Text Study for Mark 15:1-39 (Pt. 5); November 21, 2021

Turn On the Applause Sign

How should one perform the mockery of a mockery? Let’s look at that performance critical question through the lens of Mark 15:39, the words of the centurion. I would commend the article by Kelly R. Iverson and note that the word “confession” is not taken at face value. After all, the question is precisely this. What is the nature of the centurion’s statement – dismissive snort, cynical rejection, confused wondering, faithful confession, or something else?

“While various grammatical and historical issues weigh on the interpretation of this statement,” Iverson writes, “the verse hinges on elements that are not readily obvious in the textual remains of Mark’s story” (page 329). He leads us to wonder about the “paralinguistic” and “extralinguistic” features of the performance – “the intonation of the storyteller’s voice, gestures, facial expression, and so on…” (page 330). These nonverbal features are not available to us in the written Markan composition.

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Iverson reminds us of an important distinction at this point. I am not asking about what the centurion actually said and how he actually said it. That information is beyond our reach and may or may not have impacted how the Markan composer told the story. Instead, the intent is “to understand the force of the centurion’s statement as reflected in the Markan passion narrative” (page 330). We can take a real stab at that understanding, and Iverson’s article moves that conversation forward in helpful ways.

For years, I have leaned in the direction of hearing the centurion’s words as either a confused question or a cynical rejection. I have been in good company in that regard. Iverson, however, offers solid reasons based on the tools of performance criticism to hear and play the words of the centurion as a sincere confession of faith. But, as he notes, it could also appear to be such a sincere confession while actually being a confession of disbelief and mockery (page 332).

Iverson moves deeper into the analysis by examining the “metalinguistic commentary” in the Markan composition. Look at the Gospel of Mark and see how many times, when a character (especially Jesus, but not exclusively) speaks, there is a description of what the character says. Iverson points to Mark 1:25, where we hear that Jesus rebuked the demon and then told the demon to come out of the man. The description “he rebuked him” is the metalinguistic commentary that precedes the “and.”

The composer uses this commentary to make sure the listeners understand how the characters intend their words. “Thus, while the Gospel has been shaped by an oral culture and one might expect an absence of metalinguistic language,” Iverson writes, “just the opposite appears to be the case: Mark frequently includes the verbal forms that specify the manner and/or meaning of reported speech, even when such ‘editing in’ is largely unnecessary.” Thus, metalinguistic commentary is a feature of the Markan composition to keep in mind as we interpret the text.

Iverson observes that the Markan passion account contains numerous metalinguistic commentaries. In the passion account, these commentaries are attached without exception to those who mock, accuse, torture, and execute Jesus. As we observed in the previous post, the Markan script mocks the mockers through the use of thick and artful irony. “In Mark’s passion, the pervasive use of metalinguistic indicators seems to be a deliberate strategy to demarcate certain kinds of characters,” Iverson writes. “The absence of such language surrounding the Roman centurion is conspicuous and suggests a more favorable portrayal” (page 335).

In addition, the word translated as “truly” generally “functions in concert with assertions that are genuine and real” (page 330). In light of the general patterns in the Markan composition, Iverson argues that it is unlikely that the centurion’s confession is part of the mocking of Jesus. This is not a conclusive argument, but I find it persuasive enough to lead me further into the conversation.

Scholars have struggled, Iverson notes, to reconcile the centurion’s “confession” with the political and social position of a typical Roman centurion. But, Iverson argues, that is a conversation about what we might surmise the centurion actually said. That’s an historical rather than a literary or performance-critical question. But if we remember that the Markan composition was performed as an oral/aural event, we must bring a different set of interpretive lenses than those offered by historical investigation.

“The question thus becomes how the Markan story shapes the audience’s perception,” Iverson proposes, “and whether the evangelist attempts to subvert stereotypical assumptions about the Roman centurion” (page 339). I would suggest that this strategy is consistent with the Markan effort to make a mockery of mockery.

“One of the interesting features of Mark’s Gospel,” Iverson continues, “is that individuals who are otherwise associated with a particular character or group are occasionally depicted in a manner that defies audience expectations” (page 339). If we think for a bit, the examples multiply. Iverson points to the “good scribe” in Mark 12 and Joseph of Arimathea in Mark 15 as examples. The Syro-Phoenician woman, Jairus, and Bartimaeus also certainly fit this characterization.

“Mark’s selection of characters at this juncture appears to be a calculated attempt to subvert audience expectations,” Iverson argues. He proposes that the Markan composer treats the centurion in a similar fashion. I would point out that the centurion is another one of the “minor characters” who express trust in Jesus when the major characters fall short in that regard. Both of these factors argue in favor of the centurion’s authentic confession of faith.

The third section of Iverson’s article is entitled “Confession as an Audience Applause Line.” I have discussed “applause lines” in the Markan composition in some previous posts, but this takes the conversation a bit further. Iverson refers to Whitney Shiner’s 2003 book, Proclaiming the Gospel, in this regard, a work that I have referenced in some previous posts.

According to Shiner, a confession is a place in the composition where applause was expected from the first audiences. Such applause expresses appreciation, builds and strengthens community identity, and marks a division in the outline of the text. That third point means that Mark 15:40-41 really belongs with the next section of the narrative, the burial of Jesus.

Shiner points to three elements in applause lines in the Markan composition. Often these lines are associated with Jesus triumphing over opponents in some way. The ways in which the words are formed and phrases constructed often indicates a climax to be met with applause. And the applause is invited at natural breaks in the script. Mark 15:39 fits with each of these three criteria, according to Iverson, although Shiner himself doesn’t make that connection in the book.

The centurion’s confession “represents the Christological high point of Mark’s Gospel and echoes the repeated declaration that Jesus is God’s son,” Iverson notes. The confession contradicts Jesus’ opponents and is made just when their victory seems assured. And the statement itself has a phonetic and a rhythmic pattern that makes it both memorable and impactful. It comes at the end of a long, tense, and potentially disastrous narrative and creates the opportunity for the good news to break through that tension.

“In sum,” Iverson writes, “it seems that the participatory indicators that Shiner identifies are all evident in the centurion’s pronouncement, suggesting that the account has been deliberately structured to allow for the interjection of applause in response to the announcement of Jesus’ true identity” (page 344).

It may seem odd that the crucifixion narrative would conclude with an outburst of applause, and this is why, according to Shiner, he does not include it as an example of such a line. But Iverson has inspected some similar martyrological texts and notes that the suffering of martyrs often concludes with expressions of joy and hope in the face of apparent disaster and defeat. The same is true of the lament psalms in the Hebrew scriptures, which always end on a note of hope (including Psalm 22, put to work in the Markan composition in this chapter).

Iverson also takes us to the connection between crucifixion and exaltation examined in detail by Joel Marcus and notes that the subtext is not all gloom and doom. While the room would have been somber during the telling of the crucifixion narrative, the mockery of the mockers, culminating in the enthronement of Christ as King, would be reason for applause at the end of that part of the story.

Iverson notes that the Markan composer is quite intentional in how the composer builds audience identification. It could have been through graphic descriptions of Jesus’ physical suffering. That would develop a kind of horrified sympathy (a la The Passion of the Christ). But that sympathy maintains distance rather than creates identification. The storyteller involves the audience in the emotional suffering of Jesus – something we can all identify with, and which reduces the distance between us and Jesus.

“In Marks story,” Iverson writes, “it is the contrast between the repeated mockery of Jesus and the centurion’s confession that prompts audience applause. The audience’s anger, generated by the cascade of mockery,” he concludes, “is redirected at the moment of confession into an eruption of applause and exultation” (page 349). The centurion’s confession becomes the audience’s confession.

Thus, we come as listeners to a full-circle connection in the Markan composition. It is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. At the foot of the cross, the centurion is drawn to affirm that good news. Now the scene is set in Mark for the unfolding of the rest of the story.

References and Resources

Alexamenos graffito: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito.

Burton, Oliver Vernon, and Defner, Armand. Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press, 2021.

Chan, Michael J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/not-without-gods-power.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-2/commentary-on-mark-151-47.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.

IVERSON, KELLY R. “A Centurion’s ‘Confession’: A Performance-Critical Analysis of Mark 15:39.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 130, no. 2, The Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp. 329–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/41304204.

Marcus, Joel. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 125, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006, pp. 73–87, https://doi.org/10.2307/27638347.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.

Popovic, Srdja, and Joksic, Mladen. “Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/04/05/why-dictators-dont-like-jokes/.

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.

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