Thursday, May 07, 2009

More on the Centurion's Sarcastic Cry in Mark 15.39

I am grateful for all the helpful feedback on my post on The Centurion's Sarcastic Cry in Mark 15.39 last week, especially here on the blog, where dozens of comments provided helpful biblioblography and some excellent engagement with the issue.  On Primal Subversion, Sean helpfully gathers together several quotations from commentaries on Mark 15.39 and concludes that the ironic / sarcastic reading is preferable.  Other blog  commenters found support for the interpretation in a variety of places, from Alexander Roberts in 1862 to Stephen Moore in 2008.

What, though, of John Fenton?  Other than my own representation of the John Fenton oral tradition, which dates to the mid 1980s, there is nothing more specific at this point.  But several have been able to help me out with Donald Juel's views.  It is quite clear that he held the same view, apparently independently of Fenton, and it is mentioned in a variety of places, including Messiah and Temple and the Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (see comments for details).  I picked up a copy of Donald H. Juel, Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), which features the following little footnote (74, n. 7):
I have come to believe that even "Son of God" in 15.39 ought probably be read as a taunt ("Sure, this was God's Son"), in accord with the rest of the taunts in the account of Jesus' trial and death.  The centurion plays a role assigned all Jesus' enemies: They speak the truth in mockery, thus providing for the reader ironic testimony to the truth.
I found a little more of interest in Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Patrick D. Miller (eds.), The Ending of Mark and the Ends of God: Essays in Memory of Donald Harrisville Juel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005).  The essay by Michael Welker, "Baptism as Change of Lordship" (107-14) quotes one of Juel's former students to the following effect:
Like a critic who delights in investigating and revealing the secrets behind magicians' illusions, Don dissected people's biblical exegesis, often wondering aloud why so much knowledge about texts and their histories prevented us from actually reading the texts. Likewise, he eagerly exposed students' hermeneutical assumptions, not necessarily to invalidate them but always to impel us to acknowledge and examine them.  His sarcastic reading of the centurion's 'confession' in Mark 15.39 best illustrates this practice.  While reading the passion narrative aloud, he would voice, 'Sure this was God's son!' with acerbic scorn.  He clearly enjoyed the effects of the reading as much as he believed it a faithful rendering of Mark's account.  His bold interpretation sounded alarms among students, driving us to the text to examine its contours for evidence to support various readings (Quoted from Matthew L. Skinner, "Mark a Life: A Tribute to Don Juel," inSpire 8/1 (2003), 33).
Some remain unconvinced by this reading and prefer to see Mark's centurion as making a true confession of some kind.  Mike Parsons asks about Matthew's apparent misunderstanding of Mark's intent.  My guess on that front is that Matthew is not so much misunderstanding as changing and re-conceptualizing.  One might see Matthew's version of the story, the so-called "Zombie Pericope" (Matt. 27.51-54), as providing the reader with a new and explicit reason for the centurions' (now plural) confession. Matthew often explicates Mark’s mysteries in this way, and here he provides a scene that can genuinely impress the centurion and those with him, a truly apocalyptic breaking up of the earth, as heaven declares the momentous nature of Jesus’ death for the characters within the drama to see.  The crucial difference is on what the centurion(s) witness in the different versions.  Mark's centurion makes his assertion when he "saw how he died", ὅτι οὕτως ἐξέπνευσεν.  Matthew's centurion, and those with him, on the other hand, do not just see how Jesus died. They "saw the earthquake and all that had happened", which leaves the reader in no doubt that this is some kind of awed confession.

This draws attention to the key point in the Marcan narrative, that the centurion makes his remark when he sees how Jesus dies. It is the reader who sees the veil of the temple torn in two. To speak of the temple curtain being visible from Golgotha, whether Mark is implying inner or outer, is wishful thinking. Perhaps we are supposed to surmise that the centurion is impressed by the darkness described earlier, but that is not what the narrator isolates in order to provide the context for the centurion's remark. As far as the narrative is concerned, it is the sight of Jesus' death that causes the centurion to make this remark.

Thanks again to everyone for their informed and interesting comments.


steph said...

The temple curtain, the darkness, and as I argued earlier... but never mind, I don't mind that you ignore me - or more importantly, Roger Aus and other respectable scholars :-)

Mark Goodacre said...

Me? Ignore you? You know me better than that, Steph! Have a look at the last paragraph again where I engage those comments. I should have mentioned you by name, though.

steph said...

no you didn't :-) - and no, I wasn't looking for my name!! - the point about the temple curtain is missed and this provides the context (with the darkness) Mark does not need it to be realistic - that was my point. The impression he intended to convey was the miracle of the tearing of such an enormous and elaborate curtain which could not fail to be missed (probably even by those back in Galilee if you get my drift).;

And Aus' point of course was to show the parallels of God mourning in ancient literature - darkness and tearing garments - which could not fail to be missed by Mark.

Jesus as Son of God is terribly important for Mark - why poke fun at it with a centurion?

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Steph. Even if Mark is talking about the outer curtain, the narration of the tearing is not the thing that leads to the centurion's statement. It is not, "And when he saw the temple curtain tearing, from top to bottom, he said . . ." Matthew appears to notice the problem, and so adds an earthquake and a resurrection, though even he does not depict the centurion and those with him seeing the curtain.

I agree about the importance of the term Son of God to Mark, one of the reasons that it is plausible that he gives it the same treatment as other titles in the Passion Narrative like Christ and King, with dramatic irony: the actors in the drama mock, the reader understands. Mark is not poking fun; rather the irony works by means of continuing the two-level dramatic irony that typifies Mark's Passion.

steph said...

Matthew still doesn't depict the centurion with sarcasm. I think you want Mark to arrange his narrative differently when perhaps Mark thought the indications were so obvious, given all the parallels, his audience would see the centurion noticing these too.

Mark Goodacre said...

Hi, beowulf2k8. I deleted it for two reasons: (1) the gratuitous insult, as you guessed and (2) the fact that it is pseudonymous. Because of abuses of my blog in the past by anonymous / pseudonymous users, I like to ask for people not to hide behind a pseudonym. I looked at your profile and that also does not say who you are. If you sign your posts, I will be happy to retain the comments. Thanks for your interest in my blog and in my thoughts. Best wishes, Mark.