Mark 15:33-39 – Crucifixion

For Mark, the crucifixion scene is the height of his gospel. It is only through Jesus’ death that his ministry on earth can be fully understood, and in many ways the crucifixion is for Mark more important than the subsequent resurrection. It is on the cross that Jesus weakness and humanness is displayed, and also on the cross that Jesus’ power and divine sonship is displayed most fully.

We should start by looking at the background and setting of this passage. Jesus had been arrested, tried and was now being put to death. Jesus had been put onto the cross at around 9AM (Mark 15:25), had been offered a painkiller (wine mixed with Myrrh) and was repeatedly mocked. From midday until about 3PM, σκοτος εγενετο εφ ολην την γην (“darkness came upon the whole land/world”) (15:33). There have been many possible interpretations of this, but the most popular one (that of a solar eclipse) must immediately be ruled out. This is because, as Maclear notes, the festival of passover occurs when there is a full moon, and when this is the case, it is physically impossible for there to be a solar eclipse. The reference to darkness is probably based on Amos in which it is written that God says “I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight.” (Amos 8:9) on the day of judgement. The Greek for the latter half of this prophecy is συσκοτασει επι της γης (“there will be darkness upon the land/world”) which is probably more than co-incidentally linked to the phrase in Mark 15:33. This would indicate that the darkness is a sign of God’s judgement on the nation or the world because of their rejection of Jesus. The darkness could also be theologically understood as God hiding his face from the world because he did not want to look upon the death of his Son. In addition to these two explanations, there was also a Roman tradition (which influenced some Jewish works) whereby the sky turned dark when a person of importance died. For example in Plutarch’s Caesar 69:3-5 the sun is described as having hidden its face when Caesar died. Which ever of these interpretations are correct, they are certainly not mutually exclusive and serve to show the importance of this event and the place of God’s judgement upon the world for murdering this innocent person.

In contrast to the other gospels, Mark only records Jesus crying out one phrase on the cross (and another anonymous loud cry at his death in 15:37). The Aramaic phrase is translated into Greek as θεος μου [ο θεος μου] εις τι εγκατελιπες με (“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”). This is apparently a good translation of the Aramaic which Mark records, probably because of its liturgical use. The word εγκατελιπες means desertion or utter abandonment, and is used of Paul being abandoned at his trial (2 Timothy 4:10,16). Jesus has been mocked repeatedly in :29-32 by the robbers and the priests but is able to cope with it because he has his God with him. It is only when God hides His face from Jesus that he cries out in agony. There has been some discussion as to whether in quoting Psalm 22 Jesus means to allude to the whole of it in Mark (other gospel accounts much more obviously allude to this psalm (eg Matthew 27:35)). I am convinced that Jesus does mean to allude to the rest of this psalm, especially because the end section about his vindication (:20-31/32), which we see fulfilled in the resurrection scene later. Even if Jesus does not mean to allude to the rest of the Psalm, Mark clearly believes that the vindication of Jesus does happen in his resurrection. However, I also think that far too much is generally made of this allusion in Mark and this serves to sanitise the cry that Jesus gives. God has struck Israel as he promised to do (Zech 13:7), starting with the Good Shepherd. Jesus cries out because he is now totally abandoned; first by his disciples, then by the crowds and the leaders, then by those who are perishing with Him but finally when God too abandons him it is too much; Jesus has lived purely for God but is now without Him.

His cry seems to have somehow been mistaken as a call to Elijah to save him. It might look strange to the modern reader, because the repeated “eloi” (“my God”) shows that Jesus’ cry is very much addressed to God rather than Elijah. However, there are two explanations for this, both of which are quite equally plausible and it is impossible to distinguish which is right. The first explanation is only understandable in Aramaic. This explanation says that Mark must have written the Aramaic in verse 34 for a reason, and that the word “eloi” would sound quite similar to “Elijah” in Aramaic, especially given Jesus probably couldn’t speak particularly clearly on the cross. For this reason, people thought that Jesus was calling to Elijah to save him. The second explanation is that there are stories in some Rabbinic literature (obviously not written then, but the traditions seem to have extended quite a way back; eg Mark 9:12, ben Sirach 48:10(???)) that Elijah would come out of heaven to rescue a particularly righteous person, which people obviously thought that Jesus was. Either way, the people think that Jesus is calling out to Elijah, which is perhaps something of a problem for early Christians such as Mark who wish to show that Jesus was depending on God alone.

In response to this cry for Elijah to save him, someone runs to get Jesus a drink. The word οξος could mean vinegar (as in Ps 69:22), or it could be a sour wine, which people would drink instead of water (which was very dirty in those days). The Roman soldiers would probably have had this drink in their flasks and perhaps a kind soldier offered it to Jesus, or allowed someone from the crowd to give Jesus a drink. However; this seems quite unlikely in view of the large section of mocking recorded beforehand. The most probably interpretation is that this tradition is shaped by Psalm 69. If we look in this Psalm, we see that it reads “Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress, make haste to answer me. Draw near to me, redeem me, set me free because of my enemies!” (Ps 69:18-19). This is probably understood by Mark to be a reference to the Elijah events which have just taken place. If we then look on just a little bit, we see the phrase εις την διψαν μου εποτισαν με οξος (“in my thirst they make me drink vinegar”) (LXX: 68:22). Therefore, we can conclude that this section is shaped by Psalm 69 and that this vinegar is simply another mocking act by the crowd.

At this point it is worth discussing the allusions to Isaiah 53 and the atoning sacrifice of Jesus in the gospel of Mark. Clearly later gospel traditions place a greater weight upon sacrificial passages, for example in Mark, a sponge is offered up on a καλαμω (reed or stick) whereas in John, it is recorded that the stick is made of Hyssop, a material which is only used elsewhere for the blood of sacrifices. Nonetheless, we do see that there are some ideas of sacrifice shaping this text. It is in the ninth hour that Jesus dies (15:34 but the section :34-38 is recorded as happening at the same time in Mark’s narrative) and we learn from ancient sources that it was at this hour that the Jews offered their evening sacrifices. Indeed, Augustus allowed Jews to leave law courts and pray around the time of the ninth hour because of this (Ant. 16.6:2). Looking at Mark 15:38, we see το καταπετασμα του ναου εσχισθη (“the curtain of the temple was torn in two”; see later discussion) which if taken theologically implies that the use of the temple for sacrifice is now redundant which shows that Jesus has been the perfect sacrifice. A third possibility of understanding sacrifice is the strange use of αφιημι in 15:37 ο δε ιησους αφεις φωνην μεγαλη (“And Jesus let out a large cry”). This use of αφιημι is quite rare, but does have precedent in Greek literature. This verb is most frequently used in the gospel to denote forgiveness, so perhaps this could have been a subtle hint by Mark that it was in his death that Jesus achieved the ultimate forgiveness for sins. Therefore, we see some hints in this early narrative that Mark did see Jesus as having been a sacrifice for the sins of the people, although this theme is much more developed in later gospels.

However, the real irony of the crucifixion scene is that at the very point when Jesus is at his weakest as he writhing in agony on the cross, his power and authority are being displayed the most strongly. As we have mentioned before, the sun going dark is one of these signs, however there are many more. Mark uses the phrase φωνη μεγαλη (“loud voice”) twice in this short passage (:34 and :37), and it seems that he intends to show that even in Jesus’ death throws he still has a great power in him. At this point in the crucifixion, the subject would have been gasping for air and finding it very difficult to breath, so to utter a loud cry would take very severe physical effort. This is amplified by the use of εβοησεν (“cried out”) in the first quotation. We also see Jesus’ authority and power being exercised after, or because of, his death. το καταπετασμα του ναου εσχισθη εις δυο απ ανωθεν εως κατω (“The veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom”) shows this. That it was torn starting from the top implies that it was an act of God. The only other place in this gospel where the verb σχιζω (“to tear”) is used is at Jesus’ baptism when the spirit descends as a dove and the sky is torn. Now, at Jesus’ death his spirit is given up (εξεπνευσεν in verse 37) and the veil is torn. It is unknown as to which of the two veils this word refers, although that hardly matters. There are several Jewish references to the veil and its’ tearing. Josephus says that the veil is “a panorama of the entire heavens” (war. 5:5.4) and in several places in Jewish literature (pre-70) there are predictions of the veil being torn as a sign of God’s judgement on the wickedness of Israel. This all comes together to show that this is a prediction of the destruction of the temple and a manifestation of Jesus’ great power.

Immediately after the lowest point in the gospel, the death of Jesus; the highest point in the gospel thus far occurs with the pagan gentile confessing that Jesus is the υιος θεου (“son of God”); the first time this phrase is on the lips of a human in the gospel (with the possible exception of the demon speaking through the Gasarene demonic, although Mark seems to have purposely avoided the “son of God” phrase by addition of the genitive του υψιστου (“most high”)). This phrase is used in only two other places in Mark’s gospel: the baptism scene where a voice from a cloud says to Jesus “You are my beloved son”; and the transfiguration where a voice from a cloud says to the disciples “This is my beloved son; listen to him!”. It is Mark’s irony that Jesus has been rejected by Israel because they cannot recognise who he is; even his disciples cannot recognise that he is the Son of God, but the gentile who has been in charge of killing him is the first person to realise that Jesus is truly the Son of God; a title which he should only have used of Caesar.

In conclusion, this passage is one of marked contrast and full of paradoxes. Jesus is his furthest ever from God, forsaken by Him; but God is displaying His great power and the authority of Jesus through many miraculous signs. Jesus has been rejected and tormented by everyone, but he is still a sacrifice for all people. The identification of Jesus has been missed by all Israel but has now been realised by the pagan who was in charge of his death. In this passage, Mark shows how Jesus’ power and authority are displayed through the lowest point in the gospel. However, the crucifixion was expected and hinted at from the very beginning of the gospel. The following story is one of the most unexpected in the gospel, even though it has been talked about by Jesus a few times. For he was raised.

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