The King of the Jews

July 2nd, 2013

This article is from the Gospel of Mark volume of the Interpreting Biblical Texts series, available with a subscription to the Ministry Matters Premium Library.


A consistent feature of the passion is that Jesus is tried, mocked, and finally executed as King. At the climax of his trial before the Jewish court, he is asked the critical question: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61 RSV). The language—“Son of the Blessed One” instead of “Son of God”—features proper Jewish sensitivity about using the name of God; “Blessed One” as a paraphrase is familiar particularly from rabbinic terminology. The use of the two titles, “Christ” and “Son of God,” harks back to the opening verse of the Gospel. Here, for the first and only time in the story, the terms appear together—on the lips of Jesus’ adversaries. Jesus’ response—featuring images of one enthroned at God's right hand—belongs within the same royal ideology. That “the Christ” is a royal designation is confirmed in chapter 15, when another group of Jewish mockers taunt Jesus as “the Christ, the King of Israel” (15:32 RSV).

The trial before Pilate picks up the royal imagery, now from the perspective of Romans (non-Jews). In Israel's tradition, the King is “anointed” by God (“the Anointed One” translates “the Messiah” in Hebrew and “the Christ” in Greek). Romans are interested only in political implications. For them, the claim that Jesus is King is understood as “the King of the Jews.” The title appears five times—three times on Pilate's lips, once in the mockery of the soldiers, and once in the inscription of the charge Pilate writes.

We learn several things from the narrative. One is that calling Jesus “Christ” or “King” sounds absurd to everyone. Religious and political leaders alike offer an appraisal of how the confession sounds. To the religious authorities, the claim to be “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed” (RSV), enthroned at God's right hand, is pretentious to the point of blasphemy. To the Romans the claim is seditious (there can be only one king in Caesar's realm) and absurd. The mockery reveals the view of the authorities.

The constant play on the royal imagery serves quite another purpose for readers who know that Jesus is “Christ, the Son of God”: it provides testimony to the truth. If Jesus is really king, he should be invested—and so he is. Soldiers dress him in a royal robe and put a crown on his head, kneeling in homage: “Hail, King of the Jews!” (15:18). Pilate formulates the inscription: “The King of the Jews” (15:26). His enemies invest him as king and announce his identity—though in mockery, without understanding that they speak the truth. Contrary to their intentions, beyond their comprehension, they play a crucial role in the unconventional climax of the ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In such a story, we may ask how we are to hear and play the role of the centurion who, at the most unlikely moment in the story, speaks the truth about Jesus: “Truly this man was God's Son!” (15:39). The traditional interpretation of the statement—that it is a confession by someone genuinely moved by Jesus’ death—is not impossible. It would fit the pattern of surprising confessions familiar from earlier in the story, giving some anticipation of the ministry of the gospel to the “Gentiles,” of which Jesus has spoken (13:10—“And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations [= Gentiles]”). There is something about the traditional interpretation that is too convenient, however, for readers in need of some relief from the unrelenting gloom. Mark's sketch of the passion offers little “satisfaction.” Jesus dies a failure in the eyes of his contemporaries, abandoned by the crowds, his followers, and finally even by God. His last cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34) is misunderstood by the crowd as a call to Elijah (the words “my God” and “Elijah” sound similar in Mark's Greek); with that last misunderstanding, he dies. And if the “confession” of the centurion might seem to provide some relief, the narrative's end, with frightened women who say nothing to anyone, makes of this “opening” a temporary relief at best.

More interesting, I find, is a reading of the centurion's statement in light of the other “confessions” among Jesus’ adversaries. Like the chief priest, the guards who taunt Jesus to prophesy, the mockers at the foot of the cross, Pilate, and the rest of the Roman soldiers, the centurion may say more than he knows. If the confession is sarcastic, it would fit the general tone of irony. Nothing in Jesus’ ignominious death would convince anyone that he was the King. In fact, it would seem to be a final disqualification. There is ample motivation in the story for a last sarcastic comment by a soldier. And there is equally good reason for understanding how the last comment functions ironically as confirmation for readers who watch the story from another place, appreciating what players in the drama cannot. The confession of the centurion is true, whether or not he understands what he says. And in fact it is even more “true”—even more realistic—if he does not understand what he is saying. The narrative sketches a world in which things are not the way they appear, particularly to those in power. That sketch will probably strike most contemporary readers as true to the way things are.

Such a concern with the actual experience of reading, I should point out, shifts interest from within the story to this side of the printed page. Contemporary readers must finally give voice to the ancient narrative. The reaction of people to the ironic reading of the centurion is revealing. Most students, who like sarcasm, are quite open to the reading. Older, more established Bible readers are generally more skeptical. Exegetical arguments in favor of the “traditional” reading are not terribly convincing. The negative response usually has more to do with custom and a desire to keep interpretation under control. That a reader can change the experience of the story with an alteration in the voice is unsettling. A student, when pressed about his discomfort with the ironic reading, had to acknowledge that the “truth” of the centurion's confession did not depend upon whether or not the soldier knew what he was saying. What he didn’t like was the loss of control. “I don’t like it that you have the power to change the story by your tone of voice,” he said. “I don’t want to grant you that authority, and I surely don’t want it for myself.” Perhaps there are no alternatives, other than disinterested readings that are far more destructive and deadening than mistaken ones.

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