15:39-47 – In these verses, Mark begins to highlight for us the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God, revealed in power in Christ’s death on the cross. As soon as Jesus dies, we see unexpected witnesses step forward to hail him, mourn him, and honor him. It’s not his inner circle of twelve male disciples who are in the forefront of this first wave of recognizing Jesus’ lordship—no, it’s a pagan Gentile army officer, a group of women, and a member of the body who condemned Jesus to death. First, Mark shows us the centurion, one of the closest observers of Jesus’ death, who is quoted as saying, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” In their parallel passages, Matthew keeps a similar wording, while Luke tones it down a bit (“Surely this was a righteous man”). Where critics might point to a clear discrepancy in the accounts, and claim this as a point in their argument that the gospels are historically unreliable, there is quite probably a very good explanation for this. First, one needs to recognize that first-century historiography was not quite the same as the practice in our own day, and so it would have been considered “true” to convey the underlying substance of a statement, even if not the exact words. From that point, we could note two possibilities: either (1) the centurion said “Surely this was a righteous man,” but he later came to faith in Christ and was known to the Gospel writers, and so Matthew and Mark have “backdated” his authentic reflections on the death of Christ to that moment on Golgotha, or (2) he said, “Surely this was the Son of God,” but Luke decided to tone the wording down, because a pagan calling someone “the son of god” is not necessarily the same thing as a Jew or Christian saying those same words. In either case, there are possibilities whereby all of the Gospel writers are remaining true to the events and meaning of Calvary. For our purposes, though, the most important thing is to note the irony that it is a Gentile army officer, reviled by the Jews, who is the first to recognize the Messiah of the world. Mark then goes on to note the presence of the women. In first-century cultures, women did not have a strong position in society—they were regarded (unfortunately) as weaker and less intelligent than men, too swayed by their emotional natures, and thus not dependable as witnesses. And yet they are shown here as the most faithful of Christ’s disciples, exhibiting courage that not even Jesus’ inner circle showed, and they stand as the primary witnesses to both Jesus’ death and resurrection. (This is, incidentally, another strong point in favor of considering the Gospel accounts to be historically reliable; if you were making up this story in that culture, you certainly wouldn’t choose to make women your primary witnesses, unless that’s the way it actually happened.) Throughout all ages of the church, it has been the women—often behind the scenes—who have often been the most faithful members of the Body of Christ, standing with their Lord in prayer, suffering, and service; they remain today the strongest part of most local fellowships, and thus there is no place in the Body of Christ for the marginalization of women. After highlighting the women, Mark shifts his focus onto the third surprising witness—Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Council (that is, the Jewish body that condemned Jesus). He is apparently so struck by Jesus’ death that he gets Pilate’s permission to bury Jesus, and places him in a rock-cut tomb. This was extravagant treatment—a rich man’s tomb for a man executed in the manner of the lowest of criminals! Yet Christ had begun to turn the world on its head, and now the least likely of men can become the most faithful of converts. Along the way, Mark also notes the time for us (Preparation Day, before the Sabbath—that will become important later on) and records two historical details that help to refute common conspiracy theories regarding Christ’s resurrection. One such conspiracy theory is that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross—he merely swooned, and then revived later on. This might seem plausible if one is familiar with crucifixions, because the truth is that the victims of crucifixion almost never died as a result of the torture itself. Convicts would have to be killed at the end of the crucifixion, often by breaking their legs so they can’t push themselves up, and they drown in their own fluids. But Mark notes for us that Pilate knew this fact about crucifixions very well, and that he even double-checked to make sure that Jesus was dead—and yes, it turns out, he truly was. (The other Gospels offer other proofs to this effect, such as the soldiers piercing Jesus’ side with a spear, and blood and water coming out—a sure sign of death). The second conspiracy theory is this: that perhaps the poor, grief-stricken women didn’t know where they were going on Sunday morning, and they happened to come upon a tomb they thought was Jesus’, but, lo and behold, it was empty! Well, Mark clearly tells us why this couldn’t have been the case—the women followed Jesus’ body all the way from the cross to the tomb on Friday evening, and they saw where he was laid. It wasn’t a case of them getting lost and picking the wrong tomb; no, Jesus truly was dead, and then he truly was risen from the dead.
Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.