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  • A Centurion’s “Confession”: A Performance-Critical Analysis of Mark 15:39
  • Kelly R. Iverson

In many respects, Mark 15:39 is deceptively simple. Immediately after Jesus dies and the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom, the centurion standing opposite the crucifixion scene speaks seven uncomplicated words: ἀληθῶς οὗτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος υἱὸς θεοῦ ἦν. The lexical meaning of these individual terms is not in doubt, and the christological significance of the utterance, at this juncture in Mark’s story, is widely recognized. At issue, and what complicates an otherwise straightforward verse, is the intended force of the utterance. At the level of the story, what precisely did the centurion mean when speaking these words? Is the so-called confession a genuine expression of faith and devotion, a final, derogatory statement of mockery meant to belittle Jesus and his followers, or an ambiguous pronouncement whose intent cannot be determined?1

While various grammatical and historical issues weigh on the interpretation of this statement, the verse hinges on elements that are not readily obvious in the textual remains of Mark’s story. Taken in isolation and stripped from the printed page, the response might be construed in a variety of ways. Most germane to the [End Page 329] problem is how Mark and/or early storytellers dramatized the statement, since it makes a profound difference whether the words were spoken with heartfelt sincerity or a condemnatory scowl. These paralinguistic and extralinguistic features— the intonation of the storyteller’s voice, gestures, facial expression, and so on—are inherent in all communication and, as Whitney Taylor Shiner has shown, used with skill and passion by early performers of the Gospels.2 Unfortunately for the modern reader, these additional conveyors of meaning have not been recorded in our written artifacts.

It has often been assumed that the distinction between oral and written media is largely irrelevant, but a number of scholars have begun the fruitful exploration of performance criticism, further demonstrating that meaning is intrinsically bound to the particular mode of communication.3 Accordingly, the objective of this essay is to situate Mark 15:39 within its oral context, recognizing that “the medium is the message.”4 The intent is not to postulate about what, if anything, the centurion actually said but to understand the force of the centurion’s statement as reflected in the Markan passion narrative. Though it is impossible to revert to a pre-literate mind-set and our only remains are written documents, we can and must do a better job of attempting to reconstruct likely performance scenarios that are based on the social realities of the first century.

I. Illocutionary Force in Mark

A growing number of scholars have begun to assert that the centurion’s postcrucifixion remarks are not an expression of belief but a form of sarcasm intended to mock Jesus. While nothing in the statement inextricably leads to this conclusion, Donald H. Juel argues that the derision is “in accord with the rest of the taunts in the account of Jesus’ trial and death.”5 Likewise, Stephen D. Moore questions the [End Page 330] genuineness of the response but focuses on the consistent misunderstanding surrounding the identity of Jesus and the unlikelihood that a Gentile soldier succeeds “where Jesus’ elite hand-picked disciples have so singularly failed.”6

Whatever objections might be raised, these interpretations expose one of the more vexing problems in biblical interpretation. That the Gospels are derived from oral stories and influenced by the dynamics of oral storytelling practices has been discussed at length, and need not be rehearsed here.7 The question raised by Mark 15:39 is how one interprets the potential loss of meaning generated by the gap between different communication media. Though all translation results in communication loss, the impact is even more pronounced in the transition from one media type to another. If, as Richard Watts suggests, it is “difficult to detect ironic intent” in literature, then discerning the force of the centurion’s remark is even more problematic since the confession is situated in a piece of orally derived literature that potentially obscures the aim of the original statement.8

David R. Olson, in a stimulating book entitled The World on Paper, discusses...


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