Musings on Mark: Minor Markan Characters – The Centurion at the Cross

In her excellent book In the Company of Jesus: Characters in Mark’s Gospel,New Testament scholar Elizabeth Struthers Malbon uses the tools of narrative criticism2 to analyze the story we find in the Gospel of Mark. As the title of her work suggests, Malbon focuses on characters that we find within the Markan story, characters that are often what narrative critics would consider to be one-dimensional but who nevertheless punctuate Mark’s Gospel. She notes that

[t]he richness of Markan characterization is in the interplay, comparisons, and contrasts between these characters and in their reaching out to the hearers/readers, both ancient and contemporary.3

The main character in Mark’s Gospel is of course Jesus. It is, after all, his story that the author is telling. But there are other significant characters that are part of his story. For example, the disciples appear frequently as they follow Jesus, receive his teaching, watch his miracles, and routinely misunderstand who he is and what is mission is. We also frequently read of “the crowd” that follows Jesus around as he travels throughout Galilee and to Jerusalem before his death. Other characters serve as foils for Jesus: the Pharisees, the scribes, and the Jewish religious leaders centered in Jerusalem.

Many of the Markan characters are “minor.” But what makes a character minor? Malbon writes that a minor character is minor because of “some lack.”4

For my purposes a “minor” character is one who lacks a continuing or recurrent presence in the story as narrated. For the most part, minor characters appear only once: the Gerasene demoniac, the Syrophoenician woman, the anointing woman. Occasionally minor characters appear two or three times.5

And how do these characters function in the Gospel, especially as it pertains to the reader? Malbon writes that

the minor characters of Mark do have major importance. (1) They, alongside the major characters, extend the continuum of potential responses to Jesus in an open-ended way, providing implicit narrative comparisons and contrasts with the responses of the continuing or recurrent characters and providing a bridge from the (internal) characters to the (borderline) implied audience. (2) They mark where the implied audience is to pause, reflect, connect; that is, they provide overall narrative punctuation – parentheses, exclamation points, and colons especially.6

For Malbon, (1) and (2) are “entirely intertwined.”7

The Centurion at the Cross

There are many characters in Mark’s Gospel to whom we could look with regards to how they “punctuate” the narrative. In this post I want to consider the Roman centurion who stands guard by the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Here is the first text wherein that centurion appears.

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:33-39, NRSV)

What role does the centurion play in the plot of Mark? In Malbon’s schema, characters fall into three general categories:

  • They can function as enemies and “fallible followers.”8
  • They can function as exemplars or models of right belief and behavior.9
  • They can function as parallels to other characters.10

The centurion on one level does serve as an enemy of Jesus. After all, he is a representative of Rome in his capacity as a military official. And as it is Rome that crucified Jesus under the direction of Pontius Pilate, he is the embodiment of the Empire’s political power over Israel generally and Jesus particularly. Yet this isn’t the centurion’s function in the story. Nor does the centurion parallel any of the major characters in the story whether it be Jesus or the disciples. That leaves us with the option of exemplar. But in what way does he serve as an exemplar?

Fallible Followers and Demonic Duelers

One of the recurring themes of the Markan Gospel is that the disciples just don’t have a good grasp of who Jesus is or what his mission in the world is. Repeatedly we are told that the disciples lack understanding.

Mark’s portrayal of the disciples – especially the Twelve – is paradoxical. On the one hand, they are called by Jesus to accompany him and to share in his work (3:13-19; 6:7-13, 30). They respond enthusiastically to his call (1:16-20; cf. 2:14); the women follow and care for him to the very end (15:40-41; 15:47-16:8). It is Peter who recognizes that Jesus is the messiah (8:29). On the other hand, throughout the Gospel, the disciples – especially members of the Twelve – frequently fail to understand the words and deeds of Jesus (e.g., 4:13, 40; 6:50-52; 7:18; 8:14-21; 10:13-14, 35-45), even though he offers them private instruction (e.g., 4:10-13, 33-34; 7:17-18; 9:28-29; 10:11-12; 13:3-37). Ultimately they all desert him (14:50; 14:72; cf. 16:8). The readers/audience, like the disciples, are left with the question of whether they can live up to the demands of doing the will of God (3:35; 14:36).11

Yet there are some in the narrative that do recognize Jesus. For example, Jesus’ first miracle in Mark’s Gospel is an exorcism in the synagogue of Capernaum (1:21-28). As he is teaching, a man with an unclean spirit enters and interrupts Jesus – “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (1:24). There are at least two things that are interesting about what the demon says. First, Mark tells us that the man had an unclean spirit yet the demon speaks in the plural – “Have you come to destroy us [Greek, hēmas]?” Is he speaking on behalf of all demons?12 Second, and more importantly, the demon recognizes Jesus – “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Fascinatingly, this pericope ends with the attendants in the synagogue being amazed by Jesus but not declaring, as the demon had, that Jesus is “the Holy One of God.”

In other encounters Jesus has with demons he is recognized by them: “[Jesus] would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” (1:34); “Whenever the unclean spirits saw [Jesus], they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!'” (3:11); “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:7). These entities – veritable enemies of Jesus – stand in stark contrast with the disciples who are not enemies but who simply cannot grasp who Jesus is for most of the Gospel.

These demons who serve as enemies of Jesus are among the minor characters in the Gospel. Yet there are other minor characters who are not supernatural who do recognize Jesus. For example, as Jesus is traveling through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem he hears a blind beggar call out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (10:47; cf. 10:48) It is no coincidence that the beggar refers to him as the “Son of David” (i.e. the messiah) just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as its king in 11:1-10. Yet in what follows Jesus ends up being rejected by all, including his disciples (14:26-31, 50-51).

An Exemplar of Right Belief

So as Jesus is crucified, rejected by the ones he loved and suffering a terrible fate, the only ones nearby are soldiers who had mocked him horribly (15:16-20), two bandits who taunt him (15:27, 32), some passers-by who deride him (15:29), the religious authorities of Jerusalem who ridicule him (15:31-32), and this centurion. At noon, darkness begins to cover the land, an ominous sign of doom and gloom (15:33). Three hours later Jesus lets out a cry of grief – “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (15:34). Those standing by think he is calling for Elijah, a prophet who was to appear at the end of the age (15:35 cf. Malachi 4:5-6). Others give him a sponge filled with sour wine (Greek, oxos) in a bid to keep him alert so he’d be conscious when Elijah came to rescue him (15:36).13 Everyone mocks him, even as he is in terrible agony.

Then comes the end – “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last” (15:37). As soon as this happens, the curtain of the temple – likely that which had separated the Holiest Place from the Holy Place – was torn in two “from top to bottom,” indicating that this was the action of God himself (15:38).14 It is then that the Markan author tells us that the centurion “who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!'” (15:39) Just what is meant by “in this way he breathed his last” is not entirely clear. It could be a reference to the tearing of the curtain in the temple which had been precipitated by Jesus’ crying out and breathing his last. But how could he have seen such an event? It is also possible that it is simply a reference to the general way Jesus died – tortured and mocked and crying out with a loud voice at the end. Regardless, it is the centurion’s reaction that is the point of the narrative: “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Like the demoniac forces of evil and the blind beggar, this centurion recognizes Jesus for who he is. Whether this event took place historically is entirely beside the point; what we are concerned with is not history but narrative. It is fitting and even ironic that at the end of Jesus’ life he is recognized by his enemies, the blind, and those who crucified him. Furthermore, it is only upon his death that this centurion sees Jesus for who he is. In Jewish thought, a suffering messiah was an entirely foreign concept. Messiahs were meant to reign and rule and flourish, not imprisoned and crucified and killed. The centurion then is an exemplar “of the paradox of suffering service as a manifestation of the power of the kingdom of God.”15 

For the Markan audience, the centurion is one who may have gotten it wrong when he and his men crucified the Son of God. But he, like they, were not beyond redemption. The death of Jesus held great significance for the centurion just as it did for the Markan community. In him they could recognize their own faults and failings.

And in him they could see that the death of Jesus changes everything.

NOTES

1 Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, In the Company of Jesus: Characters in Mark’s Gospel (WJK Press, 2000).

2 Malbon devotes the entire first chapter of her book (pp. 1-40) to the subject of narrative criticism and the insights into the Gospel of Mark that are gleaned from it. For more on narrative criticism, see David M. Gunn’s chapter “Narrative Criticism” in Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, editors, To Each Its Own Meaning: Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, revised edition (WJK Press, 1999), 201-229.

3 Malbon., x.

4 Ibid., 191.

5 Ibid., 192.

6 Ibid., 193-194.

Ibid., 194.

8 Ibid., 195-197.

9 Ibid., 198-205.

10 Ibid., 206-209.

11 Mary Ann Beavis, Mark, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2011), 22-23.

12 See RT France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGCT (Eerdmans 2002), 103.

13 Beavis, 230. Rodney Decker notes that oxos refers more to a poor wine than to a “sour” one. See Decker, Mark 9-16: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor University Press, 2014), 259.

14 The significance of this event in the Markan Gospel is debated but it seems that the most reasonable conclusion is that the tearing of the curtain symbolizes the tearing down of the separation that existed between sinful man and righteous God. That is, Jesus’ death has created a new world where mankind can enjoy more fully the presence of God.

15 Malbon, 203.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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