Almost, Judas gets his wish. At the moment of betrayal, one of the disciples draws a sword and lops off an enemy ear. The resistance has begun. They will fight to the end, and die if they have to. When Peter swore loyalty even unto death (14:31), this is what he meant. Good soldiers die, and he is willing to risk it for revolution. And then Jesus says the unimaginable: “Have you come out to seize me with swords and clubs, as though I were a revolutionary?” (14:48)? Many translations do not represent the idea well, but it is extremely likely Jesus used the word in the sense of “revolutionary” or “insurrectionist.” And by implication, he has just said that he is not a revolutionary. He really has no intention to throw off the Ro- man yoke in that way. This is the disciples’ realization in that moment, as he simply does not fight back. Their expectations of the Messiah will not be met; this is not the kind of sacrificial death they had in mind. “And all of them, having abandoned him, fled” (14:50).
Another Markan sandwich, with Peter in the courtyard and Jesus before the council, structures the dramatic tension: (1) inside Jesus is accused of being a false prophet (14:65) and outside his prophecy about Peter’s denial comes true (14:72); (2) inside Jesus finally reveals his identity (14:62) while out- side the one who named him the Christ in 8:29 denies him (14:66-71). It is not supposed to be as simple as,“Peter denied Jesus: see, even apostles sin sometimes.” Rather, the reader watches in astonishment as Peter now proves to be utterly oblivious to the meaning of his earlier confession. Mark’s challenge is, once again, to put ourselves in the apostles’ sandals--in Peter’s specifically--and look on Jesus’ weak- ness and feel the menace of the crowd. In this moment the question rings crystal clear:Will you still put your trust in this Messiah?
Many readers who believe they know the basics of the story will be surprised by its details, which only now, in light of the preceding whole, really make sense. There are two trials, and the motives of those who really want to kill Jesus are different from the motives of those who ultimately do. Mark is un- ambiguous: the Jewish leaders were looking for justification to kill him (14:55). They were, however, unable to come up with legally sufficient testimony. The only accusation actually recorded gives us a clue as to what they were really worried about: his anti-temple stance (14:58). Mark was not shy in writing an entire section of narrative that substantiated this worry. Jesus’ message was, for the establishment, dangerously heretical. The biblical word for such a rebel is “false prophet.” Yet, it is important to Mark as well that the jury was hung. Jesus was innocent before the law.
Given that the witnesses were getting them nowhere--and, more importantly, that even making a “false prophet” charge stick would be irrelevant in the eyes of the Roman overlords- -the high priest cuts to the chase. “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” he asks. Jesus‘ answer is twofold. At last he says directly, “I am.” But he also adds, through the allusions to Ps 110:1 and Dan 7:13, that he will be vindicated as such. It is doubtful that this Messianic claim was actually a crime before the law, but it is important to remember that Jesus had already quoted Dan 7:13 in connection with his judgement of the temple. His vindication would imply that his judgement of the temple stands, confirming the charge of false prophet as far as they are concerned. Thus, they mock him as a false prophet, not a false Messiah. Yet, they must wait for Pilate to wake up before taking any other action.
Pilate’s immediate question confirms that they handed him over as a pretender king (15:2). The irony, of course, is that if Jesus had no acceptance among the Jewish people, his claim would be irrelevant. The Jewish leaders must legitimize his claim in order to hand him over, thereby betraying their own loyalty to the Jewish people in order to play-act as good subjects of Caesar. Their hypocrisy is on display (15:10).
Despite Jesus’ earlier “I am,” he will not let Pilate have an easy verdict. He places the burden of judgement on the testimony of the Jewish leaders. He is, of course, the true King of the Jews. And Mark’s first readers know that he is in fact a real threat to the sovereignty of Caesar. But it is not the kind of threat that Pilate is worried about, and that removes his basis for condemnation. Pilate wants to let Jesus go, and Barabbas is his best shot. His plan backfires, though, because now the crowd is calling for Jesus’ crucifixion. If Pilate crucifies a would-be king, it is to put down popular uprising; if he “satisfies” the crowd (15:15), it is to forestall popular uprising. The reader must keep in mind the political climate in Jerusalem. Rebellion is seething be- neath the surface. In any case, Jesus will be put on a Roman cross because Pilate, as governor, has only one concern: to maintain the peace by any means necessary. Brutal, lethal force is the empire’s instrument of peace, and Pilate will not bat an eye at crucifying an innocent if it means the mob, swollen by festival numbers, will settle down. Beyond the scheming of the Jewish leaders, Jesus is ultimately crucified for totally political motives: Caesar is lord.
The crucifixion in story form is very different than many readers raised in Western cultures are used to imagining. There is no gruesome description. Mark says succinctly: “And they crucified him” (15:24). The reason for this is, first, that Mark’s original readers were all very familiar with the scene. It was horrific torture. It was bloody. It was terrible to behold. It was enough to say those four words:And they crucified him.
But, second, Mark’s readers also knew the full extent of the cross’s awfulness, and it was not merely the physical that mattered to them. In fact, it was not even primarily the physical. That is, Mark’s interest is not just that the reader shudder at the inhumanity of it. Yet, the significance of Mark’s storytelling is often lost on later readers, even though he belabors the point: the crucifixion, especially in Jesus’ case, was about humiliation. Reading 15:16-32 as one piece makes this unmistakable. Jesus is mocked (15:16-20), stripped naked (15:24), verbally abused (15:29-30), mocked again (15:31-32), and reproached (15:32). These constitute the great majority of the actions in the crucifixion story. And the practice of crucifix- ion itself was designed to be a public signpost: “This is what happens to those who defy the empire.” It is a declaration of Jesus’ defeat.
This defeat, this torture and humiliation, pain and dishonor, subjugation and shame, is the particular meaning of the Messiah’s giving of his life as a ransom for many (10:45) and pouring out his blood for many (14:24). He did not merely bleed and die, as though blood and death were abstract goals. It happened in this way, wrapped in lowliness and disdain, in the violent grasp of the powerful. This and only this is the gospel story.