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.
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.’
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.
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.