The Gospel according to Mark

Chapter 15

15:1 There is no hard proof for this, but from this point on it seems as if Mark was an eye-witness, and Peter had gone away to his lodgings in remorse and dark despair. It was against the law for the Sanhedrin to meet at night, so Mark noted that this meeting was held as early as possible on the Day of Preparation (15:42) which had begun after sunset the night before (see note on 14:12). The sentence of condemnation was only a quick formality because the case had already been settled at the home of Caiaphas the previous night (14:53-64). The religious leaders had decided that Jesus had to be condemned and killed before the end of the Day of Preparation and Passover would begin that evening (Matthew 26:5). So instead of the mandatory delay between a death sentence and its execution Jesus was sent immediately to the Roman Governor.

15:2 John described how the religious leaders refused to go into Pilate's military headquarters to avoid the ritual defilement that would have prevented them taking part in their family Passover meal that evening (John 18:28-29). Scrupulous obedience to rules can go with diabolical evil. So Pilate went out to them as they were gathered outside. Pilate first tried to get them to judge Jesus according to their law, but they said that by Roman law they were not allowed to execute a death sentence (John 18:31). John tells us that Pilate then went back into his headquarters, and had Jesus brought in to him for questioning. Pilate knew that the point at issue was in what sense Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews? Jesus had explained "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). Mark had already recorded what Jesus said to the disciples about his kind of Kingship: "You know that among the nations those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you . . . for the Son of Man came not to serve but to serve" (10:42-45).

15:3-5 After a brief hearing Pilate had Jesus brought to face the crowd outside, and the chief priests made many accusations, which to Pilate's astonishment Jesus refused to answer (Luke 23:2-5). At that point, having heard that Jesus was from Galilee in the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, Pilate tried to get Herod, who was in Jerusalem at the time, to settle the case. Mark did not get in to what happened in when Jesus was taken in to see Herod, but Luke records the fact  that Jesus refused to answer Herod's questioning. So Herod treated Jesus as a joke, and sent him back dressed in a gorgeous royal robe (Luke 23:7-12).

15:6-10 It was a custom at Passover time for the Governor to release a convicted prisoner at the request of the crowd. Barabbas had led a Jewish insurrection against the Romans, and committed murder, so Pilate expected the Jews would want him released. But now Pilate offered them a terrible choice. If they accepted the release of Jesus, Barabbas their national hero would have been crucified for sedition. But if they asked for Barabbas to be freed, Jesus who was obviously innocent (15:10, 14, Luke 23:4, John 18:38) would have to be crucified.

15:11-14 Obviously some of the ordinary people, who had loved Jesus and his preaching, wanted Jesus to be freed. But the chief priests were able to persuade the crowd that Barabbas was their national hero, and Jesus was a dangerous blasphemer by claiming to be the Messiah.

15:15 Against every principle of Roman justice Pilate decided to satisfy the crowd, by letting Barabbas the murderer go free. Matthew who might have arrived at the scene by then added the fact that Pilate ceremonially washed his hands of responsibility, and claimed "I am innocent of this man's blood." The whole crowd replied "His blood be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:24-25). Mark then saw Jesus being flogged before being handed over to the soldiers who would do the crucifixion.

15:16-20 To Mark's horror the soldiers decided to have some fun. They called the whole regiment together to watch Jesus being mocked as they dressed him in a royal robe with a crown of thorns on his head. This is obviously an eye-witness account of a terrible event. Pilate was impatient to get on with the day's work, and all this happened very quickly because Jesus was put on the cross by nine in the morning (15:25).

15:21 It was the custom for a convicted criminal to carry the cross to his own crucifixion, which Jesus did (John 19:17). Christian piety has suggested that Jesus was too exhausted to do this after the lashing he had received (see note at the end of this chapter). Surely Mark would have recorded this. It seems more likely that Simon of Cyrene (the capital of the Roman Province of Cyrenaica on Libya's northern coast) happened to come by from the country and, not knowing Jesus had been condemned, made some remark about Jesus' innocence. To punish him the soldiers may have said "If that's what you think, you carry his cross." The mention of Alexander and Rufus indicates that Mark knew Simon and his sons as members of the Christian community. Luke adds the information that on the way Jesus addressed the women who bewailed his death (Luke 23:27-31).

15:22 Crucifixions were just outside the city. (gulgalta was Aramaic for place of the skull, transliterated into Greek as Golgotha, which the Latin Vulgate read as calvaria, and that became Calvary in English).

15:23 Wine mingled with myrrh was given as a pain killer, and this may have been offered to him by a soldier, or one of the women (mentioned as wailing in Luke 23:27). But Jesus refused it. He had said at the Last Supper that he would not drink wine again till "the kingdom of God comes" (Luke 22:16, 18). This must refer to a time after his resurrection. A probable reason for refusing a narcotic was that Jesus wanted to keep his mind clear to be able to keep talking to his heavenly Father.

15:24 Before crucifixion a prisoner was stripped naked as the ultimate humiliation. John, who had arrived at the cross by then with Mary the mother of Jesus (John 19:25-27) noted, that Jesus' undergarments were divided among the four soldiers, but they cast lots for his cloak (John 19:23-24, note the brazier for the cold winter night, Luke 22:55).

15:25 As a careful reporter, Mark noted that Jesus was on the cross for six hours. It began at the third hour (nine in the morning), the darkness began at noon and it continued to Jesus death at three (15:33-34, as in Matthew 27:45).

15:26 The reason for a crucifixion was nailed to the cross. To show his contempt for the Jews Pilate had a sign written indicating that Jesus was their King. John noted that the sign indicated Jesus, the King of the Jews, came from Nazareth, and it was written in the three languages of the people involved. Hebrew (probably in its Aramaic dialect) was the language of the Jews. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, and Greek was the language of civilization (John 19:19-20). It is interesting that Jesus' universal (catholic) church quickly divided itself on the basis of these three languages. Aramaic (Syriac) was the language of the churches to the east all the way to India. Latin was the language of Rome. And Greek was the language of the Greek world with its center in Byzantium (called Byzantine).

15:27-32 God the Father also arranged for his Son to be crucified symbolically between two bandits. These may have been revolutionaries belonging to the group under Barabbas (15:7). Various passers by taunted Jesus. And the chief priests challenged him saying if he really was the Messiah, he could come down from the cross and they would believe in him. The soldiers also joined in the mocking (Luke 23:36-38). Luke must have discovered, perhaps by talking to John or to Jesus' mother Mary, that one of the two bandits was assured of a place in heaven with Jesus the very moment he died later that day. By that time Jesus had already gone to be with the Father (Luke 23:39-43). The Greek paradeisos is from the Old Persian pairidaeza, meaning an enclosed garden, which became pardes in Hebrew (Nehemiah 2:8, Song of Solomon 4:13, Ecclesiastes 2:5), which in turn became a metaphor for heaven.

15:33 At midday Mark saw the awesome darkness that descended on the city of Jerusalem for the next three hours. The religious leaders hurried away, and we can imagine the confusion in the temple as they, and thousands of other people, were trying to get their Passover lambs slaughtered in preparation for the seder ritual that night.

15:34-36 After Mary had been by the cross for six terrible hours John recorded how Jesus asked him to take her back to his home (John 19:25-28). That night she would have joined John's family in the Passover ritual. Then Mark heard the loud cry in Aramaic, which he translated as "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." Obviously the Father had not abandoned his Son, but in his human experience Jesus felt that he was now totally abandoned. (echoing Psalm 22:1). By then the darkness had lifted and some curiosity seekers arrived. Hearing the Aramaic "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani," the bystanders thought it was a cry for Elijah to come and help. One of them put a sponge of vinegar (not wine, see note on 15:23) to his lips, and with another loud cry Jesus died (John recorded the cry as "It is finished," John 19:30). Perhaps from Mary's account when he interviewed her, Luke added the last words that she heard "Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit" (Luke 23:46, quoting Psalm 31:5).

15:37-38 Obviously Mark could not see what happened inside the temple. Everybody knew there was a heavy curtain that separated the sanctuary from the holy of holies (as ordered in Exodus 26:31-35). But it was current knowledge all over the city that this curtain was torn "from the top to the bottom" just at the time when Jesus breathed his last on the cross. Mark makes no theological comment about this. The curtain must have been quickly repaired as it was essential for the temple ritual (see Hebrews 9:8, and its spiritual significance in 10:19-20), and it apparently remained until the temple was destroyed 40 years later by the Romans (AD 70).

15:39 Mark then noted the reaction of the Roman army captain (a centurion was over a company of 100 men) who had watched Jesus' reactions when he was on the cross for six hours. He did not make a theological statement of faith in Jesus as the eternal Son of God. What he said was "Truly this man was a son of God." Matthew, who may have been in the city at that time, remembered an earthquake, and tombs cracking open. Then there was the astonishing sight of people released from sheol (the abode of the dead) appearing with resurrection bodies in the city. It seems that the very first thing Jesus did when he died and had entered paradise with his resurrection body (Luke 23:43) was to terminate sheol and give the Old Testament saints their resurrection bodies (as Jesus himself said in John 5:25-29).

15:40 The women continued their vigil right to the end. Mark probably knew some of them. Fourteen years later (just before he interviewed Peter), they would have gathered at his mother's home for prayer (Acts 12:12). Mark does not mention Mary Magdalene during Jesus' ministry but Luke (as a doctor always interested in medical conditions) identified her as "Mary, called Magdalene (probably indicating she came from the town of Magdala on the west side of the Lake of Galilee), from whom seven demons had gone out" (Luke 8:2). Mary, the mother of James the younger and Joses (Joseph in Mathew 27:56) was probably the sister of Mary the wife of Clopas who was with Mary by the cross (Greek klopa, John19:25). She may have been the other disciple walking on the road to Emmaus with her husband Cleopas (Greek kleopas, Luke 24:18).

15:41 Mark adds that he had heard how these women were disciples of Jesus in Galilee, and they used to provide for (Greek diykonoun meaning served as deacons) the needs of Jesus and his apostles. Two ancient manuscripts deleted the words "and they served him" in case they could suggest an immoral relationship. Luke does not identify the women at this point, but he was probably curious to find out about them and he mentions Mary Magdalene and others "who provided for them (the same verb diykonoun) out of their resources (Luke 8:2-3). That suggests that, rather than cooking meals and doing laundry, they were wealthy women who paid some of the expenses of the apostolic team. One of them was Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, a very important man who was responsible for the whole royal household.

15:42-45 The Day of Preparation (see note on the timing of the Last Supper, 14:12) was now ending, and (see Luke 23:54) the religious leaders did not want the bodies of the crucified men left on the cross during the Passover celebration (John 19: 31, 42). So they appointed Joseph of Arimathea to dispose of Jesus' corpse. He was a respected member of their Sanhedrin, a rich man, and known to be a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57). They probably said "You were a follower of Jesus, go and take care of this." The first thing he had to do was to get permission from Pilate to dispose of the body. And Pilate's concern was to check with the centurion that Jesus was already dead.

15:46 Joseph knew that if he touched a corpse he would be ritually defiled and the priests would not allow him to join in the Passover meal that night with his family. He would have to wait till a month later (by the rule in Numbers 9:6-11). He could easily have paid someone to take the corpse down from the cross, but he bought a linen shroud and personally wrapped the body in it. At that point John noted that Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus by night (John 3:1-10), and had spoken up for Jesus to demand a fair trial (John 7:50-52), came with "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds" (John 19:39). They wrapped the body in the burial spices, and laid it in the tomb that Joseph had recently had dug for himself and his family from a rock in a tended garden that John knew well (John 19:41, 20:15 ). Such a rock tomb would have a great circular stone that they rolled in front of the entrance to seal it (Matthew 27:59).

15:47 Two of the women (mentioned in 15:40) watched the entombment, and they knew the location when they went back on the Sunday for the ritual anointing (16:1)

A note on the crucifixion account As suggested in the Introduction, it seems that John Mark was charged with interviewing the Apostle Peter, and getting from him the main facts he remembered of the life and teaching of Jesus. The account reads exactly like a reporter asking questions and writing down the answers he was given. But for the facts recorded in this chapter 15 it seems that Peter was not present, and Mark may have continued the story as a first hand eye-witness who was curious to see what happened to Jesus (see comment on 14:51).

Preachers often try to tell the story with harrowing details of how Jesus must have felt as the nails went in, how he felt about his mother, the terrible thirst, etc. We have noted in the Introduction how the other Gospels used Mark's Gospel as a framework, and added details that they themselves witnessed or the obtained from eye-witnesses. Luke for example must have interviewed Mary the mother of Jesus for the information in his first two chapters and elsewhere in his Gospel. John was apparently by the cross with Mary throughout the six hours Jesus was on the cross, and he adds important details. But neither in Mark's account, or in the other three Gospels, is there any evidence of trying to get our sympathy for Jesus in his terrible suffering. The reports are factual, almost clinical. There is no psychologizing. Jesus knew he would have to die (8:31, 9:31, 10:33), and he suffered and died as a man. He was not looking for sympathy.

Theologians have often tried to explain that Jesus' death on the cross was a payment made instead of us to satisfy the wrath of the Father. But no one could derive that from Mark's account or from the other Gospels. We are given facts without theological explanation. John the Baptist had pointed to Jesus and said "Here is the Lamb of God who keeps taking away the sin of the world" (John 1:29 using a present continuous tense). And it was obvious that Jesus was on the cross at the same time as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered for the seder meal that night. But there is no hint of this explanation of Jesus as the Lamb in John's account. He does use the image of the Messiah's Lambness in Revelation 5:6-12, 6:1, 7:9-17, 12:11, etc.

As Paul reflected on the events after he had heard the story (before he had seen the written accounts in the Gospels), he wrote "The Messiah, our paschal lamb, was sacrificed for us" (1 Corinthians 5:7). He also made a connection with the Old Testament animal sacrifices (Romans 3:25). When he wrote his Epistle much later Simon Peter said "You were ransomed (freed) from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors . . . by the precious blood of the Messiah like a lamb without defect or blemish" (1 Peter 1:18). But this connection is not made in the eye-witness reporting of the three synoptic Gospels. The power of their narratives is in plain facts that they saw and reported. It is John who decided to give us some of the explanations that Jesus gave him.

Chapter 16