Meditations at the Stations of the Cross on Sunday 14 April 2019

This was the inspiration behind the meditations at the Stations of the Cross on Sunday 14 April at St John the Baptist, Holland

New Test. Stud. vol. 41,1995, pp. 1-18




(Westmont College, 955 La Paz Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93108, USA)

Robert Gundry, in a new major commentary on Mark,1 advances

convincingly the thesis that the second Gospel is an extended

apology for the cross. More specifically, Gundry argues that Mark

portrays the passion of Christ as an aspect of his glory. This article

intends to follow that thesis up an avenue not travelled in

Gundry's commentary - namely the Via Dolorosa, which, I will

argue, replaces the Sacra Via of Rome and renders the passion a

triumph in a quite literal sense. In other words, I will maintain

that details of a particular segment of the crucifixion narrative

(Mark 15.16-32) evoke a Roman triumphal procession, and that

Mark designs this 'anti-triumph' to suggest that the seeming

scandal of the cross is actually an exaltation of Christ. In this

interpretation, many details of the crucifixion narrative that

appear to be incidental are in fact important features in a parabolic

drama which a late first-century Roman audience2 would be

uniquely situated to comprehend.

That Mark employs double meaning in the crucifixion narrative

at least to a limited extent is undeniable. His audience could not

miss the point of the accounts of the soldiers' enrobing and crowning

of Jesus (15.17) and of their inscription proclaiming him simply

'King of the Jews' (15.26). Commentators classify these accounts

as part of a general Markan scheme in the larger passion narrative

to portray mockery as a fulfilment of OT prophecy, especially Ps

22.7,18. This is satisfactory at one level of meaning, but there are

indications that Mark introduces a sublevel at this point in the

narrative which incorporates these accounts.

An odd feature of Mark 15.16-32 is that, in contrast to an

otherwise tightly worded passion narrative, this section includes a

number of very specific details. These include the gathering of the

whole guard, the requisition of a bystander to carry the cross, the

1 The Gospel of Mark. A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans,


2 While I acknowledge some debate concerning the addressees, I am persuaded that the

evidence favours Rome (see Gundry 1039-45) and that this article adds to that evidence. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:


translation of the name Golgotha, the offer and refusal of a drink,

the specification of the time of crucifixion, and the numbering and

placement of the bandits. It is not possible to account for all these

details in terms of OT allusions. If, alternately, Mark is attempting

to heighten the realism of his narrative, why to such an extent only

here and why these particular details? I will argue that parallels

between the crucifixion narrative and the Roman triumph supply

a unifying scheme which best accounts for these details both

individually and corporately.


H. S. Versnel's detailed monograph Triumphus3 explains how the

Roman triumph evolved from Etruscan and Greek ceremonies

calling for an epiphany of Dionysos, the dying and rising god. In

the Athenian New Year festival Anthesteria, Dionysos, portrayed

in costume by the king, was carried into the city in a formal procession

which included a bull to be sacrificed. The king was a fitting

representative of the anthropomorphic god because Dionysos

was generally portrayed as the god who triumphs, especially over

men. The procession culminated in a cry for the epiphany of the

god (0p{anPe, triumpe in Latin4), the bull was sacrificed, and the

king appeared as the god. It is noteworthy that several ancient

cultures celebrated similar rites and tolerated the simultaneous

presence of the bull and the king, who both represented the god.

In Greece, Zeus eventually supplanted Dionysos. There are many

links between the two gods,5 but the shift may have centred on the

position of Zeus as king of the gods. In Rome, Zeus became Jupiter,

and the vestiges of homage to Dionysos (Bacchus), whose cult had

merged with that of Liber, added some significant details to the

sacral elements of the Roman version of the triumph.6

The Roman adaptation of the triumph allowed victorious generals

to replace kings as triumphators. Historians of the period

appear to downplay - or perhaps to assume - the sacral elements

of the triumph in their attention to its political aspects. As a result,

3 Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1970. This paragraph summarizes pp. 235-300.

4 Versnel 11-55 argues that an exclamation derived from a pre-Greek word developed

independently in Greek and Latin.

5 Versnel (291-3) presents evidence that Zeus and Dionysos are different aspects of the

same god.

^ Pliny HN 16.4 explains that Liber invented the symbols of royalty, including the crown; in

16.5 he writes of varieties of plants used for different rewards. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:

MARK 15.16-32 3

we do not have a single description of the culminating moment of

sacrifice at the conclusion of a triumph but must piece together the

probable scene in the first century from a variety of extant sources,

both literary and monumental.

Dio Cassius7 describes an early Roman triumph after which subsequent

processions were patterned. First, the soldiers would proclaim

a victorious general as imperator and the senate would

decree a triumph. The triumphator appeared 'arrayed in the

triumphal dress and wearing armlets, with a laurel crown upon his

head, and holding a branch in his right hand . . .'He called

together the people, praised the gathered soldiers, distributed gifts,

and then mounted a tower-shaped chariot upon which he moved in

procession with a slave holding a crown over his head. He was

preceded into the city by captives and graphic representations of

his victories. Finally, 'the victorious general arrived at the Roman

Forum, and after commanding that some of the captives be led to

prison and put to death, he rode up to the Capitol. There he performed

certain rites and made offerings and dined in the porticos

up there, after which he departed homeward toward evening . . . '

The connection between the triumphator and Jupiter8 is remarkable.

The triumphal robe (ornatus Iovis), a garment of regal purple

embroidered with gold, and the gold laurel wreath, were both

taken from the statue of the god in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.

9 The face of the triumphator was painted red in imitation of

the same statue.10 The crowd cried triumpe, a call for the manifestation

of the god.11 It is remarkable that these and other signs

both of deity and of kingship were not recognized or acknowledged

during the republic due to contemporary views of 'political correctness'.

The epiphanic nature of the triumph remained latent until

the first century, as we will observe below.

In the latter period of the republic, as successive triumphators

attempted to align themselves with - and even upstage - military

heroes of the past, the processions became more complex, overlaying

traditional elements of ceremony with increasingly gaudy

and lavish displays.12 Ultimately, this longitudinal competition led

7 6.23 (Zonar. 7.21).

8 Versnel, 56-93.

9 Livy Epit. 10.7.10; Juv. Sat. 10.36; Suet. Aug. 94; Tert. Coron. 13.1; Serv. ad. Verg. Eel.


1 0 HN 33.111; Serv. ad. Verg. Ed. 6.22; Isid. Orig. 18.2.6; and Tzetz. Epist. 97 (after Dio

Cass.); cf. Plut. Quaest. Rom. 98.

11 Versnel, 38-48.

1 2 For a chronological survey of triumphs exhibiting features discussed below, see: Livy

Epit. 1.10.5; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 2.34.2; Plut. Vit. Rom. 16 (the first triumph of Romulus); Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:


to the triumph becoming the exclusive privilege of the emperor

from 20 BC onward. This change dramatically reduced the frequency

of the triumph but allowed it to take on a new and greater

significance. Now it was a tribute to an all-powerful individual,

who, upon his accession, might celebrate conquest of Rome rather

than conquest for Rome, or he might manufacture almost any pretence

for a display of power. Ultimately, for the mid-first century,

tyrants Gaius and Nero, this privilege brought the triumph

together with the notion of the imperator's own deification. Thus

the ceremony became reconnected with its roots as a display of the

ruler as a god. While we will observe a number of details of the

triumph that suggest points of contact with Mark's narrative, it is

in this relation between triumph and deity that the most profound

connection with the Gospel will begin to emerge.


Before beginning an analysis of Mark's passion narrative, it is

useful to observe that a relation between exaltation and ignominy

with reference to the triumph was familiar to ancient writers and

perhaps even to Mark. Although the ironic commentaries of Dio

Cassius on the disgrace of Sejanus (AD 31) and Vitellius (AD 68)

postdate those events by more than a hundred years, the accounts

themselves indicate a practice of 'anti-triumph' mockery roughly

contemporaneous with the NT period:

Thereupon one might have witnessed such a surpassing proof of human

frailty as to prevent one's ever again being puffed up with conceit. For the

man [Sejanus] whom at dawn they had escorted to the senate-hall as a

superior being, they were now dragging to prison as if no better than the

worst; on him whom they had previously thought worthy of many crowns,

they now laid bonds; him whom they were wont to protect as a master, they

now guarded like a runaway slave, uncovering his head when he would fain

cover it; him whom they had adorned with the purple-bordered toga, they

App. Pun. 66 (Lucius Scipio, 201 BC); Livy Epit. 36.40.1-14 (Quintus Minucius, 191 BC);

37.59.1-6 (Lucius Scipio, 189 BC); 39.5.13-17 (Marcus Fulvius, 187 BC); 39.8.1-5 (Gnaeus

Manlius, 187 BC); 45.38-41 (Lucius Paulus, 167 BC); 45.43.1-9 (Lucius Anicius, 167 BC); Dio

Cass. 20 (Zonar. 9.24); Plut. Aem. 32-4 (Aemilius Paulus, 167 BC); Diod. Sic. 31.8.9-12

(Aemilius, 167 BC); 7.21.1-4; App. Mith. 116-17 (Pompey 63 BC); Suet. Iul. 37; Dio Cass.

43.14, 19-22, 42; 44.11 (Julius Caesar); Dio Cass. 51.20.2; 51.21.8-9; App. B. Civ. 5.130

(Octavian, 29 BC); Dio Cass. 59.25.3 (Gaius, AD 40); 60.22.1; 60.23.1 (Claudius, AD 44); Suet.

Ner. 25 (Nero, c. AD 60); Dio Cass. 65.12.1a; Joseph. J.W. 7.5.4-5 § 123-57 (Vespasian and

Titus, AD 70); see also Tac. Hist. 2.89 (Vitellius enters Rome, AD 68); Livy Epit. 10.7.9

(general description of a triumph); Dion. Hal. 5.47.2-3 (contrast between triumph and lesser

ovation); Dion. Hal. 7.72.15-18 (sacrifice at Olympic festival). Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:

MARK 15.16-32 5

struck in the face; and him whom they were wont to adore and worship with

sacrifices as a god, they were now leading to execution. The populace also

assailed him, shouting many reproaches at him for the lives he had taken

and many jeers for the hopes he had cherished.13

Vitellius in his fear put on a ragged and filthy tunic and concealed himself

in a dark room. . . . But the soldiers sought and found him; for naturally he

could not go entirely unrecognized very long after having been emperor.

They seized him, covered as he was with rubbish and blood (for he had been

bitten by the dogs), and tearing off his tunic they bound his hands behind

his back and put a rope around his neck. And thus they led down from the

palace the Caesar who had revelled there; along the Sacred Way they

dragged the emperor who had often paraded past in his chair of state, and

they conducted the Augustus to the Forum, where he had often addressed

the people. Some buffeted him, some plucked at his beard; all mocked him,

all insulted him . . ,14

It is possible that such events, coupled with the recurrent notion of

the kingdom as a reversal of human expectations, inspired a connection

for Mark between the death of Jesus and the Roman

triumph. But the concept of the triumph alone may have provided

sufficient inspiration, and there is evidence that Christ was understood

as triumphator prior to Mark's writing. In 2 Corinthians

2.14-15, Paul proclaims that Christ

always leads us in triumphal procession (Gpianpeuovu), and through us

spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we

are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among

those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the

other a fragrance of life to life (NRSV).

The references to scent appear to indicate a shift of metaphor,

but there is some evidence that first-century triumphs included

the distribution of aromatic substances along the route of the

procession, which would signify the preservation of life to those

who celebrated with the triumphator and impending death to the

train of captives, some of whom would be killed along the way.15

1 3 Dio Cass. 58.11.1-3.

1 4 Dio Cass. 64.20.2-21.2. Cf. Dio Cass. 12 (Zonar. 8.20), where Aemilius (225 BC) brings

captives to the city and mocks them for "having sworn not to remove their breastplates until

they had ascended to the Capitol'. Tac. (Hist. 3.67-8) writes with a similarly ironic touch of

Vitellius putting on mourning dress and leaving the palace in procession, carried in a litter.

1 5 One of the references is to a triumph celebrated by Nero soon after his accession. 'All

along the route victims were slain [and] the streets were sprinkled from time to time with

perfume' (Suet. Ner. 25.2). See also Inez Scott Rybert, Rites of the State Religion in Roman Art

(Rome: American Academy, 1955) figs. 81c, 82d (possibly) for depictions of incense being

carried in a triumphal procession. On the sacrifice of human captives during a triumph, see

Joseph. J.W. 7.5.6 §§ 154-5; Dio Cass. 6.23 (Zonar. 7.21); App. Mithrad. 116-17; Plut. Aem.

32-4. Alternately, Scott J. Hafemann (Suffering and Ministry in the Spirit. Paul's Defense of

His Ministry in II Corinthians 2.14-33 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990] 35^49) explains the Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:


Whether or not Paul extends the metaphor, there can be no mistaking

his allusion in v. 14 to Christ as triumphator.


A verse-by-verse analysis of Mark 15.16-32 in light of the Roman

triumph reveals parallels which range in strength of credibility.

While the cumulative force of the comparison is significant, it is

noteworthy that the most obvious allusions are made at the

beginning of the narrative, perhaps signalling to Mark's audience

that there is more to come for those 'on the inside' (cf. 4.11).

15.16: specification of place and gathering of the whole guard

Mark is explicit that the courtyard of the palace is the rcpaucbpiov,

the Praetorium or military headquarters. While the term could

apply to military headquarters in general (cf. Acts 23.35), it was

the common designation in Rome for the place and personnel of the

imperial guard. The Praetorian guard, which made or broke the

power of emperors, was invariably present on the occasion of a

triumph; and, significantly, it was called together en masse.16 If it

were not for this custom of gathering, we might account for Mark's

naming of the palace courtyard as the praetorium as an incidental

detail. But he follows reference to the courtyard by informing us

that 'they called together the whole cohort' (avyKakovaiv OXTIV ify

mteipav). It would be extremely odd for the entire soldiery (at least

two hundred men) to be called together to mock and beat a single

prisoner. We should consider the details here as chosen carefully to

evoke a familiar occasion; namely, the gathering of the soldiery as

the precursor of a triumph.17

apparent change of metaphors as a slight one from the death of the victims in a triumphal

procession to the imagery of OT sacrifice as a pleasing aroma to God.

1 6 See Suet. Calig. 19.3 (Gaius, AD 40); Dio Cass. 62.4.3 (Nero, AD 66); Tac. Hist. 2.59

(Vitellius, AD 68); Joseph. J.W. 7.5.4 § 123 (Vespasian & Titus, AD 71).

n Gundry (940) proposes that Mark wants to draw attention to the extent of the rejection of

Jesus in fulfilment of 10.33-4. He draws a connection to the specification of the 'whole council'

in 14.55 and 15.1. One might add to this the specification of 'all' the disciples fleeing in 14.27.

Against this view, the crowd in the immediately preceding 15.6-15 is not so defined, and thus

Mark misses a golden opportunity to include 'all' the Jewish people in this scheme. Moreover,

it is questionable that the praetorium would be understood as inclusive with respect to

gentiles. Acknowledgement of the fulfilment theme, however, does not conflict with the

triumph theme. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:

MARK 15.16-32

15.17: ceremonial dress

The extant accounts of Roman triumphs suggest that Mark's

wording in the beginning of v. 17 is formulaic. In one source after

another, the triumphator is introduced clad in, consecutively, a

ceremonial purple robe and a crown.18 Both the combination and

the very presence of these symbols is striking. The wearing of

purple was outlawed for anyone below equestrian rank.19 The only

available robe of this kind would be that of Pilate, but it is inconceivable

that he would lend such a precious garment to be struck

and spat upon by common soldiers.20 Along similarly practical

lines, one wonders where in the courtyard of a palace thorns would

be available to form a crown. Are we to imagine that the soldiers

delayed their mockery while someone looked for a thorn bush

nearby? The strangeness of these details, their likeness to the

ceremonial garb of a triumphator, and their combination with

other details of the narrative suggest a purpose rather than a

coincidence. A contemporary analogy would be to read that a

prison staff dressed a death row inmate in a tuxedo, cape, top hat,

and cane. The evocation would be more specific than that of

wealth. We would wonder, 'Why send the condemned man to the


1 8 Livy Epit. 10.7.9; 30.15.11; Dio Cass. 62.4.3-6.2; 62.20.2-6; Dion. Hal. 5.47.2-3; Suet.

Tib. 17; Ner. 25; Plut. Aem. 34.4; cf. the same in reverse order in App. Pun. 66; Joseph. J.W.

7.5.4 §§ 123-57; see also generally 'triumphal attire' or 'triumphal crown', Suet. Ner. 13; Dio

Cass. Hist. (Zonar. 7.21) 6.23; 51.20.2; or simply 'purple robe', Livy Epit. 27.4.8; 31.11.11. The

robe was always a purple robe, but it appears that eventually (at least second century BC)

a particular robe was used, embroidered in gold and probably taken from the statue of

Jupiter in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. The crown was originally a wreath of laurel or

oak, later a wreath of gold taken from the aforementioned statue of Jupiter. In procession, the

triumphator would often ride holding the ceremonial golden wreath while an attendant held

another crown over his head.

There may be an additional element of mockery in the fact that thorns are used to form the

crown, since different kinds of foliage were employed for different awards (Pliny HN 16.5).

The thorns may constitute a soldierly comment on the worth of kingship over the Jews.

This is not to suggest that the soldiers themselves were self-consciously staging a mock

triumph. W. Lane (The Gospel according to Mark [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974] 559) finds

support in 1 Maccabees for the robe and crown as signifiers merely of Hellenistic vassal kingship.

It should be noted, however, that while these texts all mention the purple robe, only one

mentions a crown (1 Mace 10.20; cf. 10.62-4; 11.58; 14.43-5). Tiridates, king of Armenia, was

crowned as part of a triumph for Nero (Dio Cass. 63.4.3-6.2; Suet. Ner. 13), but the account

mentions only Nero as wearing purple.

1 9 Gundry (940, 942) assumes this in remarking that the soldiers must have employed one

of their own red cloaks to simulate royal purple. But even if this occurred, Mark's lack of

explanation leaves an image which would be remarkable to his audience.

2 0 Matthew, apparently recognizing the difficulty here, has Jesus dressed in 'scarlet'

(KOKKIVTIV, 27.28), probably a soldier's cloak. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:


15.18-19: mockery of the soldiers

When the triumphator appeared in the ceremonial garb, but before

the procession began, he met with the soldiers to receive their

accolades and to distribute gifts to them.21 So in the Gospel the

immediate sequel to the appearance of Jesus is the mock obeisance

of the soldiers summarized in w. 18-19. The shout, 'Hail, King of

the Jews!' may in fact correspond to a formulaic response in a

triumph. Although we do not have an explicit record of such a

response, Suetonius may provide a hint when he reports that

during a procession of Nero his escort 'shouted that they were

attendants of Augustus and soldiers of his triumph' (6.25).22

Mark makes reference in v. 20 to the removal of the purple robe

and the return of Jesus' own clothing after the mockery of the

soldiers. This is inconsistent with the custom of the triumphator

wearing the ceremonial robe throughout the procession, but it is

necessary in order to set up the division of Jesus' clothing by

the soldiers in v. 24. It does not suit Mark's purpose in this section

to make explicit by citation this allusion to Ps 22.19 (18), but it is

important enough in anticipation of the next section - especially

the quotation in 15.34 - that he leaves the description intact.

15.20b: the procession

Jesus is 'led out' (e^dyo-uow) through the streets of Jerusalem to the

place of crucifixion. The verb, used only here in Mark, is employed

commonly in the NT and elsewhere to denote a procession involving

the accompaniment of a key figure by others.23 When Mark

wishes to denote Jesus' private transportment during other stages

of his trial, he employs the more common (kayo) (14.44, 53; 15.16).

It would probably have been obvious to Mark's audience that a

prisoner would be taken from the place of imprisonment to the

21 Dio Cass. (Zonar. 7.21) 6.23; 63.4.3-6.2; Tac. Hist. 1.27; 2.59, 89; Livy Epit. 36.40.1-14;

37.59.1-6; 39.5.13-17; 45.38-41; 45.43.1-9. There is a familiar tradition of the soldiery

following in the train of the triumphator singing mocking songs - presumably to express the

victor's humility: see App. Pun. 66; Livy Epit. 4.20.2; 4.53.11; 7.3.8; Dio Cass. 43.19-22; Dion.

Hal. 7.72.11; Plut. Aem. 34.4. But this practice appears to fade or disappear as the divine

imperator becomes consistently the triumphator.

2 2 Cf. Dio Cass. 62.20.2-6; and see Suet. Calig. 22.3, where Gaius is hailed as Jupiter


2 3 Luke 24.50; John 10.3; Acts 5.19; 12.17; 16.37; 16.39; 21.38. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:

MARK 15.16-32 9

place of crucifixion outside the city.24 Here the notion of a procession

and its prolongation is reinforced by the need for a passerby

to carry the cross (v. 21) and by the naming of a different place

to which he was taken. Moreover, it is possible that v. 22, which

may be translated 'they bore (cpepouaw25) him to . . . Golgotha',

signifies not only of the growing physical weakness of Jesus but

also the custom of the triumphator being borne in a portable curule

chair which was placed in his chariot. Thus the 'litter' of the

Afflicted One is in reality the curule chair of the Conquering One.

15.21: requisition of Simon to carry the cross

Simon is identified as Cyrenian and as the father of Alexander and

Rufus, who unlike (xiva) Simon are probably known to Mark's

audience as church figures.26 The account of Simon's requisition by

the soldiers as cross-carrier may serve simply to suggest the

wearying effect of a prolonged procession. But it may also suggest

another formulaic element in a triumph. A consistent feature in

the numerous monuments depicting triumphs is the sacrificial

bull, led along dressed and crowned to signify its identity with the

triumphator. But the bull is not alone. In nearly every one of these

depictions, walking alongside the bull, is an official who carries

over his shoulder a double-bladed axe, the instrument of the

victim's death.27 The parallel might appear to be coincidental, but

two remarkable details - Simon's link to the community of faith

via his sons and his non-complicity with events up to this point as

indicated by his having just arrived from out of town (epx6|xevov COT'

dypov) - suggest that Mark envisions his role as divinely planned.

This practically official function adds to the visual image of

2 4 Plaut. Mil. Glor. 2.4.6-7: '. . . you'll soon have to trudge out beyond the gate in that

attitude . . . arms outspread, with your gibbet on your shoulders'; Plut. De sera 554A: 'every

criminal who goes to execution must carry his own cross'; Artem. Oneir. 2.56:'. . . it signifies

that he will carry a cross. For the cross is like death and the man who is to be nailed to it

carries it beforehand'. For a detailed account of crucifixion in the NT world and extensive

bibliography, see H.-W. Kuhn, 'Die Kreuzesstrafe wahrend der fruhen Kaiserzeit. Ihre

wirklichkeit und Wertung in der Umwelt des Urchristenturns', ANRW 2.650-793.

2 5 The verb is used consistently in Mark for the sick or objects being carried: 1.32; 2.3; 4.8;

5.27-8; 7.32; 9.17-20; 12.15-16. The only exceptions are references to the blind being brought

to Jesus, which may be a formulaic consistency with other healing stories; and the ass being

brought for the triumphal entry (11.2, 7).

2 6 The names occur in Rom 16.13; 1 Tim 1.20; and 2 Tim 4.14; see the discussion of various

conjectures as to the significance of 15.20b in Gundry 953-4.

2 7 Ryberg figs. 54a, 54b, 55, 56, 58, 61a, 64, 65, 69a, 78a, 81b, 81 d, 82a, 96b. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:


instrument-bearer for the victim. It is the first of several evocative

details involving unwitting irony on the part of the soldiers.

15.22: specification with translation of the place of crucifixion

Crucifixions were common enough in the Roman world that major

cities set aside places nearby for them. There numerous bodies,

elevated and in various stages of suffering or decomposition, would

present a spectacle for the senses intended as a public warning

to potential malefactors. In Rome the place was the Campus

Esquilinus; in Jerusalem, it may have been either the site of the

present Church of the Holy Sepulchre or on the Mount of Olives

across the Kidron Valley from the temple.28 Mark gives the name

of the place, Golgotha, and then, untypically,29 he translates. In

Hebrew, Golgotha (n^J) denotes not an empty skull but more

generally the head.30 This is also true of the Greek translation

Kpdviov. Therefore, 'place of the head' or perhaps 'place of the

death's head' would be a more accurate rendering. The Vulgate

calvaria (as opposed to caput),31 the ambiguity of the English word

'head', and the popular image associated with Gordon's Calvary

may exert undue influence on modern translations.

It may be that Mark offers this translation simply to heighten

the sense of the macabre. But there is a remarkable coincidence

in the name of the place that may constitute another allusion to

the triumph. Dion. Hal. 4.59-61 (cf. Livy Epit. 50.55.5-6) records

the legend that, during the laying of a foundation for a temple on a

certain Roman hill, a human head was discovered found with its

features intact. Soothsayers proclaimed,

2 8 On Rome, see M. Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) 54. Gundry (955)

argues for the Mt of Olives in Jerusalem based on the connection to a 'place of counting" and

the visibility of the temple from it (cf. 15.39); see E. L. Martin, Secrets of Golgotha (Alhambra,

California: Ask, 1988) 12-19, 43-64. A further argument: it would be natural for the Romans

to choose a place visible from the temple to display the consequences of disobedience to their


2 9 The only other translation of a proper name is in 3.17, where Mark draws attention to

the disciples as the 'sons of thunder'.

3 0 Gundry (955) makes this point, citing Judg 9.53; 2 Kgs 9.35; 1 Chr 10.10; elsewhere the

term refers to numbering ('counting heads').

31 'Skull' is also rendered in Latin as calvaria (Vulg. 15.22). Celsus (Med. 8.1) employs caput

and calvaria interchangeably, calvaria technically for the bone under the scalp (2x), caput

more commonly for whole head (9x); in 7.7.15.C he employs calvaria more consistently. In Livy

Epit. 23.24.2 skull (calvam) and head (capite) are used in same sentence; in Pliny HN 30.53

calvaria is used for a dog's skull. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:

MARK 15.16-32 11

'Romans, tell your fellow citizens it is ordered by fate that the place in

which you found the head shall be the head of all Italy', (and) since that

time the place is called the Capitoline hill (K<xjma>\ivoq 6 Xotpoq) from the

head (KecpaAriq) that was found there; for the Romans call heads A )

c a p i t a ( & )

The temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, or more simply the Capitolium,

was the terminus of every Roman triumph. The procession would

wind through the streets to the Forum, and it would culminate in

the ascent of the triumphator to the place of sacrifice, the place

named after a death's head. This may be a linguistic and historical

coincidence, but to an audience prepared by the context to look

for double meanings, it would be a glaring and meaningful coincidence.

15.23: offering and refusal ofmyrrhed wine

just before the crucifixion

Wine mixed with myrrh was an expensive delicacy which probably

was not understood to deaden pain.32 Why myrrhed wine, why the

refusal, and why interject this seemingly unimportant detail here?

The supreme moment of the triumph is the moment of sacrifice,

depicted in formulaic detail by numerous sculptors of the period.

Just prior to the sacrifice of the bull, or in a few cases simultaneously

with that sacrifice, the triumphator (or sacrificant in

general) was offered a cup of wine, which he would refuse and

then pour on the altar (or, more rarely, on the bull itself).33 The

wine obviously signifies the precious blood of the victim, and the

links between sacrificant, wine, and victim signify their identity.

3 2 Pliny (HN 14.92) describes myrrhed wine as the finest. Elsewhere he writes of myrrh

used for scent and mixed with wine, but he never describes it as a sedative. Sour wine or

vinegar (15.36) was understood to deaden pain (e.g., Pliny HN 23.24-7). Dioscor. Ped. (JDe

mater, med. 1.52-64) describes various ointments employing myrrh which are occasionally

mixed with wine and various other ingredients. But although he describes raw myrrh as

having a soporific effect (1.64.3), in combination with other substances including wine he does

not ascribe this quality to it. Instead, myrrh in these concoctions appears generally to operate

externally to reduce throat inflammation. B. Sanh. 43a, citing Ps 68.22, refers to wine with

frankincense as a drug offered to (presumably crucified) criminals by 'the noble women of

Jerusalem'. The last phrase may constitute a connection, albeit a weak one: if myrrhed wine

had a sedative effect for which we lack documentation, its provision may signify an expensive

sacrifice of devotion along the lines of 14.3-9. This possibility, however, does not preclude a

reference to the theme of triumph.

3 3 For libation just prior to the sacrifice see Ryberg 143 and figs. 45d, 45e, 51, 61b, 64, 67,

68, 75a, 75b, 76, 77, 86, 93. For simultaneous libation, see figs. 66, 90, 91. For libation on

the bull itself, see figs. 17b, 97c. For texts describing wine used in sacrifice, see Dion. Hal.

7.72.15-18; Juv. 12.8; CaioAgr. 132,134; Ov. Fast. 4.778. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:


The connection is confirmed by the similar adornment of the

triumphator and the bull. In other words, the bull is the god who

dies and appears as the victor in the person of the triumphator. All

of this is of course shorthand for a long process of ritual development,

but for our purposes the formulaic element is clear: at the

crucial moment of a triumph, the moment of sacrifice, expensive

wine is poured out. In Mark's account, the next words are 'and they

crucified him'. These words constitute either an abrupt transition

from a trivial detail or a connection between wine and sacrifice.

14.25 supplies precedent for such a connection, and the sequence of

events here may add another detail to an emerging picture of Jesus

as simultaneously triumphator and sacrifice.

With regard to the sacrifice itself, it should be noted that 'it was

not merely a thanksgiving sacrifice for the victory, but was at the

same time looked upon as a sacrifice pro salute rei publicae pointing

to the future'.34 This forward-looking, community-oriented,

soteriological function for the sacrifice gains in significance in view

of the fact that a victorious Hellenistic king was given the title

CTCOTTIP when he entered his city, and his arrival was celebrated as

the napovoia of a god.35 Key terminology and the key element of

the triumph were clearly adaptable to the Christian kerygma and

may have contributed to Mark's perception of the crucifixion as the

antitype of the triumph.

15.25: specification of the hour of crucifixion

The reference to 'the third hour' as the time of the crucifixion

corresponds roughly to 9.00 a.m.36 in modern reckoning. While in

translation this appears to be unusually specific, the expression is

used elsewhere (Matt 20.3; Acts 2.15) to denote simply 'the beginning

of the day'.37 The triadic chronological references - three

specifications, each in multiples of three - may possess multi-level

significance.38 Thus the introduction of chronology here, like the

immediately preceding reference to the division of Jesus' garments,


3 5 Ibid., 386-8, 393. Versnel links ccurrip in Roman parlance to 'one who bears good fortune'

and notpouaia to the adventus of emperors. See n. 48 below on the emperor as acorrip.

36 G. Delling, 'copa', TDNT 9.680; cf. John 11.9 on the daylight being divisible by twelve.

3 7 Matt 20.3; Acts 2.15. Similarly, 'the sixth hour' (15.33; Matt 27.45; Luke 23.44; cf. John

19.14) appears to serve as a general designation for 'midday': Matt 20.5; John 4.6; Acts 10.9.

3 8 Gundry (945, 957-8) argues that the 'third hour . . . sixth hour . . . ninth hour' reference

is intended to stress the shortness of the time on the cross. The double triadic reference may

also be suggestive of the completeness (i.e., divine plan) of the events. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:

MARK 15.16-32 13

may be necessitated by later references. It might be noted,

additionally, that the detail is entirely consistent with the timing

of a triumph according to the few chronological details available.

Assuming that the events recorded in 15.16-24 occupied two or

three hours, the mustering of the soldiery in v. 16 probably coincided

with reveille, about dawn. A Roman triumphal celebration

occupied an entire day, and this necessitated final preparations for

the procession about dawn.39 Thus Mark's chronological detail,

while probably serving another primary purpose, supplies yet one

more coincidental correspondence to a triumph.

15.26: the placard

The inscription 'King of the Jews' is clearly ironic and contiguous

with the earlier mockery by the soldiers, who presumably compose

and affix the announcement to the cross. The repetition of the title

may be the second part in a triadic structure, together with the

culminating pronouncement, also from a soldier, of Jesus' divine

sonship (v. 39).

It was common for the victim of Roman justice to wear a sign,

often around his neck, announcing his crime to passers-by.40 It was

also common in a triumph for lictors in the procession to carry

placards announcing the peoples conquered by the triumphator.41

If the acclamation 'King of the Jews' in v. 18 following the rigging

out of Jesus evokes the verbal accolade given by soldiers to a

triumphator at his appearance, the presence now of an identical

39 Joseph. J.W. 7.5.4 § 123: 'At the break of dawn (nep! avrijv axonivnv nSn TT|V em) Vespasian

and Titus issued forth, crowned with laurel and clad in the traditional purple robes.' Dio Cass.

63.4.3: 'Everything had been thus got ready during the night; and at daybreak (anatp TiiiEpo;)

Nero, wearing the triumphal garb and accompanied by the senate and the Praetorians,

entered the Forum.' Plut. Aem. 34.4: 'On the third day, as soon as it was morning (ecoBev \izv

zx>&\>c) . . . [the procession began]'. To my knowledge, no other accounts of triumphs make

references to the time of a triumph's beginning. It commonly ended with an evening banquet

(e.g., Dio Cass. [Zonar. 7.21] 6.23; App. Pun. 66).

4 0 Dio Cass. 54.3.6-7 (involving crucifixion following procession through the Forum);

73.16.5; Suet. Calig. 32.2; Dom. 10; Juv. Sat. 6.230; Pliny Ep. 6.10.3; 9.19.3.

4 1 Depictions of lictors carrying placards during triumphal processions are evident on the

Arch of Titus (Ryberg fig. 79b) and the Arch of Benevento (a procession of Trajan, Ryberg fig.

82b-c). These show that such placards, which were carried on poles approximately eight feet

in height, were about the same size that one would expect for a placard attached to a cross:

approximately one foot in height and two feet in width. Dio Cass. 62.20.2-6 describes wooden

panels borne aloft upon which were inscribed Nero's victories; App. Mithr. 2.117 and Pliny

HN 7.26 describe tablets or banners recording Pompey's conquests; cf. the pictographs (almost

certainly accompanied by inscriptions) described for Vespasian's triumph following the Jewish

War (Joseph. J.W. 7.5.5 §§ 139-47). Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:


inscription may reinforce the image of one whose conquests are

portrayed for the admiring crowd. In terms of a direct parallel to a

triumphal procession, the placard would be better situated before

or during the journey to Golgotha, but the strength of the tradition

(one of few details identical in all four gospels) may have precluded

such alteration. Alternately, but still consistent with the general

scheme, Mark may not have in view the placard-carrying during a

procession but simply the accolade given at its culmination when

the triumphator is raised above the crowd.

15.27: specification of the number and placement

of those crucified with Jesus

The account of criminals being executed alongside Jesus appears

to be an unnecessary interruption of the narrative. Moreover, to

report the association of Jesus with criminals without reference to

an apologetic text like Isa 53.12 (cf. text history and Luke 22.37)

appears to detract from Jesus' uniqueness and to supply an awkward

reminder to gentile readers that crucifixion was shameful.

Interpretive schemata that stress the humiliation of Jesus regard

the criminals as evidence of the depth of his suffering; schemata

that stress the exaltation of Jesus regard the criminals as a foil to

his innocence. While these explanations are plausible, the triumph

theme accounts more satisfactorily for at least one key detail.

In the world of Mark's audience, placement on the right and left

of a central and elevated person signified royal enthronement. In

Mark 10.37 (par. Matt 20.21) the mother of two disciples requests

that her sons be seated on his right and left when he is enthroned.

42 Josephus alters an OT narrative to convey the image

of a king flanked by his son and general.43 Historians of imperial

Rome commonly mention the emperor along with two consuls who,

in theory if not practice, presided with him over the affairs of state.

The traditional location for the emperor to display himself before

4 2 G. W. E. Nicklesburg ('The Genre and Function of the Markan Passion Narrative', HTR

73 [1980] 172) cites this passage as evidence that Jesus' throne is the cross. Gundry (960)

objects that sitting on a throne (10.35-40) and hanging on a cross do not equate. The more

relevant equation, however, involves elevation coupled with right and left placement.

4 3 Joseph. J.A. 6.11.9 § 235: Abner and Jonathan are seated at Saul's right and left; in the

underlying biblical text (1 Sam 20.25) Jonathan is standing and Abner is seated at Saul's side,

with neither right nor left specified. Similarly, Josephus reinforces the Roman affirmation of

Herod's kingship (c. 28 BC) by reporting that 'when the Senate adjourned, Antony and Caesar

went out with Herod between them . . . in order to sacrifice and to deposit the decree in the

Capitol' (J.A. 14.14.5 § 388). Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:

MARK 15.16-32 15

the people was the rostrum, which was elevated approximately ten

feet above the Forum floor. In the triumph itself, the triumphator

was normally alone, and at the conclusion he was borne in a

portable curule chair to the rostrum,44 from which it was a short

walk to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus for the culminating

sacrifice. The few exceptions to this pattern of individual display

are notable both because they occur at the point of elevation to the

rostrum and because they occur very near to the time of Mark's


Suetonius records a triumph of the youthful Tiberius at the culmination

of which he 'took his seat beside Augustus between the

two consuls' (Suet. Tib. 17). In AD 44, Claudius returned to Rome

after a military campaign and celebrated a triumph. Tn this he

followed precedent, even ascending the steps of the Capitol on his

knees, with his sons-in-law supporting him on either side' (Dio

Cass. 60.23.1). When Vitellius accepted the title imperator at Lugdunum

in AD 68 he 'spoke in praise of [his conquering generals]

Valens and Caecina in public assembly and placed them on either

side of his own curule chair' (Tac. Hist. 2.59). In AD 71 Vespasian

celebrated his triumph over the Jews with Titus beside him in

the triumphal chariot and Domitian riding alongside (Joseph. J. W.

7.5.4 § 152). From that point the three perform together the culminating

events of the triumph (§§ 153-7).45 In each instance enumerated

above, a threesome appears elevated above the admiring

throng in order consciously to communicate power through solidarity,

and that among those in the most obvious positions to

disrupt it, close relatives and military leaders. It is probable, then,

that the crucifixion of criminals on either side of Jesus is a

conscious expression of the mockery of his kingship on the part of

the soldiers. That is, they comprise the mock equivalent of those

displayed on either side of an enthroned ruler. Their importance

is confirmed by the triadic mockery which follows immediately in

w. 29-32 and now may be seen as ascensive:46 Jesus is reviled first

by the general Jewish populace ('those who passed byO, then by the

religious leaders, and finally by his 'vice-regents'.

4 4 See Livy Epit. 10.7.9; 30.15.11; Dio Cass. 62.4.3-6.2; Tac. Hist. 2.59; Suet. Tib. 17.

4*> There are of course numerous instances of dignitaries being placed at the side or near the

imperator as a show of solidarity of power. For examples in the context of triumphs, see Dio

Cass. 63.4.3-6.2; App. B. Civ. 5.48; Suet. Claud. 24.

4 6 Mark's triads are often ascensive. In the passion narrative, see 14.32-42, 60-4, and 66-

72; earlier examples include 4.20; 9.43-8; 12.2-6; 13.9, and 13.32. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:


Summary of Triumph Elements in 15.16-32

Before concluding with some observations which may shed light on

Mark's specific motive for presenting the crucifixion in such a

scheme, I will review the preceding material by means of a 'decoded'

version of the narrative:

The Praetorians gather early in the morning to proclaim the triumphator.

He is dressed in the triumphal garb, and a crown of laurel is placed on his

head. The soldiers then shout in acclamation of his Lordship and perform

acts of homage to him. They accompany him from their camp through the

streets of the city. The sacrificial victim is there in the procession, and

alongside walks the official carrying the implement of his coming death. The

procession ascends finally to the Place of the (Death's) Head, where the

sacrifice is to take place. The triumphator is offered the ceremonial wine. He

does not drink it, but it is poured out on the altar at the moment of sacrifice.

Then, at the moment of being lifted up before the people, at the moment of

the sacrifice, again the triumphator is acclaimed as Lord, and his viceregents

appear with him in confirmation of his glory. Following the lead of

the soldiers, the people together with their leaders and the vice-regents

themselves join in the acclamation. The epiphany is confirmed in portents

by the gods: 'Truly this man is the Son of God!'

Divine Sonship and the Epiphany of the Imperator

In another article471 argue that w. 33-9 focus on the rejection of

the Jews and the transfer of insight concerning Jesus' identity to

the gentiles. This implies, among other things, that the pronouncement

of the centurion in v. 39, which repeats the title 'Son of God'

for the first time since 1.1, is the culminating statement of Mark's

Gospel.48 The significance of this for the present article can hardly

be overstated, because it makes the moment of Jesus' death, the

moment of sacrifice, the culmination of Mark's parable of triumph.

More particularly, Mark is presenting an anti-triumph in reaction

to the contemporary offensive self-divinization efforts of Gaius

and especially Nero. In other words, he intends to portray Jesus

parabolically to a Roman gentile audience as the true epiphanic


4 7 'Cry of Dereliction or Cry of Judgment: Mark 15:34 In Context', Bulletin for Biblical

Research 4 (1994) 1-11.

4 8 It should be noted that the reaction of the centurion is not only to the rending of the

temple veil but to the series of portents beginning with the darkness (v. 33) and especially the

loud cry (v. 37). Such portents often accompanied the deaths of important figures to affirm

their posthumous divinization: see Dio Cass. 56.29.3-4; Plut. Caes. 69.3-4; Suet. Iul. 88;

Claud. 46; Vesp. 23.4. For similar portents generally, see Dio Cass. 44.17.2; 51.17.4-5; Lucian

Peregr. 39; Paus. Ach. 25.3; Ov. Met. 7.200-6; Verg. G. 1.475. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:

MARK 15.16-32 17

We observed earlier the progression of the triumph in the

century preceding Mark's writing from a celebration of military

victory on the part of military servants of the state to a gaudy

display of power reserved for its sole ruler. The symbols which lay

behind the tradition historically were re-emerging; the king as

victor and the god as victor were merging.49 L. R. Taylor explains

that Augustus initiated the divinization-in-life of the emperor

while retaining republican protocol by promoting the cult of his

Genius in Italy and by encouraging his worship after the Hellenistic

style of god-king veneration in the eastern provinces. She


When the blood of victims began to be shed in Genius worship, the cult

departed from the precedents which prescribed bloodless offerings for the

Genius and took on the forms that belonged to the worship of the incarnate

god-king. Its usual sacrificial victim, the bull, had long before been the

symbol of the divine king in Egypt and had come down into the Hellenistic

cult as a favorite victim in the worship of the monarch. Thus the Genius of

the Roman emperor had inherited the cult of the Hellenistic monarch who

appeared before his subjects as an incarnate god.50

It was the emperors of the mid first century who began to set

republican protocol aside and to take the triumph to its furthest

limit. Suetonius reports (Calig. 22.3—4) that Gaius would regularly

visit the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in order to engage in

confidential chats with the deity, even to the point of making

obscene threats if the god does not 'lift him up'. He required that

courtiers hail him as Jupiter Latiaris and built a temple to his own

godhead containing a statue with which the emperor regularly

exchanged clothing. Nero's conduct in public triumphs confirms his

own flirtation with divinity. When, as the culmination of one procession,

king Tiridates did obeisance to the emperor, he said, 'I

have come to thee, my god, to worship thee as I do Mithras'

(Dio Cass. 63.5.2). On this occasion, Nero himself was dressed in

triumphal garb, and the canopy over his head depicted him in the

attitude of the god, 'driving a chariot, with golden stars gleaming

4 9 R. Payne (The Roman Triumph [London: Abelard-Schuman, 1962], esp. 175-80 on

Trajan) describes further development beyond the scope of this paper. By the second century,

triumphal sacrifice was occurring directly to the emperor, who was increasingly depicted in

statuary in divine attitude and dress.

50 L. R. Taylor, The Divinity of the Roman Emperor (Middletown, Connecticut: American

Philological Association, 1931) 246. In an appendix (270-83), Taylor documents scores of

ascriptions of divinity to Augustus, including the title acoxrip. See also Versnel, 56-93 for an

extended argument for the identification of the triumphator as Jupiter and the suppression of

explicit identification out of republican sympathies. Downloaded: 20 May 2010 IP address:


all about him' (Dio Cass. 63.6.2).51 During another triumph, he was

hailed as, among other things, Apollo and 'Divine Voice' (Dio Cass.



As these events were occupying centre stage in Rome, members

of the Roman church were struggling to understand and communicate

the notion that God had revealed himself in the person

of Jesus, understood as both Crucified One and Coming One, as

acorrip whose jiapoucna was anticipated. It would have been natural

for them to make comparisons between Lord Christ and Lord

Caesar, and it would have been natural for them to look for

evidence of God's sovereignty at the moment of his humility.

Assuming that Mark had at his disposal numerous details to serve

several purposes in recounting the events of the passion, it is

plausible that he would select and arrange some of these details to

hint at a correspondence between the seeming mockery of Jesus

and the futile adoration of the imperator. The common element is

the soldiery, who start out intending to mock but are in the end, in

the person of the centurion, compelled to recognize the true Son of

God, the true Lord who is manifested triumphant at the moment of

his sacrifice.

Would Mark be so subtle as to craft the passion narrative in

parabolic form? A legitimate question, the answer to which spells

the difference between a series of more or less remarkable coincidences

and a unifying theme for the passage. There may be some

precedent in the Gospel for subtleties which are left to the

audience's power of discernment (11.12-14; 8.14-21) or allusions

which invite explanation by those who recognize them (e.g. 1.6,12-

13; 14.62). A defence of Mark's opaqueness in this instance,

however, may lie not in an assessment of his usual style but in the

contemporary political climate. If he writes for a Roman audience

during or just after a period of Neronic persecution, it would be

prudent to employ subtlety so that hostile eyes 'may indeed see but

not perceive' (4.11) the meaning of this particular 'parable'. The

intriguing but unanswerable question is whether some in Mark's

audience found evocative what we must leave as speculative.

51 Ryberg (fig. 79a) shows Titus in a triumph similarly posed, in a chariot drawn by four

horses and with a winged figure holding a crown over his head.

Fr Neil Traynor