2009-05-27

When Jesus went out with a loud voice . . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

Shouts and silences are prominent sound images throughout both the non-canonical and canonical gospels and apocalypses. Sometimes the authors seem to be deliberately pairing them to emphasize their associated contrasting occasions. The most memorable instances of this in the canonical gospels are the silences of Jesus before his accusers and tormenters and the loud shout/s he utters on the cross. In Matthew is a well-known passage drawing on Isaiah to suggest a similar contrast:

He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory. (Matthew 12:19-20)

This lends itself to neat bit of eisegesis that Jesus’ shout from the cross was a cry of judgment and/or victory.

Probably the most obvious noncanonical text with this particular paradox to come to mind is “The Thunder, Perfect Mind” where the Saviour proclaims he/she is both silence and manifold voice and one who cries out (thunder?). I can’t help but wonder so many of the narrative paradoxes we find in the Gospel of Mark also being found epigrams in some gnostic-type literature such as The Thunder, Perfect Mind.

A common exercise is to treat the gospels as divinely inspired ciphers that require a reader to find matching patterns between their different texts, and by means of these jig-saw matches mentally constructing an entirely new story not found in any of the texts. This is sometimes called “letting the bible interpret the bible”, or even, “not interpreting the bible, but letting the bible speak for itself”. It is also called “reading the bible with the guidance of the spirit of God.”

One example of this approach is to take two passages from Mark and Luke using them to create a third unlike any found in either Mark or Luke.

Death’s Loud Voice: Mark

And Jesus cried [aphiemi: uttered/let go/departed (“went out”)] with a loud voice [phone-megas] and gave up the ghost. (Mark 15:37)

To appreciate the image the author is conveying here, we need to be aware that just three verses earlier he had written:

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried [boao – same for the voice crying in the wilderness] with a loud voice [phone-megas], saying, . . . My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)

And just as significantly, in two earlier dramatic scenes in this gospel, readers had been regaled with scenes of demons crying out with loud voices at the moment they were commanded to leave the bodies they had so long possessed.

And when the unclean spirit [pneuma] had torn him, and cried out with a loud voice [phone-megas], he came out of him. (Mark 1:26)

And cried with a loud voice [phone-megas] . . . and the unclean spirits [pneuma] went out . . . (Mark 5:7-13)

I think all this is a good indication that the author was intentionally using the same imagery for the moment of Jesus’ death as he had used for the expulsion of spirits from the bodies they had possessed. It is a cry of despair and defeat at the moment the spirit leaves its body.

This interpretation is reinforced by Mark’s description of how the spirit entered and possessed Jesus in the first place.

He saw the heavens parting and the spirit descending [falling down] into [eis] him like a dove . . . and immediately the spirit drove [ekballo: cast] him into the wilderness (Mark 1:10, 12)

The spirit that entered “into” Jesus (a detail that apparently embarrassed Matthew, since he changed the proposition to “epi”, meaning “lighted upon” Jesus) also “cast Jesus out” into the wilderness. The same word, ekballo, is used of Jesus casting out demons that had possessed other bodies. See this crosswalk.com list for ten such usages of the word in Mark.

Relying exclusively on the context of Mark’s text, a text that was written to be read aloud to audiences, it appears that the author described Jesus moment when his spirit (pneuma) exited his body in the same way he described the departure of other spirits from bodies — with a loud voice. On the face of it then, the loud cry is surely meant to indicate a cry of defeat, loss, pain. That would be consistent with Jesus crying out with a loud voice only moments earlier deploring the fact that even God had forsaken him. Recall that Mark’s Jesus is also the very human one who loses his temper a few times and sometimes needs two attempts and clay and spittle to complete a healing. It is also possible, of course, that an insider audience alert to Mark’s hidden meanings throughout the gospel (hidden, that is, from the characters in the gospel) also saw the cry as an ironic expression of a spiritual victory, but that has to remain a separate discussion.

That’s the meaning of Jesus’ final cry with a loud voice in Mark, confining ourselves to the text of Mark to contextualize it.

Death’s Loud Voice: Luke

Luke’s gospel changes Mark’s narrative here, however.

And when Jesus had cried [phoneo – spoke] out with a loud voice, he said, “Father, into your hands I comment my spirit.” And having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

Luke’s Jesus did not weakly aphiemi (depart) with a loud voice, but more positively “spoke” or “cried out” (phoneo) with a loud voice. And far from being an utterance of despair or defeat, the voice conveyed a calm controlled peace at the moment of death: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

We know that this author was re-writing Mark’s Jesus here quite consciously and deliberately. The author of Luke’s gospel was portraying a very different Jesus from Mark’s. Luke’s Jesus was at no point in despair on the cross. He nowhere utters the famous cry of dereliction from the 22nd Psalm. Instead, he tries to refocus those mourning for him on his way to his death:

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me . . . (Luke 23:28)

He calls upon God to forgive his executioners:

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” . . . (Luke 23:34)

And settles a dispute among arguing thieves crucified with him by promising heavenly favours for the one on his side:

And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

So when Jesus cries out at the end, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”, he is clearly intending to recast what was a cry of defeat in Mark’s gospel into a cry of supreme control of the situation.

If we interpret the loud cry of Jesus at his dying moment in Luke’s gospel from the context of Luke’s gospel, we find that it has been given a meaning completely different from the one found in Mark’s gospel.

Absent from Luke’s gospel are also those other Markan comparisons of the spirit entering/possessing/exiting Jesus’ body with unclean spirits doing likewise. Luke even changes Mark’s first exorcism scene to remove the demon’s loud voice from the moment of his expulsion, shifting it to his initial recognition of Jesus. So in Luke, the unclean spirit leaves with no sound effects at all, unless silence is considered the relevant “sound” effect:

But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him in their midst, it came out of him and did not hurt him. (Luke 4:35)

Luke removed all of those uncomfortable suggestions in Mark that Jesus’ death had strange points in common with the demise of the opposing spirit world.

Postscript: the centurion’s response

And by way of a postscript, one can also see through this comparison of the two gospels another reason for interpreting Mark’s centurion as one of the many mockers of Jesus. (See earlier post for details.) In Mark, the centurion sees Jesus going out with a cry of defeat and pain. A classic “Aaargh!!!” as the body collapses into a carcase. “So this was a son of god, yeah right!” In Luke, on the other hand, the centurion is dutifully impressed by Jesus’ saintly commendation of his spirit to God as he dies. “This was certainly a righteous man!” Mark and Luke put different words in the centurion’s mouth. They mean something quite different. But they each make perfect consistent sense within the distinctive contexts, and different Christs, of each gospel.


7 Comments

  • 2009-05-28 10:29:01 UTC - 10:29 | Permalink

    I still don’t see how we could be expected to believe that a normal suffocating man on a cross, or worse an extremely weak one, could let out a loud cry at the very point of his death. I certainly also cannot see the “loud cry” as a “classic Aaargh!!!” Its not like he just got shot or stabbed at that exact moment. I think it is clear that Mark has in mind the same thing as Luke and as John 10, that Jesus dismissed his spirit with this loud cry. Your connection to the loud cries as demons were cast out actually strengthens this connection. The centurion saw the loud cry as proof that Jesus was something more than human, a son of God.

    • 2009-06-21 08:03:57 UTC - 08:03 | Permalink

      The Wikipedia article on crucifixion makes interesting reading in the context of the above discussion with Rey. Note the sentence:

      Experiments by Frederick Zugibe have, however, revealed that, when suspended with arms at 60° to 70° from the vertical, test subjects had no difficulty breathing, only rapidly-increasing discomfort and pain. This would correspond to the Roman use of crucifixion as a prolonged, agonizing, humiliating death.

  • 2009-05-30 23:50:07 UTC - 23:50 | Permalink

    JW:
    I think “Mark’s” usual source here is Paul and specifically Galatians where Paul explains that Jesus’ “crucifixion” is figurative (he was actually hung) and refers to “crucifying one’s passion”. Camery-Hoggatt righteously points out that during the supposed Passion Jesus gradually becomes silent contrasted by his opponents gradually becoming more emotional. The cry is intentionally mindful of those violent, overly emotional demons of “Mark”.

    “Mark” is clearly Separationist and the cry signifies the spirit (Christ) leaving Jesus. Once the Christ has flown the Coop (so to speak) the human Jesus has his emotion return. With a rebound! This is the Q for the Centurion to observe that this WAS the son of God, past tense. The spirit has departed to parts unknown while likewise the now human Jesus will depart to Galilee as an unknown. Note that “Mark’s” Jesus does predict that the disciples will follow Jesus to Galilee but the verb is intransitive indicating it is not a cause and effect relationship (Jesus will not lead them there. He just gets there before they do). The final implied Irony of “Mark”. Jesus and the disciples will return to Galillee, just not in The Way either expected.

    Joseph

  • 2009-05-31 13:49:40 UTC - 13:49 | Permalink

    Thank you. Your blog is a tremendous resource to someone like me, who is far better versed in philosophy of religion than in the history of 1st century Palestine.

  • Pingback: “When Jesus went out with a loud voice” revisited – – – wikipedia footnote « Vridar

  • Ken
    2014-08-09 12:32:48 UTC - 12:32 | Permalink

    I have read a few comments and commentaries online about Mark 15:37-39, and I have not read of any in depth exploration of the centurion’s experience with dying men. I have been thinking that there was a different quality to the way Jesus died compared to his experience with other’s as they die, maybe especially as they die a crucified death. A loud cry from someone who is as weakened as Jesus seems not normal to me. Was there anything different about this than what others might have done as they were crucified? Maybe it’s a shout of defiance of death, or victory, or some quality that humbled that centurion. I think no other man was as certain of what was going on at their crucifixion (or even battlefield death) as Jesus was. Maybe that impressed the centurion.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2014-08-09 14:30:35 UTC - 14:30 | Permalink

      We are reading a piece of literature so I think the first questions we need to address is what the author was conveying by his account. First and foremost it is a literary question, not a historical or biographical one.

      I like your point about the unlikelihood of a loud shout coming from one in a weakened condition as Jesus was supposed to be. He could not even carry his own cross according to the synoptic evangelists. Was not crucifixion designed to lead to death by suffocation, too, from the way the body pulled down with the arms outstretched? If so its difficult to imagine lungs full of enough air to utter all he was supposed to have done at volume.

      Ancient authors often depicted scenarios we know were quite naively unrealistic in order to make thematic points — the greatness of the hero, for example. We see this throughout the gospels in relation to Jesus. It is possible that Mark was intending the centurion’s assertion to be yet the final piece of mockery. He was being sarcastic — Jesus died like anyone else, even more quickly, so what sort of a son of God was he! If so, then we have another piece of characteristic Markan irony.

      Mark elsewhere also leaves the reasons for reactions unexplained. When Jesus came down from the mount of his transfiguration the crowds were astonished but we are not told why. Nor are we told why Judas betrayed Jesus nor why the disciples followed him. Mark leaves such things unexplained quite often so perhaps we should see his failure to fill in the “realistic” details with the centurion as another instance of that.

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