 16ff), the 'passers by' (v.29f), the chief priests and scribes (v.31f), and those crucified with him - both on the left and the right! (v. 32b).

It also means that the centurion's words are both untruthful in their sarcasm and truthful in their plain meaning - the sort of two-level plain meaning and mystery we'd expect Mark to get up to. So there is still room for treating the words as a framing confession of faith in Jesus within the Gospel of Mark - although, in a tricky way.

However, alternatively...

The centurion was a witness of the spooky darkness which came over the land, and ended at the moment of Jesus' death (vv. 33-34a). This preternatural cessation of darkness coincided with the tearing of the Temple curtain (vv. 37-38). And whether or not the centurion could have been aware of the curtain 'in reality' at that time, maybe the narrator is building on his presentation of overwhelming spookiness and mystery of which the centurion was at least in part a witness, which immediately compels... the centurion's words in v. 39. Which would mean they are a sincere confession of faith.

What an curious thing to ponder, Mark!

Ambivalently yours,

Eric Thurman said...

No help on the attribution question at the moment, I’m afraid, but some thoughts on others' comments:

I wonder (in response to Jim West) if the “confessional” interpretation is not equally as dependent on the matter of “tone” as the “sarcastic” interpretation. Surely the reader can connect the rhetorical dots to see the inclusio on either reading. Taking the statement as an inclusio also probably won’t settle the matter because the more immediate narrative context can be read to support the sarcastic interpretation, as others noted above. Narrative context supports either reading it seems. The fact that the centurion is not explicitly said to deride, mock, or taunt Jesus like the others at the cross, however, does complicate the sarcastic reading. If the centurion intended to mock Jesus like everyone else at the cross, why not say so?

That said, sarcasm is not necessarily the same thing as irony (as Mikeal Parsons notes), but in this case I think they are, or certainly belong together at least. Taken as sarcasm, the centurion’s statement says more than he intends because the reader knows the opposite of his slander to be true, which is to say the centurion speaks ironically, the point Cranfield (and others) seem to make. And did the exegetical tradition, beginning with Matthew, misunderstand the statement, or simply alter, and “improve,” it? I’m wary of turning to Matthew to determine “what Mark meant.”

Richard Godijn said...

Mark, perhaps the centurion's words in Mark are related to the tradition behind the epistle of Barnabas:

Barnabas 7:9 ...For they
shall see Him in that day wearing the long scarlet robe about His
flesh, and shall say, Is not this He, Whom once we crucified and set
at nought and spat upon; verily this was He, Who then said that He
was the Son of God.

If this is correct it is indeed a confession and is not meant to be ironic.

Matt Page said...

No-one seems to have mentioned the possibility that the centurion said nothing of the sort, but Mark added it in as an artistic way of making a point. Salvation comes to the Jews (tearing of the temple curtain) and the gentiles (centurion's confession). Or something.

Of course if he knew how John Wayne would murder the line 1900 years later he might have thought twice about it..

Anonymous said...

Alexander Roberts, Discussions on the Gospels (1862) 129 addresses the possibility: "As well might it be argued, that the centurion...intended to be sarcastic when he said (ver. 54)...." Roberts refers to Dean [Henry] Alford has having asserted the reading of mockery.

Stephen Goranson

shirhashirim said...

Mc 15:36 "And one ran and filled a spunge 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."

May have been a sick joke as well. Romans used a spunge on a reed soaked in vinegar to wipe their behinds after going to the toilet.

steph said...

Roger Aus sorted this out, I think convincingly, and so has Maurice Casey since. Mark creatively reports that the Curtain of the Temple was split in two from top to bottom (Mark 15.38). The outer curtain was huge and very beautiful tapestry with embroidery as Josephus describes it. If it had really suddenly split in two, Jewish sources could not have failed to mention this dramatic portent: but they did. There are however many stories of prodigies occurring to mark the deaths of important people. These stories were intended to be taken symbolically, and this one has been sorted out by Roger Aus. It presents God mourning for his son, when normal human mourning was not possible. One mourning custom was to put out the lights... such as making darkness over the whole land from midday till 3 o’clock (Mark 15.33) like for example Amos 8.9-10. The original author of Mark 15.39 envisaged the crucifixion taking place on the Mount of Olives, from where this centurion could see the outer curtain of the Temple torn in two. He is portrayed as drawing the correct conclusion from three hours’ darkness and the tearing of God’s garment: the dead man must be a son of God.

N T Wrong said...

Hi Steph!

You've convinced me that's the more probable meaning. The whole darkness, death, temple-ripping scenario changes the tone from the earlier mocking to one of awe and wonder. So - odds on the sincere confession, for me.

N T Wrong said...

It's also nice to see the odd reason being put forward - in amongst the great muster of Names and Authorities.

steph said...

Kia Ora to you NT and exactly! Anyway 'son of God' is such an important theme for Mark and 15.39 is a fitting climax - from the 'tearing apart' of the clouds in 1.11 to the tearing apart of the temple curtain in 15.38. The Roger Aus reference is in chapter 3 of Samuel, Saul and Jesus: Three Early Palestinian Jewish Christian Gospel Haggadoth (Atlanta: Scholars, 1994).

I'm looking forward to you forthcoming publication btw... :-)

Keith said...

In response to Steph's interesting argument - does not 'houtos exepneusen' draw at least as much attention to the manner of death and to what Jesus himself did as the attendant circumstances (darkness and temple)? The echo of v37 and the fact that Mark draws attention to the centurion's position in respect of Jesus encourages me to read v39 as another response to the death of Jesus, more parallel than successive to v38. Cranfield p460notes 'it is, according to Mk (contrast Mt.), the manner of Jesus' death (not any accompanying event) that compels the centurion's exclamation'

Sean said...

Ben Witherington's commentary on the Gospel of Mark has the footnote to Juel. I think it's to his work: Messianic Exegesis, but I'm not sure. I'm currently in transit, so all this is from memory. But I know the Juel reference is in Witherington, I think on page 400. Check it out.

Sean said...

Apparently, although I cannot confirm this just yet, Juel's essay "The strange silence of the Bible" in Interpretation (51/1|5-19) claims that the confession of the centurion in 15.39 should be understood as sarcasm.

steph said...

All my books are once again on a ship right now ... I read John Donahue's weird book on the trial narrative in Mark (1971ish) years ago and I'm wondering if that was where I first read about the idea of sarcasm in 15.39. I remember thinking about it around the time I read that book and it wasn't any of the authors above who brought it to my attention.

thechurchofjesuschrist said...

I would view the confession in light of Luke's recording of the event as stated in The Paradox of the Cross.

steve.rives said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Paul said...

Contrary to Steph's comment above, there is quite a lot of contemporary documentation mentioning the tearing of the veil.

Brother Kevin said...

That does not jive with Matt 27:54: When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

Donald Denton said...

Since we have difficulty discerning irony, sarcasm, humor and plain speech in contemporary speakers where we have 24/7/365 video coverage, it is highly improbable that we can speak with anything approaching certainty about an ancient speaker in a different culture. I suspect that Juel and other contemporary academics and preachers are reading their own sarcastic viewpoint into the centurion.