(All gospel translations are from The Complete Gospels.)
The Gospel attributed to Mark pictures Jesus as a transgressive figure who challenges the purity code and breaks boundaries. This image of Jesus runs throughout the story, as we saw in my previous blog post. This theme climaxes in the story of Jesus’ death, where a reader must figure out how the traditional messianic titles apply to Jesus. The whole narrative has trained a reader to understand these transgressive transformations of traditional titles.
To appreciate how Mark’s good news transforms these traditional titles in the death scene, we must first examine how they functioned in Israel’s tradition. David is the prototype—he is king, anointed, and son of God. Psalm 2 illustrates this.
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed . . .
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision . . .
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill” . . .
He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Ps 2:2, 4, 6, 7 NRSV).
Basically, these titles are interchangeable.
The author of Mark’s good news agrees with this equation. The narrative begins:
“The good news of Jesus the Anointed . . .” (1:1).
This is the story of Jesus the Anointed. After Jesus’ ritual washing by John, a voice from the skies proclaims,
“You are my son, the one I love—I fully approve of you” (1:11).
“Anointed” translates the Greek christos, which translates the Hebrew Messiah (מָשִׁיחַ, mašíaḥ). The transliteration Christ in modern Christian English means something very different from the translation Anointed/Messiah in a Jewish-Greco-Roman context
“Son of God” in a modern Christian context has a trinitarian meaning, which is totally absent in the period of the New Testament. Son of God in the New Testament mostly has a messianic sense.
The Greek word basileus can be translated as king or emperor. It can refer to the Roman emperor.
Before the High Priest
The chief priests (Mark sometimes uses this in the plural, sometimes in the singular) and the whole council of Judean leaders seek the death of Jesus. Unable to find credible evidence against him, they resort to false witnesses.
“We have heard him saying, ‘I’ll destroy this temple made with hands and in three days I’ll build another, not made with hands!’” (15:58)
When the chief priest challenges Jesus to respond to these false witnesses, he remains silent. Then the chief priest asks Jesus directly,
“Are you the Anointed One, the son of the Blessed One?” (15:61)
The chief priest equates Anointed/Messiah with son of the Blessed One, in a traditional Jewish fashion.
To this point in his interrogation, Jesus had remained silent. Confronted by the chief priest, he boldly responds,
“I am! And you will see the Human One sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of the sky!” (14:62)
“Human One” is a better translation than the traditional “Son of man.” Human One indicates what the title means. Jesus’ response is in the form of an apocalyptic warning. We can elaborate its meaning as, “You will see me coming at the end of times with God to reclaim God’s creation.”
“the chief priest tore his vestments and says, ‘Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy! What do you think?’ And they all concurred in the death penalty” (14:63-4).
How is this blasphemy? Jesus is not claiming to be God. The blasphemy arises in the context. The chief priest in this situation is God’s Anointed and represents divine power. Jesus stands before the chief priest powerless and humiliated. Yet he claims to be the Anointed, the son of the Blessed One. His lack of power in the face of the chief priest’s evident power constitutes blasphemy.
The traditional understanding of Anointed/Messiah indicates that God is evidently on the side of the chief priest. The reader of Mark’s good news must reject and reinterpret the traditional understanding.
“King (or emperor) of the Judeans” is the charge against Jesus in the trial before the Roman official Pilate. Translating it as emperor makes the political challenge to Rome more evident. No real trial before Pilate occurs because no real evidence for a charge exists. Pilate understands that Jesus is not guilty:
“he realized that the chief priests had turned him over out of envy” (15:10).
Instead, the “trial” revolves around the exchange of Jesus for Barabbas. While there is no evidence for this supposed tradition, which is surely a legend, it makes a very important point in Mark’s narrative.
King or emperor of the Judeans indicates that the charge involves political rebellion or insurrection. Jesus is innocent of this charge, whereas Barabbas is guilty. But Barabbas is set free, and Jesus is executed. Jesus is the King of the Judeans, but it must mean something other than political ruler. The reader again must resolve a major question mark.
The name Barabbas is also intriguing. An Aramaic name, it means “son of the father,” which also describes Jesus. Thus, Jesus substitutes for someone with the same title/name.
The crowd asks for Barabbas instead of Jesus.
Pilate again said to them, “What do you want me to do with the man you call ‘the King of the Judeans’?” And they in turn shouted, “Crucify him!” Pilate kept saying to them, “Why? What has he done wrong?” But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” (15:12-14)
In this trial before Pilate, the good news of Mark shifts the blame for Jesus’ execution from Pilate and Rome to the Judean officials and the people of Israel. This is a fatal misstep which initiates a long and tragic history. This is in no way good news and is an element of the gospel that we morally must reject and repent of.
Before The Centurion
The transformation of the titles continues in the death scene. The chief priests mock Jesus:
“He saved others, but he can’t even save himself! ‘The Anointed One,’ ‘the King of Israel,’ should come down from the cross here and now, so that we can see for ourselves and believe!” (15:31-32)
The chief priests are asking for a messianic sign or miracle. Mark’s good news presents an interesting conundrum. If Jesus were the Messiah, he should be able to come down from the cross. Most Christians would agree with the chief priests. But from Mark’s point of view, if he came down from the cross, he would not be the Messiah. The meaning of Messiah has been turned upside down.
Jesus’ last words are:
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (15:34)
This moment of despair has scandalized the tradition (see Luke 23:46-47). But for Mark’s good news this proves Jesus’ humanity and requires from the reader faith, confidence or trust to see this as God’s true plan.
The reader often has been reassured that Jesus is God’s son, his anointed, the true King of Israel. At Jesus ritual cleansing which open this narrative of the good news, the voice from the sky says,
“You are my son, the one I love” (1:11).
And at the conclusion of the transfiguration, the voice from the cloud proclaimed,
“This is my son, the one I love, listen to him!” (9:11)
Now the reader must solve this conundrum.
The centurion offers an aid.
“When the Roman officer in charge saw that he had died like this, he said, ‘This man really was God’s son!’” (15:39)
The centurion is not an innocent bystander; he is the one who literally executed Jesus and witnessed his last despairing cry.
But is this a confession? The tradition has read it that way, but there are important reasons to challenge this interpretation. Why would a hard-bitten Roman army officer draw such a conclusion from what he had witnessed? Moreover, the Greek is not smooth, as one would expect in a confession, but rough. All this suggests that centurion’s remark is not a confession but sarcasm. “So, this is what a son of God is supposed look like? I don’t think so!”
Yet a reader of Mark’s good news, who has trusted the voice from the sky affirming that Jesus is God’s son, can see through the centurion’s sarcasm to the truth. Despite how things look, trust (confidence or faith) allows one to see. The one who can confess Jesus as God’s son in the face of his despairing call has true faith. That one trusts God, that one has eyes to see and ears to hear.
Other posts in this series:
The Difficulties and the Art of Bible Translation
The Gospel of Mark: The Good News of Transgressing Boundaries
Jesus at His Trial in the Gospel of Mark