Mocking the Mockery
I have examined at length the relationship between the Markan account of the crucifixion and contemporary reflections on the nature and significance of torture. Jesus as the victim of torture is celebrated this Sunday as the Messiah (Christ) and Son of God, in spite of his shame-filled and torturous death. What does this mean for us and how do we proclaim this reality in a way that can make any sense?
Joel Marcus offers an informative and provocative article describing crucifixion as “parodic exaltation.” Marcus is one of the most reliable commentators on the Markan composition as a literary product, and I’m always interested in what he has to say. He knows and notes that irony is one of the Markan composer’s favorite tools, whether the output is oral or written. Nowhere is that irony more evident or more pronounced than in the composer’s testimony to Jesus’ death by crucifixion.
This irony is hardly limited to the Markan composition. “The central irony in the passion narratives of the Gospels,” he writes, “is that Jesus’ crucifixion turns out to be his elevation to kingship” (page 73). Perhaps it is a sign that we no longer hear the passion narratives in their fullness that this irony is lost on us and that we have to work so hard in preaching and teaching to recover that irony.
Marcus notes the particular way that the Markan composition expresses this irony. The composer does not refer once to Jesus as “king” until chapter 15. Then the composer refers to Jesus as “king” six times. Five of those six references come from the lips of Jesus’ opponents, and one is found on the titulus attached to the cross. None of these references is a serious attempt to identify Jesus’ status. All are part of the process of humiliation so integral to Jesus’ torture. That only increases the Markan irony.
Marcus notes additional ironic mockery in the text. The torturers dress him in “royal” clothes. They kneel before him in mock obeisance. “Jesus’ executioners also mock his pretensions to royalty,” Marcus writes, “by crucifying him between two other ‘brigands,’ thus parodying a king’s retinue” (pages 73-74). Of course, I would add, we listeners know that in fact these are the ones who have been somehow destined by God to “sit at the right and left hands in the kingdom.” The words in the Markan script make this conclusion certain.
In spite of the cruel ignorance of the torturers, “the reader understands that these characters’ actions and words point toward a truth unknown to them,” Marcus writes, “royal garments and crowns rightfully do belong to Jesus, who will show his kingship precisely by not saving himself by dying on the cross. Although the degrading slave’s death of crucifixion seems to the mockers to be a decisive contradiction of the claim that Jesus is a king,” Marcus concludes, “the reader knows the opposite is true” (page 74).
This ironic presentation is not exclusive to Mark. We know that it is expanded and enhanced most fully in John’s presentation of the gospel account. We may be convinced, however, that this ironic understanding of crucifixion is limited to Christian circles. Marcus argues that, in fact, there is a cultural history and context in the ancient Mediterranean that helps this ironic presentation make sense to ancient audiences.
A number of pagan and secular sources connect crucifixion to some sort of elevation. Marcus observes that first-century Mediterranean culture was extremely hierarchical and that this hierarchical was often described using metaphors of height to describe one’s place in the hierarchy. “It is striking and unexpected,” Marcus notes, “that in such a hierarchical context, the favorite mode of execution outside the arena would be one that placed the victim on a higher plane than his executioners and the onlookers whom his torture and death were meant to impress” (page 78).
The elevation made the victim more of a public spectacle, to be sure. “but in the ancient Greco-Roman context,” Marcus argues, “the idea of bringing a person down by raising him up must still have struck people as incongruous, and presumably those responsible for the practice would have been cognizant of this irony” (page 78).
Marcus wants to suggest that this irony was precisely the intended effect. He notes that those executed in this manner were often people who have somehow “gotten above themselves.” Being raised up on a cross was a way to mock this self-elevation. So, rebellious slaves, revolutionaries, brigands, and traitors were raised up in order to be brought down.
“Crucifixion was intended to unmask,” Marcus writes, “in a deliberately grotesque manner, the pretentions and arrogance of those who had exalted themselves beyond their station” (page 78). It was punishment designed to lower those who had somehow gotten “above their raising.” It was, like so many penalties in the ancient world, a punishment designed to fit the crime.
In fact, Marcus notes, the very height of the cross “was often proportional to the insolence that the authorities ascribed to the victim” (page 79). He writes in summary, “crucifixion warns against the over-weening presumption that dares to fly too high, mocking the victim’s effrontery by raising and fixing him in a torturously elevated state until he expires – a form of death that drives the last nail, so to speak, into his lofty pretensions” (page 80). Marcus notes that this parodic dimension of Roman punishment was standard practice in many crimes and punishments and made perfect sense to those who witnessed Jesus’ execution.
Therefore, the connection between execution by exaltation and the ritual of mock enthronement is fairly straightforward in the first-century context. Marcus notes that Jesus does not claim the title, “King of the Jews,” for himself. It is assigned to him by his mocking torturers and the contemptuous crowd. The titulus “was meant not only to indicate the charge against Jesus,” Marcus suggests, “but also to continue the mockery that was intrinsic to the process of crucifixion” (page 83).
But what happens, Marcus asks, if the mockery itself is mocked? “And what happened,” he wonders, “if the prisoner mocked by crucifixion as a person of high status or a presumptive monarch responded to his torture with unaccountable dignity?” (pages 86-87). This may best account, for example, for the response from the centurion in Mark 15:39 – “Truly, this man was a son of God.”
“At such moments,” Marcus writes, “the ‘hidden transcript’ of resistance bursts into the open with electrifying power, so that mockery is reversed and the derided victim demands to be taken seriously.” Marcus notes that this can help us make sense of the tone early in chapter 15. It may be that Pilate looks at the tortured body of Jesus and says, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He suggests that Jesus responds with “the equally derisive rejoinder, ‘You say so’” (page 87).
Pilate, by his sneering reply, declares Jesus to be King. “Here the mockery that has transformed kingship into a joke encounters a sharper mockery that unmasks it,” Marcus concludes, “so that the derision of kingship is itself derided, and true royalty emerges through negation of the negation. For many early Christians,” he continues, “this reversal of a reversal, which turned penal mockery on its head, was probably the inner meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion” (page 87). In other words, the Romans intended to degrade Jesus by elevating him. Instead, they raised him up by lowering him down.
I would observe that this is the “Theology of the Cross” as Martin Luther intended to describe it. Too often, that “thin tradition” (as Douglas John Hall names it) has been used to glorify suffering and to valorize victimhood. That is a superficial and ultimately inaccurate reading of Luther’s meaning. Instead, the true theology of the cross asserts that God’s action is hidden under the form of its opposite. The cross reveals Jesus as King and unmasks the powers of this world as miserable failures.
It is the very visibility of the cross and the dignity of the sufferer that bring about this unmasking. I can’t help but think about the televised images and video, for example, of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. It was the combination of Bull Connors’ cruelty and the nonviolent dignity of the protesters that filled our small screens. It was that combination which provoked the nationwide outrage that led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act and related legislation.
It is not that suffering as a victim is good in itself. However, bearing up under the weight of punishment with faith, hope, and love has the power to convert those who are watching – some of whom had previously been in the company of the mockers. Suddenly the joke was on them…us. And many of us were challenged to repent and convert.
This is perhaps why autocrats go after the comedians early on in their regimes. “Revolutions are serious business,” write Popovic and Joksic. “Just recall the grumpy faces of 20th-century revolutionaries like Lenin, Mao, Fidel, and Che. They could barely crack a smile. But fast-forward to the protests of the 21st century, and you see a new form of activism at work. The ominous scowls of revolutions past are replaced by humor and satire,” they continue. “Today’s non-violent activists are inciting a global shift in protest tactics away from anger, resentment, and rage towards a new, more incisive form of activism rooted in fun: ‘Laughtivism.’”
While the cross is not a example of “Laughtivism,” it is an invitation to advocacy by irony. What if our sermons were more like Saturday Night Live and less like Sunday Morning Dead? I’m not skilled at that technique, but we live in a world filled with models. Maybe this week I’ll give it a try. How about you?
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.
Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.
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/.