Problem: A centurion mocks or exalts Jesus
Verses: Mark 15:39, Matthew 27:54; Status: Minor

Mark, the first of the synoptic authors to write his gospel, records the death of Jesus and the reaction of a nearby soldier. This is Mark 15:34-39:

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And some of the bystanders hearing it said, "Behold, he is calling Elijah." And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down." And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And 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!" (ESV)

The centurion, having seen Jesus die in apparent despair, crying out in anguish and mocked by the crowd, joins in with a sarcastic remark. As Bible scholar Mark Goodacre notes, the reader "is given some privileged information, that the veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. This is classic dramatic irony: the reader knows what the actors in the drama do not know, and the actors do not realize the truth of the words that they are speaking in mockery."

When Matthew wrote his own gospel, based partly on Mark's, he seems not to have understood (or enjoyed?) the joke. Matthew presents a far more impressive series of events, and the centurion speaks not with sarcasm but with conviction. This is Matthew 27:50-54:

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, "Truly this was the Son of God!" (ESV)

So Mark's account and Matthew's are contradictory: one has the centurion mocking Jesus, and the other has him exalting him.

The obvious inerrantist reply is that the centurion, as portrayed by Mark, simply means what he says. This seems unlikely: Mark writes that the man's words were a response to the (apparently unimpressive) way that Jesus died. However, in support of the inerrantist view, the centurion has at least witnessed one impressive event: darkness falling over the land, recorded at Mark 15:33. Yet the others in the crowd don't seem to be troubled by this, and I think Mark is saying the centurion wasn't either.

It's open to some interpretation.

Updated: 2010-03-19

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