Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Gospel of Mark

I recently ran across a blog post by Dr. Mark Goodacre discussing his view that the Centurion's cry in Mark 15:39 is a sarcastic one, intending to say something like, as Dr. Goodacre put it, "Huh, truly this fellow as a son of God!"? This 'ironic' interpretation is supported positively in the article--that is to say that it doesn't seem to be Dr. Goodacre's purpose to offer criticism against the alternative (popular) view at this point.

Whatever the centurion meant, irony is present. That a centurion would utter a genuine confession that Christ is the Son of God carries a certain 'shock value' for the reader. Alternatively, that a centurion would mock Christ with sarcasm with an 'unwitting proclamation of the truth' (to use the words of Cranfield, St Mark, 460) is equally shocking.

There is little doubt that Mark loves irony. One example I enjoy is in Mark 6. After crowds are amazed at Jesus' teaching (6:2), Jesus is amazed at the unresponsiveness of crowds in his hometown (6:6). Mark weaves this theme of 'amazement' through his Gospel to create irony [See: Dwyer, "The Motif of Wonder in the Gospel of Mark," JSNT, 57 (March 1995), 45-59).]

The amazing rhetoric throughout the Gospel of Mark testifies to its unity in composition and (in my view) its veracity. In regard to rhetoric and narrative coherance, I have found Timothy J. Geddert's commentary on Mark to be helpful. It is by no means technical, but I have not found a comparable commentary that exposes the narrative coherance of Mark.

By the way, have you reflected on the content of the centurion's statement? Are you shocked? Isn't that what Mark intended? What did Mark hope his readers would leave his narrative thinking? Believing? Doing? Do you suppose Mark would be dissapointed in your response?


steve.rives said...

Hey Josh,

You point to some good sources that I'd like to explore. Is it common for commentaries to postulate that Mark was writing for shock value (or for irony or some other purpose)?

I would suggest that the shock value goes up if we understand that this Roman soldier really did get it. That is, there is a divine beam of light that got through into darkness. He was not blinded by the cross, but saw through to what was going on.

In that soldiers world, Caesar himself was Son of God, and the power of that Son was the cross by which he banished enemies from the realm of the living.

The cross would be the last place to discover that Caesar was actually loosing his power, it was another assertion of his authority. Yet, in that exact unlikely place, another power was being made known. Jesus could not be the Son of God according to the calculus of Rome. So God was showing that the way of recking was all wrong. And God used the wrong person to point it out: he used a Roman. God's wisdom is foolishness to those who are perishing, and he uses every opportunity to communicate his upside-down reckoning.

Demons in the Gospel of Mark know who Jesus is. And a Roman soldier who is watching him die knows who he is. This is not the place one expects to find insight into the working of God.

All the ones who were in the know turned out to be in the dark, and some who were definitely not supposed to get it (they aren't even supposed to be a focal point in a story about God), got it. Of course, for the demons it was ruinous for Jesus to come, but they did understand that warfare was afoot. For the demons, it was not a happy revelation, but for the soldier, it was glorious.

None of this is expressly to be attributed to Irony in the Gospel of Mark, per se, but it is Irony of God being God. For where God is most revealed he is most concealed -- it is his calling card. Where he is most on display (on the Cross), he is most hidden. And it turns out that the one who is not a part of the people of God, not a Jew, spots God and identifies the King of the Jews.

That the soldier actually gets it (and means what he says about Jesus being the Son of God) is not a problem, it is how God works. But commentators are baffled by it and so some of them rob the story of one of its climactic elements by supposing that Mark switches to a literary device.

I have not tracked commentaries on this point, but I did notice the ones I checked almost unanimously thought Mark was using some word-ploy for the purpose of his version of the story.

I think the story works just fine with God working where we don't expect him: First on a Cross, second in a Roman soldier. It's all backwards, and we know it, and we run from it.

Well, I wrote more than I intended, thanks for your blog,

Steve Rives

Josh said...


Thanks for your comments! All in all, I agree with much of what you've said. It appears to me that you favor the non-sarcastic interpretation because 'the shock value goes up'. I think I understand what you mean, though my post was not meant to suggest that the most ironic interpretation wins.

If I may reply on a few issues (in random order):

(1) In regard to commentaries, I think the possibility that the Centurion's statement was sarcastic is a minority position (and not discussed too often). Most commentators will discuss the possibility of the indefinite 'a son of God', in which case the Centurion was stating something truer than he knew (using the title in a Roman sense, not in a Jewish sense).

(2) I think you're right to point out that the statement is from the lips of a Gentile, especially considering Mark is likely writing to a Roman audience. Also, it is significant that the title 'Son of God' is not found on human lips until 15:39!

(3) Regarding your suggestion that Mark is showing that Caesar is losing his power, etc., I am a bit skeptical. While I think the assertion you make about the power of the cross is true, I don't think Mark is packing that much theology behind his inclusion of this event in the narrative.

Having said that, I will not deny that this view can find some support (i.e., Roman audience, significance of Gentiles, theme of Jesus' authority, etc.). Further, I am still grappling with some issues in the text (i.e., Why Mark places v38 between v37 and v39... The relation of Ἰδὼν to the main verb in v39... and not least the fact that popular translations and preaching are quite unanimous in interpretation.)

(4) I thoroughly enjoy your commentary and agree with the theological implications. I also agree that beyond any literary irony is theological irony (as you have discussed). Even so, I'm just don't think that Mark packs so great a theological punch in this verse.

(5) I have little doubt that Mark uses literary devices throughout his Gospel, including in 15.39. Notice the title 'Son of God' which frames the entire Gospel (1.1, 15.39), and the inclusion of a Roman centurion's statement (sarcastic or not). Further, I don't think literary devices imply any sort of dishonesty in actually reporting facts (more below).

(6) I should clarify that I am not suggesting that Mark writes 'for shock value' or 'for irony' only to be clever. I believe he uses irony (which inherently has shock value) as a tool to communicate to his readers. Mark is a master of using rhetorical devices (such as the example I referenced from Mark 6 with the word 'amazement' or the example above regarding the title 'Son of God' in 1.1, 15.39). Even so, the literary tools are always serving the purpose of communicating truth. I would never suggest that Mark twists actual historical events dishonestly to serve the purpose of rhetorical devices. Rather, Mark makes grand points subtly as one reads through the inspired narrative.

For another example of this, Mark reports Jesus' words to the unclean spirit in 1:25 as "Be quiet..." and crowds then ask "what is this? ... He commands even unclean spirits and they obey Him." In 4:39, Mark reports Jesus words to the wind and sea as "Be still" (same word as in 1.25), and the disciples ask, "Who is this that the wind and see obey...?"

I see two things demonstrated: (1) Under the inspiration of God, Mark can report two events factually while (2) communicating the two events in a parallel manner (with the intention that the audience recognizes the parallels). It doesn't change the facts, but it does (in this case) amplify the theme of Jesus' authority which runs through Mark.

I appreciate your thoughts not least because iron sharpens iron!

steve.rives said...


I am slow in reply, but I thought it better to post a longer response as my own blog entry:

I think this will better explain the point I am driving to.

I was delaying in reply because life is really that packed! You know what that is like. Writing significant thoughts is not trivial, so thanks for doing your blog. It is a labor of love, and I think you are doing a great job. I like your new blog especially.


Josh said...

I'm glad you find my blog helpful. That's my goal! I'll be jumping over and reading your post today. I'll look forward to it.

Josh said...

Steve, I left a comment on your post, but it didn't appear. I thought I made a mistake, so I wrote a second comment (virtually the same). This was a few days ago, so I'm not sure what happened. If they both come through and you choose to permit one, feel free to omit the first comment. Thanks! I appreciate the discussion. I will probably post on the topic later on the main blog at

steve.rives said...


Thanks, I may have had my security level too tight. I had been getting spam real bad, so a long time ago I cranked up all the security levels. This may explain the relative paucity of comments! Thanks for pointing it out. I turned of most of the filters. Sorry for the problem, I know how frustrating it can be to type a comment (take the time to do it) and then the blog rejects it. Arggg. Some days I don't know if I like computers or hate them.

I will see you on Mondays up at MBTS. Let me know where your PhD classes are held.