Mark's Gospel

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The Crucifixion of Jesus

(Mark 15:20-41)

Mark does not go into too much detail when it comes to Jesus' execution. His original readers would have been all too familiar with the ritual that was associated with crucifixion. The Romans had perfected this method of execution so that it was possible to kill the victim either in a matter of hours or days depending on how much mercy they wanted to show. It is likely that a person to be crucified would be forced to carry the crossbeam to the place of execution where there was a permanent upright post. At the site of execution the victim was stripped completely of their clothes, their hands tied and nailed to the crossbeam and then hoisted into position onto the upright post. The feet were then nailed to a small platform on the upright. The victim was then left to die. Death was slow. In order to breathe the victim would have to push himself up on his feet. Unable to hold this position for any length of time the victim was forced to let his body sag down again. This went on until the victim could no longer push himself up through exhaustion. The victim would eventually slowly suffocate.

Mark gives us a few specific details of Jesus' crucifixion. Before he is put on the cross, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh. This would have been a crude form of anaesthetic to help alleviate the pain. Jesus refused to drink it, possibly to fulfill his own words at the Last Supper; 'I shall not drink any more wine until the day I drink the new wine in the kingdom of God.' (Mark 14: 25). It was customary for the executioners to divide the prisoner's effects among themselves. The nailing up of a titulus or notice stating the crime of the prisoner was common practice. Jesus was described as King of the Jews, possibly a deliberate insult to the Jews on the part of Pilate.

Those who passed by, and the chief priests and Pharisees, mocked him and challenged him to come down from the cross. The original charge of destroying the Temple was thrown at him by the crowds. They also mock him for his claim of being the Messiah.

The darkness over the land from noon (the sixth hour) to 3.00 p.m. (the ninth hour) adds a dramatic backdrop to Jesus' suffering.

Mark records only one saying of Jesus from the cross, the Aramaic 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani', meaning, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?' This is a difficult passage to understand as it implies that Jesus felt that God had deserted him and left him to his fate; his trust in God had therefore been misplaced. One explanation is that Jesus was on the cross bearing the sin of the whole of humanity and could not therefore escape the full consequences of that sin - an overwhelming sense of separation from God. Jesus came through that experience with his trust in God unbroken. Jesus' cry is a quotation of the first verse of Psalm 22. Although the psalm begins in despair, it ends on a strong note of triumph. It is significant that this psalm also refers to the casting of lots and abuse by passersby; it would seem that Mark is implying that Jesus, while quoting the first verse, had the whole psalm in mind, including the final note of triumph.

The curtain of the Temple referred to is probably that which hung over the opening to the Holy of Holies where God dwelt; only the High Priest had access and that only once in a year. The rending of the veil was a powerful symbol. Notice that it is torn from top to bottom. This implies that it is a work of God, i.e. from heaven to earth. That which was hidden is now revealed. God is seen face to face in Jesus. Through the death of Jesus, all men, not only the High Priest, had access to the presence of God.

The centurion overseeing the crucifixion would have been familiar with the sight of a man dying on the cross. Presumably he is moved by the extraordinary way in which Jesus has faced his own death. Being a Roman, the centurion would have been a pagan. Mark points out the irony that the pagan Roman soldier is able to see what the Jewish authorities failed to, that Jesus was the Son of God, that he was more than a mere man.

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