#14: ‘Yeah Right, This was the Son of God’

Jason Micheli —  August 28, 2014 — 5 Comments

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The word to which Inigo Montoya refers in the Princess Bride is ‘inconceivable.’

For many people outside the Kingdom of Florin, it’s inconceivable that another Word doesn’t mean what they think it means.

From cliched, Christian-speak catch-phrases (‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered’) to familiar flannel-graphed VBS stories (‘Truly, this was God’s Son’), Christians are guilty of routinely misunderstanding, misquoting, misapplying or just plain MISSING verses of scripture.

So I offer you (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) the 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses.

#14: The Centurion’s Confession

“Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

(Mark 15.39 NRSV)

Adam Lewis Greene is a graphic artist who specializes in book design. Greene recently began a kickstarter campaign to produce an elegant, readable, novelized version of the Bible.

‘Bibliotheca’ as he calls it struck a chord, quickly exceeding Greene’s initial fundraising goal of $30K by almost $1.5 million.

Evidently others saw in the Bible what Greene sees: an unreadable book.

As a book designer, Greene notes that the encyclopedic format of most Bibles, with thin pages, small fonts, tight margins, lack of white space, unfriendly chapter breaks, distracting verse and footnote citations obscure what scripture fundamentally is: a narrative.

A story.

Meant to be read as you would a novel or a memoir from the beginning to the end.

Reading John’s Gospel, say, in one sitting from start to finish can reveal more about John’s message than any scholarly commentary.

We miss something of the original intent, Greene argues, when we divvy John’s Gospel up into discrete units that we then bloodlessly cross-reference with a hundred other small units of scripture.

The Bible’s encyclopedic form lulls us into forgetting that the evangelists weren’t writing numbered verses. They were creating art; that is, they composed their narratives in such a way as to have an affect upon us.

The bad design of most editions of the Bible, encouraging us to read scattershot as we would a reference book, leads to bad readers of the Bible.

Perhaps no verse of scripture makes Greene’s point as clearly as the centurion’s ‘confession’ at the end of Mark’s Gospel:

‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.’

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Crucified, Jesus has just cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!’ which itself is a verse from Psalm 22, a prayer the Roman centurion would not have known.

Seeing the would-be King nailed naked to a tree and ostensibly crying out in anguish, this soldier says ‘Obviously, this was the Son of God!’

Son of God? Based on what exactly?

As far as he knows this rabble-rousing rabbi has died an indignant death, abandoned by his followers and by his God, with his movement in tatters.

What would compel a Roman centurion suddenly now to see Jesus as the Son of God?

It doesn’t jive with what Mark’s just told us nor with how he’s unfolding his story.

In spite of the incongruity, Christians persist in interpreting this soldier’s statement as a noble, sincere profession of faith. The centurion thus becomes the Gospel’s first reader, modeling the reaction we should have to encountering the crucified Christ.

On a baser level, the centurion becomes exhibit A for how even a Gentile can see what the Jews do not see: ‘Duh, this was the Son of God.’

Such an interpretation, I believe, reduces Mark’s sophisticated narrative to the kind of unsubtle ‘art’ you’d expect of a Kirk Cameron movie.

Instead the centurion’s ‘confession of faith’ in 15.39 is yet another instance of the irony that thematically unites Mark’s entire Gospel.

Take Adam Greene’s advice.

Read Mark straight through, it’s short. You’ll see: irony abounds.

Only demons recognize Jesus’ authority.

The man who can exorcize demons is accused of having one.

The blind see what the seeing cannot.

He says to give to Caesar what belongs to him, but he’s just implied everything belongs to God.

The mock title above his head (‘The King of the Jews’) turns out to be true.

The ones who charge him with blasphemy commit it in doing so.

When he cries out to God, the crowd thinks he’s soliciting Elijah.

God condescending to be God-with-us in Christ results in us condescending to sin so that we can be me-without-God.

The ‘vindication’ of resurrection results in fear that produces a final failure when Mark concludes his Gospel by telling us the Easter witnesses ran away scared and didn’t say anything to anyone.

There’s a good grammatical reason not to read 15.39 as a confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, but the simpler reason is just to read Mark, from start to finish.

“You are the King of the Jews?” Pilate sneers at Jesus.

“Hail, the King of the Jews!” the soliders taunt.

“So, you are the King of Israel?” the bystanders mock and laugh at the Cross.

And “Truly, this was the Son of God” says the centurion.

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In other words:

“Yeah right, this was the Son of God” is the better interpretation.

“Truly, this was the Son of God…Not” best captures how Mark thinks the world  responds to the foolishness of the Gospel.

The centurion’s comments are part and parcel of a story festering with cynicism and sarcasm.

The centurion’s ‘confession’ at the foot of the Cross is but another instance of the irony Mark employs in telling a Gospel that he believes can only be received properly as a scandal and offense.

That we persist in hearing the centurion’s confession as sincere only implicates us in the irony.

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Jason Micheli

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5 responses to #14: ‘Yeah Right, This was the Son of God’

  1. I’m intrigued, if not completely convinced, by your reading. It’s certainly possible, in the same way I think many (most?) are mistaken about the tone of Paul’s letter to Philemon.

    What is the “good grammatical reason not to read 15.39 as a confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God”? I’m looking at the Greek text and I don’t see it but, of course, I’m more adept in the Divine Language (my first Hebrew professor insisted that we only learn Greek in case of a clerical error at the time of our death). Was the use of sarcasm (as you read the verse) an established literary convention or rhetorical device in antiquity?

    I would argue that reading the verse as a sincere confession rather intensifies the irony. Only the “pagan” Gentile, perhaps a direct participant in the execution, sees this man for who he is. Elsewhere Mark and the other Gospel writers make explicit the mocking and jeering of Jesus. The centurions words have no such connotation that I recognize.

  2. While I’m sure you got this eccentric interpretation from a book that isn’t Mark’s gospel, if there were any question over Mark’s meaning, shouldn’t we seek to answer it in light of Matthew and Luke’s parallel accounts? Nothing there indicates sarcasm. On the contrary, the tone is reverent and awed. Why would a contemporary author know more than the other evangelists, who were obviously much closer to the facts than he is?

    • Agreed. If this is sarcasm, then both Matthew and Luke misinterpreted the tradition (although only in Luke’s account would I call it “reverent”).

    • Well, I’m not going to disagree with the principle of interpreting scripture by means of scripture, but even your point ignores that Luke and Matthew make no attempt simply to record events. They’re telling a story as they want it told; consequently, on any number of passages they diverge from Mark but most obviously in their beginning and end. Luke’s got all kinds of nice tidy happily ever after endings and Mark’s got…nothing. There are very good reasons why Luke would want to make a Roman soldier the flattered model of faith beyond simply echoing Mark. Your interpretation would mute Mark’s message where we push God out of the world on a cross and then meet Easter with fear and silence. The best reading sans any outside source is that the centurion is but another powerbroker who can’t imagine Jesus is who the Church says he is, no different say than the scribes et al at the beginning who chafe at the notion of Jesus being the Son of Man. There is no victory in Mark, just the hard truth that we’d rather kill God than be his People.

  3. I don’t read any victory in Mark either. On the contrary, it only adds to the tragedy that the one human being not demon-possessed who identifies Jesus by the same title as the author (1:1) does so too late.

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