Mark 15:33-39

The centurion recognises Jesus as the son of God

1st CE
New Testament
Title of work: 
The Gospel According to Mark



The famous statement following Jesus’s death made by the centurion in Mark 15:39, that Jesus is “God’s son” (which is variously translated as “a son of God,” or with the supplied definite article as “the son of God,” to make a stronger Christian theological statement) has traditionally, and by some commentators is still understood as the climactic point of the Gospel, when a human character recognises Jesus’s true identity for the first time. What is more, this human character is a Roman soldier, making his affirmation all the more surprising and emphatic. For Stephen Moore (“Turning Mark Inside-Out,” p. 104), the centurion’s recognition is crucial to one of Mark’s overarching messages, that of “Gentile insight over Jewish blindness.” Indeed, for nineteenth century commentators such as Lange (1857, p. 428), the centurion ideally represented for the Markan author a model of a “heathen becoming Christian.” From this perspective, the centurion is not a superstitious Gentile expressing alarm at the unsettling events that he is witnessing, but rather a newly converted Christian confessing his faith (see Hans Leander, Discourses of Empire, p. 140). According to John Chrysostom (who died in the early-5th century CE), in early Christian tradition, the centurion was believed by some to have become a Christian saint and martyr (Homily 88 on Matthew). Such interpretation, heavily loaded with theological polemic, sees Mark as wanting his first-century Christian audience to comprehend that unlike their Jewish peers, they as Gentiles, just like the centurion, are fortunate to understand Jesus’s real significance. Rudolf Pesch (Das Markusevangelium, p. 500), on the other hand, argues that the centurion’s statement refers only to what Jesus was (ἦν) while alive, and therefore cannot be taken as an indicator of Mark’s Christology. Joachim Gnilka (Das Evangelium nach Markus, p. 327) takes this to mean precisely the opposite – the fact that the centurion understood that Jesus was God’s son whilst alive (the implication being that he still is after death) just enhances the intensity and profound nature of his acclamation

For Alan Georgia, the centurion’s affirmation of Jesus’s status exemplifies the “ritual duality” of Jesus’s crucifixion. What was a shameful death is transformed into something which firmly asserts Jesus’s identity and status (Alan Georgia, “Translating the Triumph,” p. 32). Some have even suggested that the centurion’s words are a deliberate echo of the Latin phrase divi filius (son of god), and that the lack of a definite article in Mark’s Greek hints at the author’s intention to evoke the Latin in the audience’s mind. This is the view of Tae Hun Kim, who argues that this episode presents a direct challenge to the imperial cult (see Tae Hun Kim, “The Anarthrous Υιος Θεου”). Similarly, Michael Peppard has interpreted this incident as a deliberate paralleling of accounts of the deaths of Roman emperors, at which point their divine status was evaluated and confirmed (Michael Peppard, The Son of God in the Roman World, p. 131). There is a difference, however, in that Jesus’s death is not the moment of his apotheosis in the same way that Roman authors describe the deification of emperors and other figures (such as Ovid’s accounts, Metamorphoses XIV.805-828, of the deification of Romulus, who becomes the god Quirinus at his death, and Julius Caesar, Metamorphoses XV.745-759, 803-851, whom Ovid asserts must be made a god because of the necessity for the future deification of Augustus), as his status does not change upon his death. However, this line of interpretation is by no means the consensus. Earl Johnson, for instance, maintains that the centurion’s words are neither an attempted undermining of the imperial cult nor the theological crux of Mark’s Christology. Rather, Jesus’s identity is revealed only by God in Mark 1:11 and 9:7. What is more, Johnson argues that a) we cannot simply assume that Mark intentionally took over the phrase divi filius just because he uses no article, and b) Roman understanding of divinity was very diverse and different to that of the early Christians. While an emperor could be worshipped as a son of god by being given this title, he could also acquire divine status through the worship of his Genius. For those reading Mark’s Gospel in the first century, therefore, all sorts of images and practices could be evoked for a reader/hearer familiar with Roman religious practice (Earl Johnson, “Mark 15.39 and the So-Called Confession of the Roman Centurion,” p. 406, 408-409). The statement of the centurion is perhaps deliberately ambiguous in this sense. As Ched Myers recognises, the fact that the spatial distance between the centurion and Jesus is specifically highlighted (verse 39) is suggestive of opposition, further supported by the subsequent role of the same centurion taking the news of Jesus’s death to his superior, Pilate (15:44-45). Moreover, Jesus’s enemies have also used the same words uttered by the centurion to describe Jesus (see Mark 12:14, 14:70). Myers even suggests that by giving Jesus a title after he has died, when he is unable to respond, as he did to Pilate, who asked whether he did indeed identify as the “king of the Jews” (Mark 15:1-15), the centurion is somehow trying to assert power over him (see Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 393-394). Such interpretations counter the image of the Gentile Roman soldier turned faithful Christian that has become so popular in both scholarship and popular understanding of Mark alike.

Scholars are divided as to whether Mark’s Gospel should be dated immediately prior to, or in the close aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 CE (the allusions to its destruction in Mark 13:1-2 viewed either as a prediction of what is to come, or a reaction to what has recently happened). Either way, if the author did intend for the centurion to be some sort of faithful model, then the fact that he provides this provocative example of a military Roman Gentile, a small, yet sure representation of the imperial regime, exclaiming what can be perceived as exceptional faith, would be a valuable piece of polemic for the identity construction of a first century Christian audience. Perhaps the centurion has several roles: maybe he offers an ambiguous statement which to some might signal an implicit challenge to the way Roman religion understood its “divine sons,” maybe his words are intended as dramatic irony (so, Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, p. 769), or maybe as Earl Johnson (“Mark 15.39 and the So-Called Confession of the Roman Centurion,” p. 410) remarks, the author intends to prompt the reader through the centurion’s affirmation to make up their own mind as to Jesus’s true identity.

Bibliographical references: 

Mark: A Commentary

Yarbro Collins, AdelabookMark: A CommentaryMinneapolisFortress Press2007
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