Study Guide

Gospel of Mark Chapter 15

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Chapter 15

A Contradiction in Terms: The Crucified King

  • Having rendered their verdict, Jerusalem's big wigs lead Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who actually possesses the legal authority to condemn someone to execution.
  • Pilate poses the question that really matters from his perspective: "Are you the King of the Jews?" (15:2).
  • Jesus responds, "You said it, buddy!" Or something like that.
  • The chief priests tell Pilate all their accusations against Jesus.
  • Pilate offers Jesus an opportunity to pose a defense, but Jesus refrains, which strikes Pilate as remarkable.
  • The narrator informs us that it was Pilate's custom during the festival of Unleavened Bread to release one prisoner at the people's request.
  • One prisoner's name was Barabbas, who had taken part in a violent revolt.
  • The crowd requests that Pilate now initiate the customary prisoner-release.
  • Pilate suggests that they accept the release of the "King of the Jews" (15:9), a.k.a. Jesus. After all, he was well-aware that the religious leaders had accused him purely out of rivalry.
  • Incited by the chief priests, the crowd requests the release of Barabbas instead.
  • Pilate asks them what he should do with Jesus, and they demand that Jesus be crucified.
  • Pilate wants to know what he did that was so wrong, but the crowd just insists on his crucifixion.
  • Because he's a crowd-pleaser, Pilate releases Barabbas and condemns Jesus to crucifixion, which is preceded by severe whipping.
  • The soldiers drive Jesus into the courtyard and summon the whole cohort. FYI, a Roman cohort is pretty big, usually around 600 soldiers, though the precise number varies in ancient sources.
  • They dress Jesus up like a king, with a purple robe and a crown made of thorns, and greet him mockingly: "Hail, O King of the Jews" (15:18).
  • They strike his head, spit nasty loogies at him, and bow down before him.
  • Afterward, they strip him of the purple mantle and dress him again in his own clothes. For your own mental image, this opens the possibility that Jesus continues to don the makeshift crown throughout the crucifixion.
  • Then the procession to Golgotha, the location of his crucifixion, begins. On the way, they get a certain Simon from Cyrene in North Africa to carry Jesus's crossbeam.
  • The narrator adds that Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus, whom Mark's first recipients (or at least some of them) apparently knew.
  • When they get there, they offer Jesus wine mixed with myrrh, which is likely an act of mercy—its effect would probably alleviate in some measure the torments of crucifixion.
  • But Jesus refuses it. He's one tough dude (besides, remember 14:25).
  • The soldiers divide up his clothes and cast lots for them, a detail from Psalms 22:18 and one of several evocations of this song of lament throughout the account of the crucifixion.
  • The narrator cites the time as the "third hour" (15:25), which the NRSV accurately transcribes into modern lingo as 9:00AM.
  • Now it's time for some more irony. An inscription stating the charge for which he was condemned is from the narrator's perspective a true title for Jesus: "The King of the Jews" (15:26). You'll see that on a lot of paintings.
  • Two bandits are also crucified on the left and right of Jesus.
  • Passersby shake their heads at him (in the age of the internet Mark would have linked this detail to Psalm 22:7) and repeat the accusation of 14:58. Shame on Jesus. He can't even save himself.
  • The chief priests and scribes are in a pretty good mood and highlight the irony that Jesus saved others, but can't save himself.
  • But the irony is on them when they mockingly call him, "The Messiah, the King of Israel" (15:32), which for the narrator are accurate titles.
  • Even those who are co-crucified with Jesus ridicule him. Ouch.
  • During the "sixth hour" (KJV) or around 12:00PM (NRSV) darkness consumes the whole earth for three straight hours.
  • Then in the "ninth hour" (KJV) or around 3:00PM (NRSV), Jesus shouts forth a quote from Psalm 22:1 in Aramaic, which the narrator translates into Greek, which the translators of the NRSV deliver to us in English: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (15:34).
  • Some of the bystanders think he's summoning Elijah, whose name sounds an awful lot like the Aramaic word for "my God" (elōi), which Jesus has just uttered twice (15:34).
  • Someone gives him a sponge soaked with sour wine to drink, which is a possible allusion to Psalm 69:21.
  • This act may be another gesture of mockery or an act of mercy, if the wine is intended to revive Jesus long enough to see if Elijah will really come.
  • Jesus dies.
  • The temple's curtain, which likely refers to the thing that separated the holy of holies from the temple proper, is torn.
  • A centurion witnesses the manner of Jesus's death and says, "Truly this man was God's son" (15:39). For a bit of ancient flavor, you may translate, "Truly this man was a son of a god," which may be more in keeping with the fact that the centurion is not Jewish.
  • For those of you who like to argue rowdily with your friends or relatives, you might like to raise the question of whether the centurion's statement is mocking in tone and therefore ironic, like those in 15:29-30, 32; or genuine and thus he is the only bystander who affirms the truth of Jesus's identity. 
  • A group of women, who followed Jesus in Galilee and accompanied him to Jerusalem, are watching from a distance. The narrator divulges three of their names, Mary Magdalene, another Mary (who? Compare 6:3, 15:47, 16:1), and Salome.
  • In the evening, Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished councilman, gathers up his courage to request that Pilate grant him possession of Jesus's dead body.
  • Pilate is surprised that Jesus has died so quickly, for crucifixion usually entailed a very slow death by asphyxiation, but the centurion confirms that Jesus really is dead.
  • Pilate grants the body of Jesus to Joseph, who wraps him in a burial shroud and places him in a tomb hewn from rock, with a huge stone rolled before the door.
  • For you archeology buffs, tombs like the one described here have been found. Give your historical imagination something to chew on.
  • Two Marys see where Joseph put Jesus's body.

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