Friday, September 25, 2020

Mark 15

and straightway in the morning 
the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council 
and bound Jesus 
and carried him away 
and delivered him to Pilate 
and Pilate asked him, 
“art thou the King of the Jews?” 
and he answering said unto him, 
“thou sayest it” 
and the chief priests accused him of many things: 
but he answered nothing. 
and Pilate asked him again, saying, 
“answerest thou nothing? 
behold how many things they witness against thee” 
but Jesus yet answered nothing 
so that Pilate marvelled
now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner 
whomsoever they desired
and there was one named Barabbas 
which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him 
who had committed murder in the insurrection 
and the multitude crying aloud 
began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them. 
but Pilate answered them, saying, 
"will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?" 
for he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy. 
but the chief priests moved the people 
that he should rather release Barabbas unto them. 
and Pilate answered and said again unto them, 
"what will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?" 
and they cried out again, "crucify him" 
then Pilate said unto them, 
why, what evil hath he done? 
and they cried out the more exceedingly, "crucify him" 
and so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, 
and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified. 

I am trying to make sense of Mark as a storyteller. But this part of Mark’s story does not make sense to me. 

Mark has painted a picture of Jesus’s conflict with the Temple. Mark has shown Jesus blaspheming in front of the supreme court. I understand why Mark thinks the Priests wanted Jesus dead. 

But now a new character enters the story. You probably have a picture of him in your head. He’s dressed in a Roman toga with a wreath on his head; or perhaps dressed as a Roman legionnaire, with a face oddly reminiscent of Michael Palin. (Be honest.) A brooding figure; prone to symbolic gestures, who sings one enigmatic song in the first act. 

Mark doesn’t introduce Pilate. If we were really reading the story for the first time it wouldn’t be completely clear who he was: clearly a judge or figure of authority; someone whose power the Jews reluctantly acknowledge; with the power to have a man killed. 

Next comes someone called Bar-Abbas. We have seen that “Abba” is what little kids call their fathers, so he name means Son of His Papa. I guess that means he was a bastard. He’s some kind of revolutionary or terrorist; but here Mark is strangely evasive. He says that he has been imprisoned with some rebels; and that those rebels killed someone during an the uprising. He doesn’t say that Dad’s-Son himself is a revolutionary or a murderer. About the failed revolution he tells us nothing. 

And then there is a crowd. Outside Pilate’s residence, early in the morning — after cock-crow but before 9AM — on (allegedly) Passover morning. Where did they come from? Where do they go? And why does Pilate involve then in events? 

Pilate calls Jesus “King of the Jews”. He uses the phrase four times, and puts a sign “King of the Jews” above the Cross. He has heard of Jesus; he knows that people are calling him Messiah; and he has a pretty shrewd idea about that word means. But he doesn’t think that letting people call you Anointed amounts to a capital offence. If he did the trial would have been very short. 

We know what happens. It is the maybe the most famous story in the world. Pilate asks Jesus if he is King. Niether Pilate nor the Priests take “You say so” to be an admission of guilt. If they did the trial would have been very short. The Priests run through their charge list; presumably the same accusations they made an hour ago in the High Priest’s house. Jesus doesn’t answer. Pilate repeats the question about whether or not Jesus is king: still no answer. 

And suddenly, from nowhere, there is a crowd. (An ochlos: a multitude; a rabble; a riot.) And they petition Pilate to grant an amnesty to a prisoner. Apparently this was a local custom. Pilate offers to release Jesus: the crowd ask him to release Daddy’s-Son. Pilate acquiesces; and hands Jesus over — that word again — to be executed. Without pronouncing him guilty of anything. 

What does Mark think just happened? 

There is no reason to assume that Barabas is a thug. He might be an heroic figure. He could also be a hard-luck case, on death row because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. People do get killed by despotic governments because they happened to be adjacent to the place where a bad thing happened. "Common purpose" they call it. "Let him have it, Chris".  

There must have been a plan for a mass crucifixion. There are other rebels in prison: at least two people go to their deaths at the same time as Jesus. No-one suggests that Pilate might release one of the “two bandits”; no-one suggests that he free the other rebels. Barabbas is a special case. 

Is the crowd a delegation of Barabbas’s friends and supporters? Perhaps they have come specifically to try to claim the amnesty on his behalf? In which case they wouldn’t know who Jesus was: it's a foregone conclusion they’ll ask Pilate to free the popular freedom fighter, not the religious nutter from up north.

So why does Pilate go through the motions of offering to release Jesus? He understands that the Priests have a grievance against Jesus. Perhaps he has a Machiavellian plan to put the priests in his debt by killing their enemy for them? But he doesn’t have a good legal basis to proceed. 

So perhaps he is being sneaky. Perhaps he is saying “Let’s put it to a vote. And let’s ask these good people who have specifically come to ask for the release of Bar-Abbas. We are going to commute one sentence today: shall it perchance be this popular and unfortunate local hero; or shall it be this Northern preacher who only arrived in town three days ago. Oh, really? Is that your final word? Then I am afraid there is nothing I can do about it. It’s out of my hands.” 

This makes some sense. But the story, as Mark tells it, is very obscure. 

and the soldiers led him away into the hall, 
called Praetorium 
and they call together the whole band. 
and they clothed him with purple 
and platted a crown of thorns 
and put it about his head, 
and began to salute him, Hail, King of the Jews! 
and they smote him on the head with a reed 
and did spit upon him 
and bowing their knees worshipped him. 
and when they had mocked him 
they took off the purple from him 
and put his own clothes on him 
and led him out to crucify him 

It sometimes happens in a fairy tale that the Prince disguises himself as a peasant or a servant. And if the tale is told in the form of a pantomime, there will likely be a scene in which the nagging old cook or the cruel school mistress says “Who do you think you are, the King of England?” or “Well, just sit down and eat your gruel, your Majesty”. (Cakes often get burned at the same time.) 

The terrible climax of Mark’s story is full of this kind of irony. Pilate has called Jesus “Jewish King” five times; the soldiers now take up the joke. Jew-King, Jew-King! They even dress him up as a carnival King and stage a mock coronation. Religious artwork usually depicts the crown of thorns as an instrument of torture; but I am not sure how you would go about plaiting a thorny branch. Maybe it just means “a silly fake crown like kids would wear if they were playing kings and queens”. 

We are not supposed to think “How ironic! They are calling him a King in jest, but if they but knew it, he really is secretly a king.” We are supposed to think: “This is King Jesus: this is what he looks like. The first are last and the last are first. He is the very last. Being hurt and spat on and laughed is the ultimate glorification.” 

and they compel one Simon, a Cyrenian 
who passed by 
coming out of the country 
the father of Alexander and Rufus 
to bear his cross 

Simon of Cyrene is another mysterious, random figure. Some people say that the sons of the man who carried the cross must have been afforded a special status in the ancient Church. There would be no point is calling Simon “the father of Alexander and Rufus” if Mark’s readers didn’t know who Alexander and Rufus were. That might be true: but it’s no help to us

Cyrene is in Libya. This shows that race is no barrier to love: Simon, an African, helped Jesus, a Jew, when no-one else would. 

Or else it proves that white people have always thought it is the job of black people to carry their stuff.

and they bring him unto the place Golgotha 
which is, being interpreted, the place of a skull. 

The Hebrew word gulgolet mostly means “head”: for example in the sense of a “head count”. But it sometimes means “skull”: when Samson crushes the skull of one of his enemies, he crushes their gulgolet. Mark says that the name Golgotha means Kraniou Topos: place of a skull. (Compare our word cranium.) The Latin translators left Golgotha as it was, but kraniou topos became calvariae locus, which is why you still get churches, hills and sentimental hymns locating Jesus death at a place called Calvary. 

Mark does not say that Kraniou Topos is a hill, green or otherwise. 

and they gave him to drink wine 
mingled with myrrh 
but he received it not 

We sometimes read that a condemned man is offered a blindfold but refuses to wear it: I am told that modern American prisons have the charming custom of offering inmates valium before killing them. Jesus told his disciples in the upper room that he would never drink wine again: Mark wants us to know that he kept his vow.

and when they had crucified him, 
they parted his garments, 
casting lots upon them, 
what every man should take

We don’t seem to be able to get away from clothes. Perhaps Mark wants to allude to; but not dwell on, a secondary but still unpleasant fact. Jesus is not merely bound to stake: he is on public display mother-naked. 

In her novel To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf famously relegates the First World War to a parenthesis. Mark puts the climax of his story in a subordinate clause: it is as if we look away from the stake and look at the soldiers instead. They take him to the killing ground. They offer him a sedative. And after they have executed him, they take his clothes. It’s as if you had said: They went for a nice walk in the park. The roses were pretty. He had a strawberry lolly, she had an ice-cream. After he had murdered her, he put the wrappers in the bin. 

It is not at all unlikely that an execution party should be allowed to keep the condemned man’s possessions. We don’t need to imagine them shooting craps for Jesus’ robe: quite possibly they flipped a denarius or just did the Roman equivalent of chartam, forfex, lapis. But the casting of lots is a callback to the Old Testament: to another one of King David’s hymns. A man — we don’t know who — is going though his ultimate time of trouble; rejected by everyone for no reason: 

all my bones are on display 
people stare and gloat over me 
they divide my clothes among them 
and cast lots for my garment 

A majority of Christians would say that this is simply and straightforwardly an oracle; describing the exact circumstances of the death of Jesus a thousand years before it happened. David looked into a magic mirror, saw the death of his remote descendant, described it in a poem; and set it to a tune called the Doe of the Morning. The more militant kind of sceptic would say that the Psalm came first and the story came afterwards. There was no Jesus and no crucifixion: Mark’s Gospel is a patchwork of Old Testament quotes. 

The truth lies somewhere in between, as the truth usually does. Maybe the Romans really played a game of chance to see who took Jesus’ clothes and maybe they didn’t: it doesn’t matter either way. What does matter is that Mark made a conscious choice to write about the crucifixion of Jesus in the words of the old, old poem. It’s like a spiritual hyperlink. "When you read this story", says Mark, "I want you to think of the twenty second Psalm."  

Would Roman torturers really have nailed their victims to stakes? Or would they have just tied them up and left them to the weather and the insects? Certainly, Mark doesn’t mention nails. If they did use nails, they would have gone through ankles and wrists. But almost every Christian painting and almost every Christian play shows Jesus with nails in his hands and feet. That comes, not from Mark’s text, but from David’s poem: 

dogs surround me 
a pack of vultures encircles me 
they pierce my hands and my feet

and it was the third hour, and they crucified him. 
and the superscription of his accusation was written over 
and with him they crucify two thieves; 
the one on his right hand, and the other on his left 

A week ago, James and John asked if they could be placed on Jesus left hand and right hand when he became King. And here he is hanging from a stake, half-dead, with a sign above his head saying "this is what happens to so-called Jew-Kings". 

And who are on his left and his right? Two other naked dying guys. 

People at the top are at the bottom. You want to be with me in my glory? You don’t what that means. But now you do. 

and they that passed by railed on him, 
wagging their heads, and saying, 
“Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, 
and buildest it in three days, 
save thyself, and come down from the cross.” 
likewise also the chief priests mocking 
said among themselves with the scribes, “He saved others; 
himself he cannot save. 
let Christ the King of Israel 
descend now from the cross, 
that we may see and believe.” 
and they that were crucified with him reviled him. 

The people who are mocking Jesus are the ones who happen to be passing by: the mob who were screaming for his blood outside Pilate’s palace have vanished from the story. Golgotha sounds as if it was by a public road: if you wanted to send a message about what happened to Jewish Kings, you probably wouldn’t put the stake at the top of a hill. Despite the sign, the passers-by seem to understand that Jesus is really being killed because he is the enemy of the temple. 

Mark is treating Psalm 22 pretty much as a shooting script. 

all they that see me laugh me to scorn: 
they shoot out the lip, 
they shake the head, saying, 
he trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him 
let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him. 

and when the sixth hour was come 
there was darkness over the whole land 
until the ninth hour. 

English teachers talk about the Pathetic Fallacy: writers have a tendency to make the natural world reflect the emotional state of their main character. Thunderstorms when he is sad; warm spring sunshine when he is in a good mood. Thomas Hardy does it all the time. It is such a cliche that modern movies tend to go for the Antipathetic Fallacy: how many rainy weddings and sunny funerals have you seen? 

But when the hero is God it is not a fallacy. You’d expect his suffering to result in a supernatural darkness. 

Many people have spotted that the Jewish Passover runs on a lunar calendar: and Christians have decided that it is very important that Easter should be celebrated during a full moon. (The first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal equinox, since you asked.) Whatever happened on that Friday, it definitely was not an eclipse. 

and at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, 
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” 
which is, being interpreted, 
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 

Anyone with a religious background knows that Jesus spoke five times from the cross. But those five “words” are a conflation of four different versions of the story. In Mark’s version, Jesus speaks only once. 

And we are still in the Psalms: “My god, my god why hast thou forsaken me” is the first line of Pslam 22. David’s poem ends with God coming to help the suffering man; or at least, with the hope that he will do so. So if Jesus died quoting the psalm, then he died crying out for God’s help — not despairing because God would not help him. 

But it is strange that he quotes it in Aramaic. If he had been quoting scripture, surely he would have quoted it either in Hebrew or in Greek? You would expect an Muslim to quote the Koran in Arabic or a Catholic to quote the Bible in Latin, not in a vernacular translation. So perhaps Jesus really did blurt out something desperate in his mother tongue? 

and some of them that stood by, 
when they heard it, said, 
“Behold, he calleth Elias” 
and one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, 
and put it on a reed, 
and gave him to drink, 
saying, “Let alone; 
let us see whether Elias will come to take him down” 

Elijah, Elijah, Elijah. 

John the Baptist was kind of like Elijah; many people thought Jesus literally was Elijah. The inner circle of disciples saw Jesus talking with Elijah. And some of the witnesses to his death thought that Jesus called for Elijah at the end. 

Just suppose. 

Jesus is dying: he screams out something in his own language. And the people present — either the ones who were paid to hurt him, or the ones who had turned up because they liked seeing people being hurt — decide to offer him a drink to give him a few second’s relief. (We are told that hangmen used to use softer ropes for their favourite murders.) Vinegar is not our condiment, of course: it just means cheap wine, very probably what a Roman soldier might have in his provisions pouch. A reed is just a rod or a stick. No-one actually thinks that Elijah is going to come down from heaven in a chariot of fire and rescue Jesus. It must be a cruel joke. Let’s see if Elijah comes: and then we can wait for Santa and the Tooth Fairy as well. 

Just suppose. Jesus really did call for Elijah. There was a close connection between the Son of Man and Elijah. Suppose he hoped, even at that moment, that God’s top prophet was going to come and save him and they could inaugurate the Messianic age side by side. 

Suppose Jesus' last words were “Elijah… Elijah…” And suppose Mark, unable to make sense of them, after four decades of mediation, decided that he must have been quoting an Aramaic version of an old Hebrew Psalm. 

and Jesus cried with a loud voice 
and gave up the ghost

The word is exepneusen. We have seen that pneuma is both “breath” and “spirit”; and that what Mark calls the pneuma haggio our Bible renders as “holy ghost”. So perhaps’ Jesus spirit departed his body at this moment. It’s even possible that the pneuma haggio, God’s dove, left him and went back to heaven through the hole in the sky. 

But the most probable explanation is the simplest one. Jesus expired. He breathed his last. He quit breathing. 

and the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom 

Mark is quite clear that this is the veil of the temple; not merely “one of the temple curtains”. He must surely mean the curtain that separated the innermost temple, where God lived, from the rest of the place. 

This is as close as Mark comes to providing a theology of the Crucifixion. He doesn’t say why or how. He just says that Jesus died: and the boundary between the sacred and the secular — or at any rate between the Holy and the Even More Holy — fell away. 

Evangelicals will tell us that this means that Jesus has torn down the barrier — sin — which separates Man from God. But in the light of everything else which Mark has said, I wonder if the primary meaning is simpler. The temple is over; the special office of the priests is ended. In a sense, Jesus did what he was accused of. He has destroyed the Temple. 

and when the centurion, 
which stood over against him, 
saw that he so cried out, 
and gave up the ghost, 
he said, 
"truly this man was the Son of God" 

“That he so cried out” seems to be a translator’s gloss. The Greek appears to say that Centurion said what he said “having see that thus he breathed his last”. He sees Jesus stop breathing: and he says that Jesus alethos — surely or certainly — was the Son of God. It’s the same word the serving woman used to Peter. Surely you were with him. You were with him, weren’t you? 

This is often taken as an upbeat ending: a ray of light in the desolation. But I am afraid it is one last twist of the knife. Everything in this chapter has been bitter and ironic. There is a sign over the cross. JEWISH KING. Pilate put it there, not because he thinks Jesus is king, but because he doesn’t. The Priests have asked him to prophesy to them, not because they think he is a prophet, but because they think he isn’t. The passers-by have challenged him to come down from the cross, not because they think he can, but because they think the can’t. And finally, his executioner says that he was the son of God: not because he thinks he is, but because he thinks he isn’t. 

A few hours ago, Jesus was praying: “Daddy: please get me out of this. But no, Daddy: please don’t answer that prayer.” Now he says "Jehovah! Why did you desert me?” screams, and dies. 

And in one way, that is the end of the story. It has to end like that; in complete desolation and despair; because that is the whole of the message. The high is the low. The big is the small. I can only be the highest by becoming the lowest. You will know that I am the ultimate king when I become the ultimate pariah. 

So naturally, that has to be the final line. 

“Yeah. Right. This you call the Son of God?” 

But that isn’t quite the end of the story. There is an epilogue. And the epilogue is the strangest thing in this very strange book. 

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g said...

That name Bar-Abbas is pretty provocative. He appears out of nowhere in the story of the crucifixion of someone who called himself "the son of man" and told everyone they should address God as "daddy". Some early manuscripts of Mark don't just call this guy Barabbas, they call him Jesus Barabbas.

Just a coincidence, maybe, but I've always wondered whether there's something more going on. (It's not at all clear what sort of something-more.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think it is Matthew who calls Bar-Abbas "Jesus Bar-Abbas": but yes, it is very fascinating.

g said...

Yow, of course I meant Matthew. Sorry about that.