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Mark 15

Scripture: Mark 15:1-47

Overview:

  • Early in the morning Jesus is taken by the Jewish leaders to for a trial in front of Pilate
  • Pilate asks Jesus if he’s the King of the Jews. Jesus says, “You said it.”
  • Many accusations are brought against Jesus, but he keeps his mouth shut.
  • Pilate, to appease the crowd, says he’ll release a prisoner. The crowd can chose between Barabbas (a revolutionary and a murderer) or Jesus. The crowd picks Barabbas.
  • Pilate then asks what they want to do with Jesus and they say, “Crucify him!”
  • The Roman soldiers take Jesus away and mock him by dressing him up like a king while beating him and whipping him.
  • On their way to crucify Jesus, the soldiers force a guy named Simon, from Cyrene, carry the cross for Jesus.
  • Jesus is crucified.
  • A sign is hung up on the cross that says Jesus is condemned for being the “King of the Jews.”
  • The people mock Jesus and tell him to save himself.
  • Around noon the sky gets dark. Jesus quotes Psalm 22 by crying out that God has forsaken him.
  • The people around the cross don’t understand what Jesus is saying and get him some wine to drink.
  • With a loud cry, Jesus dies.
  • The curtain in the Temple is torn in two. A roman soldier watching says, “This guy truly was the Son of God.”
  • Only the women who followed Jesus were nearby to witness this.
  • Because it was almost the Sabbath, a member of the Jewish leadership named Joseph went and asked Pilate for permission to bury Jesus.
  • Pilate confirmed that Jesus was dead, then granted the request.
  • Joseph wrapped up Jesus body and put him in a nice tomb.

Historical Context:

Pontius Pilate

From 6 BC to 41 AD, seven Roman governors (titled “prefects”) ruled Judea. From 41-44 AD, Herod Agrippa, a Jewish king and descendent of Herod the Great, ruled Judea. After 44 AD the province reverted to direct Roman rule under seven Roman governors, (titled “procurators”) terminating in the inept Florus whose clumsiness provoked the Jewish War of 67-70 AD.15

The procurators’ and prefects’ primary functions were military, but as representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes, and also had limited judicial functions. Other civil administration lay in the hands of local government: the municipal councils or ethnic governments such as—in the district of Judaea and Jerusalem—the Sanhedrin and its president the High Priest. But the power of appointment of the High Priest resided in the Roman legate of Syria or the prefect of Judaea in Pilate’s day and until AD 41.2

Pilate was a member of the equestrian (equites) class, a lower aristocratic class in ancient Rome, and he ruled over Judea from 26-36 AD.

Members of the equites were originally defined by a property threshold. The rank was passed from father to son, although members of the order who no longer met the property requirement were usually removed from the order. The property threshold stood at 100,000 denarii  – roughly the equivalent to the annual salaries of 450 contemporary legionaries.3

Equestrians such as Pilate could command legionary forces but only small ones, and so in military situations, he would have to yield to his superior, the legate of Syria, who would descend into Palestine with his legions as necessary. As governor of Judaea, Pilate would have small auxiliary forces of locally recruited soldiers stationed regularly in Caesarea and Jerusalem, such as the Antonia Fortress, and temporarily anywhere else that might require a military presence. The total number of soldiers at his disposal would have numbered about 3,000.2

Equestrians were the chief financial officers of the imperial provinces, and the deputy financial officers of senatorial provinces.3

It was to Pilate’s duties overseeing Judea’s finances that members of the Sanhedrin appealed to when they accused Jesus of sedition against Rome by opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and calling himself a king. Fomenting tax resistance was a capital offense. Pilate was responsible for imperial tax collections in Judaea. Jesus had asked the tax collector Levi, at work in his tax booth in Capernaum, to quit his post. Jesus also appears to have influenced Zacchaeus, “a chief tax collector” in Jericho, which is in Pilate’s tax jurisdiction, to resign.2

Pilate was normally stationed in Caesarea. He would’ve been in Jerusalem only for the special occasion of the Passover.

Pilate was not very well liked by the Jews. He repeatedly caused near-insurrections due to his insensitivity to Jewish customs.2

First Century historian, Josephus, notes that Pilate’s predecessors had respected Jewish customs by removing all images and effigies on their Roman military standards when entering Jerusalem, Pilate allowed his soldiers to bring them into the city at night. When the citizens of Jerusalem discovered these the following day, they appealed to Pilate to remove them. After five days of deliberation, Pilate had his soldiers surround the demonstrators, threatening them with death, which they were willing to accept rather than submit to desecration of Mosaic law. Pilate finally removed the images. 2

Philo, another ancient Jewish historian, describes an incident in which Pilate was chastened by Emperor Tiberius after antagonizing the Jews by setting up gold-coated shields in Herod’s Palace in Jerusalem. Philo writes that the shields were set up “not so much to honor Tiberius as to annoy the multitude”. The Jews protested the installation of the shields at first to Pilate, and then, when he declined to remove them, by writing to Tiberius. Philo reports that upon reading the letters, Tiberius “wrote to Pilate with a host of reproaches and rebukes for his audacious violation of precedent and bade him at once take down the shields and have them transferred from the capital to Caesarea.”2

Josephus recounts another incident in which Pilate spent money from the Temple to build an aqueduct. Pilate had soldiers hidden in the crowd of Jews while addressing them and, when Jews again protested his actions he gave the signal for his soldiers to randomly attack, beat and kill – in an attempt to silence Jewish petitions.2

Philo writes that Pilate had “vindictiveness and furious temper”, and was “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness”.2

Pilate’s term as prefect of Judaea ended after this incident recounted by Josephus. A large group of Samaritans had been persuaded by an unnamed man to go to Mount Gerizim in order to see sacred artifacts allegedly buried by Moses. Pilate sent in “a detachment of cavalry and heavy-armed infantry,” and attacked the crowd. Many prisoners were taken, of whom Pilate put to death the principal leaders and those who were most influential.” The Samaritans then complained to Vitellius, Roman governor of Syria, who sent Pilate to Rome to explain his actions regarding this incident to Tiberius.2

Barabbas

Barabbas means literally “son of the father.” It is likely that he was a Revolutionary.4

The two robbers crucified on either side of Jesus were likely comrades of Barabbas who would have been here between them had not Jesus taken his place.13

Flogging and Mockery

In the Roman Empire, flagellation was often used as a prelude to crucifixion. Whips with small pieces of metal or bone at the tips were commonly used. Such a device could easily cause disfigurement and serious trauma, such as ripping pieces of flesh from the body or loss of an eye. In addition to causing severe pain, the victim would approach a state of hypovolemic shock due to loss of blood.11

Typically, the one to be punished was stripped naked and bound to a low pillar so that he could bend over it, or chained to an upright pillar so as to be stretched out. Two soldiers alternated blows from the bare shoulders down the body to the soles of the feet. There was no limit to the number of blows inflicted – this was left to the soldiers to decide, though they were normally not supposed to kill the victim. Flagellation was referred to as “half death” by some ancient authors and apparently, it was not uncommon for victims to die shortly thereafter.11

It is possible that the soldiers put the crown of thorns on Jesus’ head with the points away from his head. This would better imitate the crown with beams of light like the sun. The rulers in Jesus’ time had their pictures with crowns like that on coins.1

Simon of Cyrene

Cyrene is located in North Africa. He may have been a worker out in the country. His sons Alexander and Rufus were likely well-known Christians in Rome which is why Mark mentioned them (presuming his original audience was Roman). Paul mentions a Rufus in Romans 16:13.  It is possible that Simon became the leader in the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1).1

A whole cross would weigh well over 300 lbs. The crossbeam, which Jesus was likely forced to carry, would weigh around 100 lbs.10

We are never told Simon was Jew. Simon is a Greek name, along with Alexander, while Rufus is a Roman one. It was likely that the soldiers recruited Simon to help for the very fact that he wasn’t Jewish–it would’ve annoyed the Jews to be asked to help in the midst of a festival. It is also likely that the soldiers ordered Simon to help because Jesus was so weak they feared he might die before he arrived at the execution site.15

Golgotha

Golgotha is referred to in early writings as a hill resembling a skullcap located very near to a gate into Jerusalem.2

An alternative explanation for the name is that the location was a place of public execution, and the name refers to abandoned skulls that would be found there, or that the location was near a cemetery, and the name refers to the bones buried there.4

In some Christian and Jewish traditions, the name Golgotha refers to the location of the skull of Adam. A common version states that Shem and Melchizedek traveled to the resting place of Noah’s Ark, retrieved the body of Adam from it, and were led by Angels to Golgotha — described as a skull-shaped hill at the centre of the Earth, where also the serpent’s head had been crushed following the Fall of man.7

Calvary is an English name for Golgotha derived from the Latin word for skull (calvaria), which is used in the Vulgate translation of “place of a skull”.11

Crucifixion

Crucifixion is a form of slow and painful execution in which the victim is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until dead.10 Death on a cross was only for slaves, or for people who were not Roman citizens.1

Crucifixion was often performed to terrorize and dissuade its witnesses from perpetrating particularly heinous crimes. Victims were left on display after death as warnings to others who might attempt dissent. Crucifixion was usually intended to provide a death that was particularly slow, painful (hence the term excruciating, literally “out of crucifying”), gruesome, humiliating, and public, using whatever means were most expedient for that goal.10

In many cases, Roman’s had places designated for crucifixions. In those places, upright posts would be fixed permanently in place, and the crossbeam, with the condemned person perhaps already nailed to it, would then be attached to the post.10

While a crucifixion was an execution, it was also a humiliation, by making the condemned as vulnerable as possible. The person being crucified was usually stripped naked.10

The placing of the nails in the hands, or the wrists is uncertain. Some theories suggest that the Greek word cheir (χειρ) for hand includes the wrist and that the Romans were generally trained to place nails through Destot’s space (between the capitate and lunate bones) without fracturing any bones. Another theory suggests that the Greek word for hand also includes the forearm and that the nails were placed near the radius and ulna of the forearm. Ropes may have also been used to fasten the hands in addition to the use of nails.9

It is likely that Jesus died of profound shock. The scourging, the beatings, and the fixing to the cross would have left Jesus dehydrated, weak, and critically ill and that the stage was set for a complex interplay of simultaneous physiological insults: dehydration, massive trauma and soft tissue injury (especially from the prior scourging), inadequate respiration, and strenuous physical exertion, leading to cardiovascular collapse.9

Frequently, the legs of the person executed were broken or shattered with an iron club. This act hastened the death of the person by removing their ability to support themselves with their legs and provide air to their lungs.10

Psalm 22

The saying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is generally given in transliterated Aramaic with a translation (originally in Greek) after it. This phrase is the opening line of Psalm 22, a psalm about persecution, and the mercy and salvation of God. It was common for people at this time to reference songs by quoting their first lines.12

“Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” is the only saying of Jesus on the cross that appears in more than one Gospel. This saying is taken by some as an abandonment of the Son by the Father. Other theologians understand the cry as that of one who was truly human and who felt forsaken.12

Jesus may have intentionally quoted the first line of the Psalm 22,”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as a prelude to the rest of the psalm, “God has not hidden his face. He has heard when he cried out to him,” and, “They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!”1

The Temple Curtain

According to First Century historian, Josephus, the curtain in Herod’s temple would have been nearly 60 feet high and 4 inches thick. The curtain was representative of the separation between God and man, beyond which only the High Priest was permitted to pass, and then only once each year, to enter into God’s presence and make atonement for the sins of Israel.9

The curtain tearing in two would’ve occurred at three o’clock in the afternoon, at a time when the priests would have been busy with the evening sacrifice, going about their tasks with lighted lamps, with a very large number of them present.13

The outer veil of the Jerusalem temple was actually one huge image of the starry sky, thus provoking the image of the heavens being torn. Josephus makes it clear that the Temple was a microcosm of creation, in which the outer parts represented the sea and the land, but the interior, where even the priests were highly restricted from, was heaven where God resided. The veil of the Temple, which screened the Holy of Holies, was nothing less than the barrier between heaven and earth.15

The Women at the Cross

The gospels have varying accounts of who was at the cross:4

Mark Matthew Luke John
Mary Magdalene Mary Magdalene The women who had followed him from Galilee Mary Magdalene
Mary, mother of James the younger and Joses  Mary, mother of James and Joseph
 Salome  The mother of the sons of Zebedee  Mary, the wife of Clopas ( Jesus’ mother’s sister)
Mary, Jesus’ mother

Salome has been supposed to be the same as Mary, wife of Clopas and to have been the mother of Zebedee’s sons James and John, and a half-sister or sister-in-law of Mary the mother of Jesus.4

Mary Magdalene was first person named at Jesus’ three most important moments: the crucifixion, the burial and the resurrection. Within the four Gospels she is named at least 12 times, more than most of the apostles.6

Mary Magdalene was likely from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Luke says that she was actually “called Magdalene” which may indicate that she was like a tower (in Aramaic “Magdala” means “tower” or “elevated, great, magnificent”).6

The Gospels present women as the spiritual leaders. They were last with Jesus at the cross, first to behold his resurrection, and everywhere more perceptive than men.13

Joseph of Arimethea

Joseph likely came from a town that was 20 miles north west of Jerusalem, and he was a member of the Sanhedrin.

Arimathea, as the name of a specified city, is not documented, though according to Luke it was “a city of Judea.” Arimathea is usually identified with either Ramleh or Ramathaim-Zophim, where David came to Samuel (1 Samuel 19) Others identify it with Ramlah in Dan, or Ramah in Benjamin.9

Observations:

  • The time of the trial with Pilate would be at daybreak, following Roman customs of early court because of the heat.16
  • Just as the High Priest’s question in Mark 14 about Jesus’ identity centered around their own interests and how to maintain seats of power, so too Pilate’s question centered upon the charge of greatest interest to a governor who was charged with protecting Caesar’s interests.13
  • Note how Pilate makes three attempts to release Jesus, just as Peter makes three denials of Jesus.15
  • The Praetorium referred to any Roman officials’ residence when they were in Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, this may have been the fortress Antonio, which was next to the Temple or more probably Herod the Great’s palace.16
  • Modern audiences often view Jesus’ sufferings as fearsome and terrible, but in the ancient world the kind of physical suffering inflicted on Jesus was common and unremarkable. Mark’s audience would probably not have been very impressed by six hours on the cross, as survival for days on a cross was not unheard of.15
  • Purple was the symbol of royalty. Originally a Roman officer’s robe would have been scarlet, but in time it may be faded to a shade of purple.16
  • A mixture of wine and myrrh was a drug that women from Jerusalem would often offered to victims of crucifixion. It would help to make the pain a little less terrible.1 Jesus refusal to drink may be explained as due to his vow in Mark 14:25 when he told his disciples at the Last Supper that he would not drink wine until he drank it new in the Kingdom of God.13
  • There was a belief in First Century Israel that Elijah would come to the help of good people in times of trouble.1
  • The earliest Aramaic Gospels, the Diatessaron of Tatian and the Church Fathers testify that it was the curtain at the entrance of the temple which ripped, and not the inner veil before the Holy of Holies.7
  • The image of darkness over the land would have been understood by ancient readers as typical use of eschatological imagery of the day of the Lord.9
  • “Vinegar” was the sour wine comprising a part of the daily rations of the Roman soldiers.13
  • The two thieves crucified on Jesus’ right and left is a reminder of when James and John ask if they can sit at Jesus’ side in Heaven in Mark 10. Jesus says he can promise them strife and persecution, but he cannot grant them “to sit at my right hand or at my left…for that honor is “for those for whom it has been prepared.” Later in the midst of the cruifixion, all the disciples having fled, the reader meets “those for whom it has been prepared,” the robbers, not James and John, and the reader also realizes clearly that in the Gospel of Mark, despite what the disciples might wish, Jesus’ coming “in his glory” is Jesus crucified on a cross.15
  • The word “passers-by” indicates that the crucifixion takes place along a road.15
  • Mark highlights the failure of Jesus’ disciples once more. The disciples of John the Baptist buried their leader, but the disciples of Jesus left it to his enemies to take care of his body.15
  • The large, hewn, slab of rock used to cover the tomb would’ve been shaped like a grinding stone. Graves were regularly robbed so they were sealed with a heavy stone. The size of the stone showed it was a rich man’s grave.16

Discussion:

  • Why did Jesus need to die?
  • Why do you think Jesus remained silent during his trials?
  • What did Jesus mean when he said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Resources:

  1. Easy English Bible Commentary
  2. Pontius Pilate
  3. Equestrian Order
  4. Barabbas
  5. Women at the Crucifixion
  6. Mary Magdalene
  7. Calvery
  8. Simon of Cyrene
  9. Jesus’ Crucifixion
  10. Crucfixion
  11. Scourging/Flagellation
  12. Sayings of Jesus on the Cross
  13. Coffman’s Commentary
  14. Barnes’ Commentary
  15. Turton’s Commentary
  16. Utley’s Commentary
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