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Crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:21-32)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Crucified

Jesus Crucified

    21 And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross. 22 And they bring him unto the place Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, The place of a skull.
    23 And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not. 24 And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take.
    25 And it was the third hour, and they crucified him. 26 And the superscription of his accusation was written over, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
    27 And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left. 28 And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.
    29 And they that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, 30 Save thyself, and come down from the cross.
    31 Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save. 32 Let Christ the King of Israel descend now from the cross, that we may see and believe. And they that were crucified with him reviled him.
    Compare: Matthew 27:32-56; Luke 23:26-49; John 19:17-30

Jesus is Crucified

Crucifixion may be one of the most horrible methods of execution ever invented. A person is nailed to a cross or stake and hangs there until their own weight suffocates them. The horrors of crucifixion are, however, glossed over by Mark in favor of the deeper theological meanings behind these events.

The reference to “Alexander and Rufus” may have been an effort to name people known to Mark’s community and thereby vouchsafe the accuracy of Mark’s story. There is, however, no historical basis for bystanders carrying the cross-beam for a condemned prisoner like this, so today it’s actually an sign that Mark’s story isn’t historical. The actions of Simon the Cyrenian are clearly fiction. The words Mark uses here in Greek (are ton stauron autou) are same used earlier by Jesus when informing his disciples that they would have to carry their own crosses (arato ton stauron autou).

Simon’s reason for being here is to depict what it is like to actually bear the cross for Jesus, a signal to Mark’s community that carrying the cross isn’t always to be taken in a figurative sense. For Christian communities being persecuted by the Romans, carrying a cross might be something they quite literally have to do. The irony here is that just before Jesus’ earlier words, Jesus was rebuked by Peter, the same disciple who goes on to deny Jesus rather than deny himself as Jesus instructed. Neither Peter nor any of the other disciples are here carrying Jesus cross for him — that task is left to a complete stranger.

Jesus’ execution is carried out beyond the walls of Jerusalem, just like traditional Jewish sin offerings are taken “outside the camp” (Leviticus 16:27). The Aramaic term for skull, “gulgulta,” may have referred to either the shape of the placed or its use as a spot for executions. The traditional term “Calvary” comes from the Latin for skull, “calvaria.” Jesus is offered a drugged drink, an allusion to Proverbs 31:6-7. The soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, an allusion to Psalms 22:18.

Above Jesus they place a plaque describing the charges for which Jesus was being executed: claiming to be King of the Jews. This once again points to the fact that Jesus’ execution would have been an official Roman matter, based upon political activity considered a threat to the state.

Traditional Christian exegesis places a great deal of importance on the words of the high priests who come to mock Jesus. According to them, he has “saved” others but now can’t save himself — but for Christians, it is precisely because Jesus stays on the cross that he is able to save both himself and others.

Just one problem: if the high priests know that he “saved” others, then they know that he has worked wondrous miracles in the past. If they know about his powers, then there is no reason for them to demand that he descend from the cross in order for them to believe. This cannot, then, be considered anything other than an invention of Mark. Aside from making important theological points, it also continues the pattern of giving his audience reasons to blame the Jews rather than the Romans for Jesus’ death.

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