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.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

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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Text Study for Mark 8:27-38 (part 3); 2 Lent B 2021

Part Three: Minding What Matters

But, turning about and peering at his disciples, [Jesus] gave Peter a dressing down and said, ‘Get out of my face, Satan!” Jesus continued, “For you are not focusing your thoughts on the things of God but rather on things that concern human beings” (Mark 8:33, my translation).

In last week’s “Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines” I focused on what it means to “change one’s mind” when the Kingdom of God begins among us. I noted that this mind-changing experience really is more of a mind-blowing reality. In the current text, we see that Peter’s mind is not properly “blown” and remains focused on all-too-human concerns of power, privilege, and position, concerns of safety, security, and certainty. In his fear, Peter takes it upon himself to begin to correct Jesus and gets a royally humiliating dressing down in return.

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana on Pexels.com

I can’t be too hard on Peter. How can he be responsible for knowing what he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know? I’m reminded of the most famous quote from former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But,” Rumsfeld concluded, “there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld was panned and parodied dozens of times for his verbose and convoluted explanation. But he’s quite right. Peter finds himself in unknown unknown territory. “We must understand that in ancient Judaism,” Hurtado writes, “there was no concept that the Messiah would suffer the sort of horrible fate Jesus describes in 8:31. Thus,” he concludes, “Peter’s response in 8:32 is in one sense fully understandable” (page 136). This talk of rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection just made no sense to Peter, and he tried to put a stop to such nonsense.

In Mark 1, Jesus calls for “metanoia” as one of the proper responses to the presence of God’s reign among us. God is on the move in the world, Jesus declares. Prepare to have your mind blown. Peter was neither prepared nor willing. So, he finds himself in league with the Satan, working at odds with the coming of God’s gracious rule.

It is no easier for us now. Metanoia always demands the deconstruction of our favored worldviews which prop up our privilege. “Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together,” James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and,” he concludes, “no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy” (page xv). This is a call to have our white supremacist minds blown for the sake of the Gospel and love of the neighbor.

The verb I translated above as “focusing your thoughts” is “phroneo.” The Greeks spent a lot of time thinking about thinking. They had a number of words to describe different types of thinking. The verb here points to a general context of thinking. We might use the terms “worldview” or “frame of reference” or even “point of view.” So, Jesus is not criticizing isolated thoughts on Peter’s mind but rather his view of reality. As noted from last week, the coming kingdom of God changes everything. We can change our worldview to match, or we can find ourselves opposing the kingdom.

Years ago, I spent a week in a class with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary. He walked us through the inter-textual relationship between Mark 8 and Philippians 2. “Share this framework for thinking among yourselves,” Paul writes to the Philippian Christians in verse five, “which is in Christ Jesus…” (my translation). Paul uses the noun form of “phroneo” for what I translate as “this framework for thinking.” One of Frederickson’s points was that the “things of God” Jesus mentions in Mark 8 are best summarized by the Christ hymn in Philippians 2.

In fact, the whole argument of Philippians could be read as an expansion, a Christian midrash, on Mark 8. Paul’s call to the Philippian Christians is to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). Forms of “phroneo” appear twice in that verse. This behavior means that the readers would “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others better than yourselves” (2:3). That call will find its commentary concluded in Mark 10, as we will read below.

The opposite of this worldview is described in Philippians 3:19. There are many who “live as enemies of the cross,” Paul warns his readers, and not for the first time. He can’t impress on them strongly enough the importance of his encouragement here. “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame,” Paul continues, “their minds are set on earthly things.” The word Paul uses is once again a form of the verb, “phroneo.” Enemies of the cross with minds set on earthly things – that sounds a great deal like the confrontation happening in Mark 8.

If we track the plot from Mark 8 to the climax of this section in Mark 10, we can see that Frederickson is right on target. The disciples continue to focus on human concerns. They are especially anxious about their own power, privilege, and position in the coming kingdom. That anxiety comes to a full boil when James and John ask to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand when he comes into his royal glory. It’s time for another rebuke and some more teaching.

“It shall not be so among you,” Jesus tells them. God’s rule is about reversal – the least being the greatest and the last being first. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” Jesus concludes, “and to give his life a ransom for many.” That’s the worldview, the frame of reference, the point of view at stake already in Mark 8. The kingdom is beginning in Jesus’ ministry. That ministry puts him on a collision course with the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Those powers will do their worst to Jesus, but Life is on the other side. Those are “the things of God.”

Jesus turns from this difficult conversation to the crowds standing with his disciples. The private call to the disciples now becomes a public declaration of what this journey will cost anyone who comes along. All of this talk of cross-bearing and life-losing might sound abstract and spiritual to us in our current situations. But, Hurtado notes, “it is necessary to emphasize that the words must be taken literally if we are to read them as Mark intended. When Mark’s first readers read these words,” he continues, “they could have understood them only as a warning that discipleship might mean execution, for in their time the cross was a well-known instrument of Roman execution for runaway slaves and other criminals of lower classes” (page 138). The cross was a tool of execution by state authorities, Hurtado reminds us, and following Jesus was bound to get one crossways with the people in power. That never ends well.

Jesus calls disciples to be more than “allies” in God’s reign. Jesus calls disciples to be “accomplices” in the work of the kingdom. I heard that helpful distinction in an ELCA-sponsored webinar on February 10, 2021, offered by Dr. Aja Y. Martinez. In a talk entitled “The Responsibility of Privilege: A Critical Race Conversation for Allies and Accomplices,” Dr. Martinez noted that “allies” are often helpers in anti-racism work but often function as tourists rather than residents.

She noted that it is far more comfortable to stand with the marginalized than to stand against the powerful, the privileged, and the positioned. Standing with the marginalized is often the posture of what she termed as “allies.” Standing against the powerful on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable is the posture of what she termed as “accomplices.” If’s far more comfortable to be a helper from a place of strength than to be a partner from a place of vulnerability.

Accomplices, Dr. Martinez noted, put their bodies at risk for the sake of the marginalized and the vulnerable.  Accomplices are in the fight for the long haul and not for the acclaim. Being an accomplice with the Crucified – that sounds a great deal like Jesus’ call to discipleship here in Mark 8.

Finally, however, we should note that none of this is suffering for the sake of suffering. Disciples may not have the privilege of going around the cross. But the cross is also not the final destination. The goal of all of this is New Life, beginning now and never ending. “Mark’s gospel has a stark and simple structure,” N. T. Wright says in The Resurrection of the Son of God, “chapters 1-8 build up to the recognition of Jesus’ Messiahship, and chapters 9-15 build up to his death. But always, in looking ahead to his death,” Wright concludes, the chapters “look ahead to his resurrection” (page 620).

Disciples begin to live in the power of the New Life here and now. As accomplices of the cross we demonstrate that sin, death, and evil are defeated. In the season of Lent, we can and should reflect our path to and through the cross, the places where we are called to be accomplices for justice and focused on the things of God.

References and Resources

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.