Something in the account of the crucifixion in Mark does not make any sense — at least by worldly standards.
It is at the end of the crucifixion in Mark 15, when Jesus breathes his last. This comes after he has endured mockery by the soldiers, taunting by the public that he was unable to miraculously save himself, the crucifixion itself, and the inner dread at being abandoned by God the Father.
The centurion has presumably witnessed all of this. He actively enters the narrative in verse 39, offering an assessment of Jesus’ life and death.
Notice first what he does not say. He does not praise Jesus for his steely fortitude, facing death bravely to the end. He does not call Jesus a hero, a good man, a falsely accused prophet or misunderstood teacher.
Instead, he says this: “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
In other words, he exclaims that last thing one would expect him to say, especially given that he is a centurion of the Roman Empire.
Strange as it may seem in context, the idea that Jesus is the Son of God is a major theme of Mark (see sources here and here). The very first verse declares that it is the ‘gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.’ This title is reaffirmed later in the chapter when Jesus is baptized and the voice from heaven affirms Him as the divine Son (Mark 1). In Mark 5, a demon recognizes Jesus as the ‘Son of the Most High God’—affirming His power over the supernatural world. In the transfiguration, the Father again describes Jesus as His Son.
So the centurion’s pronouncement ties together the whole of gospel. In the crucifixion, Jesus demonstrates everything that makes him the Son of God in Mark’s eyes.
Does being the ‘Son of God’ make Jesus God? The answer seems obviously to be in the affirmative, but it’s not so straightforward: In the Old Testament, ‘Son of God’ referred to angels, Adam, Israel, and the ancient Israelite kings. However, the writers of the New Testament use it in a way that makes sense only if it is indicate of Jesus’ divinity (according to this Bible encyclopedia.)
The words themselves would have been shocking coming from anyone in this scene. To come from a centurion would have been particularly jarring since the Roman emperors were viewed as divine sons (according to this commentator).
One commentator even suggests that here we have a kind of capitulation in which the figurehead of Roman power acknowledges a greater one. There is a thus a certain fittingness here: after the Roman Empire—which for its inhabitants was the government of the known civilized world—pronounced sentence on Jesus that sentence is now revised and delivered by a de facto representative of that government. In a way, the centurion’s statement is a judgment of what happened on the cross.
We wonder what prompted him to reach this conclusion.
Mark gives us something of an answer. In verse 39, Mark tells us that the centurion spoke these words after ‘he saw how He breathed his last.’ This is recounted two verses earlier: “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.” The Greek word here is phōnē, which could also be translated as voice or sound. This should be familiar to us: it’s where we get the word phone as well as phonetics.
In Mark, whenever phōnē appears it is when someone’s identity is definitely declared. It is used in Mark 1 when John the Baptist is introduced (‘a voice crying out…’) and when Jesus’ divine sonship is confirmed at His baptism (‘a voice from heaven…’). Likewise, the word occurs in Mark 1 and 5 the word when the demons cry out in recognition of Jesus presence. We hear the heavenly voice again in the Transfiguration in Mark 9. The next use of the word is on the cross, when Jesus cries out over His abandonment by the Father.
Employing such language to identify Jesus has deep theological ramifications. Remember that Jesus is the Word made flesh. By highlighting the role of the voice, whether His or that of others, Mark draws attention to His dual natures in a particular way.
We could think of a voice as how any word becomes embodied or enfleshed. In the mind, the existence of a word is intellectual or spiritual. It is through the voice that it is transformed into the material world—through vibrating strings in our voice boxes that convert it into waves of air molecules. Thus it is most fitting that the identity of the divine Word Incarnate is disclosed through the utterances of a voice. (I owe this insight to the discussion on this idea in Catholic philosopher Emmanuel Falque’s book, Crossing the Rubicon.)
Is this reading too much into Mark? I don’t think so. First, Mark reserves the Greek word for voice only in these moments. Second, this pattern seems to carry across the four gospels. In fact, the word seems to have a restrictive special meaning throughout the New Testament. Third, outside of the Greek New Testament the word we find instances of the word used in entirely ordinary circumstances.
So in the crucifixion scene, Mark suggests that at His death, Jesus’ identity is disclosed in a powerful way. This reading is confirmed by comparison with Luke’s account of the crucifixion, in which Jesus hands over His Spirit to the Father. In breathing His last then, Jesus is, in a way, sending forth the Spirit and revealing His identity as the Second Person of the Trinity.
This interpretation is further supported by John, where the piercing of His side causes blood and water to gush forth. The Church has traditionally recognized these as signifying the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism. So it is fitting that during the crucifixion we would also see a breathing forth of the Spirit who is active in these sacraments.
Finally, Mark Himself provides one additional clue: at the same moment that Jesus breathed His last the curtain of the temple was torn in two. This verb is also in Mark 1:10 when the ‘heavens were torn’ and the Spirit descended (source here). The crucifixion is the climax of that moment, when heaven personified is torn for our sake, giving us the Spirit. To ensure we don’t miss this, Mark notes that the temple itself had been torn, which ‘let God out’ as one commentator provocatively puts it.
But remember our centurion is not reading Mark. He is in the story. How did he know all of this?
Tradition tells us that the centurion is St. Longinus, the same soldier who in John pierced the side of Christ and was—so the tradition goes—miraculously healed by the blood that poured out. But Mark gives us precious little to go on as to who this man is. And, even if the centurion is the one who pierces the side of Christ that comes later in the sequence of events.
Our concern here is what Mark is trying to tell us. And that narrative poses a question to us: why did the centurion say what he did?
So far, the explanations of commentaries fall into two categories. A common pious reading is that the centurion was simply bowled over by witnessing a miraculous event—Jesus giving up the Holy Spirit. Another faithful reading is that the centurion had the eyes of faith opened up to him in that moment.
I think it’s a little bit of both. An attentive reading of Mark 15 indicates that the centurion was deeply moved by the power of God’s presence, but the text also emphasizes the absence of external signs, instead highlighting his faith. True, there is the darkness, but Mark tells us little about it, doing what he can to minimize the element of the miraculous. And yes, the temple is torn but the centurion certainly can’t see this nor could news of it have reached him in time.
The most miraculous thing he witnessed was the fullness of God’s presence in the flesh. This encounter was up close and personal—more so than traditional artistic depictions of the crucifixion let on. Usually Jesus is shown elevated high on the cross. But the cross may not have been more than a story high, meaning that Jesus would not have been that high above the level of onlookers (sources here, here, and here). The centurion would have been close enough to see Jesus’ face and perhaps even to look into His eyes.
The Greek text confirms this in a powerful way. In the version cited above it says the centurion ‘stood facing Him.’ Some versions read ‘opposite’ Him—not underneath or below. In fact, the Greek word here, enantios, referred to face-to-face confrontations when used as an adverb.
It may be that the centurion might have looked into the eyes of the suffering man on the cross and saw the power of God.
Still, we cannot deny the necessity of faith. For the gospels are full of instances of those who are scolded for failing to have faith in Jesus even though He was fully present to them.
Ultimately, the centurion’s reaction to Jesus death must remain inexplicable—apart from the mystery of faith. Like the Incarnation and the crucifixion itself, his words stand as a sign of contradiction, sure to confound all attempts by worldly wisdom to understand it. The centurion is there in the story to make it impossible to explain away the crucifixion as anything other than what it really was.